Tag Archives: Chinese

Christmas in a Whisper


I can remember in grade five or six wondering during the Lord’s Prayer if a Muslim would be allowed to put a rug on the floor and kneel, facing Mecca to offer his or her morning prayers.  It briefly crossed my mind to convert, or claim to convert to see if it were possible.  I reckoned the chances were fifty/fifty.  It seemed reasonable to me to allow an alternative form of prayer so long as the Muslim was also respectful of the Christian prayers.  It was a small country school in a school board of three schools so really there was little need for rigidity.  On the other hand, some people could have little tolerance for something out of the ordinary.  I remained a nominal Christian.

What was fun about those times was the unapologetic joy in the build up to Christmas.  In some schools, the piano was dragged into a hallway and carols were sung for a few minutes every morning.  We cut and coloured and painted unabashedly Christmas decorations and there was a Christmas concert.  The gym was overcrowded and the little ones waved to their parents and the older students took pride in their choir.

There wasn’t a great deal of talk about the religious side of Christmas; perhaps our teachers assumed we would hear enough at home and at church.   Or perhaps they reckoned it wasn’t their job to teach the religious aspects of Christmas.  On the other hand, if the topic did come up in class, it wasn’t a problem.  Some of our parents were very religious, others only set foot in church for weddings and funerals.  It didn’t really matter.  Christmas was important.  Family got together and feasted.  There was laughter and music and we played games that weren’t played at any other time of year.  There were stockings and presents but nothing extravagant and we weren’t disappointed.

Now in the schools, there are few decorations.  There may be a picture of a Christmas tree or a stuffed Santa on a chair, but the teachers are frantically fitting in the creation of woven Kwanza mats or cardboard dreidls for Hanukah or Chinese lanterns for the Chinese New Year.  While the tree, perhaps a hangover from the days when clippings of evergreen plants adorned peoples’ homes at the time of the longest day of the year, is tacitly banned. There may be a small tree on a teacher’s desk or on a desk in the office, but not a big sparkly tree dressed with children’s hand made ornaments.

As far as I’m concerned, the more holidays, the merrier and the more we come to understand other religions and customs the better, but please don’t tell me that we show respect for others’ customs, religions and holidays by banning our own.  We show respect by sharing, learning and inviting others in.

My husband was tutoring an Afghani gentleman in English and one day, the gentleman’s wife stopped by with a cultural question.  Her place of work was having a Christmas party and she wanted to know how that would play out.  Was it religious?  Should she bring presents or food?  As a Muslim she had no problem attending a Christian event but she did not wish to do anything that might offend.  She was relieved to find that these events are always secular in nature so there would be no complications of etiquette and that the organiser could answer the issues of gifts and food.

Many years (decades) ago when I knew very little about Judaism, my first husband and I were invited to a Bar Mitzvah in California.  My husband found someone at work who was Jewish and did exactly what our Afghani friend did.  We had no problem participating in such an important event in the Jewish religious life; we just wanted to be sure to be appropriately courteous and not to offend.  Our only problem after that was figuring out an appropriate gift for a thirteen year old boy we didn’t know.

Living respectfully with other religions does not mean concealing the symbols, traditions and joys of our religion.  It means welcoming all our friends to our festivities and when invited to theirs making sure we understand what their etiquette expects of us.  So break out the trees and the carols and even tell the Christmas story.  When I tell a First Nations’ creation myth, I am not proselytizing for that religion.  Neither should you be when you tell the central story of any religion.

When Kwanza and Ramadan and Ashura and Eid al-Fitr and Diwali and Ranavami and Wesak and Hanukah and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the Chinese New Year come round, tell those stories, too, and if someone from that faith is in your classroom ask her how to decorate the classroom appropriately.  With luck a parent will help or even do the decorating and bring food.  Never miss a chance to teach with all the senses.

Christmas cake, anyone?

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Learning Chinese And What It Has Taught Me About Teaching


I'm learning more than Chinese!

I am back studying Chinese and my grades are beginning to reflect my assessment of my real comprehension.  I’m studying harder, longer and using a wider variety of methods; I am working for recall and not merely recognition but I still flounder.  I am very frustrated and am too tired at the end of the day to pursue my first love, thinking and writing about education.  Chinese was supposed to be a hobby.

We have the good fortune to have two professors of psychology as neighbours.  I asked Dr. F why I was working so hard with so little effect.  She pointed out that memory starts declining at the age of 25, “… and I bet the class is full of kids in their twenties.”  I am probably 30 years older than the oldest of them.  Learning a language requires memory work and Chinese requires more than usual as there is no connection between a character and its pronunciation.  Not only that, but Chinese has no connection to English or French so there are no connections to use.

In fact, it is all memory work.  I have tried hard to use my analytical skills (which improve with age) by tracking homophones, noting components of characters and using mnemonics of all kinds.  Still I lag.

It did start me thinking about the implications for education.  We, and I among us, have turned up our noses at memory work or “rote learning”.  I am beginning to reconsider its value.  Before I go on, I must assert that I strongly believe in teaching children to think and analyse from their first day in school; however, in order to think, there must be something to think about: facts, ideas, issues.  Architects and engineers are necessary to design large buildings, but if bricks and mortar and construction workers don’t turn up at the site, the design wouldn’t come to fruition.  Nor would it come to fruition if the planners didn’t know the physics and mathematics of solid construction.

While children are at their strongest ability for memorisation, the education system should be taking advantage of that strength to teach them.  Recently I observed a primary class where numeration (arithmetic) was taught as a concept, not to mastery.  It isn’t difficult to teach arithmetic to mastery; I have found five minutes a day throughout the year is very effective.  Some children will go further, some will lag, but mastery will allow them to focus on other math skills that can’t be memorised.

Imagine the panic a student feels as she tries to understand area and volume when she can’t remember the times table.  She looks at l x w x h and instead of thinking about how cool it is that length, width and height are used to create volume, she is looking at the two x’s and worrying about dealing with them.  Instead of thinking that this is just area multiplied by one more number, she is unhappy about multiplying three numbers together.

She may understand the models with blocks and other manipulatives, but she won’t want to translate that into numbers.  Without being able to easily retrieve the product of length, width and depth from memory,  she must resort to her fingers, a multiplication table or a calculator, all of which are slower and more distracting than knowing her times table.

Why is this a problem?  If the student doesn’t have an easy relationship with arithmetic, she won’t be able to comfortably estimate the answer to mathematical problems and see approximately what the answer should be.  It means she will not know if an answer is probably right without looking it up.  She may not get past arithmetic into the fun of mathematics.  If you had to build a desk and chair every time you needed it, wouldn’t you get fed up?

More practically, checking the total of grocery bills, calculating tips, estimating change, doing her own taxes and other mundane applications will become too bothersome to be worthwhile.  She will end up trusting others instead herself to take charge of her money.

History educates our children to become informed citizens.  The big patterns of history repeat and understanding reasons and results is important to understanding the current play of events.

While I am not keen on memorising dates in history, it is important that the sequence of key dates be understood.  One way to aid memorisation is a timeline running through the halls so that all the history that is studied in elementary school is displayed with only the important-to-learn dates on them.  Below are some of the dates I would include.  For the events linked with the dates, see the next post.  As students learned about these events, posters and pictures could be put up below them so students could learn the sequence of events and eventually, the dates.  It is important, for example, that students learn that the Quebec Act preceded the American Revolution and the French Revolution was roughly coincident with the American.  Why was the Quebec Act necessary and what role did it play in the American Revolution?  Is it a coincidence that there were two major revolutions going on at roughly the same time?

Some teachers might argue that putting up the same timeline year after year would be boring.  It could, but  the approach to the events might be varied, the children will certainly have grown and have learned and even the dates could be varied.  Within each classroom there would be a more detailed sequence of the period that class is studying.  My hope is that within the classroom there would be more emphasis on the social history of the time.

Presumably as the students get older and have a better understanding of history, they will see the events in different lights. That and remembering the key dates will start them on the road to understanding the sequence of world events.  With those tools, they can begin to look at cause and effect and use history as a lens to look at the events unfolding in the daily news.  At least they can if their teachers help them to do so.

Memory work in geography is even more vital.  How often do we laugh when our comedians go south to ask Americans simple questions about Canada?  I suspect that our ignorance is only less by comparison.  We should be using the children’s strong memories to ingrain the continents, the countries, the rivers, mountains, oceans and major cities. Will they remember it all twenty years down the road?  No, but  literature , the news and the study of other subjects will reinforce some of it.  Their memory for others can be jogged by references to what they do remember; “Tunisia, oh is that on the Mediterranean or the Atlantic – no near Libya somewhere – ahhh and Libya IS on the Mediterranean so Tunisia probably is, too.”  And some they will indeed remember.

They will have a rough idea of the climate, vegetation and the economy of each region.  They will know what the key indicators are of health and welfare in each country.  This kind of information along with the well learned and understood sequence and pattern of events of history will help them make sense of the current politics and business.

The facts are no substitute for understanding.  At the beginning of my Grade Seven geography class, I used to hold up one of those three page plasticised summaries of physical geography and say.  “Everything you need to know for this course is in here but if you were to memorise it all, you still would not pass this course.  What you also need to know is what the facts mean, what you can do with them, how to use them.  In short you are going to start to learn to think like a geographer.”  Then I pinned the summary to the back wall and we went to work.

I would argue that there is much to be gained in memorising poetry.  The first is that by memorising poetry a child goes over and over the words.  Given the right poem, the child may begin to see things in the poem that a teacher could not have pointed out.  Secondly, poems are meant to be spoken.  A child who has memorised a poem and then learned to speak it, has learned viscerally the effects of rhythm and rhyme in poetry, or if there is no rhyme, then the effects of the literary devices.  Finally, the poem has become a gift; the child carries it in his head as something he can turn on and turn over.  If you still hear a poem or song in your head that you learned many years ago, then you know what I am talking about.  Since that is the case, choose carefully the poem you ask a child to memorise.  Make it worthy of the effort.

At one point in my teaching, I looked for an alternative to detentions so I asked students to copy a chapter (about the equivalent of a poem) from the Tao de Ching, an early work in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism.  The writing is not easy to understand but I felt it gave the students something to think about.  Many students began to memorise some chapters by heart and occasionally quote them in class. One lad who was a persistent talker often got Chapter 24 which starts, “To be always talking is against nature…” and goes on to reflect on the power of stillness.  One day he came to me and said that he was beginning to get the passage beyond the message of the first few words.  The repetition had engraved it in his memory so it was always with him to contemplate.  This is one of the gifts of memorisation.

So to go back to Chinese and the dull tools I must use to learn it; will I stop?  No, because I CAN learn it, just much more slowly than the university students in my course.  Instead I remind myself that learning Chinese is a hobby and ask myself if I can pare my goal down to what I can reasonably achieve.  When April comes, I will write the final exam and then hire a tutor or swap English for Chinese conversational lessons.  Since I want to speak and understand, that is what I will focus on.  I am exploring spending time in China in the fall.  In the meantime, I will put reading about education and the brain and writing about education first.

Some dates I think are important, especially to Canadians.  This is not intended to be definitive!

DATE EVENT
~1700
~486
~440
~5 BCE to 650 CE
930
~1000
1095
1190
1215
1244
1265
1497
1534
1605
1607
1608
1707
1759
1774
1777
1783
1787
1867
1869
1914 – 1918
1928

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.