Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Let the Kids be Glad to Be Gay

In a recent article in the Toronto Star, I came across this breathtaking statement:

But there is a time and place for everything, said Rondo Thomas, of the Toronto-based Evangelical Association, but there is no “time and place” in an 8-year-old’s mind to try to make them conceptualize something beyond “tying their shoes.”

Really. So this is what these religious "leaders" think of the intellectual capacities of eight-year-olds. It makes about as much sense as their claim that the McGuinty government's new anti-bullying legislation is tantamount to pro-gay education. Logic is clearly not Thomas's—or his comrade in fanaticism, Charles McVety's—strong suit. (But then these are the same kinds of people who believe that pre-marital sex leads to dancing.)

But even if it were true—even if anti-bullying education of necessity raised the issue of homophobia (the word is mentioned in the new legislation) and other fears of difference, even it if raised it with eight-year-olds, or five-year-olds, for that matter—so what? When you have teenagers like Jamie Hubley and countless others still taking their own lives after being bullied for being gay, clearly anti-bullying education must tackle homophobia. Kids are never too young to "conceptualize" hate. Or love. Which concept comes to predominate in their thinking about themselves, and others who may be different from them, depends to a large degree on the way in which they are raised and educated.

So yes, bring on the anti-bullying, pro-gay legislation. In fact, I urge schools to hold a special pro-LGBT assembly every year, for kids from grades kindergarten to 12. I humbly suggest that the theme song for such an assembly be this classic by Tom Robinson:

(See also Separate Schools for LGBT Kids? and  Breeding Tolerance: Is it Possible.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Life in 21st-Century Classrooms: the Agenda

I recently read a remarkable book entitled Life in Classrooms, first published in 1968, and reissued by Teachers College Press in 1990. Its author, Philip Jackson, was one of the first educational researchers to apply an ethnographic approach—borrowed from anthropology and popularized through prominent studies of primates—to the phenomena of schools and classrooms. The book is a methodological mishmash, but at its core are Jackson's reports on "field visits" he conducted over a period of two years to several elementary school classrooms in the University of Chicago Laboratory School.The book is full of astute observations about classroom life, most of which still apply today. I was struck, for instance, by an analogy that Jackson draws in the first chapter:

There is an important fact about a student's life that teachers and parents often prefer not to talk about . . . . This is the fact that young people have to be in school, whether they want to be or not. In this regard students have something in common with the members of two other of our social institutions that have involuntary attendance: prisons and mental hospitals. 

Elaborating, Jackson writes:

[T]he school child, like the incarcerated adult, is, in a sense a prisoner. He too must come to grips with the inevitability of his experience. He too must develop strategies for dealing with the conflict that frequently arises between his natural desires and interests on the one hand and institutional expectations on the other.
Jackson proceeds to discuss in some detail both the institutional exigencies of school, and the strategies that children come up with to cope with them. In his observations and interpretations of what he sees—especially his reflections on classroom management, children's and teachers' attitudes towards school, and the power relations operating at the micro level in schools—he anticipates Foucauldian studies of institutional life that began to emerge in humanities disciplines in the late seventies and early eighties.

For this reason—or simply for the rich, troubling portrait of classroom life that Jackson offers—I believe the book should be required reading for teachers' college students. But for the present purpose, what interests me is an image Jackson introduces in the first chapter and which he discusses in the introduction to the 1990 reissue of the book:

I noted . . .how students propped their arms in the air by placing their left hands just above their right elbows when signaling the teacher's attention and I realized that that familiar posture was caused by the fact that the arm usually had to be held high for several seconds before the teacher noticed it . . . . Being heavy, the raised arm required support. The propped arm . . . was a reasonable response to the crowded conditions of classroom life. To my newly awakened interest in such matters, it stood as a symbol of those conditions.
 What's interesting about this passage, and the symbol of the propped arm, is how relevant it still is. In 1968, funding levels for education in both the US and Canada were much higher than they are today, yet large class sizes were the norm. Despite attempts by some provincial governments (Ontario, for example) to set caps on class size in primary grades, "crowded conditions" still obtain in most schools. My daughters' grade 7 class has 32 kids: arms are still being propped.

I would argue, however, that overcrowding is not the most significant issue facing our schools today. It is now known, for instance, that small class size does not guarantee better outcomes for individual students. But the image of the propped arm got me thinking: what is its modern-day equivalent? What action or object epitomizes "life in classrooms" in the 21st century? When I thought about this question, one object immediately sprung to mind: the school agenda.

My daughters were issued their first agendas in Grade 2. The primary grade agendas, which cost five dollars a piece, were colourful weekly school calendars in ringed notebook format, containing all manner of information and trivia, as well as space for jotting down daily homework, an area for "parent-teacher" communication, and the all-important parent initial box. At first glance they looked fairly innocuous, and the girls were happy to have them. But my husband and I were surprised that our local school board, which issued the agendas, felt that seven-year-olds would need them. How much homework, how many deadlines or appointments, we wondered, would seven-year-olds have to keep track of? What issues would arise in Grade 2 that would require daily monitoring by parents (and thus daily initialing) or regular parent-teacher communication?

The reality, of course, is that second-graders do not need agendas. Neither do seventh-graders or even twelfth-graders. After all, most people over the age of 30 managed to get through their school years without them. Looked at another way, however, one could say that if today's school children require agendas, it is because the need for them has been created by the conditions of modern schooling and by the assumptions that underlie and give rise to these conditions. What are some of these assumptions? One is that children require and benefit from homework from early grades through high school, and that when it comes to schoolwork, quantity is more important than quality. (The abundance of evidence to the contrary has done little to shake this particular assumption.) Another is that children must be taught "time management" skills, the deeper assumption here being a blurring of the once distinct concepts of "education" and "training," and the consequent belief that education should concern itself with preparing children to function in the corporate world from which such phrases such as "time management" hail. A third preconception driving the "need" for agendas is that constant monitoring and surveillance of the school-aged child's performance, by both parent and teacher, is necessary and desirable.

Taken together, these assumptions give rise to the conditions that are symbolized by the agenda: not overcrowded classrooms, but overcrowded, over-scheduled, over-burdened young lives. The kids leading these lives are viewed  less as children than as pre-adults who must be moulded into full-fledged adults capable of functioning in the "real" (read corporate) world.

It may seem as if I am (once again!) engaging in theoretical overreaching, but incidents that have occurred during the current school year—my daughters' first in middle school—lead me to think otherwise. For instance: the girls' math teacher told the kids on the first day of class that forgetting to bring their agendas to class was a detentionable offense, as significant as not completing homework. The message this warning was intended to send is that the para-curriculum or what Jackson calls the "hidden curriculum" (though these days it is not particularly well hidden)—in other words behavioural or character lessons regarding organization, time-management, etc.—are as important as the actual lessons being taught, in this case lessons about math.

Another incident involved an "agenda check" by the girls' homeroom teacher. Since parents are no longer required to initial agendas daily, this teacher decided that she would take a look at the kids' agendas to see if they were copying down homework reliably and legibly, as well as noting future assignments, important dates, etc. While flipping through J's agenda, the teacher noticed many doodles. She chided J for doodling in her agenda and told her to stop. J was mildly upset by this, as she is unused to being reprimanded by a teacher. (A year ago she would have been very upset, but middle school is teaching her to grow a thicker skin.) But more than anything, she was puzzled. "Why can't I doodle in my agenda?" she asked. "Who owns my agenda?"

The question of who owns the school-aged child's "agenda" is, I believe, worthy of further reflection by parents and educators alike.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Grade 7 Math Question

The other day my daughters were assigned a perplexing math question for homework. It was a question straight out of their Grade 7 math textbook, which is the French (immersion) version of Math Makes Sense 7. Math Makes Sense is a Trillium-approved, "constructivist-lite" math textbook series published by Pearson Education Canada, and widely used across the province of Ontario. Here is the question:
Use a place value chart. Explain why you add one or more zeros to the end of a number that you multiply by 10, by 100, or by 1000. [translation mine]
The girls thought about it for a while. They understood that adding the zeros had something to do with the fact that you move the decimal place to the right when you multiply by 10, 100, or 1000,  but they got stuck on that word "why." Why do you move the decimal, thereby adding the zeros?

Now, this type of question is not uncommon in the Math Make Sense series. Proponents of what is variously called "discovery," "constructivist" or "reform" math would say it exemplifies the kind of challenging question that leads children into authentic mathematical "discovery." But does it?

The problem with this question, and others of its ilk that we have encountered over the years with this series (and with Nelson Mathematics —the "competition" to Math Makes Sense), is that the type of analytical reasoning needed  to answer it adequately is not commonly taught in the contemporary math classroom. What the writers of the question are looking for is a kind of conceptual grasping, written in English. For instance, here is the answer provided in the back of the book:
For example: When I multiply a number by 10, it becomes 10 times bigger. In a place value chart, each digit of the number moves one position to the left. The digit 0 occupies the last position.  [translation mine]
For a series that prides itself on furnishing teachers and students alike with a conceptual approach to mathematics, this answer is quite curious. It substitutes one mechanical trick—adding zeros—for another: moving the decimal place. But both tricks are answers to a "how" question, and not to the "why" question  posed.

The inconvenient fact of the matter is that it is nearly impossible to answer the question in a way that is mathematically precise using English alone. A mathematically correct answer requires a mixture of notation (with which kids at this level are mostly unfamiliar) and English. In fact, it requires a proof like this one:

A decimal number is written as \(a_k \ldots a_3 a_2 a_1 a_0\) (for some \(k\))
and represents the value \[\sum_{i\ge 0}^k a_i 10^i.\]

So \(10^d\) is represented by a 1 followed by \(d\) 0's.

Given a decimal number \(x\) represented by \(a_k \ldots a_3 a_2 a_1 a_0\),
what does the representation of \(10^dx\) look like?

\[10^d x = 10^d (\sum_{i \ge 0}^k a_i 10^i) = \sum_{i \ge 0}^k a_i
  10^{i+d} = (\sum_{i \ge d}^{k+d} a_{i-d}10^i) + \sum_{0 \le i < d} 0 \cdot 10^i\]

So \(10^dx\) has the representation \(a_k \ldots a_3 a_2 a_1 a_0\)
  followed by \(d\) 0's,
  as we were required to show.*

Show me the Grade 7 student who can "discover" that.


*Proof courtesy of Prabhakar Ragde, professor of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Summertime, and the reading is easy...

When I was a child I had a reputation as a bookworm. I wore the label proudly, since at the time I was unaware of its negative connotations. I remember reading book after book around the pool during March break in Florida, stopping only to dip into the water when I got too hot. During the summer, I read constantly simply because I had the time: my parents, whose parenting philosophy could be summed up by the phrase "benign neglect," did not feel the need to structure my summers.

My own parenting philosophy cannot be summed up as "benign neglect." Like most parents of my generation, I constantly fight the urge to rein in my daughters' freedom and micromanage their lives. But there is one way in which I parent like my mother and father: I do not structure my kids' time during the summer. I eschew the role of "camp counselor" both at the cottage and in the city; I do not see it as my job, and I've found that when left to their own devices, my daughters come up with imaginative and engaging activities to fill their time.

One such activity is reading for pleasure. I don't know how many books J and E read this past summer, but I do know that I was constantly having to replenish their supply. I frequently caught sight of the two of them lounging on the sofa, deeply immersed in their books, and though I sometimes felt the urge to tell them to go outside and get some fresh air, I resisted. They would often make their way outside at some point anyway, but even if they hadn't, I'm not sure I could have justified interrupting their reading. Here's why: I knew that when school started in September, their reading for pleasure would come to a grinding, depressing halt.

When school is in session, my daughters, like many school-aged kids, have very little time to read. Regular homework, extra-curricular activities, and socializing take up most of their free time. When they do find themselves with a spare moment, J and E—who, like most kids, experience the school-year schedule as a grind—are more likely to put on a DVD and collapse onto the sofa than to pick up a book.

A more complicated and insidious impediment to reading for pleasure during the school year has to do with how reading is handled as an academic subject. In Ontario, the reading curriculum, as set forth in documents available on the Ministry of Education website, focuses on
developing the knowledge and skills that will enable students to become effective readers. An effective reader is one who not only grasps the ideas communicated in a text but is able to apply them in new contexts.
Now, "effective readers" and people who read for pleasure are not mutually exclusive categories. And, to be fair, the curriculum document does acknowledge the importance of nurturing a love of reading:

A well-balanced reading program will provide students with opportunities to read for the pleasure of discovering interesting information as well as for the pleasure of self-discovery . . . and for the sheer fun of it.

But in reality, the Ontario language curriculum and the pedagogies that support it are not particularly conducive to fun or pleasure. Both seem heavily informed by research into the mechanics of reading, drawn from cognitive science and psycholinguistics, as well as by myriad constructivist and reader response theories borrowed from disciplines such as sociocultural psychology and literary studies. The result is an emphasis on the process of reading, and the "metacognitive" strategies that children and adults use when learning to read or when actually reading.

One such strategy involves the making of connections. In their influential book, Mosaic of Thought, reading researchers Susan Zimmerman and Ellin Keene, (synthesizing insights from transactional/reader response theory and cognitive science) outline three principal types of connections that competent readers make: "text to self," "text to world," and "text to text." Other theorists—such as Richard Anderson and P. David Pearson, in their seminal essay on Schema Theory—have emphasized the importance of prior knowledge to the reading process. According to Schema Theory, competent readers activate their prior knowledge (organized into schemata) to draw inferences, make predictions or employ "fix-up" strategies when they read. These activities and strategies allow readers to assimilate unfamiliar material by comparing and integrating it with what they already know, thereby enabling comprehension and learning.

It is important to note that these theories of reading—and the many others which inform reading curricula across North America*—are essentially descriptive in nature: that is, they attempt to describe what actually happens in the minds (or more recently, in the brains) of readers while they read. But during the circuitous journey from university to teacher's college to classroom, descriptive theories invariably devolve into prescriptive practices. So, for example, educators deduce (not entirely logically) that if effective readers make "text to text" or "text to self" connections or use inference and prediction to aid in comprehension, then children should be taught to read in this manner. The resultant pedagogy can take some unexpected and occasionally counter-productive forms.

A case in point: When my daughters were in Grade 2, their teacher decided that one of them, E, had a problem with comprehension. Asked what a certain chapter book reminded her of, my daughter had replied, "nothing." It's quite possible that the book did in fact remind E of nothing in her own life: at seven, her life experiences were somewhat limited. But I suspect the main reason she said "nothing" is that she was shy and inhibited around adults. The trick with kids such as these is not to ask a question that can be answered with a single word. If the teacher had asked E what the story was about, or whether or not she liked it, E would have told her, as she told me a couple of weeks later, following the parent-teacher interview in which I learned about the incident. On another occasion, the teacher asked a group of kids to predict what a certain book was about based on the cover. E's answer was, "I don't know." When I asked her why she answered that way, she said, "You once told me not to judge a book by its cover." (I stand by that advice!)

So in E's case, this emphasis on the supposed process by which efficient readers comprehend what they're reading backfired. The teacher's single-minded focus on what she referred to as "metacognition" actually prevented her from ascertaining who could read and comprehend simple chapter books and who could not. (According to my daughters, the outgoing kids would babble on about how the book reminded them of this and that, and would be rewarded for doing so, no matter how outlandish their answers.) Interestingly, E's teachers in the previous and following years chose not to use this method to assess reading ability; both recognized that E was a strong reader by evaluating her oral and written book reviews, and by asking her less scripted questions about the books she was reading.

Fortunately, these awkward moments with the Grade 2 teacher did not significantly affect E's attitude towards books or reading. But what worries me in retrospect is that they could have. They could easily have shaken E's confidence in her reading ability, thereby turning her off reading altogether. As it is, she learned that reading and discussing books in school (as opposed to at home) was not a pleasurable experience.

Unfortunately, that impression persisted and was compounded by other aspects of the reading curriculum. In the later elementary years, for instance, literature circles became one of the main vehicles by which the reading portion of the language curriculum was fulfilled. Harvey Daniels, in his book on the topic, describes literature circles as "a form of independent reading, structured as collaborative small groups, and guided by reader response principles in light of current comprehension research." In other words, a bit like a book club for kids, which sounds appealing. Indeed, it's difficult to object to the idea of students getting together in groups to discuss books; however, it seems that in the case of literature circles, somewhere between concept and execution, a vital ingredient got lost: fun.

In reality, literature circles are not kid versions of book clubs. Unlike adult book clubs, they are not self-organized. Most often, it is the teacher who chooses the books and the teacher who decides what types of activities the group will engage in. Typical (rotating) roles in literature circles include: "Discussion Director," "Passage Finder," "Illustrator," "Connector," "Vocabulary Enricher," "Investigator," and "Summarizer." There is nothing particularly objectionable about any one of these roles taken individually, but I wonder how many adults would join a book club in which these sorts of activities were required. (I certainly wouldn't: I can't draw, for one thing!) It should come as no surprise, then, that kids are not enamoured of them either. Both of my daughters love to read, but neither of them enjoys literature circles. Too little choice, they say, and too much busy work, often sent home as homework.

But critiquing current practice is easy, especially for a parent like me; I don't need to worry about fulfilling curriculum requirements or engaging children in a classroom setting. The question that needs to be asked—that I need to ask myself—is, what would a reading program that strove to inculcate a love of reading look like? The conclusions I've come to as a result of thinking about this question are not easy to articulate. But my sense is that the current curriculum, while well-intentioned, focuses too much on notions of "efficiency," "mastery," and "competence," and too little on concepts such as "enjoyment" or "pleasure."

Instead of asking what efficient readers do when they read, it might be worthwhile to consider what people who read for pleasure do. Do they stop when reading a novel to ask themselves what might be coming next, or what the book reminds them of in their own life? Do they put sticky notes (literal or figurative) on important passages? Do they make inferences and fill in gaps when the text is ambiguous? The answer is to all these questions is: quite possibly. But often people who read for pleasure do not do these things, or at least not consciously. Sometimes people are looking for escape when they read. Sometimes there are no relevant "text to self" or "text to world" connections to be made. Or sometimes, the cognitive processes that occur when a person reads are so routine as to be imperceptible. As Anderson and Pearson concede, "Many aspects of reading may be automatic, at least in a skilled reader, and hence require very little cognitive capacity."

Reading requiring very little cognitive capacity: it's an apt description of light "summer reading" for many people. Such reading is valuable in its own right for the pleasure it brings the reader. And despite its being largely automatic and imperceptible, learning—in the form of specific, measurable literacy skills—is occurring during this type of reading; in fact recent research suggests that intrinsically-motivated leisure reading may lead to greater gains in reading comprehension and competence than extrinsically-motivated (e.g., classroom) reading. But the less tangible rewards of reading for pleasure are equally—if not more—important. When a child or adult reads for pleasure, he or she is voluntarily exploring unfamiliar worlds, catching glimpses of the vast plethora of human character and behaviour, and thus building and expanding his or her capacity for empathy.

What better reason to encourage or at least allow for pleasure reading during the school year? Doing so would not require a wholesale overhaul of the curriculum. Teachers could keep the literature circles, for instance, but make them truly student-directed. They could let students choose the books and determine the way in which the circle is organized. Let the children read and discuss in any way they see fit. But, most important, just let them read. Give students unfettered access to the school library, and set aside blocks of time daily for independent, no-strings-attached reading. In other words, import a bit of lazy summer reading into the school year. Perhaps in this way, educators—with the help of supportive parents—can begin to bridge the troubling chasm between reading for pleasure and reading for school .

*For an overview of of these theories, see Lenses on Reading: An Introduction to Theories and Models, by Diane H. Tracey and Lesley Mandel Morrow.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Grade 6 Graduation Ceremony: Awkward

It's mid-summer, we've been to the cottage and back, and my daughters have put Grade 6 graduation behind them. I, too, have tried to forget about it—unsuccessfully. I've been brooding about the ceremony (held over four weeks ago), ruminating on aspects that gave me pause, caused me to wince or—worse—made me angry. I've hesitated to write about it here, but images of the event have persisted in my heat-addled brain, refusing to cede ground to more seasonally-appropriate thoughts. So here it is: my admittedly jaundiced take on one particular Grade 6 graduation and awards ceremony.

It began inauspiciously. Chairs were set up on the leafy lawn of the handsome, 90-year-old public school which my daughters, J and E, have attended since Grade 1. The setup looked pretty, as it always does when the school's Parent Association puts its collective mind (and applies its considerable financial muscle) to something. But just as parents, nannies, aunts, uncles and grandparents were piling out of their SUVs, it started to rain. Staff and parent organizers held out for several long minutes while freshly blow-dried hair wilted, and suits broke out in rain splotches. Finally, the principal called it, and guests were asked to bring their own chairs into the stifling, non-decorated gym.

But in the two and a half-hour ceremony that followed, physical discomfort on the part of guests was the least of the problems.

First there were the interminable speeches. Trustee, area superintendent, parent representative, vice-principal, principal—all spoke about how wonderful X Junior Public school is, how fortunate (read economically-blessed) we all are to have been associated with it. The local Trustee spoke first, turning to address the graduates sitting on benches facing the audience. His speech was the best of the lot. But though he spoke to the graduates, and made interesting points about different avenues to success, in the end he, like the others, seemed to speak for the benefit of, or with the intent of impressing, the adult members of the audience. True, there were student MCs and four student valedictorians, one for each graduating Grade 6 class. Their speeches were short and occasionally funny but, ultimately, they were minor blips in a sea of boring, adult self-congratulation.

Then the dispensing of awards began. There were prizes—small wooden plaques with the recipient's name engraved on them—in physical education, art, music, and French; there were also spirit, character and leadership awards (but, interestingly, given the emphasis on STEM in the TDSB, no science or math awards). I suspect I was not the only parent made uncomfortable by the way the awards were allocated and bestowed. In a misguided effort to be inclusive, several students were chosen to receive each award. So, for instance, the art prize was handed out to three students, the phys. ed. prize to four, and so on. While possibly a good idea in theory,* the result was that at least 70 per cent of the entire graduating class (of approximately 125 kids) received awards. That left a minority of kids who did not, which is far worse for the award-less than if only a few kids had been recognized. More troubling, regardless of their ostensible purpose, the awards seemed to celebrate the same types of kids. Art, music, and physical education plaques went to kids who were competent in those subjects, but who also—perhaps more importantly—demonstrated concomitant "leadership qualities." In other words, with the exception of the honor roll certificates and a prize for highest academic achievement, the awards were in fact "spirit" awards—validating kids for displaying the kind of meaningless "school spirit" I have critiqued elsewhere. So, the quiet, introverted, well-behaved kids, the ones who by default or by choice fall under the radar, were the ones who received nothing.

Given that I have twins in the same class who have completely different personalities, I feel I am uniquely positioned to understand the ramifications of such a system. Both my daughters made honour roll, but J also received an art award. Both she and her sister love art, but E is by far the better artist. She spends a great deal of her spare time creating and studying art, and has educated herself about technical matters not covered in the curriculum, such as shading and colour theory. But J is more outgoing, more obviously enthusiastic and less shy than E. J gets noticed, E does not. J gets the art prize, E does not. E was not upset (at least not overtly), but the irony was not lost on her or her sister. Both instinctively understood that the reward system favours a certain type of personality, irrespective of ability. The allocation of the actual "character," "leadership" and "spirit" prizes reinforced my daughters' understanding of how the system works. These awards were given out to a specific type of kid: the extrovert who exhibits the requisite level of school-sanctioned enthusiasm—at least outwardly.

The most surprising thing about this awards ceremony was not its unfairness, but how apparently oblivious the organizers were to its effect on the audience. After it was over, and we were relaxing at home, my daughters told a revealing story. The final event was the presentation of the graduation certificates, handed out by the Grade 6 teachers to their own students. My daughters' class was first, and their teacher read out each child's name, stipulating "with honours" for the kids who had made honour roll. He read out the first two names, adding "with honours" after each. Then he read the third name; no "with honours" followed. A friend of my daughters' leaned over to J and said, "awkward." Awkward. Exactly. The question is, if an 11-year-old understood this—immediately, intuitively—why didn't the adults in charge?

*One might ask, if inclusion is in fact the goal, why not go all the way, and reward each child for something he or she has achieved during elementary school (as this school in BC chose to do)? Or do we really believe that there are some children who have achieved nothing worthy of recognition?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Real-Life Problems and How to Solve Them: Grad

Recently my daughter, J, has taken to writing an advice column—she calls it Real-life Problems and How to Solve Them—modelled on those she has seen in kids' magazines. She writes both questions and answers, and one particular question—specifically, the answer she composed—caught my eye. It has to do with the numerous, over-the-top events and celebrations taking place this week for her class's grade six graduation. Although J is looking forward to these events, her twin sister, E—who is the kind of introvert that schools routinely overlook and can easily crush—is not. J's advice is clearly directed towards her sister. It is not bad advice.

Q: Everyone at my school is looking forward to the graduation festivities but me. They're always talking about the dresses and shoes they are planning to wear, but I don't even want to go. I know my friends will think I'm crazy, but I really want to just stay at home and read a book. — Ella, age 11

A: Dear Ella — You know if you really want to go or not. And the decision about going is all up to you. Don't let anyone influence you while making your decision because if you end up going and having a bad time, you won't have a very good memory of your grade six graduation. Tell your friends to take pictures and describe the time they had so you don't feel completely left out, but don't worry if they start talking about how cool it was in front of you. The great time they had might have been the worst time you had. But whatever you do, let your memory of your last days of grade six be a good one. Good luck.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Smells Like School Spirit

What the bourgeoisie has installed as its number-one, i.e. as its dominant ideological State apparatus, is the educational apparatus, which has in fact replaced in its functions the previously dominant ideological State apparatus, the Church. Louis Althusser

The other day, my daughter, E, woke up in a foul mood. She muttered something about it being the worst day of her life, then sullenly took her place at the breakfast table. She said she didn't want to go to school, but when my husband and I asked why, she was reluctant to to tell us. Finally, after some cajoling, she told us the reason: it was pajama day at school. E said the kids had been told to wear their pajamas to show school spirit. "How does wearing pajamas at school show school spirit?" she asked. "And why do we have to show it, anyway?"

Good questions.

The official character education program at my daughters' school, Future Aces, is fairly innocuous. According to the program's website, the "Aces" part of the name is an acronym for:

A Attitude, Ability, Action, Achieve
Co-operation, Courage, Confidence
Empathy, Example, Education
At our school, these character traits or behavioral goals are inculcated by means of monthly assemblies in which students perform sketches or sing songs about the attribute of the month. As character education programs go, it is relatively harmless (especially compared to programs such as PBIS, which Chris Liebig has blogged about over at A Blog About School), but it also seems to have little effect on the kids, who can regularly be seen yawning and squirming during the assemblies.

There is, however, a parallel, less innocuous character education program in effect at my daughters' school, one that is part of what has been called the "hidden curriculum." It involves regular exhortations to school spirit in the form of specially designated "spirit days," house colour days (in this, our semi-private school has taken a page from private schools) and, yes, pajama days.

The dictionary lists as one of the many possible meanings of the word "spirit," "enthusiastic loyalty (school spirit)." Most people would argue that enthusiastic loyalty to one's school, like loyalty to one's favourite sports team, is not in itself a bad thing. And the truth is, there are aspects of my daughters' school about which one could imagine both kids and parents being enthusiastic. (Its wonderful music program is one of them.) But the enthusiasm being encouraged by spirit days is not a considered enthusiasm; it is not a reasoned response to anything tangible. In fact, what is being exhorted (coerced, some might say) through spirit days is the kind of blind, general enthusiasm that precludes thought, or at least renders it superfluous: my school right or wrong. As such, spirit days are inimical to the school's stated goal of fostering independent, critical thinking. A more cynical person might even argue that spirit days constitute the principal means by which schools carry out their ideological function: in Althusserian terms, such events "interpellate" or "hail" children who, by responding appropriately—i.e, with appropriate unthinking enthusiasm—aid in their own construction as subjects (in this case, as proper, conformist school-children).

Yes, I know, it's only spirit day or pajama day or colour day. It is quite possible—probable, even— that I am investing these events with too much meaning. But if they have no meaning, serve no deeper purpose, why do schools persist in proclaiming such days on a regular basis?

Perhaps it's time for progressive educators and parents to think about alternatives to spirit days or, rather, to ask themselves what an alternative, more meaningful spirit day might look like. I don't have any definitive answers, but I can conceive of assemblies in which children would be encouraged to articulate reasons for their "enthusiasm" for their school, as well as reasons why they might not be enthusiastic. Too often teachers and parents solicit only the pre-conceived, positive responses they want from children, rather than being sincerely interested in hearing their views. An alternative "school spirit" would not be so far away in meaning or import from the kind of "spirit" that all schools claim to be interested in nourishing: the spirit of free and open inquiry.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

By Our Fruits Our Children Shall Know Us

A slightly different version of this piece was published in the Globe and Mail a couple of years ago. I was reminded of it recently when I bit into a sour, over-sized strawberry.

One thing has always puzzled me about my kids: They prefer vegetables to fruit. They willingly chow down on green beans, broccoli, asparagus, peas and cauliflower, salads of all types, carrots and cucumbers. But they look askance at the apples, oranges, berries and melons that I doggedly place in front of them. "It doesn't taste good " is their constant refrain. To me it tastes ... acceptable.

Perhaps I do understand why my twin daughters don't like fruit: Most of it is tasteless. Vegetables may be tasteless too, but my children's expectations of them are lower and, like most parents, I dress veggies up with vinaigrettes or butter and salt to render them more palatable. But fruit is supposed to taste good as is. As an adult, I'm used to the fact that most of the time it does not. My children, who possess the enhanced taste buds of eight-year-olds, have not yet become accustomed to flavourless berries and melons.

I wonder, then, why did I love fruit so much as a child? My parents were particular about their produce. Every Saturday, they shopped at the local Dominion for basics, but made a separate trip to stand-alone markets to buy fruits and vegetables. Even as a young child, I had a sense of seasonality, passed on from my parents. There were berries in spring and summer, along with pert plums, succulent peaches, and sweet and sour cherries from Ontario. Summer fruit, my parents called these. In the fall, we had bushels of russet and Macintosh apples. In winter, there were navel oranges and tart-sweet, white grapefruit. These were imported, but their quality was second to none because they were in season in the sunny place where they were grown.

I also have fond memories of the gap year I spent in France. There, my palate first cottoned on to the reality that tomatoes are fruit. But it wasn't just tomatoes that blew me away. I remember biting into a plump russet apple, which the French called Reinette du Canada. I found the name amusing, doubly so when I realized that even these so-called Canadian apples tasted better in France. It was the eighties by this time, and I had noticed a decline in produce quality at home. Quite simply, everything tasted better in France. When I tell my husband this, he scoffs, as he does when I reminisce about the fruit I enjoyed as a child. "Pure nostalgia," he says.

In an attempt to prove him wrong, I surf the Internet where I find evidence of a steady decline in the nutrient content of vegetables and fruits. I discover, for instance, that an apple today contains 55% less iron and 41 % less vitamin A than an apple from fifty years ago (see here and here). I email a professor of food science at the University of Georgia, Robert Shewfelt, who confirms that nutrition and flavour are linked since, for the most part, "nutrition is optimal and flavour is optimal at the same time." So perhaps those bloated, mid-winter strawberries are as bad as they seem — nutritionally deficient
and tasteless.

What, then, can a parent of fruit-averse children do? According to Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, one of the most subversive things we can do today is to plant a garden. I've always admired my elderly Greek-Canadian neighbour, who plants and harvests an impressive array of produce on her small North Toronto lot, but who knew she was such a radical?

As spring arrived this year, I began to wonder if I too could become a radical. My husband was skeptical, since I've rarely put trowel to dirt in my life, but as the days grew longer and the planting season approached, I resolved to try. I purchased books with titles such as The Gardener's A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food and Fruits and Berries for the Home Garden. I took the plunge and planted strawberries, cucumbers, and tomatoes in pots; I dug up some sod and stuck two raspberry plants in the ground. I watered and waited. Summer arrived, along with unprecedented rain; I watered a little less and waited some more. I became disheartened when my raspberry plants inexplicably died.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the small prickly beginnings of cucumbers appeared. The twins found a lone red strawberry amidst an abundance of runners and greenery. They shared it and pronounced it sweet! But my elation was short-lived. The strawberries stopped bearing, and the tiny cucumbers grew strangely misshapen, almost gourd-like. By summer's end, only my tomato plants were bearing well, and even they looked bedraggled and sad.
Today, as I gaze upon what remains of my garden, and peer over at my neighbour's still-lush rows, I admit I'm tempted to throw in the trowel. But I suspect that next spring, hope will trump reality. I will begin my garden anew, spurred on by the thought that, even if it takes several seasons, even if I manage to produce a mere handful of red raspberries, I might just be able to bequeath to my children a memory of redolent, in-season fruit.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Is It A Boy or a Girl?

Today's guest blogger, Prabhakar Ragde, is a professor of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. In the 1990s, he and his wife, quietly and without fanfare, made the decision not to reveal the sexes of their two children. In this post, he reflects upon that decision and its repercussions in light of the unprecedented media frenzy surrounding the so-called "genderless baby."

Is It A Boy or a Girl?

by Prabhakar Ragde

Twitter is my link to the zeitgeist. It's where I learned of the Japanese earthquake and the death of Osama bin Laden. But I also learn about many less momentous events and situations, such as the one described in an article in the Toronto Star about a Toronto couple who weren't announcing the sex of their third child.

The article went "viral", exploding on both the Web and in traditional media, eliciting much ignorant reaction from anonymous readers and only slightly more nuanced expressions of concern from so-called experts. Back in my Twitterverse, some of my tweeps offered their own 140 characters of acerbic comment. I argued back, more confidently than usual, because I had something they didn't: empirical evidence. My wife and I had done the same thing, with the birth of our first child Arju in 1992, and again in 1995 with Zazuki (Zuki), and anyone who knows our teenagers knows how well they have turned out.

Why would we want a "genderless baby"? Well, we didn't, and neither did the Toronto couple. There are three related notions of gender here. The first is biological sex, for which people often use the word "gender" as a euphemism. The second is psychological gender, or gender identity — the sex with which a person self-identifies. The third is the social role assigned to a man or woman, leading to the quote, "Gender is a social construct". The correct answer to the question "What is the baby's gender?" is probably "No one knows yet," for all babies. But what the question really is asking is "What is the baby's biological sex?"

The asker probably wants to know in order to fit the baby into a social role, and in doing so, change the nature of interaction. Although the asker will probably steadfastly deny that they would treat a boy baby and a girl baby differently, it's not hard to turn up peer-reviewed studies demonstrating otherwise. We cited a few of these in our birth announcement (we couldn't resist the conceit of including a bibliography).

But the largest influence on our children in the early years was, of course, their parents. We knew their biological sex. We'd grown up in an era when it was unusual for married women to work outside the home, or to keep their last names on being married. We're not self-aware or iron-willed enough to avoid our own gender biases, even if we wanted to completely eliminate them (which it's not clear we should, considering that our children have to live in a gender-biased world). So this was never about affecting the children, except indirectly in the examples we set as parents as they grew up. It was a minor bit of consciousness-raising among our immediate circle of family, friends, and acquaintances. Minor in the grand scheme of things, that is; it loomed fairly large for us at the time, despite the lack of media attention.

Fortunately, we have no traditions in this culture of routinely displaying the genitals of newborns, so the only things we needed to do were to avoid dressing our children in all pink or all blue, and avoid using words such as "he" or "she". It's not hard to do this in writing, especially if one is willing to adopt the singular "they" (for which there is historical precedent). Extemporaneous speech is another matter. I managed it by dint of furious concentration and much stammering, and it got easier with practice. If someone asked directly, we would briefly explain our stance, but otherwise we simply never corrected anyone's assumptions, except to spare them embarrassment. And people would make assumptions based on the flimsiest of evidence (even on whether they thought the children's names, which we made up, sounded like they referred to one sex or the other). I can remember four occasions when I slipped up and used a sex-specific pronoun to refer to Arju, but it was because the person I was talking to was using them. Twice I used "he", and twice I used "she".

My wife's parents, thousands of miles away, accepted our decision; mine, closer by, did not. Siblings and other family members we were close to were supportive. Among our friends, some were enthusiastic about the idea, and some were dubious, and it was sometimes surprising to us who took which stance. My wife and I are both professors in the same department, and our secretary reported mostly puzzlement among the academic staff. One woman was concerned that Arju would turn out gay (hard to see the logic in that one), and a few said that because they didn't know Arju's sex, they couldn't buy gifts (which we'd asked them not to do in the birth announcement, anyway). When we were out in public, we didn't make a point of bringing the topic up, but sometimes people would ask, and we'd gently explain. We never encountered any hostility; at worst, the subject would be abruptly dropped. More often, we got some clarifying questions, and maybe a nice expression of support.

We tried to choose sensible, attractive clothing in a range of colours, which meant choosing from both racks in the store, as pinks and pastels were on the girls' side, and other bright colours were on the boys' side. We gravitated towards toys that were not only fun but stimulated creativity and imagination; that meant a wide array, including both dolls and trucks, building blocks, and miniatures for role play both domestic and "on the job". (It probably helped that I did the cooking, while my wife mowed the lawn.)

Our university, at the time, topped up salary during maternity leave, but only for thirteen weeks. We had a particular daycare in mind, but we hadn't put in an application before Arju was conceived, as we would have had to do to get a spot at three months. It was nearly a year later when a slot opened up. We'd visited several times in between, to keep up our visibility, and the director of the daycare had been one of those making an incorrect assumption about Arju's sex. So when we handed in the completed registration forms and the first cheque, we had to gently explain why we hadn't corrected her.

We didn't ask for special treatment, but the director clearly took the lesson to heart, and discussed it with the staff. Years later, my friend L attended a party where she overheard a conversation in which my children came up. One of the participants had been a worker at our daycare; she didn't know that L knew us and would report back. She said that attitudes had changed among the staff as a result of the situation; they thought about possible biases in their actions, and went about their jobs in a more thoughtful, introspective fashion. How long-lasting that effect was, it's impossible to say. But this is one way that progress occurs, through small, local changes.

When Zazuki was born in 1995, no one blinked an eye when we said we were doing it again (and this time, we had put in a daycare application before conception!). Arju was by then a delightful, talkative creature, and any fears they might have had, had long since been put to rest. I kept the birth announcements up on my Web page for a while, though as the kids grew up, they seemed like old news, and I took them off. But history has a way of resurfacing.

Back in 2011, my "been there, done that" tweets must have been noticed, because a reporter from Postmedia (which owns the National Post) e-mailed me requesting an interview. I refused phone contact but gave a short statement by e-mail. He wanted more detail, and I agreed to answer by e-mail the questions he would have asked over the phone. As a consequence of my being able to compose my responses, the article had fewer distortions than usual. What I hadn't expected were the phone calls from TV networks. I let them e-mail me, and turned them down. Apparently, the Toronto couple who started the latest furor did the same, as the woman explained in a rational and intelligent article written entirely in her own words. And with that, the attention of the world turned elsewhere.

I wrote my answers to the reporter using gender-neutral language to refer to my children (as I have done here) to make a point, even though he had done his research on the Web (looking, perhaps, at their Facebook profile photos, in which it's fairly obvious) and figured out which pronouns he needed to use. His article highlights their sexes in the lede, so you can click through, if you wish, and find out for yourself. But before you do, ask yourself why that particular bit of information is so important. Really, it isn't. The desire to know, on the other hand, that is worth thinking about.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The New F Word and Kids

Recently, I watched an episode of TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin on my computer. The episode was called "The New 'F' Word," and I had missed it when it first aired in January 2011, despite the fact that a good friend of mine, Charlie Keil, a professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto, was one of Paikin's guests on that occasion. The hour-long show consisted of a discussion of the recent decision by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council to ban the Dire Straits song "Money For Nothing" from Canadian airwaves because of its repeated use of the anti-gay slur "faggot."

I was twenty minutes into the show when my 11-year-old daughter, J, walked into the room. Although she did not stay long, I am pleased that she walked in when she did, and saw the show's title displayed across the screen. The ensuing discussion—which occurred while I paused the show, and which I have transcribed below—served as a unplanned continuation of a conversation that began when she was quite young. (See here.) I'm not a big fan of the phrase "teachable moment," but I do believe this was one.

J: Hey, what's Charlie doing on there?

Me: He's a guest on the show.

J: "The New 'F' Word"? What's that? Charlie won't even say the old F word. [She's right! This is revealed near the end of the show, starting at 46:25.]

Me: The new F word is "faggot." It's a pejorative term for "gay." Have you heard it?

J: No. Why are they talking about it?

Me: Because a song containing the word has been banned from being played on the radio.

J: Good.

Me: But it's complicated. In the song, the word is used satirically. Do you want to listen to the song?

J: Okay. [I find the the original version of "Money for Nothing" on YouTube and play it for her.]

Me: So you see, the person saying the word in the song is a character. He doesn't represent the singer's views.

J: I still think he shouldn't say it. But I guess it's like in a story when there's a character you're not suppose to like, who says nasty things.

Me: Yes.

J: Or like in Billy Elliot, when the miners say the old F word because that's the way they would talk in real life. [J and her twin sister have said they do not want to see the stage version of Billy Eliot because of the swearing.]

Me: Sort of. But it's a bit different because the old F word isn't directed at a specific group. The new F word is worse because it targets gays.

J: Yes, but I still don't want to hear either the old or the new F word.

Me: But do you understand why some people might object to the new F word being banned?

J: Sort of. But if it upsets people to hear it, maybe it should be banned.

Me: But, J, in art—in songs or stories or plays—you have to be able to critique ideas or words, and to do that you have to be able to say them. When they're used in that context they're not necessarily hurtful.

J: Maybe you just think they're not hurtful when they're used that way because you're not gay.

Me: Maybe.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Elections and Kids: Desperate Times

The first election I remember clearly was the federal election of 1972, in which Robert Stanfield ran as leader of the Progressive Conservatives against Pierre Trudeau. The reason I remember that political race in particular, has to do with my best friend Ann. I adored Ann and her family. Her father was an executive at Coca-Cola Canada, her mother a kindhearted former kindergarten teacher, and their airy suburban side-split (a literal mirror image of ours) overflowed with beautiful, happy children. Ann's parents seemed to be more particular about certain things than mine. For instance, they cared about brands. They drank Coke, never Pepsi (although after Ann's father transferred to Pepsi, this allegiance abruptly switched, something that puzzled me somewhat); they ate Kraft peanut butter, and Kraft macaroni and cheese. Store labels were not acceptable substitutes. Store brands were acceptable to my parents, and I complained about this state of affairs to my mother. She tried to explain that the products themselves were mostly the same, so it didn't really matter, but this explanation struck me as feeble. My parents clearly didn't understand the world the way Ann's family did.

Another brand Ann's family liked was the Progressive Conservative brand. Pierre Trudeau was anathema to her family, as he was to many of of our neighbours. The sign on Ann's front lawn was oversized—and blue. I spent a lot of time with Ann's family during that election; I spent a lot of time with them in general. I fantasized about being part of their perfect family, although I was fond of my own less perfect version as well. So that June, I practically lived with Ann, which meant I spent a considerable amount of time riding around in her parents' station wagon, as her mother and father carried out their chores. I remember one day in particular when Ann, her younger sister and I were being driven around our neighbourhood by Ann's father. I don't recall how it started, but the three of us, sitting happily seatbelt-less in the back of the car, windows wide open and a warm wind whipping our hair, began to cheer every time we passed a Conservative sign, and boo when we passed a Liberal sign. (In our suburb, NDP signs were conspicuous by their absence.) Ann's father chuckled and smiled at us as we did this, and I remember the whole outing being a lot of fun.

That evening at the dinner table I told my parents what we had done. My father laughed; he said nothing. It wasn't until years later that I discovered my parents had never voted Conservative in their lives. My mother supported the NDP and my father was a Liberal, who occasionally voted NDP. Yet at the time, they felt no need to tell me this. They seemed unperturbed by my unbridled enthusiasm for Robert Stanfield and the Progressive Conservatives.

Fast forward almost 40 years. My 11-yr-old twin daughters are in the car with my husband and me. We're driving around our neighbourhood during a spring election, and my daughters are noting the preponderance of Conservative signs. We pass a Liberal sign and the girls begin to cheer. From that point on, they cheer every time we pass a Liberal sign. (In our suburb-in-the-city, NDP signs are conspicuous by their absence.) Sitting in the front seat listening to them, I realize that we have become Ann's family—a family in which children are initiated at a young age into the world of partisan politics. I begin to think about how this situation came about, especially in light of what I thought were my beliefs about children, politics and indoctrination. (See here, for instance.) For the truth is, in retrospect, I admire my parents' restraint. I respect them for refusing to tell us what to think politically, for allowing us to mature, and figure out for ourselves where we stood on serious issues.

In the family that my husband and I have created, things are different. At the dinner table one evening not long ago, one of my daughters asked what the Conservative Party of Canada stood for. My husband answered flippantly, "They stand for the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer." My daughter seemed a bit shocked so I added, "That's not how they would describe what they stand for," and I proceeded to try to explain the CPC in a manner more in keeping with how a supporter might explain it. I talked about how some people believe the role of government is to tax citizens who can afford to be taxed so as to provide services and programs to all people, but especially to those who would not be able to afford such services otherwise. I went on to explain that other politicians believe government should be as small as possible, and that taxes should be low, so people can decide for themselves what to to with their money. That was as much fair-mindedness as I could muster, and I couldn't help but add that the problem with the latter approach is that it disproportionally favours the rich.

So why have I chosen not to exercise the same degree of restraint during this election that my parents exercised effortlessly throughout every election that occurred during my childhood?

The answer is complicated. My mother and father were quite possibly more mature in their parental role than my husband and I. Or perhaps they were simply less willing to talk openly to their children about politics and other sensitive issues. But I believe there's more to it than that. The political landscape in Canada has changed drastically in the last four decades, but most noticeably in the last decade. In 1972, there was a consensus among the major political parties about what Canada could or should be. It was not a well-defined consensus, but I believe it stemmed from and incorporated Trudeau's notion of a Just Society, which I interpret to mean a society interested (at least in theory) in providing a decent quality of life for all its members. Am I indulging in pure nostalgia here? Possibly. But the fact is, "red Tories" like Stanfield—and at the provincial level, Bill Davis—would be considered liberals by today's standards. So my parents had no real reason to fear a Progressive Conservative government. But in the wake of the merger between the Canadian Alliance (successor to the far right Reform Party) and the Progressive Conservatives in 2003—which brought into being the Conservative Party of Canada—conservatism has taken on an entirely different cast. I do fear another Conservative government—with reason, I believe. Though he has never managed to achieve a majority in Parliament, Stephen Harper has attempted to remake Canada in the image of the worst elements of American Republicanism. He has used loopholes in parliamentary law to perpetrate innumerable abuses of power and to subvert the democratic process. He has prorogued Parliament on two occasions: once in 2008, while facing a confidence vote in the House of Commons (and the perfectly legal prospect of an opposition coalition forming the government), and again in 2010, to avoid handing over disturbing information regarding the Afghan detainee file to the House of Commons. In March of this year, his government, having refused to furnish adequate budget information regarding its plan to build new prisons, was found in contempt of Parliament, a first for Canada, and indeed for any Commonwealth country. (For a full list of Harper's abuses of power, see here.) Currently, Harper is running for re-election on an strikingly Bushian platform of sustained tax breaks for corporations and their wealthy shareholders, increased military spending, and a promise to build shiny new prisons, even though the crime rate in Canada is down.

So perhaps we can be forgiven for being a little more forthright with our children about the current political scene in Canada. The truth is, as a parent, I'm afraid: afraid that should Harper achieve his majority, the Canada I knew as a child—a Canada which my parents and Ann's took for granted, one which poured money into schools, health care, and social programs, and taxed its citizens progressively in order to do so—will cease to exist as my children grow into adults. Perhaps, in other words, desperate times call for desperate parenting.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Toronto Homework Policy

This review of the 2008 TDSB homework policy was written last spring as a guest post for Sara Bennett's StopHomework site. (Sara Bennett, along with Nancy Kalish, is the author of The Case Against Homework.) The post can still be found there, but the site is largely inactive, as Sara has moved on to other pursuits. It remains, however, a great resource for research and lively discussions on the topic of homework. My post originally appeared in two parts—because it's long!—but I'm posting it here as one piece, on the third anniversary of the enactment of the TDSB homework policy. As a result of my review, the homework situation at my daughters' school did improve somewhat (see here). But old habits die hard, and much room for improvement remains.

The Toronto Homework Policy
: A Parent's Perspective

On a recent Saturday morning, my 10-year-old daughter emerged from the basement on the verge of tears: “The temple’s collapsed,” she announced. Though it sounded dire, she was speaking not of an actual building, but of the model of an ancient Greek temple she and a classmate had constructed out of cardboard the previous week. They had piled on the white paint, and the structure had simply buckled under the weight. Later that day I glanced out the window to see my two daughters turning cartwheels on the back lawn while my husband diligently sawed wooden cylinders into pillars for the new temple. It was a brilliant spring day, and soon my husband would finish his task and call my reluctant daughter in out of the sunshine to start rebuilding the temple. What is wrong with this picture?

From the perspective of a homework skeptic, many things: arts and crafts busywork, weekend homework, parental involvement. But the main problem is that I live in Toronto, and my children attend public school in a board which in 2008 enacted one of the most progressive, “family friendly” homework policies in North America. So what happened?

When I read the news in early 2008 that the Toronto District School Board was re-evaluating its homework policy, my heart did a little happy dance. At the time, my twin daughters were in third grade. Although we had not yet experienced homework overload, the prospect of a reformed homework policy thrilled me because the following year my daughters were due to enter mid-elementary French immersion, a program renowned for its heavy workload both inside and outside the classroom. Suddenly there was hope that French immersion would provide a qualitatively (as opposed to quantitatively) different experience for my daughters, with enrichment enabled not by means of extra work, but simply through learning the curriculum in a second language.

The TDSB—the largest school board in Canada, serving approximately 250,000 students—appeared to have done its homework, so to speak, on homework. Spurred on by parent Frank Bruni and sympathetic Trustee, Josh Matlow, the board reviewed and eventually rewrote its homework policy, approving a new family-friendly version on April 16, 2008. The new policy (available online here) re-defines “effective” homework, promotes “differentiated” assignments and removes punitive consequences for incomplete work. It virtually eliminates homework in the early elementary years, and mandates substantial decreases for all other grades. But perhaps the most progressive feature of the Toronto policy is its recognition of the deleterious effect of homework on family life. It stipulates that homework should not be assigned on scheduled holidays or “days of significance,” and that “time spent on homework should be balanced with the importance of personal and family wellness . . . .”

My excitement back in 2008 was not unfounded: this was a good policy. So why two years later am I complaining about my children's homework?

Before I attempt to answer this question, I should note that many parents I’ve spoken to have indeed noticed a decrease in their children’s homework. But my experience—and that of other French immersion parents I've consulted—has been that teachers continue to assign homework inconsistent with the new policy. On curriculum night in September 2008, the Grade 4 teacher warned parents to expect a difficult year. She explained that the nature of “mid-immersion”—its compression compared to immersion programs starting in Kindergarten—made it necessary to work the children particularly hard. (There was scant mention of the new homework policy, no hint that the program might have to be adjusted in order to comply with it.)

She was not kidding. On a nightly basis, students were expected to review copious notes from class, practice spelling words, complete math and grammar sheets, and study for tests (two per week). In addition, there were projects to be completed outside of class. Although my daughters loved learning in French and their grades remained strong, they were unaccustomed to a such a heavy workload. They began to show signs of stress (read, meltdowns) almost immediately. By Christmas, they were proclaiming their hatred for school; I prepared to pull them out of French immersion. After the holidays, homework eased up—marginally, but enough to convince me I would not be irreparably harming my daughters by keeping them in the program.

Grade five was initially better. On curriculum night, the teacher professed her dislike of homework; as a parent herself, she understood how busy today's children are. Yet this teacher is renowned within the school as a kind of project queen. Every year, her students (or their parents) produce extraordinary projects in science and social studies, which are displayed on designated days to the other students and teachers in the school. And sure enough, it was the projects—spaced inconsistently and piled on top of regular homework—that nearly did us in. Three of them were clumped together in the space of five weeks in the spring term when, as my daughter put it, kids have “had it with the torture of school.” To be fair, the teacher allocated class time to the projects, but often project time encroached on core subjects such as math and grammar, so more homework came home in those subjects. Moreover, class time was not allocated to the building of temples or eyeballs or machines; parents were responsible for supplying materials, and were expected to provide space and time at home for their children to complete all of the arts and crafts components. As a result, my daughters had little choice but to spend multiple weekends—including “days of significance” and holidays, such as Passover, Easter, Mother's Day and Victoria Day—working on various elements of assigned projects.

Frustrated and confused by the contradiction between the new policy and the homework we were experiencing, I decided to do a little investigating. I asked several people—the principal of my daughters' school, the superintendent of our particular school district, and my local school Trustee—a simple question: Is the homework policy a set of voluntary guidelines, or is it binding? The answer, it turns out, is not simple. Howard Goodman, school Trustee for my area, summed up the confusion when he answered: “somewhere in between.” Both he and John Chasty, the area Superintendent, insisted that schools are expected to comply with the new policy, and that responsibility for implementation lies with principals and teachers. However, as Goodman reminded me in an email, the TDSB is “a highly decentralized organization which works hard to be responsive to . . . local conditions.” In other words, the board tolerates a certain latitude in the interpretation of its policies in order to empower schools and teachers to respond flexibly to the needs of students.

I began to wonder whether the TDSB counts French immersion—along with other enrichment programs such as gifted classes—as a local condition necessitating a “liberal” interpretation of the homework policy. Not so, according to Lyn Gaetz, principal of my daughters' school. The new recommendations, Gaetz told me, were well received by teachers at the school. She explained that she meets with the teaching staff yearly to discuss the policy and to monitor its implementation. No program is exempt, but Gaetz did acknowledge the challenges the school has faced reducing homework in French immersion.

My sense from talking to teaching staff is that most of them—French-immersion teachers included—believe they are complying with the new policy. And returning to the document itself, I see how this belief is enabled by a discernible vagueness of wording. For example, in reference to the early elementary years, the policy notes the “strong connection between reading to or with elementary children every day . . . and student achievement” and goes on to encourage regular reading at home, among other family activities. One would be hard pressed to object to such a recommendation, but its lack of specificity allows for some bizarre interpretations. The teacher of a third-grader I know seems to have interpreted it as an endorsement of reading logs. As followers of stophomework are well aware, reading logs are a discredited form of homework which often instill in children a loathing rather than a love of reading. Yet so convinced is this teacher of the value of reading logs that she instructs her students to complete them during major holidays, such as Christmas, a demand clearly in conflict with the new policy.

Another troubling area of vagueness is the section on homework in the later elementary years. Time guidelines for these pivotal grades (3-6) are conspicuous by their absence. And the one directive specified—namely,“Homework may begin to take the form of independent work”—is so vague it barely counts as a directive at all. I suspect it is commonly interpreted to mean projects, since projects are considered a more creative, engaging form of homework than, say, drill work. This may be true, although, as most parents know, many projects are comprised of arts and crafts-type busywork. Even the most educationally valid projects are labour-intensive, especially when they are assigned as group endeavours, which adds an element of scheduling chaos to the mix. And when projects are used as the principle means of covering the curriculum, as they seemed to be for much of the spring term in my daughters' class . . . well, before you know it you have temples collapsing and tearful children rebuilding them in dark basements on brilliant spring afternoons.

Which leads back to the initial question: what went wrong? Has the Toronto policy failed to achieve true homework reform? One could argue that my experience with French immersion is atypical, and that it renders invalid any answer I might offer to such a question. But one could also reasonably view French immersion as a kind of microcosm of elementary education in Ontario, a system characterized by an over-stuffed curriculum (the phrase “mile wide and inch deep” comes to mind) and an over-reliance on standardized tests as a measure of quality. In French immersion, as elsewhere in the system, homework overload and curriculum are inextricably intertwined. To paraphrase blogger Fred Baumgarten, who has written about this interconnection on his blog Homework Headaches, when you pull at the thread of one, you inevitably catch the other, and the whole overwrought educational fabric threatens to unravel.

But issues of curriculum are beyond the scope of this post. With respect to the homework policy itself, ambiguous language and inconsistent enforcement notwithstanding, I regard the April 2008 revisions as a huge step in the right direction. I applaud Frank Bruni for instigating them. The TDSB also deserves credit for taking the issue of homework overload seriously enough to review the research and change the policy. However, the last two years have taught me some crucial lessons. Policies—even well-meaning, progressive ones—must be seen as works in progress, in continual need of re-evaluation. More importantly, I have learned that passivity—my own in particular—is part of the problem. A change in practice does not flow seamlessly from a change in policy. It is up to all of us to remain vigilant and advocate for the the ultimate stakeholders in any educational system: children.

Friday, April 15, 2011

All-Day Kindergarten

Recently, I wrote a guest post for, a website devoted to promoting active, outdoor play for children. The post concerns all-day kindergarten, a program which the government here in Ontario has committed to providing for all 4- and 5-year-olds in the province by the year 2014. You can check it out here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Letter to a science teacher

If I haven't blogged for a while, it's because my husband and I and the twins have recently taken two trips: one pleasurable, to Quebec for March break, and the other an all too familiar (figurative) journey to school-project-hell and back. I've written about how and why I dislike school projects previously on this blog, so I won't repeat my arguments here. What I do want to do is share a letter I wrote earlier in the school year (November 2010) to my daughters' science teacher, outlining my concerns about a project he assigned. I was worried that this was to be the first of many unreasonable, pedagogically questionable projects, and after last year's experience with project overload, I decided to see if I could nip the problem in the bud by detailing my concerns to the teacher. This is the letter (with minor deletions and changes to protect the innocent)I wrote:

Dear Mr. X:

We are the parents of J and E in your Grade 6 science class. J and E are enjoying science so far, but we do have a few concerns about the previous project and the one new one that has recently been assigned. While the girls were working on the habitat project, a number of issues and problems arose that we would like to share with you in the hope that these problems can be addressed, and possibly resolved in time to make a difference for the second project.

The scope of the habitat project: We found that the scope of the habitat project was a little too broad. We believe that 11-year-olds do not possess the developmental tools to take a large subject and circumscribe it so that it becomes a workable, doable project. Since our daughters seemed initially to be at a loss regarding how to limit their topic, we directed them to ask you for more details regarding what was expected. They told us that your response to this, and to most questions, was: “what do you think?” While we understand the pedagogical goal inherent in this type of response, it was not particularly helpful to our daughters, since what they were looking for was specific guidance on the amount and type of work expected. Like many of the students in your grade six class, our daughters are hard-working, high-achieving kids who have been taught to strive to meet expectations. When the expectations are not clear (and unfortunately, the Rubrics section for this assignment on your blog was blank), they feel disoriented. Since no specific guidance on the number of plants and animals to be covered was provided, we took the liberty of giving our daughters some suggestions. Both girls chose to cover more than 15 animals, and since they also felt (although, again, they were not sure) that they should write several sentences about each animal (along with the required classification), the project took them a very long time to complete at home. The girls spent the better part of two consecutive weekends and multiple evenings working on this project. This made it a very stressful endeavour both for them, and for all of us as a family, as very little non-project activities could be planned for those weekends/evenings.

Time in class: We do realize that you gave the class . . . time at the computers to work on this project, and we are thankful for that. However, you may not realize that many of your students—our girls included—are not proficient on computers, as they do not use them regularly, either at home or anywhere else. So, for instance, when they research topics at school, they know how to save the information, but they do not know how to print it, at least not in the manner you suggested: i.e., by first copying the information into a Word document. They would need step-by-step guidance on how to do this, in order to learn to do it efficiently, or at all, and they have not received such guidance.

There are two other reasons why the time given to work on the project in class was not particularly productive for J and E: they cannot type with any degree of speed or fluidity, and they have not been taught how to transfer their work to a memory stick, so that they can bring it home for final formatting, etc. So any actual written work done on the computers at school had to be repeated at home, which was not a productive use of time, and greatly added to the hours required to complete this project.

Bibliography: We believe that the requirement of a bibliography at this grade or age, should be accompanied not simply by a reference to [board] guidelines (which are clearly geared towards high school students, and are confusing and out of date, to boot), but by detailed instruction on why one includes a bibliography, how to put together a bibliography, where to find copyright information in a book, or an encyclopedia, etc. The [board] guide, for instance, does not include a single sample entry for a Wikipedia article, despite the fact that Wikipedia is the source children use most frequently for research projects. The girls told us that you commented that students should include authors in their bibliographies. Given this requirement, perhaps during the research phase, you could direct the children, not only to the computer, but also to books, where they will indeed find actual authors, and where the copyright information is more straightforward. In any case, we believe that, since classifications were requested for every plant and animal mentioned in this project, the required bibliography was beyond the ability of most 11-year-old children to complete independently.

I should add, that J and E enjoyed working on their projects, and they both learned a lot. They are also excited about the topics they have chosen for their next project, In general, they are enthusiastic about science class, and we don't want that enthusiasm to dampen because of problems they encountered while working on the first project. That is why we have decided—respectfully, and in the spirit of constructive dialogue—to bring these concerns to your attention.

We are available to discuss these issues further, either in person, via email or by telephone.


J and E's parents

I delivered this letter (not without some trepidation) to Mr X's mailbox, and a few days later he called me. I was nervous about speaking to him because on past occasions, teachers with whom I've raised concerns or to whom I have written notes such as this one, have sometimes become defensive, which leads to an unproductive exchange. (I should note that I accept my share of responsibility for failed communications; it is quite possible that the way I spoke or worded my written messages rubbed the teachers the wrong way. This is something I'm continually working on.) But I needn't have been nervous. Mr. X was extremely gracious and receptive to my concerns. He tried to address them all individually, noting, for example, that he thought my daughters' class had been taught how to create proper bibliographies in grades 4 and 5 (which was not the case). He also admitted that he'd made some assumptions about the kids' knowledge of computers and research that he should probably not have made. We ended the conversation amicably, with him assuring me that he would try to do things differently for future projects.

The good news is, he did change things—a lot! Since I wrote that letter, for instance, there have been no more take-home projects. All work in science is now done in class, and it includes a balance of research and group experiments, such as designing a small electric car! Since I did not want to overload Mr X, I had not even mentioned in my letter another of my concerns: namely, the lack of experiments in what was, after all, a science class. But the letter seemed to propel him to re-think everything, and now the class is completely different. At the beginning of the year, the girls were complaining that in science class, they were either plopped in front of the computer (researching) or watching boring movies. They actually disliked the class intensely and, in fact, instructed me to change the second sentence of my letter from "J and E are enjoying science class so far" to "J and E are enjoying science so far." Now it is, hands-down, their favourite class. They especially enjoy the experiments, and one of them has even expressed a new interest in becoming a scientist or at least in continuing to find out "how things work."

And the bad news? Mr. X only teaches the girls science. Their core teacher, Mr. Y., is the one who assigned the social studies project that resulted in our recent journey to homework hell. The project displayed all of the problems I detailed in my letter to Mr. X, and then some (for instance, a completely useless "artistic" component). So what to do? Do I write a similar letter to the core teacher? Ask to meet with him? It's tricky because he is my daughters' main teacher, and I've already had to approach him concerning several other, non-project related issues (such as incompressible math questions!). I do not want to alienate him or stress him out, but I also do not want him to assign another project such as the one we just suffered through. The girls learned next to nothing from it, which is perhaps the most important reason I object to context-less, single-focus research projects for 11-yr-olds (and is itself the topic for another post!). Any ideas regarding what my next steps, should be would be greatly appreciated.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Semi-Private Schools

A long time ago—in another life, it seems—my husband and I found ourselves looking to buy a house in the greater Boston area. During this ultimately fruitless period of house-hunting, our real estate agent accompanied us on numerous expeditions to quaint urban neighbourhoods and not-so-quaint neighbouring suburbs. In her attempt to sell us on a particular house, the agent would invariably say something like, "The local school is wonderful—very high test scores." We were surprised by this, because we were quite obviously childless, and had never expressed the slightest interest in children or schools. We informed our agent that proximity to schools, good or bad, did not matter to us, that we were more concerned with proximity to decent restaurants and bookstores. She ignored us and continued to rattle off test scores of the schools close to the houses we viewed. It must be an American thing, we figured, something to do with the inequitable way schools are funded in the US. We were pretty certain school test scores were not of equal concern to house-hunters in Canada.

It took us many years—during which we became parents to twins, moved in a panic back to Canada, and slowly realized that babies grow up to be kids who eventually attend school—to realize how wrong we were.

Recently, the Toronto Star published the results of an investigation into fundraising disparities among public schools in certain boards within the province of Ontario. I was not surprised that our neighbourhood junior school was one of the highest-ranked schools in Toronto in terms of money raised through fundraising. I was, however, somewhat taken aback to discover that during the year being studied (2008-2009), our school raised—through a combination of school and parent fundraising—$252,072 more than the elementary school at the bottom of the Toronto School Board list. (See full report here.) What is a person who believes in public education to make of such an obscene discrepancy? How is it even possible?

Two explanations spring to mind: first, the government of Ontario no longer adequately funds public education, and has not done so since the Harris years, despite promises by the governing liberals to amend the flawed funding formula introduced by the conservatives; second, perhaps as a result of its decision to continue underfunding education, the government has chosen not to set limits on fundraising by, for instance, restricting the uses to which parent-raised money can be put. In my daughters' school, some of the money raised by the parent association goes to programs such as "Scientists in the School" and "Learning Through the Arts''—curriculum-related programs whose presence in a school should not be tied to the availability of parent-generated funds.

But the fundraising issue is also part of a larger picture of education in Ontario (and elsewhere in North America) that has emerged in the last few decades. Specifically, it is an integral part of a cycle of inequity in which (as my Boston real estate agent understood) standardized tests scores also figure prominently. Before the advent of standardized tests such as EQAO in Ontario, inequality among schools—including differences in parental involvement and fundraising—no doubt existed, but standardized testing has amplified existing differences through its direct effect on real estate values. A high-scoring school drives up surrounding property values, which leads to parents-of-means moving into the neighbourhood, contributing time, energy and money to the school, which in turn leads to even higher test scores . . . and on and on the cycle goes.

The result is the creation of a tripartite system of schooling in Ontario, consisting of public, private, and what people in my neighbourhood jokingly refer to as "semi-private" schools. In a semi-private school, private money, to the tune of more than a million dollars for some high schools in the province, is funnelled into the public school, making up for any deficiencies caused by inadequate government funding. Well-heeled parents who contribute the money are thrilled to save the $28,000 in private school fees. Indeed, for these parents it's a fantastic deal. For the parents of students attending the province's truly public schools, not so much.