Monday, June 13, 2016

Independent Schools are good for society

The British Columbia Teacher Federation wants the BC government to stop funding private schools. 

The BCTF argument against the subsidy to independent schools goes like this. BC’s public schools are chronically underfunded. The redirection of provincial subsidies from private to public schools would help alleviate funding shortfalls and remedy some of the problems – such as a loss of specialist teachers and school closures - that school districts face. The BCTF wants British Columbians to believe that the independent school system is receiving “unacceptable increases of public subsidy”, to quote Federation president Jim Iker. The narrative insinuates that public funding of independent schools undermines the public school system and is a step towards the privatization of education.

Is the narrative correct?

Most independent schools are not "private"
The BCTF refers to all independent schools as “private”.  The term “private school” is misleading when speaking about BC’s independent schools.   “Private school” conjures up elite educational institutions for the privileged where parents pay buckets of money to give their children a leg up in the world.  Only about 5% of independent schools in BC are “private” according to this definition.  Faith based schools and schools that offer different teaching/learning styles, such as Montessori schools, are the most common type of independent school. Referring to all independent schools as “private” fuels resentment against independent schools, which serve many children and communities well. It leads people to wrongly assume that BC has a two-tier system of education that favours the wealthy; partial government funding for a child’s education in the independent system removes barriers to access for many families.

The funding formula 
For funding purposes, two categories of independent schools receive grants.  Group 1 schools receive 50% of the per-student funding that public schools receive. These schools spend the same or less as the local school district to educate a student.  Group 2 schools receive 35%, and spend more per student.  Independent schools assume full fiscal responsibility for building, equipment and land; there are no public grants for capital costs.  The operating grant to independent schools is about $341 million (roughly 6%) of the $5.6 billion that BC spends on education, and services approximately 13% of the province’s student body. 

This funding formula has been in effect for twenty-five years. Contrary to Iker’s assertion, there has not been an increase in the public subsidy to independent schools.  More taxpayer dollars are going to independent schools because student enrolment has increased, not because the government has increased the per-pupil operating grant.

The two systems strengthen education
Independent schools in no way undermine or threaten a healthy public school system.   The two systems have co-existed since the establishment of BC’s first Catholic schools in the mid 1800’s.  There is a synergy between the two that inspires individual schools to provide the best possible learning environments for their students.  Having two systems keeps everyone on their toes.

Without independent schools, the public schools would have a monopoly on education.  A monopoly is rarely a good thing. It can encourage complacency and a lack of accountability, and it limits choice, upon which our society places a high value.

Parental choice in education is a right recognized in practice and in international law.  In an interview on Radio Labor, Iker said, “We have no issue of parents choosing which school they want to but it should not be subsidized by any public dollars.”   While that position may be appealing in fiscally challenging times, it is contrary to the spirit of parental choice in a democracy, and would effectively eliminate Group 1 schools. 

Independent schools save taxpayer dollars
Without public dollars, the majority of Group 1 schools, who are more cash strapped than their public school counterparts, would have to close their doors. That could potentially send 60,000 students into a system that, according to the BCTF, is chronically underfunded. The government would need to come up with an additional 50% more funding for operating costs, to say nothing of the money required for capital costs.

As a former educator, parent and volunteer with experience in the public and Catholic school systems, I have seen the value of both for students. The two systems provide different learning environments for children and parents of diverse needs. Options in education are good for children and serve society well.

When it comes to education, one size does not fit all.  Taking from Peter to give to Paul is not the solution for a lack of public school funding, nor would it improve the quality of our children’s education.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Body image issues begin early

My two and a half year old granddaughter has an eye for fashion.  She has her favorite outfits and she is fond of accessories. She likes to wear beads like Granny, and my earrings are a source of great interest.  It’s all very cute and sweet, but I wonder if I should compliment her less frequently on her attire. I don’t want her to grow up thinking that her value as a girl depends on her appearance.

She will get plenty of that messaging from society and the media, as a recent edition of Discovery Girls magazine illustrates. Discovery Girls is for girls between eight and 13 years of age, with a median age of 10.8 years. According to its website, it has a readership of 900,000 in the United States. The magazine recently came under fire for a swimsuit spread that taught little girls how to select a swimsuit.

The advice on curves will make your head swim. “If you’re curvy on top, coverage is key!” Side ties and cutouts will “draw the eye down”. For the straight “up and down” body, “add curves with asymmetrical straps”.  Too curvy? Minimize your curves. Not curvy enough? Create the illusion of curves.  

For the chubby, “rounder in the middle” girl who fancies bikinis, “high-waisted bottoms work best”, preferably in big, block patterns for a slimming look.

The magazine’s publisher, Catherine Lee issued a lengthy apology on Facebook in response to the backlash. “It is hard for me to believe that an article so contrary to our magazine’s mission could have been published on our pages. I have been at a loss for words for days.  The article was supposed to be about finding cute, fun swimsuits that make girls feel confident, but instead it focused on girls’ body image and had a negative impact.”  One would expect the publisher to have a little more oversight on the kind of material that makes it to press. 

How indeed could the article, “so contrary” to the magazine’s purpose, make the cut?  Could it be that the swimsuit spread reflects the magazine editors’ own attitudes about body image and beauty?  Could the editors have been unaware of the extent to which years of exposure to media messaging about the female body have shaped those attitudes?

From an early age, we are exposed to societal attitudes about beauty that influence our idea of self and others.  Today’s children are bombarded with thousands of messages that idealize and sexualize the female body.  They absorb these messages but lack the experience and maturity to understand them.  When Discovery Girls insinuated to its impressionable young readers that their body is flawed and in need of concealing, it reinforced adult perceptions about the relationship between beauty, sexuality and self-worth. It stoked the flames of self-doubt.

We need to be building our girls up, not tearing them down with unrealistic ideals of beauty. The same holds for our boys, who are increasingly exposed to images of an ideal, ripped male body.

Common Sense Media reviewed research on body image in children.  The results are disturbing.  “Children as young as five express dissatisfaction with their bodies.” More than half of girls and one-third of boys aged six to eight feel their ideal body is thinner than their current size.” “Body image concerns start earlier than you think; even preschoolers learn that society judges people by how they look.”

Children’s preoccupation with their bodies is accelerating.  Twenty plus years ago when my own children were adolescences, I read Mary Pipher’s book, Finding Ophelia. Pipher, a psychotherapist, described how society’s attitudes about women made it difficult for adolescent girls to retain their sense of self.  Today, five year olds of both sexes have similar issues. We are robbing our children of their childhood.

The experts have lots of common sense advice to help parents (and grandparents) minimize the potential harms of these unrealistic messages.  Limit media consumption. Project a healthy attitude towards your own body; “ban fat talk”.  Encourage healthy activities – like play, sports, dance, or music. 

To these I would add, recognize your child’s gifts, and celebrate them.  Help her discover that she is wonderfully made, that her beauty radiates from within, and that there is no one like her in the entire world. This will give her more confidence than a swimsuit that hides curves, creates curves, or minimizes a pudgy middle. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Finding allegory in Inky's great escape

There are some amazing stories of pets finding their way home after long absences.  But, an octopus?

Octopi are intelligent, curious creatures. They are so intelligent that aquarium keepers use an enrichment manual to help ward off boredom for octopi in captivity. Aquarium octopi have toys like Mr. Potato Head and Lego, and some can solve puzzles that have a series of locks and keys.

A couple of years ago, an octopus named Inky got himself caught up in a crayfish pot and was in bad shape when a New Zealand aquarium received him. But, despite the aquarium’s tender care and advanced education program, it seems Inky had no intention of staying forever. 

Whether Inky was more inquisitive and restless than other octopi, he was wily enough to escape. I can imagine him plotting his jailbreak like the fish in Finding Nemo, the tale of a clown fish that gets captured, put in a tank, and makes it back to the ocean to be reunited with his father.

Inky’s opportunity for escape came one night a couple of months ago when someone failed to secure his tank properly.  Under cover of darkness, he made his slippery exit from the tank, crept across the floor and squeezed his supple rugby sized body into a 6” floor drain. Good thing the drain led to the ocean.

We can explain Inky’s daring and successful escape using scientific knowledge and common sense.  A number of factors coalesced in his favour. An unsecured tank, no keepers in sight, a wet floor, a drain leading to the ocean, an intelligent, curious creature whose body is perfect for Houdini maneuvers converged in a perfect storm. But I prefer to think of Inky’s escape in terms of mystery.

Seeing Inky's escape as allegory
For Inky, the ocean was home. It was where he belonged. While the aquarium restored him to health, provided for his physical needs in a safe environment, and stimulated his brain, Inky was restless.  His tank mimicked the ocean, but was not the ocean. Ultimately, enrichment activities with intriguing toys were a poor substitute for life on the reef; he was itching to leave the ivory tower of the aquarium and try out his new skills in the real world.  Perhaps something of a metaphysical nature, something that eludes our understanding, fuelled Inky’s desire to escape. Perhaps Inky had an intuition of divinity and his place in creation that compelled him to make a break for the ocean.

So while media reports of Inky’s escape focused on the intelligence of octopi, I saw allegory in the story about Inky.  Inky’s restlessness points to the restlessness of the human spirit of which we are often oblivious.   Like Inky, we are not satisfied with the place we inhabit. While crayfish pots draw us in and capture us, they cannot hold us for long.  Nor can the finest tanks and toys stave off our dissatisfaction.  They are merely distractions from our spiritual longing. 

So, as we attempt to transcend our traps and tanks, we spread our tentacles in search of drains that may lead nowhere. We wind up following the wrong gods home.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Seeds nourish us - body and soul

“Look, Granny. Basil sprouting!” exclaimed my granddaughter as she took me to see the tiny seedlings on the table in her playroom.  Earlier that day, we had wandered around my yard, hand in hand, looking for sprouting things.  We marveled at the tulips poking through the leaf mulch, the buds forming on the lilacs, and the hellebore Lenten Rose blooming on the sunny south side of the house.  The hellebore is the first thing to bloom in my garden and I am always tickled when it blooms before Easter.

A few days later, my husband and I took our granddaughter to Seedy Saturday, a nationwide movement that promotes the cultivation and preservation of heirloom and endangered varieties of food crops.  Our local event had a kids’ planting table, and before our granddaughter planted her seed in the Styrofoam cup that she had filled with soil, she cradled it gently in her tiny hand as if she were in the presence of something holy.

I have a healthy respect for seeds.  Coming from an Italian background, I grew up with a vegetable garden in the backyard. It was a riot of plants that produced abundant crops, many of which my father planted from the seeds he saved annually. Tomato seeds germinated in little pots by the basement window; others we sowed directly into the ground.  From seed to table, I grew up with crunchy carrots, juicy tomatoes, meaty roman beans, tender lettuce and bitter radicchio that tantalized (or tortured) my taste buds and nourished my body. 

Image courtesy of KEK064 at
Seeds keep up rooted
I used to wonder why my father kept seeds when it would have been so much simpler and tidier to buy them.  But, keeping the seeds was a symbolic way for my father to stay connected with the land that his family had farmed for generations in the old country. My father’s method of gardening, including his insistence on planting according to the phases of the moon, kept us rooted with our past.

I shared some of this with Mohawk seed keeper Terrylynn Brant, who sees an intimate connection between the seed, ancestors and land, and who, like my father plants her crops based on the moon. 
Brant grew up in a family that was able to maintain its agricultural practices despite government policies that threatened the traditional agricultural way of life of the communities of the Haudenosaunee. From an early age, she had a passion for gardening, which she believes is her gift from the Creator, and she has always been mindful of the importance of keeping the seeds of her ancestors, some of which, she told me, go back to time immemorial. 

A seed is a sacred thing
For Brant, a seed is a sacred thing and a metaphor for the innate dignity and goodness of the individual.

“Seeds have their own inherent responsibility given to them by Creator. It’s basically to grow and to reproduce themselves. That’s the duty and responsibility they’ve been given…to continue who they are and what they are” and the seed will always do its best to honor the task creation had in mind for it.

Brant applies this concept to people.  “The Creator sent us here as beautiful, perfect beings. He intended us to grow beautiful, to be compassionate with our fellow man, to share everything we have, to love one another.  And yet, we are the ones who mess that up…We should look at the seed, and we should be reminded every time we hold it in our hands what is pure, what is good, what is right, but we do not.” 

There is a genius to a seed that we miss when we lose contact with the soil and the source of the food on our table.  Sowing a seed, nurturing its growth, and plucking its fruit off the vine does more than feed our bodies; it nourishes our spirit.  

When we wonder at basil sprouting or feel our heart leap up at the blooming of the Lenten Rose after a dark winter, we touch the goodness inherent in our selves, and intuit the possibility for our own transformation and that of the world. The seed helps us get back to the garden where we glimpse the perfection and harmony for which we long.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Downton Abbey was good entertainment

“All’s well that end’s well”,  “everything comes out in the wash”, and “they all lived happily ever after” describe the grand finale of Downton Abbey, the wildly popular British period drama about life in one of England’s grand country houses.

Charles Dickens would have been proud. Coincidences, meddling, and the triumph of goodness all contributed to the final episode with the hopes and aspirations of almost every character coming to fruition. 

I was hooked on Downton from the very first episode.   The acting, the set, the costumes (could there have been more beautiful dresses than the ones on display in the finale?), the character development, the social commentary, and even the incredible plot twists that occasionally tried my patience, kept me engaged.

Dame Maggie Smith’s character, Violet the Dowager Countess, had me laughing with her flawless delivery of hilarious, usually biting, and frequently wise one-liners.  (As someone prone to over-thinking, I heartedly agreed with her when she said, “In my experience, second thoughts are vastly over-rated”.)

But I appreciated Downton for other reasons, too. I could relate to the characters and their struggles. Even though my modern day middle class lifestyle bears no resemblance to the upstairs/downstairs lifestyle that was the series’ lifeblood, themes of change and transformation united us.

It was easy to empathize with Carson, the butler, who was suspicious of the telephone, or with Mrs. Patmore, the cook who was afraid of an electric mixer because I was once hesitant to accept new technology. In 1995, when we bought our first home computer, I resisted my children’s pleas to sign up for the Internet. I felt like the Dowager Countess when she quipped, “First electricity. Now telephones.  Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel.” 

It was difficult, too, for the characters of Downton to adapt to changing social and moral norms.  After the Great War, the idyllic and idle existence of the privileged crumbled beneath the aspirations of a generation that fought in the trenches and kept the home fires burning. Like the great houses slated for demolition, a way of life was coming to an end.  Dissatisfied with the roles thrust upon them by an accident of birth, servants like Daisy looked to education to change her lot, while Ladies Mary and Edith challenged conventions to become successful businesswomen.

As the familiar gave way to new possibilities, the interior struggles reshaped characters from the inside out.  Over six seasons, the characters grew, becoming a little more holy, as they came to grips with their imperfections and unhappiness.  Haughty Lady Mary became less selfish, mean-spirited Barrow grew in kindness, and “Poor Little Me” Lady Edith discovered her self-worth.  Character transformation kept me watching Downton Abbey religiously on a Sunday night.

Religion, though, was curiously absent from Downton, except for a few notable exceptions.  Alastair Bruce, historical expert for the series, said in an interview with The Telegraph, that the executives wanted to keep religion out of it; “Everyone panics when you try to do anything religious on the telly.” 

Still, religious traditions and morality played a role in the lives of the characters. Values, such as decency, kindness, loyalty, kinship, and concern for others, called forth the best from characters as they struggled to overcome their pettiness. And Christian rituals, even when undertaken out of a sense of tradition rather than faith, marked life’s rites of passage.  Baptism celebrated birth, Christian burial accompanied death, and wedding ceremonies united lovers.  Prayer too made an occasional appearance. With an honesty and poignancy that echoes the reality of prayer, Lady Mary knelt to pray for Matthew (whom she eventually marries after much plot wrangling). “Dear Lord, I don’t pretend to have much credit with you. I’m not even sure that you’re there. But if you are, and if I’ve ever done anything good, I beg you to keep him safe.”

In Downton Abbey’s final season, characters embraced the winds of change; even Carson began to come around, wistfully admitting, “The world is a different place from the way it was.”  But it was Violet, the Dowager Countess, who once again hit the nail on the head. “It makes me smile, the way we drink every year to what the future may bring.”  

While the future is uncertain, change is inevitable.  Downton Abbey wrapped that theme up beautifully in the form of good entertainment.