Monday, October 29, 2012

From All-About-Me to We: Musings on Kids, Parents, Teachers and Bill 115

I wasn't going to write about it. "It" being Bill 115 (subtitled "Putting Students First"), passed by the recently-prorogued Ontario legislature, a bill that imposes an austerity contract on a majority of the province's 115, 000 teachers, cutting their sick days in half and removing (for the duration of the contract) their right to strike. I wasn't going to write about it, not only because it's an incendiary topic for parents and teachers alike, one that is best approached with the kind of care and nuance I wasn't sure I could muster, but also because, as my reader(s) may have noticed, I've taken a break from blogging to work on other projects.

But, then, the other day a tweet came through my stream that read something like this: "10-yr-old DD has started a petition to protest against lack of extra-curriculars. I'm so proud of her!"

This tweet (a paraphrase) epitomizes the position that has dominated the discussion of the Bill among parents since union leaders invited teachers to protest against the province's imposition of a contract by declining to supervise extra-curricular activities. Despite the fact that, by the terms of teacher contracts, participation in extra-curriculars is voluntary, parents and kids have been vocal in their denunciation of this action. Many have made the point that kids should not be used as pawns in the conflict between the province and teachers. Columnists and pundits have jumped on the bandwagon, bemoaning the lack of extra-curriculars and, more recently, condemning the suggestion from unions that teachers further express their displeasure with the imposed contract by restricting their comments on the November progress reports to one sentence. What one hears most often in the discussions about the current impasse between the government and the teachers is the sage-sounding admonishment to everyone involved to take a deep breath and remember: it's all about the children.

But -- and this is why I've decided to end my silence, because someone has to say it -- IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT THE CHILDREN. In a democracy, an education system is "about" everyone. It concerns and affects young and old, parents and non-parents, teachers and kids. It seems simple enough, but it bears emphasizing: the stakeholders of a society's education system are all of us. Without an educated population, we not only have no workers to pay taxes and support the young and old but, more importantly, we lack an informed citizenry to protect and expand our democratic institutions and ideals. Without a well-paid, well-respected teaching body, the education system simply does not -- cannot -- exist. So instead of patting our kids on the back when they decide to protest the lack of their favourite extra-curricular (which, we might remind them, is called "extra" for a reason), or stepping in to run the activities ourselves, we should be taking the opportunity to shift the focus from "me to we," and teach kids something about the role of education in a democracy.

One way to approach such a lesson might be to talk about the context in which this labour dispute is occurring. I believe that it's incumbent upon parents -- regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum -- to supply this context, for the simple reason that teachers are unable to broach the topic lest they be accused of partisanship. We could begin by talking about how the current labour situation in Ontario fits into the larger picture of recent educational trends in North America: namely, the "reform movement," with its emphasis on boosting "achievement" through increased standardized testing and "accountability." We could talk about how within such a picture, teachers are often painted as part of the problem -- as scapegoats (a term worth discussing) for the socio-political problems of poverty and the chronic underfunding of education --  rather than as a crucial part of the solution. We could then back up and broaden the focus to help kids situate Bill 115 within the context of labour history. We could talk about how ordinary people, working in disparate sectors of the Canadian economy have fought hard for the freedom to strike and the right to engage in collective bargaining with their employers. We could talk about how the federal government has infringed on these rights in recent years by imposing back-to-work legislation in such sectors as transportation and the civil service (e.g., postal workers). We could then bring the discussion back to the current situation in Ontario, specifically to Bill 115, taking care to point out that, as an Act that imposes a contract upon a majority of teachers in the province, it has removed a right -- the right of unions to negotiate the terms of employment -- that most people, regardless of their political persuasion, regard as a cornerstone of modern democratic economies. In addition, we should stress that since the Act proscribes striking or working-to-rule, minor actions such as declining to supervise sports teams and clubs, are among the few avenues for protest left open to teachers.

One could go into a lot more detail and make the discussion far more interesting by bringing up salient events in Canadian history, such as the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 or the Windsor Strike of 1945, the latter of which led to greater acceptance of unions and collective bargaining (see Rand Formula). But the exact content of the context-supplying conversation we have with our kids is not as important as is the simple fact of having it.  If, afterwards, they decide that they still want to protest against missing extracurriculars or report card comments, then so be it and more power to them. At least they will be acting from a position of knowledge, which is all we can expect of kids -- or citizens of any age -- in a democracy.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Terms of Parent (Dis-)Engagement (or Happy Back to School!)

 Parent engagement matters. Study after study has shown us that student achievement improves when parents play an active role in their children's education.  — Ontario Ministry of Education website

As I write this, it's late August, a time when Type-C parents like me eschew newspapers, avoid malls, shoe stores and business supply shops, and resort to holing themselves up in their bedrooms watching episodes of Breaking Bad, or reading books with titles like How to Live Well in a Cave in Greece (okay, I made that up)—all to escape the tsunami of back-to-school hype, and the accompanying trite advice. (How many times do I need to be told to set up a quiet spot for Joey to do his busywork?)

Then there are the Type-A and -B parents. These are the mothers and fathers who not only willingly take their progeny shopping for things they may or may not need, but who also spend time thinking about what a term like "parent engagement" might mean for them in the coming year. But, my aversion to shopping notwithstanding, I do have something in common with these conscientious parents: this year I, too, find myself thinking about parent engagement.

Or, more precisely, dis-engagement. Because, I confess, at the moment I feel more dis-engaged than engaged in my kids' school life. And I think I've figured out why. Part of it is the consequence of my daughters' having made the transition from elementary to middle school. At this stage, some levelling off of parent participation in schooling is both inevitable and sane for both parents and educators. Middle schools simply don't need as many parents hanging around as elementary schools. But I'm not really talking about physical presence in the school. In the educational research I've been reading (between episodes of Breaking Bad!), "engagement" is often distinguished from "involvement," with the latter tending to be used as a short-hand for volunteerism and participation in school events.*

To me, engagement involves an attitude of interest or concern, a sense of investment in schools and a belief in one's ability as a parent to make a difference in the educational spheres our kids inhabit.  My revelation into my feeling of disengagement was occasioned by this post, a link to which recently came through my Twitter feed. The piece, by Marilyn Mitchell-Price, a respected educational psychologist who blogs for Psychology Today, concerns the issue of parent involvement in the digital age, and contains much useful information, but what I zeroed in on was this statement : "family engagement is a mandate of U.S. education reform." By way of elaboration, Mitchell-Price links to an article summarizing the section of the No Child Left Behind Act dealing with Title I funding; it is this section of the Act which sets forth guidelines for the parental involvement initiatives it mandates.

Suddenly, my inchoate understanding of my parental disengagement became slightly more choate. Parent engagement could and perhaps should be politically neutral, but reading about the interconnections between parent involvement and NCLB drove home to me something that I hadn't seriously considered: both the concept and the implementation of "parent engagement" have been used to further the goals of the "educational reform" movement in the US, and to some extent in Canada. The two most salient features of "reform," as I understand it, are an increased reliance on standardized testing as a means to the chimerical end of "accountability," and a move towards parental "choice," which often denotes varying degrees of privatization within an ostensibly public system. On a practical level, in the context of educational reform, parent engagement becomes conflated with "involvement" of a very concrete nature (volunteerism, fund-raising, homework help, etc.), which relieves government of some of its fiscal responsibilities. On a theoretical level, parent engagement initiatives function as a low-key means for governments to enlist a powerful segment of the electorate—parents—as allies in their reformist agendas.

Evidence of how important parent engagement has become—as both a concept and set of practices—to departments and ministries of education is not hard to find. The US Department of Education website features a Parent Involvement page, rich with links to policies, research, guidelines and resources (including, not coincidentally, resources pertaining to "school choice"). In my home province of Ontario, the Liberal government requires (as of 2011) each board to establish a Parent Involvement Committee (PIC) to "to support, encourage and enhance meaningful parent involvement at the board level to improve student achievement and well-being." The government supplies funding to PICs both directly and through the allocation of what it calls Parents Reaching Out (PRO) grants. Such initiatives are perhaps well-intentioned but it is clear, from even a cursory glance at the pertinent government web pages, that they are not politically—or even educationally—neutral. The FAQ on PICs, for example, clearly states that the committees' purpose is to support the government's education vision:  
How do PICs help the education system?
The positive results of a genuine partnership between parents and schools include improved student achievement, reduced absenteeism, better behaviour and increased confidence among parents in their children’s schooling.
The unstated premise here is that such results are in fact positive; that, for instance, "better behaviour" and "improved student achievement"—measured in Ontario through EQAO testing—are worthy goals of an education system. They may be worthy goals in the reformist understanding of education (whose purpose is to produce workers for the "global economy"—a topic for another post), but where does that leave parents who don't support "reform" as the word has been defined by educrats both north and south of the border? Should they give up on the idea of parent engagement altogether? Or might there be a way to re-conceive the term and "engage" differently?

I hate to invoke Foucault (yet again!) on this blog, but when I reflect on parent engagement I can't help but think about discourses of power, and how in Foucauldian terms all such discourses are inherently contradictory. The contradictions inherent in the concept and practice of parent engagement are in fact readily discernible. Our "voices" as parents are being solicited on the assumption that we agree with the bigger picture of education being promoted in part through that solicitation, but the space opened up by the idea of engagement—the idea of a "genuine partnership between parents and schools"—is one that could conceivably be exploited to "voice" alternative visions of education.

As to how one goes about that, well that's the tricky part. True to Type-C parenting form, I'm more of an armchair parent activist, than . . . the other kind. But I have been wondering lately, what would happen if a bunch of parents on a given PIC decided that their mandate was to advocate for the abolition of EQAO? At the local level, what would be the result if one joined an established school council committee and tried to subvert its purpose from within? I may actually find out the answer to this, as I have recently volunteered to serve on the Safe and Caring School committee at my daughters' middle school. I've been told that this committee concerns itself mainly with traffic problems around the school and lockdown procedures. But to me, a "safe and caring school" could mean something different. I've decided that it might be worth my while to attempt to practice parent engagement in such a way as to make the committee—and engagement in general—meaningful to me.

*See Parent Engagement: Creating a Shared World, by Debbie Pushor. (Thanks to Sheila Stewart for sharing this and many other useful links. See also her blog for further resources and commentary on the issue of parent engagement.)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Middle School, Mid-Way

After the first day of middle school last September, E came home, flung herself on her bed and wept. When I asked her what was wrong, she was uncharacteristically inarticulate. "I hate school," she said between sobs. E has never been a fan of school. Too many aspects of it either rub her the wrong way or simply aren't geared to her introverted personality. Nonetheless, after six years at her elementary school, she'd made peace with the routines, rhythms and strictures of school and had even found the occasional pleasure in it. But Grade 7 in our catchment of the Toronto District School Board means a new school, a "middle" school accommodating approximately 600 kids in Grades 7 and 8, from multiple feeder schools. For the last two weeks of summer, E had been dreading the first day at this new school, about which she'd heard mostly bad things.

Now, as she lay on her bed facing the wall, I pressed her for details about her first day, wondering if something specific — an unkind word from a teacher or fellow student, perhaps — had caused this reaction. "No," she told me, "I just don't like the environment."

I found her use of the word "environment" interesting. It's not a word we use often when we talk about schools, yet I think most adults would acknowledge that in their own lives "environment" — be it physical, social or psychological — is of utmost importance. What was it, I wondered, about the environment of E and J's middle school that made E weep at the thought of having to return the next day?

At dinner, when she had calmed down, she was able to give me the beginnings of an answer to this question. I learned from both her and J, who was in the same class, that there were many things they didn't like about the school. There were minor physical irritants — for instance, lockers crammed so close together that kids could not open them without blocking access to the adjacent locker or banging their neighbour with the metal door. Then there were the combination locks. The kids were not given adequate instruction on how to use these locks and the resulting confusion caused many of them undue stress during the disorienting rush of that first day.

But as we talked about the locker situation, I realized that it was symptomatic of a deeper anxiety on J and E's part. They told me that in home room, and during the assembly held in the gym, the rules about how and when students could access their lockers were spelled out. They were told that they had to remember which subject binders and text books they needed for a given morning or afternoon, because under no circumstance were they allowed to visit their locker between classes. The adults at the school, including the principal and the various teachers, laid down this and many other rules that first day. Grade 7 was no picnic, they warned. There would be homework, lots of it, and students would have to learn "time management skills" if they hoped to succeed and make a successful transition to high school. Middle school was, the kids inferred, a kind of scholastic purgatory, an austere, rule-bound pit stop en route to the hell of near-adult, high school responsibility.

E wanted no part of it, and it was all we could do to convince her to go back to school the next day. But her second and third days were better. Being surrounded by close friends helped her feel more comfortable and, gradually, over the course of the year, she made peace with the school's "environment." Nonetheless, the trauma of that first day stayed with her, and with us. So it was with considerable interest that I learned (from recent newspaper articles such as this one) that several Ontario school boards are considering reverting to the older K-8 model of elementary school (still in place in some schools in certain boards). The boards' revisiting of this issue is undoubtedly being driven more by the bottom-line issues — eliminating stand-alone middle schools is a money-saving proposition — than by concern for kids' well-being. But it is nonetheless worth considering the non-economic argument put forth by proponents of K-8 schools that kids fare better when they spend their elementary years all in one place.

The gist of this argument is that when it comes to schooling, change is bad for kids, whereas continuity is good. In the studies marshalled in support of this point of view, however, "bad" is synonymous with lower scores on standardized tests, especially math tests.* It may be that lower math scores are indicative of unhappier kids, but the research does not prove it. In fact, most of the research that I could find is noticeably unconcerned with kids' own opinions or feelings about their schooling. In non-academic articles on the topic (for example, this piece in the Toronto Sun), school "environment" is addressed, but only via a shorthand of stereotypes featuring hormone-crazed pre-teens, exclusionary cliques, bullies and the bullied. Conspicuously absent is any discussion of the particular environmental factors that so perturbed E on her first day: an authoritarian teaching and administrative style, the over-emphasis on rules, and the phenomenon that Alfie Kohn has dubbed BGUTI: Better Get Used To It, which he explains as follows:
“You’d better get used to it” not only assumes that life is pretty unpleasant, but that we ought not to bother trying to change the things that make it unpleasant.  Rather than working to improve our schools, or other institutions, we should just get students ready for whatever is to come.  Thus, a middle school whose primary mission is to prepare students for a dysfunctional high school environment soon comes to resemble that high school.  Not only does the middle school fail to live up to its potential, but an opportunity has been lost to create a constituency for better secondary education. 
As Kohn points out above, there is no inherent reason why middle school should be bad for kids. On the contrary, I can think of several reasons why it might be a good thing for pre-teens and early adolescents to spend some time in a transitional space between elementary and high school. For one, it broadens their horizons. Middle schools tend to take students from a large catchment area, which means that in many cases kids are exposed to more ethnic and socio-economic diversity in middle school than in elementary school.

There is also the argument invoked most often by the few remaining champions of middle school: namely, that its "rotary" system provides a stepping stone to high school, thereby cushioning the potentially jolting move from the single-teacher, elementary model to the multiple-teacher, high school model. But the problem with the stepping stone argument is that it morphs too easily and frequently into the kind of BGUTI-ism that Kohn discusses in his article. Every stage of schooling is in some sense transitional, the grades in a stand-alone middle school, perhaps more so than most. But for an environment to be healthy for kids — for a school to be a child-friendly environment — it seems to me that there needs to be a balance between an emphasis on transition and an acceptance of simply being. Twelve-year-olds are not mini-17-year-olds; nor are they merely inchoate future workers in the "global economy." They are 12-year-olds who need to feel that they are not always or not simply preparing for another stage. They are in a stage of childhood, and that stage is worthy of being experienced and enjoyed for its own sake. That is what middle schools could offer to pre- and early teens. A place for them to be who they are. A place where a kid can hang out for two or three years, and gradually get the hang of using lockers and binders and having different (potentially more specialized) teachers for every subject. A place where he or she could experience puberty, along with hundreds of other kids, without it seeming freakish or alarming. A place of being and — or being in — transition.

I know of no such place, no such middle school. Which is a pity.

*See for example, this study from the C.D. Howe Institute.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Conflict Revisited (via Alain de Botton)

Today, Alain de Botton, a writer and public intellectual whom I follow on Twitter, tweeted the following:  
Being a house husband is usually only as attractive to men as it is to the women whose respect they depend upon.
 As a thought experiment, I switched the genders around and wrote this down on a piece of paper:
Being a house wife is usually only as attractive to women as it is to the men whose respect they depend upon.
Hmm, I thought. Doesn't quite have the same ring. In fact, it doesn't work at all because in our culture the words "housewife," "attractive" and "respect" don't belong in the same sentence. Which got me thinking again about Elisabeth Badinter's controversial book, The Conflict. Not long ago, I was invited to comment on the book for the New York Times Motherlode blog, edited by KJ Dell'Antonia. Part of my comment ended up being included in a longer post Dell'Antonia wrote, which incorporated the perspectives of three stay-at-home moms. After reading De Botton's tweet today, I decided I would post my comment in its entirety here. By way of explanation, Dell'Antonia had asked us to consider the book in light of what she termed "The Eternal Internal Mommy Wars." I sent her my response in the form of an email.

Hi KJ,

You said in your email that you hoped someone would work Kate Chopin's
The Awakening into the discussion of The Conflict, and since my studies and degrees have been in English, I thought I should volunteer to use that angle as a potential conversation starter. You cite Chopin's book as evidence that the "conflict" between the mother and the woman, which is the subject of Badinter's book, is eternal. And I can see why you say that. Certainly, the heroine of The Awakening, Edna Pontellier—an upper middle class mother from New Orleans—is faced with a dilemma (or inner conflict) that would be familiar to many of us and still rings true, though the novel was written in 1899. Awakened by an unexpected attraction to someone outside her marriage, she gradually re-examines her life and and considers the options available to her, all of which she finds wanting. These options are represented in the novel by two key secondary characters: Edna's friend, Adèle Ratignolle, an example of what Badinter calls a “true mother,” who tells Edna that she must put her children's needs ahead of her own, and Mademoiselle Reisz, a pianist who is childless and though seemingly fulfilled by her art, is ostracized from society because of the path she has chosen. And, of course, the ending is bleak: Edna, seeing no satisfying resolution to her "conflict," drowns herself in the Gulf of Mexico.

So is the "conflict" of which Badinter writes, and which is the purported cause of the "mommy wars," eternal? Actually, I don't think so. Since the publication of
The Awakening, three waves of feminism have washed over us as a culture (though Badinter seems to consider the third wave largely reactionary). Surely they have had some tangible effect. I do think that the trope of the "natural mother" may be eternal (perhaps in a Jungian sense), but the degree to which that ideal affects individual women varies according to socio-cultural factors. For instance, as you point out, there is in fact no great divide between stay-at-home mothers on the one hand and mothers who work outside the home on the other. It is, as you say, a "continuum," with women crossing over from one side to the other as their life circumstances change.

But on this issue of the origin of the “conflict,” it strikes me that there is a contradiction at the core of Badinter's argument. On the one hand she seems to be saying that economic factors have led to a resurgence of the ideal of the "natural mother": since there are not enough jobs for all potentially employable women, the ideal has re-emerged as a means of both inducing a certain proportion of women to stay in the unpaid labor market (motherhood) and making them feel happy and proud to do so. But alongside this argument, and in tension with it (or so it seemed to me, while reading The Conflict), is a claim that the “naturalist” model of motherhood, which has emerged from essentialist strands in third-wave feminism, is itself to blame for women's new enslavement, whether they work outside the home or not.

For me personally, the socio-economic argument is more persuasive. At the time I got pregnant with twins, my career prospects in academia were grim, and since my husband's salary was sufficient to support us, it was not difficult for me to make the decision to stay home with the babies. (Badinter writes at one point, echoing the thinking of women influenced by the new ideal of motherhood: "How can you take proper care of a baby while you're writing your thesis?” I admit, those were my thoughts exactly!) Once at home I was influenced by the the new ideal of motherhood, in that I felt I had to be on top of every environmental threat (somehow I knew about BPA back in 1999, and ordered glass baby bottles over the internet in preparation for weaning), and involved in every aspect of the girls' care. But even for me, it was not a zero sum game. I accepted certain facets of the ideal and rejected others. I did not co-sleep or breast-feed on demand, though I did breast-feed for eleven months. As the girls got older, I rejected the idea that they had to be involved non-stop in enriching activities, and I encouraged free play instead—in part because it was far easier on me! I think what I'm getting at is that my "internal conflict" not only encompassed and acknowledged external factors, it was accompanied at every stage by a self-awareness (of choices available but not exercised, for instance) that was in part made possible by the three waves of feminism that have occurred since Chopin wrote her seminal (!) novel.

And this brings me to my main problem with Badinter's book (which I should note, I enjoyed reading and found to be full of interesting, thought-provoking propositions): her apparent assumption that mothers—both those at home with their kids and those who work outside the home—are afflicted by a debilitating false consciousness. In her discussion of the rise of "naturalism," for instance, she downplays the significance of science-based environmentalism and the very real concerns that parents share with non-parents about our species' survival on a degraded, warming planet. She also makes the claim that women who choose to have children often don't make the choice consciously or rationally, taking into consideration all the downsides with respect to career potential, romantic life, etc. Well, I did weigh the pros and cons, and I waited until I was 37 to have kids. Friends had told me "prepare to put your life through the shredder," and in some ways they were right. So I was forewarned and fully aware, but I made the decision to go ahead anyway. I love my kids to pieces, of course, but when it comes to having children, one can never know if one has made the right decision, because we can only ever see one of the two possible scenarios playing itself out. Similarly, I can never really know if I made the right decision to stay home with my kids for twelve years, which is why it has never occurred to me to judge women who've made different choices. And today, as I guiltily attempt to carve out more space for myself in an effort to revive a nearly-defunct career, I'm less inclined to judge than ever.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

"The Conflict" (from a 12-year-old's perspective in the form of a Mother's Day poem)

J's Mother's Day card, with this poem hand-written inside, was waiting for me when I woke up this morning:

Why We Have Mother's Day

Have you ever wished to be
Anywhere except with me?
Do you wish you'd take a chance
On a year-long trip to France?

Have you ever wished one day
That you could quit and walk away?
For some days there's just too much
Of things you need to do and such.

And it must drive you up the wall
When people say you've no work at all!
You might even want to pack and go
To places you don't even know.

So that is why we have this day,
To stop you from going away.
For if you did, I couldn't say...
Have a Happy Mother's Day!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

That's So Racist: Irony, Kids and Racism in a (non-)Post-Racial Society

"That's so racist," I heard a friend of my tween daughters say not long ago. She was talking about another girl's preference for white over dark chocolate. Apparently these types of "jokes" are quite common among the girls and boys in my daughters' social circle, and they are uttered by white and minority kids alike. J and E claim not to make such comments (as J explained, "I like to stay safe on such issues"—on which, more later), but they have heard them, and reported them back to me often enough that it's clear they consider them "normal."

I confess I was initially taken aback by the seeming casualness of such remarks. But as I listened to the girls' anecdotes, I began to wonder if perhaps my white liberal, walking-on-eggshell attitude towards race was the problem. After-all, since 2008 when Obama was elected president, many seemingly intelligent people have argued that North America has become a post-racial society; it's not a stretch to believe that such a society would be one in which racial consciousness and any residual racism would be expressed—and undermined—through irony. In fact, I could see how the popularity of comics such as Russell Peters and Chris Rock, who draw heavily on ethnic stereotypes for their humour, could lend credence to the argument that the issue of racism carries less gravitas today than it did when I was a kid. At the very least the success of entertainers like Peters attests to the acceptability of a kind of ironized racist expression—albeit by people of colour themselves, in the context of comedy and entertainment.

So, I reasoned to myself, if we've entered a post-racial era, why probe my daughters about their views pertaining to race and racism? I had broached the issue of racism before of course, but trepidatiously and in an ad hoc manner because J and E seemed to be blissfully ignorant about racial stereotypes and epithets;  I wasn't convinced that I should be dredging up fraught concepts and words in a potentially unnecessary attempt at proactive anti-racist parenting.

But—big but: I simply don't buy that we are living in either a  post-racial society (that would be the utopia my Ismaili-Canadian friend jokingly envisions in which all people are a soothing shade of beige) or a post-racist one. The truth—less deniable than ever in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing in the US—is that ours is a culture in which subtle and overt racism is alive and well. And in fact, it didn't take all that much digging on my part to uncover a less innocuous vein of racist chicanery in the conversations that J and E overhear at school.

For instance, when I asked them if they thought anyone in their class was in fact racist, they hemmed and hawed, but finally said, yes, there was one boy who they thought might be racist. I asked what he said that made them think so, and they recounted how he frequently draws attention to certain kids' race—albeit, again, in what he thinks is a jokey way. They told me, for instance, that he'll often hold up a yellow object and say to an Asian-Canadian classmate: "Look, it's you." Or he'll hold up brown objects and say the same thing to kids of South Asian origin. I asked J and E what they thought of such comments. E said, "They're just stupid and annoying. But I think it would bother me if I were those kids." J added, "It would be as if I held up my carton of white milk and said, 'look O, it's you.'" Then, she added "I should do that! No, I shouldn't. Two wrongs don't make a right, right?" (Well, in this case, I'm not so sure...)

The irony is that this boy, though white, is not Christian and has (rightly) complained about the Christian orientation of school "holiday" parties (see here). What unnerved me about the situation (in addition to the simple, ignorant racism that it betokened) was the very real possibility that O's offensive actions and speech, and his seeming unawareness of his own contradictory position, stemmed from a lack of meaningful dialogue about race and racism in the home and classroom. I began to realize that J's attitude of "staying safe" about such issues—which she undoubtedly picked up from me—may be inoffensive, but it is not an effective way to promote interracial understanding or to combat racism. In a culture that is mutli-ethnic but clearly far from being either "colour-blind" or post-racial in any meaningful understanding of the term, is it not, I wondered, incumbent upon parents of all ethnicities to speak to their kids about race and racism in a manner that goes beyond the safety of mere tolerance and inoffensiveness?

I think the ethical answer is yes, but the question is, how does one go about it? I have told my daughters about my own history of growing up in a mixed (Jewish-Christian) family in a WASPy neighbourhood, where kids thought I was lying when I told them I wasn't baptized. But I have hesitated to tell them about the virulent racism against south Asians that I witnessed and was deeply affected by in high school. This was the era during which the epithet "Paki" (a slur which Russell Peters has referred to as "my N-word") was flung ignorantly and indiscriminately at anyone who was not white. It is that shameful era in Canadian history which prompted Clarke Blaise to remark: “Toronto has been a dark place. Vancouver has been a dark place.” But do I really want to teach my kids about a word they may never hear, one which is, one can only hope, dead and gone for ever? Perhaps not. Except, here's the problem: slurs have a way of re-surfacing. Not long ago, a man on our street—a father of two young kids—used the P-word in my husband's presence. (My husband was shocked into an embarrassed silence.) More recently, I came across an article in The Toronto Star describing a mother's reaction to hearing her mixed-race child use the word. "You're a Paki," the child said to his mother one day, having heard the term applied to himself at daycare. Post-racist culture, indeed.

Clearly, then, as parents, we cannot be vigilant or proactive enough when it comes to racism. The question is, what form should that vigilance take? I don't know the answer; I'm open to suggestions.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Hell Yes, We'll Write Chants: Social Justice in Schools

Recently an article appeared in the National Post giving voice to the complaints of a couple of parents whose kids attend Glenview Senior Public School, a middle school located in an area of North Toronto — Lytton Park — that happens to be home to more than a handful of one percenters.

The controversy (though one wonders if the complaints of two anonymous parents a controversy make) stems from an assignment in which students were asked to come up with a slogan for the Occupy Toronto movement. According to the article, a father was irritated when his daughter told him about the project, and particularly when she reassured him: "[T]his is about the 1% — this isn’t about you — it is about the billionaires and the millionaires that don’t pay any taxes." Oops. Odds are high that, unbeknownst to the poor "indoctrinated" seventh-grader, it was about her dad. The father called the school to complain. The Post article quotes one other disgruntled father:
People will say, well, it is important to stay current so that the kids understand what is on the news. But I say that is my job, sitting at home, as a father — to talk to my kids. 
Chris Selley has written a well-argued response to this familiar complaint (which is often raised about another parental bugaboo, sex ed), so I won't address it here. As the parent of two kids in Grade 7 who've been given comparable assignments, I have a different point to make. But first I feel should set the record straight: I have it on good authority that the "media literacy" assignment in question was not as simple or clear cut as the Post article makes out. According to my "sources," kids were divided into groups and allowed to choose a "cause" for which to come up with a slogan. One group chose animal welfare; another chose the rather generic cause of  human rights.

But details of this particular assignment aside, the question of the place of social justice in the curricula of public schools is an important one; in fact it's a question which goes to the very heart of the nature and purpose of education in a democracy. If education is meant to serve as a means to replicate the status quo — through the production of obedient workers in what used to be called the "military industrial complex," now more commonly referred to as the "global economy"— then issues of social justice should either not be raised at all or should be raised in a manner which does not seriously affect the class-based belief system children absorb from their parents. The classic way to raise political issues in this harmless way — the method preferred by public schools in previous eras and by many private schools today — is through the formal debate. In a debate, students use their "critical thinking skills" to argue whatever position they are handed, regardless of their opinion about the topic or the merits of the position in question. The mock debate is an example of what might be called a pedagogy of disengagement: it allows schools to teach about current issues, both political and ethical, without invoking either ethics or political feeling.

There is something to be said for such an approach (see Selley's article), insofar as it eschews any kind of overt indoctrination of children. But there are both practical and theoretical problems with it. In the first place, it assumes that the issues being debated are inherently neutral — i.e., that there is no consensus regarding the morality of particular political positions or attitudes towards past events. Yet clearly no such neutrality exists. For instance, no school would have students debate the existence of the Holocaust or the benefits of slavery. There are of course events and issues on which current opinion is still divided — and the banking crisis may well be one of them — but even in such cases, the disengaged approach can be problematic. For example, asking a child whose family has lost its home due to the sub-prime mortgage fiasco to assume the banker's position in a debate may not be ethically defensible. Pedagogically, it could prove counter-productive as well, if the child is encouraged to weigh the evidence and use his or her "critical thinking skills" to decide on a position, but is then told he or she must argue the opposite.

A deeper problem with the debate method — and the "transmission model" of education that it exemplifies — is that while it overtly eschews indoctrination, it brings it in through the back door. Its very structure teaches kids that a disengaged intellectual approach to issues of social justice is both possible and preferable. It is, in other words, an approach to teaching that, like all pedagogies, embodies a political position, however unwittingly.

In that respect, it is not so different from the critical pedagogy being practiced in many public schools throughout Canada, and of which the slogan assignment at Glenview middle school is an example. Critical pedagogy is informed by the Frankfurt School of Critical theory, as well as by educational thinkers and activists such Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux. It is essentially an activist pedagogy which assumes that the role of education is not to reproduce the status quo, but to produce informed citizens (as opposed to workers or consumers) who can question the society in which they live and possibly change it for the better. What it shares with the transmission model of education is an aversion to overt indoctrination:

Advocates of critical pedagogy make their own commitments clear as they construct forms of teaching consistent with the democratic notion that students learn to make their own choices of beliefs based on the diverse perspectives they confront in school and society. Education simply can't be neutral . . . .  Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students. This is a central tenet of critical pedagogy. *

Hence, in the slogan assignment, the importance of allowing the children to choose a cause. The assignment assumes engagement and interest on the child's part, but it allows for choice as to where this incipient political energy is directed. Although I believe this to be a more honest way of grappling with the teaching of social justice, the approach is not, in my opinion, without its own problems and contradictions. One practical problem is that there is no official "social justice" school subject and, as a result, topics such as the Occupy movement, or child labour must be raised in time slotted for other subjects. Social studies is the most logical place to raise such issues, but in Ontario (and other provinces) the social studies curriculum has been stripped of most non-Canadian content (history and geography), which limits the topics that can be addressed. As a result, you see social justice projects being injected awkwardly into subjects like English or "digital immersion," and you have backlashes from parents who believe such an emphasis either detracts from the teaching of "the basics," or is being imposed artificially on a structurally neutral curriculum.

This practical problem reveals a deeper theoretical problem with the critical pedagogy espoused by many front line educators: the system within which teachers teach about social justice is not inherently activist or even progressive. Concepts from critical pedagogical theory have trickled down from universities (such as OISE in Ontario) and teachers colleges, but the educational system in which they have landed remains essentially undemocratic. The crucial paradox here is that you have social justice being "taught" to students in schools whose hidden curriculum — the emphasis on rules, compliance, and authority-pleasing "achievement" — is deeply conservative, in the most literal sense of the term.

I have written about the hidden curriculum elsewhere, so will not discuss it in depth here. It suffices to point out that it is in no danger of being overturned or destroyed by a few lessons about Occupy movements. In fact the 21st-century hidden curriculum, which serves to inculcate in students behaviours and thought processes befitting their future role as workers in the global economy, is supported quite overtly by broader educational trends and practices, such as the recent focus on standardized testing, character education, time management, and mastery of technology.

So Lytton Park parents can relax. Their offspring may be writing slogans for the 99% but, in the end, schools like Glenview will help these kids end up where many of them started: comfortably ensconced in the 1%.

* From Critical Pedagogy Primer, by Joe L. Kincheloe

Monday, January 16, 2012

Reading for Pleasure: Losing Sight of the Forest for the Trees?

Over at the People for Education website, there is an interesting post about kids and pleasure reading. Both the post—sparked by this People for Education report, which documents a decline in reading for pleasure among school-aged children—and the ongoing discussion are well worth reading. Here's the comment I submitted:

Fascinating debate, and one in which I am deeply invested. My biggest concern at the moment is not how to instill a love of reading in my twin daughters—we managed to do that simply by reading to them frequently when they were younger, and by reading books ourselves, constantly—but how to prevent schools from quashing that love. I've blogged on the issue of reading for pleasure versus reading for school before (here), but lately another problem has arisen: the way the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading program is being used in schools as a means of taking away choice—and hence, reading pleasure—from kids. For instance, in my daughters' middle school, the Red Maple program, which is supposed (I believe) to be voluntary, has been made mandatory. The girls' English teacher has told the kids that they must read all ten books on the list if they want to get an A in English. There is so much wrong with this that I don't know where to begin. Both of my daughters have read more than ten books this year, but the key for them is personal engagement—and choice. Some of the books in the Red Maple program don't interest them at all. Others are simply inappropriate for them. (One example is the "problem novel," Dear George Clooney Please Marry My Mom, by Susin Nielsen, a book which assumes that 12-year-olds know who George Clooney is—mine did not—and are familiar with concepts such as "trophy wife.") If choice in reading is going to be taken away from kids in school, I would prefer it to be in favour of classic kid lit (e.g., Little Women, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), and not flavour-of-the-month type novels, many of which have not stood the test of time. (Which is not to say that some of them aren't wonderful.) I don't have a problem with books being assigned to an entire class and discussed in class; my daughters' English class read Animal Farm this year, and it was a positive experience. But when teachers ask kids to read books on their own time, they should not tell them what to read—or even how. (I'm agnostic on the issue of electronic versus paper reading, though my husband and I and both daughters favour the tactile experience of paper books.) Pleasure reading requires two things: time and choice, both of which are being eroded by the misuse of well-intentioned programs like Forest of Reading.