education, Teacher

How to Solve our Country’s Math “Problem”

The Globe and Mail recently featured a top fold, bold-font headline that screamed: “THE FIGHT TO SOLVE OUR MATH PROBLEM”!

I was disappointed to see there was no picture attached to this headline. I was hoping for a shot of an army of stern-looking math teachers, holding pencils and books, brought in by the government to get our kids back to basicsChicken-Little_Sky-is-Falling

The PISA results were released on December 4 and the hand-wringing and head-shaking began almost immediately. In case you hadn’t heard the earth-shattering news, our Canadian students dropped from 10th place in 2003 to 15th spot in 2012. The PISA is a survey (standardized test) of more 510,000 15-year-olds from 65 participating economies that focuses on mathematics.

John Manley, President and CEO of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, ominously declared, ““This is on the scale of a national emergency.”

OMG! Call in the Math Army! This is worse than the ice storm of 1998!

So scary...just like our math scores. Hold me, John Manley.
So scary…just like our math scores. Hold me, John Manley.

Now, Mr. Manley, sir, I realize you are trying to help parents who want nothing more than to ensure that little Billy won’t be living in their basement (probably playing Call of Duty 16) when he’s 35. BUT, jeez Louise! It’s ONE test! Of 15-year-olds!

Don’t get me wrong. I love and respect 15-year-olds. My youngest child is 15-years-old. My other son was just recently 15.

I, myself (believe it or not), was once 15.

Priority#3 when I was 15. Cannot include picture of French boyfriend, who was priority #1, due to silly privacy laws.
Priority#3 when I was 15 – making sure I never ran out of Silver City Pink lipstick. Cannot include picture of French boyfriend, who was priority #1, due to silly privacy laws.

I remember being 15. Acing my math test was important, but it wasn’t my top priority.

I’m not saying the PISA results mean nothing. They do. They are a great snapshot of how our 15-year-olds are able to demonstrate some of their math understanding compared to kids the same age around the world.

But we teach so much more than math in our schools these days. We actually teach more than just academics. And this is the problem. We have too many things on our plate.

Let’s start with math, seeing as it’s a national emergency and all.

In my province, there are 7 strands of math that have to be covered over the course of the grade 4 year. These include everything from number sense to graphing to probability. Within each of these strands are a variety of specific outcomes. Each carries the same amount of weight on a report card. At last count there were 65 specific outcomes. If you are in grade 4, learning your multiplication facts up to 9 is 1 of those.

It’s not that teachers don’t know how to teach basic mathematical operations and number sense. (Trust me. We do. If I have to do one more in-service on how to teach multiplication, I will poke my eyes out with hot sticks.)

The problem is that there are sooooo many other things to teach that eventually you have to move on. If the kids don’t know their math facts, oh well, because now it’s time to teach them how to read a circle graph. With 65 outcomes to get through, there isn’t a lot of time for dilly-dallying.

And this overcrowded curriculum doesn’t apply just to math.

Schools today are expected to do the work that homes, churches and community groups did years ago.

SnapchatWe are now expected to teach children basic morality, like: thou shalt not post naked pictures of your classmate on the internet.

We are expected to feed kids who don’t get a proper breakfast at home.

We are somehow responsible for solving the childhood obesity problem, despite the fact that the government keeps cutting our phys.ed. programs.

There are even calls for schools to offer nature and gardening workshops (during school time) because children are not getting outdoor time when they get home. It appears their parents are incapable of prying their offspring’s little eyes of the screens and chubby fingers off the controllers and keyboards long enough for them to get outside and blow the stink off.

The tipping point for me occurred the other day when I heard a mother being interviewed on the radio. She was upset because her teenage daughter had gotten involved in prostitution. I was feeling sympathetic to her plight until she said, “The schools really need to be doing more to prevent this from happening.”

Seriously?!

SERIOUSLY?!!!

Let me see if I understand correctly…not only am I expected to teach reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, feed the hungry, and instil basic morality, but now you want me to put a stop to the world’s oldest profession?!

UNCLE!302_businessman_teacher_or_officeworker_surrendering_and_waving_the_white_flag

I’m waving the white flag.

#Just.can’t.do.it.all.anymore.

If the general public wants improved math scores, then we need to prioritize and delegate.

Families, community groups, and government organizations need to pick up the slack that our schools have slowly absorbed over the years.

The minute you start watering down a curriculum by adding in everything but the kitchen sink, you end up with a system that is mediocre at best.

The Asian schools that beat the pants off our kids in the PISA?

I guarantee you this: they are not spending their days talking about the dangers of SnapChat, while they pass out juice boxes and granola bars. They are doing kill and drill, all day long and then far into the night with tutors and special math schools.

Do I want their education system in my country? No. But don’t compare their math scores to mine, saying it’s apples to apples. If you want me to focus more on apples, just say the word. But you’ll need to get some of the other fruit out of my basket first.

are-you-smarter-300x225

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education, Teacher, Uncategorized

Report cards – Who are we writing them for?

In response to a request for feedback put forth by Nova Scotia’s Minister of Education, I wrote the following letter which I forwarded today.

writing117Dear Minister Jennex,

In a recent letter to The Chronicle Herald, you invited families, students and educators to offer feedback on the report card system.

In my experience, teachers are often extremely reluctant to speak publicly on matters of education for fear of being seen as insubordinate or disrespectful. They often worry that speaking out will affect their current teaching position or their future job prospects. This fear silences teachers and keeps valuable information from being shared.

As an active teacher currently working in the Nova Scotia school system, I am taking you at your word that my feedback will be accepted in the manner in which it was requested. I expect that you will consider my comments to be neither disrespectful nor insubordinate. My only intent is to pass along my experience with the current report card system with the hopes that this ‘insider information’ will help to improve the current system.

My concern is that there appears to be a disconnect between what is being said and what is being done.

In your letter, you stated:

Comments on report cards should provide clear, straightforward information to parents about how their child is achieving and progressing in relation to program expectations and learning outcomes.

The HRSB policy on assessment states that report cards must be written: “using language that is based on learning outcomes and is easily understood by parents/guardians.” 

What we have here is an oxymoron.

To ensure report cards are easily understood by all parents/guardians, we need to use clear and straight-forward language. But, when we must deal exclusively with learning outcomes, we are forced to use eduspeak.

It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do both at the same time and have anyone, other than other trained educators, understand what you ‘really’ mean.

In your letter you also stated:

It is important for families to know that teachers are expected to produce individual report cards for students. The idea that they must use only “canned” comments is not true. Teachers are encouraged to include personalized comments.

While I don’t presume to speak for all teachers, the ones I know, myself included, have not been encouraged to include personalized comments. In fact, most personalized comments have been discouraged and crossed out by administrators only to be replaced by general outcomes-based language.   

As a former teacher, I know you are aware that teachers spend hundreds of hours writing report cards every year. And while it is true that we are not given “canned comments”, it is true that we have been specifically told by our administrators what we may and may not include in these comments.  Over the years, this list of what is permissible to say has been whittled down to such a narrow point that often all that is left is what you might call a ‘canned’ comment.

All Nova Scotia schools (as far as I am aware) require teachers to submit their report cards to be proofread and edited by an administrator before they are sent home. This helps to pick up on most of the inevitable typos that occur when you type 100+ pages of reports, but it also ensures that all comments are outcomes-based and do not include any information that strays from this focus.

HRSB policy states that teachers are required to develop accurate report cards by always relating grading and reporting to the learning outcomes and excluding characteristics that are not linked to learning outcomes (such as effort, behaviour and attendance). 

As well, individual student achievement will be measured against defined curriculum outcomes rather than compared to other students or measures of individual academic growth (and is) not be based on measures such as students’ social development and work habits, bonus points, student absence, missed/late assignments, group scores, neatness.

How is a teacher supposed to personalize a comment for a student when all personal information has to be excluded?  Once again, we have ourselves a paradox.

There are many different ways for teachers to communicate with parents outside of report cards. As we used to say at my school, “No parent should ever be surprised by what they read on a report card.” Yes, we send home completed tests and projects and samples of work, we write newsletters, we make appointments to meet with parents and we call them when specific issues arise. We also have board scheduled parent-teacher interview times. Unfortunately, in the HRSB at least, parent-teacher interviews are no longer scheduled to follow the issuance of report cards. Any parent who is confused by their child’s report card must make a separate appointment to meet with or speak to their child’s teacher. For a variety of reasons, not all parents are able or willing to do this. Many of them rely on their child’s report card to be self-explanatory, as they should be.

In the end, it’s simple.

Parents want to know how their child is doing in school. They want to know what their child is good at and what they struggle with both academically and socially. They want to ensure that their child is a happy, independent learner. They want what’s best for their child. And students, even the little ones, want to know when they’ve done well and how they can do better.

We need to improve our current report card system so that parents and students understand what we are saying. Otherwise, what is the point of having report cards at all?

writing118

Memoir, Pop Culture, Princess, Raves, Suburban

True Confession: I was a Disney virgin

writing90Growing up in the suburbs of New Brunswick in the late 70’s, it was pretty clear that only the rich families went to Florida on vacation.

Vacations with my family did not consist of getting on a plane and flying to…well, anywhere.

Instead, they involved an annual 14-hour drive (each way) to southern Ontario to visit the grandparents and assorted relatives.

My mother packed breakfast, lunch and supper and we drove straight through. My father white-knuckled it beside crazy-Quebec drivers, while my brother and I bounced around (sans seatbelts) in the back of the car. We would flip the seats down in the station wagon and lay out the sleeping bags, so we could read our comic books and punch each other until someone reached back and smacked at us from the front seat.

We never stopped at a hotel on the way for a night of fun and frivolity. Well, we might have once but I think it was because the car broke down and I don’t believe there was any frivolity.

Like I said, Disney was not part of my childhood. (Thanks a lot, Dad…you owe me for some serious therapy).

Fast-forward 20 years: my children are of that “Disney” age but still it’s not in the cards. For one thing, my boys were runners and climbers. Both had near-misses with cars around the age of 3 and I spent much of their early years just praying they wouldn’t die on my watch. Combine my fears of them running off into the Magic Kingdom and being kidnapped by Goofy with the fact that we had about 37 cents to rub together and once again, Disney was out of the picture.

It seemed as if I was destined to be a Disney virgin for life.

But then…all that changed.

writing93On a whim, my husband and I decided to take the plunge. We pulled the kids out of school and flew to the magical land of Mickey and Minnie. Granted, it wasn’t exactly the best time…my eldest graduates this year and 7 days out of school when you’re facing grade 12 exams probably wasn’t the smartest thing we could have done, but we were on a mission – we were Disney bound!

We left on a cool Canadian morning in May and arrived to steaming hot Orlando temperatures.

Our days were full.

I had bought tickets for 3 days in Disney, 2 days at Universal Studios, 1 day at SeaWorld, and 1 day at Wet and Wild. We left two days open for shopping and relaxing.

Let me tell you – those two days off?

Priceless.

My senses have never been so overloaded in my life.

Sights, sounds, smells – everything comes at you full speed at Disney (and by Disney, I mean all of the Orlando theme parks…they’re all Disney to me). You are on a thrill ride before you even set foot on a roller coaster.

I am grateful to have gone but I don’t know if I would go again. I think it’s something like childbirth. You would only do it again if you could forget what it was like the first time around.

All that said, since I am now an experienced veteran of all things Orlando, I will share my tips and observations with you. (You’re welcome.)

  1. All good things end in the gift shop…and all rides…and all shows. You literally walk through hundreds of gift shops during a week at Disney. Put on the blinders and march quickly through the gift shops. There are hundreds of discount stores mere miles from the amusement parks. You do not need a set of salt and pepper shakers shaped like Mickey and Minnie. And if you really, really do? Buy them for $9.99 at the outlet store, instead of $29.99 at the gift shop.
  2. As much as I enjoyed all of the ‘activities’, waiting for my boys to finish riding the crazy-ass roller coasters gave me the chance to people watch. There is nothing like people watching at Disney – you see all shapes, sizes, ethnic groups, ages and personalities and hear all types of accents. I saw people in clothing choices that made me wonder if they owned a mirror and I saw tatoos on everyone from grannies to pre-teens. It was like watching a movie.
  3. Babies at Disney…WTF?! I don’t get it. What benefit does a BABY get out of a day at an amusement park? Now, if you have other children and you’re just dragging the baby along for the ride, I kinda get it…I couldn’t do it, but I understand. But there were adults there with just a baby…trying to get the carnie-worker to let them take their BABY on the rollercoaster with them?!  Stop. Put.the.baby.down.  (One exception to the baby rule is my cousin Tracy, but that’s only because she is a superwoman and she does Disney with kids the way it should be done…with kid rides and kid activities.)
  4. Water rides will save your life. Don’t worry about getting soaking wet…you will get soaking wet but you won’t care because Orlando is stinking hot and you will dry quickly. The water rides will cool you off but even better than that, they will soothe any crankiness or nastiness that might be setting in after a day of sensory overload.
  5. Street food is everywhere. Word of advice? Walk away from the giant “turkey legs”. At $10 a piece, these things could feed an entire family. But should they? I have never seen a “turkey” with a leg that big. And the meat is pink, more like ham than turkey. I am pretty sure these things are made from some sort of weird hybrid. Turkey + pig = purkey.  I would not encourage the eating of purkey until more testing can be done.
  6. Carry your own bottled water. We bought a two-four of bottled water at a local convenience store for $2.99, which coincidentally is what you pay for ONE bottle of water at the parks. We hydrated ourselves like we were hiking through the Sahara desert.
  7. Carry some real food for lunches and snacks. Yeah, the street meat and deep fried foods are fun…for awhile. But there comes a time when you hit the wall and you can’t bring yourself to pay $7 for a hot dog that tastes like…well…a hot dog.
  8. Allow yourselves downtime. For us, it was sitting around in the evenings, watching TV or hanging out around the hotel pool. That’s when the kids would tell us what they liked, didn’t like, wanted to do, didn’t want to do.
  9. Enjoy it for what it is. Yes, it is a super-sized, commercialized, sensory experience but for me, it was a chance to spend time with my husband and our boys without any interruptions from real life. Just us and Mickey.
Turkey...really? Purkey is more like it.
Turkey…really? Purkey is more like it.
Memoir, Pop Culture, Princess, Raves, Suburban

Dallas vs. Dukes – A Friday Night Dilemma

dallasthe-dukes-of-hazzard

Larry Hagman died last week.  He was 81 and, by all accounts, was as nice a person as his alter-ego, J.R. Ewing, was nasty.

Coincidentally, also last week, my dad bought a new TV to replace the old one he had in his basement. Now, when I say old, I don’t mean 10 years old, I mean 1975 old! This was the very first color TV our family ever owned. We got it when I was in junior high. It only got the first 12 channels because there were only 12 buttons next to the screen. (You had to get your butt up off the couch if you wanted to change the channel.) But that was OK if you were living in New Brunswick in the 1970’s, because we only got two channels.

Every Friday night, my family (Mom, Dad, little bro, the beagle and me) would gather in our tiny family room to watch TV. We would break open the one bag of chips and the one bottle of pop. It was my mother’s job to divide the chips evenly into 4 plastic bowls – one for each of us. We couldn’t just share a bowl. That was crazy talk. And we’d each have a small glass of pop. I think we shared the same amount of pop among the four of us that I got at the movie theatre the other night for myself. (Hellooooo? people? When did we forget about portion size?)

Like I said, we only got two channels and for some reason unknown to anyone with a clue, the great programming gods of the day decided to put the two most popular shows of the time on opposite each other. So, every Friday night we had a dilemma.

Dukes or Dallas?

Usually we opted for fairness and equality. One week Dukes, one week Dallas. But remember, this was before DVRs, YouTube and even VCRs. If you missed a show, you missed it, unless somehow you were lucky enough to catch a repeat of the show months later and by then it didn’t matter. You already knew what happened.

Mom and I were already fans of Dallas, thanks to the casting of Patrick Duffy – the Man from Atlantis. (He was so cute with those little webbed feet.)

the_man_from_atlantis-show

My brother and father were big fans of the Duke boys and their crazy uncle, the evil Boss Hogg and, of course, Daisy Duke in her little jean shorts. (The dog was good either way. She was just happy to be inside, on the couch, with her peeps.)

catherine-bach-122284

(Sorry guys, no short shorts, but at least you can see the car!)

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t hate it when we had to watch D.O.H. Them Duke boys was awful cute and the show was funny, in a hillbilly sort of way. They were the original Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo family.

But I loved Dallas. I loved the theme music and the fact that everyone was so rich and beautiful. J.R. was the man you loved to hate. He said the most vile things with a smile on his face. And he was funny – wickedly funny. When J.R. was shot in Season 9, we spent months waiting and debating with the rest of the world about Who Shot J.R.?  On November 21, 1980 we gathered in our little family with our chips and pop and watched, with the 350 million other people who tuned in, to see who the culprit was. (In case you were living in a cave during that time, it was his mistress, Kristen. No wonder. He was really, really mean to her.)

Dallas started when I was 12, a dorky girl with a pageboy boy haircut, and wrapped it’s finally episode when I was 25, a married woman juggling a job, a husband and a house full of pets. Dallas was a part of my growing up.

jr ewing

“I know what I want on JR’s tombstone,” Hagman once said. “It should say: ‘Here lies upright citizen JR Ewing. This is the only deal he ever lost.'”

Rest in Peace, J.R.

_____________________________________________________________________

If you only had two channels, which would you have picked? (Remember: you’re only 12. You got nothin’ else to do.)

Dukes of Hazzard opening sequence: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxD0PqVlt5Q

The best of J.R. If you were a fan of Dallas or you just like funny stuff, check this out:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZV3365a7Ew&feature=related