Monthly Archives: November 2008

An Interesting Statistic

           Toronto District School Board states on its web site that 45% of its graduates are Ontario Scholars.  To be an Ontario Scholar, a student must have an average of 80% on her top six subjects.  The question is: should this be a cause for pride or embarrassment?

Yup, 45% are Ontario Scholars, but can you tell the difference?

Yup, 45% are Ontario Scholars, but can you tell the difference?

            A second question: when the averages of Ontario Scholars were heavily influenced by the results of the provincial exams, there were fewer Ontario Scholars.  Why the change? 

             Third question:  How do we know that each board is providing equally thorough educations in all the subjects offered and applying the same standards in formative and summative evaluations?

              I would love to hear from the high school teachers on this topic.  I am sure you have well supported opinions on this.

Does Choice in Education Divide our Children by Class?

            An opinion piece in Chatelaine by a young mother discussed choosing a good school for her child; she was talking about public school not a private, fee-charging school.  She acknowledged that the school board restricted children to their neighbourhood schools but she had found a loophole that would allow her to send her child to a better school – better as she defined it.  Better, by her definition was a school with 33% ESL students rather than 75% ESL (largely Chinese) students.  There was a spate of emails following the article from indignant women accusing her of racism, dotted with a few agreeing with her perspective. (School daze: The troublesome quest for the “better” school By Katrina Onstad  First published in Chatelaine’s April 2007 issue.

© Rogers Publishing Ltd.)

The truth is that the author is in the majority of parents in wanting to place her child in a school with a minimum of ESL and lower socio-economic status (formerly known as poor, now referred to as lower SES) students.  The difference between the author and her fellow parents is that she spoke her mind: middle and upper class parents feel entitled to have their children educated with their peers.  In order to do so, they study the rules of the game and find the loopholes.  There are three, but only two that are entirely in the parents’ hands.  The author planned to use the one of finding day care within the boundaries of the chosen school.  An expensive variation of this is either buying a small pied-a-terre or moving altogether into the right neighbourhood to provide the address in the school’s cachement area. Some neighbourhoods are actually overpriced because the popular opinion is that the local school is a good one.

 The second, where the program exists and the child qualifies, is placing the child in a class for the academically gifted.  This usually requires an intelligence level in the 98th percentile and high educational scores although the exact requirements may vary from school board to board.

The third is placing your child in French Immersion.  French Immersion is theoretically open and possible for every child but few ESL students end up in the program.  ESL stands for English as a Second Language; the Ontario Ministry of Education has changed that designation to ELL, English Language Learners.  This puzzles me as I thought all students are English language learners.  But I digress. The current belief is that ESL students will benefit from early French Immersion programs (programs staring in kindergarten or grade one) and this is supported to some extent by the literature. ESL students arriving in the middle or intermediate grades may have their hands full adjusting to a new country and new language.

Immersion is supposed to be accessible for students of all levels of ability, but the truth is that students with learning disabilities (students with learning disabilities have, by definition average to above average ability) or low ability usually find it too difficult and their parents are persuaded to move them into the regular English classes.  Teachers regularly recommend that some students not be placed in French Immersion because they can foresee the problems but the choice is the parents’.  Often a student having difficulty drops out to the English class later; he will be behind in English and, if he has a language disability, he is doubly hampered.  French Immersion may start out as a program for every child but it does not end up that way.  The result is a stream, as the author’s friend so aptly puts it, which is the equivalent of a private school in a public system and a stream for the rest of the world

That is not to say, however, that French Immersion is a better education.  First, there is always a shortage of materials in French.  Secondly, FI teachers are always the last to get workshops in the latest teaching techniques or ministry expectations, unless they attend them in English.

Thirdly, there is a shortage of French teachers due to French Immersion so non-native speakers are hired, often before completing their B. Ed.  They may have a good academic knowledge of French but their spoken French often lacks the idiom, accent and rhythms of any native speaker.  English teachers, on the other hand, often run the gauntlet of supply teaching for at least a year or longer before they are offered a job.  That is not to say that teachers in French Immersion are poorer – many are excellent – just that they are often hired untried, whereas most English teachers’ abilities are well known and tested before they are hired permanently.  At the end of the year when teachers may elect to change schools and programs, the list of open full time positions in our local board may run to about 80% French.  Sometimes, boards will put restrictions on teachers switching from French teaching positions to English because it is so difficult to fill the French positions.

Finally, students spend less time working on English language grammar, vocabulary, spelling and knowledge of literature.  In addition, there are some language transfers from French to English and a number from English to French.  These students do not have English teachers with particular training in identifying these transfers and correcting them.  They do, however, spend their day hanging out with middle and upper class children.

The regular English classes become the catchall for ESL students who did not enrol as primary students, students with learning disabilities, low ability, emotional problems, dislike of languages and low socio-economic status (poor).  By the intermediate years of grade seven and eight, these classes are more heavily weighted with children needing more attention at a time when they are least interested in school.  These classes are often large; one teacher reported a class of 34.  Teaching them is difficult and exhausting because of their varied needs.  Ordinary students slip between the cracks.

With good reason most administrations look the other way when it comes to regular English classes.  Should it be admitted that these classes are heavily loaded by students with extra educational needs, they would have to do something.  With a limited budget and the budget is admittedly limited it would mean, perhaps, cutting the French Immersion program and who wants to bell that political cat?  It would certainly mean insisting to their superiors that these children are underserved; if the truth was followed with an expectation of action, administrators at any level might find that there would be repercussions to their careers.

There is little political support for the students in the English classes.  Parents who have newly immigrated to this country and lower SES parents have less knowledge of how the system works and less political clout; unless a school board is more heavily swayed by what is pedagogically sound than what is politically expedient, these children will continue to wade in the leftovers from FI. Even under current circumstances of limited money, neither French Immersion nor the regular English stream are providing the best possible education for our students.

In the meantime we have effectively streamed our students according to class and then shut our eyes to it.  We have done what the Americans did through funding schools district by district, what the South Africans did by apartheid and what Britain did with its system of public (private) schools.  We have done it under the flag of biculturalism but with the covert intent of separating children from each other by class.  We know better and we should do better.

In other posts, I will address the question of the effectiveness of French Immersion in teaching French, whether it costs too much, what a program for gifted children should be and the politics of parents, teachers, school boards, children and public perception.  Your thoughts are welcome.

 As a postscript, I must commend our prime minister who sends his children to the local schools.  One of them is enrolled in a school I have heard referred to as an “inner city” school; parents have anxiously inquired if it was rough because it is a school of thoroughly mixed SES, races, faiths, cultures and abilities.  The answer is no.  It is a school where friendships are made across all these classes and violence is less than in some “better” schools.

Mistakes: Consider Them a Learning Experience,

            I visited my aunt when I was a gawky long-limbed twelve-year-old.  We were going to the Exhibition in Toronto and I was very excited, as were her two small children.  In the middle of breakfast I dropped the large china pitcher of milk into my bowl.  Cereal, milk and shards of china went everywhere.  I looked up at my aunt, sure she was going to scold her clumsy niece, or fuss about how we might miss the train or at the very least scowl.  “Oh dear”, she said and fetched a rag to sop up the milk while she picked up the shards. The anticipated scowl was a reassuring smile.  I don’t remember what happened next but I do remember my gratitude that she understood it was a mistake, an accident like tripping on an unseen rock.           

The incident had a profound effect on how I raised my own children.  I took to heart, too, Dr. Spock’s advice that cups or food dropped by babies be treated as a signal that they were finished with their drink or meal.  I said “uh-oh”, cleaned up the mess with a smile and lifted the baby down from the high chair.  When the children were old enough, I handed them a rag so they could help me clean up, never mind that at first they made a bigger mess.  Eventually they knew where the rags were and simply cleaned up the mess.  The point was that a mistake was something to be fixed or cleaned up, not a sin.  If you were lucky, it was also a learning experience as my favourite English teacher, Miss da Costa, used to say.

            This is one kind of attitude that encourages children to take risks.  The second is the attitude that praises effort, not ability.  We cannot help the tools we were born with but we can help what we do with them; praising a child for the effort they make with their tools is to give them confidence that they can achieve regardless of setbacks.  As a teacher of the gifted I saw far too many children who were reluctant to take risks because their academic talents had been praised, but not their willingness to try and then try again after they had made a mistake.  The work they had not done was always going to be better than any work they actually did.

            The third important attitude to mistakes is to let go of perfectionism.  There are times when mistakes are dangerous.  I would not want the surgeon operating on my eye to make a mistake with her scalpel or engineers to make mistakes in designing a bridge, however many mistakes are either tools that will further learning or simply trivial.  When excellence, not perfection, is the goal a student can use the mistake as a cue to learn something. I’m sure the surgeon practices and makes a good number of mistakes before she is ready for the operating room. A mistake when driving is a cue for me to pay more attention to a certain aspect of my driving.  A perfectionist might be panicked by a mistake or try to ignore it; a learner adds it to the information she needs to become excellent at her task.

            I once had a student who rarely tried in class; she was talented, had no apparent difficulties, got on well with her peers and teachers and did want to succeed.  Try as I might I could find no insight into the cause of her minimal effort until the day she sat down with me and her parents to fill in her high school options form.  When she had finished filling it out, her mother took it from her and proofread it, literally dotting I’s and crossing t’s as she reread the form. 

As I watched the mother, I reflected that had she left the form alone, the worst that could have happened had her daughter made a mistake would have been that the girl might have found herself in the boys’ gym class or in music instead of art.  From that she would have learned to pay attention when she filled out forms.  Instead what my student learned was that she could do nothing good enough for her parents.  No wonder she was so reluctant to try.  Her mistakes were not a learning experience, but an embarrassment.

            If you want children and students who happily work and are unfazed by mistakes, praise their efforts not their talent, encourage and teach them to correct their mistakes and let go of your own perfectionism.  Ask yourself if your expectations are about your wants or your child’s needs.  It is nice to hear your child praised but it is even better so see him happy and confident as he works towards goals he has chosen with the insight that comes from being allowed to learn from his mistakes.


Saving the Children

One beautiful barefoot summer’s day when my son was a toddler someone dropped a glass on the patio, spraying shards of glass between him and the rest of us. I used my serious voice to bark a command of “don’t move, confident that would hold him a moment until I could slip on some sandals or throw a heavy towel down to protect my feet. My mother raced past me barefoot over the glass to reach her precious grandson and hold him safe, unwilling to risk that moment. We have laughed with pride about her devotion to her grandchild but it demonstrates a truth: children are sacred in our society.

That does not mean that children are not abused, neglected or mistreated but they do have a special status. Perhaps they represent an innocence of the difficulties of life that we will never regain. How often have we indulged ourselves by treating a young child to a toy? How often do we take extra steps to protect a child? Perhaps our awe comes from the desire to nurture the young of any species. It takes a hardened heart not to be touched by the softness of a kitten’s body in our hands or the moment when a very small baby makes eye contact and smiles that full body all out sun bursting from behind clouds grin. Parents know the magic of being able to kiss away the hurt of skinned knees and soothe even a frightened teenager with a hug.

We do so much to protect our children from the terrible hurts of life. The vaccinations of my childhood kept away very dangerous diseases such as polio, diphtheria and tetanus; the vaccinations of my children’s also kept away the less dangerous but occasionally lethal diseases such as measles and mumps. Car seats went from advised to mandatory. Helmets went from slightly ridiculous to sensible for children on bikes, skates and skis. Elementary teachers were no longer high school graduates with a year of training but people with at least two degrees who were expected to plan with every child in mind. Parents in the throes of divorce find that some of their decisions about finances, place of residence and even career path are affected by their children’s needs. This care for the health, education and happiness of children is founded in a sound nurturing sensibility.

Unfortunately there are some difficulties with this new direction in nurturing. Parents and society are becoming overly protective. My husband and I have noticed in our frequent walks by the Rideau River that there are no children playing on its banks. It is eerie. My husband grew up adventuring in the Don Valley and in a tributary of the Don River. Those of you who know that river may be grimacing, but for him and his friends it was a wonderful playground. They did all the things that you can imagine children doing with trees and mud and water and they were totally unsupervised. Nothing terrible happened to them: no accidents, no creepy perverts, and no disgusting diseases. They did exercise their muscles, imaginations, curiosity and capacity for cooperation.IMG_0088

On the outskirts of Ottawa, between the ages of nine and thirteen, my friends and I roamed between the Ottawa River, the fields, copses, orchard and even by the railway tracks (sorry Mom). We would come back from afternoons of pretending to be log rollers in the river so cold that even a couple of hours in our warm beds couldn’t thaw the slabs of ice which were our feet. We played hide and seek, hiding by climbing trees. We saved our money and cycled to the local riding stables where they let us ride horses without helmets or a written waiver from our parents. My mother even let us take my three-year-old sister for a picnic in the woods. We were home for dinner or when the lights came on. We were dirty and cold and hungry and tired but nothing awful ever happened to us either. We did exercise our muscles, imaginations, curiosity, sense of adventure, independence and capacity for cooperation. What’s more, we weren’t afraid of very much and that is how we carried ourselves.

So where are the children? Why can’t we trust them to have similar adventures? Can we not teach them how to take responsibility for their safety and that of their friends? Even though stranger crimes against children are down why do we insist on keeping our children in protective custody?

Childhood obesity is increasing, as is type two diabetes in children and adults; both of these are the direct results of inactivity. Children restricted to supervised activities and organized sports are far less creative than children who have the freedom to chose what they do and how they do it. The dangers to lifelong health and the likelihood of uncreative minds are greater risks than sexual assault or murder. Twenty-eight per cent of children between the ages of two and seventeen in Ontario were overweight in 2004. That alone increases the likelihood of type 2 diabetes.

Keeping a child at home will not reduce the chances of sexual assaults by very much because “85% of the time, the offender will be known to the child (Christie, Donna, The Secrets Out: Child Sexual Abuse, Committee Against Rape and Sexual Assault, Carsa Inc., 1985).” Roughly the same proportions are true in the rare cases of child murder. What will help keep a child safer is a careful education in safety habits such as street proofing, rules of the road when cycling, common sense precautions and the principles of first aid. Nothing is a guarantee, of course, that a child will never be hurt but that is true no matter what we do. What is likely, however, is that we will raise happy, creative, self-confident citizens. It takes a self confident child to say no to an adult who assaults her, to keep her head and make good decisions in a dangerous situation.

Let us save the children from lifelong ill health, indolence, inability to take risks and deal with the normal dangers of life. Let us save the children from the inability to rely on themselves and each other for help. Let us save our children from fear of the unknown and challenges to try new things. Let us teach them how to take calculated risks and learn to grow. Save the children from protective custody.