Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Are you left-brained or right-brained?

Or do you simply enjoy any linty navel-gazing activity that provides an excuse to push work aside for a bit longer?

Whichever – here are thirty seconds of unbridled fun plus fodder for next time the office herd gathers at the water cooler.

Click on the dancer below. She will transport you to a place of dizzying delights.

All you have to decide is whether she is spinning clockwise or anti-clockwise.

This will, erm, determine which side of the brain you prefer to sit on.

For some people, she will appear to alternate between spinning modes. Don’t worry – there are folks who can help you with this.

Go ahead – click to spin!


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For many years, I was anti-naps.

Not just mildly against. Vehemently opposed.

People who napped were wasting their lives away.

“Why waste normal waking hours being unconscious?” I would wonder.

Then, I had something of an epiphany.

Or, to use the exact scientific terminology, I dozed off a couple of times after dinner. For about twenty minutes.

The next day, I felt great: No grey fog of a morning. No mid-afternoon yawning marathons.

It was a bolt of enlightenment. Like a fully wakeful myoclonic jerk in the brain.

Next, I began to notice that sleep was all the rage. Sleep, it seems, is the new wonder drug.

cat nap 4

For a start, that midday nap appears to reduce heart disease. From this BBC article:

“A six-year Greek study found that those who took a 30-minute siesta at least three times a week had a 37% lower risk of heart-related death.”

Sleeping longer can also make you slim. Sleeping for just five hours a night gives you a 50% greater chance of being obese.

Only six hours of kip still ups your chances of a thickening waistline by 23%.

This is unrelated to exercise levels, gender, alcohol, or depression. However, chances are it also correlates massively with an extra two hours of wakeful sedentary snack fests.

cat nap

As well as keeping your vital signs active within the body beautiful, sleep also makes you smarter. Anecdotally, we are all aware that a long drool into a pillow can seemingly turn us into mental giants, but science is fully on board with this argument.

Research at a German university shows that we do indeed figure stuff out while sleeping.

“The volunteers were shown a number puzzle in which was embedded a ‘hidden code’ revealing the answer, the journal Nature reports. Those kept awake overnight reportedly had far less chance of solving it.”

Presumably, this means that sleeping on the job will now incur generous bonus payments, rather than carry a work-shy stigma.

“Hey, George has nodded off in his soup again. Must be working on that new strategic development. I’m gonna recommend him for another corporate commitment award.”

“Yeah, that guy really puts the mental effort in. Sure puts us alert, wakeful types to shame.”

cat nap 3

Sleep also keeps us from reverting to our more anti-social proclivities. This is noted by Dr. Melissa Clouthier, citing Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who states that sleep deprivation creates a state of mind “as if the brain is reverting to more primitive behavior.”

Naturally, for kids, diverging from normal sleep patterns can have profound effects.

A survey, cited in New York magazine, of 7,000 Minnesota high-school students found the following:

“Teens who received A’s averaged about fifteen more minutes sleep than the B students, who in turn averaged eleven more minutes than the C’s, and the C’s had ten more minutes than the D’s.”

And, surprise surprise, kids who start high school at 07:30 achieve far lower grades than those starting at 08:30. After making such a switch, one high school found massively improved SAT results among their top-achieving students.

cat nap 2

Here, in Canada, political and educational movers and shakers were cackling manically in their slumber.

“Just think,” they dreamed. “If that’s the effect of starting at 08:30, just imagine what political mileage we can gain by keeping them in bed all morning.”

To capitalize on this meaningless grade boosting learning opportunity, one Toronto school plans to start classes as late as 11:30.

Hah, before you know it, they’ll be letting kids show up whenever their smart sleeping schedules deem it optimal for their pedagogical needs.

Hang on a second, what’s this from England? A 24-hour school? And Australia.

Naturally, the blogosphere is fully conscious of the properties of sleep. Blue Soup , Dark Sociologist , and Work at Home Mom Revolution are clearly attuned to the need for productive slumber.

Now, as we trudge up the stairs towards zedtime, many of us will be turning to the Bard for a spot of light soporific reading.

Here’s one Shakespeare quotation on the getting-stuff-sorted-outability of sleep (but put a bit better):

“…the innocent sleep, / Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,”

Goodnight and sweet dreams.

wap nap


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Going for a goal goal

It’s time for a new challenge.

But where to find one? Of course, there are countless lists of things to do before you hit 30, 40, 60, or the big snooze button.

Sadly, these are often lists of how to rack up mountains of debt in a short period of time: Go on a world cruise, watch the World Cup final, buy a Scottish castle…

Or they comprise lame attempts to be outrageous: Get drunk on absinthe, set off a fire extinguisher, drive at more than 200 km/h…

Not really what I have in mind.

But why the need for a challenge?

Well, I’ve got used to having a long-term goal as part of my life.

The latest bout of must-have-a-goaldom began in 2003. I’d just started running again after a year’s recuperation from a disc injury. I promised myself I’d run a marathon the following year.

After building up the mileage for twelve months, I started the full training programme on January 1st, 2004. I found the book “Marathoning for Mortals” a tremendous inspiration.

Two lines in particular have stuck in my mind:

“In the end, it all comes down to a single final step.”

“There comes a moment when you know that you will finish.”

I know there are thousands of similar quotes, but these two, like the best ones, hit the right spot at the right time. I taped them above my desk.

I ran my first marathon in May 2004. It was a stunningly beautiful spring day.

hurtling to the finish line

The most poignant moment was indeed the moment when I knew that I would finish. This was about 2km from the finish line when I could hear the announcements drifting, with erratic volume, over a rippling blue Lake Ontario.

The moment I finished the 42km race, I vowed I’d run another. I didn’t want to be someone who said they’d never do it again. 

Five months later, in driving Toronto rain just a few degrees above freezing, I ran my second marathon. Better prepared, I beat my previous time by thirty minutes.

anyone got a spare foil blanket?

Someday, I’ll write more about these races.

Following this physical challenge, it seemed right to go for a change of focus.

A master’s degree beckoned. For various reasons, I had hoped to avoid this return to academia, but the circumstances seemed right.

So, I enrolled at a university back in the UK, and spent the next two and a half years completing this distance learning course.

The final results have just come through. This, I hope, will be the last of the major qualifications relating to teaching/education that I undertake.

Taking a short digression from self-deprecatory, be-hairshirted, blowing-up-of one’s-own-trumpet Britishness, my teaching “credentials” now include:

* PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education) – the British secondary school teaching qualification, which allows me to teach French and German to kids aged 11-18. I am very very unlikely ever to need this piece of paper for any practical purpose.

* DELTA (University of Cambridge Diploma in English Language Teaching to Adults) – a course for experienced teachers that has rigorous practical and theoretical components. If you have this piece of paper, employers know that you have the nous to cut it in the classroom. When you put your mind to it.

* MA TESOL (Master of Arts degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) – this says nothing about my teaching ability, but proves that I can knock out a mean research dissertation on task-based learning. If any of you have insomnia issues, I might be able to help…

“Ah but this blog is soporific enough, thank you very much, Mr. Wapentake.”

OK, OK, let’s get back to the goal goal.

I’ve gone from a physical to an academic challenge. Now, I have to come up with the next venture.

I like my goals to require a bit of concerted effort and to have a definite ending.

Suggestions anyone?


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Moaning markers

Before I start this uncharitable rant, let me list a few of my personal commandments. They include the following:

1. I will not consume sugary snacks before lunch (reckless abandon thenceforth [sic] is freely permitted).

2. I refuse to accept that pants is an giggle-free synonym of trousers.


Followed by another hundred or so articles of similar gravity and moral rectitude.

Most tenets of my personal faith may be broken at will by the rest of the world’s population, with the exception of number three. Plus a few dozen others.

Having said that, transgressions of THE MARKING SIN by novice teachers are begrudgingly allowed. With experience enlightenment will come unbidden. One hopes.

For seasoned classroom practitioners, however, breaches of THE MARKING SIN are allowable only on rare occasions of extreme marking stress.

Such as when end-of-term exams clash with the World Cup. Hypocrite lectureur? [sic again] Moi?

At work, we currently have a wanton serial sinner in our midst.

I put her first two excessive marking mentions down to carelessness on her behalf – minor social gaffes that anyone could make.

I tarred and feathered forgave and blessed her accordingly.

But a worrying pattern emerged. The slightest effort at social pleasantries on my part would be met by graphic depictions of hardcore marking sessions.

For example, this Monday morning’s exchange went something like this:

Me: Morning, how are you?

Manic Marker: Surviving.

Me: How was your weekend?

Manic marker: Well, I just spent two whole days in this corner, marking essays and homework.

Me: May I point out that your comments are a flagrant contravention of Tenet Three as decreed by The Way I Reckon We Should Go About Doing Stuff?

My actual response (reaching in my locked drawer for my dolls and stick pins): That’s too bad.

After this episode, I wonder if I can trust myself to engage in social niceties with someone who sees the most inocuous social intercourse as an opportunity for flagrant oneupmanship (Oneuppersonship? Oneupism? Oneupness? Sanctimonious bollocks).

But in the spirit of pedagogic togetherness, I would like to offer this advice to any experienced teachers and professors who are teetering on the brink of casually mentioning how singularly burdened with marking they are:

* You probably are not.

* Other educators do not want to know.

* You need time management skills.

* You don’t fool me.

* You should give more focussed feedback.

* You are overburdening your students with excessive feedback.

* You are much missed by your friends and family.

* And your thirty six cats.

* You will not look back on your life wishing you had devoted more weekends to marking.

* On second thoughts, people like you just might.

* You may find yourself the target of one of my notorious Saturday blog rants.

It’s not too late to change. Career, even.

Think on.

Mark my words. 

Must go now. I have absolutely piles of, you know, stuff to do.


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With temperatures hitting 32 degrees Centigrade in southern Ontario this week, the build-up to the provincial election in two weeks is heating up.

Provincial election campaigns are often dull affairs as the main parties stir up fiscal swirls and ripples in the tax/services continuum.

However, this time around, Conservative leader John Tory has chucked an incendiary pledge into his party platform.

The promise that an elected Conservative government would fund faith-based schools in Ontario has got the province talking.

At present, Ontario funds the regular public system and the so-called “separate” Catholic system.

Current debate centres on three main arguments, which roughly break down as:

i) Fund all approved schools across the faith spectrum

ii) Maintain the status quo (i.e. “we’ll leave this sticky mess to posterity.”)

iii) Fund no faith-based schools at all

Several years ago, the United Nations declared the current system of funding “discriminatory” and gave Canada 90 days to get its house in order. The Ontario leader of the time, Conservative Mike Harris, ignored the UN’s request.

Critics of John Tory see this pledge as an ill-disguised vote grab. Chances are that the promise will lose the party a few voters, but could net boatloads of immigrant votes, who may harbour various concerns about the current public system.

Defenders of John Tory cite terms like “inclusiveness” and “freedom of choice.”

Parents on all sides have stated that they should have the right to choose how their tax dollars fund their children’s religious or secular education.

However, bringing your own kids into this argument ignores one vital issue.

Namely, people without children also pay taxes. And everyone has a stake in the education of our future generations.

For me, my gut reaction is that state-sponsored segregation of children along faith-based lines is not a recipe for future societal stability.

John Tory has spoken idealistically of students from different faiths meeting periodically on sports fields, where they would learn about each other’s beliefs in a less formal setting.

Somewhat less idealistically, I think they might learn a lot more about how separation can give rise to breeding grounds for ignorance and intolerance.

Our kids currently attend schools in a secular society, where they mix, on a daily basis, with children of many religious and non-religious backgrounds.

For me, it is this daily interaction that fosters understanding, denies uninformed prejudice, and promotes the inclusive values Canada claims to embody.


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“Mrs. Smith, can I go to the bathroom, please?”

“I don’t know. Can you?”

May I go to the bathroom, please?

My son told me that this exchange took place regularly in his class last year. Many of us will have experienced something similar.

The teacher concerned probably responded on auto-pilot without really analyzing the language involved.

I suspect that after work she sometimes goes to the local Tim Horton’s and says:

“Can I get a toasted wholewheat bagel with plain cream cheese? And can I get a coffee – medium double double?”

I also suspect that the teacher wouldn’t like to hear this response:

“I dunno. I reckon your arms might not be long enough to reach this side of the counter.”

The point, of course, is that Can I is now a perfectly acceptable method of making a request. Almost all current grammar books will indicate this.

When my son told me about the bathroom conversation, this put me in a dilemma. I want my kids to trust their teachers. I also want them to have a coherent view of how language operates.

I explained that some people hold different views about what is grammatically acceptable. I know that this put doubt in my son’s mind about whom he can trust to give him correct information, but there you go. He also learned (or learnt if you prefer) that language use is complicated.

Correcting grammar that is already correct is definitely going too far, but correcting genuine grammatical errors can also become an obsession.

The internet is full of errors. Often, these are mistakes with its/it’s or there/their/they’re. Almost everyone slips up here from time to time, even though they might be fully aware of the rules. Some of us are busy and can’t type that well.

I know correct grammar is essential in many situations: Giving technical directions, explaining medical procedures, and documenting legal information are just three instances. See Le mariage de Figaro by Beaumarchais for a literary legal example.

However, there are many occasions when interventions by the grammar police are less justifiable. These include informal posts on message boards, hastily typed email messages, and instant messaging.

Corrections by the grammar police often include attacks on falling standards, unwanted trends, or any form of change. Superciliousness creeps in as well.

My basic view of language is as follows.

We use language for three key reasons: To give information, to get information, and to entertain.

At the heart of each reason is the desire to communicate effectively.

This driving force compels us to seek out appropriate language forms at our disposal.

Sometimes, people don’t care if they are making errors. They just want to communicate effectively.

Almost all of us break grammatical rules when we engage in conversation. In fact, normal interaction demands it. We reformulate sentences at mid-point if we see that our listeners are not following. We interupt others with bits of sentences and half-formed expressions. This is normal. It’s how we negotiate meaning.

If you don’t believe this, try recording and transcribing some of your informal chats throughout the day.

Technology has blurred the distinction between speaking and writing in areas such as instant messaging. Many people are now more tolerant of errors in this type of communication.

But not everyone.

I think correct grammar should be a flexible interpretation of generally acceptable usage, rather than a prescriptive set of rules carved in stone. Certain situations demand a certain level of clarity and unambiguity. Others don’t. Here, we can try to figure out what the person means. Or we can just ask them to make sure.

People (not grammarians) will always shape language according to need.

As usual, language is changing. And I’m loving it. 😉


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Six of the best

I’ll be heading back into a classroom soon. Luckily, it will be filled with adults not adolescents. Here are six of my favourite memories about teachers from my secondary school days around the start of the eighties.

Teacher names have been changed to protect the guilty (students).

1. Mr. Gray was an aging history teacher with a face of pure resignation. We had blackboards and chalk at school.

Before every class, someone would hide Mr. Gray’s board cleaner. At some point in the lesson, Mr Gray would need to clean the blackboard. Without dropping a syllable of his lecture, he would search under tables, on top of cupboards, and deep in wastebaskets until the article was found. Not once did he admonish the class. A legend.

2. Miss Chester was an exceptionally ugly teacher of French and German. She had greasy hair, a long nose, pock-marked skin, and a sense of humour deficiency. However, Miss Chester was a selfless model of dedication. In a vain effort to improve our chances in a German exam, she taught for an extra hour on Mondays.

There was lots of repetitive learning. For some reason, our textbook was obsessed with the German word for ugly, which is hässlich. Its feminine form is pronounced something like “hesslicker”. Miss Chester would set us the impossible task of repeating die hässliche Frau five times.

She would eye us reproachfully from the top of her ski-slope nose and send my friend and me into helpless convulsions of silent laughter. Coherent speech was next to impossible. I am not proud of this memory.

3. Mr. Henry was a worldly and unforgiving science teacher. One day, he was attempting to lecture us on sex hormones.

“So the female sex hormone is called oestrogen. Does anyone know what the male sex hormone is called?”

My friend leaned over and loudly whispered, “westrogen” in my ear. I think that kept us in stitches for the rest of the class, if not the whole term. 

4. Teachers were often famous for their preferred method of corporal punishment.

Our French teacher was known as Crowpeck. He would make a fist with his right hand, but also make the central knuckle protrude like a spike in a medieval weapon. Then, he would creep up behind an unsuspecting chatterer and bring the knuckle down hard on top of the skull. It was incredibly painful.

5. Mr. Millbank was a body-building metalwork teacher. He was very proud of his red sports car, which was the only vehicle in the teachers’ car park of any significance. Or rather, it would have been, except that Mr Millbank preferred to park his car within the school building itself.

In the morning, he would drive it through the garage-type workshop doors and park it by his workbench. His excuse was that he might have to tinker with a couple of wingnuts in his lunchbreak.

I suspect Mr. Millbank was not welcomed at the other teachers’ lunchroom tables.  

6. Mr. Rockwood was a something of an ascetic. He wore the same stained brown suit day after day. It was creased and had long since given up on its ‘cut.’ Mr. Rockwood was not a bad-tempered teacher, but he kept a solitary running shoe on his desk. When someone failed to pay attention, he would launch the shoe at the miscreant’s head.

One day, the target student managed to duck the fungal missile. The heel thwacked against the left cheek of Amanda, who was a sweet soul of diligent pupildom. Running shoe launches were rare events after that.

Any memories to share?


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