Monday, January 30, 2012

Schools - too focused on the academic? A response to a Mama Mia article

Schools - too focused on the academic?

Recently, Mama Mia published an article saying that parents expect teachers to be substitute parents. The article said that teachers should be responsible for things like grammar and mathematics, while parents should 'mould the manner of the child.' You can find the original article here:

To a certain extent, I agree. Parents do need to take responsibility for their own children. It is inappropriate and unfair to expect teachers to raise their kids. And any parent who leaves the raising of their child to a school cannot complain if their children don't turn out the way they want them to.

However, I do think the focus schools place on the academic is not doing our children any favours. No matter how well you know your reading, writing and arithmetic, if you don't know how to get along with others, behave in certain situations and deal with your emotions, you're not going to go far. In fact, it is these life skills that actually the more important than academic results. They help people to succeed in a career and contribute to society. It also affects how people treat our planet, the people in it - and themselves. Ultimately, a person's test results will not bring themselves or others much joy. How they live in the world will.

So why not just leave that part of life to the parents and let the schools focus on the academic part?

First, children spend six hours in school, more when you add in travelling time and homework. Very few parents would have the time to spend six hours teaching their children values and life skills, once this time for school is taken out. Admittedly, these kinds of life skills are often woven throughout other activities. But even then, children will always receive more academic training than they do values or life skills training.

Also, the compulsory nature of school and the focus on tests like NAPLAN tells kids that academic performance is important. They are unlikely to feel the same about what their parents are trying to teach them. The weight given to academic results actually changes children's values, because they have been taught from a very early age that it's how well you read and write that really matters in life. Children need to be taught that their behaviours, values and attitudes matter too. No matter how much a parent tries to instil this in their children, if they're hearing opposite messages from elsewhere, then children will have difficulty fully accepting this.

Perhaps most importantly, teachers have far more opportunity to see how a child behaves with other people than the parents do. They are better placed to notice a problem and guide them through a situation. One of my sons is very shy and has trouble making friends. While I am constantly working with him on this, I am limited by the fact that, when he's around people of his own age, I'm not usually around. As there are children with learning difficulties, there are also children with social difficulties. It would be good to see them get the same assistance and guidance as those who don't do well on tests.

I don't want to suggest that schools are only focused on the academic. Schools do care about values. They do deal with behaviour problems. At least the schools my kids go to do. I'm sure other schools are the same. But in a world where schools are judged on their NAPLAN results, obviously they're going to pay more attention to academic learning than life learning. And in my opinion, life learning is more important. 

Ultimately, it is the parent's responsibility to raise their children. And I for one don't want to leave all that important training to a school. However, the saying goes that it takes a village to raise a child. Shouldn't then both parents and schools be involved in ensuring that we raise children who have all the necessary skills to help them succeed in life? A school must be judged by more than how well their students do in tests. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

To love is to feed

I have previously posted a different version of this piece. However, as my grandmother passed away last Thursday, and it was her funeral today, it seemed like a fitting tribute to repost it. 

To Love is to Feed

When my sister and I stayed at my grandmother’s place as children, she would let us collect the eggs from her chickens. It’s possible that checking for eggs originally started as a chore, as something we were meant to do. For me, at least, it soon turned into a privilege. We were only meant to check once a day, but I would go out there every hour or so. ‘Please, Grandma,’ I would beg, ‘Please can I check for eggs again.’ My grandmother would say something in Ukrainian that I didn’t understand, but she would always let me go.

Sometimes my sister came with me. Sometimes I went alone. Out the back-door, into the garden filled with flowers and fruit; beautiful flowers, potted flowers, colourful flowers, strange looking flowers, flowers that scared me because they were always surrounded by bees. I never learned all their names. Even if I asked my grandmother to name each one, I would have forgotten the first one by the time she reached the last.

Past the two cherry trees that, when the cherries were ripe, provided as much fun as five children could have in the days before Nintendo. My three cousins, my sister and I would spend hours eating cherries, climbing for cherries, spitting pips at each other until it looked as if our clothes had measles. Cherry time was a special time, a seasonal time, almost a festival time.

These days, we mark our calendars with yearly events like Red Nose Day or  Jeans for Genes or holidays that have been around a long time, but only recently become commercialised. Easter, Valentines, Christmas. We turn a page in our calendar and get ready by spending hours in shopping malls. We sigh with relief when they’re over, because we have finished with the buying, finished with the giving and finished with the stress for another year. Holidays and festivals are nothing new, but they seem to have shifted to something different than what they once were. They used to be about marking the seasons, celebrating harvests and enjoying fruit that is here now, at this moment, but will be gone in a month or two. When we were children, part of the appeal of cherry season, was that it did not last all year. It was like Christmas. We enjoyed it while we could.

After passing the cherry trees, I walked by the abundant garden; as generous as my grandmother. Its edges overflowed with too much food to stay, too much food to eat, too much food to cook and often too much food to give away. I heard many an argument between my grandmother and my mother, over the subject of zucchinis. My grandmother would always be telling my parents they had to take some zucchinis. My mother would explain that we had zucchini plants and already more than enough for our use. My grandmother would say that even though we had zucchinis, we probably needed more. My grandmother always thought that people should have more.

The old cliché says ‘as happy as a child in a candy store’. Children in candy stores have no idea what true happiness is. For nothing beats the happiness of a child in a vegetable garden, where the tomatoes are eaten straight from the vine, the peas are eaten straight from the pod, the strawberries come with dirt attached and you can pick vegetables and take them to your grandmother, who will cook them into something you will eat that night.

Next I would walk along the path and pass the shed, where you pulled lights on with a cord, not a switch, and that always smelled of potatoes, onions, dirt and tools. It sounds uninviting, but I thought of it was a welcoming place. This was where my grandmother kept the jars for her pickles and canning. This was where she cooked potato pancakes, though I never quite figured out why. It was often dusty and messy and unsorted. But it felt real, like a place that never pretended to be anything other than what it was. I have never been to the Ukraine. As a child I used to picture it as a big place, filled with red and black squares, colourful easter eggs, religious icons and women in scarves. And underneath the overpowering smell of cabbage and onion cooking, I would always imagine the faint scent of that shed.

Finally I was at the chickens. If no eggs were there, I felt deflated, despite the fact that I had probably checked for them less than hour beforehand. If there was one, I was as happy as pampushky swimming in sugar. I wanted to run back to my grandmother and show her my find. But an egg was precious. It had value. So I would walk, carefully and deliberately back to the house, watching that egg the whole way.

My grandmother liked to cook big meals. She had to give people food, and lots of it. It was part of who she was. To live, to love, was to feed.

Each mealtime involved a variety of dishes, filling up the entire dining room table and usually spilling out into the kitchen. Often we thought we had finished the meal, only to find there was another five or so dishes to go. Cabbage rolls, varenyky, stuffed peppers, salted herrings. Preceding it all was always soup, whether it was winter or summer. Often the soup was chicken noodle, but not always. My favourite soup was Borscht. The soup I could not stand was pea. My mother and aunt used to tell me that it was Incredible Hulk soup. That may have impressed my boy cousins, but it failed to work for me. Then there were the times when soup was a big bowl of mystery that seemed more like a dare than an entrée.

As well as the obligatory soup, all meals came with the constant refrain of ‘eat, eat’, or in Ukrainian ‘yisti, yisti’. I only ever learned a tiny bit of Ukrainian. Most of it is forgotten now. The word for ‘eat’, however, will be with me always. Even my children know it. If we refused to try a specific dish, she told us to eat. If we had space left on our plate, she told us to eat. If there was food left on the table, she told us to eat. If we did not have a fork on its way from our plate to our mouth, she told us to eat. If we had eaten more than we had eaten in the previous week, she told us to eat. Yisti, Yisti, Yisti, Yisti.

The biggest meals were at Christmas Eve and Easter. Each one was started with food that we had to eat, whether we liked it or not. Easter was not a problem at all. The beginning dish, the one we had to eat, was eggs from the basket of food that had been blessed by the priest. I never thought to ask if any of the eggs I collected were ever blessed. It seems likely. After the eggs, we had a bread called Paska with real butter that had cloves inserted into it in the shape of a cross. There was also cold meats, cheese and lots of other delicious foods. Everybody liked Easter.

Christmas Eve did not have the same universal appeal. First of all, we started our meal with a dish made of poppy seeds called kutia. A couple of my cousins did not like this at all. As they had to eat at least some, they would put the smallest amount possible on their plate. Following this, there was a vegetarian meal, including many dishes that were not that popular with us kids. Even though I love most of my grandmother’s meals now, there were times when I would have dearly loved to trade them in for some KFC – or Kentucky, as we called it then. Another tradition we followed at Christmas Eve was to set a plate aside for the people who had died, with pictures of them next to it. A little of each dish was placed on that plate. Sometimes I half expected my grandmother to tell those deceased relatives to ‘yiste, yiste’. 

The only argument I have ever had with my grandmother was over food. Her house is not that far from mine. When the children were young, she often walked past and every time she did she would knock the table and give them something to eat. A bowl of donuts, twisted pastries or sometimes chocolates or biscuits. I did not want my children eating such unhealthy food all the time, so I asked her not to bring them so much. So then, instead of knocking on the door, she took to standing on the footpath and calling until they looked through the window. When they saw her, she would beckon them to come outside, where she would give them food away from my eyes.

As soon as I discovered what she was doing, I told her to stop it. I got angry. She got angry. In the end, she refused to speak to me. Eventually I ended up apologising, even though I knew I was in the right. Or at least I thought I was. Though it was probably more a case where neither one of us understood the other.

Another reason why I did not want my grandmother giving my boys food all the time was because I did not want them to see her only as a source of treats. I wanted them to love her for herself, not what she would give them. I thought that food and love should be kept completely separate. It never occurred to me that maybe my grandmother did not see things the same way.

For most of my life, I had simply accepted that my grandmother liked to feed people. I never thought to ask why she did this. I never wondered if she had good reasons for it. If anything, I thought it was more a fault than anything else. Sure, it was good to feed people. But so much? And so often? And with such unhealthy food?

Revelations can come from the unlikeliest sources. Mine came when I was watching Masterchef. Julie was explaining to the judges her reasons for cooking. She said that, through her food, she wanted people to feel nurtured and loved. It seemed apparent that, to Julie, feeding people was a way of loving them. Suddenly I began to understand my grandmother a little better.

My grandmother did not grow a lot of vegetables and give most of them away just because she liked gardening. She did not provide us with huge meals, which she would tell us to eat and eat and eat some more, just because she liked cooking. And she certainly did not buy my boys treats just because she wanted to annoy me. She did these things because it was her way of loving us.

Food is not just food to my grandmother. It is precious. It has value. Even when it’s not done in a church by a priest, it is blessed. To feed someone is not to keep them from starvation. To feed someone is to give them something precious. It is a loving thing to do. Food and love are not separate for my grandmother, as they are for me. Instead, they are connected.

Once when my grandmother was visiting, I made the offhand comment that one of my favourite foods was her potato pancakes. Later that day, she came around with a dinner plate piled so high with potato pancakes that its height was larger than its width. It was the last time I ever had my grandmother’s potato pancakes. It was the last time I will ever have them.

I never thought I would ever say this, but I wish I had eaten more at my grandmother’s table, paid more heed to her constant refrain or ‘yisti, yisti’, For I did not realise that Paska, cabbage rolls, stuffed peppers, potato pancakes and varenyky would not be around forever. I can now have Kentucky any time I want to, not that I want to very often. It’s not so easy to go to the food court and eat some cabbage rolls. If I had just one of those old dishes, I would be as happy as -- well, as happy as a child in a vegetable garden.

Earlier this year, I attended a multicultural food festival. I looked everywhere for Ukrainian food, for something that my grandmother used to make. I could find nothing. I can’t even remember what I ended up eating now. I know I was not impressed. Perhaps it was for the best. My sister tells me that when she visited the Ukraine, the cabbage rolls were not nearly as good as our grandmothers. It surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. Even if the cabbage rolls were made in the exact same way as my grandmother, they would be missing an essential ingredient. I know it’s a cliché, but they would be missing love.

I have tried to make my own Ukrainian food. I have made varenyky that fell apart, and cabbage rolls that never came together in the first place. I had better luck with potato pancakes. They tasted quite nice, but they weren’t like my grandmothers’. I think they were missing the required amount of fat. Nobody cooks like my grandmother anymore. The health professionals tell us not to. Strange, though, that my grandmother ate like that all her life and she lived to over 90.

Last week, I bought my sons and myself some scones from Baker’s Delight. There was a chocolate scone, a chocolate coconut scone and a banana choc-chip scone and we all had a different one each. I gave some of my chocolate coconut scone to each of my boys so that they could try it. Then my youngest son tried to give me some of his banana choc-chip scone. A banana choc-chip scone did not sound too tempting to me, so I told him I did not want it. ‘Take it’, he said. ‘Eat it.’ I told him again that I did not want it. He told me again to eat it. Eventually I relented and took the scone he offered. As soon as it was in my mouth, he said, ‘I’m just like Grandma, aren’t I?’

I had never thought of it before, but he is just like my grandmother. He loves to share food. If I buy him a chocolate bar, there’s a good chance he’ll give me at least some of it back. Whenever he has a packet of chips, he is always handing them out to people. If he has a piece of cake, some of it will end up on someone else’s plate. When he buys a treat with his pocket money, he’ll buy something for his brother to eat as well. He loves to give food to people. Perhaps, like my grandmother, food and love are connected for him.

I hope so. Even though I may no longer eat the food my grandmother used to cook, there is a chance that I may see her legacy in the way my son loves through feeding. And who knows? Maybe one day he may even learn to make varenyky.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Seasons (of life and nature)

Every Christmas and Easter, I feel like the seasons are all wrong. They're right for Australia of course. And I have never had any other experience than Christmas happening in Summer and Easter happening in Autumn. But they're wrong in terms of the Christian year. When Christmas is celebrated in the middle of winter, the birth of Christ into a world of darkness resonates with the coldness and the darkness that people are experiencing. When Easter is celebrated in Spring, the new life that people see around them remind them of the new life that Christ's resurrection brings. I feel that in Australia we miss out on a lot of those connections to the seasons - and therefore to nature. The Christian days that we celebrate are divorced from the world around us.

Last Christmas, I gave my boys a raised vegetable garden. As we walked off to the nursery to buy plants, they were telling me about all the vegetables they wanted to grow. I had to explain to them that there are certain seasons for growing certain vegetables. Just because we can buy carrots all year round in the supermarket doesn't mean we can grow them in the backyard. To a certain extent, we do notice the season as we buy our fruit and veggies. Summer is the time for buying mangoes, for instance. However, the fact that we can buy certain foods all year round again disconnects us from nature and the world around us.

We do still have lots of reminders of what season it is. Even if I didn't know the date and had no idea what season I was in, I would still know it was summer because the air-conditioner is out rather than the heater, I have been watching cricket, the mangoes are cheap in the supermarket and I am buying back-to-school items for my boys.

However, despite these things that tell me it is summer, our world seems to becoming more and more disconnected from the seasons. For anyone who works in an air-conditioned office and drives there in an air-conditioned car, the temperature of their surroundings for most of the time will stay almost the same the whole year around. If we want to (and I'm sure many people do) we can eat the same food the whole year around.

The impact of the weather can hardly affect some people. If it's raining, they dry their clothes inside. If it's blistering heat, they sit in their air-conditioned houses. While the drought in Australia may have caused water restrictions, we still knew we could get water every time we turned on the tap. It's only if there's some extreme weather event that either impacts us directly or indirectly that we take any notice of the weather at all.

When Europeans first came to Australia, some of them looked at the Australian native trees that keep their greenery all year around and complained that there were no seasons. While the Australian landscape has since become loved by many (including myself) I wonder whether that differentiation between the seasons is important and whether we are diminishing it ourselves? Or is it the case that Australians actually have less need for difference between seasons anyway? Our topsy-turvy Christian celebrations and our evergreen trees mean we don't need the same amount of difference that perhaps people in other countries do.

As well as thinking about seasons of the year, I have also been thinking of seasons of our lives. I am not just buying back-to-school items at the moment. I am buying start of high school items. My eldest boy has finished his season of primary school and is beginning his season of high school. This brings with it both joy and sadness. Every mother knows that feeling of wanting to keep your children young forever. And yet, relating it to the seasons, I know that, while the blossoms on a cherry tree may be very pretty, they need to disappear before the cherries arrive. And a cherry tree's purpose after all is to provide fruit not pretty flowers.

In sharp contrast to this moving from spring to summer is the winter I see in my grandmother's eyes. She recently had a massive heart attack. She is getting better and has been moved from the high dependency unit. However, I know that she is old. Even if she does go home, she will not live forever. Visiting her in the hospital, I was reminded of the beauty of a deciduous tree in winter - the type of tree the first European Australians pined for, I suppose. Though all its leaves have gone, it has a splendour and an elegance not found when it is filled with blossoms or laden with fruit or losing its multi-coloured leaves.

Just as we recognise the beauty in these winter trees, we must recognise the beauty in people nearing the end of their life. It is a season, that is all. And as a season, it has its purpose and a place along with all the other seasons. We must not be so focused on summer that we forget to notice the beauty in winter as well.

If summer is the time of youth, vigour, fruitfulness and productiveness, then we as a society seem to want to prolong summer for as long as possible. The music videos, clothes and tween marketing encourage little children to grow up too fast. The beauty treatments, hair dyes and wrinkle creams try to convince people in their autumn years to recover the summer of their youth.

Gardens could not survive if it was always summer. And why would we want them too. Yes, summer is a fantastic time of year. But so is Spring and Autumn and Winter. I want them all. I don't want to trade in three seasons just to have one. There is so much I would miss. Whenever people ask me what my favourite season is, I say the beginning of every season. I don't have a favourite. Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, they all have their good points. But that beginning of every new season, when you know things are about to change and you'll experience things that haven't been experienced for a year, that is simply wonderful. Summer all year-round, I can't think of anything worse.

I wonder whether it is our growing disconnect from the seasons that makes us hold up the summer of our lives as some kind of ideal. Have we become so disconnected from them that we fail to appreciate the importance of seasons in our own lives? Can we no longer recognise the beauty and the splendour of every season that we live through?

My grandmother has always been a gardener. Maybe that's why she continued to have beauty and grace even after a massive heart attack, lying in bed with many machines attached to her. Maybe that is why, despite being unable to talk, her eyes shone brightly as my son sat next to her and spoke. She understands the importance of seasons. She knows that she is in one and my son is in another. And both of those seasons are important. They both have value and beauty. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

The problem with New Years' resolutions

By now, at least some people will have already broken their New Years' resolutions. I'm not criticising. I haven't even started mine yet. They're not written down anywhere, but I know what they are. It's easy to remember them when they're the same every year. Quit smoking, lose weight and do something with the house. In my defence, I will say that there used to be another one added to the list, which was go to university. I've actually started that now. And I have lost some weight at the end of last year. I just haven't taken my diet off holiday yet. I also have tiles to re-tile the bathroom and was going to do that after Christmas, but got sick and my plans had to be changed.

What is it about New Years' resolutions? We make them. We break them. We make them again next year. Or is that just me? And do these types of resolutions actually help or prevent us to make lasting change?

I'm now going through the backlog of emails from Christmas/New Year. And I've noticed a common thread. Many of the environmental newsletters I'm subscribed to are urging people to make Green resolutions. It makes sense. It's the time of year for it. And one thing we need to do, in order to look after this Earth, is change the way we live. So why not use this time of year to make those changes in how we live?

That's all well and good if we actually made our resolutions, changed our lives and never looked back again. But New Years' resolutions are well-known for being broken. We may change for a small amount of time. But often we go back to living exactly as we did before.

I'm no psychologist, so I have no idea why New Years' resolutions often fail. I wish I did. Maybe then I could actually quit smoking, instead of putting it on my list every year. But I suspect that partly it's to do with the fact that New Years' resolution are all about the external. When what we really need to do is to change our heart. A different way of living needs to come from inside. It starts with a different way of seeing and thinking.

And I think that sometimes the New Years' resolutions we make can get in the way of that change of heart. We've made our list. We tried and failed. What else can we do? They can almost become evidence for why we cannot make the changes we think we ought to make.

Quitting smoking is different to making our lives more environmentally-friendly. For one, smoking is an addiction. However, I wonder whether it is that different after all. While our lifestyles may not have physical addiction involved, we are addicted in one sense to our environmentally-destructive lifestyles. So maybe what I have to say about smoking is more relevant than it first appears.

I know I have to quit smoking. That's why it keeps getting on my list of New Years' resolutions. That's why I keep trying to quit. But part of me thinks I can't quit. And every time I try and fail, this idea that I just can't quit is confirmed. I can feel good in a way that I am trying. But I'm not actually changing anything - because I believe that it's just too hard for me. Trying and failing and trying and failing gives me the assurance that at least I am trying, but it doesn't actually change anything.

In terms of the environment, we need to stop making resolutions that we will use less plastic bags and drive less and switch off lights. We need to change our hearts. And we need to break the addiction to our current lifestyles. Because otherwise, we're all just going to keep trying and failing and trying and failing and never really change. In my case, if I continue to smoke, I'm damaging my body. In the case of our lifestyles, if we don't break our addictions, we're damaging the Earth.

New Years' resolutions can be good. While I may still have the same list every year, at least I know what I’m aiming for. And as I said before, I have done at least something about what's on my list. Also, making the types of external changes that are on New Years' resolutions list often can help us change our hearts.

But we need to realise that making a list is not enough. And we need to realise that what we try and do for four days or a week or a month or whatever is not nearly as important as our attitudes, our beliefs and our thoughts. For they will create lasting change, not change that needs to be aimed again for next year.