A Place to Stand. A Place to Grow.

This is home:

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This is my landscape. (No, I don’t live in the woods unfortunately. This is actually a five minute drive away). It’s right on the edge of the Carolinian forest zone of Southern Ontario. I’ve gotten to know many of the trees, and the flowers, insects, amphibians and birds that live here. I know it in all its seasons and moods, and we have spent plenty of time alone together.

But I have other landscapes too.

I also love dense ancient forests, with thick soft moss growing on rocks, surrounded by ferns and peppered with dancing spots of sunlight. I love the musty smell of the rotting logs and rich earth. There is one forest in particular that we visit every year, as I did for many years as a child. I talked about it in this post.

FairylandBen

I also love rocky shorelines. I love the sound of gentle waves lapping on rocks, and the

DSC09995piercing call of seagulls. I love the feeling of the breeze that comes off the water. On a recent trip to the city where I was born and raised for 13 years, it was so much fun to look at all the places I spent time growing up. We visited my old houses, and those of my grandparents. We found landmarks that were so familiar, and yet felt so foreign, like they were from a dream. We walked along the rocky shoreline I knew as a child and searched for flat round rocks for skipping.

 

 

I’ve long been interested in sense of place, and how people grow to love different

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landscapes. While I prefer the shady protection deep inside a deciduous forest, my husband loves the blueberries and coarse junipers of rocky landscapes.

Unfortunately we didn’t get any pictures of said blueberries or junipers. Please picture them on top of this cliff.

 

The landscapes of our childhoods are so incredibly formative.

When I did my research with grade five students, I came to the (not unexpected) conclusion that they preferred highly groomed parkland areas (McAllister, C., 2011). parklandThis conclusion made sense in a couple of ways. First, parkland like this provides the potential for both protection and the ability to see long distances (Orians & Heerwagen, 1992). Some theories say we are evolved to prefer this landscape. In addition, children have been trained to understand and trust these areas. They know what to do with grass. Students liked groomed parkland significantly more than dense forest or even woodland trails, which were often feared and mistrusted. In a society that often defines outdoor time as synonymous with programmed sports, this didn’t surprise me. After all, people do prefer familiar landscapes (Balling & Falk, 1982). So, likely this preference is a combination of nature and nurture.

But, this makes me wonder how many people in future generations will value natural greenspaces, if they don’t play an important role in the early formative years, and the predominant feeling towards them is fear.

We might enjoy visiting foreign landscapes, and grow to love them, but there is still something special about home, isn’t there?

Tell me about your landscapes.

 

Sources:

Balling, J. D., & Falk, J. H. (1982). Development of visual preference for natural environments. Environment and Behavior, 14(1), 5–28.

McAllister, C. (2011). Where Have All the Children Gone? Community, Nature and the Child Friendly City. University of Waterloo. Retrieved from https://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/bitstream/handle/10012/5835/McAllister_Catherine.pdf?sequence=1

Orians, G. H., & Heerwagen, J. H. (1992). Evolved responses to landscapes. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. (pp. 555–579). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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The Next Top Superhero

It’s easy to look at the headlines today and get scared.

We do, after all, have the following issues dominating the news cycle on a regular basis:

  • Global Warming
  • Nuclear Proliferation
  • Antibiotic Resistant Superbugs
  • Presidential Tweeting

If Hollywood tells us anything, it’s about time a superhero showed up.superman-1529274_640

Realistically though, what we now need are visionaries: people who can see a better future and make the changes necessary to achieve it.

And ideally, we need these people to equate doing the smart thing with the cool thing to do. When I was a kid, coolness didn’t exactly walk hand-in-hand with nerdiness. But, somewhere along the way, after the days of Steve Urkel but before the time that humans started worshipping smartphones, those who were technologically savvy leapt up the social ladder. They became our new superheroes.

If you’ve spent any time in my house at all, you might (no, you most definitely) have heard the name “Elon Musk” come up. It’s no secret that my husband follows Musk the way my son follows Harry Potter – with something between rapt attention and obsession.

Why does he do this?

Because Musk’s companies are doing good things. And cool things. Really good and really Tesla Chargercool things.

Most recently, Tesla has released – for mass production – the first relatively affordable, long-range electric car: the Model 3. The company has over 500,000 reservations already. The car is cool. Undeniably, unreservedly cool.

But that’s not all.

In order to power these cars, Tesla is also building the largest battery factory in the world. It is also designing batteries to be used in PowerWalls that will ultimately power homes and further reduce humanity’s carbon footprint. The batteries are designed to work with the newly released, and surprisingly attractive, solar roofs by SolarCity (which was recently acquired by Tesla). A small Samoan island (Ta’u – pop. 790) that was used as a pilot project is now run almost entirely on solar energy. Larger-scale projects are under way.

Also, let’s not forget about the first reusable rockets developed at Musk’s SpaceX, or his Hyperloop and Boring projects which could one day provide underground electric mass transit.

Perhaps more important than any of this, Elon Musk is inspiring a movement. His out-of-the-box thinking, and willingness to take extreme financial risks have led to remarkable innovations. Car companies are racing to compete with Tesla. A new generation of engineers is clamouring to work for his companies, or are inspired to start their own and coming up with new and unique solutions.

While Musk himself is reportedly difficult to work with, he is undeniably brilliant, and changing the game in all of these fields, and particularly in sustainable energy. His philosophy can be summarized in this one particular image:

elon-musk-sinking-ship

If you ever have the desire to discuss Tesla stock trends or solar power feasibility, please come over and hang out with my husband. (Please? Anyone? Seriously, this guy has the ability to spot a Tesla in his rearview mirror two lanes over and six cars back on a busy highway.)

When we read the scary headlines, we have to remember all the good things that are happening. There are reasons for hope. So, let’s keep an eye on those next top superheroes: the people coming up with solutions that can change the world for the better.

(I dedicate this post to Paul – Happy Birthday!)

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Respect, Obedience and Civilized Society

Ever get into a debate with someone and then come up with the perfect response later and never get the opportunity to use it? That is why I am writing today….

A couple of months ago, I got into an argument with an older family member. He insisted that children these days have no respect for their elders (*if you must, insert Rodney kid back30Dangerfield impression here*). This relative felt the only way to get respect from children is to intimidate them, even by physical means if necessary and that isn’t allowed anymore. The only teachers, he claimed, that had his respect, were the ones he feared.

I, however, see things differently.

 

Respect is not something that can be demanded from children.                                         It must be earned and can only be taught by example.

Later that day, I realized we were talking about two entirely different things.

He was talking about obedience.

Of course we want children to be obedient (to a certain extent…. and to what extent is debatable.) But, I don’t want my children to fear me. I want them to cooperate because they understand that I have more experience and know and want what is best for them. I want them to trust me to be there when they need help, not run from me. Fear-based obedience may provide an effective short term solution to elicit cooperation, but will respect2never result in respect. World leaders who rule through fear and demand obedience, are never loved or truly respected by their people.

Every single person deserves a basic amount of respect, simply for being a fellow human. AND, the only way to teach children to respect others is to offer them the same respect that you expect from them. As a parent or a teacher (or anyone else who encounters children), it means that every single day you have to serve as an example of how children should behave towards others. That means valuing them as humans and giving them a voice.
The way we speak about other people, and particularly those we don’t agree with, ultimately says more about ourselves than it does about others.

Here’s the tricky part: There are an awful lot of people in influential positions who aren’t particularly respectful of others.

Now, I will be the first person to tell you that a particular news-dominating head-of-state has done little to earn respect from anyone. Quite the reverse. In fact, the hateful, offensive speech thrown across twitter and in speeches and debates serves as a particularly potent example of how NOT to be respectful.

In this bizarre (dystopian?) political time, it is so tempting to make jokes at the expense of a person who blunders about in such a comical (yet dangerous) manner. Humour may be, indeed, the only thing keeping us afloat right now. It is essential.

BUT, when we start making jokes about a person’s hair, skin colour or hand size, it simply isn’t funny. It is EXACTLY what we tell our children not to do. Could you imagine a child making these kinds of jokes about a teacher or a classmate? No, we expect them to show the people they encounter the basic respect deserved by every human being.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love late night comedians (I’m looking at you John Oliver and Stephen Colbert), but I cringe every time jokes about physical appearance take the place of sophisticated political humour. There is so much better material available. At times, this particular administration seems to have been designed solely for the use of late night comics. There’s no need to go for the low-hanging fruit. Now, I will admit, I have been guilty of jumping on the bandwagon at times, but I write this as a reminder to myself as much as anything else. We are all better than this.

If we expect our children to be respectful of each other and of us, then we must be an IMG_20140523_154112example and show them, and controversial political figures, and everyone else the basic courtesy and kindness that we owe all human beings.

If your humour isn’t sophisticated enough to extend past name-calling or appearance bashing, I ask (respectfully) that you keep it away from my children.

 

 

 

 

 

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Pathways to Education: A Tutor’s Journey

Over the past two years, I have found myself in a room full of high school students, trying to remember trigonometry (SOHCAHTOA!), explaining artificial insemination to a blushing young girl, reviewing the intricacies of cellular division, helping to research Pathways 3racial discrimination in Canada, using rudimentary sign language with English-language-learners, and cringing when I hear the words “Shakespeare” and “comparative essay” in the same sentence.

Why?

I have been volunteering as a tutor at Pathways to Education, Kitchener, a program offered locally through Carizon Family and Community Services. And, while it may sound like I’m spouting platitudes, every evening I go, I come away feeling that I’ve learned more from the students I was working with, than they have from me. It is the most rewarding volunteer experience I have had.

Pathways operates in eighteen locations across Canada, providing an array of supports to high school students in low-income neighbourhoods, and improving their chances for academic and life success. The website states: “The Pathways Program works within a community, alongside the local school system, to provide academic, financial, social, and one-on-one supports to address the barriers that youth can face to education.”

Now, I could try to write this post to focus on how Pathways benefits students, but it would be a little presumptuous. I can’t claim to know another person’s experience. I can, however, point you to this summary of the effectiveness of the program: 2016 Statistics. PPathways 5athways increases graduation rates in targeted neighbourhoods by an average of 85%, and has significantly increased the number of students who proceed to college or university. There are beautiful stories and testimonials that are not difficult to find online. But, I thought it might be interesting to add that the benefits extend beyond the students.

When I joined, I was considering pursuing a degree in social work, and seeking opportunities to get involved in a relevant organization to make sure it was a good fit. The volunteer coordinator suggested that I work as a tutor.

To be honest, I was intimidated at the beginning. My experiences with teenagers had pretty much ended when I ceased to be one. It was an awkward time of life for this bookish nerd, and I wouldn’t wish to revisit it myself. But, as an adult, it didn’t take long to be comfortable and the staff and other volunteers were friendly and helpful.

Pathways can be challenging on a variety of levels, both academically and socially. From trying to remember how to find the equation for a line, to editing essays about books I have never read, I find that each session presents a unique academic challenge. But, I Pathways 4have also been learning how to navigate more complex social issues such as social media dependence, language barriers, and apathy towards learning. I realized I didn’t have to be an expert in everything, but present an enthusiastic and open attitude towards learning and nudge the students to find their way.

In my role as a tutor, I have worked with a wide array of students. Many come from different religions, cultures, and countries which are vastly different from my own. Even the local teenage culture in itself is foreign to me by more than a couple of years. Many Pathways 2of the students have faced and are overcoming challenges in their own lives that I can only begin to understand. While we work together on biology labs, math problems, English essays or history assignments, we laugh together and share small pieces of our lives. In so doing, each of us improves our understanding of the world.

If you are looking for somewhere to volunteer or donate, I can highly recommend this organization. As a volunteer, I actually feel I am making a difference, and the staff and students are genuinely appreciative. And, now that I can better understand the challenges and rewards of working directly with people, I have enrolled in a Master of Social Work program. Thank you Pathways!

For more information, please visit:

https://www.pathwaystoeducation.ca/

 

 

 

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Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

A beautiful spring day! Perfect for learning to ride your first two wheeler! IMG_2133We live on a steep hill, so my husband and I take the kids out to find a good spot. Down the block and around the corner, we find an empty visitor parking lot. No cars, flat paved surface, no people to disturb (as the closest house is probably 100m away and around a corner). Perfect! Here we go…..

A car drives past and rolls down the window.

“You can’t be here.”

“Sorry, what? Are we disturbing someone?”

“This is a private community. You have to leave.”

They go.

Husband and I look at each other.

There are no gates, just a small sign stating “private property” that we didn’t notice at the entrance. He tries ringing a doorbell at the nearest house in this “community” but gets the same response from the resident. “You may not use the empty visitor lot.” We weren’t making noise. We weren’t doing anything dangerous, or illegal, or even the least bit controversial.

They then ask my husband: “What if I wanted to come and ride my bike on your driveway?” His response is….”Sure! It’s covered in chalk right now as all of the neighbourhood kids have been drawing on it. Come on over! I’ll get you a beer!”

But, we end up using a nearby slanted, gravel parking lot with a few cars. (where, of course, I trip over the bike and fill MY palms with gravel. Kid fares better fortunately.)

Yes, Yes, I can hear you. I get it.

Litigation.

Privacy.

Noise.

Private Property.

Trespassing.

Alright alright…. fine. That is technically private property, apparently, so let’s look at public spaces.

Here’s a fairly new sign for a city-owned field.

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Yes, read closely, it does indeed say:

NO food or beverages allowed.

NO chewing gum, sunflower seeds or nuts.

How about this one:

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The no-smoking I get. That affects other people. (Second hand smoke and all.)

But Unauthorized field use is prohibited??

Similar signs adorn all the local playing fields in the area. Here’s my son breaking the rule.

Prohibited

What does that even mean? Who is it meant for?

What if….

I want to toss a ball back and forth with my children?

I want to fly a kite on the field?

Clearly, if groups have booked the field, they get first dibs….but what about when they’re empty?

Lots of people have said to me: “Just use the field! No one really cares!”

But consider this….my children are always with me. They read the sign. Do THEY get to disregard all signs? Which rules should they follow and which are good to ignore? How do they know which are reasonable? Are stop signs just suggestions? What about wheelchair accessible parking spot signs? What about this one:

Risk

Hiking is a potentially dangerous activity which could result in death? Holy smokes! Why didn’t anyone warn me? I think my parents were trying to kill me! Good thing there was this sign!!

So, in conclusion, children and their parents are not welcome in deserted parking lots, empty public fields are only for authorized use (and you can’t bring snacks anyway) and the woods are clearly going to kill you. I guess the kids can go to the one nearby playground (but only if they’re between the designated ages as stated on the play structure).

Perhaps they should all go back inside and play video games. Right? Right??

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Apples or iPads? Inequality and Fundraising in Schools

 

Backpack Surprises

When I open up my child’s backpack, there are many things I don’t like to find. Used fundraise backpackKleenex, punctured containers of yogurt, and an open water bottle next to a library book, are some good examples. Those things, however, can be easily resolved.

But this week, my newest after-school gift came in the form of … yet another school fundraising package. So, I found myself staring at a Dance-A-Thon envelope and wondering what to do. Now, if you’ve read my recent post on charity fundraising birthday parties, you might be confused. “Surely, she should be happy to donate money to the school, and teach the kids about making a contribution in the process!” Nope. She’s going to write a rant-y blog post instead.

The Problem

The problem is, my children attend school in a high-income neighbourhood and the Dance-A-Thon money goes directly to supporting projects at their school. There is no common pool for all of the fundraising money to help those schools who desperately need basic resources. As a result, we get Smart Boards in every room, expensive, designer “learning tafundraise ipad-1126136_640bles” and class iPad sets, while other schools struggle to find money for basic nutrition programs or field trips.

It’s not difficult to understand what is happening. Fundraising efforts in well-off neighbourhoods see parents handing over fists of cash, and competing to volunteer their time for field trips or breakfast programs, while parents elsewhere simply don’t have the time or resources.

Under Pressure

The pressure tactics take many forms. For example, some fundraisers only allow children to participate in an activity if they contribute a minimum amount to the fundraiser. And, we are all familiar with those beloved organizations that offer cheap toys or draw entries to reward children for their fundraising efforts.

In Grade 1, my son was taken to the Book Sale fundraiser, where he was asked to select a fundraise hand-506754_640list of books he wanted, and then write down their names and prices to take home so I could “choose” to buy them if I wanted.

There’s no pressure quite like the fear of having your child stigmatized for your stinginess! Fortunately, from what I can tell, this particular dance event does not appear to have any of those kinds of strings attached. I do appreciate that certain fundraising teams are attempting to create a more inclusive atmosphere.

Meanwhile, school fundraising is increasing inequality in schools

This article, from the Toronto star, describes the problem:

As fundraising gap grows, Toronto’s wealthy schools leaving poor schools behind.

Also, a 2013 report by the Ontario organization, “People For Education,” makes the following observations:

  • The top 10% of fundraising schools in Ontario raise as much as the bottom 81%.
  • High income elementary schools fundraise at five times the rate of low income schools.

Why does this matter?

When children have access to enrichment activities, field trips, and superior resources and facilities, there are better learning outcomes. The inequality in fundraising deepens the fundraise earthquake-1665892_640.jpgfissure that already exists between schools in have- and have-not neighbourhoods and makes glaringly obvious the polarized experiences for the children who attend them.

Furthermore, the children in the low-income schools are less likely to get educational resources and experiences from home, and actually need educational enhancements in their schools MORE than children in wealthier neighbourhoods.

Check out this brilliant comic that explains privilege. 

But, I’m not convinced that many parents are aware this is going on. Many make the assumption that all schools in our region provide roughly equal experiences. This is not the case.

The Solution

So, I ask one simple question:

Why don’t we have a central fundraising pool to help schools who truly need the funds, and equalize educational opportunities between all students?

Or, do we really live in a community where parents aren’t willing to donate money if they can’t see the direct results in the form of iPads in their own children’s hands?

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not against raising money for charities and increasing empathy in schools. I’m happy to support the Terry Fox Run, and the wonderful work that has been done through the Me to We program. Teaching children about charity is absolutely essential, and something we focus on a great deal at home. (Please see my posts on charity birthdays….here and here.) But, we must be mindful of our actions and determine how we can actually make the most difference.

And so, Dance-A-Thon envelope, despite your request for a minimum of $20 per child, you will remain empty. I will, instead, attach a note about my donation to another fund, one that hopefully distributes money based on real need.

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The Right Stuff

IMG_20140106_154109It started with a knitted pale pink hat with a pompom. How I hated that stupid pink pompom. On top of that, NO ONE wore hats at school, and especially not homemade pink ones with pompoms. They all wore earmuffs or headbands from Zellers. I ripped that thing off as soon as I could, and let my ears freeze before I’d let anyone see me wearing that handmade monstrosity.

And snowpants? Well, as soon as it was up to me, those were gone too. I don’t think I donned a pair at any point between my early teen years and my mid thirties. Who would be caught dead wearing snowpants?

backpackAnd my backpack? Well, that obviously had to be worn slung over one shoulder. It didn’t matter how many heavy textbooks were crammed in there, a two-shouldered backpack carry was simply not acceptable, not in my school (or at least not in my interpretation of the “rules” of teenage image preservation.)

As a nerdy, fashion-backward child and teen (oh fine, adult too), I struggled to fit in. But certain things appeared to be bare minimum standards which I had to follow in order to avoid excessive teasing. Who knows why these particular rules were established, and where they started?

—Fast forward twenty years—-IMG_20140116_104542

I have been taking my older son to school for six years now, and my younger for one. It is a twenty-minute walk, and sometimes twenty five or thirty when walking with the tiny, whiny one. Living in Canada, our temperatures can reach -35C with windchill some days. Needless to say, jeans don’t cut it. My children have always been properly equipped with full snowsuits, hats, mitts, neck warmers and boots. They’re too small to fight me on these details.

I, on the other hand, had been freezing my tail off for years, when I finally noticed:

Another mother at the school.

A bastion of common sense in a sea of nylons and skinny jeans.

A mom wearing snowpants.

Thank you, snowpants mom.

red-hat

Now I have warm snowpants, an assortment of knitted hats (I still don’t like pink, but I do recognize that pompoms are quite popular now), and, when necessary, a backpack firmly secured on both shoulders (thank you very much). It took twenty years. Twenty stupid, stubborn years.

As I started thinking about writing this post this morning, ice covered the ground in a slick dark sheet, cancelling all school bus routes. (At the moment, I’m watching a car outside my window spinning its tires and sliding backwards down the street.) So this morning, I pulled on my sensible outdoor gear, and I added a pair of Yaktrax to my boots (which my mother had bought for my husband a few years ago but we had promptly forgotten in the closet). I clomped confidently past all the stumbling, slipping and tumbling parents and kids. (No, seriously…you need a pair of these: http://www.yaktrax.ca/). Thank you, mom.

Without proper attire in cold or wet or slippery weather, walking to school can be downright unpleasant.

But really, all you need is the right stuff!

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just unsuitable clothing” – Alfred Wainwright

Also, please share with me (in the comments below) any ridiculous fashion rules from your youth. We can all laugh at ourselves together.

 

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