Post 301.

It’s only week three of school. Last Friday, Ziya forgot her science books at home even though school bag packing was supervised. We learned to double check until her seven -year-old self gets it right. On Monday, I packed an award-winning healthy meal, but forgot her water on the kitchen counter. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse than forgetting to pack her lunch cutlery a few days earlier. Next week, I’ll be happy just to get her to school in the right sneakers on P.E. days.

As a working parent, I might not perfectly manage the challenges of keeping track of multiple minuscule moving parts. Still, I’m deeply committed to a bigger picture: paying attention to what Zi learns and how, and nurturing her curiosity and interest in learning

There’s a purpose to learning that involves being organized, focused and high-achieving, but there’s also a purpose that aims at courage, problem-solving, cooperativeness and creativity.

Invest in education. It’s a simple idea. It’s what enables children to grow up to solve national problems. It enables men and boys wishing to meet breadwinner ideals to access higher, stable and legal incomes. Made a priority for women and girls, it’s the best way to both create a chance for greater gender justice and tackle family poverty. Finally, it’s the best way for a country to be a player, and to create citizens who are also path-breaking leaders, in the global economy.

Yet, it’s not simply about investing in education. The national budget for education is one of the highest sectors. Most parents invest in extra lessons for their children. Still, something is missing.

We know this from the failure rates, both at SEA and CSEC levels. We know this from the paucity of a powerful youth movement able to hold adults accountable for our crimes against their generation. We know this from the early ages at which boys become engaged by criminality, gangs, and the court and prison system, and from their far lower rates in tertiary education.

We know this from teen girls continued higher rates of vulnerability to HIV, sexual violence and unemployment. We know this from the hesitance of incoming university students to think independently, their difficulties writing well, and their limited sense of their degree as a public good that comes, not for free, but with civic responsibilities to a wider region.

Children don’t all learn by sitting and writing, which is the predominant way that we teach, leaving those needing different learning approaches cast as troublesome or incapable. We think of schools as teaching discipline before we think of them as our best chance for teaching youth empowerment, and the skills necessary to transform authoritarian power in politics, patriarchal ideals in families, and insecurity in communities.

The last time conscious youth rose up was 1970 and, we should ask ourselves, how can schooling both create another generation of inventors and entrepreneurs as well as activists and agitators? How can we rethink schooling entirely so that school is the one place that students are fighting to go, especially when family or community hardship are part of their realities?

How can we make sure that the poorest really do have the same chances as the rich, such that it doesn’t matter what school a student attends, for there is equality of opportunity regardless of the conditions and place of one’s birth?  And, when youth fall through the cracks, ending up in prisons, how can prisons become another site for education, in which those who enter are never going to return unless it is to transform, teach, mentor, and inspire?

Schools that excite and embolden rather than bore and alienate. Prisons that mirror universities rather than cages. An end to a system that has institutionalized extra lessons for those who can pay. Learning through active engagement with the culture, creativity, landscape and ecosystem around us. Education that creates children who can challenge us on our hypocrisies, greed, waste and carelessness, and grade us on meeting their generation’s needs.

If any of this seems unrealistic, it’s because we have to imagine a more inclusive vision as both possible and necessary.

We want girls and boys across the nation to feel loved and safe, welcome learning and want us to be proud. Therefore, our investments in their excellence and empowerment need to recognise what our own improvements must look like. Some days, they might be in the wrong shoes, but there’s a purpose to learning which we can still get right.

Advertisements

Post 221.

The failure rate in my most effective first year course was the highest in ten years. There’s something going on in our education system, before students get to UWI, which has led them to check out of an investment in their own learning. I don’t think this deterioration is slowing down.

In 2006, students were assigned four readings per week, and mostly completed them in time for class. By this year, we were down to two readings per week, and even then, by mid-semester, the majority had stopped reading both or even one in entirety.

The course explicitly includes multiple learning opportunities, levels and styles. It asks students to do their own internet research and to present what they have learned about concepts and definitions to their peers to compare what I teach with their own findings. Assignments also require students to read newspapers or scan on-line media, and to present gendered analyses of its content based on articles or images they choose. These are also presented as a basis for peer learning, and tutors both facilitate discussion and provide feedback.

In addition to encouraging self-directed on-line research, analysis of media and peer-teaching, the course also provides students with an opportunity to undertake original historical research using sources in their midst. We teach them how to logically organize a short essay, define and apply key concepts, conduct an interview, and analyze their data. And, the end of term project is a group assignment that requires them to engage others on the campus in well-researched, creative and interactive ways in order to raise awareness about an issue of their choice. For six weeks, we lead students through the process of putting together this final project which is especially good for those who are better at discussion than essay writing.

Over the years, we have provided more and more detailed guidance. This year, I gave the students as close an approximation to the exam questions as ethical, along with rubric that identified how each question should be answered, and the list of three readings that provided core parts of the answer. There were four compulsory questions and no surprises or tricks. A depressing number of students failed, not just 19 out of 40 fail, but with marks ranging from 4 to 14 out of 40. We reviewed these exams three times and were unable to salvage any extra marks on students’ behalf.

I know this is a trend. Many other lecturers, and possibly also secondary school teachers and parents, will attest to this. In my own experience in university twenty years ago, I read books. In my second year Political Science class alone, I read Plato, Bentham, Rousseau, Mill and Marx. Whole books. There is no chance that could happen here today. Learning specialists suggest using more audio-visual materials and tech tools, but reading remains fundamental, and we see the limitations of students’ inability to deal with reading material when they enter both workplaces and graduate school.

Folks like Minister Imbert and others with more opinion than understanding resort to quick explanations for such failure, which often rely on blaming lecturers. Yet, we get students whose writing skills are far below the starting point we need, who read superficially, haphazardly or not at all, and who seem not too bothered about the idea of being responsible for your own education. Against uninformed stereotypes, many of us at UWI are passionate teachers who aim for that place that encourages students to question everything, to think about their contribution to our society, and to grow intellectually and professionally, rather than being a certification mill.

My course was designed specifically to connect classroom learning to the outside world and to make sure that learning is relevant, passionate, personal and collective. Yet, increasingly, that is hard to accomplish. My high expectations of students, that they will aim to be the best in the world, that they will read what we assign and perhaps more, seem less and less shared.

As I plan for a semester of teaching that begins next week, I hope to both understand this trend and be able to better address it in the mere twelve weeks of undergraduate life that lie ahead.

Post 213.

Is your child’s homework sparking greater creativity? Is it igniting her imagination? Is it encouraging her to ask and follow her own questions about the world? Is it teaching fearlessness as well as compassion and cooperativeness? Will it make her more passionate about learning? Is her homework fun?

I reflected on these questions while on a boat to Nelson Island this Saturday, thinking about how much learning should happen outside of classrooms, promising myself to create my own curriculum of subjects like math, geography, history, science and languages by roaming as much of the country as I can with Zi.

For example, she learned about her indentured Indian ancestors’ confinement on the island, Butler’s six year incarceration, the words “workers’ rights” and “capitalism”, and saw the prison cells where the grandfather of a boy she knows was held in the 1970s. She counted islands and observed ocean garbage. I know many parents who value just this approach, involving their children in cooking, growing food, stargazing, and know-your-country-trips to highlight the relevance of knowledge and skills to their lives.

I know fewer parents as opposed as I am to early induction into stress-producing test preparation, free-time-eliminating extra lessons, and strictness as the key to academic success. I also don’t believe that children, especially five year olds, should get homework. Nor do I think children’s other activities should be determined by how much homework they have.

With test culture and standardization, teachers are doing their best, and schools can’t do or be everything. I’m not against revision, but feel that homework should either include or leave evenings and weekends free for other possibilities for dreaming, making-believe, and making unique and unexpected meanings. Mostly it does neither, and is more likely to be associated with boredom and drudgery than inspire delight and curiosity.

I have my own philosophy about the purpose of education, and my own take on schooling’s approach to learning as well as its weight on how learning is experienced in and out of school. I’m open to the benefits of school, and the genuine love and efforts of teachers, but after the bell rings, other ways and kinds of learning should be given fair chance. When can that happen when children spend so much time on homework so many evenings each week, even on weekends? Is more time spent sitting still, being stressed by pressuring parents, and being taught to complete work to avoid trouble the best lessons we can provide?

Other activities, like music or gymnastics, where the body moves as part of learning, even if it’s just hands beating pan or fingers tapping piano keys, are necessary for growing minds to map themselves and for different learning styles to find their space in ways that P.E. classes cannot substitute. After-school play helps children’s brains to develop capacities and connections which schools may be able to give neither time nor priority. Self-directed time is crucial for cognitive and emotional development, which are inseparable. For me, adventure, beyond habitual routes and routines, is key for continually opening those boxes that my university students eventually think from within, without even noticing their passivity to the status quo.

Imagine asking children to do whatever makes them super-excited about the subject for homework. What would they choose? And, if we tried that, what might we discover about how children wish to learn and actually do? Perhaps then, there might be less quarreling about not staying focused or taking responsibility, not wanting to do well or taking an interest in school work, and not trying hard enough at an almost everyday activity which, let’s be real, isn’t meant to be interesting or likable. We would instead ask ourselves about our own responsibility, as adults, for reproducing a national system where a good portion of students opt out of learning or forget it’s something that they were hard-wired to pursue and enjoy.

Wise parents warn me about homework burdens in years just ahead, the pleasures it infrequently offers, and its narrowing rather than expanding of independent reasoning. I’m not sure how I’m going to negotiate it then, but there’s a good chance I’ll decide while Zi and I are somewhere on land or sea, dreevaying.

Post 207.

Tears. In the morning when I left the classroom after pulling Zi off me, feeling her like a small, green sapodilla clinging to its branch. Tears. In the afternoon as I transitioned her from the end of school to her extra-curricular activities, and because there were more new teachers, new rooms and new children, and she wanted me to stay.

One particular afternoon, she realized it wasn’t the gymnastics teacher she already knew, and watched the large number of unfamiliar children in the class with increasing apprehension, for her shy self the perfect storm of terror. More tears upon tears. One teacher held her while I walked away without looking back, as if everything was okay.

In my office, I’d have to recover from that last plaintive wail of ‘mummy!’, that I turned my back on, echoing in my head. I knew that within minutes of my leaving, she would be getting on with the moment, but the tears made me wonder so many things.

What if the world followed children’s readiness to separate, when might that happen instead of at such a young age? When you know your child feels overwhelmed in new situations, with new people and large groups, is there a parental secret to helping her adjust? Or, is tough love the right, real deal?

When you see the value of teaching philosophies that point to the importance of children identifying what they are interested in learning, does insisting your child press on through tears help or hurt their relationship to education? I thought about myself in childhood piano lessons, bored and afraid of the teacher, who somehow failed to nurture passion, curiosity or fun. Being forced to go wouldn’t have helped me learn and, eventually, to secure permission to stop going, I might have bawled down the place too.

Of course, when it was time to collect Zi, she was busy doing floor rolls with the other children in the same flood-of-tears gymnastics class, her sobs forgotten by her more than by me. I thought about how I almost got fooled, almost agreed to take her home, through wanting to value the kind of learning that children choose when they are ready, almost to counter the opposite experience of typical schooling.

How to know when to lovingly push children past their comfort zone, or when to listen to and follow their instincts, for there are important lessons there, particularly for girls, which they may carry into the ways they see their emotions, treat their bodies or defend their choices. Yet, life involves learning to make the most of situations we are in, chosen or not, and in the process to develop skills that include patience, self-discipline and courage. Better to learn them at four than at forty years old, free of charge from mom instead of through lost jobs, relationships or creative opportunities, or nose-bleedingly expensive therapy.

For moms, community is a must. Observing the momentous trivialities of Ziya’s first two weeks of primary school, one mom wrote me to share that she took the week off work to settle her daughter into secondary school. I sent back my respects. My aunt told me how she was granted milk and cookies from her 1950s, primary school nutrition programme. She drank the milk and, until she left for high school, used the cookies to bribe the school bully so she wouldn’t beat her up. She was so introverted that she didn’t tell her sister who was also in the school, nor her mother.  But, “it worked,” she said, “no beatings and no osteoporosis”.

Uncertainties and fears are life-long challenges as life continually changes. As every parent knows, it takes children different lengths of time and different kinds of support and smarts to adjust, but all have to. “One of our biggest jobs as a parent, messaged wise mom Gillian, is simply “to be there after they return from the sometimes heavy world”. “We all have to go through growing pains”, concurred my sistren Shalini, “just always receive her at the end of the day with love”. As I watched Zi skipping off this morning, I thought, there are tears, but there is time, toughening up, and hugs.

Post 192.

Watching from backstage. Photo by Maria Nunes.

Watching from backstage. Photo by Maria Nunes.

Rustling with energy backstage, dozens of children waited in darkness and silence, as senior dancers with Lilliput Theatre Company performed lines from Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Laureate acceptance speech. A few girls in front of me mouthed lines as they listened and fidgeted, impatient for their cue.

Malala’s words were starkly humbling. My chest quietly swelled with feeling, over the three nights of this weekend’s performance, every time I heard the young performers quoting her say: “I had two options. One was to remain silent and wait to be killed. And the second was to speak up and then be killed. I chose the second one. I decided to speak up.”

What a lesson for us adults.

When Malala visited Trinidad, I had explained her story to Ziya. I was explicit that Malala had been shot in the head, and that there were men who did not want girls to be educated. “Why?” Zi kept asking, as four-year-olds do, when adults struggle to explain complex situations.

Lilliput’s show now led Zi to seize upon Mighty Gabby’s song, Government Boots, which played just before Zi went on stage. “What are government boots? Who is Tommy?” she started asking, taken with the catchy refrain of “left, right, left, right.”

I explained that the song was telling Barbados’ PM Tom Adams there should not be so many soldiers. “Why?” she asked.

The sound of soldiers’ boots frightens many people. Soldiers hurt people with guns, and some children are forced to be soldiers after being taken away from their families.

Again: “But why?”

Imagine the show, in which Zi played a child bride, making her start these conversations, real ones about girls being forced to marry men they don’t know and boys being forced to hurt people, instead of them all being safe with their families and in schools.

Imagine me wrestling with how and how much to tell her the truth, wondering what constitutes ‘age appropriate’ knowledge when it’s about the realities of children her own age.

Imagine her at night, with her mind effervescing, as all children’s do just as you want them to close their eyes and sleep, with questions about Malala and government boots.

“Do the children see their families again?” she asked. Imagine all this because I only wanted her to grow less shy and more confident, and make friends, by taking a dance class.

But it seems the world doesn’t allow girls to grow up innocent so.

I admired that Noble Douglas and her company compelled parents, past students and more to invest in one way or another in giving our children a chance to dress up and dance to the chorus, “No, no, no.” And there’s one line Zi now remembers from Malala’s speech: “Let this be the last time.”

For me, seeing the whole process, from weeks of Saturday morning classes to rehearsal chaos and finally to a huge cast of exuberant children on stage, also humbling was the show’s determined mix of community parenting, feminism, global politics, children’s rights, Caribbean culture and joyous creativity.

There was a small ‘army’ of mostly women, helping with children, costumes or make up, making me appreciate how much labour matters beyond what is waged and counts toward GDP, making me recognise the sacrifices of women who never saw the show because there wasn’t anyone who equally shared their childcare responsibility, making me want to ask: “But why?” like Zi.

Unbelievably, after all this, all Zi told her school friends about the show was that she had on makeup. I had to laugh. Seems Lilliput also scored in Zi’s world of actual priorities of four-year-old girls.

Me with other mummies, happy and proud that the babies' class got their routine right on the second night after the super cute but chaotic opening performance. Photo by Maria Nunes

Me with other mummies, happy and proud that the babies’ class got their routine right on the second night after their super cute but chaotic opening performance. Photo by Maria Nunes.

Post 182.

At one primary school, the friendly teacher interviewing Ziya looked up from reading her form when, under religion, I listed ‘none’. ‘None?’ she clarified incredulously, examining me anew, like I was a zaboca that beguiled with firm, green potential, only to appear blackened when cut open.

Inside I chuckled, sometimes Zi decide she’s Christian, and the other day asked me what a soul was. Other times, she loves the azan, making up her own sounds to the call to prayer, and asking to learn Arabic. Yet, she’s being raised by an anthropologist who will teach her to value the cultural richness of religious cosmologies while emphasizing that the earth, with its sky, rivers, seas and forests, is her most inclusive temple, mosque and church. Modern world religions have historically considered that kind of peasant approach to the divine ‘pagan’, but no need to write that on the form, right?

At another school, the kindly principal asked me what I teach at UWI and, when I responded that I teach feminist theory, nodded sagely as she observed me closer, concluding that that explained a lot, gesturing with both hands at something seemingly telling about my appearance.

Another chuckle, because before our interview, Ziya’s teachers had neatened her hair and reminded me to smile, likely noting that it hadn’t occurred to me to dress either of us any different than we would for a normal school or work day, dressing to impress enough to get into a school not how I roll.

It was news to me that children had to even interview to get into a primary school. Suddenly, I discovered the conversations long being had by parents of other little brown sapodillas, focusing on the strictness of teachers, the friendliness of principals, the school’s SEA results, and the balance between academic and other activities.

Choosing private schools reinforces class segregation, but sometimes you weigh your politics against the learning environment best for your child, focusing not on pass rates, but on music or science opportunities or school teaching philosophy.

My dream is for a primary school where children learn through play, experimentation, interaction, innovation and unselfconscious creativity. I wish that primary schools would spend more time on agriculture and biodiversity, for what knowledge is more important than how to grow food and save our planet’s ecology. I’d love desks in circles or cool-shaped collective tables, rather than the efficient and militarized organization of rows of student bodies.

Mostly, I hope for a primary school where Zi learns about care, cooperation and self-confidence and not just competition, where she learns how to be responsible for her rights and freedom, not just obedient to discipline, and where she learns to value speaking up for social justice more than her own social mobility.

When some of the top scoring students in the country come to UWI, I meet them mostly unwilling to speak out publicly, mostly inattentive to global affairs, mostly disconnected from our region’s ecology, mostly without compelling inner curiosity, and mostly familiar with treating each other like widgets rather than interconnected, fearless human beings. Students are clearer on exams than comprehension, critique or how to connect seemingly disparate ideas.

With one more interesting school interview to go, I’m wondering what options are best and what decision to make. Passing tests is considered important, but I’m interested in passion for and openness to all forms of knowledge, whether from making mushrooms grow, observing how mas is made, googling social movements or practicing meditation. Education should make us better selves and world citizens, and such understanding starts with how we school our children.