Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Another Novel Recommendation

I've been doing a fair bit of reading lately. If you enjoy fiction, please take a look at my review of Before I Wake by Robert J. Wiersema on my other blog.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Novel Recommendation

For those who enjoy fiction, I've posted a review of the novel Restless, by William Boyd, on my other blog.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

An Emblem of Indifference

Perhaps more than any other time in the past, I have been thinking a great deal about the developing world lately. That is partly due, I suspect, from my involvement as a volunteer editor for, a group that promotes microfinance projects. My thoughts have lately turned to the issue of using corn as a biofuel, and after reading an article in The Independent, I am convinced that there can be no stronger symbol of the Western world’s indifference to poorer nations than corn as a substitute for oil. Recent research shows that it does not reduce carbon emissions, but perhaps more disturbingly, food -scarce nations in Africa, in their rush to become the green version of OPEC, are forcing their citizens into starvation.

But the truth is not quite that simple, is it? Where do we stand on the issue? Are we, as citizens of the West, not choosing the continuation of our own lifestyles and conveniences over the very lives of people in far off lands?

I hope you will read The Independent article.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Shedding Some Light on the Mentality of the Toronto District School Board

Today’s Globe and Mail has a story that illustrates the culture of secrecy of the Toronto District School Board and apparent consequences for breaching that secrecy. The bolded parts are sections I found of particular interest.

Demoted vice-principal sues school board
From Thursday's Globe and Mail
February 7, 2008 at 4:21 AM EST

A former vice-principal of a Toronto elementary school is going to court today seeking remedy for what he claims were failures by the school board and Ontario College of Teachers to act on alleged threats and aggressive behaviour by the school's former principal.

Gary Pieters, now vice-principal at Carleton Village Public School, also states in court documents that he was demoted and penalized for reporting his allegations.

The documents filed with the court detail alleged misconduct between June, 2005, and February, 2006, by Gordon Kingsmill, then principal of the Shoreham Public School in the Jane-Finch area.

Mr. Kingsmill's lawyer, Sarah Colman, told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Kingsmill denies all allegations and that he was already cleared by two investigations.
The accusations include uttering a death threat against a teacher, pushing a Grade 2 student into a chair, expressing a desire to kick another Grade 2 student and threatening to burn a complaint against a teacher prepared by a Grade 5 student.
Mr. Pieters, who had been Mr. Kingsmill's vice-principal at Shoreham, states in an affidavit that he exhausted all internal complaint processes at the Toronto District School Board.

He then appealed to the Ontario College of Teachers, requesting that they submit his complaints to the discipline committee. The College of Teachers rejected the request. Mr. Kingsmill is presently principal at Agincourt Junior Public School.

Ms. Colman said in an interview that "Mr. Kingsmill has been through two thorough investigations," and that both "have determined that Mr. Pieters' allegations are without merit."

Ms. Colman also said that Mr. Pieters "did not witness directly many of the incidents he alleges occurred." The factum filed with the court details Mr. Pieters's presence at only two incidents.

Spokespeople for the school board and College of Teachers both declined comment because the matter is before the courts.

Mr. Pieters alleges in the court documents that he "faced retaliatory actions for blowing the whistle and consequences up to and including a Letter of Record in his personnel file, home assignment without duties, and a partial demotion" from full vice-principal to part-time status combined with duties as an ESL teacher, for which he is not certified.

The request for a judicial review comes less than a month after publication of a report on school safety, chiefly written by lawyer Julian Falconer, claimed that a culture of silence in the city's public schools led staff to avoid reporting misconduct for fear of repercussions.

Mr. Pieters's submissions to the court also complain that the College of Teachers relied "on a materially flawed and procedurally unfair" report by a school board investigator, and that the college investigator failed to review evidence.
But Ms. Colman said the board investigator was "an independent third party," and the College of Teachers "spent months investigating the allegations and interviewing witnesses."

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Very Effective Free Anti-Virus Program

A friend of mine recently put me on to a free anti-virus program that seems to be working very well thus far. It's called AVG. If interested, check it out at

Saturday, February 2, 2008

An Article That Speaks Real Truth

I would doubt very much that there are many teachers who believe we can solve the problems of society, yet that is exactly what society expects us to do. Not only are we supposed to educate, we are also supposed to adjudicate, intervene, and remedy problems arising from behaviour, socio-economic differences, indifferent or abusive families, etc. ad nauseam. The problem is that the policy makers, our education masters, have never had the political will to force people to face reality as to our limited ability to bring about heaven on earth. In today’s Globe and Mail, Jeffrey Simpson has written an insightful article about this that contains much truth. I am reprinting it below.

Memo to Toronto school board: Are you nuts?

February 2, 2008

TORONTO -- Public schools are supposed to be places for teaching and learning, but society often hands them other burdens for which they are poorly equipped.
Society dumps social problems on schools, and expects schools to solve them. Society defines certain social objectives, usually quite loosely, and expects schools to meet them.

Teachers attend teachers' college to learn the subject areas they will teach, and how they will teach it. We give them accreditation as people who can instruct young people in whatever the curriculum requires, not as social workers, psychologists or policy analysts.

Once in school, however, teachers sometimes find too many students aren't ready to learn, for reasons far beyond the teachers' control. Kids are hungry, angry, addicted to television or video games, beset by learning disabilities, socially ill-fitted, experiencing growing pains, violent, whatever. Schools are expected to cope.

Then teachers are told, by parents or education bureaucrats or whomever, that kids must be made more aware - in the classroom and the corridors - of environmentalism, racism, homophobia, poverty, globalization, colonialism, class, voluntarism, pluralism, militarism, capitalism, socialism, and just about every other cause of the moment.

To these pressures have often been added new theories of education. In the 1970s, child-centred education was all the rage. That theory lasted for about two decades, and still exists in beleaguered redoubts. The results were so poor that first parents, and then governments, rose up to bring back some of the educational core that had been supplanted in the child-centred era - reports cards that could be understood, educational testing, more mandatory subjects.

Public schools, then, have been society's playground for fixing social problems, fighting ideological struggles, and testing the latest educational theories. They so remain.

It is inevitable that as "public" institutions, schools will be such playgrounds, because governments, bureaucrats, parents, unions and interest groups try to mould these institutions to their tastes.

Faced with all these cross-cutting pressures, public schools| have struggled to keep focused on two missions. First, schools are there for teaching and learning basic material to help students master material that will help them understand their world and prepare for future endeavours. Second, schools are there to assist social solidarity, to be one of the places where everyone comes together, rubs shoulders, deals with differences and, one hopes, becomes a better citizen for understanding different points of view.

Last fall, this second objective was put to the test in the Ontario election when the Conservative Party proposed to extend, beyond the Catholic system, public funds for religiously based schools.

You can argue the Conservatives made their case poorly. You can insist that perhaps the Liberal government deformed the Conservatives' arguments. But the issue was joined, debate ensued, and the public resoundingly said: No.

Ontarians did not favour the Conservatives' arguments because most voters instinctively or explicitly believed that in an increasingly multicultural and pluralistic society, schools should be one of those places for community, or what has become known as "inclusiveness." Community in this sense does not mean conformity, but rather a sense of working through diversity to that tricky but valuable balance between respect for difference and commonly accepted beliefs/values/objectives.

Given the provincial election results, it is hard to fathom how the Toronto District School Board could be sanctioning "Afrocentric schools" that, although theoretically open to all, are clearly designed for black students only, or almost only. How could it be that having rejected an extension of religiously based schools just a few months ago, the province's largest city will now countenance the creation of racially based ones?

Of course, the board was pressured, as boards often are, by interest groups with a cause - in this case, the theory that inadequate educational achievement can be improved by changing the curriculum. That poor achievement - a 40 per cent dropout rate by black students - is supposed to be lowered if the curriculum is more Afrocentric, which will be quite a trick in mathematics, physics, biology, foreign languages, basic civics, and even the broad sweep of world and Canadian history.
The theory is largely unsound. The much more frequent explanations for poor student achievement, for blacks or any other group, have much less to do with curriculum than factors over which schools have little control: dysfunctional families, troubled neighbourhoods, few role models (absent fathers), poverty, gangs or, in a few immigrant communities, attitudes toward education (especially for females) that are not easily reconciled with mainstream Canadian ones.

All the discourse about inclusiveness, that usually forms a staple of trendy, leftish discourse, has been discarded by the Toronto board in favour of its opposite: membership based overwhelmingly on one characteristic of the human and educational experience - race. As such, it is at profound variance with an important goal of a "public" school system, and should therefore be rejected,

Just as it was in the recent provincial election.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Wal-Town – A Documentary Recommendation

Wal-Town – A Documentary Recommendation

In 2004 and 2005, a group of young activists toured Canada, their goal being to inform people and perhaps change their attitude about Walmart’s presence in their community. While their mission was not altogether successful, and the first part of the film has a rather sluggish pace, probably owing to the frustrating indifference with which they are largely met, the film succeeds because of the questions the viewer is left to ponder.

By now, probably everyone knows some of the reasons many people oppose the Walmart behemoth:

• Its predatory pricing that has forced a host of manufacturers to move offshore to meet the cost expectations of their biggest buyer.
• Its use of suppliers who regularly abuse human rights and exploit child labor
• Its monumental efforts to prevent the unionization of its employees
• Its driving out of small businesses that often have a very long history in the community
• Its refusal to pay decent wages to its ‘associates’

The film doesn’t shy away from what attracts people to the store – low prices – and the fact that a cross section of people, not just those on limited income, finds ways to stretch their dollars by shopping there. Also, as one of the young activists says, people are not affected emotionally by references to such practices as sweatshop and child labor, since they don’t know anyone personally involved in such exploitation.

However the documentary’s strongest moments occur when some fundamental questions are asked. For example, why can’t a corporation that, if it were a country would be the 22nd largest in the world, choose to share with its workers a tiny amount of its many billions of dollars of profits instead of providing them what is essentially minimum wage, no benefits, and largely part-time employment? Such questions in turn force some of us, especially the more affluent, to question whether our pursuit of bargain pricing is worth encouraging such business models. It was such a question that I asked myself about five years ago after being educated about Walmart by two of my colleagues. Although I claim no special virtue, it was at that point I decided not to patronize the store any longer. This despite the fact that there are few people who enjoy a bargain more than I do.

And yet the purpose of the Wal-Town campaign was not so much to encourage a boycott as it was to educate people, with the ultimate goal, I assume, of bringing consumer scrutiny and pressure to bear on the corporation. Indeed, the documentary really invites us to ask how we define ourselves. Are we consumers first, and citizens second? If not, then we should be mindful of such democratic rights as freedom of association, which includes the right to form a union, simply a banding together of people to try to ensure better wages and working conditions for the collective.

Perhaps one of the most poignant moments of the film is the closing of the Jonquiere, Quebec Walmart as a direct result of a successful union drive. Such a move was an obvious ploy to send a strong chill throughout the Walmart chain to discourage further indulgences in democratic rights. In fact, in December of 2005 the company was found guilty by the Quebec labour board of closing the store to avoid dealing with the unionized workers, not because it was losing money as it had claimed. Compensation for the illegally fired workers was pending.

This is a film that definitely deserves your consideration. Should you wish further information on Wal-Town, or more information on Walmart’s practices, I recommend the following three sites: