Desmond Morton on CBC radio one
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!
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 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.
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.