Post 244.

Back to school.

Ziya’s teachers have started suggesting that I invest more in her focus on school work and a routine of revision. She’ll need this in order to not experience Junior 1, next year, as an overwhelming leap in demands, pressure and material to be covered.

The girl is dreamy, drifting away from whatever she is assigned to doodle on her notebook pages, wanting to fall asleep on afternoons, more interested in chatting, drawing and play, and sometimes outright inattentive. So, I’m appreciative of her teachers’ insights and advice.

I’m also committed to developing her motivation and concentration, and guiding her to write more quickly and neatly, and take more initiative to complete homework. I’d like her to feel confident and capable of tackling learning and responsibility challenges, and to begin to develop the habits and skills to do so.

Another part of me is protective of her dreaminess and distraction. I think dreaminess and imagination are wonders and rights of childhood. I think her brain transitions to doodling when she gets bored, and that school shouldn’t consist of years of mostly boredom, which it was for the majority of us. Children get bored because of how they are taught so the challenge to adapt is for us, not them.

Does homework systematically nurture children’s creativity, courage, caring or love for learning, especially when it often consists of tired and frustrated parents buffing up tired and frustrated children? I’m unconvinced that ‘alternative’ assignments that require parents to search the internet or spend nights helping to put together projects really present displays of independent effort. I’d rather Zi spend her evenings drumming or dancing than doing more writing at this stage. I think we should go to the river or waterfalls every weekend rather than sacrifice them for revision. And, I think these sentiments are appropriate for the mother of a child just six years old.

I have many reasons for these priorities. First, I’d like Zi to learn to love learning more than I’m concerned with how much content she learns. I spent twenty-eight years in school and did my best learning when I loved my subjects, and that didn’t start to happen until university.

Second, I think that children grow into school practices at different rates and our homogenizing system misses this fact of childhood development. Maybe at six she doesn’t care about school for more than half of the allotted time for a subject, maybe some teaching styles are sheer tedium, maybe she won’t begin to reach her peak or potential for another couple of years. None of that speaks to her capacity for self-determination in adult life, but it could compromise that defining moment of childhood, SEA, which unfortunately establishes the overarching rationale for parents’ schooling decisions.

Third, I teach university students. Many come afraid of experimenting or getting things wrong, asking for example essays rather than trying to find their own voice, wanting instructions for every step of assignments rather than figuring it out, terrified or passive about communicating confusions or critiques with lecturers, pessimistic rather than utopian, disengaged from social transformation rather than demanding it, expecting good grades for mediocre work, and unclear about their responsibility to improve not only their lives, but the world. Marley called it ‘head-decay-shun’. Our courses have to pull out passion, political will, purpose, creativity, empowerment and a sense of care and humanity. It’s in the students already, just hardly still prioritized. When rewarded, I’ve seen so many of them spark.

I’m also most likely to hire young women and men who bring unusual ideas and angles, who aim beyond the status quo, can devise solutions and strategies, and are ethical, fearless and self-motivated. Passed tests matter, but not really. I’d rather a hunger for new experiences, lessons and opportunities to contribute.

As a mother, I see Ziya starting a schooling path that many have gone through, and survived just fine, some better than others. As an educator and employer, I also see the end results and its myriad costs.

Come Monday, when school starts back, I’ll still be wondering how to negotiate my own learning philosophy with that of the system of which we are also a part.

Post 230.

13606754_10154320668980818_7457040063525673984_n

Our school children marked a milestone this week. Some survived the experience of SEA. Some became the ones about to enter their time of preparation and pressure. Some, like my sapodilla, finished just her first year of primary school.

Up to December, she would cling on with both arms and both legs when I tried to leave her at assembly, and her tears would follow me to my desk at work. I’d rue all the constraints faced by mothering workers, and sit staring at my computer screen, bereft even though I knew Zi was likely to be onto a different emotion moments after I left.

Children are resilient. They both can and have to figure out on their own how to be all right, but that doesn’t mean that the desire to be there all the while doesn’t persistently tug on your heart.

I spent the year hearing about the seemingly daily making, breaking and making back up of best-friendships, and which boys got into trouble with Miss. Over this time, Zi came home talking about honesty, hygiene, hydroponics, homophones and much more. She learned those hand-clapping, sing-song games that generations of school children have taught each other, away from parental socialization, constituting a peer culture that crosses the region. Shy in front of strangers, she came third in her school calypso competition. She didn’t even blink about going up on stage. In the end, we underestimated her capacity to be brave.

A little person grew up just a little. Might other parents feel this way at the end of a school year? Nothing profound about it, just that milestones were crossed, while we’ve watched, trying to figure out that balance between being there and letting go.

Both Stone and I met Zi at the end of her final day of this first year. Ten years ago, when we were young, I was a poet and he was a DJ. I wrote him a song whose lyrics were plain and certain: ‘We are on every quest together. Our nest can withstand any weather. We live best with love as our shelter. Two little birds of a feather, who are blessed. I love you so endless. Endless’. Now, we are three.  We make up her nest, and these chances for togetherness don’t come again.

We walked over to the field where I played when I was exactly Ziya’s age. She climbed on the metal jungle gym, and swung upside down, as I had climbed on thirty-seven years ago, with scars to prove it. The saman tree still stood overhead, and I wondered if Zi would have the same childhood fantasies I did, imagining that fairies lived at the mysterious, unreachable top of the trunk.

A few weeks ago, she started talking about how she wished her toys would come to life. For me, it was Enid Blyton and the Faraway Tree series. Today, it’s Doc McStuffins. As I stood under the saman’s shade with her, I felt like I was in a strange time loop; the same age, same space, same metal jungle gym, same uniform, and the same galaxy of branches overhead.

Four decades separated our crossing of childhood milestones. There was no way I could have predicted the circuitous path that led me back here, and looking at the time between us, I cannot begin to fathom the twisty route that she will travel over her own forty years.

Our children’s test marks signal how well they did that day, not how hard they worked or where their passions and skills will lie, nor the extent to which they are truly blossoming, but at their own pace. We should be proud of them for trying, following through, and learning the myriad minutia that children have to.

These little persons navigate untold complications of adults’ world, grow up a little along their own circuitous routes, and enter and complete new challenges we all know are not easy. That last day, I made sure to be there because endless love and pride is all that I think one such little sapodilla wanted from me.

IMG_7397

Post 229.

I don’t remember being much of a good student in primary school. I was rarely in the top five, maybe once in a while in the top ten. I remember Common Entrance as terrifying. All I have in my head is a picture of sitting at a desk in a room full of wooden desks, with the bright light from a large window to my right and a ‘lucky’ stuffed toy we were allowed to bring with us in those days, perhaps mine was a white unicorn, in front of me, watching me writing, writing, writing until my hand hurt.

I passed for Bishops Anstey High School, while girls who usually had better marks than me, but didn’t survive that one exam as well as I had, cried and cried when results came out. It’s painful to think about even today, that pressure and those immense feelings of relief and failure, when we were so young. Nonetheless, I never attended high school in Trinidad, instead becoming a Queens College student in Barbados, and later attending three additional high schools in Canada. In all of these, I was undeniably, unremarkably average.

I don’t remember any passion for my subjects or any particular drive to do well.  I barely passed physics and chemistry. I feel I like was on automatic, doing school because that’s what adolescents do, not necessarily connecting to a compelling reason, plan or future. I was a reader, and I liked writing poetry, but I had no real hobbies or areas of excellence. My mother most likely despaired, wondering if I’d turn into a delinquent, while I got through reality from shifting locations in my own teenage dream world.

Adults are so different from children that we should reflect on whether they see the world, and our expectations of them, the way that we do. Their inability to connect to our standards and aspirations might not be a sign of present or future failing on their part. They are just growing at their idiosyncratic pace, and partially living in their own world.

Parental expectations can also be wholly unrealistic. We want our children to do well in all subjects as if it’s a national norm for adults to be great at eight separate things simultaneously. By the time we grow up, we accept that we might be better at art and math than biology or creative writing, but we scan report cards with that very measurement rule still in our minds.

Ziya’s only just started primary school, yet parents are already concerned about revising classwork in the afternoons and reviewing term material for assessments, producing a sit down and learn practice, and comparing the percentages that children get at the end of term. I believe in none of these. Afternoons are for self-directed learning, including play. Revising for assessments hides what was actually learned, or not, in class. Sitting still and memorizing book knowledge gives concepts that can be regurgitated without understanding of their applicability or meaning. Percentages are great for knowing how your child performs in assessments, but not whether she or he increasingly loves learning, which is a wide indicator of when students will do well.

Any time spent with our children will tell us how they best learn to think, question, apply and remember, and which skills they have mastered or are still developing. Parents’ job is not to follow the Ministry of Education curriculum, but to do whatever enjoyable activities help to strengthen our children’s’ capacities, without resorting to more school.

All this sounds like letting education slide, but I’m more concerned with our despair when children don’t excel early on. Not all can excel every year for their entire school lives. Not everyone’s academic performance will peak when they are children. They might finally find their feet in university, in a job or in a course that offers an alternative to traditional subjects. That was me.

I began to seriously excel at university, finally. A surprise to many, I ended up with three degrees, plus focus, discipline and ambition. My mother need not have been so worried, and perhaps as parents neither should we. That’s the lesson I now try to live with Zi.

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.