The ammoniac stench of root attack

Posted on June 28, 2012


This week with the passing of famed writer and cultural influentialista, Nora Ephron, I realized that here was another person gone before I had the wits or consciousness to explore in real time.  O Captain, My Captain: such was the case with Hunter S. Thompson, Mitch Hedberg, Biggie Smalls and Socrates.  So, I sat yesterday, reading through all of Ms. Ephron’s essays on over-priced New York walk-ups, sex with Venetian blinds and owning great cookbooks in life.  Such a colourful mind!  I extracted a couple of things that made me want to write here.

  1. First, her thoughts on blogs, posts for which she wrote over 100 pieces here and there: “A blog is a soap bubble…meant to last just a moment or two.” —here and now, catch them, touch them, wonder, then they are gone!
  2. Next about getting on with your life’s work: “I’m very much a believer in knowing what it is that you love doing so you can do a great deal of it.”

An awareness of temporality and of why we should open the wine now!  No cups?  That’s fine with us.  Cup your hands, and drink!  And, if you’re 26, “go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re thirty-four!”

I lie.  I did know who Ms. Ephron was, but couldn’t stand Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail or the cult of blond-and-perky-early-90s-Hollywood, aka, Meg Ryan.  With my particular colouring, I’d have had to sit through at least 4 hours of ammoniac fumes to achieve, at best, an orange-y (or perhaps orangutan-y) version of such Optimism in Life, not to mention root touch-ups every 3 weeks.  So my low-maintenance Asian teen self probably quietly pressed the mute button on all that.  But how draconian! I’ve missed out on some gems as a result.

But I digress.  Back to the good stuff about Ms. Ephron.  The 2 mined quotes do make sense to me now.  And they make me think of the business of Education.  Now, that I’m sitting here in Toronto, after being away for 6 alien-abducted years, I am reading about the public school system from whose end spout I was plunked out as a widget in the world: the Toronto District School Board.  Apparently, Financial Literacy, the Thing I’ve been on about lately, has impressively made its way into being a MANDATE, no less, in the Ontario curriculum for Grades 4-12.  I learned this through a recent class on Financial Literacy in the city, sponsored by an agency of the Government of Canada.  So, here is an Education system, so highly attuned to its purpose and mission in life, to prepare its children to be the “[hero] and heroine of [their] life, not the victim” (if Ms. Ephron’s influence ever made it through customs to Ontario), that it has spryly and deftly added to its mission, Financial Literacy, arguably, one of the most important tools for the future.

The printing of this curriculum document became available in September 2011.  While I don’t doubt that at least some of the people who worked on this initiative really care, the end result of it is a strange and toothless thing.  First, there is no assessment tool associated with measuring its effects on students.  Second, it is an admitted cut-and-paste job from already existing curricula (some not updated since 1999) and perhaps the “new spin” on it is the encouragement of teachers to “prompt” students into thinking about something loosely related to business / marketing / media / economics when teaching about:

– Grade 4 Visual Arts (“Why do some fonts attract your attention to products and messages more than other fonts?”)

– Grade 5 Health (“What long-term consequences can result from alcohol abuse?”)

– Grade 6 Math (Sample problem: If 5 batteries cost $4.75, what is the cost of 1 battery?)


These documents also reiterate that in higher grades more direct connections are made in say, Gr. 8 Geography, when students learn that the available natural resources of a region are direct contributors to the economy of the people living there.

But, my question is, if these curriculum ideas have already been in existence, and if these things have always supposed to have been properly taught (not to say that randomly discussing marketable fonts is particularly poignant), what is it about this Financial Literacy initiative that is an initiative (=new, different etc)?  For the cynic in me, it seems that these people want to say that they’ve held Financial Literacy important all these years!  See?!  But, according to a survey, which informed this project in 2009, despite these existent things:

  •  Thirty‐eight per cent of students felt prepared to manage their money after graduation.
  •  Fifty‐seven per cent felt that schools should provide them with more information on money management.
  • Students assessed their own knowledge on financial topics as being low.

So, to re-hash the curriculum in 2011, albeit in convenient one-book form, implies that the system has NOT been functioning as a system able to teach students to build upon their previous understanding; that while these ideas always existed, there has been no plan, no connection of the dots through the grades.  Now, that Financial Literacy is the buzzword of Responsible Educators, does this document reveal overlooked diamonds?  No.  This is a cheat-sheet of dot connections in the shape of one, issued primarily for, I’m afraid, PR purposes.  Come on.  It sucked then, and it sucks now.

The real heavy lifting lies in repairing a system that obviously has trouble helping teachers across grades, let alone schools, let alone a whole school board,  smoothly teach an upward spiraling of understanding of anything.  Financial Literacy?  It won’t end there.  Responsible Educators will be called on for comprehensive curricula on Environmentalism, Global Thinking, Social Responsibility, Critical Thinking and Ethics—all things at the core of What’s Wrong With Our World.  As it is, it is a struggle even to teach basic subjects with the guarantee of a continuity of understanding due to funding shortages, which affect classroom sizes and resources, which affect effectiveness….zzzzzzzzzz…

I can’t possibly speculate at the zillion things that plague the agility of policy-making in Toronto / Ontario on a serious level.  As a teacher who once worked for the TDSB, I can attest to the no-time / students-barely-performing-at-functional-level-to-grasp-basics issue.   As a teacher who has worked around the world, I can say that schools and teachers fall into the comfort of Things That Work-ish, rinse, repeat.  The examined life does not happen on a personal level for most of us, so for a whole system to examine itself is a tall order.

So, it comes down to individually inspired teachers, educators who pass on their insight into Financial Literacy / Ethics / Environmentalism and people passionate about education.

– Like, Beth Kobliner, who has worked with Sesame Street to get Elmo to teach about things like delayed gratification when making a purchase!  (I guess, all those years of teaching counting wasn’t cutting it)

– Like these Ontario teachers who have been educating other teachers, parents and their students by doing hands-on things like creating mini-economies and fake stock exchanges in their moonlighting hours

Do I have a point?  Oh yeah, Nora Ephron.  In her 1996 Commencement Speech to Wellesley College (all women), she talked about how the social circumstances of her graduation year of 1962 effectively held a boot to the chest of women.  That year, alumnae had to look forward to the parallel lives of tunicada,  “tunicata apparently being small fish who spend the first part of their lives frantically swimming around the ocean floor exploring their environment, and the second part of their lives just lying there breeding.”  But despite the cloggy, sloggy swamp of systemic hopelessness, individuals infused with the passion and life to learn, actually got down to working on it, shared important changes and dragged the world feet first toward the better.  Sometimes, along the way, such effort may result in derivative crap, sometimes it results in revolutionary bio-pic screenplays dealing with whistleblowing, corporate cover-ups and the unnoticed struggle of the underclass, or deft handling of taboo subjects such as faking orgasms to appease the egos of those who don’t really know how to perform.

So, tunicata, if you’re listening, you’ve landed yourself in a cushy position after enough fin flapping.  Don’t just lie there and produce more of the same.  Life is itching for the stuff of quality and explosive inspiration.  Why would you serve up a summary of your broken system and call it new?  We don’t want the quick answers.  Show your work please.  Get to the root.  Endure the stink.

Just sayin’.  *pop*, I’m out.

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