Birthday Invitations

28 02 2011

In one of the Gr. 3 classrooms I was in last week, a mom came in near the end of the day with a stack of coloured envelopes. “My daughter’s birthday is next week” she said, “How would you like me to hand out these invitations without making the other kids feel bad that they didn’t get invited?”

I really didn’t want to get involved, partly because it was the end of the day and there was a scramble of things yet to do before dismissal. Also, even though I knew the name, I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to pick her daughter out of a line-up. Us T.O.C.’s get to know a lot of names and faces, but putting them together can be quite a challenge on most days (see a previous post). “Why don’t we call your daughter over and the two of you can put them in the kid’s backpacks in the hallway?” I responded. Whew! For an on-the-spot decision, I thought this was quite a good one. And that’s exactly what they did. The dozen or so who made the cut had the goods in their bags and the ones left off the invite list didn’t even know (at the time) that they were overlooked.

Teachers in Primary grades have rules for all kinds of things and I agree that routines and structure bring order to a class and that student anxiety about the day’s events can be greatly reduced when kids know what is coming next. What I still struggle with though, is that I’m finding that the line between being the teacher to kids and being a parent to the same kids is a thin, grey one at best. Seasoned Primary teachers know that a good chunk of their days end up being parenting anyways with the amount of shoes they tie, noses they wipe, jacket sleeves they turn outside in and arguments they adjudicate.

As I reflected on my day in this class, I wondered why the teacher must be the one to solve the “someone’s feelings are going to get hurt if they know that they weren’t invited to the birthday party” dilemma – something that has nothing to do with the school day. The planners that all students have seem to be a good communication tool and a great mail delivery system to parents, but why aren’t there guidelines as to what makes it into the plastic folders at the front of them? Should Birthday Invitations make it in?

I’m aware that the birthday party circuit has become a big and booming business. Forget the cakes, candles, hats & horns – birthday cards alone have become a $1.5 billion industry. As a dad whose kids have attended more than a few parties, the festive celebrations start to teeter on the one-upmanship of the last party the child attended. Birthdays can cost parents hundreds of dollars. Gone are the days when pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and pinatas were the focal point. I’ve read stories where parents almost need to take out second mortgages to pay for birthday parties that feature “the Reptile Man” (he brings live snakes to your living room) or “Cartoon Cuts” (girls get manicures and new hairdoos: boys get spiked hair and pretend shaves). You name the party – bowling party, pool party, gym party, magic party, horse party, laser-tag party, rocket building and launch ’em party – each year the parties seem to get larger and more lavish. I’ve also heard a professional party person tell war stories of the difficulties parents have in trying to bring sanity back to their home after one of their outlandish bashes.

Researchers who are interested in these things tell us that 93% of Canadians and Americans hear the words, “Happy Birthday” on their birthdays and 71% have the song sung to them – you know the one. As you think about your last big day, were you among the 71%?

Our celebrations speak volumes about the desires and drives of our lives. Acknowledging birthdays and planning celebrations are good things to do, but at what cost? Sadly, I’ve found myself being one of the parents who looks around and wonders if we’ll ever be able to compete with the other parties that are thrown. I think I need to give my head a shake, since hosting parties are not designed to be a competition (are they?)

Isn’t it interesting that we live in a culture that likes to celebrate birthdays – getting older – while at the same time we are obsessed with how “young” we are and how much “younger” we can make ourselves?

Things are a lot less complicated when you’re in Grade three.


Our Family’s Facebook Dilemma

14 02 2011

For about a year and a half, our youngest son has been begging us to allow him to create a Facebook account. Initially, we weren’t thrilled about the idea for a host of reasons, but we didn’t tell him no right away. There were teachable moments that needed to be seized and lessons to be learned about our “digital footprint”. As parents, we were finally able to buy some time with our decision by telling him that “we’ll let you get your own Facebook account when you’re 12” and that seemed to make sense to him.

Well, this past weekend he turned 12, and in the weeks leading up to his big day, he was quick to remind us about the Social Media arrangement we had made with him. One evening last week, Ben wheeled up and asked if together we could create his new account the night before his birthday, since (in his words) the big day would be “far too busy“.  This seemed like a reasonable request to us. He made an interesting statement after that: “And you’re sure that you don’t have to be 13, right?”

This kind of caught us off guard. Why would he ask a question like this? Where did the number 13 come from? We had this all arranged . . . or so we thought.

After he went to bed that night, I went to the Facebook main page and had a look at their Terms and Conditions. Now for those who haven’t encountered this detailed document before, I must say that it’s an enormous amount of legalese that would certainly make a good late-night sedative. In there, I discovered the crucial bit that I was looking for. Right there under Section 4 in the Registration & Security section came point #5: You will not use Facebook if you are under 13. BOOM! (As my friend CW would say).

We were in a bit of a pickle. We had told our son that we would help him create a Facebook account when he turned 12, but at the 11th hour we came across the rule that morally should prevent us from doing so. Ugh. What to do?, What to do?

Now the birthday boy has a number of friends who have been Facebooking for years. I’m sure you can think of many elementary-aged kids who have as well. There was a couple of options available to us at that point:

a) create the account (i.e. ignore the rules and lie)

b) respect the rules and not create the account for the 12-year old (and suffer the effects of a pre-teen’s uber-disappointment)

c) see if there is some legal loop hole that would allow us to proceed (or bend the rules) without actually breaking them.

We decided to pursue the latter and Ben and I crafted an email to the Facebook people, explaining what we were trying to do and letting them know that we wanted to do the right thing. I thought that if we presented our case that the reader might sympathize with our dilemma and understand that this dad was trying to do the right thing with his underage son. We found the contact link, sent the eloquent email and felt good about our decision. We received a reply within 20 minutes and wouldn’t you know it, it was a friendly, but totally impersonal, computer-generated reply. It spoke to none of the issues we raised.

In one sense, I understood completely. How many emails does the Facebook team receive on a daily basis. But in another way, it was ironic that a culture-altering computer program that was created to socialize didn’t have a mechanism for true communication with its users. We were left with a dead end. I thought my little guy would be crushed – and he was, but he has since handled it really well and hasn’t pushed further from that day. I’m really proud of him and the fact that he hasn’t gone down the path of sneakiness and registered on his own speaks to his sense of integrity (and solid parenting?). For now, the issue has been put on hold until his next birthday.

Why would Facebook have such a rule? Has it always been that way or is this a recent move? Did they bow to the wishes of their legal team to prevent a rash of litigation from parents of pre-teens? Or are they taking a proactive step to thwart online predators?

Finally, a note about the wording of their rule – did you catch it? Facebook is not only limiting the age of registered users. You will not use Facebook if you are under 13 speaks to it’s usage by pre-teens as well. As teachers who promote honesty, speak about fairness and model integrity, what is our response to any elementary student with or without an account who uses the tool to communicate with others?

Although I’ve been discouraged to accept students as friends on my Facebook account (and rightly so), I’m sure there are others in my profession out there who encourage students to use Facebook as a way of promoting communication between class members. Although Section 4, #5 seems black and white, are there exceptions to this rule?

My son and I would love to hear from you if there is.

Much Ado About Pencil Sharpening

6 02 2011

When I was in Grade 9, my dad and I built a cedar strip canoe together. He came home with this proposal after three other teachers on his staff decided this was a project they wanted to embark on. That night, we talked about it, I agreed, and the building began almost immediately. Although one of the other teachers taught woodworking, none of these gents (aside from my dad) had built a seaworthy vessel before. They scoured the plans, came up with a strategy, purchased the wood and the cutting of cedar strips began. Anyone who has smelled the scent of fresh-cut cedar will understand the tug to built something with this raw material. It was magic.

Almost every week night for months we would travel to the wood shop where the four canoes were being constructed. It was collaboration at its finest. Sometimes we would all work on one boat and other times we would all do our own thing. The endless jokes, the steady supply of cookies, the blueprint reading difficulties, a few swear words and the way I was included in the quartet fraternity (being the only kid among the builders) is a special memory of mine. We estimate that it took about 140 hours to complete this labour of love. The canoe still gets out most years. It hangs today in the rafters of my parent’s garage and almost 30 years later, it’s still a conversation piece for anyone who dare enter in.

My love for woodworking had an interesting start. Even before my first birdhouse project with my Poppa, and before the “let’s see how many nails you can pound into the scrap wood” boats I would make, came the introduction to wood shaping that many of us share. If you’re like me, your first interaction with a woodworking tool was probably with a pencil sharpener.

Remember the first time you took the cover off the wall-mount variety? Fascinating. The six-holed cover would hide those spiral, gear-like blades that would rotate in harmony and transform our dull, large red pencil (Bill Cosby described these “as thick as a horse’s leg”) into a thing of beauty worthy of any blank page of foolscap. Since the plug-in variety of pencil sharpener hadn’t been invented in those days, my fellow students would line up for their turn to use the Transformation Machine and impromptu contests would spring up each week as to who could become the scribe with the sharpest scribbler.

Since becoming a Teacher On Call, I’ve seen some interesting rules implemented as to when and how pencils are sharpened in the classroom. Many students have a “pocket version” that gets carted around in their stash box and therefore, it’s not an issue how pencils get sharp. Some teachers don’t allow this, (what’s with that?) and students with wretched writing devices are forced to use the classroom one. Some rules make sense to me, (e.g. “Don’t sharpen pencils when the teacher is teaching – pick a transition time instead”) while other rules don’t make sense at all. In more than one class I’ve been in, students must bring their pencils to the teacher for him/her to sharpen. Not sure I follow that logic.

Can you sharpen my pencil?” (Uh, sure, but don’t you know how?)

Our teacher won’t let us – you have to do it for us.” (stunned silence)

Since when did the act of sharpening a pencil become such a refined and developed skill? Is it a power thing that teachers hold over their students? Do teachers possess vast amounts of pencil use expertise that elevates their abilities so that lowly students can’t possibly grasp this task on their own? What happened to the “learn to do by doing” motto that 4-H clubs around the world ascribe to? Don’t teachers have enough things going on in their day? Couldn’t this be a delegated task?

As a boy fascinated with mechanical wonder, I understand the attraction to use machines and to create something with my own hands. I have to admit that the sound of grinding wood is downright cool and strangely inviting. I also understand that people have different preferences for “pencil sharpedness” and how sharp or how dull a pencil becomes can become mildly problematic for students. I get that. Tracing and graphing and shading and writing all require a different shape and texture of graphite to attain the desired result.  There are probably times that are best for sharpening tasks and times where it’s best to wait. But really, not allowing students to do this at all? What would the SPSPSS say?  (this would be the “Society for the Promotion of Student Pencil Sharpening Skills” – an organization that I just created).

Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe in extreme circumstances these rules need to be applied. Please, someone let me know why in this age of increased student-teacher collaboration and partner learning communities must rules like these exist.