Category Archives: Education

Note to School: Grow Some Balls

Now that public schools have reduced gym class to 15 minutes per week of Wii Sports® (any longer and they could be promoting carpal tunnel syndrome), now that schoolyard playgrounds have been dismantled due to falling/bumping/pinching dangers, now that schools have eliminated all opportunities for children to burn off pent-up energy except for hallway bullying, they have now taken away the balls. Yes, no more balls for the kiddies.

Yes, there were “incidents.” Children are spazzy, which is why we give them things like balls to toy with; it promotes bodily coordination and muscle control. And, of course, it burns off pent-up energy that would otherwise manifest itself as a classroom disruption or hallway bullying. But people were getting hurt. Students, teachers, parents. One mother received a concussion after taking a ball in the head. This is serious. We are only now realizing how dangerous concussions are. My deepest sympathy to that woman, and anyone else who has suffered from a ball “strike.” Perhaps there could have been better supervision in the schoolyard. Perhaps the blow was intentional (boys sometimes have a strange idea of what “fun” is); who knows?

But here’s the thing: the world is filled with misadventures. Accidents happen all the time, everywhere, to all sorts of people, indiscriminately. There is no way to prevent accidents from happening. By confiscating the students’ balls, is Earl Beatty Public School a safer place to be? Doubtful. There is an innate need in children to launch things into the world. If not a ball, maybe a rock, a stick, a shoe (some other kid’s shoe), anything that can be kicked, thrown, spit, swung, lobbed. It gives them easy satisfaction, teaches them the principles of physics, makes kooky splotchy patterns as the strawberries mom packed for lunch strike the brick wall.

If you ask the school administration, they will tell you it’s in the interest of safety, this castration. They brought it on themselves, those spazzy, uncoordinated kids! Above all, we must protect the children from all potential harm, at any cost, no matter how silly or misguided our actions. In other words, they wish our children to grow up and venture into a world where they are afraid of everything. Afraid because they’ve been padded and helmeted and coddled to such an extreme, they have no idea what pain is. Falling down and scraping your knee is as integral to the learning process as kicking a ball or throwing some other kid’s shoe. If you have never felt pain, you can have no empathy for other people’s pain (including pain you might cause). Pain can teach a child where the limits of safety and common sense are. And this pain is most often inflicted during play time, during a physical activity; something modern day children sorely lack, through no fault of their own. It’s natural for them to want to see how fast they can make the merry-go-round spin before they lose their grip and get flung willy-nilly to the cold, hard ground. Never mind the grass stain or torn jeans: they risk a broken collar bone. So be it. Now they know, and probably won’t have to explore that question again. Lesson learned.

And that’s the point of education, isn’t it? To learn their lessons? There has to be a better solution than taking away the balls. If the staff sit down and think about it, they will discover a better solution exists. The fact that harried teachers are no longer motivated to do anything beyond the minimum requirements (thank you corrupt school board and unreasonable, angry helicopter parents), and the fact that the school administration is more afraid of liability than anything else (except more budget cuts), it’s no wonder they’ve taken the easy road. Take away the damned balls. It’s not really about safety, or at least not about the children’s safety. It’s about getting the phone to stop ringing ringing ringing.

Children need balls (and not just the boys). They need to be given the chance to play ball, with all its inherent risks, if they are to grow into sensible, sane adults. As opposed to cowering ninnies, peeking nervously out from behind their living room curtains at every hooting owl and passing bicycle. All this ball-taking may be good for the future of the therapy industry, but it’s bad for the kids.

Wake up, educators, and smell the rubber.


Scary Stuff

It must be something in the water out there. After judging the term “early-school-leaver” to be a more appropriate (re: sensitive) label for the high school dropout (a slur, said they), the Calgary School Board has taken another giant step into the Dark Ages.

Two of its elementary schools have banned scary costumes, including weapons, violent imagery and masks of any description, from in-school Halloween celebrations. In fact, the staff have neatly hijacked the occasion from its relatively harmless pagan origins, and recast it as a “caring” assembly. Lo!

Don’t get me wrong, caring is important, but if they were going to shoehorn it into an occasion, surely Valentine’s Day or Family Day would have been more appropriate. Or they simply could have chosen a day at random during the school year. What difference would it make, unless you are a crackpot whose veins are coursing with politically correct righteousness?

I’ve met the type before. Some years ago, parents and staff at my daughter’s private school petitioned to ban witches and ghosts, because they promoted the occult. That mob even objected to black crayons in the classroom—the preferred colour for all things evil. It was our cue to rescue our little one from the clutches of PC evil.

But you don’t have to look very hard to find comprehensive studies showing that children are not only attracted to all things “scary,” but in fact use the experience of being scared to help them develop into sane and sensible adults. In other words, we need to be scared as part of our early development. It’s not for nothing that the horror genre, in all its mediums, is most popular with young people. As adults, we already know how frightening the real world is, so we lose interest in it, as a stimulus—substituting red wine to dull the fear.

If a boy dresses up as King Arthur, wearing crown and sword, is he promoting violence or honour? Evil or chivalry? If a girl dons a witch’s costume, is she accepting or promoting the occult, or is she is merely dressing up? Is the Fairy Godmother’s star-tipped wand a weapon? God help the poor child who wants to be Spiderman for a day!

It’s only the grownups who read more into it, which is a shame for those Calgary children who will be denied the opportunity to celebrate Halloween, and forced instead to talk (or listen to talk) about “caring.” Once again, the public school system demonstrates that it knows little about education, or children. A little superstition might just help these school leaders stop over-thinking things, and permit the children, one day a year, to be children. The real “scary” stuff is misuse of political correctness.


School For Sale: Needs a little TLC

Headline: Ban school fundraising.

I get it. I have a child in grade eleven. That’s roughly, um, eleven years of non-stop fundraising, in and around my household. In elementary school, the students were required to fundraise, but forbidden from soliciting door-to-door. This could be seen as sensible from a security standpoint, but the financial reality meant that the term “fundraising” was essentially a back door into the family’s wallet, including aunts, uncles and grandparents. Magazine subscriptions and boxes of processed chicken breasts were a small but delicious compensation. (I confess: I am obsessed with my Food & Wine magazine. Thank you, Athabasca Public School.) So, another way of looking at public school fundraising is this: family donations. Or this: school fees. At least with the former, it’s a pay-what-you-can scenario. The latter is a prix fixe.

Social Planning Toronto believes the fundraising should stop, or, failing that, the money should be pooled, and then distributed equally amongst the schools. A nice idea, in a unicorn-infested world.

Here’s the reality check. How hard is a student (and her well-heeled family) going to work at fundraising for the Rosedale Public School, knowing that most of those bucks are going to fund a field trip for some poor schlep from the wrong side of Avenue Road, at Kipling Collegiate Institute? I dare suggest many of those Rosedale families will simply decide to save the donation and take the family to St. Lucia for March break. Again. After all, don’t they donate to charities every year? It’s good for the taxes. Oh, and it’s a good deed, too. Still, enough is enough, they will say.

And those students living in the poor neighbourhoods, well, there will be even less incentive to fundraise, knowing those rich bastards will be filling in the holes. About time those rich bastards contributed something to the world. High on their horse, those rich bastards looking down on us, mocking us with their Jaguars and iPhones.

Of course, an objective observer might note that the overwhelming disparity of funds raised between schools—a divide that, for the most part, runs even with socio-economic boundaries—is a lesson for all students on how the real world works. Once they graduate, these students will learn that wealth generates opportunity. Better universities; exposure to travel and culture; advantageous relationships with business leaders through family connections; and so on. Sure, there are plenty of examples of the ambitious kid, rising from the muck of poverty and oppression and, in many cases, bigotry, and making a success out of a seemingly hopeless situation. Hard work and gumption cannot be undervalued. The exception, not the rule.

Back to Social Planning Toronto’s idea. Throwing all the loot in a pot and distributing it equally might give those students a misleading impression of how the real world works. At the risk of sounding cynical, very little about life is fair or equitable. And is it not the educator’s job to prepare our children for the real world? Warts and all?

So what, you ask, is my big fat idea? Now that I’ve laid out all the problems, what is my brilliant solution? Maybe it’s not brilliant, but it’s obvious. More money has to trickle down to the schools, so that fundraising in unnecessary.

Whoa! Now who’s galloping through the daisy fields on the back of a unicorn?

Listen: I’m not saying we should pay more school taxes. We give them enough money. But it’s a bit like sending donations to relief organizations in Somalia. Somehow, only 5 cents of every dollar ends up in the dusty village. The rest pays the administration, gets blown on fact-finding tours, business lunches, advertising, golden handshakes, and, naturally, an undisclosed amount goes the way of corruption. There’s the real world in action. And I’m sad to report, this model fits the school board perfectly.

The modern school board is a juggernaut of waste and corruption. Like most government bodies, it is bloated and inefficient. It’s preposterous that it should cost billions of dollars to administer our schools. And it’s despicable that the people in that administration feel that any and all cuts must be made at the school level, without a thought to slashing their own office budgets or salaries or benefits. This decision is political, not practical. I say, shut the whole thing down! Hire twelve reasonably intelligent people to sit down and come up with a simple plan for operating our schools, using the funds at hand. I doubt it would take longer than a week for them to come up with an outline that will get them started. It’s not rocket science.

While I believe our children should be taught how to manage money, both at school and at home, I agree that the fundraising needs to stop. It puts an unfair burden on many families that can’t afford it. It forces the poorest families to add even more things to the list of things their children will be denied. And it’s not necessary, if only the school boards would put the money where it’s needed, rather than where it suits them.

Now, excuse me, while I go feed my unicorn.

A Ford To Lose

Atwood vs. Ford

It is abundantly clear that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, his brother, Doug, and his other brother, Doug, failed to reap the innumerable benefits of the library during their formative years. No doubt too busy loitering in front of the Slurpee machine, giving passing shoppers the finger.

By the way, dear Fords, even if you cannot read, you should be embarrassed that you don’t know who Margaret Atwood is. This void in your cultural knowledge surely disqualifies you as true Canadians—fancy cottage notwithstanding.

Please return to Tralfamador as soon as possible.

Cell Hell

Once again the Toronto District School Board has proven it doesn’t know jack about children or learning; to wit, they have wisely chosen to lift the ban on cell phones and other electronic devices in their schools.


They qualify the decision thusly: “…provided it does not distract from student learning or school activities.” And they go on to provide individual teachers with the authority to banish the devices from their own classroom.

First of all, as the owner of a fully-formed teenager, I can attest that these devices can, and assuredly will, distract these children. If the phone is in their hand, they simply are not able to ignore it. Period. They are also unable to have a normal conversation, as we know it—one where eye-contact is made with the other conversant, and where full attention is paid to said conversation. They cannot do it. I repeat: they cannot do it.

And what reasoning, by a supposedly educated body of adults, could support this decision? Why does a child need her cell phone or PDA in the classroom? I can promise every overly concerned parent that, if there is a trench-coated gunman roaming the halls of the school, anyone with access to a phone (cellular or not), will be on it, ban or no ban. Your child will not be cowering under her desk, afraid to turn on her phone in case she gets detention. Apart from that rare and frightening scenario, there is no practical value to having these devices in a classroom. They are anathema to the learning process in the context of a school, a room and a teacher. Just ask the teacher.

Speaking of the teacher…the TDSB will be putting the onus on the teacher to make the decision. Isn’t that nice? Any teacher who sensibly banishes the students’ cell phones will now face an onslaught of anger and outrage, in person and online, from both students and those aforementioned “concerned” parents. You know the ones; the helicopter parent who’s inflated sense of entitlement is as great as his child’s; the one who demands a ban on black crayons in the kindergarten classroom because they “send a negative message” to the little ones; he demands a ban “witches” on Halloween for the same reason; he will expect his child to respond to his text messages within a minute, regardless of whether or not the child is in the midst of a science lesson. Mark my words. A handful of teachers will try to do the right thing, but they will give up, sooner or later. And the biggest losers will be the students, who will get a poorer education, not because of the teachers but because those PDAs, resting in their laps for the entire school day, will prevent them from retaining any information imparted by the teacher.

If the TDSB really felt it was necessary to allow cell phones into the schools, a sensible compromise would have been to limit them to the corridors and grounds, but forbidding them to be used in the classroom.

My teenager, with her small-screen obsession, is under a complete ban of these things at her Durham Region high school, and she accepts this ruling without the tiniest squeak of complaint. It’s simply the Rule, and it applies to every student. The phones cannot be turned on or used anywhere on school property. She gets very good grades, and I believe she is getting a very good education. And because she is completely unable to have a conversation with me without constantly monitoring her screen, I know that to permit such a thing in the classroom would be a disaster for her, and every other student.

So there you have the TDSB in a nutshell: supply the students with Coca Cola and candy bars, flatscreen televisions in the hallways, and now PDAs in the classroom. Is there anything else they can do to ensure the demise of public education? They’re smart people; I’m sure they’ll think of something.

Politically Correct?

A while back, a national newspaper article informed me that, in Calgary at least, I was no longer permitted to call a high school dropout a “high school dropout,” that the term was derogatory and demeaning to said dropout, that it was unfair and unkind to belittle these poor creatures who are already at a low ebb in their young lives. I was instructed by that School Board to henceforth refer to such a child as an “early school leaver.”

Oh brother. I thought I’d seen it all, Political Correctness at a new, ridiculous low. When will the pendulum swing back? I asked myself. It always does. Social and moral trends throughout recorded history have continually shifted between extremes. Surely, I thought, this latest development signaled the apogee of PC madness. Here comes a new order, and not a moment too soon.

Alas. Just the other day, Toronto Star writer Valerie Hauch verified that the PC movement is alive and well, thank you very much. As she reported, a new book, entitled Journal of Animal Ethics, has put fresh batteries in the pendulum. According to its authors, we can no longer refer to our pets as “pets,” that we must henceforth refer to them as “animal companions.” The word “pet” is, they say, an insult to said pet. Oh dear. Apparently, the animal kingdom has been getting a bum rap from us humans, with our thoughtless and hurtful language. The remedy? No more “silly” geese. No more “stubborn” mules. Not one more “drunk” skunk, if you please. Come to think of it, about 45 years ago, I recall one of my sisters telling me, snottily, that I “ate like a pig.” Looking back, I’m pretty sure I was offended equally for myself and the porker. And it’s possible I was eating pork at the time, which surely would have nettled the poor, abused even-toed ungulate. So come on, people, show a little sensitivity. Have a little compassion for our beloved…ahem…animal companions.

I suppose a group of people more intelligent than me could sit around for days, hashing out the ethics of our name-calling predicament…oh, wait, the authors of that book have already done so. But, in all seriousness, my real beef is this: Why does the PC term always have to be so inconveniently long? Why all the damned syllables? Apart from the fact that a dose of humility might benefit the average dropout, the word is concise, and rolls nicely off the tongue. “Early school leaver” is just too much to say, and from a grammatical standpoint, it doesn’t say much about the Calgary Board of Education. I’m pretty sure they made up that last word: leaver. I know, I know; Shakespeare made up a lot of words, too, as did George W. Bush; but they were geniuses.

As for my own beloved pets, they don’t deserve the humiliation of a six-syllable moniker, no matter how kindly intended. My ancient cat, Missus Grumpypants, has lived a long and fruitless life on my windowsill, and cares only that the feedbag remains topped up. And my gallumpy Labrador retriever, Samuel Pepys, continues to love me unconditionally, even though I call him “wild” and “silly pet” to his face. He just wags and wags. His eyes say it all: Who cares? His English vocabulary is limited to three words: “walkies”, “din-din” and “Sammy’sbed.” He cannot be offended by anything I say, however hurtful. Good boy.

And because I’m an author, and I don’t wish to be associated with the people who published the Journal of Animal Ethics, let’s say: “writers-down of the words on bound pages.” I certainly don’t wish to offend.