Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Keyboard vs. Cursive

Several weeks ago my daughters arrived home from school with rough drafts—written in French, as they are in French Immersion—of their first book report of the year. They had chosen difficult books, but since their reading skills are strong, that didn't worry me. I read both books myself so I could help them with the reports if need be, though the teacher had warned them, as she frequently does, not to let parents do the work. I understand the teacher's concern. My twins are now ten years old, in grade five. I realize that I should not be as involved in their school work as I might have been even two years ago. I don't actually want to be involved; as each year passes, and I convince the girls to stay for lunch in the "horrific" (their word) lunchroom one or two days a week, my elusive dream of finally "getting a life" seems...well, slightly less elusive.

But—and here's the kicker—the teacher has stated that henceforth all written material should be handed in printed out from the computer. To that end, the children are given access during class time to the school's computers to input their masterpieces. But there's a problem. Neither of my girls can keyboard to save their lives. In Ontario, there is no formal instruction in keyboarding in elementary school. Students in grades four and five at my daughters' school have been introduced to a computer typing program called UltraKey, but instruction is sporadic and it seems to have taught them nothing. Yet teachers are increasingly asking for assignments to be handed in typed.

I realize that many ten-year-olds can and do keyboard regularly. They're emailing or texting friends, surfing the Internet, instant messaging, etc. My kids are not among them. I am not a Luddite by any stretch of the imagination. I was using email and surfing the Internet back in the late eighties when most of my friends had not yet bought their first PC. Today, I own multiple computers and although my daughters don't use them much, they are quite enamoured of their Nintendo DS's. They do not have a strong interest in the Internet, or email or texting, so they have not learned to keyboard through these activities. For my part, I simply don't understand why my kids must type their assignments at this stage. I would rather see them at a desk with a pen and paper than sitting in front of a computer tapping away with two fingers—for the same reason that I prefer to see them reading a book than playing a video game.

There is also a class issue at play here: we do at least possess computers on which, theoretically, my children could learn to type. What of the many students in less affluent neighbourhoods who don't have access to a computer at home? Is it fair to ask these students to type their assignments? In any case, the the real question is: if the Ministry or school boards or teachers want students in grades four and five to hand in printed documents, why is keyboarding not taught in a thorough and systematic way? Especially since cursive, mentioned perfunctorily at best in the new Ontario Language Arts curriculum, has been more or less dropped from the curriculum.

Which leads to another problem: the decline of cursive. If my girls can't keyboard to save their lives, neither can they write (as opposed to print) with any degree of confidence or competence. They began learning cursive in grade two, spent a little more time on it in grade three, and then it was summarily dropped, presumably due to some new policy (but try finding any real information on this issue on the Ministry of Education website). I'm not arguing that cursive is the be all and end all of writing tools. I'm not advocating bringing back the quill or fountain pens, or Latin. But shouldn't a child who will one day be an adult be able to sign his or her name? In cursive? Apparently the powers that be at the Ministry of Education do not think so. I've sent an email to the Ministry asking when and why cursive was dropped from the curriculum and how and when formal instruction in keyboarding will replace it. I'll let you know if/when I receive a response.

But back to the book report. With hand-printed rough drafts beside them, my girls dutifully sat at the school computer and later at our laptop at home typing with two fingers, sometimes spending 30 seconds or more simply looking for a letter or an elusive accent key. After watching their fumbling, painstaking efforts for several minutes, I'd had enough. I typed in the damned reports myself in all of fifteen minutes, and proceeded to write a letter to the teacher asking that henceforth my daughters be allowed to hand in all assignments handwritten. The fallout? Stay tuned!

(See also, Keyboard vs. Cursive—Update)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Introduction: Parenting is Hell

Parenting is hell. Parenting is work—much of it pure drudgery, in fact—with little "real world" reward or status. Stay-at-home-parents, most of whom are still women, have their own special ring of hell allocated to them. I inhabit that ring, though I also belong to the generation of women who had, in theory at least, all options open to them. It isn't as if I chose not to pursue a career. I dabbled in editing, publishing, freelance writing. I completed a BA, then an MA. I drifted again, thinking the world would eventually come to me, as it had to my older, baby-boomer siblings. (I was on the tail end of the boom, the edging-towards-bust end.) The world laughed, and I went back to graduate school—started, completed most of a PhD. in English. I got caught up in the world of "theory." I "theorized" about a lot of things, not just literature. I theorized that having children would be ruinous to any remaining possibility I might have of succeeding in a career. A friend of mine, a fellow graduate student, told me, "if you're going to have a child be prepared to "put your life in the shredder." Another who had recently had a baby, told me point blank, "there is no me."

But yet . . . .You're probably thinking, here comes the sentimental part, how I met a suitable partner (that would be true), and decided to have children, and it was all worth it in the end. Well, yes and no. I met a suitable partner and we agonized for years over whether or not to have a child. We did not just worry about how such a life-altering act would affect our still inchoate careers. We also wondered what two curmudgeonly, pretentiously cynical, Foucault-reading people could offer children. We saw how boomers around us handled parenthood and we cringed. Hyper-scheduled, under-disciplined, over-privileged children; stressed-out, over-involved, pseudo-democratic parents using soothing monotones when addressing their out-of-control charges. ("Now, Johnnie, do you want to talk about your feelings around biting Jessica?") But in the end we chose to pursue parenthood for the somewhat banal reason that we worried we might regret it later if we chose not to.

Irony of ironies (okay, it's not really irony, I know that from my grad studies but, thankfully, now I don't have to care), I became pregnant with not one, but two babies. I had a horrifically nauseous pregnancy, quit grad school, and the rest is . . . well, our particular hell.

But, I have to add (and this is why I think parents, or mothers at least, have a hard time being writers, because every little thing we do or say in the public realm affects or has the potential to affect our children), I love my kids to death. But I don't love all kids, and I don't love being a mother. My twins are now ten years old. To the world it looks as if in ten years I have done nothing (see Meg Wolitzer's insultingly titled The Ten Year Nap). But there is nothing more arduous, more physically and psychologically—and yes, intellectually—demanding than staying at home with children. Which I chose to do because 1) I still had no career to speak of 2) I didn't understand how anyone not related to my kids could possibly care enough about them to do a good job raising them and 3) circumstances related to my partner's job allowed me financially to do this.

Okay, okay, but the title of this blog-to-be is: Parenting is Political. I do not think that we need another "Bobby had the most awesome poop today" type of blog. There are many, many blogs that document the day-to-day realities of parenting very well. That is not my intention. In my grad school days I learned and took to heart the adage "the personal is political." I still believe it to be true, though not in any simple way. I especially believe it to be true when it comes to parenting. When I am at home with a child in tears and me with heart palpitations over a ridiculous "media studies" project, this is not just a personal predicament. To me, it is a socio-political predicament, one that is not adequately addressed in the socio-political sphere. Even when parenting issues become political issues—for example, the availability, or lack thereof, of daycare—the coverage and commentary is at best superficial. The hard right in both the US and Canada (where I live) sees parenting as a purely personal, pay-as-you-go enterprise. (Yet, interestingly, most of them send their children to public schools.) The liberal left sees parenting issues as political only in the most narrow, superficial sense: pre-school education good, daycare good, and that's about where it ends. Never discussed or debated is the fact that earlier and earlier education may not be good for children (but it is indeed good for working parents, which is not the same thing, though not insignificant either); the example of countries
such as Finland, where formal education does not begin until the age of 7, and yet whose educational outcomes are second to none, is rarely brought to bear on the public discussions of the importance of early schooling. What if what we needed was better, later schooling? Or salaries for parents staying at home taking care of their own children? The truly radical possibilities are endless. It is these possibilities—born of the personal, but dragged kicking and screaming into the realm of the political—that I would like to explore in this blog.

Thanks for reading.