Zero’s Nothing, Right, so What’s Wrong with It?

There’s a lively conversation in my province around something called a “no-zero policy.” This was something several school districts implemented several years ago, however there seems to be no evidence of any such thing being currently in existence in the current school board configuration. At the moment it’s my understanding that new policy is being written and that in the meantime the existing regions that were folded into a larger board are expected to continue with whatever they previously had. The “no zero” policy applies variously, then, depending on where you are located. That, however, does not seem to matter  to anyone, especially now in pre-election times when cries of “end the no-zero policy” seem to be coming from several quarters, with the assumption that at the moment it applies to all.

Just what is a no-zero policy and why do some think it’s important? And, just as importantly why are others so bitterly opposed to it?

Let’s try and make it simple. It’s generally reported that “no zero policies” state that students cannot be given a grade of zero for late, un-submitted, or plagiarized work. The most often reported justification is that evaluation consultants (who are sometimes accused in the media of never having to step foot into a classroom) recommend this because young people should not be unduly punished for making the kind of stupid mistakes they have always been want to make. Presumably by offering second chances the students have the chance to learn by their mistakes and, hopefully, not suffer any long-term negative consequences as a result.

Sounds OK, right? So why is it that so many are bitterly opposed to it?

For an answer to that let’s briefly consider human nature. What if there were absolutely no consequences for not submitting work on time or not being honest, that is, plagiarizing work? To answer that, just ask this question: why do we insist that work get passed in on time and that it be the individual’s own efforts? Simple—if you don’t do that, many (perhaps even most) will not bother putting in the required effort and will just put it off for some other time. That’s why we have deadlines and that’s also why we attach consequences to them. If we didn’t most work would never get submitted in a timely fashion and the small trickle of always-late work would result in very poor learning and an impossible-to-manage situation for the classroom teachers. Small wonder that much of the resistance to “no zero” policies comes from practicing teachers who are tired of dealing with this.

Well, then. Fine—it seems that, in light of this, it makes perfect sense to totally ditch no-policies, right? After all it’s one thing to give a student a break, but the removal of consequences in the form of zero-grades will likely result in a situation that is far worse: (a) students will do worse because they don’t take the assigned work seriously, always figuring they can do it later or maybe even get a do over and (b) the steady, unregulated trickle of inbound work that happens in the absence of enforced deadlines results in an unmanageable situation for the teacher.

Just think about how this might play out. Suppose that you are the type of student who leaves things until the last possible moment. In all likelihood there will come a time that you will finally have to deal with a back-load of work. Perhaps it’s the few days before the first progress reports are due to be sent home. “Alright,” you’ll say, “I can’t get zero so I won’t submit. What’s the worst that can happen?” So, the teacher does the best they can. When scanning through your work they notice that several important things were never submitted and so, instead of giving you a grade—as they should be able to; after all the work should be there to be evaluated; it’s not the teacher’s fault—they instead have to write something like, “I am unable to evaluate your son/daughter because they did not submit any work.”

Stay with me.

The report eventually gets home. In all likelihood the parents would have to find out about it themselves. After all, what student would be stunned enough to bring home what is essentially a blank report card? Perhaps the parents get notified via email, or maybe from a friend. Whatever. At any rate the parents / guardians eventually see it.

And freak out.

You know what happens next: angry words are exchanged with the child and then frantic calls are made to the schools. The end result is that the parent swears that the late work will be submitted asap. Within a few days the student brings a pile of paper to the teacher and dumps it on the desk. “Here’s all my late work.”

The teacher groans. First of all there’s really no telling how much of the work was the student’s own. Perhaps it was, but under the extremely tense situation that would have unfolded at home in all likelihood other hands were involved in the production. Perhaps the parents “helped” or maybe a tutor was enlisted. Perhaps—heaven forbid—some of the stuff was even purchased online. It’s easy to do that. The teacher knows that too, and then is left in the unfair position in which they have to make an evaluation based on work that may, or may not, have been done by the student.

It gets worse, though. Recall that this work was done at the last minute. This, in turn, places great strain on the teacher. Evaluating student work is always time consuming and difficult. It’s also best done efficiently and well when the tasks are combined and grouped. Simply put, a teacher can do a better job in marking all of the work at once than in doing it in dribs and drabs. It will take much longer overall and will likely not be done with the same level of consistency. The end result is not good—much more work for the teacher along with the likelihood that evaluation is nowhere at the same level of quality and consistency.

So, with that in mind it seems to make perfect sense to ban all mention of “no-zero” policies, right?

No, it doesn’t.

Why? It still could still be about the fact that young people do dumb things and need to be given second chances (a thing I wholeheartedly agree on, by the way) but even if, in light of the previous argument, we decided that human nature will have to trump humanity, there still remains a tricky, insurmountable obstacle: grades are not “rewards.”

What is a grade? There are two answers:

  • (The informal one that seems to be prevalent in general use) It is a reward for “good work.” The better the work the better the grade. No work, therefore, translates to a grade of zero.
  • (the CORRECT one) it is a measurement of how well the student has achieved the curriculum outcomes.

Curriculum outcomes? Since 1995 the curriculum in this province, and for that matter, the rest of Canada, has been defined in terms of specific curriculum outcomes. These are statements that express what students must be able to do and are organized more-or-less hierarchically, and broken down by key-stage (grades k-3, 4-6, 7-9,a high can be key stages), by course, and then down to more specific statements that apply to a given course at a given grade level.

For example, one specific outcome from grade 6 mathematics is, “express improper fractions as mixed numbers.” (Note: improper fractions have a larger number on the top and mixed numbers are a combination of a whole number and a fraction. For example 9/2 is an improper fraction that, when expressed as a mixed number is 4 1/2)

Every course is defined this way and the Department of Education (DOE) has expended considerable resources in developing curriculum guides for teachers that, among other things, explain and describe the outcomes, offer teaching suggestions (contrary to popular opinion the DOE does not prescribe the method by which they are taught. It prescribes the what, not the how. Take note you people stuck saying “oh the Department imposes discovery learning” nonsense.) along with suggested methods by which achievement of the outcomes can be evaluated.

Here’s how it works. The DOE describes what is to be taught and the school district takes care of getting the job done—the how. Teachers are therefore expected to provide evaluations that provide an indication of the extent to which the outcomes have been met. It’s all about the outcomes. They–and nothing else–are what define the curriculum. It’s not about what individuals feel should be in the curriculum but, rather, what’s been agreed to by curriculum committees staffed by teachers and led by officials from the DOE.

Evaluation? Grades are not rewards; they are measurements. In the example above it comes down to this: to what extent can the student write improper fractions as mixed numbers? In general terms a grade of 80-100 says they do it with excellence, a grade between, say 65 and 80 means they do it very well, a grade between 50 and 65 mean they do it reasonably well but could do better as this will impact future work. Grades below 50 mean that in the teacher’s professional opinion they do not do it well enough.

What, then, does a grade of zero mean?

This: that the student knows NOTHING WHATSOEVER about converting improper fractions to mixed numbers.

When a teacher assigns a grade of zero to a particular assessment they are certifying, professionally, using everything they have learned through 5-8 years of university learning (and backed up by numerous years of professional practice) that this is the case. A grade of zero, in this case means the teacher is saying “The student knows nothing whatsoever about improper fractions and that’s my professional judgement.”

Seriously, how can you certify that? They must know something about the topic.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “But, what else is the teacher to do? In all likelihood the student had loads of opportunity to show the teacher they could do this. There’s no way the teacher sprang the assessment on them at the last minute and surely the teacher would have been open to working something out if the student had to miss the assessment for a valid reason. It’s probably the case that the student threw away the chances they had and so, what else could the teacher have done? They deserved the zero and if we did this more often they’d probably pull up their socks and get the work done.”

There’s still the fundamental problem, though. The above argument just brought the whole thing back to the original—incorrect—definition of what a grade is. In the same way that a grade cannot be considered a reward for good work it also cannot be considered a punishment for un-submitted work. That’s not what assessment is about. Any way you look at it, as long as our curriculum is defined in terms of outcomes the grade has to be a measure of how well they have been achieved.

What then do you do in the case of un-submitted or plagiarized work?

That is the real question.

Let’s draw a box around the answer so before defining what one should do, let’s specify what you should NOT DO. You should not:

  • Assign an arbitrary zero as there’s no way the student knows nothing about the outcome.
  • Roll over and do whatever the student / parent wants you to do.

At this point in the essay the preachiness will come to an end. Clearly there are no simple answers but something needs to get worked out that is in everyone’s best interests. Perhaps this means a provisional “no-zero” that imposes practical limits to prevent abuse. Middle ground is the only workable solution but it’s very difficult to state the procedures in simple terms as by codifying the contingencies and responses, all you will do is (make a game of it and) construct something that starts to look as onerous as the criminal code of Canada! It might be best to express what is needed in the form of a framework, a more general set of intents and values that leaves the major decisions to the professional judgement of the teacher and school.

So what do you do when a student consistently fails to turn in work? You give them a reasonable opportunity to address the situation. Hopefully they will make good use of the chance given to them. Most will. What if they don’t? If there is evidence that the student has behaved in an unreasonable manner despite being given chances then an incomplete or failing grade will have to be justified and assigned. Recall that a zero grade doesn’t mean the student DID nothing, but rather that they KNOW nothing whatsoever. Frankly it`s difficult to see how anyone can score below, say, 20, so maybe that should be the arbitrary minimum.

But that’s not for me to say. It is, rather, an issue for the school district to continue to grapple with and hopefully it gets to do so without political interference. Know what? Right now, as the politicians rant and rave about the no-zero policy I’m willing to bet that teachers are busy behind the scenes trying to work through the complexities that have just been laid out. I wish them all the best.

The Myth of the Good Old Days and the Lies it Perpetuates

Stories in the local media pertaining to k-12 education tend to generate a lot of audience feedback, especially of the negative variety. Just allude to student achievement and the barrage of emotion responses begins. The majority–or at least the most vocal–come from adults who have long since left the system, and the implication is always the same: EITHER schools are not doing nearly as good a job as they used to OR today’s young people just can’t cut it. The comments run a bit like this: (From those claiming to to be post-secondary instructors) students entering the institution are far weaker than they used to be and (From the general population) the schools obviously are offering a watered-down curriculum and students these days are awfully lazy and unprepared.

Know why brainstorming doesn’t work–doesn’t EVER produce the diversity it is supposed to? It’s because it’s human nature to try and find common ground. Ask for divergent opinions and people will timidly at first and then with increasing ferocity state that which they are sure the rest of the group will agree with. Everyone just wants to be the one saying that thing, the thing that everyone is thinking at the time, regardless of how accurate or helpful it may be. It’s like that with education too. Over time it’s become accepted in the popular press to bitch about the sorry state its. It’s now to the point that people just go along with it without even thinking it through.

Too bad it’s pretty much nonsense.

As an educator with over three decades of experience in the system at the classroom, government and university level I have had ample opportunity to observe it from a variety of perspectives. What’s more I’ve maintained decent records over the years and, based on what I have accumulated, those popular assertions can be challenged and possibly even exposed as unfounded myths.

There are two items that need to be addressed.

  1. The opinions you encounter in the media are just that: opinions. They are not based on fact, just impressions that are based on recalled events. Memory is a complex thing and, while it is without doubt vivid and useful, it’s overall accuracy is questionable. Many studies (like this one) have clearly demonstrated that the events, as remembered, change over time. Those who base an opinion on remembered details should be clearly aware of the limitations and resign themselves to the reality that the conclusions they reach are of questionable value at best. Simply put: your recollection of how school was is probably wildly inaccurate.
  2. You may be assuming that the situation is far simpler than it really is and, as such, are ignoring details that have a very real bearing on the situation. Things in education are not simple, physical things that can be easily described. Take the often-used term “success” as an example. On the surface it seems to indicate achievement–something that does not change over time. The reality could not be further from that! There are many ways of measuring this thing we call “success”: scores on provincial exams, scores on international assessments, graduation rates, percentage of students who enroll in particular programs (advanced vs. standard math, for example), how many actually finish, on and on. The list is virtually endless. Worse again, even if we stick with a particular measuring stick–and let’s take provincial exams for example–the situation is still quite undefined as (1) the exams may change from year to year and (2) the curriculum that they are based on also changes every few years. Things are always much more complicated than they seem.

Let’s just apply one bit of this thinking to the aforementioned rants. In particular let’s take a drive through this one thought: your memories of when you want to school were only based on a sub-set of the students. There’s a whole HUGE group of students you have forgotten about, as a result of the two items above.

Here it is: when you were a child a very large percentage of students never made it to high school. Only what might be (cautiously) regarded as the “top” students, or the “keeners”  remained to be your classmates. Whenever you take pot shots at the current system you are therefore guilty of comparing ALL of the current students to the TOP students from your day. It should go without saying that is profoundly inaccurate and unfair.

I can back this up. Based on previous experience with similar arguments its probably a waste of time because I’m using facts to fight an argument that is not based on them but, rather, on ill-informed emotion. Whatever. If you are interested in the truth read on.

Owing to various issues such as (1) students moving from province to province, (2) students repeating grades and (3) the lack of digital data prior to the late 1980s it is quite difficult to get a handle on just what fraction of students, historically, have left school before obtaining a graduation certificate. We won’t have to, though. We are looking instead at the people that self-appointed education critics feel were their classmates when they were in high school. They just assume it was “everyone I always went to school with, which is basically everyone from my generation.” Nope–it’s not. Let’s find out just who it really was for any given year.

Since most people are thinking of high school let’s focus on the grade eleven class. For older folks like me that would be the senior year. For those who would have started grade 1 1 1973 or later it would have been the second last year. Let’s compare the grade 1 enrollment for any given year to the grade 11 enrollment ten years later–in other words let’s track the students and see how many of them made it to grade 11. Acknowledged the results won’t be perfect. For the most part you will be looking at the same group of students. Yes, some students may have repeated a grade and now be recorded with the grade 10 group for that year but it’s safe bet that this would be more-or-less equal to the number of students from the grade ahead who repeated a grade and found themselves with this group.

Of course this analysis more-or-less assumes a closed system; that is that no students either left or entered the province. As you will see that is invalid and the data shows it.

The graph below shows the result of the analysis. The horizontal axis depicts the year that the students in question reached grade 11 and the vertical axis represents the percentage of students who started grade 1 ten years prior who now find themselves surviving to grade 11.

Before commenting on the graph several notes need to be made:

  • Grade 1 was used instead of Kindergarten because the data indicated that for many years not all of the grade ones did kindergarten.
  • Grade 11 was used throughout, instead of grade 12. This was done for two reasons. First, Grade 12 did not exist in this province prior to 1983 and second, it was felt that changing the period in mid-stream would result in not “comparing apples to apples.”

Percentage of students in grade 11 compared to the when they were in grade 1

Most importantly you will note an overall increasing trend over time. That is, overall, it’s clear that as time goes on, more students, survive to get to grade 11. The trend, however is far from linear.

Prior to the mid 1970’s: The fraction of students who survived to get to grade 11 was appallingly low thus indicating that anywhere from 35 to 40% of students who started school never made it to grade 11, let alone found themselves in a position to graduate. Fortunately, the graph also shows a marked improvement, over time, in that sorry state of affairs. This is the main point of this essay and we’ll come back to it shortly but before doing so it’s worthwhile examining two other portions of the graph.

Between the mid 1990s and 2005: The gains that were made in the decades leading up to this period began to dwindle. At first glance it looks as if something went terribly wrong and that, perhaps, maybe something was affecting the dropout rate. Upon closer analysis, however, you can see that something different is happening. In a previous post (on Duck Starfish 23, my other Blog) I charted NL’s population over time and noted a significant decline in population–out-migration–during that very same period. In all likelihood that dip in the graph is just a reflection of what was happening with the overall population. Many of the students were simply heading out of the province with their families and presumably completing grade 11 elsewhere.

The period from 2005 onward: Notice that the trend rises beyond 100%. I will admit this had me stumped fro a while, thinking I’d done an arithmetic error. Inspection of the data tables, however, showed no error. For any student cohort starting grade 1, by the time they reach grade 11, the cohort will have grown! This can be explained easily enough, though, when you take into account the reality that in recent years, some of the people who moved away in the 1990’s have returned along with families they started elsewhere. Likewise, the Oil and Gas industry has been attracting young families. This explains the trend, however, it also sheds light on the limitations that exists with making conclusions abour how many people are staying in school when analysed this way.

Nonetheless it’s safe to say that since the late 1960’s the fraction of students who stayed in school long enough to reach grade 11 has shown a remarkable increase. It’s up from an appalling figure below 60% to at least 95%.

Which brings me to the point. Let’s go back to the title. I alluded to Myths and Lies.

First the Myths: there’s a general “understanding” among our adult population that what happens in schools has gone significantly downhill; that schools have gotten worse, courses have been watered down needlessly and that students are far worse off as a result. I assert that this is a myth and the data supports it.

The adults who are perpetuating it are basing their opinions on what they remember about their own high school experiences and there are two problems with that. First, there’s no telling at all how accurate those memories are and second, and much more importantly, those recollections ignore the fact that the classmates from those days were only about 60% of the ones they started out with. Forty percent of the students never made it to be included in those memories. In all likelihood the ones that made it that far were the ones best suited to the “bookish” way of life that they now claim is diminished.

Those complainers are completely ignoring the HUGE fraction of students who, for whatever reason, simply dropped out; acting as if they did not count.

Today, most of the students who start survive to find themselves in high school and the entire school system has been re-imagined and redone to cause that and to nurture it–a fact conveniently overlooked by those who just wish to find fault.

And the lies that the myth creates:

Lie: Schools have dropped standards. No, they have not. We now have multiple paths for students and we acknowledge (well some of us do) that school doesn’t just exist to prepare students for universities. We’ve broadened the definition of success to include more than just readin’ and cyperin’. Sure, those things are important but so, too are other things–things like accepting responsibility, being able to use discrimination, the ability to do research, an acknowledgement that in this country multi-cultural is in our best interests… the list goes on.

Lie: Schools are failing students. We did once when we simply allowed–even encouraged–almost half of them to leave before it was completed. As for now–look around. We try and nurture all of our students, not jst the chosen few who seem suited to a life of academia. As a result, guess what, “She’s not falling apart.”

Lie: Students are ill-prepared. My response–for what? Perhaps they can’t rattle off, from memory, the list of mortal sins, the capitals of all of the countries, the dates when European conquerors did this or that, and, of course, the multiplication facts up to 20×20 (Mini-Rant: not that there’s any excuse for students not knowing at least up to 12×12, mind you, but that’s another story and another whole can of myths spread by adults who claim to have been forced to memorize them by rote in school when, in fact they did not since issues with math facts have, in fact, been in a horrible state since at least the 1960s). No, now they now have a much broader skill base. The evidence? Literacy rates are way up, the general tone of public discourse is greatly expanded especially for our young people and, of course, we continue to create (and, sadly export) highly skilled workers. As for being prepared for university there are 2 things to consider: (1) enrollments at University are generally rising and this means that students who at one time would not have considered university are now there. Once it was just the so-called top students and today the cross-section is wider and, of course, (2) the complaints about preparedness are  NOT NEW. The same complaints were occurring 10, 20 and even 50 years ago. Check the pass rates in first year courses–you won’t see the precipitous downward trend you’ve been led to believe exists.

But, of course, this bit of rationality will do nothing to appease the hoards of people who continue to complain about the schools based on their own inaccurate memories and based on only those who survived a different system, as those arguments are based on emotion, and not facts. Sadly, you can’t win an emotional argument with facts.

Still, facts are facts and the remembered state that our young people are being compared to is one that simply discounted as disposable the huge fraction of the population that today’s schools do not.

To the Teachers Just Starting Out

I sat with my old friend Jerome reminiscing of a time now so far
when we were both grad students, the fun and work we shared.
Things change; now only one plays guitar,
only still dreams of being a hockey star.
One of us has a Ph.D, one of us still has most of his hair.

Though somewhat different we agreed on what a fine group you all are.
And how a whole year has gone by with such great speed.
Some of it quite bizarre;
times when you felt so sub-par,
and perhaps, release and rest are what you most need.


So here you are now, finished up; everything checked,
just a few weeks away from your convocation.
It’s now time to reconnect,
to laugh and to reflect,
and come together with relief; in celebration.

But even as you watch ink dry on your degrees
there’s still room for some hesitation.
So, still in your esprit
I’m sure you’ll agree
what’s ahead can cause some consternation.


You started expecting that for clarity you’d be reaching;
and that at this point you’d all be quite sure
of what counts as good teaching,
as opposed to the preaching
you’d endured on your way to our door.

Maybe, like many others, you even started with the feeling that
you already possessed the skills needed to be your own “best.”
But that didn’t count for scat
and soon your ideas all fell flat.
There’s a lot more to the profession that you’d’ve ever guessed.


Soon enough you discovered that what seemed simple enough
was in fact tangled and complex in the extreme,
and since you weren’t inclined to bluff
you then admitted, “this stuff’s tough!”
while trying to unravel the mess that was once your dreams.

Things like Theories of Learning–so confusing; little clarity exists.
Behaviorists who conflate people with mere machines.
No, “the point you’ve missed–
the brain’s a computer, Cognitivists insist,
while Constructivists, the other groups demean.


Yet a basic grasp of Biology points the need for some correction.
You just know it can’t be as simple as all that.
A thousand trillion synaptic connections
surely count as a few objections,
making those theories ring so hollow, even flat.

And we all can agree the workload can weigh you down.
There’s more to be done than we can possibly complete.
And the funding, budget bound,
there’s never enough to go around
because with health care, for resources, we compete.


And the avalanche of new equipment: Smartboards iPads BYOD—
we’ve moved so far from chaulk slates and candles.
But the incompatibilities
between Chromebooks, Macs and PC’s!
It all seems more than one person can ever handle.

Then when you look around for the real educational “who’s who”
you’ll see it’s  politicians, kooks, and powerful profiteers.
Teachers in that list? —just a few,
the viewpoint for to skew,
so the focus seems to be money and the big shots egos and careers.


And, it all sounds cynical to those who think that teachers run the show
and that, to do things they don’t want, they can’t be forced.
But outside influences overflow
to carry the day, although
those outsiders don’t have to implement the bullshit they endorse.

And if a life filled with stuff is what makes your heart thrill
then you surely will need to rethink your goals
for what teachers earn will
be enough to pay most bills
toys like quads, trucks and boats will leave you firmly in the hole.


Then again maybe the previous seems like thoughts from the abyss.
after all, sometimes it’s all about how things are framed
and if friends I won’t dismiss
were to take a read on this
I’m sure they’d think the profession of teaching was being defamed.

For most teaching veterans would entreat me to please grow up some
straighten my spine and take my lip back off my chin
reminding me it’s dumb
if to group think I should succumb.
It is a lot of work but you get out of it pretty much what you put in.


Working with students is fulfilling. Simply put you get in your volunteer time.
You’ll never come home asking, “what can I do to bring meaning to my life?”
In time it’ll come to mind
the greatest pleasure that you find
comes from watching the seeds of knowledge grow, numbers increasingly rife.

As for the onslaught of tech. perhaps we need to come around
to the notion of keeping it relevant for the students that we teach.
Besides there’s nothing unsound
with us gaining new learning ground.
It’s an opportunity for us to grow, bring new things within our reach.


As for learning theories that could leave you bound in knots
maybe it’s best to forget naive realism and to take a longer view.
The mystery requires thought—
so please don’t become distraught.
Whether you embrace it or reject it all is really up to you.

And perhaps class control or discipline is what has you most freaked
thinking you’ll spend your life in counselling while munching pills.
Just to not be bleak
this veterans’ knowledge I will leak:
it’s not that much of a problem once you just learn to chill.


And a teacher-centered classroom is not the best that you can do
If I could tell you one just one thing, this is what it’d be:
Focus on what the students do,
it isn’t about you.
Success comes when your  students work hard, this I guarantee.


Stop it! I know you’re thinking, “stop being such a knob!”
finding work is something about which you cannot scoff.
Look–take those frowns off of your gobs.
With persistence and a little luck you’ll all get jobs
Hey even airplanes have to taxi  a while before they can take off.


Now perhaps you’ve sat and  listened carefully to these words of mine
and still it all feels like one big enormous bummer.
There’s still the bottom line,
a treasure quite divine:
for the rest of your working lives you’ll be off for the whole, damn, summer!


Funny how one thing can lead to another. The other day, while taking lunch, I was talking to a group of students seated nearby my desk who were working on a term paper entitled, “The changing lives of Teachers.” ‘Write us a forward,” Joked Ben.

So I obliged…

Kathryn, Maggie Aileen and Ben sat and slaved—
I believe they also did plot and scheme.
The result was this fine piece of work
built around one singular theme.

And the topic of how teachers’ lives are changed
by the jobs to which they aspire
became a paper, built line by line
as their faces, they did perspire.

And, to my surprise, I must assert
that this semi-tome is quite fit to read
and assure you as you prepare for what’s ahead
their word-count they did not exceed.

And there’s no errors in grammar or in spelling
no gaffes like that escaped their careful screening
now, as for the content, I’ll say but nought
for I didn’t take the time to grasp its meaning.

But I know one thing to be perfectly true
and for data I have thirty-two years as a teacher:
you may start your career filled with arrogant spunk
but you’ll be transformed to a much humbler creature.


But then I overheard Chris, who was also seated at that same table, mutter sadly to himself, “what about me? I’m not part of that group.”



The title of the paper was, “Teacher Negligence”

I did a foreword for Ben and the Guys
which made poor Chris go and fuss and sook.
“Well Ben asked,” I said, in my own defence.
But all that I got back was a sad, sorry look.

And so, with a heavy sigh I turned back to my screen
thinking, “what can I say to introduce poor Chris’ piece?”
After all he’s bitten off a chunk of work
hard enough tie up all the ancients in Greece.

But still, in truth, I must admit
that, he’s nothing if not extremely brave
the whole topic of negligence
would send most sane students back to the cave.

And liability—well in fair to all it should be said
that it’s been the causal agent for so many things
like sounded corners, soft edges and constant vigilance
there’s no end to the bother defending against it brings.

And, so perhaps the best that I can do is this:
tell Chris I wish him well and to him remind
that there’s but two weeks left in this here term
so for God’s sake don’t do more than you’re assigned.


Marc, who was working away just to my right, was looking on with interest and shaking his head so I thought, “why leave him out?”

Why indeed? 

The title of the paper was, “The Issues Faced by Beginning Teachers.”

The Issues faced by teachers starting out
are never hard to find—
Things like getting work from feral kids
could make you lose your mind.

And coupled with the simple fact
that Marc’s a busy guy
with lots more papers and other stuff due
it’s a wonder it hasn’t all gone awry.

But, to his credit, he’s done a right fine job
of teasing out the main stressors
and has avoided mentioning most of the strife
is instigated by his professors.


I got distracted (by work–hey lunch is only so long) before finishing this piece and so it was not until the following day that I handed Marc his copy. Andrew, who was seated in the booth behind me asked, “What’s that?” I figured that was enough for him to rate his own.

The paper title was “The changing Role of School Discipline in Canada.”

It has been wisely stated by those who know more than do I
that everything changes except change itself;
and nowhere is it more true, than with school discipline
in fact, books on it, from times past, are best left on the shelf.

Perhaps there was once a time when our young were seen
as things wild and feral, creatures to be tamed
so being strict, and enforcing harsh discipline—
the strap and such were things of which we were not ashamed.

But now we live in times best marked by acceptance of
the diversity that exists between us all
and, besides, we have vivid memories of
lessons learned from times when we let our standards fall.

So we find ourselves in the midst of a time
when even our national identity is a thing we do not “get”
and, as such, our schools will continue to struggle on…
THAT journey’s far from over yet.


I did this one over lunch and handed it to Andrew, who was back in the booth. He chuckled and read it.

Jamie, who was seated next to him said, “do one for me, Maurice!” How could I say no?

The paper title is, “The Changing Lifestyles of Teachers”

When asked to introduce topic of teacher lifestyle
my first sarcastic thought was, “what life?”
For, thinking of the long hours and expectations
I could only envision a lot of stress and strife.

After all, the teacher, as a public figure
gives up much that should be under their control,
their every action under scrutiny,
existing in the proverbial fish bowl.

And as such, at least at first blush it seemed
that every waking moment could be consumed
simply tending to the affairs associated with the job
but then I wondered, “is that as true as I’d assumed?”

After all a teacher’s life is the one I have too
and upon reflection, it’s been not too bad at all
sure, at times it can seem tough, even constricted
but it’s rewarding and good when viewed over the long haul.

No, teaching’s not for you if you aspire for the lifestyle of the rich.
You can’t afford the trappings, all the “stuff”
but you still are afforded dignity and respect,
and while you won’t be rich, you’ll have enough.

And best of all, a teachers’ life is filled
with the joys that come from doing work that’s real—
growing lives –bodies, minds and hearts—
gives the teacher’s lifestyle a unique and special appeal.

And, of course, you know these were all done just for fun. Jerome, the course instructor, who also happens to be an oooolllldddd friend, will only get a laugh.

To the Student Teachers

G                                                   D
Best practice, Curriculum guides, Cooperative learning, Think, Pair, Share
Am                                     C
Differentiated Instruction,  Bloom’s Taxonomy
G                                                     D
Flipped Classroom, Manipulatives, Formative, Summative
Am                                  C
Scaffolding, Rubric,  Accountability

G                              D
To be teachers we aspire
Am                                 C
always yearning for the place of learning
G                                              D
but we don’t know if we’ll get hired
and to be forthright
it has us all uptight

Multiple Intelligence, Professional Development,
Certification, Short Attention Span
Critical Thinking, At Risk Students,
Lesson, Unit, and Assessment Plans

Authentic Assessment, Blended Learning,
Comprehension, Methodology
In Loco Parentis, Methods Courses,
Professional Learning, No Zero Policy

G                                   D
Nobody Excluded, Schools Act, Literacy,
Am                               C
Program of Study, Busing Schedule
G                          D       N.C
Pedagogy, IEPs, SCOs, ESL, UDL…
…Bunch of other terms as well
that now in your teacher brains do dwell

(to the tune of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” by Billy Joel)

Reconsidering Programming in Schools as a Mandatory Course

Earlier this week I heard a piece on the CBC St. John’s morning show regarding the assertion that computer programming is something that should be taught in our public school system. Later on I read much the same article off the CBC NL website. The spokesperson for Code NL asserted that existing public school courses within our province were “a joke” and noted that in giving people the training in computer skills we could move away from our reliance on natural resources.

While, at least on the surface, this sounds reasonable, the reality is much more complex.

First some of the assertions are inaccurate. The spokesperson stated that existing courses were “a joke” and, besides sounding rather condescending to both teachers and students alike, without data to back up this assertion it must be considered to be only a personal opinion. The belief that the courses are only offered “in the Metro” area is also false. They are, for example, available in Gander, Clarenville, Corner Brook, Stephenville, Goose Bay, as well as in a host of smaller communities both locally and through CDLI. There is academic life “beyond the overpass.”

But there are more important things that should be stated in reply to the story.

Chief among these is the fact that schools do not exist for the sole purpose of preparing people for the world of work. While that is certainly ONE of the aims of public education it is important to also realize that the full picture is much broader. Schools exist because we wish to have individuals with the attitudes, skills and knowledge necessary to lead happy, worthwhile lives—at home, at work and within the community at large. Yes, of course we need people who contribute to the economy—after all, bills, both public and private, have to be paid and for that we must all do our part: earn money and pay our taxes. That said, it’s important to remember that as a society what we really need are people who lead good, personally meaningful lives, and who also live out their duties to the community.

Added to this is the reality that we live in a diverse, vibrant society. Young people come to school with varying interests, abilities and values. Sure, we are all citizens of a single community, a single province and, at least at first glance, it makes some degree of sense that an intricate knowledge of those little electronic gadgets that so dominate our lives seems to make some sense. But just think about our already busy schools and consider the value of additional mandatory publically funded courses in:

– Plumbing, because running water and sewer are vital parts of our public infrastructure;

– Carpentry, because, shelter is important, especially in our nasty cold environment;

– Cooking, because we all have to eat on a regular basis;

– Embalming, because we’re all going to need it.

Of course not! That’s silly in the extreme. Schools cannot be expected to do everything and, besides, one of the benefits to living in a large diverse society is that we have the critical mass needed to ensure that levels of expertise exist, to the necessary extent, across any given community.

We don’t all have to be able to do everything.

So, too, with programming: It’s a vital part of our economy and its effects within our personal lives are too broad to even summarize. Still, we don’t all need to be programmers to appreciate the technology or to use it effectively.

There’s something else: it’s naïve to assume that taking a course or two, in school, in programming, is something that will prepare a young person for a career in that field. Programmers do much more than just write code. Sure, that’s a vital part of the enterprise and, besides, it’s fun to write code bits and have computers do clever things. That said, the fact is that only a few of the students who would be forced to take that mandatory course (or courses) would see the value in it and, thus, put in the required effort. The result would likely be a halfhearted thing leading to jaded teachers and students; in sum a waste of time and money.

The reality is that computer science is not something that can be sparked and ignited like your backyard barbecue. It is, rather, a complex skill that takes many years of personal investment of both time and effort. Besides knowing the basics of a code’s “language” the programming professional also understands logic and structure. Most importantly the programmer sees it all within a complex, disciplined problem-solving framework, something that only happens in an environment specifically created to doing just that—namely a computer science academic unit or a well-run enterprise dedicated to that pursuit…

…and specifically NOT a public school that is already over-burdened with unrealistic expectations from its governing agencies and from the public at large.

Still, the sentiment is a valid one, albeit a bit misdirected. Instead of trying to create yet another course, along with its attendant monetary costs (and they will be steep; computer hardware and software, along with the required training is costly; a bottomless black hole into which one pours money) perhaps those interested in promoting the cause of programming should do what others with similar interest have done, and continue to do: forego advocacy for outreach.

Instead of publically shaming governments and schools for not teaching the stuff, work alongside of the various partners: government, districts, the university and the NLTA.

Instead of asking them to do what you feel is important, offer free workshops for students and teachers. Visit schools and participate in professional development activities. Focus in integrating some of the skills and knowledge within the existing educational framework. Add vitality rather than simply grafting on something else to an already overburdened structure.