There's something crazy and just plain WRONG about having to bus five- and six-year-olds for miles and miles, just so they can be educated in the majority language of their own community. Yet that's precisely what's happening in Ontario in the publicly funded schools of the Ottawa-Carleton region.

Early French Immersion has become so wildly popular that 70% of families are now opting to place their children in those programmes. And so many neighbourhood schools are now half-empty (or half-full, depending on your viewpoint) as it is that they can't sustain both an English stream and French-immersion stream class at every grade level. As a result, it's the often far-away "collector" schools that are grouping together the English-stream children from several neighbourhoods.

Now, I'm prepared to admit that Early French Immersion may be a good option for some children, but certainly not for ALL, and probably not even for the majority of anglophone children. Parents want to give their kids the best possible start in life - I get that! They know that fluency in both official languages can be an asset, if not an actual requirement, for many jobs. I get that too. But education begins at home, and begins with giving the kids a good grounding in the language and culture of the family. If the parents speak more than one language, then that's great! If not, starting school - already a big step for many children - may prove quite traumatic indeed.

Late immersion is a different matter - by the intermediate school level, most kids are fluent in their native language at least, and have the linguistic and cognitive apparatus they need for more sophisticated thought and other developmental processes. Mastering another language (or two or three) at this stage will if anything serve to enrich and enhance those processes. Teens and adults probably do not learn language quite the way that babies and toddlers do, but that doesn't have to make the process more laborious, as so many people assume. In fact, I would argue that in many ways adult learners tend to learn more efficiently and economically precisely because they can learn and reason deductively rather than inductively. They have the "competence" or "langue", not just the dozens of instances of "performance" or "parole".

I think part of the reason French immersion has become so wildly popular is that "core French", at least as it was taught in my day, was such a dismal failure. But surely it would have made more sense, both logically and fiscally, to enhance and improve the core French curriculum rather than insisting that most children go into early French immersion, sometimes to the detriment of achieving a good grasp of their native tongue? And sometimes only to end up switching to the English system anyway, away from all their friends and feeling like failures? Isn't a bit more French or a bit better French instruction better than virtually none? Consider that we do still have a French-language school board in the Ottawa area that could easily serve children wanting to focus more on learning in French at certain points in their school careers.

There are many issues here, of course, and I've barely scratched the surface. Having a whole parallel system for the Roman Catholics is another ongoing annoyance. And, of course, there's also the urban/rural divide. But that will have to wait for another day.
In a Staples commercial, that time isn't Christmas. In fact, Christmas seems to be a bit of a dirty word these days, even though most people I know celebrate Christmas and not primarily in a religious way, either! No, it refers to back-to-school.

Actually, autumn, back-to-school time and Thanksgiving have long been my favourite time of year. They feel like a time of renewal, even though the leaves are getting ready to fall off the trees, the geese and other migratory birds are flying south, and nature is hibernating and going dormant.

Is it a good time for most families? The implication of the commercial seems to be that the adults are tired of having their kids around, that there's been just a bit too much family togetherness for their liking.

Staples is not the only organization making the link between Christmas and back-to-school. Ottawa's Christmas Exchange has rebranded itself as the "Caring and Sharing Exchange" and started providing school supplies to low-income families. Because for most families, if fall is the most wonderful time of the year, it's also the most expensive time.

I've donated to the Christmas Exchange for a number of years now, following a family tradition. I recall as a kid, my mother would pick up a few extra packages of nylon stockings - a luxury in those days - to donate. The charity has always been non-denominational although I think at one time, they had a policy of dispensing their largesse only to the "working poor", not those on welfare - this notion of "deserving" versus "undeserving" poverty and helping those who help themselves. Or maybe I've got that wrong and the philosophy behind the policy was that the state was already looking after those on public assistance, whereas the working poor tended to get lost in the shuffle.

Although I'm still sending them annual donations, I have to say that I'm seriously conflicted about their expanded role. While it's undeniable that back-to-school can be a heavy financial burden for many families, I firmly believe that most school supplies should be provided by the schools themselves, at least for the elementary and perhaps intermediate grades. After all, half of our property taxes in this province are earmarked to support public education - and I've always considered that to be a valid price to pay to support a public good like that.

When I was at school, notebooks and pencils and paper and textbooks were all provided to us up to grade eight. They even provided ink and pens too, if you didn't mind scratching away with a straight pen - the type with cod-liver-oil on the nib that you had to lick off before the nib would work properly. In grade eight, we actually had a somewhat eccentric home-room teacher who demanded that we use these nefarious pens until our handwriting was good enough that we could "graduate" to a fountain or cartridge pen. Ballpoint pens were strictly taboo, though - perhaps not surprising since in those days, they were very messy and blotchy and leaky things. Anyway, I'm not sure what the rationale was for thinking we'd have neater penmanship wielding a straight pen than if we were allowed to use the more user-friendly fountain or cartridge pens. Whatever the case, I seem to recall he told us some time between Christmas and Easter that we could all start using fountain pens, since if we hadn't perfected our straight-penmanship by now, there was no hope for us!

Nowadays, of course, kids hunch over keyboards and no one worries about their handwriting any more. As for adults, we have fewer and fewer occasions to sign our names and more and more PINs to forget!

But I digress. By the time I reached high school, we had to provide all of our school supplies except the textbooks - but there WERE school fees to cover at least a portion of the textbook cost. And if we lost any of them, we had to replace them at our own (or really, our parents') expense. Only in grade 13 did we have to buy all our own texts (this, I believe, was a change from when my siblings had been in high school a few years earlier, and textbooks were the family's responsibility right from grade nine onwards).

If we went back to having school supplies provided in elementary school, this would make for better standardization - the kids would have the supplies that the teachers wanted them to - and the school board could take advantage of bulk purchasing and economies of scale. And there would be far less stigma and embarrassment for the children of low-income families.

But, you might protest, we don't have unlimited funds here. Well, no. So I'll briefly outline a few of my ideas as to how the school system could save money.

First of all, it's tremendously wasteful that we have TWO school systems in Ontario - one for the "public" schools and one for the Roman Catholics. But I realize that can't be changed overnight, so I'll leave it aside for now.

Secondly, what's with all the bussing? On the one hand, we lament the growing obesity rate of today's children but on the other, we bus children far from their neighbourhoods and supply the transportation at public expense. I couldn't believe it when I read that the public school board was thinking of providing those yellow buses even to high school students - as the Catholic schools apparently already do. Couldn't we reframe how we think about this, and consider it a basic right of most elementary school-age kids to live within walking distance of their schools, and high school students perhaps at a farther distance, but still accessible by public transit? That would save the boards considerable money on transportation. Yes, in some areas it would mean some sparsely-populated classrooms but given that teachers have been bellyaching about high teacher-pupil ratios for decades, is that really such a bad thing? I also think that split grades are not such a bad thing. After all, the old-fashioned one-room schoolhouses were the ultimate in split grades - the older children helped the younger ones and learned responsibility, and many subjects can be tackled by children of various ages, just with a greater or lesser degree of sophistication. I was very impressed recently, for example, with a project on photography that the students (of all ages, K-6 or possibly K-8) at Brooke Valley School in Perth had done. Mind you, I'm not suggesting a return to rote learning and corporal punishment or some of the other aspects of old-fashioned education.

I also have some reservations about full-day kindergarten. It's very expensive. Early childhood education is certainly important, but does it have to be in a classroom setting? There's probably no going back on that one but at the very least, it seems to me that it shouldn't entirely supercede half-day kindergarten for parents who prefer the half-day model. More important, in my view, is preparing teenagers for what they'll do after leaving high school. That includes possible attendance at university, although that should NOT be presented as the only socially acceptable option, and not necessarily something to be done right away, either. What about encouraging a "gap year" as they do in many parts of Europe?

Lots of issues. Lots of possible future blog entries here!
In my lifetime, I have witnessed a sea change in public attitudes towards the LGBTQ community.

When I was around eleven or twelve, the attitude of parents, teachers and other authority figures towards same-sex attraction was generally that until the age of, say, eighteen or twenty-one, it was not really to be taken seriously - a youthful indiscretion, nothing more. Or perhaps a question of seeking out a role model. The attitude of most other adolescents, however, seemed to be that it was something to avoid being associated with at all costs! I remember girls in my class saying silly things like, "You wouldn't believe my three-year-old cousin - she's a real LEZ!" As if any kind of physical affection demonstrated by a little kid towards an older one of the same gender were to be construed in a sexual, and therefore unsavory manner.

Of course, sex education in the schools in those days left a lot to be desired - and goodness only knows what kind of desiring went on in our teenaged hearts and minds and behind closed bedroom doors! In grade seven, girls got to see that "special health film". The cloying images of hearts and flowers and birds and bees and romanticized statements about the miracle of new life were far removed from the considerable discomfort I was already experiencing every month with my newly-arrived womanhood.

As we progressed through high school, we got stern warnings about the perils of "going all the way" which included the spectres of gonorrhea, syphilis and unwanted pregnancy. We didn't know about AIDS then and I don't even recall discussion of chlamydia. We got to see a film called "Phoebe" about a girl who discovers right at the beginning of the film that she is pregnant. The remainder of the film consists or her fantasizing about the possible reactions of her parents, teachers and boyfriend when she breaks the news to them.

But homosexuality, bisexuality and gender identity were not discussed. Of course, that was Before Stonewall and before Jan Morris, though certainly not before Christine Jorgensen.

What a difference a few decades makes. Gay marriage is now legal in Canada. A decision not to allow Jenna Talackova, né male, to compete in the Miss Universe Canada competition, was recently reversed. We've come a long way, baby, but we've still got some distance to go. Next month, when Bill C-279 (the Trans Rights Bill) comes up for debate in Parliament, we should make our views known and urge our MP's to support it.
On the Faith and Ethics page in yesterday's Citizen, the question asked of the experts is "Should children be left to make up their own minds about religion?" The Roman Catholic priest and the pastor from the Metropolitan Bible Church came down on the "No" side while the other experts, to my pleasant surprise, seemed to lean towards a qualified "Yes".

By the time I came along, the youngest of four children, my family was not affiliated with any particular church. So until I started school, I had no exposure to religion. But in the 1960s, even in the public school system, there was no escaping it! School officials didn't believe you if you said you had no religion, so my parents taught me to say I was Anglican or, more generically, Protestant. They had come over not that long ago from England where, even if you were not devout, you could sort of say you were Church of England, and Anglicanism was and is the closest Canadian equivalent.

At school, we started each day with the Lord's Prayer and some sort of a Bible reading. We also sang hymns and had "religious education" once or twice a week. Up to about grade 5, I'm sure I won no friends in telling my peers that I didn't believe in God. Fortunately I was not one to speak up much in class, so I never got into trouble that way with my teachers nor did I have the Christian Aid Society sicced on me! Yet just as I entered the intermediate grades and was starting to explore new ideas and wonder if perhaps I DID believe in something, suddenly my fellow students were tripping over themselves to proclaim their non-belief, with Christianity (and probably just about any other religion unless it involved the Maharishi) being mocked as being as naive as believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy!

When I went to Arch Street School, I remember the principal telling us all during an assembly that if we didn't already go to church or Sunday school, we should go home and tell our parents that we wanted to start going. Nowadays, of course, he would be severely reprimanded for doing something like that but I'm sure he meant well and believed he would be saving our souls. Anyway, that was one instruction that I didn't follow because my contemporaries, even if they were believers, assured me that church and Sunday school were boring. Still, I think I did fleetingly wonder if I was destined for eternal damnation!

When I moved back to Vincent Massey for grades seven and eight, the grade seven teacher suggested that we have regular classes in comparative religion. He wasn't the most popular teacher around but in that particular respect, I think he was extremely progressive and well ahead of his time. But by this stage of our development, a majority of the students were at the all-out religious rejection stage and for lack of popular support, nothing ever came of the idea. In grade eight, our home-room teacher was atheist or agnostic and refused to teach religion in any form. But I guess maybe it was still a curricular requirement, so he went and taught a math class to some grade sevens, while the grade seven teacher (not the progressive one who had wanted to teach comparative religion) came and tried to impart his religious faith to a typical classful of smart-alec grade eights (us). I don't know what particular denomination this grade seven teacher belonged to but he WAS rather odd! I later heard he had been fired for refusing to shave off his beard but that might have been an urban legend.

But back to my religion or lack thereof. I certainly don't fault my parents for not giving me religion. In fact, I think it would have been decidedly hypocritical of them to insist I attend church or Sunday school when they themselves were non-believers. And in many ways, it was the best situation I could have been in - they raised no objections, for example, when I attended Day School Gospel League after school, or the local United Church for services or CGIT. They simply asserted their belief in freedom of religion.

Still, I AM glad that I went to school when religion was still taught. After all, religion is about much more than just saving souls! It serves a social and community function and is a crucial piece of our culture and heritage. Think of all the allusions in literature, art, music, theatre and so forth that we could not appreciate if we did not have at least a passing acquaintance with the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Or mythology, which was also people's religion in earlier times. Yes, I think a comparative religion approach would have been more appropriate, at least from about grade five or six onwards. And there's no reason why we have to stick to learning about Judaeo-Christian religions either - that's all the more true as we become a more cosmopolitan and multicultural society. But I do sometimes wonder if kids at school these days may be missing out on crucial elements of their cultural heritage as we rush towards political correctness and the reluctance to offend anyone in our diverse society.



October 2017



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