Over the past seven years I have met some wonderful young people.
Sometimes they were tardy.
Sometimes they were lazy.
But, more often they were exciting.
They were creative.
They were inspiring.
Although I leave EDSS with a heavy heart, I look forward to seeing what the students of this grand building do with the world that they create.
Thank you Elmira.
Education was not my forte. Now given that I am a teacher, that sounds odd.
I remember in Teachers’ College I was asked to think back on a teacher that changed my life. Students around the room had stories of joyful teachers with animated birds floating around them that would bestow straight A’s and praise at the blink of an eye. I did not. As hard as I pondered, I kept coming up blank. Sure, I enjoyed the antics of my zany history teachers. And, of course, I recall the English teacher who read Leonard Cohen lyrics and whose class I didn’t skip. But, in all honesty, I didn’t skip because I had a crush on her. The reality is that I don’t recall high school classes bringing any sense of happiness or joy to my life.
The answer to this question always came back to Kevin Gildea. My university professor in Canadian Literature. I was not excited about the course. In fact, if it was not a required course at Carleton, I would never have taken it. Canadian Literature? Why would I want to read a bunch of books about pioneers trapped in a snowstorm? But, Gildea pushed me to think. He introduced me to the world of critical theory. Yes, I remember reading Ondaatje, Birney and Moodie, but more importantly I realized how thinkers like Marx, Heidegger, Rousseau and Bakunin could influence how I read. The Can-Lit canon was merely a means of understanding the bigger ideas at play. Canadian literature wasn’t about a pioneer roughing it in the bush; it was about the individual attempting to understand their sense of self in an unforgiving land that is unloving and crushing. Woah.
Of course, there was no course for this at Teacher’s college. There was no course that told us to teach ideas that were bigger than the curriculum. There was no course that told us to make students feel awkward, uncomfortable and out of their depth.
I often share with students the feelings I would have in Gildea’s (and subsequent others) classes. In those classes, I would feel lost. The term I find myself using is drowning. I was drowning in a sea of ideas that I didn’t think I was smart enough to comprehend. Week after week I would flail around, my arms swinging to grab onto something stable, something that would save me. Yet, there was nothing. I was drowning. So, I kicked. I would sit in the library (this was before the internet existed in everyone’s pocket) and wrestle with secondary texts. I would flail. Searching through stacks of sources, each one more confusing than the previous one. And I would gasp for breath. Finding occasional bits of knowledge that would help me to put together the puzzle. And then, as if by magic, I would be lucky enough to grasp the idea. I could suddenly swim.
My job - as a teacher - it would seem, was to arm my students, not with the curriculum, but with a sense of fearlessness when it comes to learning. In short, my job is to teach them to swim when the waves feel like they are going to pull them under.
The question is am I willing to push them into the water? And, perhaps more importantly, are they willing to swim?
Yes, it is true. I am the teacher who asks you to read “through a lens” and, whether it be feminism, marxism or post-colonialism, there had better be an “ism” in your analysis somewhere. These ideas come from my post-secondary education at Carleton, and my deeply held opinion that without a strong idea, one’s writing lacks power. Of course, these ideas are hard for people to grasp, or at least that is what people think. Throughout this semester, I have had several students who have written on the topic of a hero in texts like Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Fahrenheit 451 and Ender’s Game. During our initial conversations, the students found themselves trying to force dynamic multi-dimensional characters into a small concrete, and limited definition of a hero. You know the one I mean; the hero is a good person who does the right thing. Then I would introduce them to two other ideas. Joseph Campbell’s idea of the archetype hero, was a good fit for something like Ender, or even 451’s Guy Montag. However, to try and fit a character like V or Rorschach into Campbell’s definition is akin to fitting a 747 into a pop bottle. So, I did the unthinkable. I let grade ten students - those innocent young minds - loose on Friedrich Nietzsche’s existential hero. Were there questions? Of course, there were. Was there confusion? Of course. Was there fear (and trembling)? Absolutely. But, more importantly, there was a shred of understanding and a degree of thinking that those students didn’t know they could do in an English class. When I discussed their choice of essays with the students later in the semester they used words like “scary”, but afterwards, one student said, “I am really proud of myself”. Isn’t this the answer we always want from our students? It should be, but instead, we have created a system that rewards good work, but not always challenging work.
Did these students feel like they were drowning? Sure they did. It certainly would have been easier to write a paper or a more simple topic. They could have done that. They could have gotten a 70% and went home content. Instead, they took a risk. They read a copious amount of writing that was not mandated by the course outline. And, instead of feeling content, they felt “proud”.
But, what about those who don’t want to swim? What about those who want to stay at the shallow end of the beach. Fine. Stay there. But, be comfortable with your average, or even below-average mark. If you are like I was in high school you will be fine. But, if you are like I was in University you will hurl yourself into the deep-dark seas and rage against the waves of challenge.
The truth is that by focusing on student comfort, we are forcing kids to think about their marks instead of thinking about the creative and critical ways of dealing with a question. So, instead of challenging themselves and facing a fear they instead play it safe. And safe, as they say, is boring. Besides, boring isn’t going to create the leaders of the future, and God knows, we need that.
From behind the wheel a 2 tonne weapon
gruelingly tears down the road.
The wheel shakes at the turn and the heart revs.
Although he does not wear a helmet he feels the adrenaline.
A squeal pierces the rural air.
And as the back end losses any semblance of control,
The soundtrack to his own film blares from the stereo.
The bass and drum rumble through the speakers.
The guitar holds onto the rhythm for dear life.
The voice screams in unforeseen agony.
The shine of the moon highlights the road.
His right wheels bounce off the new paving as he prepares for the 180.
A van comes around the bend.
The sleeping child never saw a thing.
The mother was on the passenger's side.
She never heard her child's last cry.
The father at least had four hours to remember them as they were.
I feel for the driver in the aftermath
of a crashed car on a rural road somewhere west of the city.
I feel for the driver
who has been raised on speed, power and the belief that he cannot die.
Regret is a powerful tool. It is a tool that can bury you, or a tool that can help us escape. How you choose to use this tool is up to you. Recently, I watched Larry Smith’s Ted Talk Why you will fail to have a great career. The talk appears pessimistic but at its root is a promise of greatness. A promise fuelled by passion. Of course, what we often don’t relate with passion is hard work and risk. Just because you are passionate about something it doesn’t mean that it comes easy. It should mean that you should want to work hard to achieve success in that given field. But, what about risk?
We seem to avert ourselves from risk. We are scared to take risks. Why? Risks can – and usually do – bring about great insight. As a 40 year old I can look back on my life, those points where I did not take risks are clear and evident. However, I think as I reflect on my life thus far I see that I was someone who took big risks. I mean, when my fellow twenty-something friends were completing University and taking on “the real world” I crossed the country in an old brown van playing bad rock n‘ roll in star-studded locals like Sudbury, Saskatoon, Moncton and Vancouver’s Pigeon Park. Beyond that I hit the road with other bands, tried my hand at stand-up comedy, and – in general – led a life seemingly devoid of much purpose at all. In retrospect, as a “mature” adult, this seems risky. But, still, there are moments when I can look back and think, “If only I had…”.
When I was about 19 or 20 I was out of work. Now, this was a time when you found jobs through both want ads in the local newspaper and through friends or family. I interviewed for two jobs. The one was a banal factory job. It was close to home, probably with a clear schedule, shift work no doubt, and probably pretty thin on skill. But, for a 19 year-old it was perfect. I would learn what I needed to learn quickly, show up, do it, leave, and collect a meager pay cheque, which I would spend on music and filling up my vehicle to get my band to whatever venue in Southern Ontario we were playing that weekend.
The other job however was as a horse trainer. The potential employer needed someone to come in during the week to walk and groom the horses, do some training and then join him when the horses did events.
I remember being honest with the gentlemen at the interview.
“I’m sorry, but I have no experience with horses.”
However, being desperate for work, I no doubt also announced in some trite uber-positive tone that “I was a quick learner” or “ready for a challenge”. It turns out the second point was probably a lie, because two days later, when I was offered the job, I turned it down. Actually, I asked him if I could have a few hours to think about it. In those hours I waited by the phone hoping for a call from the factory. At points over those few hours I talked myself into the challenge. Sure, I’m not great at getting up early and the job will be cold and dirty, but this could be fun. You like animals. You’d have complete control over the training of a horse. That’s pretty cool. Yet, despite my best attempt to convince myself, when the factory called I said yes and called back the “horse guy” to decline his offer.
Now, go on and ask me the name of that factory.
The thing is I can’t remember.
Ask me what I learned there about the industry.
I can’t recall.
Ask me what I learned about myself at that job.
It didn’t take long for me to wonder what would have become of me if I had taken that job. Now, by no means do I believe that I would have been a professional horse trainer, or had a horse in the Queen’s Plate, but I do believe that if I had only taken that challenge I would have learned a lot about what I was capable of doing. Although I took risks, they were calculated. Sure, I did stand-up comedy. But, as a front man for a tongue-in-cheek rock band that was not such a leap. It was in my “wheelhouse” or my comfort zone. I was good being on a stage and liked being the centre of attention (this might explain why teaching was my future career choice), so the risks I took generally involved me doing just that.
A horse trainer. What did I know about training horses? But, isn’t that the point of life? I took the easy way out, even when someone was willing to take a risk on me and help me learn a new skill. I turned him down. It’s a regret I try to no longer make. When someone offers me the opportunity to try something different in my career I take the opportunity. Because I never know how the experience will shape me.
I am not sure what happened to “horse guy”. Not sure who got the job. All I know is that he didn’t lose out, I did.
Yet again, it seems the Fraser Institute has shown us just how foolish they are.
In a recent publication the "right-wing think tank" (who just a few weeks ago told Canadians it was possible to raise a child for $3000 a year) came up with a plan that would see teacher pay tied to student achievement. The report entitled Obtaining Better Teachers for Canadian Public Schools was authored by Rodney Clifton, whose resume shows a lot of writing, but does not mention anything about time spent in an actual class. And this disconnect between theory and practice is evident throughout Mr. Clifton's report. Ultimately, the entire idea of merit pay is built on several false illusions, and as such to connect teacher pay to such illusions is ineffective and foolish.
In a recent interview with CBC's Here & Now Clifton argued that teachers should be subject to merit pay. In such a system teacher pay (for the most part) would be allocated based on incremental scores at the beginning and the end of the year. One can only assume that such assessment would be done through a standardized format, much like the literacy tests the Fraser Institute is so keen on.
In the interview and the corresponding report Clifton notes (albeit briefly) some of the challenges behind the system. He seems to see unions as the most problematic risk. How odd that their members would not support a system that puts them at odds with their fellow employees. But, he also notes that standardizing tests as means of assessing whether the student has received an effective teacher is a means by which education can circumnavigate the dangerous territory of socioeconomics. Socioeconomics has never been the Fraser Institute's forte. We see little-to-no analysis of the socioeconomics of schools in their annual Report Card, so we shouldn't be surprised that they seem to believe that a standardized test can over ride years of economic hardship.
I teach at a school with a house-hold income far greater than other regional schools. We - not surprisingly - have the highest literacy scores in our board. As we should. It goes without saying that parents with access to educational resources will more than likely be able to raise relatively strong students. Prior to my current posting I taught at a school on the other end of the socioeconomic scale. Annually, this school ranks near the bottom of the Institute's list. The truth is that socioeconomics are key to not only student engagement, but accessibility.
The Neo-Conservative Fraser Institute slithers through our media perpetuating a myth that our teachers are shamelessly inadequate. But, what they seem to forget is that the problems they see within our school are systematic problems that stem from the very thinking that they endorse. Instead of properly investing in schools, education and ensuring that our students are socially secure so as to be educated, they have chosen to merely focus on the issue of pay. Perhaps, instead of focusing on a right-wing American style merit system that is in all estimations is a disaster perhaps Mr. Clifton should consider looking at the countries nearer the top of the list, like that of Norway. Instead of the merit system, Norway has chosen a differentiated model that "provides a place for everyone, for all children and adults, with their various talents and ability levels".
In the aforementioned CBC interview Clifton stated that standardized testing would be key in assessing the "effectiveness" of a given teacher. However, others - most specifically Pasi Sahlbeg, Alfie Kohn & Sir Ken Robinson - have more than efficiently explained why these tests don't work. Most recently Thomas S. Poetter wrote: "Classrooms should be rich places for intellectual activity, creativity, imagination, and wonder. Furthermore, choice, a critical aspect of a democratic life, has been almost completely removed from the classroom for both students and teachers. In many cases, teachers can’t help but do what they’re told to do, and often regress in their work, taking the path of least resistance to satisfy the boss and other powers that be. If test scores are going to be the one and only judge of educational worth, why jeopardize any stake you have in the enterprise? Teach to the test; students might score better, and all will be well. Right?". The truth is obvious Mr. Clifton. Using standardized tests as a means of assessing a teacher's effectiveness is, well, ineffective. Teachers will no doubt teach to the test, because if that is what the governing body of the institution would deem important, then it is what we would do.
Furthermore, Clifton seems to celebrate the idea that "schools that demonstrate that their students are progressing at acceptable, or better, rates should receive block grants from their districts that would be awarded by principals in cooperation with superintendents to teachers and other personnel on the basis of their contribution to the students’ academic progress". Oh, that does sound lovely. Gifts given to schools for not creating imagination and wonder, but for merely "teaching to a test". But, what Clifton has ignored (because again, it is a socioeconomic issue) is that such incentives would marginalize inner-city schools, where socioeconomic barriers often keep students from achieving success.
Of course, to do away with standardized testing you must first hold teachers in high regard, something I would argue many in our society don't. But, the reason I would argue that they don't is often based on the assumptions put out their by scholars like Clifton. If we accept, that teachers are not professional and lack credibility, then we can justify standardized testing. But, the case is that for the most part this just isn't true. This style of testing is, according to Sahlberg a "virus that must be eliminated to enhance standards of learning". But, instead of it being a virus Clifton seems to see it as a means of rewarding the well off at the expense of others.
I would however like to commend Mr. Clifton on two points. Firstly, he notes the "characteristics of effective teachers". Upon reading this section I was proud to see that our staff, our principals and board have not only encouraged these practices but moreover embedded them into our daily rituals. Secondly, I would like to commend Mr. Clifton for finally admitting that standardized testing is not about students, but as he articulates clearly in his report, is about teachers. Something proponents of standardized tests have always told us was not the case.
Teachers, Mr. Clifton are professionals. We are not going to fight one another in a pedagogical Hunger Games tearing off the last rations of whatever your think tank believes should be allotted to us. We are professionals, who deserve to be treated as such. So, instead of hinging an entire theoretical argument on a word like "effective" I would ask you to walk into a class and teach that student who does not want to spend a minute in school. Come and meet the student who can't read because his parent(s) was too busy working 12 hour shifts to even know where he was, yet alone what he was reading. Sit down and try to explain to a kid who thinks the system is broken that a test is really about what is best for him. All your books and reports might tell you one thing. But, to truly understand what we get paid for, I recommend you leave the Ivory tower and join us in the classrooms, where we work to encourage, to create and to inspire. In other words, we are already effective Mr. Clifton, now we just need a system that can help us be more effective.
When I first started teaching in Ottawa talk started to spread about a new Assessment and Evaluation policy. Teachers went ballistic. However, over the next two years we went to implementation meetings (both at the board level and within our schools) and special talks with Damian Cooper and anyone else they could find to promote these new ideas. Teachers in Ottawa reacted, some reacted with a fervor for change, while others reacted in anger. Now, I am teaching in the Waterloo Region District School Board and once again the board is traipsing out Damian Cooper to sell us on Assessment and Evaluation techniques.
The problems are various. First off, I have yet to see (or even hear) of a school board implementing a policy change well. For months I have voiced my concern that parents seem to know nothing of this new policy. Sure, the obligatory newsletter will go out, but ultimately it we be the teachers who, during awkward parent-teacher interviews, will be left to explain the changes. Instead of being upfront with our "clients" we are appear to be sneaking this policy change in through the back door.
Secondly, they have tried to sell it teachers by means of presenting us with Damian Cooper. Now, I should point out that I agree with many of the ideas that Damian Cooper puts forward. I believe wholeheartedly that we should do far more assessment. I also believe that assessment should be fair, transparent and equitable. However, there are few educators whom I react to as negatively as Mr. Cooper. I, and several of my colleagues, have found him to be condescending. Whether referring to teachers as "babies" to this new world of assessment or continuously saying things like "you don't understand" Cooper does little gain our support.
With that said, Cooper's ideas are essentially right.
However, what Cooper fails to acknowledge is that teachers in Ontario have been following these practices for several years. Our assessment practices are fair and balanced, our practices do support students, our practices do relate to the curriculum, and by embracing differentiated learning we are relating more and more to the interests, learning styles and preferences, of our students.
Sure there are points that we need to improve upon. For example, we do need to improve on providing ongoing descriptive feedback that is clear, specific, meaningful, and timely to support. And, this assessment will most definitely improve on student learning and ultimately our students' success.
The implementation of the new Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting policy in the Waterloo Region has done a lot to divide the Board, administration, and teachers. However, we teachers must now take this new policy and implement it. The arguments have been "made", our disagreements "acknowledged" and concerns "heard". It is now time for us to stop lamenting our pre-AER life. It is time for us to figure out how we as teachers are going to implement the new policy with the spirit with which it is intended. If we do not then we will create a divide between us and our most important shareholders: our students.
Take off your shirt. Go ahead, take it off and look at the label. Where was it made? Odds are you are not wearing a shirt made in Canada, the United States or really, just about about anywhere in the European Union. Of course, this is and should not be news to anyone. We surely don't think that the cheap clothing we wear each and everyday is socially neutral? Or, perhaps the bigger question is do we care?
On April 24th in the town of Dhaka, Bangladesh an eight-storey factory building collapsed. Within a day the dead numbered 152. This week the death toll has surpassed 1000. The building was being used to produce cheap clothing for "westerners". Perhaps most shocking for Canadians was the inclusion of Joe fresh (a subsiduary of Loblaws was using the facility). Here is the thing, I am not quite sure why we're so shocked. It appears that we in North America are incredibly disconnected from the brand names that we wear each and everyday. However, this has been a issue with clothing since Nike first took its manufacturing out of the United States in the 1970s. In fact, one could argue that this has always been a problem throughout history. The Egyptian pyramids were crafted by non-Egyptian slaves and the cotton of the southern states was not picked by white people. Modern sweatshops are an extension of historical slavery (shame on those professional basketball players selling Nike and Adidas), however now, we don't have it in our own backyards, so it becomes all the easier to ignore.
The Joe Fresh website lists a Women's classic tank at $5. Think about what $5 can purchase. This shirt, a piece of clothing, is worth less than a meal at McDonalds. Does this seem reasonable? How much would be too much? Of course we can find similar deals at Target, Walmart and just about any other discount retailer, which only creates more justification for the incredibly low prices. But, what about the social cost of buying clothing? By comparison, companies like American Apparel and Canadian-owned Red Canoe show tank tops in excess of $20. These prices obviously note a difference in how these products were made. In the example of Red Canoe you have products made in Canada by Canadian workers. Just to note the differences in wages a Bangladeshi worker gets an average income of $38 a month. In comparison, a Canadian textile worker makes approximately $1200 a month. Thus the price of a shirt made here, employing Canadians is - of course - going to be more expensive.
Obviously, in light of the Bangladeshi collapse, we have begun to focus on clothing. However, in doing so we ignore the other products being built outside of Canada in nations that treat workers' rights - and indeed civil rights - objectionably. In fact just 12 days prior to the Bangladeshi collapse Dollarama released its earnings for the 2013 financial year. The discount giant "reported a profit of just under $221 million". This figure was up almost 50 million from the 2012 figures. The fact is that Canadians love discounted merchandise and apparently we do not care about the social cost associated with them. Walmart Canada is the fourth richest private company (behind two insurance companies and an oil company) in Canada. They are a virtual juggernaut of discounted materials that are - like dollarama - mostly made in sweatshops or using cheap third-world labour. One needs not look any further than the anticipated arrival of Target in Canada to see that Canadian shoppers are prone to say that our freedoms and human rights are important, but get far more excited about cheap ironic T-Shirts than we do about workers' rights. The list goes on and on: Starbucks, Burberry, Disney, Reitmans, Adidas. No matter what the industry, the truth is that as we flock to discount retailers and seem willing to put our "belief" in rights on hold in favour of "low, low prices".
Of course, the argument that allows us to sleep at night is a simple one: people in third-world countries need jobs and we provide those jobs in the form of cheap labour. Some economists rather dishonestly argue that the alternatives to sweatshops are much worse. Yes, the truth is that working in the apparel industry does pay more than just about anything else in a third-world country. But, what we often forget is that the apparel industry is established by major players and built off of our consumer fetishism. The fact is that those employed by other means in these countries are not paid by multi-national corporations. In other words, multi-billion-dollar companies are choosing to pay workers slightly more than those living is complete poverty. Phil Krugman, in a piece in Slate magazine noted that these workers are "inevitably, paid very little and expected to endure terrible working conditions...because their employers are not in business for their (or their workers') health; they pay as little as possible, and that minimum is determined by the other opportunities available to workers". Therefore, if a multi-national corporation sets up in a third-world country they do so only because there are little opportunities and by extension it is far cheaper to create products. A living wage in Bangladesh is a mere $22 a month more than the average apparel workers in Bangladesh. Ultimately, if those wages are even minimally raised the positive outcomes to the economy would be monumental, whereas the impact on the corporations' "bottom line" would be minimal. So, in truth the argument that we are somehow helping the poor workers of the world instead only shows how the multi-national corporations that we abide to don't care at all. Perhaps more importantly, if we are trusting in and buying into those companies, we by extension are complicit in their objectification of the poor. And, perhaps that is the biggest issue.
Over the past two weeks we have looked at the pictures of Dhaka and (hopefully) felt sympathy for those who have been left without family members. But, in actuality, have we given it a second thought as we have bought products since? I think the answer is a resounding "no". Sure, Galen Weston Jr. "vowed to be a force of good", but at the end of the day this is meaningless when we acknowledge that it is coming from the 2nd richest family in Canada and a company that sells Tees for $5 a piece. The cynic in me sees a Canadian company ready to do battle with Walmart and Target, and a Canadian population looking for the cheapest price. As the press of the world allow Mr. Weston and others like him to slip quietly into the rubble of Dhanka, it is up to us - not the industry - to make change.
Of course people will argue that they don't know if their clothing is made "ethically" and therefore, are unable to do much. But, in reality I think we do know, or at least have an inkling. We are instead choosing not to care. Sarah Morris, business development director of Trajectory Partnership, has said that the Bangladeshi building collapse will "have scant long term impact on a cash strapped" or "utterly disengaged" consumer. We know the nations of the world that are living in abject poverty and we know, that if we take the time to read the labels we would still - even knowing the conditions that the clothing was made in - probably decide to buy the shirt.
When we search out the lowest of low prices, we trade our souls, our morals and our selves.
I hope I am wrong. But sadly, I don't think I am.
Besides, it's okay if I get a really good deal right?
First they came for the Canada Post,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a postal worker.
Then they came for the Air Canada,
and I didn't speak out because I had tickets for Cuba.
Then they came for the teachers
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a teacher (besides they get the summer off).
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
I in no way wrote this to undermine the real issues that Martin Niemöller was talking about in his poem. Nor am I connecting the Ontario Liberal Party, or the Federal Conservative Party to Hitler's Germany. But, when the Canada Post workers were ordered back to work, and then the Air Canada workers were sent back to work I couldn't help but think of the layout of this poem. Over the last few months I have heard from nurses and prison guards who have said "we're next". As I see it the Governments of North America are coming after unions, and by extension, workers.
You might not be a teacher. But, "if you work in Ontario this is your fight".
As a teacher we are often told that the Workplace student's future is equally important to that of the academic student. Yet, as I search through the internet on a variety of issues facing graduating High School students and the idea of life-long learning I couldn't help but notice that the articles are targeted to one demographic: the academic student.
In Neil Postman's Graduation Speech he notes that the world is divided between Athenians and Visigoths. Those with a passion for life-long learning, reading and culture are the Athenians and those who do not have such a passion are the Visigoths. He also makes it clear that "you do not become an Athenian merely by attending school or accumulating academic degrees" adding that his "father-in-law was one of the most committed Athenians" despite being merely a "dress cutter on Seventh Avenue". The same, I might argue can be said for my father-in-law who reads several papers from start-to-end everyday. It seems that in the past we instilled in students the passion to know. However, I wonder if we have forgotten the importance of instilling reading and life-long learning in our College-level, or more importantly, workplace students?
As my own grade 12 Workplace students graduate high school they do so with great excitement, for they will - in their estimation - never have to read or apparently learn again. Yes, of course, they believe that they will learn how to do certain tasks like plumbing or renovations or learn while on the job. However, they seem to not see that learning goes beyond that, and perhaps that is where we as educators have failed?
As an English teacher, I often begin my classes by asking students to think of a book they loved. They immediately react to this question defensively, as if to admit that they ever enjoyed a book places them in a group with "those" students who are forever reading and poised to be "stuck behind a desk". At some point though teachers have to admit that we played a role in the death of literature. We were an accessory to the crime. Even the most reluctant reader can reflect on a time when they loved entering the zany world of Dr. Seuss, or the oddly awkward stories of Robert Munsch and/or the cadence of Dennis Lee's Alligator Pie. But, then we stepped in. We "guardians of language" (as Stephen Fry referred to us) chastised them for their use of grammar, told them they dare not start a sentence with and, and drowned them in symbolism & theme. Just when we had them there drinking from the fountain of beautiful poetry and prose, we killed that love. I can already hear my colleagues ready to rhyme off Academic students who went to study literature here or there. But, what of the others? What about those students who will work as a cashier, a farm hand, a labourer or dress cutter? However, we teachers are not alone in the blame for this wave of reading reluctance.
An occupational hazard in my profession is that I have a preponderance for reading. Thus, our house has numerous bookshelves holding numerous books. As too do my children's bookshelves. Yet, I am amazed when I walk into peoples' homes and see relatively few books (it is even more strange when I don't see books in the homes of fellow teachers). There was once a time when parents read to their children. The joyous first memories we have of reading should (and hopefully do) involve parents taking us into the world of Seuss, Munsch, Lee. Can't you see parents smiling with rolled eyes as their kids, cuddling up in beds or on a comfy couch pull out the same book they wanted last night, the night before that, and even the night before that? Yet, what happened? When did we stop mentoring that reading? When did parents lay the entire onus of reading on young people deciding other things were more important? Instead of mentoring reading they seemingly chose overscheduled calendars, or TV viewing.
I have recently taught a student whose parents want her to get higher marks. So, every week or so she comes to me and asks - as if memorized from some script - "what can I do to get 70%?"
The last time she asked I replied with my own question. "How many hours did you practice hockey this weekend?"
The girl seemed a little shocked but replied quickly "about 4 hours". I then asked her how many hours she had read.
I know I don't have to give you the answer, because as I already mentioned, we killed reading. Parents, and educators together have created a generation of truly reluctant readers who don't care if it is in a magazine, tablet, graphic novel or whatever other form a publisher has decided might sell. The truth is that "those" kids will read, get a job (perhaps even "behind a desk") and read the paper, the news, blogs, non-fiction, histories, biographies and even the occasional novel. But, the sad truth is that the other students, those students who begrudgingly pushed through each and every one of their English classes and raged against literacy like it was the "dying of the light" won't.
Tonight my daughter and I ended our day together perched on our sectional in a relatively new little ritual. One of us facing east and one of us facing north. Each of us was reading our own book. Now, if I can only get that love of literature across to the 16, 17 and 18 year-old students counting down the days until they graduate...when they never again have to read.
I have been meaning to write more lately. Although, what to write often eludes me. Don't get me wrong, the medium of Twitter allows me to share my views in 140 characters, but let's be perfectly honest, it has been a heavy few days, and although for great thinkers 140 characters might be more than enough, for me it hardly seems acceptable. It is Monday December 17th, 2012. It has been 4 days since a gunman entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and took the lives of 26 people. This seems like the right time to say something.
I spent the better part of the weekend between my kids and the avalanche of online news regarding the Newtown shooting and the impending war of words between the American "Right" and "Left". I forged into Twitter with my own opinions and held tight to them with undaunted earnest. When hanging out with my kids I thought on the sadness of parents in Newtown, while online my lefty-socialist leanings took me into frustrated diatribes against those I deemed know-nothing-gun-totting Conservatives. My opinions heightened my anger and to a certain extent dulled my emotional response to the truth (once the media finally got around to reporting it).
As this flurry of sad news descends, we are all - rightfully - concerned about our children. But, I think we too often get caught up in the media onslaught of fear and forget to talk and more importantly listen to our young people. We instinctively look to protect our children (as we should), but forget that they might have a view on this that seems "wise beyond their years". We need to read our young people, and if they are mature enough, listen to their thoughts and feelings.
In their often simplistic answers there is root problem, and more often a solution we cannot see for the cut-off nose that dangles so often from our face. My 8 year old daughter asked about the Newtown shooting on Friday. After an honest, although albeit a simplified version of events, she asked "why did he do it?". I of course didn't know the answer. But, I presumed that it was the same reason that most people go to peaceful places with the means and ways to horrifically destroy and kill, sickness. So, I told my daughter that "he was sick". My daughter's response hit at the crux of the problem: "why didn't a doctor help him?". Yes, this is a simple answer. She doesn't know a thing about the ideological arguments regarding private coverage, insurers, or public health care. And of course my 8 year old daughter doesn't know the financial issues that go with health care and mental illness. But, to be perfectly honest, who cares? So often we want to politicize issues or find a means of explaining something that corresponds with our own ideologies. But, a child tends to see the issues for what they really are. They see the honesty of the issue. To them the politics and bias that weigh down adults are irrelevant. The issue is simply black or white. Therefore, we dismiss their ideas. But, perhaps sometimes somethings really should be black and white, uncorrupted and clear. A child's view is, at its purest, unadulterated. The etymology of the word adulterate is "to falsify or corrupt". Note how we connect the idea of falsifying with adulthood. To be unadulterated is to be void of this corruption, and to see things as a child does, pure with no added bias.
As I write this I cannot help but think on a poem I read in my Romantics and Victorians class at Carleton University. In it William Wordsworth wrote that "child is the father of man." And, although there is debate about the line, ultimately - as I see it - what we are as adults we gained from our childhood. So, don't we as adults have an obligation to give our young people the freedom to think without bias, without judgement and without fear? Because they, like us, will have the rest of their lives to live with those millstones.
I write about education, music, politics and my own philosophical conundrums. If I have left you thinking about something let me know. Sometimes I think this world needs more thinking.