Sunday, September 28, 2008

school nutrition

In this day and age parents are in one of two camps: vigilantly control the nutritional intake of their children and those who have given up the battle. I laud the former, and pray for the latter.

What is unfortunate is that in the lunch room at school all falls apart. I have seen children trade, share or exchange food with one another. I have seen kids bring in a full, large bag of chips and share it with their friends in an attempts to buy peer friendship. I am always amazed at this. During class parties, at Hallowe'en and Thanksgiving for example, we worked at having shared lunches, rather than junk food. My guidelines included only bringing enough of a treat for 5 students,
a whole cake or 24 muffins were too much!

We began to organize class parties in our Teacher Advisory Groups (TAG), which a group put together a healthy menu, created placemats in art, figured out table decorations, table cloths, devised a financial plan to manage these luncheons. Those with good nutritional backgrounds were role models. To accommodate various psychosocial issues the groups were created sing playing cards distributed by myself in a random fashion. No pop, no chips, and all 4 food groups must be met!

In my last few years of teaching, after a career teaching good nutrition to stu
dents, I decided to limit the crap kids ate during their first recess, or 'nutritional break' as it is now called. We had lunch rules. The best rule was that all garbage had to be taken home. I would sup
ervise this and it meant that parents who wanted vigilance, were aware of what their child did or did not eat!

My rule was that they had to eat something healthy during this first break. Boy did the proverbial chips hit the fan! I had phone calls from a parent who had sent her daughter with a sprinkle donut and chocolate mile for lunch. She didn't like me telling her child what she could eat. She explained that they were a low income family and she couldn't afford fresh fruits for her child. The child was a teeny, undernourished little thing, with an obese mother who was on welfare. I was terribly shocked. My principal was not supportive, and it was hard trying to educate the parent without that support. The child was embarrassed and knew that she was not eating healthy food. We had to work around this issue.

We know that apples, for example, cost less than those donuts, but I knew I would make no headway. I began bringing in granola bars for hungry kids. At one time in my career I had a jar of peanut butter and box of crackers, but that had to go by the wayside with the prevalence of anaphylactic allergies. This is why me must start with the children. Eating habits and patterns are built into a family dynamic. They live what they learn and eat.

I believe it up to the teachers, already run off their feet at recess and breaks, like most professionals, to monitor nutritional intake. Many schools still sell bags of chips and pop as fundraisers, and this, too, must be stopped. Some schools are putting in much more nutritional and edible cafeteria food in an attempt to ameliorate this health crisis. It is happening in L.A.(2008), Ontario high schools (2006), with the Canadian government creating a farmer to table plan to improve nutrition, their Grow Up Organic program.

I am hopeful, especially with the growing tend towards organic farming (and the prerequisite regulations for labelling standards) that we will make a difference - as long as your child's peers do not jeopardize the process.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


It is with increasing alarm that I view the type of activities that go on in Facebook. Anyone can form a group, entertain false ideas and notions, allude to illegal activity, or defame others. From a Social Networking site for University students it has evolved into a wide-ranging forum where teenager are raging at those. In typical teenage angst, the rant and vent and disseminate information that they do not understand.

When a young person dies, or disappears, a site is created and these young people share their memories and feelings (such as the Rengel, Boudreau, and Ponte murders). This is healthy. Kids share photos and memories. Families can benefit from these sites and receive the love and the wonderful stories of what their son or daughter meant to others. Some of the photos are less than flattering and some downright revealing and the site administrators ought to be reminded of how much skin they should show of a friend.

What is not healthy on the websites are the false accusations, the gossip, the libelous actions, and the innuendos that permeate some of the sites. Those in middle school seem to be the worst at this. In righteous indignation they name those who are accused of crimes, or are taken in for questioning. They do not understand or respect the legal system in which we are presumed innocent until proven guilty. In small communities everyone knows the names of those involved and rumours spread regarding what is happening. The conversations can turn vitriolic and they recommend violent answers to the murder and demand violent retribution for those who have unfairly passed away.

I believe that these sites must not be allowed to be created: using another person’s name seems wrong. I would be horrified with some of the photos I have seen, as well as the foul language used by those posting and reaming out the killers in violent threats. Our society deems free speech a good thing, but until young adults become adults and understand respect for others they are abusing the privilege.

Teachers should be warned about publishing personal information. Employers lurk and some recent exposés of Federal Election 2008 candidates reveal that sometimes too much can be revealed. What has been a danger for University professors is even more dangerous for high school and elementary teachers. The Toronto Star writes of 'emotional boundaries', but professional boundaries are the ones that must be clearly identified and delineated. What is on the 'net can be archived and come back to bite you. With cameras in cell phones, and YouTube videos to prove it, there is nothing that is sacred nor quiet.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

EQAO Testing

Here we are: another set of EQAO scores are out there. What is the point?

The purposes of testing may be any of the following reasons

1) accountability, 2) feedback, 3) classification and/or certification of students and 4) reform. Many teachers believe that it is a lot of money if it is, indeed, just number one!

The problem with accountability is that the test does not make parents, superintendents, trustees or Ministry officials accountable for the test scores and our form of testing does not purport to determine who is responsible for these scores. It does not predict the impact of the type of instruction, for which teachers are either blamed or lauded. It does not match the goals many parents have for their children: to become happy, productive, contributing members of society, thinking, sentient human beings who treat one another with dignity and respect.

This leads us to the reason for testing, number two: feedback. Our Ministry of Education has created all sorts of hoops that teachers must jump through to support the low achiever and to provide information to parents. We have three reporting periods per year, most schools conduct Student-Led conferencing session. Students show parents their work and parents have an opportunity to come into a classroom and give their child some support. The parents who choose to come in are not usually the ones we need to see! We give parents ample opportunities to talk to us, yet some do not and some do not need to.

Testing does not diagnose any of the reasons for which s student may be failing: psycho-social, cognitive, emotional or physical reasons for their inability to achieve.

As teacher face more and more children with increasingly severe disabilities we are facing more and more cutbacks. Special Education, ESL programs, Professional Development opportunities, including in-service during the school day, and less access to the human and physical resources; these are the programs that help a teacher make a difference and provide quality programming to all students.

Not does the test give remedies for the above needs assessments that teachers make on a daily basis. The test is not necessarily valid, in that it cannot judge how well a student can do higher level thinking if they have been in the country, and speaking English, for only a few months. In my classroom in September I had three brilliant children who had been in the country for less than a month. They present me with incredibly difficult challenges to present authentic learning opportunities and how to bridge that gap between reading, writing and thinking, even as we face a wide range of student needs and abilities.

Regarding classification and certification, We have Individual Educational Plans (IEPs), created and prepared after much consultation with parents. They are called in and are asked to help contribute to such plans, after an Independent Placement and Review Committee hearing (IPRC). These meetings are not surprises. It is usually only after extensive preparation that students are identified and participate in a differentiated program. At this point parents and teachers are working together and understand much of what the school and the students are attempting to do in schools. It is not parents who are demanding testing, most parents indicate that they are pleased with what schools are achieving. It is business and taxpayers who haven't darkened a door of our school systems in years.

If it is reform that stakeholders want, then testing does not facilitate this ideal strategy. Reform only comes through discourse, dialogue, proper teacher training and experienced and highly trained professionals. We have had an administration turnover of 60 % in Ontario schools in the past five years. Most principals are not the curriculum leaders that teachers require. Many are simply learning how to do the job. They are the managers who juggle staff, resources, paper and time and money.

Principals make reports to Boards regarding their strategies for improving test scores. It is school staffs who must come up with improvement plans following the results of EQAO testing. We are limited in these attempts. Limited by funding and time and energy and expertise. Many of us don't have the ability to determine why it is that some of our students have difficulty reading. Many of us in education don't believe that the EQAO office can provide reliable enough reporting results to be able to deliver achievable increases in student achievement. There are too many variables.

We have greatly improved our understanding of testing as a science. We understand validity, reliability. It is my hope that changing technology will change and influence how classroom testing is accomplished. Those in the work force are not limited to what they can remember or find in their offices. Students are not limited to, in fact should be encouraged to identify, evaluate and apply learning skills and strategies which help them seek out new information and ideas, and use it critically to influence their thinking. These are not skills that can be assessed by EQAO testing, some students score well below their capabilities due to boredom, inattention, illness or misunderstanding of testing procedures.

We have not made any improvements to the means by which we deliver programs, which improve parenting skills. Many non-profit groups that support juveniles are facing cut backs in funding. Parents are our children's first teachers. We know that some parents who have little education see little value in supporting the school. They may, in fact, fear it, These are the parents who may have little faith in teachers or who do not understand how to provide academic support at home. Many of our students become behaviour problems and they take away from the kind of education system that we all want for our students. Testing and holding teachers accountable will not improve this cause of underachievement.

For these reasons I believe we must change our strategies on testing. We must assess our students needs, learning styles, learning skills and create an educational system which reflect learning in the Information Age. $50 million would go a long way towards this goal. We need to draw competent, high achieving educational professionals with salaries to keep them teaching.

Jennifer Jilks
B.A., B.Ed., M.Ed. (OISE)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Homework II

In a recent Action Research study, parents were surveyed to determine how they feel about homework. This is a dangerous study. It is a false hypothesis.

Do you think they ask the wrong question? Perhaps better ask how students are affected by homework, not the parents. As the author of the study said, a literature review reflects mixed results for the benefits of homework. Many parents demand homework, as do school boards. What an interesting study: how PARENTS are affected by homework. They are not the only stakeholders. Yes, homework results in stress. Parents do not understand homework, students do not understand it and teachers do not know how and when to assign it. There are a combination of factors that render homework useless for those for whom it would have the most benefits.

Homework in the elementary panel has been an activity that has proven to be misunderstood, devalued and misused. It is with great excitement that a Barrie school has announced a 'no homework' policy. This is rather a shock to me. My experience has taught me that reviewing new material to put it into long-term memory is important for learners. Other educators have felt the same. In the primary grades some families need direction: young children do not need homework but they should spend time reading. Some children arrive in the junior grades without having mastered math facts, addition facts, and times tables really help students grasp more difficult concepts. The extreme reliance on calculators in higher grades truly irk me.

The purpose of homework

Homework is given in order to complete, review, reinforce, apply, integrate, and extend classroom learning as well as to prepare students for future learning. Some homework is assigned that is simply busy work, intended to appease senior staff who demand that teachers give a particular number of minutes of homework per day. This is more true at the elementary panel. The early years are not the place for homework per se. Some teachers assign homework in high school in order to assign marks. They have based marks on a percentage for many years and they have failed to examine the practice. Some parents demand a certain amount of homework; this too needs to be examined. Policies based in past practice need be reviewed. A ban is simply not the way to go. A critical reflection, based on the students, individual needs and the purpose of the work, needs to be visited. Until then a ban is ridiculous enough in and of itself.

Homework content

Homework must be meaningful. It must be seen to be important. It must be something that will add to the body of knowledge, to refine or reinforce skills. It should not be busy work, with no real value. Some teachers do not understand this concept. They must determine the reasons for homework in the elementary grades. If they determine a reason for homework then it should not be banned. I spent most of my career delivering curriculum to special needs learners. Many of these students do not finish work, need help that we could not provide in a busy day, and it made sense for them

This debate has gone on for a long period of time. I always set out a homework policy that respected both students and parents. The purpose of homework must be clear. The parents and students must understand it. It has to be work that will give some value to the learner. For many kids who cannot concentrate in class, completing a few math questions at home is a good idea. For those with literacy or numeracy skills to assign simple tasks like reading or a few math questions, it is good practice for them to sit down and go over them.

The timing of homework

My policy incorporated a time-out policy. Parents need to say NO to homework after a period of time. Parents can bargain with students: do 5 or 10 questions and we'll stop. Some parents demand that children finish every question, and this causes stress.

I always set out a policy that if after 20 - 30 minutes the students cannot complete the work then they should stop. There is no point trying to complete the impossible. For the brain to put learning into long-term memory it has to review new learning. A good stab at a few questions is excellent and completing 5 questions for one student may be as effective as another completing 20 in the same time.

Teacher’s roles

The big problem is that the faculties do not teach teachers how, when and why to assign homework. Otherwise, there are many factors that complicate the successful homework assignment. Some parents demand homework, others disdain it. Many students cannot master the mechanics of subjects (like math) without practice, and students refuse to practice. The text books, especially in math, are not written simply to teach basics first, and then to encourage higher level thinking skills. They are written for high-ability learners, which confounds those who are struggling and they then give up. The homework assignments can be useless for many successful students. It is a highly individualized process that is not adapted to individual learners. And it must be adapted.

Administrator's roles
It is up to the administration to determine how and when teachers assign homework. Young teachers have not necessarily done their homework and do not understand the purpose of it. With each school, and school population, it must vary and be adapted to the students it serves. Many children from Asian backgrounds understand how much homework can add to the learning process. Their parents demand that children have work to do after school. Other parents cannot help with homework and a homework club, supervised by adults, can provide a means by which students can finish work they do not understand or could not finish as quickly as their peers.

Parent’s roles
Parents need to find a time and place for homework. A homework plan helps them set out goals and clarify expectations. Parents must talk to teachers and teachers must convey their expectations. For many, of particular cultures and experiences, homework is a necessary part of their schooling. There are many things a parent can do if they desire to assist their child with skills.

Who should set policies about homework?
It is time that we seriously reconsidered homework in the light of current research on the topic. In the younger grades it is usually unnecessary. In the older grades it helps students create a habit of discipline and prepares them for independent learning and research skills that will be crucial in secondary school and in the workplace.

It is not up to trustees or school boards to provide policy and procedures for teachers. I can understand students wanting some input, but that, perhaps is something to be negotiated at the school level. It is up to teachers, and senior staff, to examine practices, with input from School Councils. Every family and every child is different. A policy does not meet the needs of all learners. Teachers must be given some credit for creating a classroom curriculum that meets the needs of individual learners.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Homework Policy

Alfie Kohn (The Homework Myth: Why our kids get too much of a bad thing), guru of the modern educational movement, says homework is useless. I cannot imagine how he can write a whole book on this topic, research can only apply on a limited basis. What works for one student/classroom/socioeconomic community, does not work for others. I think the pendulum has swung too far. Young kids are assigned too much homework, and new teachers are not necessarily taught about such practical matters. (They do not even teach behaviour management at the Faculties of Education. But I digress.) Certainly, students need to do an amount of practice. This can only happen in the peace and quiet of home.

I hope when/if you do a piece on this new homework study by Lee Bartell of OISE you keep a few things in mind. This is a dangerous study. IT is a false hypothesis.

What an interesting study: how PARENTS are affected by homework. They are not the only stakeholders. Yes, homework results in stress. Parents do not understand homework, students do not understand it and teachers do not know how and when to assign it. There are a combination of factors that render homework useless for those for whom it would have the most benefits.

Do you think they ask the wrong question? Perhaps better ask how students are affected by homework. As the author of the study said, a literature review reflects mixed results for the benefits of homework. Many parents demand homework, as do school boards.

Yet, there are parents who must have latch-key kids and cannot supervise homework, or they work long hours. In this case a better choice would be to have a homework hotline or a website where kids can turn for help. They exist, but they cost money and do not help these least able to provide the intellectual, physical and emotional support required by some of our at-risk young people.

Parents have issues with parenting styles. They need better training. To allow a child to avoid homework for more than a half hour means that there are discipline issues that require remediation. Students need discipline to sit still for 20 minutes and do homework, rather than sitting in front of the TV or computer. Reading skills require effort and practice. Thinking skills require reflection time. Teachers require better training in the creation of appropriate homework assignments.

The issued is compounded by misunderstandings and frustrations and would be resolved by a study on the benefits of homework. For children who lack understanding of concepts, this may be an onerous task for parents. The new curriculum is obtuse, does not reflect as much skill and drill. It demands higher level thinking skills, that some parents are not prepared to assist with. Balance that with parents who may not have an understanding of English and you face a dilemma.

We know that many students, especially boys, do not read enough. They spend too much time on hockey, computers or mindless video games. These students need to read and reflect. Young children need to be read to, they need a working vocabulary of 32,000 words by JK, and a reading vocabulary of 10,000 by gr. 2. It is the student with the least background knowledge and experience and the family with the least educational background that most needs homework.

This is post #1, See also: Homework II: the purpose, content, timing, of homework. Teacher's, administrator's and parent's roles.
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