Monthly Archives: September 2013

Play is Serious Business

Otters are cute and extremely playful. Kids are cute and extremely playful.  Guess which sentence is untrue?  If you guessed kids you are antisocial. If you guessed otters you are baby_otter-206352a zoologist. Just a brief foray here into the fascinating world of the otter without stealing any thunder from National Geographic. Otters are highly intelligent animals and they live in extended families. They are very social with one another but not only because they love each other (cute as that sounds). Like humans they rely upon one another for survival. They’d be lost (and dead) without interaction. We look at their behaviour and think “how cute!” and they are.Large families of otters hold each other’s paws when napping belly-up near a shoreline. It’s adorable to see yet vital to their survival. Holding “hands” prevents lone otters from drifting out to sea and becoming shark bait. And don’t lose sight of the fact that otters are also vicious and extremely apt hunters; they will kill a large dog on land if they have to and not to eat it. The dog in this video wisely keeps its distance. In spite of the narrator’s comment, s/he isn’t bored. 

You’ve seen otters using water slides, sliding  downward on their backs, their tummies exposed, their little arms out.  It’s cute when they enter the water and just otterroll around and around for what seems like no particular reason. Here’s a shocker: it’s not mere play. They aren’t having an otter party. They aren’t kids in a sandbox. They are learning and practicing vital survival and hunting skills. “It’s part of their social behavior and it provides the kinds of exercise needed to hone their hunting skills and their ability to escape from potential predators,” a zoologist stated in a Geographic article. There really is no communication method or behaviour in any animal that is strictly for play. Play is too multi-faceted for that.  In this video, the cameraman mistakes an otter’s possession of a rock as play. Actually, the otter is learning how to handle a rock in order to break open mollusks on its belly for food. 

The same is true of humans. Play is serious business with us too. Play is integral communication between peers and between parents and their children. Joking with our successwork colleagues is play and displays socially adequate behaviour. Something as laid back as kicking a football around the backyard with our children is spending quality time with them. Children suffering from failure to thrive are neglected children. failure to thrive involves many factors besides communication, however this is essential in producing healthy, happy children. Children who don’t thrive live in families that don’t bond. They don’t show any interest, particularly not in play and enjoying their offspring. A child in this household can hardly be expected to thrive, enjoy life and feel wanted. I researched a 5-year-old girl who seriously injured her arm at school and her teacher brought her to the emergency ward of a hospital. After a number of phone calls, her mother finally appeared at the ER. Most of us would rush to our child and throw our arms around the little one. This mother ignored her daughter, lit a cigarette, and loudly inquired where she could get a coffee. Accustomed to this apathy the child barely glanced at her mother. This disturbing non-interaction was routine. 

Adult-child play displays sincere interest in the child’s joys and needs. It strengthens family bonds. It also releases chemicals in both the adult and the child’s brains that strengthen the ability to bond with others inside and outside the family. There is a small window in a child’s life where care and play strengthen this bond and ensure it follows the child throughout life. When this opportunity is missed during that vital stage in a child’s life, bonding becomes a serious obstacle that is almost impossible to overcome.  In fact, failure to thrive and a missed opportunity to learn how to bond is often discovered in the early lives of criminals and delinquents. 

sad girlOne serious condition that may develop from a lack of acceptance and love in a person’s early life is known as Avoidant Personality  Disorder, also known as Anxious Personality Disorder. Individuals afflicted with the disorder are generally ill at ease, anxious, lonely, and feel unwanted and isolated. Of course there are multiple factors that are present in a person with APD, many of which pertain to physical and medical needs. A more extreme syndrome, Reactive Attachment Disorder results from a combination of lack of emotional bonding, as well as early childhood sexual abuse. Safety, affection, reassurance, acceptance and play are among many needs good parents meet in their children. 

Play in an infant-parent relationship looks silly. I witnessed a father pretending to playfully spit in the air in front of his baby (that sounds gross but it wasn’t real spit). The baby laughed at this and it never got old. Over and over daddy repeated this behaviour, and over and over his son giggled in response until suddenly the baby shrieked loud and long with absolute glee, making everyone smile. Such a silly, simple interaction, yet vital to the development of a healthy, father-son relationship. 

Kids in a play box conduct serious work among their peers. Very young children, such as toddlers and 3-year-olds engage in parallel play. That is, they are immersed in their own toddlers-playingplay and their own activity rather than truly interacting with a peer. Another child’s company however is essential in the development of social skills. On occasion each child wants the same object and each child displays individual social skills in a mutual compromise (or lack of one). In this manner tots are developing vital social skills. They are learning to communicate in a mandatory way. Sharing isn’t just about being nice to one another. Sharing among children teaches bonding, love and befriending others. Play provides the opportunity to share, cementing the ability to make and keep vital relationships. 

Dramatic play refers to children taking on make-believe roles. You’ve seen many of them: a little girl becomes a Princess; a little boy is a firefighter or a boxer. Role play strengthens children’s confidence in themselves and expands their horizons in terms of what they are capable of as adults. Play develops gross motor and fine motor skills. It uses academic inventorskills, such as math, logic, art and literacy. It strengthens imagination, the adult term for “thinking outside the box.” When children use ordinary items, such as a spoon in an unusual manner (eg. a toy catapult, or a fairy wand) many adults miss the creative connection with a condescending, “oh that’s nice, dear. Aren’t you clever?” It’s much more than nice or clever. Many inventions of the 20th century evolved from early imagination and the curiosity to ask “what if I tried this?” Like adults in the working world, play is a child’s line of work.

In the meantime, there is nothing wrong with giggling at the otter’s seemingly playful activity. It’s just as enjoyable to engage with one’s child in play or to enjoy two children interacting playfully. We know it is vital. Mother Nature provides an added bonus; play is fun. We anticipate it. Without the reward of fun, people wouldn’t indulge in play. Fun is nature’s clever reward, ensuring we return to play and social engagement time and time again.  There is nothing wrong and everything right about enjoying ourselves when we interact with our children.



Keep Music in the Public Education System

I was looking for a terrific Youtube clip of the Barenaked Ladies when they accepted a Juno Award many moons ago. As usual they were dressed like bums in stained t-shirts and jeans. What struck me was the comment Steven Page made about school. He said into the microphone quite casually “some of us are here because we learned music in school. Keep music in the public education system.”  His words transformed his appearance into a scholar of learning.

This comment was especially meaningful to me on two levels:

  1. Steven Page accredited public education during the Mike Harris regime when everyone in Ontario hated teachers
  2. I am a music teacher, although I wasn’t then

The core subjects, being math and literacy, are the most significant for the majority of funny_math_cartoon1students. I get that. These are the subjects that form a solid foundation for further learning in the secondary panel. These are the subjects that are of particular interest to colleges and universities when kids are applying for post-secondary schooling. These are the subjects that tend to assist most people in their career paths and overall professional success. I get that. The Arts are a mandate in elementary learning yet the kicker is most parents couldn’t care less how their child does in music or visual arts. Meh, if their kid can bring home a nice little cut and paste craft, they’re happy. When a child gets a good grade in music or dance, that’s lovely but not especially significant. Personally, I tend to side with Sir Ken Robinson when he begs the question during TED Talks and in an RSA Animate Do Schools Kill Creativity? Robinson, an educator, consultant, and international speaker (as well as a blue blood), greatly values the Arts, more so it would seem than the core subjects.

ballerina-dancing-cartoon-i13No I don’t believe the Arts should have as much time devoted to it as the core subjects since less than 10% of students will eventually make a decent living as artists of any sort (that is fiction writers, dancers, musicians, and actors). Ditto athletics. I have two cousins who went through an elementary arts school in dance known as the National Ballet School in Toronto, Ontario, a renowned dance school throughout Canada. This is the school that graduated Karen Kain, the most famous female ballerina in Canada. The younger of my two cousins, Jennifer, danced the leading children’s role in The Nutcracker, a 2-part ballet with a musical score written by Tchaikovsky. She was in McLean’s magazine, Chatelaine magazine, the Toronto Star and the Toronto Sun for her accomplishment. She wasn’t talented enough to become a professional dancer and she wasn’t physically strong enough to become a teacher.  She and her husband opened their own ballet school and are very successful. The other cousin runs an art gallery. Well, she’s still in the arts.

I grew up in a family and extended family heavily immersed in the Arts. I am trained classical in piano with the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. I participated in many recitals. teacherMy music teacher enjoyed my company and often took me to operas. I acted in high school musicals (although my pitiful voice excluded me from leading roles). Of course there were my cousins and their stunning ballet performances. The Arts were an essential part of my life.  In the end, I developed a career from my music talents. I am a music teacher in my school and have been for 3 years. I love my job and i am very good at it. I work harder at my music teaching career than I have at any job in my life and I’d like to think my students benefit from my enthusiasm. My school is so accommodating of music that I even have a full keyboard lab so all of my students have the opportunity to learn how to play keys. Cool.

Most people won’t go on to carve out a career path in the Arts. I get that. But the Stivers-1-19-04-Piano-lesso Arts are a vital part of most cultures throughout history to present day. And generally students who become involved in extra-curricular activities, such as dance or music for instance, perform better academically than students who don’t. Here;s something else you didn’t know: private music tutoring leading to a certain grade in music is the equivalent of one school credit in high school. No fake.

And yet I recall sitting in on a planning discussion with teachers. The reason I am a full-time Arts teacher is because I provide what is known as planning time. Teachers are given 200 minutes a week in the elementary panel (more in the secondary school panel, but hey, no one said life would be fair). This is time to plan and gather materials for lessons although many of the other duties I listed in my blog PD Days Are Great Holidays for Teachers….Not are also conducted. We were deciding on the subjects I would teach their children in their absence. I offered music during one full period of 40 minutes. They looked somewhat amused and decided  that was “too much time to spend on music.” One of the teachers at this conference was herself a music teacher, also classically trained with the Royal Conservatory. I was insulted.

2405-keira-knightley-films-scenes-for-the-500x0-2The Toronto International Film Festival is currently in town. There is a feeling of electricity everywhere. People want to meet actors, watch movies, listen to music soundtracks and watch people dance in celluloid. In a splendid irony, a movie called Can a Song Save Your Life? is a film where actors portray a perspective on music.  Do you remember Mr. Holland’s Opus?  What aboutThe Pianothe mute pianist whose only means of communication was through her piano playing. Who could forget the soundtrack to Rocky? Without music would there have been a Beethoven, a Mozart, a Bach? Without playwrights would there have been  a Shakespeare, a Tennessee Williams, or a Lorraine Hansberry? Without dance would there have been a Karen Kain, a Michael Jackson, or a Fred Astaire? Without sculpture would there have been a Statue of David? Without painting would there have been a Leonardo DaVinci? Without fashion design would there have been a Gucci or a Prada? Without animated film (and digital programming) would there have been a Loony Tunes or a Pixar?

No jobs in the Arts? No future in the Arts? Speak to a performer, a sound technician, a computer animation programmer, or a fine arts teacher and you’ll hear a very different perspective. Keep music and all Arts in the public education system. They are a mandate  for a reason.

PD Days are Great Holidays for Teachers….Not

booksKids get a day off on PD or PA days. We don’t. A PD day for educators at my school requires that teachers are expected to be at work during usual work hours, not arriving late or leaving early, as well as preparing for presenting staff workshops we have volunteered to present (or have been volun-told). Here is a typical PD day in my school:

  1. mass in our neighbouring parish
  2. a staff meeting (these are always fun and productive, of course)
  3. usually these staff meetings tend to be longer than normal and they are often interactive:
    a.   we read articles about current education issues, such as closing the learning gap, or the proper use of EQAO (Enhanced Quality and Accountability Ontario), an exam that is administered yearly to all Ontario grade 3, 6, and 9 students.
    b. watch a video alone or with educational articles
  4. Boy-Readingdiscuss the video or articles in groups and present our group’s perspective on said article to the staff. We open it up for debate. There’s nothing like a good healthy argument to enhance learning, I always say.
  5. attend a workshop held by either an education expert (often someone who travels the country or the world offering academic and professional advice to teachers), a consultant, one of us, or one of our administrators.
  6. learn about and practice new educational mandates eg. the BANSHO 3-part math lesson was instigated last year, intended to make math easier for students to learn. We learned about it, practiced it at the staff meeting, then were required to use it in our classes over the following month and bring proof of this practice to the next staff meeting.

7.         use the remainder of the day (which isn’t much) for teacher-stuff:

  • catch up on grading
  • prepare more classroom materials (read conducting research on the internet to find interesting and informative lessons, instead of the same old thing, and finding printable worksheets to use with said lessons and photocopying them for enough kids in class)
  • organize classroom supplies
  • conduct inventory of classroom supplies and return receipts to the office
  • tidy the classroom,
  • decorate the classroom to make it more appealing for the students (yes it does matter)  – n.b. once it took me 7 hours simply to re-paper, add borders on bulletin boards and posters. No fake.
  • aplushang student’s work where everyone can see it to encourage self-esteem (yes it has an impact)
  • make necessary phone calls to parents
  • work on report cards
  • conduct parent-teacher interviews in person or over the phone (although this xtranormal video is somewhat extreme, parents of students who perform poorly in school often make many of these comments and seriously expect the school to give their children exceptional teaching and treatment over other students)
  • organize field trips which now takes 2 months, as it includes requesting parents and volunteers to agree to a criminal record check
  • scholarshiptyping classroom newsletters
  • meet with the IPRC committee (you can read about that in a previous blog)
  • meet with the administrator over issues to do with teaching ,managing behavioural students, or communication with parents
  • create a separate curriculum for children with IEPS since many special education teachers work with children but aren’t expected to design the necessary teaching program.
  • and more duties than I can remember to mention

Ahhh, PD days. An easy extra holiday for teachers province-wide and just one more perk that comes with being an educator.

A Teacher is a CASA

If you aren’t sure what a CASA is, read my previous blog. I was very tempted to become a CASA when I read this blog. I have a soft spot in my heart for foster kids, and any children living in impermanent and unhappy homes. That was this summer. I decided to hold off on being a CASA since my new school year hadn’t begun and I knew it would be a doozy. Instead of being assigned as music teacher for grades 1 to 6, I discovered I would be teaching kindergarten too. That doesn’t sound like a big deal. Honestly, kindergarten is the most difficult grade for me to teach. It requires endless patience. However, it is what it is.

As I read the very moving blog about CASA from the blog I was a Foster Kid, I discovered that the author felt she had a mentor in a hijabparticular teacher known only as Mrs. W. Blessed Mrs. W knew the blogger was a foster kid, and rather than treating this person with less respect or importance than the rest of the class, she focused more intensely on this child’s well-being. Some teachers don’t. They respond with apathy and simply treat the child like everyone else. That’s perfectly fair. Then there are teachers who knowingly or unknowingly, think less of that child. since no one wants this throw-away, why should she have to teach him? She brought the foster kid pencils and pencil crayons, things she knew the foster kid would never get from her foster family, simply because they were jerks (most of them are). She brought the foster kid small Christmas and Easter gifts because she knew even Santa wouldn’t leave anything for this child beneath a foster tree. She tutored the child when necessary and more importantly, she reacted with great patience when the child acted out. “Use your creativity, not your anger,” she’d say. When a 13-year-old grade 8 kid acts out with language, insolence and aggression believe me, responding with kindness is a very difficult thing to do. But Mrs. W. did it.

lonelyAnd I think i can do it. I know of two precious little girls, Nancy and Linda (of course not their real names) who are slowly being weaned out of the foster system into permanent care. They are two of the lucky ones. However their morbid past, one of physical and sexual abuse, has caught up with them and Nancy, the older of the two, makes life for her current caregiver very challenging. I teach both of these children in school and they are truly wonderful students. I wouldn’t know they are in the room unless they put up their hand to answer a question. I am especially sensitive to their needs. I don’t favour them because that isn’t fair. I do compliment their efforts and results. I include positive statements on their report cards. I want them to know I approve and I like having them in my class.

screencap_sabrina-storyI’m not permitted to do things like buy them special gifts, unless I buy something for everyone in their two classes, otherwise i could open myself up for nasty allegations. I also won’t be alone with them for the same reason. I figure their abusive backgrounds would render that choice unfeasible. I enjoy the children in legitimate ways, as much as I enjoy other children in my classes.

One day, little Linda was sitting in the office colouring a beautiful picture of herself. It was very good. I stopped to praise her and asked, “did you do that, Linda?” With great pride and elation, Linda smiled and said, “nope!” Her adorable little girlish ways make me laugh.

I realize now that as a teacher with sensitivity and patience, including for all of my students (as difficult as that can be, I’m certainly not perfect), I am a CASA. Every day, I have CASA opportunities with every child I teach. It’s a good reminder about yet another powerful perspective I can bring to this often difficult, challenging job.