Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for February, 2016

Shannen Koostachin’s Children’s Campaign for a ‘safe and comfy’ school in Attawapiskat First Nation was deeply moving. It spawned Shannen’s Dream, a Canadian youth-driven movement dedicated addressing the glaring educational inequities and alerting policy-makers to the urgent need to improve funding of on-reserve First Nations education. With the support of Northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus, Shannen got her school, was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize, and then featured in Alanis Obomsawin’s 2013 documentary film Hi-Ho Mistahey. 

ShanneninActionWhile reading the latest C.D. Howe Institute Commentary, Students in Jeopardy (January 2016) written by Barry Anderson and John Richards, a chill came over me. With clinical precision, the two authors document, once again, the abysmal First Nations graduation rates and the apparent ‘failures’ of what are termed “Band-Operated Schools.” What, I wondered, had Anderson and Richards learned from Shannen and her youth crusade for First Nations community-based schools?

For those seemingly fixated on documenting the “deficits” and proposing structural reforms in First Nations education, a refresher may be in order. In 2007, Shannen was 13 and in Grade 8, having spent her entire elementary years in squalid, poorly heated portables. When the proposal for a new Attawapiskat school was shelved, she and her Grade 8 classmates stood up for the younger students behind them. Utilizing letter writing, then Facebook and You Tube, Shannen’s children’s crusade went over the heads of politicians and bureaucrats to get their message across in the elementary schools of Southern Ontario, union halls, then on Parliament Hill and even in Geneva, Switzerland.

Tragically, in 2010, Shannen was killed in a highway accident on one of her long trips in the Near North, but her Dream lived on. Taking up the youth campaign, MP Charlie Angus pushed for a new school and succeeded in securing passage of a February 2012 House of Commons resolution to “put reserve schools on par with non-reserve provincial schools.”  In September 2014, fourteen years after the old school was closed because of a diesel fuel leak, a new Attawapiskat school opened with brightly lit classrooms, a library, a music room, a home economics department, and a gymnasium.  Without the “outraged energy” of Shannen’s campaign it may not have happened at all.

Shannen’s educational journey is regrettably all too common. She and her older sister, Serena, graduated from the Attawapiskat school and were compelled to move hundreds of kilometres away to New Liskeard, Ontario, for high school. While campaigning for better schools, she travelled far and wide and saw, first hand, the gross inequities in schooling, especially between schools in suburban Toronto and those in First Nations communities.

Completing high school in  First Nations communities requires incredible persistence. One of Shaneen’s fellow students, Holly Nakogee, attending Grade 12 in Attawapiskat in 2014-15, was typical of the true survivors.  After losing her closest sister Dakota following  childbirth, she moved south three times for high school, only to return ‘homesick’ each time. In a community where some 95 per cent of the housing is sub-standard and the water isn’t drinkable, graduating from high school can seem insurmountable.

First Nations children in Attawapiskat are still facing long odds and feel essentially trapped with no real bridges to a healthier, happier, more fulfilling life.  Looking at those all-too familiar C.D. Howe Institute bar graphs showing 2011 First Nations High School Certification Rates of 48.9 per cent for Ontario, compared to well over 80 per cent province-wide, cannot possibly convey all the “burdens” borne by those First Nations students who “fall out” of the system.

Somehow the “Action Steps” proposed in the C.D. Howe Institute report leave me cold.  A “seven step” strategy is presented with the declaratory certainty of the “policy-wonk” at a safe distance from the unfolding crisis among First Nations youth. The same recommendations reappear: close the funding gap; focus on improved student results; clarify who’s responsible for what, improve Region and ‘Band’ competencies; seek incremental improvements; target program funding; and improve second-level support services.

Such an approach may produce marginal improvement and help to ease the tortured conscience of federal and provincial policy-makers and Indigenous Affairs officials. It doesn’t really get at the root of the problem and does precious little to empower First Nations people themselves.

With a new Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Dr. Carolyn Bennett, and more generosity of spirit, the time for social reconstruction may have arrived. Supporting traditional industries, creating sustainable employment, refurbishing housing, and embracing First Nations community-based schooling is a much better ‘whole of government’ approach. In that respect, my own Northern Policy Institute report, Picking Up the Pieces co-authored with Jonathan Anuik (September 2014), offers a sounder point of departure.

Social reconstruction and community-school development require a completely different more comprehensive, grassroots up strategy respecting First Nations ways of knowing and traditions. More funding would be a real help, but it’s going to take a generation to rebuild broken trust, foster cross-cultural reconciliation, and assist First Nations peoples themselves in this vitally important work.

What have we learned from Shannen’s Dream and the Attawapiskat School campaign? Why do First Nations ‘policy experts’ tend to fixate so much on the obvious “deficits” in student learning and graduation levels — and not really address the underlying causes? Where have top-down First Nations supervision and accountability schemes gotten us, so far? Is it easier to affix blame and point fingers than to listen, learn and act with more sensitivity?  Why not try harder to get more in sync with First Nations communities and their deepest aspirations to rebuild their own communities and institutions? 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

The largest school board in Atlantic Canada, the Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB), may be the first in the nation to defend cancelling classes on Monday February 8, 2016 to prepare for a “pending blizzard” that eventually produced a routine snowstorm after school hours. Hours later they announced a second day full system shutdown, provoking howls of protest from vocal critics and citizens claiming boards are too quick to call snow days that inconvenience parents and cost teaching time.

NSStormChips“They have closed all schools due to a ‘pending’ storm. Not one flake of snow has dropped out of the sky,” one woman wrote on Facebook.  But HRSB spokesman Doug Hadley said officials had information that the snow could start by 11 a.m. “It wasn’t the question of getting everyone to school, it was a question of getting everyone home safely,” Hadley wrote in an email. That decision not only impacted 137 schools, 4,000 teachers, and almost 40,000 students, but precipitated a rash of early business closures virtually idling the region’s leading business and government centre.

Closing schools system-wide is a rarity in many areas of the country. My AIMS report, Schools Out, Again, produced in April 2010, raised the first alarm bells. Comparing Maritime school closure records with those in six different jurisdictions, including Winnipeg, Calgary, York Region, Durham Region, and the Quebec Eastern Townships, the pattern was abundantly clear — most school districts outside the region close school only 2-3 times a year  or never, not for an average of 8 to 12 days a year, as in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland/Labrador.

A survey of Nova Scotia’s highway cameras on February 8, 2016 at  3 pm showed no snow cover on 47 or the 51 highway locations monitored by highway cams.  Yet the Halifax, Annapolis, South Shore, and Tri-County regional school boards closed all schools, all day. The Acadian School Board cancelled its mainland schools. Université Sainte-Anne, Acadia, Dalhousie, Mount St. Vincent, NSCAD, and Saint Mary’s Universities all shut down.

Astute political observer Parker Donham, curator of The Contrarianfelt compelled to declare that “Nova Scotia schools no longer have zero tolerance of snow. They have zero tolerance of the possibility of future snow.” He also tallied up the financial cost to the province of this one day of weather paranoia:

  • Upwards of 100,000 school children lost a day in school unnecessarily.
  • Thousands of teachers and school board staff got a paid day off. [HRSB staff worked a half day.]
  • Roughly 68,000 households had to scramble to make last minute child care arrangements (based on an estimated 1.5 students per family).
  • Some of those parents lost a day of work.
  • Thousands of employers endured absenteeism and paid work time diverted to managing the school boards’ indifference to community needs, provincial employees were sent home at 1 pm.

Defenders of full system Snow Day school closures maintain that school boards should always “err on the side of safety” and trot out the standard claim that students are safer “off -the-roads.” Many of the apologists also claim that riding school buses is somehow more dangerous than riding in personal vehicles, driving ATVs, and sliding down snow-covered hills. That argument deserves further investigation.

SchoolBusNoMoreSnowDaysSchool buses continue to be one of the safest methods of travel for children and youth. Only 0.3 percent of all collisions resulting in personal injury or death involved school buses. Yet, over a 10 year span (1995-2004), children traveled by bus as many as 6 billion times, an estimated 600 million pupil-trips per year and 3,400,000 pupil-trips each day. Over the 10-year period, only 142 people died in collisions involving school buses; and just five of these fatalities were bus passengers.

The Ontario Ministry of Transportation compares the likelihood of accidents using various modes of transportation. Compared to occupants of school vehicles, occupants of cars and trucks are: 42 times more likely to be in a fatal collision; 45 times more likely to be in an injury collision; and 25.7 times more likely to be in a collision of any kind. A United States study in the American Journal of Public Health (2005)looked at crash counts during snowy weather versus dry weather conditions and found that snow covered roads generally produce less severe crashes and fewer fatalities.

Some school boards, most notably the Calgary Board of Education, insist that school children are far safer on school buses and in schools during most snowstorms. It’s also fair to say that most school districts outside Atlantic Canada shut their systems down only as a last resort in the most severe, hazardous conditions. Cancelling classes so families can prepare for snow storms is truly unique to Canada’s Atlantic provinces and undoubtedly contributes to the region’s well-known productivity challenges.

Why are Maritime school boards so quick to cancel classes in advance of snow storms?  Where’s the research evidence to support the claim that kids are safer in personal vehicles or playing unattended  outside than travelling by bus to teacher-supervised schools?  Is it time to assess the safety risks of cancelling schools with such frequency? 

 

Read Full Post »

Every weekday morning, students across the nation arrive at school and file into their classrooms. Most students are ready and prepared to learn, but increasing numbers are reportedly anxious, “stressed-out” and hyperkinetic. Teachers everywhere find today’s students distracted by mobile devices and texting, wrestling with family issues, bothered by bullying, easily excitable, or simply anxious about academic expectations.  Child psychologists and parenting experts provide plenty of advice on how to help “stressed-out” kids cope in our schools and homes.

YogainClassBCMore children and teens claim to be “stressed” than ever before, but — strangely enough– the research evidence to support such assumptions is spotty at best. One of Canada’s leading authorities on teen mental health, Dr. Stanley Kutcher, observes that they are under “different kinds of stress” and perhaps less resilient than in the past. Why some kids can “handle the pressure” of competition while others “fall apart” is now attracting more serious study. Close observers of classroom culture are also noting the recent trend toward promoting the philosophy of “mindfulness,” including “Breathe In, Breathe Out” daily yoga exercises.

Stress is a normal part of everyday life and resilience is what allows students to not only survive, but to thrive.  The idea that “all stress is bad,” Dr. Kutcher insists, is a popular myth and “completely untrue.” In a March 2011 interview with CBC-TV health reporter Kelly Crowe, he clearly explained why without resorting to inaccessible medical terminology:

“Stress is useful for us, it helps the body tune itself, it is a method by which we learn how to adapt to our environment either by changing ourselves or by changing our environment.  There is good stress, which is positive, it helps kids learn how to pick themselves up and dust themselves off, and start all over again. That’s part of resilience.  That’s part of learning how to deal with life, but sometimes there’s also stress that is bad for you and part of the deal is understanding which is which.”

When does stress become harmful to children and youth? Here’s Dr. Kutcher’s answer, based upon the best research:

“Stress which is very prolonged or very intense can be harmful to people and the times in life when that stress comes on can also be more harmful than other times.  For example early in life; severe and prolonged stress early in life such as maltreatment or abuse can have impact not only at that point in life but also well into adulthood because of its impact on brain development. Severe and prolonged stress is not good for you.”

Reading recent news articles endorsing “Mindfulness in Class” and “Self-Regulation” made me wonder if advocates of such approaches made any distinction between types of stress, and whether “competition” was, once again, a bad word in elementary classrooms.  One Grade 5 class in Abbotsford, BC, taught by Julie Loland, addressed the problem with a “Mindfulness” initiative. In her “high needs” school, Ms. Loland utilized Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Buddhism-inspired strategies to calm the children down and get them to focus on learning. “I felt kids came to school and were not ready to learn; they were battling stressful life situations,” she said. “Many students didn’t care about learning” and simply came to school to escape “their poverty.”  Regular yoga exercises were introduced to ensure “kids were open to the learning of the day.”

A Toronto region school, Massey Street Public School in Brampton, is implementing Dr. Stuart Shanker’s prescription from Calm, Alert, and Learning, a variation of “Mindfulness” known as “self-regulation.” In teacher Shivonne Lewis-Young’s Grade 3 and 4 classes, children sit on a blue carpet and padded balls rather than at desks and the day begins with passing a “talking stick” and asking each child “how do you feel today?”  Calming the kids down and teaching them how to control their behaviour with “self-regulation zones” is seen as the panacea. “It appears to be working” anecdotally, according to The Globe and Mail’s Education reporter, Caroline Alphonso.  It definitely makes the kids feel better, but where’s the evidence that it’s building confidence, strengthening resilience, or improving their grades?

More discerning education analysts and researchers, particularly in Britain, consider such “feel-good” strategies as mostly  harmless as school-based elementary-level experiments but possibly detrimental if scaled-up to a system-wide initiative.  Utilizing them in socially-disadvantaged schools might be doing more harm than good by further “degrading” the curriculum and lowering student performance expectations.  On this score, Dr. Kutcher has some further advice:  “We’re not here as a species and still surviving those millennia because we couldn’t adapt to stress. On the contrary, our brains are wired to adapt.  I don’t think we actually do anybody a service and we may actually do young people a disservice by trying to protect them from stress and trying to make everything nice and everything rosy and having a Pollyannish approach to life.  I don’ t think that does anyone any good.”

Respecting the pupil and challenging them to do their best remains the soundest, proven, and research-based approach, especially for kids who come to school with few social advantages.  School classrooms are populated by “Warriors” and “Worriers” and some of that outlook and attitude, whether high motivation or paralytic anxiety, is definitely parent-driven. American psychiatrist Douglas C. Johnson of UCLA, San Diego, a leader in the OptiBrain Center Consortium, specializes in training pilots and favours “stress inoculation” as a strategy: “You tax them without overwhelming them. And then you allow for sufficient recovery.”  That, Johnson claims, ‘helps diffuse the Worrier’s curse.’

If that sounds a little harsh and perhaps overly competitive, then Dr. Kutcher’s approach might be more palatable. “We have to learn how to deal with stress,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that giving kids techniques… or showing them how to deal with it is a bad thing. I think it’s probably a good thing but doing it over and over again and providing cocoons for kids I don’t think works.”

Are kids more stressed today or are we just more sensitive to it in our schools and homes? Do educational prescriptions such as “Mindfulness” and “Self-Regulation” help or hurt today’s students? Where’s the evidence that calming them down sharpens their intellect and produces improved performance? Is there any danger that mainstream elementary classrooms are becoming “therapeutic” rather than educative in their focus? 

Read Full Post »