Category Archives: prejudice

How Do We Value French as a Language?

Many Canadian parents want their Anglophone children to be in French Immersion. They believe that being bilingual in French and English will give them an inside track in getting jobs with the government and any organisation that deals with the government. And maybe it will.

Reading, conversation and pop music in French

‪Seducing Dr. Lewis – a charming Quebecois film about a small community on the North Shore trying to find a doctor. Continue reading

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.

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

2. Studies Supporting Increased Academic Achievement, bibliography assembled by American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages

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.




Rein in the Reindeer

As Christmas and other seasonal holidays approach, I think it is time we reflected on the messages we send to the sensitive minds of our students in our schools’ Holiday Concerts. Many schools are appropriately avoiding any reference to the Christ in Christmas and even avoiding the word Christmas so everyone can feel included. Wisely, they choose songs about snowmen and Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a bit on the edge of promulgating Christian as historically he has his roots in St. Nicholas. However, no one studies history that far back any more. The red and white incarnation of St. Nick we know as Santa Claus was created by a certain soft drink company as part of its advertising campaign. Since soft drinks and advertising are not religious, references to Santa Claus are acceptable so long as the product is not mentioned. So we won’t mention Coke.
We are concerned with some songs, particularly Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Normally, Rudolph might be acceptable as it originated in a poem written for department store advertising and is therefore not connected with religion at all, but I am afraid it is not connected with morality, either.
If you recall, the introduction starts with the names of the other reindeers. Some are innocent enough, even rather sweet, such as Dancer and Dasher, but Vixen is not an appropriate name for a character in a song for children; it’s true that the reindeer are badly behaved bullies but that’s no reason to use such language. Next thing you know, Santa will be referring to her as Tartette or Girlie. I am not even going to discuss the implications of a name like Prancer.
The song goes from bad to worse when it points out Rudolph’s affliction! Would we sing a song about Travis, the pimple-faced boy? Or Fred, the pocket-protected geek? Or Matilda, the enormous fattie? It’s not nice to sing about other people’s visible defects. They can’t help the humongous mole on their cheeks or their single eyebrow or large ears or knobbly knees so it is dreadfully unfair to point them out.
Not only does the song point out Rudolph’s affliction (and in passing, what an unfortunate name, with all of its associations), but it then goes on to tell us that the other reindeer made fun of him for it. They didn’t just make fun of him, they discriminated against him; they wouldn’t let him play with them! I imagine that particular bit of nastiness was instigated by the aptly named Vixen. This is the kind of thing that should have been quickly handled by Santa or personnel or the Human Rights Commission!
But does Santa intervene and make these four-footed barbarians see the error of their ways? No! He ignores it. The only notice he takes of Rudolph is when the weather gets bad and he needs a fog light. This is appalling. Surely Santa would have planned for such eventualities, or his Health and Safety Committee would have drawn it to his attention. He could hardly have done so many years of flying without encountering adverse weather conditions. If he had flown without having lights, it speaks to his carelessness not only for the mental health of his reindeers, but their safety and the safety of aircraft the world over.
It is clear that Rudolph has no training for the role of fog light; it is a big surprise to everyone when he is asked to lead. Another error in safety! Now this is where the children learn a truly disgusting lesson. The moment Rudolph is promoted, the other reindeers become sycophantic fawners, complimenting the very reindeer they had derided and inviting him to their games and parties. What kind of a lesson is that?
This song teaches our children that it is perfectly fine to pick on outsiders and exclude them. It is also acceptable to fawn on bosses, heroes and celebrities no matter how much we disliked them before their elevation. In other words, bullying and hypocrisy is part of the Christmas spirit. Ho Ho Ho.
Mrs. M. Whitehouse
© 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.

Words, Names and Labels in Education

The discovery of an assortment of perennials was an unexpected joy for me at our new cottage.  Every time I cleared a bit of brush or weeds, I came across a new treasure.  Not being a gardener, I had no idea what many of them were; I took photos and leafed through a perennial encyclopaedia at home.  I kept photographs of the unidentified ones on my iPod and pestered every experienced gardener I met for information.

            After a few weeks I wondered why I was so keen to have names for them.  Wouldn’t a rose without a name smell as sweet?  It would and would be as lovely.  If it were in someone else’s garden I wouldn’t care whether it were called a rose or a rat, a sedum or a sow, I would just enjoy it.img_08222

            The thing is that I want to know where each plant thrives best: if I should leave it in the sun or consider moving it to a shadier spot; if it needs richer soil or if I could leave it uncomposted in the mainly sandy soil.  Describing my treasures to an expert gardener is often insufficient, sometimes even a picture misses if I failed to get a clear shot of the leaves or detail in a bud.  Give an expert a name, however, and she can tell me everything I could possibly want to know, even where a plant might grow outside of its usual zone or the rarer varieties of that plant or unusual growing patterns.  With a name I understand more because the name key to finding more information about a flower.

            In education and psychology, names of behaviours or abilities that stray from the norm are often called labels.  There is a strong feeling against labelling people and especially children.  It is understandable because words can hurt and often those labels are used to hurt.  When they do we try to find new names to reduce the sting: for idiot we substituted mentally retarded and when retarded became an insult, we substituted developmentally delayed or more accurate descriptors such as Down’s Syndrome or FAS.

            The problem is not the name, but the lack of understanding of what the name means.  The expert gardener knows not only what sedum is to see but also what can be expected from it in different conditions.  The expert educator knows what developmentally delayed means and therefore what to expect from someone who is described that way and how best to nurture them so they can learn and develop to their maximum potential.  People who use the word retarded as an insult have little knowledge of the real meaning of the word.

            When I say that naming the characteristics of a person or child is useful to the educator, I am not saying that an educator can rely on the descriptor for a full understanding of the child.  For example, a teacher who is told to expect an eight year old will expect a child who is reasonably articulate, able to print, read, do basic arithmetic and play games with other children.  Now think of all the eight year olds you have ever known; probably most of them have shared these characteristics and yet how different they all were!  A very small percentage of the children you have known may not have all these characteristics or may exceed these expectations.

            The same is true when we say a child is learning disabled or gifted.  Children are learning disabled or gifted in their own way.  The teacher may anticipate that a child with a learning disability might need more time on assignments, might have some social difficulties and will certainly need some kind of accommodation in order to learn, but aside from making some preparations for these possibilities, the experienced teacher will wait until she gets more information and gets to know the child before making detailed plans for teaching him.  However, without the words, learning disabled, the teacher would not be prepared to make accommodations and take the extra effort to discern what kind would be the most appropriate.

            In short, naming exceptional characteristics of children allows their teachers to prepare to teach them without having to go through a complete and time expensive assessment of each child in the classroom.  Normally the name or label comes with a detailed report that will inform the teacher’s preparation.  The label will help a supply teacher and other professionals who have brief encounters with the child know that this child may need support during class.  Being learning disabled will also get a university student a $2,000 grant in Ontario under certain circumstances.

School teachers and pupils in black rural scho...

School teachers and pupils in black rural school. This year, despite the fact the white school received free books, none arrived for the blacks. The teacher was so afraid of losing her job that she would not make any inquiries about the books and the children were sharing the few books some could buy. Creek County, Oklahoma. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, number, e.g., LC-USF35-1326 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

            Those who attach cruel prejudices to labels or use them to insult are as ignorant in their way as racists.  There is nothing wrong with being black or gifted or learning disabled or developmentally delayed or eight years old or mentally ill.  There is a great deal wrong with attaching heartless connotations to those words and using them insultingly.  As educators we are called to teach that just as dandelions and roses are both flowers, so everyone, regardless of ability, name, race, gender or creed is still a valued human being.   The problem, gentle reader, is not in the label, but in those who think it can be used to hurt.