But seriously…

The last few days have been filled with some very entertaining Rapture-inspired tweets, posts, events (like the post-Rapture looting party on Facebook), which can be summarized as a widespread cynicism and disbelief that Christ will reappear at some point today to bring the righteous home, prior to unleashing hell on earth.
shoes.jpgIn the meantime, believers are preparing themselves to be taken, including making arrangements for their pets, who, as soulless animals (their belief, not mine) will of course be left behind.
It just occurred to me to worry about believers who are disappointed today. History has shown what fanatics are capable of, in terms of self-harm, and we’ve been down the Rapture road before (and I’m not the only one thinking ‘what happens after it doesn’t happen, either).
Let’s assume that nothing happens today. What goes through the mind of a true believer? Does someone that devoted to such a preposterous idea just say “oh well, never mind. Guess I’d better mow the lawn after all.”? Somehow I doubt it. What worries me are not the weirdos who tell themselves that Camping got the math wrong, but those who believe that the Rapture happened and they just weren’t worthy. Let’s face it, on any random Saturday, natural disasters occur and a number of people die, and it’s not entirely unlikely that the octogenarian Camping himself will indeed go to his reward today, at least euphemistically, if not literally. So it follows that tomorrow morning, some people will wake up still firmly on earth, look around them and see what they believe are signs that the angels have been and gone, and decide that they are in for a few months of hell on earth before being consigned to the real thing.
What if these people take it upon themselves to put themselves, their loved ones, or even their neighbours out of their soon-to-be misery?
If anyone whips up a batch of KoolAid for the family, euthanizes their pets, or takes a rifle up to the clock tower in the town square, Camping will have a lot to answer for.

The Reformation, and what it means to you

This morning, the Gazette ran an item reporting that parents and students generally perceive the infamous educational reform, first introduced by the MELS (that’s the Ministry of Education, Leisure and Sport, which is the subject of a rant unto itself… seriously, given how quick the provincial MNAs are to lambaste Ottawa for ‘interfering’ in portfolios that are ‘provincial jurisdiction,’ why does Education not warrant a ministry of its own?!? Oh, don’t get me started…) in 1997, and fully implemented in 2005.
As a teacher and a parent, and a Quebecer in general, I have been hearing about “the reform” for what feels like a million years. At the Cegep level, we were in a collective tizzy last fall because – deep breath – the first cohort of students who had only ever been taught under the reform was about to hit us. Seriously, we had entire Ped Days devoted to what to expect from these students, what to do with them, and how to get our insurance to cover the expected increase in sedative prescriptions.
A 1999 article from the McGill Journal of Education summarizes the aims of the reform this way:

The curriculum reforms in Quebec share the same general orientation as reforms currently taking place in Canada, the United States and other industrialized nations. These include: greater stress on standards, accountability and student success; definition of essential learning expectations (or outcomes, results or benchmarks) to be attained at different levels of the system; shift of responsibilities from the bureaucracies of systems and school boards to the individual school; recognition of the importance of the role of the school staff in curriculum development; rethinking of the focus and essential content of various subject areas; emphasis on cross-curricular and interdisciplinary learning; integration of information and communication technologies; introduction of new approaches to assessment and reporting; more effective involvement of parents and the community; and closer links among objectives, programs, teaching and assessment.

In short, the reform purports to:
1. encourage student success
2. be competency*-based (essential learning expectations vs. ‘rethinking’ essential content)
3. decentralize curriculum planning
4. move toward interdisciplinary learning and interconnected stages of teaching and learning
5. embrace IT
6. favour new forms of assessment
7. involve parents/communities
*competencies are, essentially, skills. For instance, high school students are expected to adopt “effective work methods” and “construct a moral frame of reference.” Both of these things are considered competencies, although in different learning areas (methodology and moral education, respectively). Methodological competencies are cross-curricular, which means they can (and should) be transferable from one discipline to another, and should be developed as the student progresses through the grades. Other competencies, such as the moral framework one, are subject-specific, but again, are meant to be developed as the student goes from one level to the next. The Lester B. Pearson School Board has a handy page of links to various pdfs summarizing the competencies at elementary and secondary school.
It’s important to keep in mind that at the Cegep level, we’ve been planning and teaching courses according to a competency model for ages, so really, the fundamental pedagogy of the reform was not completely foreign to us. So why were we all so nervous about the reform? I suspect there were a few aspects of the issue that contributed to our angst – although not every teacher was apprehensive for the same reasons:
a) the idea of increased use of IT in the classroom – some of us are all over every technological innovation, while others are still a little queasy about phones that do anything more than voice calls;
b) fear that there is no content being taught at all – if all of the learning objectives are expressed solely in terms of skills, what actual information do these students have? Do we have to teach all the content we used to assume they already knew?
c) fear that these newfangled touchy-feely self-esteem-boosting instructional methods have produced students who don’t know how to work for grades and feel completely entitled to a pass, regardless of performance;
d) Chicken Little syndrome – all of my colleagues are freaking out about this, and the college is inviting experts to address the faculty at Ped Day, and there are articles in the paper every three weeks… Ack! Terror!
So, before I share my own reflections on the big scary influx of reform students, let me share my friend Mark’s question with you:
“Since I’m about to graduate my second class of grade 11 reform students, I’m curious how my cegep teacher friends find last year’s crop. How are their abilities, skill levels, preparedness, etc?”
On behalf of Mark, I open the question to other high school teachers, as well as my Cegep colleagues, and fellow parents, too – in fact, please encourage others to comment and/or link to their own musings on the matter. What is your experience with the reform?

If former PMs can return from the dead*, so can I

I haven’t posted in decades because (a) I’ve been very distracted by Facebook, (b) I’ve been even more distracted by Twitter [<3 evrthng n 140 chrctrs. Brv = soul of wit] and (c) recent changes in our computer set-up at home mean that I cannot, techically, see my own blog. For a few months, I though no one else could, either, but apparently I was mistaken.
The current post is just a promissory note; a longer post on the educational reform in Quebec is in the offing, and barring any further distraction/technical difficulties will be posted anon.
*another in my long list of reasons the Internet is a wonderful thing: inside jokes with dead politicians.

To the moron who wrote on my house:

I appreciate that your message was about love. Goodness knows “K + S Fur ever” is better than “death to the cops” or something crude or vulgar. Having said that, may I make a few suggestions:
1. when writing on the house of an English teacher, please try to spell correctly, and use words (and) rather than symbols (+);
2. when writing a message expressing your love for someone, consider choosing a venue that you can easily revisit, rather than the front porch overhang on someone else’s house;
3. again, when expressing your love for someone, particularly your eternal love, consider using a medium other than pencil;
4. don’t write on my house.

a fond farewell

On a snowy day in January, 1997, a tiny grey face peered up at me from underneath our front porch and meowed. It was love at first sight.
When Heidi moved into our home, she was Cat #4, and, as it turned out, was carrying Cats #5, 6, 7 and 8 in her furry belly. I called her “Heidi” because half the time we had no idea where she was, a habit that became even more evident when she got close to giving birth.
At first, she was skittish, and although she clearly appreciated being inside, warm and fed, she was not a cuddler. I was determined, though, and I wore her down – and when she went into labour, she sought me out, following me around all day and sticking to me like glue. She gave birth (to four kittens that seemed impossibly large for such a petite mother) in our bedroom closet… I was pregnant myself at the time, and Dr. T was away, and this tiny grey ball of pain and fury looked straight at me and screamed as each huge kitten emerged.
One by one, her kittens went to their new homes, and one by one, our original trio of cats left us, and eventually Heidi was Cat #1, a status that she enjoyed for almost a decade. She curled up next to my babies when they slept on the couch, and tolerated toddlers testing to see is her fur came off.
She was the tiniest cat with the biggest purr. She brought me mice. She sat on my lap as I wrote blog posts and sat on my students’ essays when I marked papers. She “helped” the boys with their homework, and kept Dr. T company when he sat up too late watching TV.
She used to follow me to the Metro and follow the boys to the playground (and she even got it when I suggested that other parents might frown upon a cat in the sandbox). Once, she followed us about six blocks when we went to vote – apparently she was very civic-minded.
Heidi has been the other female in the house, making me feel a little less outnumbered. She’s snuggled with me in bed and on the couch, and enjoyed the laps of many friends over the years (particular favourites being Terence and Erin, and one memorable, almost pornographic moment with Kevin B.).
Earlier this year, it became clear that Heidi was in decline. Over the past few months, we’ve been monitoring her condition with the world’s best vet, so we knew that the end was coming – her kidneys were showing signs of failure. In the past couple of weeks, things have gone downhill quickly. We don’t think that she’s in any pain, yet, but she’s stopped eating – even Fancy Feast – and is almost literally a shadow of her former self.
This evening, our vet will come to our home, so Heidi can be at home, with her family, and we’ll say goodbye to the best cat we’ve ever known. She’s had, I like to think, a good life, and she’s made our lives better, immeasurably.
I cannot begin to express how much I am going to miss her.

Ignatieff is Russian for “scapegoat”

Lawrence Cannon would have us believe that it is Michael Ignatieff’s fault that, for the first time since the UN was created, Canada failed to win its bid for one of the non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council.
According to Cannon, Ignatieff’s musings about whether or not Canada actually deserved a seat on the council were taken to heart by the voting members, which means that although actual Canadians don’t appear to pay any attention to Ignatieff, international organizations take him very seriously.
The Harper government also plans to release documentation proving that Ignatieff is in fact responsible for many other disappointments and disasters affecting our once-united nation, including the decline in the polar bear population, traffic problems in and around Toronto, and diver Eric Sehn’s 4th place finish in Delhi.
After all, Ignatieff, with his book learning and unkempt eyebrows, is clearly hell-bent on destroying our national image. Not like Stephen Harper, whose collection of cowboy hats, leather vests and flak jackets prove he is all man, and whose international policies have nothing to do with today’s vote. Why wouldn’t the UN voters decide, en masse, to vote for Portugal, unless Ignatieff’s inflamatory remarks swayed them?
Obviously, the vote does not reflect anything else, such as Harper’s all-too-blatant pro-American stance, or his rather lopsided approach to the Middle East, or his government’s repeated fumbling of allegations of abuse and torture in Afghanistan, or his decision to stop for coffee instead of participating in an international world leaders’ meeting at the UN last year. Nor does the vote reflect global distaste for recent Canadian policy decisions, such as our moralizing about maternal health in developing nations, our backpedalling on climate change, our turning a blind eye to the tar sands problem, or our lavish and hypocritical overspending on the G8 summit.
Maybe Ignatieff should embrace the thought that his remarks were to blame – after all, perhaps he can parlay his apparently global influence into some voter recognition where it really counts… and if all else fails, he can always roll up the rim.

What ever happened to “what ever happened to?”?

After I finally caved and joined Facebook, I spent about two months in a state of perpetual excitement, as every day seemed to bring a new friend request from some long-lost soulmate. It was wonderful, and I was thrilled with each and every new reconnection. The experience made me question my hitherto-held stance on my high school reunion, i.e., there’s no way I am deliberately going to subject myself to dinner and dancing with those people. Anyone that meant anything to me, I reasoned, was still part of my life, and all I would get from a reunion was confirmation that everyone else was as horrible as I remembered.
Facebook changed my mind, and I am very glad I’ve been reminded of all the really great people I went to high school with, and of all the wonderful workmates I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years.
I recently created a separate Facebook “persona” for interaction with students, and for some reason I started reflecting on the impact of Facebook, and its various social networking counterparts, on human relationships. I’m not talking about the dire predictions of the technophobes, who seem to believe that one cannot be an active member of society and own a cellphone/computer/MP3 player; I’m actually talking about the phenomenon I experienced as a new Facebooker.
Some of my students, less than two decades old, already have more than 500 ‘friends’, and unless the Aztecs were right, all of these people will presumably still be in constant communication, at least electronically, for the next seven decades (give or take).
What happens in 2030? Will high school alumni groups bother with reunions? Will alumni groups even continue to exist, or will Stu Dent simply “like” first his high school, then college, then university, then job #1, ad infinitum?
This line of questioning then led me to wonder whether or not anyone will ever again slide into obscurity. Once upon a time, it was the exclusive bailiwick of cheap paper tabloids to expose in salacious detail what “happened” to the once-famous or infamous – a name or face you hadn’t though of in years suddenly splashed across lurid newsprint at the grocery store checkout, “tragically” lost in a haze of alcohol/drugs/sex/performance art. Remember the child actors from “Different Strokes”? How sad…
Well, first of all, thanks to Twitter and Facebook and Myspace, no star need ever fade again. You can make one movie or guest star in one episode – or, heaven forbid, get your own “reality” show – and immediately have thousands of people who are apparently willing to spend the rest of their lives reading about your life in 140 characters or fewer. If your tweets are good enough, you might never need to do anything else again – you’ll still be famous.
If that’s not enough, thanks to the Internet, you can have your own web site, and use it to prolong what might otherwise have been a much shorter career. When I started thinking about this blog post, I happened to be listening to hits from the 80s, and thought to myself, “I wonder whatever happened to Howard Jones, anyway?” You know what happened to Mr. Jones? Nothing. He is still touring and recording, albeit with significantly less embarassing hair. Thomas Dolby? Not permanently blinded by science, as it turns out, but rather, once again, still touring and recording, and, it seems, entertaining TED audiences to boot.
Don’t get me wrong – I certainly do not begrudge Messrs. Jones and Dolby their continued success. I am merely observing that the level of that success is directly related to their presence on the Internet. Before the advent of the Internet, and triple-w marketing, artists like these would have either moved on to other careers, or, perhaps, in the style of Jimmy Buffet, cashed in on their moderate success and started a chain of seedy bars (“Thomas Dolby’s Science Lab”?).
Finally, thanks to the miracle of Google, not to mention all the sites actually devoted to tracking the famous and the notorious, you need never again lay awake at night wondering whatever happened to Jan from the Brady Bunch.
Regular readers will know that I am enamoured of the Internet and the possibilities it offers. I truly believe the technological revolution is a good thing, and I, like many of my peers, can’t remember how we functioned before we had e-mail and cellphones. But sometimes I wonder if we’re losing some things, too, like the mystery of tabloid celebrity or the joy of reconnecting with someone we’d forgotten we loved…
…and don’t even get me started on textspeak. 😛

Let’s talk about sex, baby

At the recent curriculum night at Colin’s school, I discovered, much to my dismay, that Sex Ed is practically non-existent. It’s not part of the Phys Ed curriculum; it might be covered in Ethics, by the school nurse, in a single one-hour class. It turns out that this is true across the province, even in other places like our local high school – despite the perpetually high number of teenage mothers in places like our neighbourhood.
There’s a petition to make sex ed an official part of the curriculum; I gladly signed this petition, and I encourage my fellow Quebecers to do the same.
We think that people figure sex out on their own, or learn what they need to from their peers, or from their parents, but the fact is that many people learn what they need the hard way – through unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, sexual harrassment or assault – rather than knowing what to do before these things happen. Not all parents are comfortable talking about sex, or prefer to dictate behavior (i.e., “just don’t have sex, junior,” which I believe is the unrealistic head-in-the-sand approach that only creates more opportunities for mistakes). Not all peers are well-informed, either – one of my students recently said something that made it clear to me that she’d “learned” (or not asked and just assumed) incorrect information about using condoms. If she had not been corrected, chances are that when she eventually chose to have sex, she would not have insisted on a condom, and who knows what the consequences would have been?
The text of the petition is in French only, but the gist* of it is that sex ed is not really provided in our schools, and that the lack of an official mandate to teach about sex and sexuality means that most teachers don’t teach such things, and/or are uncomfortable doing so. Sex ed classes offer more than biological facts; they teach teenagers to think critically about sex, orientation, and sexual or gender stereotypes, and to develop consciously a well-considered set of attitudes and behaviours when it comes to sex. Sex ed classes provide a safe and well-informed venue for questions and frank discussions.
The petition text ends with a request for the Province to mandate courses in sexuality in a democratic, non-sexist and non-hetero-sexist context.
I’m trying to decide if it’s fair to say that sex ed is like drivers’ ed… I suspect that some people believe that if we teach teens about sex, they will go off and have sex, just as teaching them to drive means they’re always borrowing the car. I think that the analogy works if we remember that drivers’ ed is about teaching our kids to drive well, and responsibly. Teaching our kids about sex doesn’t mean that we’re hiring hookers for them – it means that we’re teaching them what they need to know to stay safe and healthy, no matter what.
*any one who wants to provide a more accurate/full-length/more poetic translation is welcome to include it in the comments on this post!

Must be doing something right

On Friday, Colin celebrated his 13th birthday.
Wait, let me rephrase that:
On Friday, my son became a teenager.
I enter this phase of motherhood with more than a modicum of trepedation. I have been a teenager.
First of all, there were all kinds of things that I experienced as a teenager that my little boy is clearly too young to know about, much less experience for himself.
Secondly, I know for a fact that when during my own adolescence, my parents went through a concurrent phase of being ridiculously unhip, uninformed, and unsympathetic, and I can only hope that this was a purely coincidental mutual madness.
As I’ve said before, my own aging process does not bother me – I’m not obsessed with grey hairs, or wrinkles, and I feel no compelling need to buy sensible shoes. Colin’s development into an actual human being, on the other hand, makes my arthritis flare up. His feet are already bigger than mine, and he’s a mere three inches from being taller than I – and since he grew more than four inches this past year, it’s only a matter of time before he’s patting me on the head.
He wears deodorant, and needs to.
So far, despite the occasional bout of teenage attitude and an inherited intolerance of mornings, he’s a great kid – quickly becoming a great guy. He’s generally considerate, unless you have the misfortune of being his younger brother. He’s funny, and smart enough to know which parent to thank for his humour (and brains).
I feel it is tempting the fates to think that our entry, as a family, into the teenage years indicates a relatively easy ride, but so far, it’s survivable. Of course, pimples and attitude are nothing compared to baby’s first hangover or “um, I had a little accident with your car,” but I like to think that we’ve laid the groundwork for dealing with those when they inevitably occur.
On the other hand, I have to remember that in two years, there will be two teenagers in the house.