Sunday, January 30, 2011

Camp and Play

Talk is cheap. Talk about the value of unstructured play for kids seems especially cheap these days. Cheap and abundant in the media and blogosphere, invaluable and scarce in the "real world."

An example: a few days ago, I received as an insert with my daily Globe and Mail, the glossy Our Kids Go To Camp summer camp guide (also available online). It seems a bit odd to receive such a guide in January, when the temperature is minus 24 with the wind chill. But I suppose it makes a certain sense: during the season of SAD we're more likely to pore over the beautiful pictures, fantasizing fondly about mosquito infested woods and heatwaves that make you actually want to take a dip in a freezing northern lake. Plus, from a practical perspective, the camp guide, which lists most overnight and day camps in Ontario (and some in Quebec), allows parents to plan in advance to ensure that they pick the right camp for their child, and that they enroll him or her early to avoid disappointment.

This year's guide, like those of past years, is full of articles extolling the benefits of camp for kids. There are, for example, a series of mini-interviews in which prominent people—ranging from reporter Jane Taber to entrepreneur Seth Godin—talk about their camp experience. There are also short informative articles about the various ways in which camp benefits kids. One short piece in particular by Lisa Van de Ven caught my eye. Entitled "The Value of Play," it begins with a statement about today's play-deprived kids:

Kids just want to have fun—and they need more of it, too. Many children today simply don’t get enough of unstructured playtime. “If you look at time in school, time at home, time watching TV, those things have either stayed consistent or gone up,” says Michelle Brownrigg, chief executive of Active Healthy Kids Canada. “But active playtime has decreased.”
No argument there. The article goes on to state:

Camp gives children the playtime they need while encouraging creativity and social engagement. “What’s really unique about the camp environment—whether it’s a day camp or an overnight camp—is the opportunity for kids to explore being active in creative ways that aren’t as adult-driven,” Brownrigg says.
Here's where I disagree. In a piece I posted last summer entitled Camp-Keep-Me-Busy, I argued the exact opposite: i.e., that the problem with many camps today is, they offer the same kind of overly-structured days filled with adult-directed activities as kids experience the rest of the year. The only difference is the type of structured activities offered and—in some instances—the natural backdrop.

If you have a minute, read the camp post and let me know what you think.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ontario's new School Food and Beverage Policy

As I made clear in a previous post, I am no fan of the ubiquitous "Pizza Lunch" fundraiser in Ontario's public schools. My principal objection is that kids eat far too much commercial pizza as it is. When I was a kid, no one served pizza at birthday parties; many kids (me included) didn't even like it, mainly because industrial pizza, which is the kind served most often at schools and parties, is simply boring, blah food: salt dressed up in dough, stringy cheese substance and tomato sauce. Nowadays, kids' palates have been trained from a young age to like humdrum salty foods. (My children initially disliked pizza, but after the umpteenth birthday party, their palates succumbed to peer pressure, and now they like it.)

Given my feelings about Junk Lunch, as I dubbed it in my previous post, how could I not be pleased with the newly announced provincial School Food and Beverage Policy? This is how the policy works (from the ministry's press release):
The nutrition standards make it easy for schools to determine which foods they can and cannot sell. Candy, energy drinks and fried foods are among the items that will no longer be sold in schools. In addition, 80 per cent of the new school menu must include products with the highest levels of essential nutrients and lowest amounts of fat, sugar and sodium. This includes fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grain breads. As well, 20 per cent of the new menu may include products that have slightly higher amounts of fat, sugar, and sodium. These items include bagels and cheese.
So far so good. It's difficult to disagree with a policy whose goal is the improvement of the nutritional quality of food sold in schools. But will the new standards prove to be the death knell for the hated (by me) Pizza Lunch?

Probably not. For one thing, the policy allows for 10 "special event" days during which less healthy foods can be sold on school premises. I can't prove it, but I would bet that this exemption was granted in recognition of schools' deeply ingrained habit of fund raising via Pizza Lunches. My daughters' school, for instance, holds Pizza Lunches every other week which, given the school calendar and holiday schedule, amounts to around twenty Pizza Lunches per year. So, under the new rules, ten of these "special events" would be permitted. That would be ten too many in my view.

But the special events exemption is not the only aspect of the new policy that concerns me. When one looks closely at the actual standards being applied in the "healthier foods" (80%) category, it becomes clear that the bar for "healthy" has not been set particularly high. Consider the standard for sodium, for example. The new policy (as laid out in the ministry's "quick reference" guide) states that in order for "entrees" such as "frozen pizza, sandwiches, pasta or hot dogs" to qualify as part of the 80% category, they must contain less than or equal to 960 mg sodium per serving. That's a lot of sodium for a child's lunch entree (i.e., not including sides or beverage). After all, the total recommended sodium intake is 1,200 mg per day for children ages 4-8, and 1,500 mg for children 9 and up. (See here.)

Even more troubling is the fact that the new sodium limit is relatively easy for pizza lunch suppliers to comply with—or rather to claim that they are in compliance with. Pizza Pizza has already circulated press releases stating that their pizza complies with the new Ontario rules governing food sold in schools in terms of trans fat, sodium, protein content, etc. When it comes to sodium, however, this claim is misleading. According to the nutritional information on their website, a slice of Pizza Pizza plain cheese pizza contains 580-590 mg of sodium; thus, two slices contain 1160 mg sodium, an amount that clearly exceeds the new provincial standards. The question is, how many children who enroll in pizza lunch programs eat just one slice of pizza? Our school offers children (for different prices) a choice of one, two, or three slices of pizza. From what I gather, some of the youngest children—in Grades 1 or 2—opt for the one-slice option, but the vast majority of students participating in the program choose the two- or three-slice options. (And need I add that the "snack" offered with the pizza is a commercial cookie or chips, which piles on even more sodium?)

My point here is not really to quibble about how and why pizza—or the fundraisers that revolve around this particular junk food—does or does not fit into the new 80% (healthier) or 20% (less healthy) categories. There is a larger point to be made: instead of trying to tinker with existing practices to render them compliant with new (not very exacting) ministry standards, schools should consider using the opportunity of new standards to inaugurate completely different programs. Scrap the Pizza Lunch! End the questionable practice of partnering with fast food companies for fund raising. Instead of Pizza Lunches, why not hold Gourmet Lunches, in which schools expose children to healthy foods from a variety of cultures? The possibilities are endless, but they require that we—school boards, administrators, parents—kick the habit: that is, that we break, once and for all, our unhealthy addiction to fast, easy and cheap food for kids.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Keyboard vs. Cursive—Update

Almost a year ago I wrote a post in which I complained that from Grade 4 onwards, my daughters have been expected to hand in assignments typed—i.e., printed off the computer—without having been properly or thoroughly taught to keyboard. I also explained the curious, parallel decline in the teaching of cursive, a situation which has engendered a whole cohort of elementary students who can neither keyboard nor write (as opposed to print) with any degree of efficiency or competency. Near the end of the post I said: "I've sent an email to the [Ontario] Ministry asking when and why cursive was dropped from the curriculum and how and when formal instruction in keyboarding will replace it. I'll let you know if/when I receive a response."

Well, the ministry of education did respond. (It took them a while, but not as long as the timing of this update might suggest!) In the first emailed response, a ministry spokesperson said:
Students begin developing their keyboarding skills in elementary school where they are encouraged to use computers for a variety of purposes throughout the different subjects in their program. . . . In fact, a key component of the Grades 1-8: Language, 2006 (revised) and the English, Grades 9-12, 2007 (revised) curriculum documents is the inclusion of a Media Literacy strand for all grades starting in Grade 1 and continuing through to all Grade 9-12 core courses. One of the four overall expectations in this strand is “create a variety of media texts for different purposes and audiences, using appropriate forms, conventions, and techniques”. This offers students the opportunities to explore multi-media technologies.
The spokeperson (whose position is actually director of the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Branch) went on to detail the various expectations for the Media Literacy Strand for each grade. For example in Grade 5, she notes:
students are expected to: produce media texts for specific purposes and audiences, using a few simple media forms and appropriate conventions and techniques (e.g., an album of camera shots showing the different angles and distances and commenting on their uses; a poem, announcement, or flyer produced electronically by combining word-processed text with pictures and/or photographs; a mock television commercial for a favourite cereal, toy, or book; a newspaper article that includes a photograph and headline…).
What struck me in all of her descriptions and explanations of the curriculum, most of which are taken from ministry curriculum documents (available in their entirety here) were two words: "expected" and "or." Students in various grades are "expected," for example, to produce certain "media texts," but they can accomplish this by creating "a poem, an announcement or a "flyer produced electronically by combining word-processed text with pictures" (emphasis added). In other words, in elementary school at least, the "expectation" that kids learn keyboarding is so weak as to border on optional.

In secondary school, the spokesperson goes on to explain, the "expectations" continue. For example in Grade 10 English, "students are expected to: use a wide range of appropriate presentation features, including print and script, fonts, graphics, and layout" in their written work; one example given is "word-process[ing of] the final copy of a short narrative." In high school, there are also Business Studies courses offered that specifically teach keyboarding skills. But when I asked in a followup email if these courses are mandatory, the ministry spokesperson said they are not.

As for cursive, I was told that, contrary to what I implied in my original post, it had not been dropped from the curriculum; in fact, similar "expectations" obtain for this dying skill. In the Language curriculum for Grades 5 through 8, for example, "
students are expected to: use a range of appropriate elements of effective presentation in the finished product, including print, script, different fonts, graphics, and layout (e.g., use legible printing and cursive writing…)."

In followup communications, it became clear why the curriculum documents use the language of expectations and options. The spokeswoman stated:

Curriculum expectations are mandated by the ministry of education. Teachers plan units of study, develop a variety of teaching approaches, and select appropriate resources to address the mandated curriculum expectations, taking into account the needs and abilities of the students in their classes.
OK, I understand this. I get that the ministry is trying to allow for locally-sensitive interpretations and implementations of the provincial curriculum. However, there are expectations that reading and math be taught, and there are whole mandated courses devoted to teaching them. I realize we are living in a time of transition, but on the whole issue of technology, it seems to me as if the ministry is trying to have it both ways: we expect that it will be taught, but we don't know or care too much how that might be accomplished.

I'm not advocating the introduction of entire technology courses for elementary kids. In fact, I'm of the (no-doubt) minority opinion that most technology—educational and otherwise—adds very little to elementary education. But if schools are going to ask that kids as young as 9 hand in printed assignments, then they should find better ways—with ministry support—to teach technology skills. At the moment, I believe that the ministry and individual school boards are relying on parents to teach basic keyboarding and computer skills. (All of my daughters' friends who can keyboard with any degree of efficiency have learned and perfected the skill at home.) But this reliance raises a whole set of problems, income-related access to technology being the most obvious of them.

On a more positive note, although my daughters' keyboarding skills have not improved much this year, their handwriting has taken off. Their grade 6 teacher re-introduced pen and pencil writing at the beginning of the school year—after a gap of two years—and has since insisted that all classwork be completed in cursive. I've heard the arguments that cursive is obsolete and should no longer be taught. But at least one study suggests otherwise (see here) and I, for one, am happy that my children—however technologically-challenged they may be—can now produce a signature of their own—in cursive!

(See also Keyboard vs. Cursive)