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Archive for March, 2010

School closings are back at the top of  the Canadian education policy agenda.  “Save Our School” battles are now being waged by concerned parent groups and town councils  in every province.  On March 10, 2010,  the Bass River Elementary School, built in 1913, was spared the axe by Nova Scotia’s  Chignecto-Central School Board and continues on with just 35 students, Primary to Grade 3.  It was a small victory for a  tiny rural community, but virtually everywhere else small community schools are being shuttered and amalgamated with larger consolidated schools.

Schools are closing in cities, towns, and villages all over Canada.  Since the early 1990s, David Foot, author of Boom, Bust & Echo, has been warning us of the looming demographic challenges facing school systems. The number of live births peaked in 1990 at 405,486, and since then the school age population has been shrinking. In Quebec and Atlantic Canada, declining enrolment started much earlier. Even in “younger” provinces like British Columbia and Ontario, the declining birth trend since 1990  has produced a prolonged wave of declining enrolments.

Schools are closing at an alarming rate.  In Ontario, the 2009 report on Declining Enrolment by People for Education forecast that 146 Ontario schools would close over the next two years, affecting more than 150,000 students. The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation has expressed great alarm over the closing of 180 public schools in that province between 2001 and 2008.  Since 2008, they have been leading the fight to save small community schools, lobbying MLAs and promoting the advantages of small schools. In Montreal, the English Montreal School Board has survived, but ( as a result of language politics) has shrunk to a pale shadow of its former self.  School enrolments in Nova Scotia continue to decline, and  are forecasted to shrink by a further 10.5 % by 2015.  In one Nova Scotia district, the Strait Regional School Board, enrolments have dropped 36 % since 2001 and elementary and secondary schools are being consolidated in towns like Sherbrooke and Canso.

“Save Our School” campaigns are being waged to defend small community schools. In postcard perfect Niagara-on-the-Lake, the tourist town is in total upheaval over plans to close its only high school. Nearby in southwestern Ontario, a Community Schools Alliance headed by Doug Reycraft and local mayors, has petitioned for a “Smart Referendum” to stave-off a wave of school closures. Virtually everywhere, school boards are now conducting “school accommodation reviews,” the first step in the closure process.

What’s happening in your community? And most importantly, do small community schools still have a future in 21st century Canada?

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Since the time of the Ancients, the art of teaching has sparked intense discussion both inside and outside of the academy.   In the March 7 edition of the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Elizabeth Green, editor of GothamSchools.org, tackles the whole question in a splendid feature essay.  Her article focuses on Doug Lemov, an Albany (NY) educational consultant, who had an epiphany five years ago while trying to assess why American school reform efforts were faltering.  After observing dispirited teachers in action in the urban schools of upstate New York, Lemov reached the conclusion that teachers simply needed better training.  Like most North American teacher educators, he also believes that good teaching is not just instinctive — “a kind of magic performed by born superstars” — but, instead, consists of deliberate techniques that can be taught or imparted to others.

The fundamental question remains: Are good teachers simply born or can they be made? Here is how Elizabeth Green framed the issue:

“But what makes a good teacher? There have been many quests for the one essential trait, and they have all come up empty-handed. Among the factors that do not predict whether a teacher will succeed: a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm and having passed the teacher-certification exam on the first try. When Bill Gates announced recently that his foundation was investing millions in a project to improve teaching quality in the United States, he added a rueful caveat. ‘‘Unfortunately, it seems the field doesn’t have a clear view of what characterizes good teaching,’’ Gates said. ‘‘I’m personally very curious.’’

When Doug Lemov conducted his own search for those magical ingredients, he noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn’t expected to find: what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise. ‘‘Stand still when you’re giving directions,’’ a teacher at a Boston school told him. In other words, don’t do two things at once. Lemov tried it, and suddenly, he had to ask students to take out their homework only once.

It was the tiniest decision, but what was teaching if not a series of bite-size moves just like that?”

This week Educhatter asks the same questions posed by The New York Times Learning Network blog:  What do you think? To what extent can good teaching can be taught?”

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