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Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Honour the Parents

All parents know that moment when they realize just how fragile and vulnerable their little new baby is. At that moment they want to do everything to protect the child. We spend an enormous amount of time and energy keeping our babies and children safe. But it is more than this. We also want them to be happy and to avoid the growing pains that we went through ourselves.

But we also have to acknowledge the reality - that, if we want them to thrive in this less than perfect world, we cannot completely shelter them. No matter how much we wish to. Our job as parents, and as teachers, and as role models, is to teach them how to deal with the real world. It is no good to prepare them for an utopia that not only doesn't, but also in all likelihood can't, exist.

No matter when a child is first introduced to the larger society - daycare, playgroup, kindergarten, camp - the parent brings one critically important factor to the experience: the knowledge of the child. No one knows a child better than his parent. To anyone working with that child, that knowledge is priceless. The first insight into the makeup of the child comes from the parent. I have always felt that the first parent-teacher interview of the year should involve the teacher asking questions and the parents revealing their intimate knowledge of the students. Any teacher would benefit from this viewpoint.

Parents are always partners with the other people who help their children learn and grow. Parents should be respected for this and their role acknowledged. Just like we no longer just take the pill that the doctor gives us and stay ignorant about our own health, neither should we completely turn control of our child's education over to teachers and administrators. Yes, they know what is best for the average child, but your child is never average. In fact, the average child does not exist. It is a manifestation created from large amounts of data to provide a program that will suit most children most of the time. I would argue that that is not good enough, nor is it the way to run an education system.

Given the training and experience that good teachers have, they should be able to individually work with the parents for each child. Whenever I carefully express this opinion in the presence of teachers they always reply that there are too many children to do this. And yet, each teacher at the elementary level is only responsible for 30 children. This does not mean that the teacher needs to teach each child individually but that they first learn each child from the parent and from their own testing methods. Then they group the children for each skill at the appropriate level. They supply the tasks and the tools and let the children work it out in their own best way at their own time. With properly expressed expectations and responsibilities, this is not chaos but engaged learning - the only kind of learning that is meaningful.

Ask yourself this question: what lessons do you remember from high school? Why do you remember them? How much do you now consider useless? The curriculum has been put together by professionals who realize all the skills and knowledge that children should have to succeed in the real world. The fact that some of that you found useless is not the fault of the curriculum itself but the manner of the delivery. An unengaged student may learn enough to pass the test but will not learn what they will need to go forward in life. Many of us had to relearn what we were taught because we did not learn it the first time.

I can hear some of you now saying, "But I never needed to know the date of Confederation! I never used trigonometry!" But that is not what you were supposed to learn. Canadian history is not about the date of Confederation but an appreciation of where our country came from and how that affects decisions that are made today. Without this awareness we have no hope of understanding the factors behind the issues of today's politics - Aboriginal claims, French rights, social services, health care. And trigonometry is not about triangles and angles but about precision and multi-step procedures that require intense focus and accuracy. These are valuable skills and are the underlying reason for the curriculum.

So I repeat in conclusion that students must be engaged to learn. Teachers must know their students in order to engage them. And parents are the best source for this information. If teachers wonder why so many parents are not involved in their children's education, the system does not respect the knowledge and value of the parents. Embrace any teacher who does. They are the ones who will best teach your precious child the skills needed to thrive in this world of opportunity. 

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Mathematics of Happiness

I have always been fascinated with mathematics.  When I was young I saw a sign on my grandmother's desk which read "Monday is a lousy way to spend one seventh of your life".  That got me thinking about the numbers of my life.  Bear with me while I play with them a bit.

If I live productively to be eighty years old I will have lived 960 months or 4,160 weeks or 29,120 days.  If I dread Mondays, that will be 4,160 miserable days of my life.  If I even take off the first 20 years in which I was not working and the last 20 years after I retire, that still leaves 2,080 unhappy days.  That just seems wrong.  I can't waste that many days when there seem to be so few in total.

So why does Monday get dumped on so badly?  Obviously because it ends the weekend and our society teaches us that fun happens on the weekends.  We are surrounded by messages that tell us that weekends are the time for partying, getting together with friends, we work our weeks so that we can enjoy our weekends.  This is all based on the notion that work is not fun.  If it is fun then it is not work and somehow it is not proper.

Perhaps this all ties in with a recurring idea in history that we are meant to suffer.  Life needs to be miserable in order to be "good" or worthy.  Happy people are either mentally unbalanced, intellectually challenged, or somehow unfairly supported by other suffering souls.  Our rational brains tell us that this is silly but we are so indoctrinated into the idea of salvation through sacrifice and suffering that we subconsciously are suspicious of truly happy people. 

I must apologize because I am unashamedly happy.  I have been that way for a long time.  I love Mondays as much as I love Fridays but then I don't work - at least not in terms of suffering.  I follow my passion and teach children.  I get fulfillment and energy from my "job" and have no cravings for weekends or retirement.

So why am I going on about the math of happiness?  Because I see it in children when they first enter the school.  Many are teenagers who have had an love of learning pummeled out of them.  The first joy of going to school in kindergarten has changed through a realization that school is often boring, usually irrelevant, and sometimes painful.  By the time they come to us, school is something to be suffered through in order to start living.

This is a crime of such magnitude that it makes me want to weep.  How can children ever acquire the skills to pursue their passion if they hate learning?  How can they even know what their passion is if they are not given the opportunity to explore it?  How can they learn what they need to know to turn that passion in a means of support?  Why does our society "teach" them that both school and work are necessary evils in life? 

By the end of Grade 12 a child will have spent nearly 2,500 days in school.  That is 2,500 days where they can be exposed to the wonders of the world with enthusiastic guides helping them along their own personal journeys.  Since we only go from Grades 7 to 12, we only have them for just over a thousand days.  And yet they can learn so quickly if they are happy.  They want to learn if school is seen as a million open doors for exploration and adventure.  It is my sincere wish that none of my students ever has to hate Mondays.  And so far, we are doing just great.