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Paragon of Calm needs a reboot. Already.

In my last post, you may remember that I have made it my mission to be calm in the mornings with my kids. I’d like to tell you proudly that I made it through the week with exemplary calm! But I didn’t. Not quite.

I think it comes down to a sleep problem – one I don’t know how to solve.

There exist those families whose kids go to bed and conk out right away. (My sister-in-law’s son actually ASKS to go to bed when he’s tired. WHAT.) Similarly, there exist those families whose kids pop out of bed super-early on their own and are ready to go.

Not our family. I know that’s a blessing in many ways. My kids don’t get grumpy or whiny at bedtime – instead, they tend to be at their most hilarious (to each other) in that post-dinner period.  And they usually sleep in like champs while on vacation. Natural night owls, it seems.

The night-owl thing is tricky, though. Trust me, we do all the things. We have a consistent bedtime routine. We do settling-down activities like reading, all in the same order. We dim the lights beforehand. We use the kid-safe calming essential oils. We give the hugs and kisses and love. They just… take forever to fall asleep. Especially E. We’ve tried all kinds of bedtimes for him in the hopes that we’d find the perfect one, but he still seems to spend ages awake most of the time. His brain apparently revs high when he’s in bed. I have to remind him to close his eyes and whisper inside his head instead of out loud.

But this fact makes school mornings hard, especially now that their morning bell is fifteen minutes earlier than it was last year.

Please know I’m no morning star myself. (Hence that failed snooze-button resolution.) Once I’m out of bed, I start by opening the blinds in the kids’ room (which doesn’t help at this veil-of-darkness time of year) or putting the small lamp on. Then I’ll cue up some music or a meditation right by E’s head where it will (I hope) gently awaken him.

AB usually wakes up at this point, and betakes herself to my bed for our non-negotiable snuggle. [It has taken us a long time to get this part right. There have been countless times – and they still feel perilously probable – that she has begun the day with a sweet li’l temper tantrum because I happened to be in the bathroom when she came to my bed, or it took me too long to find E’s music, or I said the wrong word to her, or whatever other tiny random glitch she decides is insufferable that day.] She proceeds, almost always, to fall right back to sleep whilst somehow taking up almost all of my bed space.

So then there’s more waking up. E has been known in the past to wake up gently, as intended, but for the past month or so, the auditory stimulation hasn’t worked. I go in, talk to him, scratch his back, literally pick out his clothes for him and put them on his bunk so it’s easier for him… For AB I also scratch her back, kiss her cheek, carry her to the bathroom…

Ach. Written out like this, all the tender enablement is a bit nauseating. I can understand if at this point you’re like, Just rip their covers off already!! Or maybe just sneak headphones onto their ears and blast Van Halen without warning.

This kindly moderation would all be worth it if they then got up, sunny-faced, and put their clothes on with something resembling promptness. Instead, this is the part where they sit there like tiny stoned college kids: AB will open a drawer and just stare into it. E will sit there indefinitely with his shirt off and his splendid bedhead belying his torpor.

In the old days of 2017, this would be the point where I would start to get agitated and my voice would begin to sound stressed. For E, the second he detects annoyance in my voice, he feels entitled to go, “OHKAYEEEE!!” like I screamed at him. Which does nothing to lessen my annoyance, obvs. By the time we would get downstairs,  I’d be fully frustrated, so when the kids would start to bicker at the breakfast bar I’d just be like “NO WE ARE NOT DOING THIS.” And when breakfast was done and the slo-mo would start all over for getting backpacks and snow gear on… Blahhh. You can imagine the tears, the stomping, etc.

The kicker is, I know that when I get mad, I escalate the kids. I’m the adult. I should be able to fix this. Reflecting on the whole situation over the holidays, I said to myself, This is why I’m part-time. I am voluntarily making less money so that I have time to do things like take my children to school. If we’re late, so what? We’re late. It’s fine. Worth it to have a calm morning.

And it TOTALLY IS. The first four mornings of last week, I would say, just once, “Okay. Well, I need you to get those clothes on if you’d like to be on time.” And if I saw our window of punctuality closing, I’d just be like, “We’ll be a little late, okay?” And if I kept calm, the kids kept calm, in almost every case. This is in spite of it being the first week back after winter break, and the kids being overall quite tired. We were late twice out of four days, but whatevs!

Honestly, the rest of my life was better for it. I was calmer with my students, so they were calmer with me, and I had more energy after school to be nice to my family. I enjoyed them all way more.

Sadly, on Friday my calm ran out. Tiredness of kids + not a great sleep on my part  + not a great time fo the month for me + the voice in the back of my head saying We’ve been late twice already this week = I started to sound like my bad old self. So E started to sound like his bad old self. Suddenly AB was getting  tearful about something too. How quickly it all unravels. It wasn’t disastrous… I was just thoroughly disappointed in myself. And sure enough, we were late again.

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We’ve had a nice weekend. Our Friday night was Gryffindor Night, which was awesome and I’ll tell you about that later. We have also cleaned house – all of us – and played lots of Exploding Kittens as a family this weekend, which feels very apropos in terms of the kinds of tempers we have and the abruptness with which they detonate, AND is very fun as a silly game we can all play and not stress about losing.

So tomorrow morning, Paragon of Calm will make a comeback. Now with even more panache.

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Bullies: How You Treat People = WHO YOU ARE

For your reading pleasure today, we have a rant for and about BULLIES. Specifically, adult bullies who need to know better.

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Image via thinkinclusive.us

I’m incensed after reading an article about disgusting trollery cropping up among Ontario doctors, targeting other doctors with whom they disagree on their internal politics. Click on over if you’d like to bear witness to some truly heinous behaviour, some even with screen-capture as proof.

Why should I care about infighting among doctors? Is it even my business?

Yes, it is, and I should. And so should you. Because: we are a better species than this.

Not too long ago, I wrote about How Not To Be A Douchebag, prompted by some similarly obnoxious incidents perpetrated by a different swath of people. I feel pretty certain that the post was read only by non-douchebags, since this blog’s readership is traditionally a small number of lovely, civilized people.

Now, here I am again. It seems I need to look at a greater problem: not just your run-of-the-mill jerks, but highly educated expert jerks on the public payroll.

I’m upset about the doctor thing for several reasons:

  1. Doctors go through many, many years of school, and work with (and for) a wide variety of humans, with the goal of doing no harm. In this province, they even do specific training for empathy. How can you go through all that and still feel entitled to stab your colleagues in the back?
  2. The nature of a doctor’s job is extremely intimate and sensitive. If online bullying is acceptable practice to you, what other shockingly inappropriate actions are you justifying to yourself?
  3. I’m a teacher, one of those professions people LOVE to bully. I’ve learned first-hand that no matter how divisive an issue is, it is possible to have a respectful conversation. (3.b And that no matter how crucial or legitimate an issue is, there will be people who feel qualified to forego critical thought and spew crap all over it.)
  4. As with any profession, most doctors are doing their best to do a good job and be good people. When something like this blows up, it dishonours all of them. A big shame-paintbrush like this gets an awful lot of people messy.
  5. Although this current news piece will no doubt shortly fade from the public consciousness, it is not an isolated problem. The article states that abuse and bullying have been going on in the medical community for decades.

I guess that should be no surprise. Every field has its assholes. It’s just that there’s this thing called “Professionalism.” Medicine is one of the most highly-regarded professional fields in the world. Therefore, to be part of it, you are expected to be professional. (That part ain’t brain surgery, people.)

The biggest reason I’m mad at the doctor-bullies today is that, despite the brains and hard work required for them to be where they are, they have somehow skipped the lesson you’re supposed to learn in kindergarten, or even younger: BE KIND. In translation, this also means DON’T BE A JERK.

As both a teacher and a parent, I spend a lot of my life trying to help people under the age of twelve understand what it is to be a good person. There are millions of other teachers and parents out there doing the same thing.

And it is constant work, an endless slog. Kids are often mean to each other, both by accident and on purpose. It’s normal, a developmental process – but that’s not to say it’s okay. We don’t just let it slide. When we teach kids about treating other people as they’d like to be treated, we are explicitly instructing them in skills like empathy, politeness, advocacy, and rational conversation.

We discuss manners, even down to tone of voice. We talk about mediation and listening. We make it clear that it’s not acceptable to deliberately hurt other people, whether in person or online. It’s okay to disagree, it’s okay to express anger, but it’s not okay to be mean about it.

I often ask kids who are being mean to someone, “Are you a mean person?” They almost never believe themselves to be mean people. They must be reminded that if you do mean things, that makes you a mean person. You are what you do.

These are young children. Of course we have to help them learn these things. Part of developing as a human is to learn how to be what we intend. We all need help and reminders.

But really, is there any excuse at all for being a medical doctor who still calls people awful names? When can we expect adults to grow up, if not by this point in life? When might we expect one to dislodge one’s cranium from one’s anus?

Once more, with feeling: if you act hateful to people, that’s you. Being a hateful person.

Is that the person you meant to be?

To be honest, I’m not just talking about the field of medicine. My ire is directed at all the bullies, trolls, harassers, and intimidators who fall into the category of “adults.” It is TIME TO SHAPE UP. Can’t you see that the rest of us are working here?? That we are toiling every single day to be and teach examples of treating others with compassion and respect, and that you are unraveling our carefully-crafted lessons? In other words, in case you need some more familiar terminology, you are f*cking it up.

If you think children don’t notice your bad behaviour, you couldn’t be more wrong. They are all over the internet, seeing all kinds of things you didn’t intend them to see. They hear the words you say aloud and they see the way you treat people. Unless you live by yourself in a remote cave (without internet access), you are setting examples every day.

I’m not saying you have to be perfect. We all lose our temper sometimes. Most of us occasionally say things we regret, in the heat of the moment. But when it comes to online harassment, you have no “heat of the moment” defense. You deliberately typed every ugly word you used.

I don’t care how upset you are: as an ostensible grown-up, you need to express your anger in a mature and productive way.

I also don’t care how excellent you are at your job, or how prestigious your career is; it does not make you a superior human.

I have always been mystified by those who think it’s okay to treat others cruelly. And I don’t know why, but many people seem to think the internet is the place to give voice to their most repulsive selves. I have heard of and witnessed far too many examples of this recently. Full-grown people behaving more obnoxiously – and immaturely – than the worst schoolyard bullies. Feeling no need for reflection or self-examination, and no need to consider their actual audience.

That’s the thing even the most educated trolls seem – conveniently, and incredibly – to forget: the audience is real. Would you really call your co-worker a c*nt – to her face, in a roomful of your colleagues? Would you stand up in the staff lounge and announce that so-and-so should eat sh*t? Because that’s what a closed forum is.

And if you’re on a public comment forum, you’re essentially onstage. Picture yourself and your target sharing the spotlight in a grand auditorium filled with unseen crowds – they’re there, they’re listening, and you’ve taken the mike. What would you really say?

It worries me that so many bullies have been validated by the recently-elected American Prince of the Douche-Trolls. If you look at him and think admiringly, He has no filter and he’s proud of it! He stands for free tweets speech! That’s what the new era looks like!, please know that this is bullshit. He is not “telling it like it is.” He proudly embodies a lack of self-regulation, combined with a pitiable need for attention and the cowardice to choose the internet as his preferred medium.

You know the old saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will leave emotional scars that will affect my relationships and mental health for the rest of my life.”

Words are profoundly important. Especially online, we have the time and experience to make something of our words, to use their power to move our society forward. We have a responsibility to consider the words we use, and to make them reflect who we are.

You’re really going to pick those shabby, disgraceful words to express disagreement? You think they will make your point?

Actually, the most salient point you make, with words like those, is about you.

If you call yourself an adult and have not yet figured out how to disagree without being abusive, then you are an embarrassment to your peers. You should be ashamed of yourself. It’s time to join the civilized world and fix this.

Please and thank you.

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Sleep Apnea Test: The Best Sleep You’ll Never Have!

I already know that I have sleep apnea, which is known as “a common disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep”. I know I have this, not just because my sleep doctor said so, and not just because several people related to me have it, but because I’ve felt it.

When I’m lying on my back, if I let my jaw and throat muscles relax, my throat closes right up. Whenever I accidentally end up sleeping on my back, I have dreams that I can’t catch my breath – then I eventually wake up, and realize I’m barely breathing. It’s scary and takes a few minutes to shake off that suffocating feeling. Luckily, I rarely sleep on my back.

This past week, I finally did a sleep study at the hospital to find out whether my tendency to not-breathe applies to my stomach/side sleeping. I’m really hoping it doesn’t, because as much as Sean and I love his robot face, I don’t fancy the idea of his-and-hers CPAP machines.

In case you’re planning to participate in a sleep study of your own someday, I have a few tips for you, beyond the “do not nap on the day of the test” and “wash hair and shave before you arrive.”

I had heard that they hook you up to a bunch of monitors. Well, of course they do, because they have to monitor many things. I figured it would be uncomfortable. I thought I was mentally prepared.

I took my unsuspecting self to the lab for 8:15 p.m., waited a bit, answered some questions, and was shown to my cute li’l windowless room. Just large enough not to trigger my claustrophobia, so that was nice.

The sleep therapist was working with several patients that night; she instructed me to fill in some more forms and put on my sleep clothes, so that when she came back I’d be ready for my monitors. I asked if I should brush my teeth first, and she indicated that it didn’t matter.

Tip #1: It does. For the love of healthy gums, brush your teeth first.

When the therapist arrived to hook me up, she was generally friendly. We commiserated about having interrupted sleep due to children – she has a toddler at home. She told me that they’d be able to tell when I was sleeping lightly or deeply, and whether I had restless leg syndrome or anything. At the same time, she was not-so-gently exfoliating bits of me that would have wires and medical tape applied to them: my chin, my forehead, my shoulders, my chest, and both my shins.

She also put glue in my hair. Where I work, this is not considered nice, but at least she warned me. She showed me a big gob of blue goo and said, “The good part is, it dissolves in water. Just wash in warm water when you arrive home.” Then she proceeded to part my hair and go, “Oogh, yes. You have thick hair. Yes. So… shampoo and water. Maybe two or three times will do it.”

There were now wires coming from the top of my head, my hairline, and behind my ears, in addition to the ones under the tape, which was starting to sting a little. I also had a strap around my chest and a strap around my stomach. Then she stuck not one but two contraptions up my nostrils, looping the tubes over my ears and tightening them elegantly under my chin. As a finishing touch, she took the little box attached to all those wires, and looped it on a strap around my neck: voilà! So chic and fancy.

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Sorry, I didn’t think to take a selfie. Or maybe I didn’t want to. But this guy is clearly a sleep-test-wire model. This look really works for him. The grim stare is perfect, too. Image credit

This box-as-pendant look was to make me mobile, so I could journey to the washroom during my final wait time. I waited as long as I could for this, hoping it would be the only trip.

Tip #2: Ideally, you should wear an old-fashioned knee-length nightshirt for this. Something about the rest of my getup made my nightshirt feel too short as I schlepped down the hall to the bathroom.

This was also when I brushed my teeth, gingerly, between the nose thingies and the chin wires. Looked and felt like a tool – and frankly, didn’t do the best job. Then I spent my last bit of idle time reading a book – nonchalantly, amidst my electronica – on my bed.

Finally it was bedtime. The therapist had me lie down and take off the wire box to lay it beside my pillow. Then I got one more accoutrement: a finger clip sensor. This was the only thing she warned me about: “Try not to put too much pressure on it.” Now I was locked in: if I needed a bathroom break, I’d need to push the call button so she could unplug me.

I had been worried about the room being too dark for me: if I can’t see my hand in front of my face, the claustrophobia kicks in. I needn’t have worried. Besides light from under the door, my monitor and finger clip glowed red. So did the video monitor on the wall.

The therapist’s voice came over a speaker to give us sleepers some instructions. She asked us to look side-to-side with our eyes only, and up-and-down; to flex and point each foot; to grind our teeth; to breathe in certain ways. At one point, she said, “Now breathe in, hold your breath, and while you’re holding it, move your stomach up and down.” I grinned silently at myself to stifle a laugh at how dumb I felt figuring this one out (and I’m a belly dancer).

Tip #3: Come on, Di-hards, give it a try. Just in case you need this skill someday. It’s a brain-teaser.

Finally, we were done our exercises, and reminded to sleep comfortably – no restrictions on our positions! – and bid a good night. Time to sleep.

Yup.

If I were to make a list of soporific things, I can now say with certitude that being covered with wires does not make that list. Ditto being surrounded by glowing red things. Ditto knowing you are being recorded on video. Ditto knowing they are surveilling all kinds of personal things, like your nostrils.

I typically take a fair amount of time to fall asleep. I also never sleep well on my first night in a strange bed. Now I just lay there, thinking about how intimate this test is. The therapist said they’d be able to tell when I was dreaming – could they tell whether my brain was thinking about boring things or exciting things? Could they tell that I was singing and doing choreography in my head (to take my mind off the wires)? I realized I was twitching my foot in time to the music, and quit the mental song-and-dance in case they thought it was a restless limb.

Could they tell with those straps that my bladder was filling up? I had been confident I’d be fine on the pee-break front, but no. Not with a call-button looming. It’s like getting all put together in your belly dance costume or your wedding dress: when it’s most inconvenient, that’s when you’re gonna have to pee. Sigh.

On my break, I saw that it had already been an hour since “bedtime.” Only six hours until they would wake us up. Better get sleeping.

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See, this person is peacefully sleeping. That’s why they had to use a drawing: because it’s imaginary. Image credit

Do some people have a nice, restful sleep during a sleep study? I mean, presumably we’re all there because of some kind of trouble sleeping, but some people are like Sean and fall asleep on a dime (ha) so probably do get some proper shuteye – but the falling-asleep task felt ridiculous to me. I got the shutting-eyes part, mostly, but drifting off took me a long time. Long enough that the therapist commented the next morning, having asked me how I’d slept (don’t you know even better than I do?), “Yes, you took a long time.”

I blearily filled out the exit forms. I estimated taking 2.5 hours to fall asleep (i.e., longer than usual). Yes, I had dreamt; the one dream I remember having (I’m pretty sure there were Muppets in it) was between the time the therapist turned on the light and said good morning, and the time she came back twenty minutes later to make me sit up and have my wires peeled off. Under “How do you feel right now?” I scrawled, “Very tired.”

I felt kind of odd filling out the form about how to improve the experience of the sleep study for patients. There’s really not much they could have done, since they can’t do away with the wires or the blue goo or the video camera. I did say I wished wakeup time hadn’t been 5:30 a.m., though.

It was a beautiful summer morning as I left the hospital as a gluey-haired zombie. I came home to the most beautiful bed in the world, which I fell into – right after the showering part. (The glue really wasn’t that bad, once I got the chunks out.) In a few weeks, I’ll get to chat with my sleep doctor about my unforgettable night at the lab.

I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, a robot-face wouldn’t be that bad.

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How Not To Be A Douchebag: “FHRITP” and Other Issues

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Zero tolerance.

Ever have the feeling that, as a species, we’re moving backwards? That we’ve had some dark, shameful times in our collective history… and that this is one of them?

That’s how I feel right now, thinking about the guys who yell obscenities at female (or sometimes male) reporters on live TV, under the mistaken – and tragic – impression that it’s funny.

My husband, having watched the famous video in which CityTV reporter Shauna Hunt called out her hecklers on live TV a couple of days ago, referred to the men as textbook douchebags. I can only agree. (The term is dead-on, since douching is also a bullshit practice invented by a man and designed to make women feel like lesser beings.)

I will also state, with vehemence, that I approve of Hydro One’s decision to fire the douchebag who was their employee, and MLSE’s decision to ban multiple douchebags from attending their sports events. Sure, these men were off-duty, and sure, they didn’t invent the catch-phrase “F*** her right in the p***y,” but they deserve to be made an example of. Why? BECAUSE BEING A DOUCHEBAG IS UNACCEPTABLE.

It’s a scary trend in this part of the world: there seems to be an acceptance, nowadays, of pervasive obnoxiousness – at levels that no modern, civilized human should have to endure. What is the point of having such big brains if we use them in the service of assholery?

We, as a society, need to quit wasting our resources discriminating against women, black people, aboriginal people, gay people, and differently-abled people, and start focusing that time and energy on discriminating against douchebags. You want to watch soccer and hockey games live in the stadium? Fine – buy a ticket and DON’T BE A DOUCHEBAG. You want to get paid over $100K working for a government institution? Great – show me your qualifications, which must include expertise in NOT BEING A DOUCHEBAG. Is it so much to ask?

Perhaps there needs to be a test. Because really, most people who are douchebags are not that subtle about it; it shouldn’t be hard to weed them out. How about this: if you can’t pass the non-douchebag test, then you don’t get your Decent Human license. And of course, you’d need a Decent Human license to get a job, drive a car, board an airplane, eat in a restaurant, use the same washrooms as the Decent Humans…

I’m getting carried away.

The tricky part is, the DBs themselves seem to be the ones who have trouble recognizing the phenomenon. What if you simply haven’t realized that you’re a douchebag, and you’re just innocently living your douchebag life? Let’s try these self-queries, based on the Douchebag Textbook.

Do you have a tendency to:

  • yell obscenities at reporters/athletes/sports fans/pedestrians/motorists/other members of the public who are unlikely to respond?
  • think that saying random, graphically misogynistic things on TV is hilarious?
  • speak rudely to cashiers/servers/flight attendants/other people in the service industry just because you can?
  • drive way over the speed limit, run reds, and dodge in and out of traffic for no reason other than speed?
  • punch people when you’re mad?
  • vandalize others’ property for fun?
  • toss garbage on the ground because there is no trash can within a one-foot radius?
  • believe that your opinion trumps other people’s opinions on everything?
  • do the minimum amount of work you can get away with?
  • swear a blue streak in front of children?
  • make/laugh at jokes that denigrate groups you are not part of?
  • write repetitive malicious comments anonymously on the web?
  • tweet judgmentally on issues you know nothing about?
  • think the world owes you?

If you answered yes to one of these questions, chances are good that you are a douchebag. If you answered yes to more than one of these questions, it’s basically a sure thing. If you answered yes to ALL of these questions… please stop reading my blog. You’ll get douche-schmutz all over it.

So, if you’re a confirmed DB, what can you do about it? I can’t claim to be a recovering douchebag myself, but I did once accidentally cut off a cyclist who then called me a stupid bitch, so I know a thing or two.

Here are a few tips, based on the Douchebag Textbook:

  • Don’t be shitty to people. I know it’s hard to believe, but decent humans actually manage – on a daily basis – to avoid treating others like crap.
  • Stay away from other douchebags. If all your friends are arrogant cretins, tempting you with scumbaggish behaviour, what chance do you have at recovery?
  • Try a new hobby that will take you out of your DB zone and distract you from your cravings for punching/swearing/demon-speeding. Consider mindfulness meditation, watercolour painting, flower arranging, zumba… Just make sure you start out doing these things at home alone, so that if your inner douchebag rears its ugly head, it will have no victims in sight.
  • Keep a journal of your progress. Did you wait your turn on the road instead of cutting off other drivers? Did you restrain yourself from mocking that person you thought looked ugly? Did you have a mature thought about genitalia? Write it down! Those small triumphs are crucial steps to leaving your miscreant self behind.

I hope these tips can put you on the road to recovery. Once you have your Decent Human license, then you can move on to the advanced work of Actual Kindness.

Next up: DBs Part II For Parents – How Not To Raise A Douchebag!

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100 Happy Days – Day 21: Uncomplicated Indoor Fun

Is it awful that I took the kids out for sledding today and kinda sorta hated it?

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Snow trompin’.

It was a sunny day but our park has no shelter and is very windy. We were all cold, especially AB because, against the odds, she had snow up her snow pants right away; E had to groom the sledding hill himself because it had not been broken in by other sledders (which meant he alternated between pure joy and abject frustration); AB furiously insisted on going on the swings, right after saying she had to pee, so… STRESS. There was plenty of screeching, for various reasons. I’m all for fresh air and tromping around in snow… and yet, it’s not always as fun as you think it should be.

So! Here’s to playing INDOORS! Yay.

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It’s the CN tower!! (Right?) I totally love Play Doh IN the containers. Perfect.
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E made this multimedia palace with his Auntie Em this morning (PA day). It’s intricate – but I still classify it Uncomplicated Fun.

Ahh. Good times.

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Please Don’t Wish Me “Happy Turkey Day”

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Turkey appears courtesy of my son.

Don’t worry: this is not an angry rant or even a grumpy one. A little persnickety, perhaps. It might not even qualify as a rant.

I would just like to ask that you wish me Happy Thanksgiving this year, instead of Happy Turkey Day.

I know y’all are excited about your turkey. Some of you look forward to your roasted bird all year long, and it’s your very favourite thing. That’s great! The more you relish the foods you love, the more they are worth eating.

But Thanksgiving does not deserve to be renamed “Turkey Day.”

{OMG. Is it me, or is the word “turkey” starting to look totally bizarre?}

It’s not just that I’m a vegetarian and haven’t eaten turkey since I was thirteen. I mean, sure, that does factor in; folks write about Turkey Day on their Facebook walls and I’m all, Don’t suppose you’d like to wish ME a Happy Lentil Pie Day? Because trust me, Lentil Pie is a very happy-making food. (By the way, if you are one of those FB “Turkey Day” rhapsodizers, no hard feelings. I still love you.)

It’s not that I wish we could talk more about Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower, or Puritans and Native peoples eating together (they probably ate at least as much venison as turkey anyway).

Mostly, I wish to be wished a Happy Thanksgiving because of the thanks-giving part.

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Appreciating simple gifts.

Let’s be honest: most of our mainstream holidays reek of commercialism at this point. Valentine’s Day is about chocolate, Easter is about chocolate, Victoria Day is about fireworks and drinking, Christmas is about shopping, Boxing Day is about shopping, and, in the U.S., Thanksgiving is about shopping too. Well, that and football.

I’m not saying we must all devoutly return to the religious and/or patriarchal and/or monarchist roots of each holiday. But, at the risk of sounding sanctimonious, could we just keep this one holiday, at least in Canada, for thankfulness?

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Autumn colours are good for the brain.

Yes, it’s undeniable that Thanksgiving is revolves around a certain amount of consumption. But ideally, it’s the simpler side of consumption – and one time when we all consume with reverence. When we think of words like harvest and plenty and gratitude, and really feel their meanings deep in our souls.

These days, most of us don’t do things like get our hands in the soil, or pray for rain, or reap the literal fruits of our labour. Despite this – or perhaps because of this – we need to keep in mind that being nourished is a profound blessing. It’s important to think of what it took for that food to be on our table.

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Seriously magnificent food.

I look forward to Thanksgiving because of those beautiful moments where gratitude is almost tangible. Walking in chilly autumn sun. Catching a glimpse of bright trees against sky that renders me speechless. Coming inside and having my glasses fog up in the sudden coziness. Smelling delicious things cooking (even the ones I’m not going to eat). Looking past candle flames at a feast of colourful foods, and a circle of people I love.

It’s good for our souls to not just notice, but cherish, our good fortune. Especially the simple gifts.

Thanksgiving is the point.

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Why Teacher Incentive Pay and Standardized Tests Don’t Help Kids

 

Climb-that-TreeThe Fraser Institute, a Canadian public-policy think tank, has just released a study recommending something called “teacher incentive pay”, based on student achievement. The idea is, teachers would be paid bonuses based on high scores in their students’ standardized test results. This, they say, is key to Canada staying competitive on the world stage.

I always have to laugh – without humour – when the Fraser Institute comes up with something to say about public education. I’m sure they work very hard and do lots of thinking and research to come up with their Studies and Findings and Recommendations; what they lack is a real grasp on the reality of the public school world – dynamics between students, parents, educators, and knowledge.

Here’s what I agree with from the study:

  • We teachers need to help students excel.
  • We need especially to help students with difficulties do the best learning they can.
  • Raising children with solid knowledge and skills is good for Canadian society.
  • Literacy and numeracy are vital skills for all children.
  • It is not ideal that mediocre or bad teachers are paid on the same scale as good or fantastic teachers.

Here’s what I don’t agree with:

  • That standardized test results are an accurate reflection of student abilities and learning, and
  • That standardized test results have anything to do with teacher excellence.

Let’s first look at what’s wrong with standardized tests.

In Ontario, standardized tests were introduced by the Harris government in 1996. Since then, students are tested in math and literacy in Grade 3 and Grade 6, in math only in Grade 9, and in literacy only in Grade 10. Students must pass the Grade 10 literacy test to graduate from high school.

I get why EQAO (Education Quality and Accountability Office) testing seems desirable. The school system is publicly funded; naturally, parents and other taxpayers want to know that their dollars are going to the best use possible.

It also looks good for the government to be able to point to rising test scores and say “Look! We are doing things right! WE ARE ACCOUNTABLE.”

It’s a nice thought, that student abilities and learning could be monitored in such a neat, encapsulated way.

The issue here, as with all standardized tests, is that they are purported to measure “student achievement” – and they don’t. They measure only how those students performed on that particular test on those particular days.

Standardized tests do not reflect what students really know or can really do.

This is partly because, when you administer a standardized test, the setting is unnatural. The first time I scribed part of an EQAO literacy test for a Grade 3 student with an IEP (Individual Education Plan), and was taken aback to read the rules. I was to write down what the student said, including whatever punctuation he remembered to ask me to put in. For the writing section, I was allowed to read him the questions, but I was not allowed to say anything else. Not even small talk to help him feel at ease. If he forgot something, I couldn’t remind him by re-reading. I could not answer any questions he asked me for clarification. I could not even silently turn a page for him if he was looking at the wrong question.

Sure, for students who do well on EQAO, it demonstrates that they can answer those questions. That’s great for them.

But for students who are naturally nervous about being tested, it’s the perfect situation to send their anxiety skyrocketing – whatever their skill level. For students whose minds go blank when the pressure is highest, it’s a nightmare. The fight-or-flight response kicks in so they literally can’t think.

And for those students who struggle with math, reading, and writing, it’s a good way to invalidate the gifts they DO have.

It doesn’t feel anything like the kind of learning we work hard to foster in classrooms every day.

That’s the weirdest part about EQAO. It comes from the provincial government, the same body that provides teachers with the regulation curriculum documents spelling out the knowledge and skills at the provincial standard for each grade level. But the two enterprises – curriculum and EQAO testing – reflect completely different philosophies about education.

The curriculum documents are regularly reviewed and revised, by educators in the system, based on new knowledge about the ways kids learn best, and new perspectives on evolving subject matter. They have changed hugely over the decades, and classrooms have changed with them. The expectation for learning today is much more inclusive, hands-on, exploratory, and real-life-based than it once was.

Most teachers are happy to use and endorse the curriculum documents. The approaches that are set out – and expected, by the government, to be used – are all about finding the different teaching and learning techniques that will eventually engage every child. And helping students remember what their strengths are.

It’s called differentiated instruction: knowing your students, knowing their learning styles, and getting them the tools they need to show you the best work they’re capable of. It’s recognizing that if little Liam has some extra time and less pressure, he’ll produce much better work. It’s noticing that when Sophie has her math manipulatives in front of her, she can do fractions with no problem.

Standardized testing is the antithesis of differentiated instruction.

It’s like saying to teachers, “Take all that work you did to personalize your approaches to different kids – and chuck it in the toilet.”

It’s like saying to kids, “What you’re actually capable of doesn’t matter. What matters is being good at tests.”

Yes, the stuff being tested is important. That’s why we’re already teaching it every day.

Let’s remind ourselves: tests are artificial situations. In life, testing itself is basically the only time you’re expected to produce large amounts of information or solve problems alone, with no chance to ask questions, check facts, collaborate, or research.

As standardized testing becomes more prevalent in Canada, it’s skewing things. Parents are starting to use EQAO scores to decide where to buy a house. Even better, the aforementioned Fraser Institute, in all its self-important wisdom, issues “report cards” ranking different schools, so parents can handily refer to those. The Institute is cagey about what the rankings are based on, but admits it relies heavily on test scores.

By the Institute’s own admission, rankings cannot include data on things like fine arts, trades training, and citizenship – because there is no data on those.

Because most of the things that make up the vitality of a school are not measurable.

Back to teacher incentive pay. Doesn’t it make sense to use financial rewards to motivate teachers to do their very best teaching? If kids do well on the tests, doesn’t that show that the teacher taught them well?

Yes – maybe. There’s a decent chance that children who get high test scores had a good teacher. But there’s just as high a chance that a low-scoring class had a good teacher. Perhaps even higher.

When you place so much value on an isolated piece of high-pressure output by students, you are failing to take into account the broader learning and teaching arcs of students and teachers. Teachers know well that student performance varies widely depending on the year, the month, even the day. And though the Fraser Institute would like to gloss over this, things like parental education levels, household income, and family work schedules do factor into test scores.

Let me put it this way: would you want your yearly bonus to be affected by whether someone else’s children had eaten well/slept enough/taken their meds? Should you forfeit pay because you teach kids who have a cold/whose parents were fighting that morning/who experience test anxiety/who are learning disabled/whose attention span is desperately short?

Actually, I’d say it’s the opposite. Ask any teacher: the years they work hardest, the years that most deeply plumb their reserves of creativity and patience, are the ones where they teach the most children with those high needs. It’s exhausting, overwhelming work. Especially in classes of thirty kids.

When you really think about it, in a society that supposedly values innovation, it’s bizarre that we put so much stock in standardized tests. As we know, the U.S. is obsessed with high-stakes testing, and many districts use teacher incentive pay. This has, indeed, raised test scores in certain areas. It has also encouraged teachers to “teach to the test” – i.e. gear classroom instruction to revolve around what they know of previous tests – which you’re not supposed to do. But if your job is to improve test scores, then… teaching to the test IS doing your job, isn’t it?

It’s no wonder that, as the authors of Freakonomics point out, teacher incentive pay has also resulted in many instances of teachers cheating, in many different ways. Obviously, this does NOT improve student learning – but it does improve test scores.

Here in Ontario, the bigger a deal people make about a school’s high ranking or test scores, the more those teachers feel obliged to make sure their test scores stay high. If they want to please the crowds, they naturally feel compelled to teach to the test.

So. Are we teaching according to the students we have, or the test we have to give them? Because they are not the same thing at all.

Time to recap. What’s the really big issue here? What are standardized tests and teacher incentive pay trying to accomplish?

Improved student achievement. (Reminder: test scores and actual student achievement are two completely different things.)

What changes could help us attain real improvement in student achievement?

If you were to ask the teachers who spend each day with the students, we would have no trouble telling you – because improving student achievement is our daily goal. You would hear: smaller class sizes and more professionals on the ground.

If you’re looking to use money to help kids learn, change the ratios of teachers to students. The bigger the group, the less likely it is that one teacher can give every child the help he or she needs.

If you especially want to help the students with the most difficulties, hire more EAs (Educational Assistants), CYCs (Child Youth Counselors), OTs (Occupational Therapists), Special Ed teachers, and ESL teachers, so that those professionals aren’t spread so thinly that they barely see each child they are supposed to help.

I’m absolutely confident that if I could poll teachers in Ontario, they’d say they would much rather have those changes than incentive pay.

And if your goal is to help every child learn… then standardized tests are a big old waste of money.

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