Huge Back to School Shopping with Kids, Friends, and Staples

It’s hard to believe that we’re in the middle of August, but we are. And that means that summer is almost over–and school is just around the corner (though I don’t like to think about that!)

So when Staples contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in writing a Back to School post, I jumped at the chance, especially since they were including a generous gift card. So I called up my best friend, who has Samantha (about to start kindergarten), Blake (starting middle school) and Mickaula (starting high school). That’s right–three kids starting three different schools this fall! And I said: “hey, wanna go to back to school shopping, on me?”

She said yes.

Big surprise.

I took my youngest daughter with me, too, since she needed a few things, but since we homeschool, and her desk/office is pretty well set up, I didn’t need a bunch for us (just an ink cartridge for my oldest daughter and some pens). But we had a blast with Susan and her kids!

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Samantha was overjoyed with the thought that SHE GOT TO GET A BACKPACK AND A LUNCHBOX!!!! OH, JOY!!!

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In fact, we had a hard time getting her to put the backpack down. She insisted on putting all of her school supplies inside the backpack (I really don’t think Staples likes you to shop that way, but the staff at Staples in Belleville, Ontario, was awesome!), so she did. And then we had to take it all out to pay later. (Here she is with my Mom, who is also her “Nana”).

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Staples also had lots of “regular” backpacks for people who might not like Minnie Mouse, and, of course, they had lots of lunchbox accessories, like thermoses and water bottles.

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After checking out all the “little kid” stuff we needed for Samantha, including crayons, a glue stick, pencil crayons, and some kindergarten scissors, we turned to the older kids. Staples does have “Back to School” checklists for different ages, too:

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We decided to head mostly for the portable school supplies, but Blake and Mickaula did have fun trying out the chairs:

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And the desks:

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It is so important that kids have a good place to do homework. The kitchen table will work in a pinch, but to have a desk with a chair with proper back support is a wonderful thing. I work too much on the couch and it is so bad for me–I’m trying to move back to my desk, too. Help you kids develop good habits when they’re young!

One thing they had that I don’t know if it existed when I was in high school was locker organizers. So cool–you can get little shelves and magnets for the inside door for post it notes, calendars, pens, etc.

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Mostly, though, we bought the typical school stuff: pens, pencil cases, binders, highlighters.

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Here are Sheila’s tips for school stuff:

Buy the heavy, durable binders, not the floppy ones or fabric ones. If you buy good ones, and insist your kids organize their papers when they do homework at night, those binders will last you for years. If you get the floppy ones, you’ll be lucky if they see you through the school year. It’s better to invest in good binders early.

And buy highlighters! They make note taking so much easier. I loved highlighters when I was in high school and they really helped me study. I colour-coded everything. Maybe it’s a girl thing more than a boy thing, but it does make things easier. And it helps you take notes in an organized fashion (so does buying pens of different colours).

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One of the most fun parts was all the deals! I guess Staples Canada is trying to get moms in the door, because they had crayons for a quarter, pencil crayons for 80 cents, packages of paper for a dime, and notebooks for a dime. It was awesome!

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I bought a ton of crayons to put in the Christmas shoeboxes we do with Samaritan’s purse–so if you do shoeboxes, now is a great time to stock up!

It took us about an hour to get absolutely everything for everyone, but we did it!

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Samantha lost steam pretty early, but luckily the iPad display captivated her, and she climbed right up and played a game.

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After we checked out, we had spent a grand total of $375, which helped 6 kids (my two girls, Susan’s three girls, and a foster girl she has who isn’t pictured for obvious reasons) get equipped for back to school for absolutely everything they could possibly need. And a lot of that stuff will last for several years yet!

When they were walking out, Samantha insisted on putting her backpack back on immediately.

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I just want to say a special thank you to everyone who reads this blog faithfully, because my blog readership is large enough that I get to participate in fun events like this–and then I can bless others with it, too.

So thank you for reading, because you set up Samantha, Blake and Mickaula to go back to school–and gave my kids some fun stuff, too! And we had an awesome time.

Ending the Power of Bullies

Every Friday my column appears in a bunch of papers in Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week I want to talk about bullying and how we can reduce its effects on our kids.

Ending the Power of BulliesAnother horrific case of online bullying recently hit the news. Twelve-year-old Rebecca Sedwick climbed a water tower and jumped to her death after being taunted and attacked by a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old. The sheriff in Florida arrested the two instigators and released their pictures. While the charges have since been dropped, the bullies’ parents have done the news circuit.

As I watched a bit of the media circus, it became clear that these bullies were absolute losers. They weren’t going anywhere in life. And while the victim’s mother appears eloquent, these kids’ parents (one of whom has since been charged with child abuse herself) show that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

We think that the way to battle bullying is holding character classes in schools, monitoring our children’s Facebook, and encouraging intervention by school officials. But I think we’re missing a key ingredient about why bullying is so devastating: to these kids, their peer group–pathetic as it may be–is their whole life. When peers turn on them, they feel completely alone and useless.

Listening to the story in Florida, I found myself wishing that Rebecca could have had some perspective. I’m a relatively happily well-adjusted forty-something woman (notwithstanding those hormonal surges), and I never, ever talk to anyone I knew in middle school or high school. If I were to see them on the street, I doubt I’d remember who most of them were.

In school you’re thrown together, through no choice of your own, with kids of the same age. As an adult, you don’t have to restrict your friends to those born in the same calendar year, and you’re free to choose friends that you actually like. Most adults I know do not hang around with people they knew in school. Those kids, who wield so much power over you at fourteen, are forgotten at 34.

If teens could just understand that their current tormentors won’t matter at all in just a few short years, then perhaps we’d have fewer kids devastated by bullying.

What we need more than character classes, then, is to give our kids perspective. I survived high school by simply not bothering much with my peers. Although I had pleasant conversations with many classmates, I walked home for lunch everyday so I didn’t have to sit in the cafeteria. My life revolved around my church youth group and my two part-time jobs, where I worked with people of a variety of ages. I spent most of my social time outside the school, so school really didn’t matter.

Part-time jobs can help students feel confident while giving them exposure to other adults who take an interest in them. Getting involved in a place of worship helps kids get plugged in with others who were not all born in the same birth year, while also introducing them to other teens who perhaps don’t go to their school. Cultivating an area of excellence outside of the school, whether it’s in sports or music or a craft, can help kids have something else to concentrate on that can give them a sense of self-worth.

School is so unimportant in the broader scheme of things, but it’s hard for kids to see that when they’re in the throes of teenage angst. Anything we can do to enlarge their world now will diminish the power of bullies to aim those arrows. Yes, words will always hurt, but if teens know “there are other people who care about me”, “I know I am good at something”, or “these kids’ worlds are so pathetic compared to mine”, then much of the sting will be gone.

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The Homework Crunch: Do Schools Ask Too Much of Families?

Every Friday my column appears in a bunch of papers in Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s column was more local in nature, so I thought I’d rerun this one from 2006.

Homework CrunchFor seven years, this was the reigning column—the one that received the most comments and feedback, only to be surpassed by Brat Is Not a Learning Disability. I didn’t think this column was anything special when I wrote it, but I obviously hit a nerve.

I’ve been conducting an informal poll with all the thirtysomethings I run into lately, asking, “when you were in elementary school, did your parents help you with homework?” I have yet to hear anyone answer in the affirmative. I don’t remember even having homework before high school, except for special projects. We were expected to get our work done in class.

And yet, every person I talk to today says that homework takes up a ton of everyone’s time. Now, I’m not the best one to weigh in on this because we homeschool. But I do know what my friends and family tell me. My sister-in-law’s biggest complaint is that the kids aren’t taught the material before it arrives home. Recently her second grade daughter was given a project on buoyancy, but the teacher hadn’t spent time going over what makes things float, nor had she given the kids any clue how they were supposed to do this experiment. That was for the parents to figure out.

In other words, the expectation is that children will not do their homework alone. That’s a far cry from what happened when I was eight.

Another friend had a horrible time last year when her daughter was in grade 6 and struggling through her math homework. My friend sat down with her, and taught her the best she could how to do it, and the child did eventually arrive at the right answers. The next time my friend visited the school, though, the teacher took her aside and reprimanded her. “You’re teaching her wrong,” she was told. “You have to let me teach her.” My friend let fly a few well-chosen words about how if the teacher had been teaching her in the first place such a thing wouldn’t have happened, but I don’t think her experience is unique. Many kids simply aren’t learning in school.

Part of this certainly must be because family life has become more chaotic so that kids aren’t as well behaved. It’s very hard to teach even a small class of 21 if you have two or three behaviour problem kids in it. Another reason is that they’re cramming stuff in the school day that was never there when I was a kid. We weren’t taught conflict resolution or health and safety or touchy-feely things. We were just taught math and spelling. And we learned it, too. Maybe today there’s just not enough time.

Or is it computers? When we were in high school we handed in everything hand-written. Now that computers are commonplace, there’s pressure on even third and fourth-graders to hand in reports typed, with a pretty cover page. That means Mom does the typing, and so the homework falls on her.

Yet what effect does this homework push have on children? Studies seem to show that homework doesn’t have an appreciable effect on their grades in the elementary years, and excessive homework may even poison the school experience for many kids. But other studies show that kids have less homework today than they did a decade ago. So I truly can’t figure out what’s going on, except to look at the families around me and realize that for them, this surely is getting out of control.

I truly don’t understand all the factors, but I am curious, because the whole thing seems to me like a big waste of time. Why should kids have to go to school for seven hours a day, and then do homework for an hour a night while they’re still so young? When are you supposed to have family time? When do kids just play? And what good is it doing society if all over the country tonight, hundreds of thousands of fourth grade parents are honing up on ancient Egyptian funeral rites, or learning that a Kleenex box will float but a ball of silly putty won’t? Don’t we have better things to do, like playing Monopoly together or taking a spring hike? After all, if our kids aren’t learning in school, then what is school for?

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Helping our Kids Succeed in School this Year

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week I’m sharing steps to help your kids succeed in school.

Help Your Kids Succeed in SchoolA great teacher can be transformational in a child’s life, but those with the greatest influence for helping children succeed at school this year won’t be employees of School Boards. They’ll be parents.

What can we do to launch our children well, and help them to succeed in school this year? Here are a few thoughts.

1. Sleep Helps Kids Succeed

First, get them ready to learn, and that means that they have to be well-rested. Too many kids do not get enough sleep. In fact, lack of sleep has been heavily linked to ADD and a host of other learning difficulties. Children under the age of thirteen need, on average, 10-11 hours of sleep a night. Teens need more than we think, too–up to nine hours.

To make teens sleep, turn off the wifi at 10:30 every night, and put all phones on the charger in a central place. To help younger kids sleep, enforce a bedtime, which means enforcing a bedtime routine. Start getting kids ready for bed much earlier than they need to be asleep. Read them a story. Give them a bath. Help them to relax.

One reason so many kids don’t sleep well is because they’ve overscheduled. If kids are in activities until 8:00 several nights a week, it’s hard to get a decent night’s sleep. Parents’ work schedules often impede sleep, too. If a parent isn’t home until 7:30 or 8, chances are that parent wants to spend time with the kids before they turn in. Resist the urge to keep kids up, and find ways to connect with them at other times of day.

2. Encourage Imaginative Play to Help Train their Brains

Here’s a second thought to help kids get ready to learn: encourage imaginative play. Most kids today play primarily with technology–on devices and phones, on video games, or on computers. Yet these are largely passive modes of entertainment. Even video games, which arguably are more interactive, don’t require imagination in the same way as traditional play did. Take some time after dinner everyday and turn all devices off.

Then limit the kids’ toys. Kids don’t need a lot to play with: they can build forts with blankets; they can construct things out of pots and pans; they can create homes for dolls out of towels. Boredom is the mother of invention. Encourage more hands-on toys, too, like Lego or puzzles or that teach spatial ability.

3. Reading = Success in School

Third, make reading a central part of your home. Read every night to the kids before they go to bed. For long car trips listen to books on CD or iPod. Enforce a strict bedtime–but tell kids they can stay up half an hour longer if they’re reading or looking at books. Kids may even get in the habit of always needing a good book to help them get to sleep!

4. Make Learning a Natural Part of Life

Finally, if you want to help your kids succeed in school, make learning a natural part of a child’s life. When you’re in the grocery store, tell them “we’re going on a hunt for the letter B”, and find all the things that start with the B-uh sound. (Broccoli? Bread? Beans? What about Pancake Mix? See if they can tell the difference!). You can do this with numbers, too. When you’re at Tim Horton’s, ask them to figure out the change. If that would take too long, just start explaining yourself. “I need thirty-five cents. That means a quarter and a dime, because a quarter is twenty-five cents and a dime is ten cents!”

Kids are born to be little sponges. They take everything in, and they love learning, because it helps them make sense of the world. So talk about everything you’re doing. Show them patterns. And then give them time to absorb all of that with some down time to play and some down time to sleep. Do that, and chances are your kids will do very well in school this year.

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Your Child’s Expert

Your Child's Expert
I’m taking a little hiatus from blogging this summer while I work on some major writing projects. I’m still checking in in the comments section, but I thought I’d rerun some columns from a few years ago, before this blog got big, that you likely never read. Here’s one I’m quite passionate about that I wrote quite a few summers ago.


I spent a week this summer reminding myself why I hated being a teenager. I was working as office manager at a camp while my kids were campers. They could see me at mealtimes so they didn’t get too homesick, but on the whole they were on their own. In the meantime, I listened to counselors fretting about boyfriends or girlfriends, about conflicts between friends, and about who is in what clique.



That’s not all I heard. Just like me, a nurse also came up to work while her three kids attended camp, including one very shy 8-year-old boy. She was supposed to be working at his camp, but was sent instead to the teenage one on the other side of the lake. Her son didn’t fare very well in her absence. The 19-year-old section head and 18-year-old counselor were sure they knew why. “In our experience,” they said, “these kids do much better if the parents are completely offsite.”


Now these teenagers were lovely people and experienced campers, having spent eight weeks at camp for each of the last three years. But that mom was an expert, too. She could have said, “I know you’ve spent 168 days at camp, but I have 3,000 days of experience with this particular boy, and he would have been fine had I worked here.” It was not to be. She took their criticism lying down.


This incident stayed with me, I think, because it’s not an anomaly. Everywhere we turn, someone else is telling us how to raise our kids (including me!). Even the spanking debate which I sparked a while ago (why do I do these things?) is symptomatic of this need for others to tell us, despite divided research data, how to parent our children.


One of my friends recently had an unfortunate run-in with a teacher, who was upset that this mom helped her fourth grade daughter to understand math. “She has to learn it the way we teach it, not the way you explain it,” the teacher stressed, failing to see the irony that if the teacher had actually taught the child, she wouldn’t have needed her mother’s help in the first place. The mother said little. I think a simple, “my child, my house, my time,” would have sufficed, followed by, in a Shrek accent, “bye-bye. See you later.” But my friend was more polite.


Instead of feeling upset when someone criticizes what we do with our kids, we tend to feel intimidated. When Rebecca took swimming lessons at the age of 4, the swimming instructor dunked her. I knew this wouldn’t work, but I didn’t speak up, and to this day I wonder why I was so cowed by a 17-year-old. It took me two years to undo the damage, during which my daughter would scream if I mentioned lessons. I took her swimming for fun, and she slowly began to like the water again. She swims like a fish now! (update: nine years after writing this column, Rebecca is a lifeguard who teaches swimming. And she never forces kids underwater). Yet she wasn’t like most kids when it comes to learning to swim. She’s easily spooked, and I should have stepped in earlier.


We live in an expert-driven society. No longer does common sense or life experience qualify you for anything. Yet though experts may know general knowledge, such as what happens with most children, you are the only one who knows the specifics, or what happens with your child.


I say this knowing what it is like to be on the other side. Doctors often deal with parents who refuse to believe that nothing is wrong with their child. We could all benefit from two or three honest and wise friends who could act as our personal “reality checks”, telling us when we, or our kids, are out of line. But I still can’t help feeling that erring on the side of too much involvement is better than erring on the side of too little. Studies show consistently that kids need involved parents. Good teachers and principals know this and welcome it; insecure ones don’t.

Maybe you don’t have much education. Maybe you haven’t read all the parenting books, and maybe you’ve even made mistakes. But your child will likely never have a better advocate than you. Next time somebody starts telling me that I should leave my children alone or butt out, I will leave. But my children come with me. Bye bye. See you later.

Teaching Kids to Think Outside the Box

Teaching Kids to Think Outside the BoxEvery Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s is on risk-taking in how we approach education, so our kids have all the tools they need in a changing world economy.

We are so blessed to live in Canada. We don’t worry about whether we’re going to have supper; we just worry about what we’re going to make for supper. We have food in abundance, clothing in abundance, and shelter. Others may have more, but compared to most of the world, we’re at the top.

Personally, I’d like to stay there. But for Canada to remain a vibrant economy, we need dynamism. We need people with new ideas who are willing to run with them. We need people who will think outside the box for new solutions to problems. And we need people who will take risks. Is our school system conducive to raising the next generation to meet these demands?

Our schools are run by people who like school—if they didn’t, why would they go into teaching? They went to university where they trained for a job where they knew exactly what they would be doing. There were few surprises. And chances are they can continue like that for decades. Idea people and risk people wither in bureaucracies, so they rarely work there. Our students, then, are rarely exposed to the kinds of people who make our economy thrive.

That doesn’t mean that our economy doesn’t also need other types of people—hard workers who will do their jobs well; loyal workers who will go that extra mile. But what we need to stay competitive is people who will come up with these new ideas and start new businesses. So what are our schools doing to encourage kids towards entrepreneurism—even if that means foregoing university? Schools tend to push kids towards more school, not towards opening a store, or buying a franchise, or even, heaven forbid, working in the oil sector.

In high school kids can take courses on entrepreneurism, which is a good start. Yet these courses are rarely taught by people who are actually entrepreneurs. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t taught well; only that our kids are missing something. Unless they take a co-op placement, a student can go their entire fourteen years of education, from full-time Junior Kindergarten to grade 12, without ever encountering anyone who built a business.

After all, catching the entrepreneurial spirit is so much more than just the content of the courses; it’s the type of adults who our kids interact with. Those working in the education system have job security, and pensions, and vacations. They have limited room for advancement, but they accept that because the pay is good. They’re not looking to get rich; they want to make a difference, while enjoying security.

In contrast, what does an entrepreneur do? An entrepreneur may take one idea and fixate on it, and do nothing but that for a whole year. They may forego vacations. They may even forego pay for a few years to get the dream started. The biggest skills they’ll have to learn are perseverance, networking, and marketing.

The business world is filled with people who rejected school’s regimentalism: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett. Yet for each Steve Jobs, how many kids who would have made dynamic, out of the box entrepreneurs did we turn off altogether? How many kids’ passion and drive did we destroy by trying to make them conform?

Teaching and entrepreneurialism are two entirely different skill sets and mindsets. It’s not about slotting in another course or two; it’s about changing the whole school culture. If we want our economy to be dynamic, we’re going to have to make our schools more dynamic, and that may involve taking risks and doing things that have never been done before. I know that sounds drastic, but that’s how most good ideas start.

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The Low Down on Homework: Is There Too Much Today?

Too Much Homework: is homework wrecking family life?

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. Here’s one on the phenomenon of too much homework–are we asking too much of parents today? See what you think!

I’ve been conducting an informal poll with all the thirtysomethings I run into lately, asking, “when you were in elementary school, did your parents help you with homework?”. I have yet to hear anyone answer in the affirmative. I don’t remember even having homework before high school, except for special projects. We were expected to get our work done in class.

And yet, every person I talk to today says that homework takes up a ton of everyone’s time. Now, I’m not the best one to weigh in on this because we homeschool. But I do know what my friends and family tell me. My sister-in-law’s biggest complaint is that the kids aren’t taught the material before it arrives home. Recently her second grade daughter was given a project on buoyancy, but the teacher hadn’t spent time going over what makes things float, nor had she given the kids any clue how they were supposed to do this experiment. That was for the parents to figure out. In other words, the expectation is that children will not do their homework alone. That’s a far cry from what happened when I was eight.

Another friend had a horrible time last year when her daughter was in grade 6 and struggling through her math homework. My friend sat down with her, and taught her the best she could how to do it, and the child did eventually arrive at the right answers. The next time my friend visited the school, though, the teacher took her aside and reprimanded her. “You’re teaching her wrong,” she was told. “You have to let me teach her.” My friend let fly a few well-chosen words about how if the teacher had been teaching her in the first place such a thing wouldn’t have happened, but I don’t think her experience is unique. Many kids simply aren’t learning in school.

Part of this certainly must be because family life has become more chaotic so that kids aren’t as well behaved. It’s very hard to teach even a small class of 21 if you have two or three behavior problem kids in it. Another reason is that they’re cramming stuff in the school day that was never there when I was a kid. We weren’t taught conflict resolution or health and safety or touchy-feely things. We were just taught math and spelling. And we learned it, too. Maybe today there’s just not enough time.

Or is it computers? When we were in high school we handed in everything hand-written. Now that computers are commonplace, there’s pressure on even third and fourth-graders to hand in reports typed, with a pretty cover page. That means Mom does the typing, and so the homework falls on her.

Yet what effect does this homework push have on children? Studies seem to show that homework doesn’t have an appreciable effect on their grades in the elementary years, and excessive homework may even poison the school experience for many kids. But other studies show that kids have less homework today than they did a decade ago. So I truly can’t figure out what’s going on, except to look at the families around me and realize that for them, this surely is getting out of control.

I truly don’t understand all the factors, but I am curious, because the whole thing seems to me like a big waste of time. Why should kids have to go to school for seven hours a day, and then do homework for an hour a night while they’re still so young? When are you supposed to have family time? When do kids just play? And what good is it doing Canadian society if all over the country tonight, hundreds of thousands of fourth grade parents are honing up on ancient Egyptian funeral rites, or learning that a Kleenex box will float but a ball of silly putty won’t? Don’t we have better things to do, like playing Monopoly together or taking a spring hike? After all, if our kids aren’t learning in school, then what is school for?

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One Size Will Never Fit All Students

Alternatives to High School: There are more out there than you think!

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s column is about alternatives to high school–there are more out there than you may know, so let’s not be afraid to think outside the box! 

When I was young I used a rotary dial phone. I had rabbit ears on my TV and bellbottoms on my jeans. And I went to a neighbourhood school from 9:00 until 3:15 everyday, sharing my teacher with dozens of other kids. Some things have changed, but others have stayed exactly the same.

When it comes to school, is this really the best we can do? We are living through an internet revolution, taking the world by storm—but leaving schools virtually untouched.

Yet there are pockets of change, giving us alternatives to high school the way we’ve always done it. Take the Virtual Learning Centre, administered by the Trillium Lakelands school board for the Ministry of Education. They offer online high school courses for any Ontario students. My two daughters, whom we have homeschooled since grade one, took several VLC courses. In grade 9 and 10 Science they had two hours of lectures every week, assignments to do on their own, and online drop ins with their teacher if they were having trouble. No more sitting through 90 minutes a day of Science class when the same material can be learned much more quickly.

This year, the Ministry of Education has also launched “Open School”, where students can start a credit at any time and work at their own pace. Work really fast, and you can earn a full credit in just a few weeks. Sure beats a semester of high school English classes listening to your fellow students butcher Shakespeare as they read Romeo and Juliet out loud.

Then there’s Athabasca University. Run out of Alberta, it’s an open university admitting anyone who is at least sixteen, regardless of educational background. My girls will both start university at sixteen, complete their first year online, and then transfer to a “regular” university for second year. For students who are bored or bullied in traditional schools, but who are independent learners, this is an awesome escape hatch.

But online resources can also benefit traditional schools, if schools are open to using it. After all, school teachers do not have a monopoly on the gift of teaching, and often the best teachers are found outside of the traditional classroom. Take the Khan Academy, an online video sensation launched by a young man who just wanted to help his relatives in India with their math homework. He started recording 15-minute videos of himself explaining a Calculus concept, and the videos went viral. Now he has thousands of videos covering everything from Economics to Biology. And they’re free.

Some enterprising American schools are tapping in to this. Instead of teaching kids at school, and assigning homework to complete at home, they “flip” school, assigning videos to watch at home, and then assignments to complete during class time, so the teacher can help students one-on-one with problems. A child can progress through multiple grade levels in one year using this method, if they’re fast learners. And the pace can be slowed for those who need to solidify the information.

Not everybody appreciates Khan’s teaching, but that’s okay. What Khan showed is that you can take the best teachers, record them teaching, and then use that to teach kids. Brilliant teachers are difficult to find; let’s expose our kids to the best, and then use teachers as facilitators, tailoring their approaches to what individual students actually need.

Unfortunately, as wonderful as these innovations are, they’re not very widespread. Too many people have a vested interest in keeping schools exactly as they are: expensive, inflexible, one-size-fits-all entitites. Thus, most of the students benefiting from the technological revolution are those, like my children, who have the luxury of parents who can supervise during the day. What about everyone else?

One size does not fit all, and now, with the internet, it doesn’t have to. It’s time for some radical rethinking about how we do school. Some students will always need the structured, four walls approach. But not everybody does. And surely, with all the technology we have available, we don’t need to be doing school the same way they did when my parents were children. Do we?

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Training Up Children in the Way THEY Should Go

Training Up a Child The Way He (or She) Should Go--and Letting Them Choose Their Path
Proverbs 22:6 says:

Train up a child in the way he should go, And even when he is old he will not depart from it.

What does that verse mean? Sometimes we read it totally in a moral framework: if we train him in the way he SHOULD go, then he will learn right and wrong, and he’ll obey that when he’s old.

But what if you can read it an alternate way, too? What if you could also read it like this:

Train up a child in the way HE (or SHE) should go.

In other words, what if it means that one of the purposes of parenting is to help a child discover his or her gifts and callings? What if one of our jobs as parents is not to dictate to a child what we think the best route for them to take is, but to see how God is calling and equipping them?

I’ve always known this, and yet I made a huge mistake with my oldest child this year. She’s been taking some post-secondary courses online, and as we all sat down and looked at what program she could go into, we steered her towards a balanced program which had an emphasis on Science.

For the last few months, she has struggled in a variety of areas. I have wondered at the cause, and have prayed quite a bit, yelled at her a little too much, and gotten very frustrated with her.

But in a heart to heart with her last week, the truth was revealed. She simply hates what she’s doing. It’s not that she CAN’T do it; she’s actually getting good marks. But she hates it with every fibre of her being.

And so we have switched her major. Five minutes after we made that decision she sat down at the piano and began to play a really complicated piece she hasn’t touched in six months. It’s as if life came back to her again.

I had depressed and exasperated my daughter by pushing her in a direction she should not go. It was good advice; what my husband and I were saying made sense. But it only made sense in general; it did not make sense for her specifically. And each child is an individual.

My mother, who is a career counselor, made the observation that it is better to be the best, even in a very large and overpopulated field, than to be just mediocre in a smaller and more in-demand field. The best will always be in demand.

My younger daughter spends a lot of time at skating, and shares ice with some competitive figure skaters. Katie skates for the pure love of the sport, though she doesn’t compete. She just loves to learn. But she is often flabbergasted by how many skaters she talks to on the ice who absolutely hate being there. They may skate well, but they are only skating because their parents want them to. They would rather be anywhere else.

I never thought I would be a parent like that, and yet I became one without noticing. I am very glad that we were only off course for about six months, and we have since corrected. I have now encouraged my daughter to pursue the things that she genuinely loves and is gifted at.

This whole episode is a reminder to me that our dreams for our kids are often rooted too much in this earth–this makes sense for him, and he’ll be successful!–rather than in the next, looking at how God has equipped them for service. And it’s a reminder that we should never take pride in thinking we have it all together, because quite often we don’t.

Be careful about dreaming big dreams for your kids, and then pressuring them to fulfill them. Let God dream the dreams for your children, and let Him impress them upon your kids. Yes, kids need to be responsible, and they need to support themselves. But ultimately God has a plan for them, and it may not be to be the richest or the most successful. And as parents, we need to be okay with that.


Not Your Grandmother's Math

'emmett' photo (c) 2011, susanrm8 - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. And–gasp!–sometimes I actually write about stuff other than sex. Lately I’ve been preoccupied with The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, but here’s this week’s column for something different. If you have children in elementary school, and you’ve tried to help them with math lately, you may be able to relate:

When I was in grade two, I distinctly remember breaking out in a cold sweat when my teacher divided us into pairs to drill our subtraction facts. I could not for the life of me remember what 13-7 was. Nevertheless, I ended that year being able to recite all my math facts backwards and forwards, because that’s how we were taught.

Maclean’s magazine ran an interesting article recently detailing how math drills are passé. Not just that, but public schools often don’t teach long division anymore, or reinforce the other algorithms we grew up with (like add up the column and carry the 1). Today they do something more visual and more complicated.

A few years ago, our family went on a trip to a Kenyan orphanage, and our local Board of education graciously donated a complete set of grade 3 textbooks to ship over. When we showed the principal of the school those textbooks, he smiled sheepishly and said, “no, thanks.” I asked him to elaborate. Uncomfortably, he finally admitted, “They don’t teach things systematically. They spend too much time teaching about calculators. And they don’t teach the proper addition and subtraction techniques.”

As I flipped through the book to see what he was talking about, I recalled a story my nephew had told me about scoring 0 on a question on a math test. The question asked, “what is 6 times 6? Explain your answer three ways.” All he wrote was 36. That wasn’t good enough, apparently.

According to our education superiors in the government ministries, we face a math crisis because children were taught the “facts” but not the reason behind them. So today they use math manipulatives, like base 10 blocks. They use different algorithms to add things up, instead of memorizing and perfecting just one. They have lattices and grids and paper strips instead of just columns of numbers.

Through these methods, we’re supposed to produce children who can think creatively, rather than children who can just recite their times tables. And the benefit of North American education over Kenyan education, supposedly, is that our children will excel in this kind of creative thinking.

I understand. But the vast majority of our students will not be software developers or engineers. They will be interior designers, who have to calculate the surface area of a room to know how much paint to order. They will be cashiers who have to make change. Or they will install flooring, and need to know how many boards to order. That’s why I would prefer we educate people to actually know what 6 x 7 is.

In Kenya, kids who had missed out on years of formal education, and who were using scratch pads with broken pencils, sitting two to a desk, could do math in grade 5 that we in Canada don’t do until grade 8. And they don’t use calculators, either.

Look, I can drive a car. I can sit in the driver’s seat, turn the key, and steer the wheel. I don’t understand why a car works, but I can get from point A to point B.

Similarly, by teaching and reinforcing the basics, at least kids could use math, and with that practice often came understanding. Now we’re trying to teach them to understand it first, but they’re not able to use it. We’re attempting to teach kids how to build an engine, but they still don’t know how to steer a car. And how well, ultimately, will someone do if they haven’t mastered the fundamentals? Perhaps it’s time to get back to basics. That’s what our grandparents did, and they knew how to make change.

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