Category Archives: education

My Agenda

Two points:

Point 1: Educators are often in precarious positions. Their goal is to educate people but, as our society can’t seem to agree on what is “education” and what is not, educators end up doing things that aren’t particularly educational.

(Like teaching Shakespeare.)

Educators who try to broaden horizons by just toeing the line or finding loopholes in the Orders from On High are accused of having an agenda. Educators are penalised for this, regardless of their reasons for teaching the “agenda” material.

Point 2: My provincial government (whom I voted against) is persisting in their destruction of society. Their behaviour is encouraging others to do the same. I am very, very, VERY dismayed by this.

So, here I am, a private educator with access to a minimum of 21 young, impressionable Ontarian brains every week. One of my former students asked if I was going to try to impeach Doug Ford (the frontman of this social destruction).

Nah.

I’m gonna do one better.

I’m going to teach my students about voices other than Doug Ford’s. I’m going to teach my students about voices other than François Legault’s.

I HAVE AN AGENDA.

At Word on the Street, I bought a whole slew of young adult books for my students. These stories are specifically by and/or about BIPOC and/or LGBT+ people.

Why? Because I can.

Because I’m not an Ontario teacher, I can teach my students anything I think they would find interesting and meaningful. I don’t deliberately teach them things that are contrary to their personal values (I’m just an English tutor: it’s not worth an epic battle) but I do deliberately teach them things that will make them think. One cannot read or write well without thinking well.

Most of my students belong to one minority group or other. They need to know that even though their English tutor is white and middle-class, not everything they read and write has to be white and middle-class; they do not need to mimic my voice. Over the years, I’ve also had a few students who needed emotional support that they couldn’t get from their families. My students sometimes need the voices in these stories.

I also get to choose my students. My students are not jerks. When we bring up the concepts of empathy and living in harmony, they get it. It’s not difficult to teach them to be nice to other people

I won’t get to use many of the stories during the school year–perhaps only a handful of new stories per student–but summer comes with two months of educational freedom. This freedom will be instrumental in applying my–and my students’–agenda.

 

Vocabulary 101

Activity Being Avoided: Lesson prep for the week
Music In My Head: Highway – David Francey
Tea Being Drunk: I can’t get any tea because I’m lying on my stomach and there’s a cat sleeping on my back
Books Being Read: Mama’s Boy — David Goudreault, Her Body and Other Parties — Carmen Maria Machado

When I was a child–about six or seven years old–my sister and I were in the back seat of the car, insulting each other.

“You’re despicable!”

“No, you’re despicable!”

“You’re despicabler!”

My parents were ignoring us; my uncle, whom we had just picked up at the airport, (I assume our performance was for him) had one eyebrow raised.

“Do you two know what that word means?”

“Yep! It means you’re pregnant!” (My sister would have been four or five.)

“It means you’re really bad. But we can say that word and Mum doesn’t get mad.”

Where had such young children learned that word? From Daffy Duck, of course. He said it to Bugs Bunny all the time. It was a great word that came with an optional saliva-spraying lisp.

I think about situations like this when I get a new student. New students are always asked why they think they need an English tutor. The answer invariably involves some variant of “I want to improve my vocabulary”. They have lists of SAT words and vocabulary workbooks. They set goals such as learning 100 new words per week.

I didn’t have SAT word lists or vocabulary workbooks when I was growing up. I had the illicit Batman TV show that we watched at a friend’s house, during which the Joker taught me “Foiled again!” and “You have thwarted my nefarious plans for the last time!” I had Rudyard Kipling and his ‘Stute Fish. I had Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things that gnashed their teeth.

I had a mother who, when I didn’t like dinner or my sisters or the way my life was going, asked, “Are you being persecuted?” If I answered, “Yes”, her retort would be something about it putting carbuncles on my soul.

I had a father who said, “That’s ludicrous!” rather than “You stupid child, what were you thinking?”

As Albert Cullum points out in Push Back the Desks, children in Kindergarten pick up on the language that’s fed to them. If you drop a sheet over your head and say, “I’m a friendly apparition”, they’ll make the ghost connection in a couple of minutes. If you flap your arms and say, “Pinions”, they know what you’re talking about. The concept of waiting until a child is “old enough” before we speak to them in an intelligent manner is particularly short-sighted.

Growing up, there were people I would purposefully listen to because I admired their linguistic skills. When I ask my students whose vocabulary they admire, I’m met with blank stares.

What goes in, comes out.

Sometimes I get a student who clicks right away, and they’re able to focus on the best voices available to them. Their vocabulary improves within six months or so.

Other students are convinced that word lists are still the way to go. They remember the words for a couple of weeks, and then the words are gone. I have the students read Calvin and Hobbes comics, and watch Corner Gas and Brit-coms. Eventually, they might see the light and embrace Stephen Fry as their linguistic deity, but we’ve lost valuable time.

We want our children to be “above average”, but we only give them access to mediocrity. It seems to me that in our crusade to make children’s culture entirely educational, positive and uniform, we’ve forgotten to include versatile language.

 

 

In Defense of Semi-Colons and Other Ornaments

Activity Being Avoided: Life. I’m campaigning for aestivation.
Music In My Head: Cowboy Romance – Natalie Merchant
Tea Being Drunk: cold mint tea with a little lemon
Books Being Read: Margery Kempe – Robert Gluck, Ragged Company – Richard Wagamese

I found this: On Semicolons and the Rules of Writing

My initial reaction to Kurt Vonnegut’s quote is “What an arrogant little…”. Those of you who have read this blog know that I’m in favour of pretty things like semi-colons and em dashes, and I only despise the clutter of serial commas because they encourage reading without thinking. You’ll also know that I believe a competent writer should be able to work within the full pyjama-tuxedo range.

Yes, one should be able to write a simple Vonnegut sentence, sans semi-colon. One should also be able to flutter Virginia Woolf’s heart with cleaved clauses.

A Vonnegut sentence (from Slaughterhouse Five–and please ignore the modifier problem): “Billy sat up in bed. He had no idea what year it was or what planet he was on. Whatever the planet’s name was, it was cold.”

A Woolf sentence (from A Room of One’s Own): “The title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are like, or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them, or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light.”

Now, it’s not easy to write au Vonnegut. As with anything else, simple writing requires attention and practise. It’s even more difficult, however, to write a complicated sentence, to learn to use punctuation–no, to wield it as a chef’s knife–to create the lily and gild it.

Why bother? Why not keep it simple?

Humans don’t always like simple. We like art; we like pretty things; we laud the complex and ornate. While we might take a calming breath in the face of Japanese minimalism, the Sistine chapel receives gasps of admiration.

Each person should have the choice of eliciting breaths or gasps.

If we’re going to force “education” down every callow gullet, there should be a broad purpose to it. There is no purpose to analysing Shakespeare; there is great purpose to being a competent writer. If we spent less time analysing literature and more time honing writing styles, communication would become the most important thing in our society. With communication comes learning and understanding. With communication comes coherence.

We can’t all be the same, but we can learn to communicate with each other. We can also make our existence pretty–because there’s nothing wrong with something being embellished.

 

Dear Fellow White People: TRC Teaching

My provincial government is a bunch of jerks. (Click here for details.)

Now, I work with students who don’t really like to read, but here’s my (unofficial, completely unsupervised) TRC curriculum:

For starters (non-threatening graphic novels for those who don’t read “school books”):

Short stories:

Novels (for speculative fiction fans, sports fans and feminists, respectively):

Play (just one, because my students don’t like plays but they like Emily):

Poetry (the first one is very popular with the science crowd):

Satire:

Politics:

Let’s Have a Chat About Accessibility and Being Hard of Hearing

I went to a poetry reading on Saturday night. It was at The FOLD, which seems to pride itself on accessibility–‘cepting it wasn’t accessible for me. Two of the four presenters didn’t use the microphone that was right beside them.

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a few years know that this seems to be a poetic problem

If you want me to pay you for your art, I need to be able to take part in it.

There’s not a lot about accessibility for hard-of-hearing people (though apparently one-quarter of the population has some type of hearing loss). Here are my suggestions for HoH accessibility:

1. Always use a microphone.

OU TUNT BEE I CA UH-UR-TAH OO. (Loud doesn’t mean I can understand you.) The microphone consistently makes all the sounds louder, which means I can pick up more consonants. Make it a good microphone, too. Static and blaring make things unintelligible.

2. Make sure you have decent speakers hooked up to said microphone.

Squawking and fuzzing aren’t good here, either.

3. Light the presenter’s face.

Lipreading doesn’t work well in mood lighting.

Lipreading, though, has drawbacks: B and M look the same; F and V look the same. Accents really mess with lipreading.  Shouting, emphasis and extreme emotion also contort lips. For most people in most situations, lipreading is only half a language.

4. Offer closed-captioned videos or print-outs of the reading.

ASL is nice, but not everyone is fluent in ASL. People who don’t use it regularly might be good enough to have a conversation, but poetic language is probably beyond them.

5. If you can’t make your event accessible for me, just let me know.

I don’t expect everyone to accommodate my ears. People who don’t speak English wouldn’t expect you to translate the whole programme into their language.

Just don’t lie to me and take my money.

For communication tips, read the Canadian Hearing Society’s page.

 

 

Sitting with the Bad Guy

A student had to write an essay in response to this quote:

Said student didn’t do so well with the essay, partly because they didn’t understand the concept of “easy and preferred answers”.

If human life had accurate easy and preferred answers, philosophers wouldn’t exist. Argument wouldn’t exist. There would be no need for thought.

Much as it may seem otherwise, I am easily bored. (It’s difficult to notice because I am also easily entertained by my own imagination, which can be whipped out at the drop of a hat. Do what you want with this statement.) The process of thinking is enjoyable to me: the result may be fine, but the means of getting there is what I appreciate. Maybe that’s why I never excelled at math: correct answers are not as pleasurable as good answers.

I also appreciate “liberal education”. I don’t want to miss anything interesting.

On Twitter and blogs, I follow an odd assortment of people. Very few of them are people I agree with—or necessarily like. I want to read about things I don’t know about. I want to read what the ex-cons and the anti-contact MAPs and the disgraced editors have to say. I want to read what the rabble-rousers and prejudiced people think. After all, “[y]ou can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in” (Arlo Guthrie). It behooves me to become familiar with the light, the dark, and that wonderful, explorable, murky grey area in between.

A few months ago, my daughter phoned me. She’d just witnessed her first car accident, and she’d been sitting with the person who was at fault–the crasher–as the victim had a whole slew of people with him. The crasher was having a bit of a rough time with what had just happened, so my daughter sat on the curb and listened until the authorities showed up. My daughter said the crasher was pale and shaking, obviously in shock: to my daughter, there were clearly two victims, and victims should not be left to flounder.

A very long time ago, I was in the same situation as my daughter’s brief companion: I was once a crasher. Like the crasher in my daughter’s situation, I knew I was at fault and was trying to process everything while standing alone on the street corner. The priest from the nearby church came to stand with me. We didn’t talk much; it was just easier to get through that waiting period with someone close by.

I was thinking of this as I read my student’s (failure of an) essay. They had used “right” and “wrong” as adjectives for “answers”, and I realised how rarely those terms are appropriate, in my experience. Perspective is a definitive thing, and the human race has yet to share a single perspective.

Naturally, it would be very nice if everyone would share my perspective–or would that bore me?

I believe we have the right to judge things as “correct” or “incorrect”, “good” or “bad”; however, personally, I want to be quite sure I’ve got all the information before I make that judgement. I’m not ashamed to change my mind–and I’ll gladly do so if I find it necessary–but it’s that whole ounce-of-prevention-pound-of-cure thing. Backpedalling is like work.

 

 

Notes towards the Definition of A Good Student

It’s the beginning of this school year, and we again come to that eternal conundrum of civilisation: Who is a good student?

Well…

  • a good student views the beginning and ending of the school year as a mere change in schedule
  • a good student has a schedule, but also knows when the schedule can/should be tossed out the window
  • a good student is organised, even if the method of organisation is comprehensible only to them
  • a good student knows how they learn best
  • a good student does concern themselves with grades received, but only to keep track of their personal progress; sometimes an A+ is the only acceptable grade, and at other times a C- is the goal
  • a good student understands that teachers can open the door but cannot make the student walk through it
  • a good student knows what makes their heart thud with happiness
  • a good student can come to terms with what boredom they must suffer in order to achieve the happiness that makes their heart thud
  • a good student will say “I already know that” because their inherent compulsion to learn will have them bursting to follow that sentence with “Teach me more”
  • a good student knows that age has no bearing on who is the teacher and who is the student
  • a good student has no limits, no prejudice, no fear