Monthly Archives: January 2009

A School for Scientifically and Technically Talented Students


            One of my observations as a teacher of regular and gifted middle school students is that almost every parent wants their child to go to university.  They want their children in the university stream in secondary school and will rarely consider that a career in a trade might be an excellent goal.  Students whose intelligence is strongest in their ability to work with their hands are forced like square pegs into the round holes of an academic stream. The parents’ concern is understandable, as the second stream often becomes, in effect, a holding pen for the academically indifferent or inept. Many colleges are now requiring courses from the academic stream as part of their admissions criteria and there is no strong apprenticeship stream.

            The flip side is that many students who should be headed for a university education in math or science by the nature of their talents are often discouraged from taking shop courses.  They are encouraged to focus on the abstract and yet working with concrete materials would give embryo engineers a better understanding of problems they will usually deal with in the abstract.  In fact, in Ottawa, one of the gifted programs is housed in a school wholly without shops.

            The truth is that few people are wholly concrete thinkers or wholly abstract and both aspects of students’ abilities need to be nurtured.  We need a school where both kinds of talents are nurtured and seen as valuable and complementary.

            I propose a School for the Scientifically and Technically Talented.  This school would have a top notch program for the scientifically and mathematically gifted; a top notch program in a variety of trades, leading to an early apprenticeship and top notch specialists in giftedness, learning disabilities and gifted/learning disabled. 

            The reason for the specialists is that it is not unusual for students who have strong gifts in one area to have a learning disability in another.  In fact, the apparently lazy bright student is often both gifted and LD.  Sometimes the learning disability may be severe enough that scores on intelligences tests may appear lower than cut offs for gifted or academically talented programs.  Such students, however, may be extremely talented in specific areas.  This kind of profile is not limited to students with strong mathematical and technical talents, but it is seen frequently in them.  The specialists would help identify learning problems and work with students and teachers to discern ways to help talents flourish in spite of difficulties.

Students would be allowed and even encourage to take some options in an area they find interesting but aren’t sure they could manage.  In those courses, they would be given a peer mentor and extra help after school.  Their grades in those courses would be pass/fail/honours so they could focus on learning,

            Academically oriented students would have access to shop courses all the way through secondary school and if they wished, they could extend their time in school to start an apprenticeship and complete the requirements for university. 

            Students who do not think of themselves as academically oriented would have access to academic courses and support.  If they needed a bridge class to qualify to do an academic course, it would be available.  It would be possible for a student who started as an apprentice to finish with qualifications to apply for university if she so chose.  She could also finish her apprenticeship.

Bridge classes are not a new concept, but few actually exist in reality.  If bridge classes would be too small to justify a teacher, then correspondence classes would be set up for these students with a supervising teacher in the school available to help as needed.  The concept would be much the same as is used in many alternative secondary schools where students work at their own speed to cover the material.

There would be several criteria for entrance to this school: middle school marks, recommendations from shop, home economics or art teachers, an observed workshop in which students created a project out of materials in a set time, recommendations from home room, science, math or geography teachers and an interview.  None of the criteria in itself would block a student from entering the school; poor marks with positive results in every other area might be fine.  Excellent marks with poor recommendations and a demonstrated inability to share ideas and work with others might result in a refusal.

            The school would have the prestige of gifted programs, so parents of less academically oriented students would be more inclined to let their children go there.  The academic students who went there would have the appropriate programs and teachers to develop their talents, too, but they would also have the opportunity to develop complementary hands on skills.

            Concrete thinkers who were uncomfortable with academics would have their strengths nurtured.  Eventually they might discover a need for math or physics as they become more skilled in shop work.  Academic work that relates to the real world might be a great motivator.  Success breeds success and students who might not have done more than drifted through high school may find a meaningful education that will give them a strong foundation for their post-secondary life.

            Co-operative work programs would be a large factor in this school’s life.  Clearly, students in apprenticeship programs will need to spend time in the field practising, but all students would be encouraged to do at least one co-op program, preferably in a field that interests them.  I suspect a little time spent with a real engineer on the job might change a few students’ minds about the charms of that iron ring.  Time in a hospital might make them aware of the different skills and specialties needed in the medical field.

            In short, the concept behind this school would be to get talented abstract and concrete thinkers in science and technology exposed to the variety of skills available to them.  It is also intended to get us past the snobbery that believes academic skills are more valuable that technical skills.  Think of it: both a good surgeon and a good mechanic can save your life.  We want both of them to be skilled and thinking outside the box.

            And if it were in Ottawa, where would we place it?  In the new mixed use downtown school with the condominium above it and the most of the major bus routes (when there isn’t a strike!) running past it.

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Don’t Sell off Those Downtown Schools!


 In these times of declining enrolment, cuts to school budgets and no prospect of new income sources on the horizon, it is easy for a school board to look at the valuable downtown properties and consider selling them.  However, in many cities, such as Ottawa, there are still many families from all walks of life living in the inner city.  In the not far distant future, these families will be looking again for schools for their children, preferably community schools.

To achieve the goal of keeping downtown schools open and providing income or capital for the school boards, we need to rethink our use of property.  We need to consider sharing space the way stores have shared space with offices, apartments or condos above them for many years, even centuries, nay millennia.  The Romans had their stores or business places at the front of their homes, while the living quarters occupied the other three sides of the courtyard.  On many Canadian main streets there are stores with two or three stories of apartments or offices above them.

Obviously, because the health and safety of children is always a priority, schools sharing space with other facilities would require more careful planning than most arrangements.  In an age when we are locking school doors after school starts, questioning unknown adults on the schoolyard, insisting that visitors report first to the office for a badge and requiring all volunteers to have a police check, sharing property must be done with careful regard to student safety.

An example of the model I am proposing is this: in downtown Ottawa exists a former high school that takes up the better part of a city block.  Across the road from it are its former playing fields.  It would be too expensive to bring the building up to standard, but it is sitting on very valuable land ripe for development, eyed by property developers.  Here is what I propose.

Replace the high school with a three-story high school at the base of a multi-story condo. Immediately below the high school put a parking level for teachers, parents and visitors.  There set a security camera outside the stairwell and elevator leading to the school.  When visitors pressed the bell for admission the office would remotely unlock the door or elevator after checking the person through the camera.  If the elevator and stairwell opened immediately in front of the office, then visitors from the parking lot could be observed as they arrived on the main floor of the school.  Make the front entrance also visible from the office and security may not be perfect but it will be very good.

The condominiums would be from the fourth floor up.  Their lobby would be at street level, but on a street where there are no doors to the school; if the entrance to the parking lot was on the same side, there might not even be space for first floor windows in that side of the school.  The condominium lobby need not be much larger than the area required to accommodate an appropriate bank of elevators, mail boxes and small waiting room.  The elevators would serve the lower parking levels reserved for the use of the condominium owners, but skip the school parking level and the school itself.

This may sound complicated but this kind of mixed use or designated elevators is already being used commercially.  If you have ever been to a late movie in a theatre in an office tower, you might have noticed that the elevator was programmed to go only to certain floors and the parking garage.  On the other hand, if you have gone to dinner outside the building, leaving your car in the garage, you will find that access to it from outside would have been only through a door found in the building’s airlock.  Not only is there no need to go into the building to get your car, but those inner doors to the building will be locked!

Security cameras are not ubiquitous in our city and rightly so.  However their judicious use at entrances has been employed by organisations that are concerned about who is admitted to their building.  Women’s hostels are a case in point.  While I would not advocate security cameras within a school, their use at entrance and exit points is well worth considering.  It would certainly ease concerns about a high school and homes sharing the same building.

Why would people consider buying a condominium over a high school?  In this case, the view will be magnificent: the Ottawa River, the Gatineau Hills, the Parliament Buildings and much of Ottawa would spread below you.  Secondly, if carefully thought out, it might be possible for the condo and the school to share sports facilities.  A swimming pool, weights room and gym on the school’s third floor that was accessible to the owners of the condominiums outside of school and extra-curricular hours might be attractive.  In addition, the playing fields over the road could be accessible for Ultimate Frisbee and soccer and the track around it would be great for the runners.  There might be room in one corner for a tot lot.  Careful tree planting would provide shade in summer and make the playing fields attractive.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board does work to make school facilities available (for a modest fee) to the public outside of school hours; in fact the schools that are open most evenings and weekends are called Lighthouse Schools.  This would be an extension of that concept. 

Many schools these days are allowing day cares and even private schools to move into their unused facilities as enrolment shrinks.  The smart thing to do would be to design this high school with decreasing enrolment in mind.  One corner of the school could be designed to be shut off from the rest of the school if necessary and the rooms rearranged to suit offices or day cares or whatever organisation might be looking for space in the area. How could that be done?  I’m not sure, but isn’t that what good architects are for?  It would certainly be a challenge as walls that successfully block noise between classrooms are not easily removed for remodelling.

Enrolment does decrease from time to time, but eventually that earlier big wave of children will have children and enrolment will increase again.  We need to design our schools with the flexibility to meet the challenges of changes in enrolment.  We need to rethink how to effectively use expensive downtown space to the financial advantage of education.  Let’s not sell off our biggest financial assets but use them to guarantee schools within walking distance of the students who need them.  Let’s be innovators!

Why Study a Second Language – and in Particular – Why Study French?


      For my American readers I should explain that I am a Canadian by adoption and especially proud of the bilingual, multicultural nature of our country.  I believe these facets have encouraged an attitude of tolerance and courtesy in Canada.  It isn’t perfect, but it is a heartening tendency in a world too often intolerant and xenophobic.  As a Canadian I do have a bias on this topic.

            First, as someone who will never be bilingual, but can read, write, listen and speak with modest success in my second language, French, I have observed, as others have, that speaking another language creates another mindset.  It is hard to explain to someone who is monolingual, but it is as if a lightly coloured cellophane overlay of another culture has been settled on your own personality.  Part of it is the style of the language, part the vocabulary, part the literature you read in acquiring the language and part a certain “je ne sais quoi”.  Seeing the world and engaging with it from another perspective is always an experience to be valued.

            The years when we were living in France the most bilingual of our children came to us and proposed that we speak French at home.  It opened a window into how immigrant parents in our country must feel as their children relinquish the language of their roots.  We were shocked by his dismissal of the language we loved.

Fortunately, we knew we were returning to Canada.  As a second language teacher, I knew the importance of maintaining the mother tongue as well; we pointed out to him that speaking English at home and French in school and the village gave him the advantage of knowing two languages. People who spoke two or three different languages peppered our village so our family was relatively normal for that small corner of France.  That was enough for him.

            French has allowed me more understanding of my fellow citizens in Quebec and the francophones of our other provinces.  The difference in vocabulary and accent between France and Quebec has given me more insight than any political writing about the relationship between these two francophone groups. 

            It has also given me a slight competitive edge when I was trying to find a job in a tight market.  Knowing our second language and being willing to use it was an asset.

            There are claims that learning a second language improves cognitive skills and not just verbal skills; there is some research to support the claim.  It is certainly true that learning a second language, particularly one from a similar language group, does expand vocabulary.  I suspect that when we ask our brains to take on a new direction and a challenging task and persist in it over a period of time, there are skills gained beside the obvious ones needed to go in the new direction.  Perhaps they are related to the ability to look at things differently, take risks and persist in spite of perceived failures.  Who knows?

            So a second language may enhance the learner’s cognitive skills in other areas, give them a competitive edge in the job market, give them insight into another’s perspectives and allow them to communicate with other human beings.  What’s not to like?

            The only question that remains for me is what is the most effective way to teach children French in English Canada?  I will address this in another post where I will start by addressing the question:  what do we hope to achieve by teaching French to our children?  What is our goal?  When they graduate with a high school certificate what do we expect them to be able to do in French?

            Let me know if you have answers or comments on those questions.

 

For further reading on these topics:

1. The Effect of Second Language Learning on Test Scores, Intelligence and Achievement: An Annotated Bibliography  Prepared By Elizabeth L. Webb, Program Specialist for Foreign Languages and International Education Georgia Department of Education

http://www.uwyo.edu/fled/documents/FLAnnotatedBibliography.pdf

2. Studies Supporting Increased Academic Achievement, bibliography assembled by American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages www.actfl.org/i4a/pages/Index.cfm?pageID=4525

Please note that the quality of the sources in these bibliographies may vary greatly.  Magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens and PTA are not peer reviewed, nor are the articles necessarily written by experts.  Most of the articles in the first bibliography are at least ten years old; that being said, some are by respected researchers in this field.

Finally, one has to question how researchers determined academic achievement or intelligence. It could simply mean that the students do better at taking tests.

2. The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

© Sheila Diane Scaiff and Teachers Outside the Box, 2008. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sheila Diane Scaiff and Teachers Outside the Box with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.