Sunday, December 19, 2010

Merry Disco Balls: Christmas in a Secular School

Last week at my twin daughters' Grade 6 holiday party, one of the activities organized by the parent volunteers was an ornament-decorating craft. A parent brought in clear glass Christmas tree balls, along with decorating supplies such as paint and Q-tips. During the parent's explanation of the craft, she suggested that the kids paint snowmen on their balls or or a wintry scene or whatever they desired. I was one of the volunteers at the party, and while I was helping distribute the ornaments, a boy asked me: "Do I have to do this craft?" I knew why he was asking; my daughters had told me that this boy, who is Jewish, had complained on other occasions about the "holiday" celebrations at the school, which were actually mostly "Christmas" celebrations. I told the boy that he didn't have to do the craft; if he wanted, he could paint the ball just for fun and not take it home. I was going to suggest that he decorate his globe with dreidels or other Hanukkah designs, but I hesitated. It was clearly a Christmas tree ornament—what was the point of me trying to pretend it was religion-neutral?

At this point the woman who had organized the craft noticed what was going on and came over to speak to the boy. I moved away from the table, but I heard her tell him that he should think of the ornament as a disco ball to hang in his room, and that he could decorate it in any way he wanted. This seemed to satisfy him, and he proceeded to paint the ball with a Menorah, dreidels and some Hebrew words. I watched as he walked over to another Jewish child in the class, who was contentedly painting a winter scene on her ball, to confer with her over the Hebrew spelling. His finished ornament wound up being one of the most beautiful in the class. But of course, he knew, as did the rest of us (parents and children alike), that it was not a disco ball.

My own children celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. I am a product of what used to be called a "mixed" marriage so I grew up celebrating all of the major Jewish and Christian holidays. My husband is an atheist of Anglican and Presbyterian descent, who happily participates in whatever holidays happen to be going on at any particular time. In our household, we tend to celebrate religious holidays in a non-religious, cultural manner, which sometimes leads to confusion in my daughters' minds. When they were six years old, I overheard one of them explaining the meaning of Hanukkah to an older cousin: "There was supposed to be oil for one night," she said, "but it lasted for eight nights. And that was Jesus' first miracle." I decided then and there that since, as my old professor Northrop Frye argued, the Bible is integral to Western culture (or at least to Western culture's sense of itself), I would read the Bible to the girls, starting with the Old Testament and ending, if we got that far, with the New Testament. We didn't get that far. In fact, we barely made it past the flood. The girls pronounced the Bible too violent and not particularly believable. So I left it at that. (Although thankfully they do now understand that Jesus had nothing to do with the Hanukkah miracle!)

My daughters' religious education has certainly not been furthered at school. While some curricula, such as those at Waldorf and Global Knowledge schools, teach Bible stories, alongside ancient myths and legends as part of a broad-based humanist education, public schools in Ontario do not. Despite living in one of the most culturally diverse cities in North America, my girls haven't been taught about the origin or meaning of Ramadan, Diwali, Hanukkah or Christmas. Yet . . . year after year, their school's winter holiday celebrations take on a decidedly Christian cast. There are "secret Santa" gift exchanges, carol-singing assemblies (with a Hanukkah song thrown into the Christmas mix, for good measure), Christmas toy drives, etc. The school seems to be saying, we're not Christian—but in December, deck those halls, we're all about Christmas! To be fair, it could be that the school is simply reflecting its particular demographic: we happen to live in an enclave that is less religiously and ethnically diverse than most communities in the city. Nonetheless, in my daughters' class of 27, there are four Jewish children and several more who, like my twins, participate in both Christian and Jewish traditions; there are also two Muslim children and one Zoroastrian child.

I have to admit that my girls enjoy the emphasis on Christmas at school, just as I did as a child. They like the songs, the gift exchanges, the excitement. It makes sense for them to enjoy it: they celebrate Christmas at home. I often wonder about the boy who asked me if he had to decorate the ornament. I try to imagine how he feels in that classroom during the month of December. But I'm even more concerned about the kids who don't have the wherewithal to speak up. The Muslim kid in this or any other classroom who silently absorbs the message that Christianity—even in a public school in a nominally secular country like Canada—is the norm. I believe we should all think—even worry a little—about such a child during this "holiday" season.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Recess Coaches

Not long ago, my daughters came home from school complaining about something called the Kilometre Club. A school newsletter explained the program as follows: "Students are encouraged to accumulate 50 K or more by running . . . on our track every Tuesday and Thursday. . . . .This initiative will help maintain and establish an endurance base for physical fitness and for other sports." According to my daughters, the teacher in charge of the program explained that the club would be especially beneficial for children who were misbehaving in school; running around the track at recess would allow these kids to let off steam. Participation in the Kilometre Club was ostensibly voluntary, however, somewhere along the line, organizers thought it might be a good idea if everyone ran around the track at recess. So for a while all the kids were being "strongly encouraged" to run laps, not just on the designated days, but every day. It was around this time that my daughters started complaining about the program. They did not like being told how to spend their recess time. One of their best friends happens to be an avid distance runner—and even she did not want to run laps during the precious 15-minute breaks at school. I suggested to my daughters that if they didn't enjoy running laps, they should simply not do it. After all, as I pointed out to them, they are already physically active with their friends at recess, and this is the one time in the school day when they are purportedly free to play as they see fit. I also observed that even if teachers are "strongly encouraging" kids to run laps, the implication is that there is still some choice in the matter.

To make a long story short, my daughters and their friends stopped running laps, and the program seemed—thankfully—to fizzle out.

But, after reading this newspaper article about recess coaches in schools in St. Catharines, Ontario, I'm beginning to realize that the problem of adult encroachment on recess is much more widespread than I thought. Below is the comment I posted about the article on the newspaper's website site. It pretty much sums up my thoughts on the issue:

I think this program is well-intentioned but ultimately wrong. Kids need some time and space to themselves, where adults are not interfering and organizing. Do kids not have enough organized activities already? And aren't self-organized activities better in the long run in terms of the skills they teach kids? If exclusion is an issue, that can be dealt with separately in empathy and anti-bullying programs. But for goodness sake, let's put a stop to the ongoing colonization of kids' space and time by adults (however well-meaning). When I was young, we played many, many self-organized games similar to Octopus; our large "street" groups were flexible, permeable, multi-aged and inclusive. My own daughters play games like Octopus and Four-Square during recess at school without any help from "coaches." Everyone is allowed to play—in fact, they modified Four-Square and renamed it Fun Square, so that it wasn't limited to four kids. Give kids the benefit of the doubt—and a little freedom—and they might surprise you!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

"Balanced Day" = Less Play

Recess—the last bastion of free play for school-aged children—is under attack. Unstructured break time for children has been eliminated or drastically cut in many American elementary schools, and now I learn that it is being eroded in my home province of Ontario as well. In a number of school boards across the province, a program called Balanced School Day (BSD) has been introduced. Under this program, traditional lunch and recess breaks are replaced by two"nutrition breaks" of approximately 40 minutes each, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. When compared with the traditional schedule of two 15-minute recess breaks (one in the morning and one in the afternoon), and an hour-long lunch period, BSD cuts the total break time children receive during the day by a mere 10 minutes. So, one might ask, what's the big deal? If, as proponents of BSD claim, restructuring the school day in this manner allows for longer instructional blocks, leading to improvements in students' concentration and behaviour, why would anyone (such as me) object to it?

The answer to this question becomes clear when one compares the two scheduling models more closely. In the traditional schedule, kids get a total of 30 minutes of pure recess time, and a lunch period comprised of, on average, a 20-minute period for eating, followed by 40 minutes of outdoor play time. That's a total of 70 minutes of unstructured play time per day. In the Balanced Day schedule, the twice-daily nutrition breaks are each divided into two twenty minute blocks, one for eating and one for outdoor play. So BSD allows for a total of 40 minutes of free play per day, versus 70 minutes under the traditional schedule. As even a young child with minimal math skills could tell you, this is a substantial difference!

In fact, according to a study of BSD in four elementary schools in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board from 2002-2004, kids do seem to notice and to care about the reduction in recess time. The authors of the report observe that along with certain benefits—for example, a cleaner school, less time wasted in "transitions" from playground to school—there were some negative effects of the alternative schedule. There was, for example, "somewhat more total aggression on the playground in BSD schools and somewhat more hallway aggression during transition times." As for overall satisfaction with BSD, the authors concede: "The students . . . were least satisfied with the new schedule." I'm happy that students' opinions were solicited; I'm not surprised that they would prefer a schedule that better accommodates their need—and their right—to play. But since principals, caretakers, parents, teachers and secretaries tended to view BSD in a more positive light, I'm also not surprised that the program has since become the norm in a majority of schools throughout the Hamilton-Wentworth board, and has been implemented in many other school boards across the province. After all, even in situations where students are affected more directly by potential changes than anyone else, when push comes to shove, and policy decisions must be made, adults' views invariably trump those of children. Currently, it seems that a majority of adults in charge of education policy privilege measures purporting to improve "achievement" over those concerned primarily with the well-being of children. That is why—for all the talk of "nurturing" environments, and despite nominally progressive, well-intentioned policies such as BSD—many schools remain fundamentally un-child-friendly places for young people to spend their days.

*In fairness, it is possible to find more unequivocally positive accounts of BSD, for example, on websites of the school boards that have embraced it. There also exist summaries of the research paper cited above that put a much more positive spin on the results, ignoring the negatives identified by the authors. The fact remains, however, that students surveyed for the Hamilton-Wentworth study—the only objective, in-depth look at BSD to date—expressed a clear preference for the traditional schedule.