Saturday, August 29, 2020

Health and Open Burning


Should we be burning leaves and other garden waste?

If tobacco smoke is toxic, wouldn’t other kinds of smoke be toxic also?

Attitudes to smoking have changed over the last hundred years. In the 1990’s, doctors proved that tobacco smoke causes lung cancer, not only in the smoker but also in other people. So, countries all over the world, including Jamaica, have placed bans on smoking in public places.

In Jamaica, we like to tidy the yard by raking up leaves and other garden waste and burning them. Perhaps we should reconsider this practice. Smoke produced in this way is even more toxic than tobacco smoke. It is a mixture of particles and chemicals produced by incomplete burning of carbon-containing materials. All smoke contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, many different chemicals, and particulate matter (PM or soot). Inhaling carbon monoxide decreases the body's oxygen supply. This can cause headaches, reduce alertness, and aggravate a heart condition known as angina.

 Heat from a fire makes the smoke go up in the air, but when it hits cooler air, a lot of the chemicals condense and gradually fall to the ground. The smoke is spread out by wind and air currents in areas where people live, so it is hard for them to avoid breathing it in.                   

Source: Particulate Matter Basics US EPA

Very small particles are those which measure 2.5 microns or less. (10,000 microns = 1cm.) They are about a quarter the size of a red blood cell and would even look small under a microscope. They can seep through cracks in closed doors and windows. They can get deep into the lungs and possibly into the blood.  Inhaling fine particles can cause a variety of health effects, including respiratory irritation and shortness of breath, and can worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease.

Other health impacts of open burning include increased infant mortality, low birth weight of babies, onset of childhood asthma, coughs, and wheezing. While the seriousness of these depends on how close people are to fires, how long fires persist and the number of fires people are exposed to, open burning increases risk of death among the general population, particularly the elderly, children, and those with preexisting respiratory and cardiac illnesses.

The alternatives to burning garden waste include:

1.      Composting – all garden waste will gradually decompose. It will decompose more quickly if it is broken into smaller pieces, kept moist and layered with kitchen waste such as fruit and vegetable peelings, in a compost pile or bin.


 di      In districts where there is garbage collection, it can be bagged and put out to be collected.

N.B. We should never burn garbage. The smoke from it is more toxic than that from garden waste. It should be bagged and put out to be collected. Where there is no garbage collection, it should be buried far from water sources.

Friday, August 7, 2020

On Jamaican Hair and Language

I don’t normally write on what’s trending, but my interest was sparked by the debate on the ‘hair’ issue, particularly the question of the right to self-expression. The case in question relates to a child whose mother was told in 2018 that she must undo the locks or cut her daughter's hair or she would not be allowed to return to Kensington Primary School in September. The parents took the matter to court on the grounds that the school had breached the child’s constitutional rights. An injunction was taken out preventing the school from barring the child. She has in fact been attending the school since September 2018. However, on Friday, July 31, 2020 the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the school. This led to widespread condemnation of the court and a vigorous discussion about the ruling and about hair. I listened to some of this on RJR's Beyond the Headlines hosted by Dionne Jackson Miller. Much of it was in legal language which left me confused. 
         Following this, on Friday, August 7, 2020, on RJR's Hotline, hosted by Emily Shields, the eminent constitutional lawyer,  Dr. Lloyd Barnett’s  responded to her questions.  I understood him to say that no argument was presented by the parents to counter the school’s reason for not allowing locked hair i.e. that it is not properly washed and leads to outbreaks of lice. They could have, but they did not, argue against this reason with facts about hair washing and lice. I understood him to say that had they done so, the case might have gone differently.
       Incidentally, head lice do not discriminate against any kind of hair.
They thrive in all kinds of hair, clean or dirty, curly or straight, long or short, locked or plaited. Like the corona virus,  they simply need to get from one human being to another. Children in close proximity in schools assist in their transmission. 

I don’t have a problem with how children wear their hair, provided that it is kept clean. In relation to self expression, I’m not sure that in the case of children it is theirs or that of their parents. I know of girls who have wanted to cut their hair, but have been prevented from doing so by their fathers. It would be hard to gauge the effect of being told to change their hairstyle would have on their self-esteem.

How do children express themselves apart from hairstyle and dress? In many ways including art, music, movement, speech and writing. The right to self-expression seems to me to be breached far more in every school in relation to written language.  Children are taught that their mother tongue, Jamaican Creole or ‘patwa’ is their home language which they speak among friends and family, but they are not taught to read it or write it. They are allowed to play roles, sing and express themselves orally in patwa, while at the same time being encouraged to speak Standard Jamaican English. This is the language they are taught to read and write. In order to read and write in patwa, a child must first learn to read and write in the English Language. The injustice meted out by this system is not so much that it’s harder to learn in a language that is not of your thoughts, but the implication that this language is superior to yours and by extension, those who have command of this language are superior to you. This surely must affect your self-esteem.

The ineffectiveness of this system is shown, not by the large numbers of Jamaicans whose command of the English Language both orally and in writing is better than that of many native speakers of this language, but by the large numbers of children who don’t learn to read, and those who have difficulty expressing themselves in their own words both orally and in writing. They can learn swathes of text by rote, but struggle to write a description, explain a process or recount an event.

Another way in which schools damage children’s self-esteem is by the system of assessment – testing and grading and failing children. It’s not entirely the school’s intention – parents and the whole society are programmed to judge children’s performance in relation to one another. But that is a topic for a future blog post.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Cutting the curriculum - Grade 1 Math

I’m writing a series of blog posts to highlight that the primary curriculum is overloaded with content. With pressure to cover this content, teachers are unable to give the less able children the help they need and they get left behind. I welcome comments and feedback on these posts, especially from teachers who have developed methods to overcome the hurdles I have described. I confess that math teaching isn’t my forte.
Mathematics must be the most challenging subject to teach, if one is aiming to ensure that all the children in the class reach the level of numeracy of which they are capable. There is such a wide range of ability among children –  several years above or below the average in a given class. In a grade 1 class there could even be children at Piaget’s stage 1. They can count in the sense that they can recite the numbers in order, but not in the sense that they can count objects. Young children, when they are learning to count, are liable to move more than one object when saying one number name. They also say that there are more in a set of objects when they are spread out than when they are close together. No amount of telling them will convince them otherwise.
However, there comes a point in their mental development when they are said to conserve number – they understand that the quantity doesn’t change if it is rearranged. At this point, and not before, they are ready for the concept of addition. So, in a grade 1 class, there could be some of these children, and others, probably the majority, who already conserve number. This presents a dilemma. Ways need to be found to help the stage 1 children, by presenting them with a variety of situations requiring counting, without making them feel that they are failures. They need to find what they are doing is fun and interesting to build up their confidence and motivate them to persevere. That is not to say that the majority of the children are ready to race through the curriculum at breakneck speed, only that there are some children who are not ready.

Now to look at the curriculum, for Grade 1, Term 1, taken from Mathematics Scope and Sequence Grades 1-3, August 2016 Version 5  (in blue. My comments in black.)
Number strand
a.    Identify numbers 0-10.
b.    Identify set with up to 19 members

c.    Place number 1–10 in serial order
d.    Use objects to create sets 

e.    Identify objects which belong/do not belong in a set.
f.     Count the number of objects in a set
g.    Matching members of a set- same/fewer/more..
h.    Compare sets.
i.      Partition 2-10 members in two or more sets.
j.    Identify whole set.
k.  Identify parts of a set.
l.    Identify the empty set.
Geometry strand
a.   Identify geometric shapes in natural and man-made objects (eg. natural objects: tree, man, hill, sun       
     manmade shapes: roof, window, ruler, ball, book 
Is it realistic to expect  to cover all these topics in September, when the children are settling in to a new school, and teacher and students are getting to know each other? Teachers are expected to review each previous lesson before presenting each day’s topic. What if the review reveals that re-teaching is necessary? Also, children in grade 1 need plenty of practice in writing neatly in exercise books or workbooks and forming their numerals.
Number strand
a.   Use Ordinals up to 10th.
b.   Write number words 0-19. Why are numbers above 10 being introduced so early?
c.   Write numerals 0-19.
d.   Associate number with numerals.
e.   Identify set with 20 through 100 members. Grade 1 children have little or no concept numbers 20 – 100. Are they expected to count 100 objects before learning about place value?
f.    Join two sets (up to 10 members) using mathematical sentences.
g.   Use +, -, and = correctly to complete mathematical sentences.
Measurement strand
a.  Identify measurable attributes of objects for eg. A box  has dimensions (length, width, height), weight, volume (non-standard)
b.  Use comparison and describe objects using
o   long/short
o   wide/narrow
o   thick/thin
o   heavy/light
o   large/small
o   tall/short (use concrete, semi concrete and  then abstract to do the comparisons)
c.  Identify objects of equal/unequal length.
d.  Estimate and measure
the length of various objects using non-standard units           . (for eg. Hand span, foot prints, fudge sticks, finger width, paces, connecting cubes, paper clips)
Geometry strand
Use any simple shape to   make pattern by repetition (e.g. Ink blobbing, tessellation, potato-printing)
Again, there is too much for one month.
Number strand
a.    Know ‘one more than’ facts. Many examples of these can be given, such as how old they will be next year.
b.    Recognize and make ten facts
c.    Memorize and recall addition facts up to the sum of ten. I’m sure I can’t be reading or understanding this correctly. Do they really mean that the children should know all the addition facts for all the numbers 1 to 10? There are 45 such addition facts!
In “Mathematics we Need” (the text used in Jamaican schools in the 80’s) grade 3 students were learning the addition facts for the number 7. I am very much in favour of children learning addition facts, (too many children are counting on their fingers in later  grades), but they need more time to get a feel of a number before  learning its addition facts.  For example, for the number five, they can know ‘fiveness’ in relation to an arrangement of dots; to the subsets of five in pictures on a page; in counters which can be  moved around; in units of measurement and in ordinal numbers. I would suggest that addition facts up the sum of 5 is the highest number they need to learn at this point.

There is an app called “Calculation Time” which uses dominoes (without the 6) to help students with mental arithmetic. Some, but not necessarily all, students will love it and learn from it. Furthermore, as yet not all students have access to this app.

d.    Know addition facts (commutative property). This should be taught before “c”.
e.    Associate the addition of up to three numbers with the joining of sets.
f.     Adding zero to any number.
g.    Use +, -, =, ≠, correctly to complete mathematical sentences.
Measurement Strand
a.    Use concrete materials to investigate the relationship between the size of a unit and the number of units needed to measure length. E.g. compare the number of paper clips and pencils needed to measure the length of a table.
b.    compare and order objects by their linear measurements using the same non-standard units. E.g. using a length of string equal to the length of your forearm, work with a partner to find other objects that are about the same length.
Geometry strand
a.    Identify straight and curve path and associate them with longer and shorter paths.

Number strand
a.    Identify greatest or least of a set of numbers. (0 – 19)

b.    Compare numbers: greatest/least.

c.    Use +, -, = correctly to complete mathematical sentences.
Measurement Strand
a.  Identify days of the week and months of the year.
b.  Use a calendar to calculate days and weeks for specific events.
c.  Tell time on the hour,   half an hour on a digital and analog clock.           
d.  Show time given orally on the clock face.
e.  Associate time on the hour or half hour with daily events.
f.   Use estimation to compare times spent on various activities.
g.  Associate months with school activities and holidays.

There are fewer teaching hours December, because of end-of-term review and tests, Christmas activities and Christmas holidays, so there's not much time to introduce new material. Most of the activities in the measurement strand are covered from time to time in the Integrated Studies Curriculum.  Furthermore they don’t need to learn the half hours until grade 2.
Any changes in the first term of grade 1 will set back terms 2 and 3, and ultimately the ensuing years, but unless a solid foundation is laid in Grade 1, children will struggle in later grades or give up completely. We should try to make math interesting and fun for all children so that they continue to be motivated.
I think this curriculum was implemented in 2017. It's worth noting that performance in the Grade 4 Numeracy Test has been showing steady improvement from 53% mastery in 2012 to 74% in 2018, so something good must have been happening in grade 1 classes between 2009 and 2015 before the introduction of this curriculum. Perhaps we should try to identify what that was.
In a subsequent blog post, I will compare grades 6 and 7 curriculum, where there is a great deal of overlap, to show that many of the topics in the grade 6 curriculum can in fact be left until grade 7.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Cutting the curriculum - Science

I'm writing a series of blog posts with the intention of persuading people that the primary curriculum is overloaded with content and needs to be cut. In this post I'm looking at science - specifically a small part of grade 4 science.

The National Standards Curriculum is daunting. (Information taken directly from the curriculum is in blue.) The curriculum emphasizes the importance of developing process skills. Those relevant to this blog post are observing, communicating, predicting, inferring, formulating hypotheses, experimenting.
The curriculum also states “content is easy to forget but process skills remain forever. I would add that content is easy to access – if you want to know something, look it up. So why is so much content packed into the curriculum?
The curriculum also emphasizes the importance of attitudes: curiosity, objectivity, critical mindedness, open mindedness, inventiveness, intellectual honesty, humility and perseverance.
My suggestions for cutting the content of the curriculum are based on the importance of emphasizing skills and attitudes.
The science for grades 4, 5 and 6 is about 200 pages long. 
I’ve taken a small section which, as a biology teacher, I’m familiar with and concerned about. It's the section of the grade 4 curriculum on sense organs.The GSAT curriculum has been rearranged for the NSC, so that the eye and the ear which were originally taught in Grade 6, are now taught in grade 4. This means they are taught before sound and light (which would include lenses), which I don’t think is a rational move. I concentrated on the following:
Focus question 2: How does the structure of sense organs relate to their functions? (8 lessons). 
(Focus question 1 was Why are sense organs important?)

The content is to be taught during 8 lessons, but the curriculum leaves it up to the teacher to write the lesson plans. The lesson numbers given here are mine and not included in the curriculum.

Lesson 1. The Eye 
Look in a mirror at their eyes and/or examine a model/picture (online/ offline), record their observations (colour, parts) and discuss what they see. Make an annotated drawing of one eye to show the external features and their related functions.
Labels include eyelid, eyelashes, white of the eye, iris and pupil. They can suggest functions of the parts. Looking at how the iris constricts in bright light provides a clue to the function of the iris. 

Research and label diagram of the eye provided by the teacher (cornea, iris, pupil, lens, retina and optic nerve ONLY). Using the diagram, show the route that light travels through the eye, and the information then transmitted to the brain.
Sequence this on a flow diagram (cornea à pupil àlens àretina àoptic nerve àbrain). Suggest possible responses of the body after the information is interpreted by the brain.
I would leave most of this out. I think it’s sufficient to tell them at this stage that after light enters the eye it is converted to signals that go to the brain. They will learn more detail in high school. Looking at videos of how the eye works could be an optional enrichment activity.
In groups, examine an eye from another animal e.g. slaughtered cattle/goat/pig and compare the external features with that of the human eye. Discuss and record their observations and share with the class. 

I’ve heard so much about children having to get cow eyes, I was surprised they were given as an example only. I think it would be better to get the children to look at the eyes of pets or farm animals, observe how they differ from human eyes and record their observations in drawings or writing.

Lesson 2 . The Ear
 Using a variety of media (electronic or non-electronic) provided by the teacher (e.g. charts, models, online resources), examine the structure of the human ear then label a given diagram of the major parts (pinna, ear canal, eardrum, middle ear, inner ear and auditory nerves) and state their functions, excluding details of the middle and inner ear. (Students are ONLY required to identify the middle and inner ear; no further details are needed.
What we normally refer to as an ear is the ear pinna. I think that the children need to know at this point is that the ear’s function of converting sound to signals that go to the brain takes place in the inner ear, basically what is outlined here.
Make a simple flow chart showing the route sound travels through the ear, and the information then transmitted to the brain (pinna à ear canal à ear drum à middle ear à the inner ear à auditory nerve à brain).
Take turns to be blindfolded while another student makes a sound from different points, inside or outside the classroom. Identify the type of sound, direction it is coming from, distance away, loudness of sound etc. As a class, discuss outcomes of the activity and suggest what they think the role of the brain was in identifying the different information about the sounds.
Use graphic organisers found in a word processor or presentation software to aid your construction of the flowchart.

Lesson 3 The Nose

Observe and interact with digital/non-digital resources on the human nose (chart, videotapes, model, educational CDs/DVDs/websites, etc.), label a diagram of the major parts (nostril, septum, hairs, nasal cavity).
Describe and record the scents they smell when the teacher opens various containers. In groups, suggest how they were able to smell and differentiate the various scents. Share their ideas with the class. (Teacher should emphasise that the brain interprets the information and makes us identify the odours.)
 Observe multimedia content on how the nose functions, (video clips, educational CDs/DVDs/websites, etc.), make a flow chart showing how the nose helps us to smell (odours in the air à nostril à nasal cavity à brain).
For homework, in preparation for the lesson on the tongue, children can perform this experiment: Get a small piece of onion. Close your eyes, hold your nose and taste the onion with the tip of your tongue. What do you taste?

Lesson 4 The Tongue
Discuss what children discovered about the onion. Have a discussion about taste – children’s likes and dislikes. What happens to your sense of taste when you have a cold? Is some of what you taste really smell?    Get children’s ideas about what tastes are specific to the tongue.
In groups, search a variety of sources (online/offline) for information on the human tongue. Construct a simple model of the human tongue showing the taste centres (salt, sour, sweet and bitter). Make a flow chart showing how the tongue helps us to taste (substances in food à taste buds à information sent to the brain). Share models and flow charts with the class. As a class, discuss how different tastes are identified (the brain interprets the information from the different taste buds and makes us identify the flavours). 
The tongue

There are some scientists who question the existence of taste centres.
Children should design an experiment to find out if there really are taste centres and where they are located on the tongue. Children may get different results for this experiment because people differ in their abilities to discern flavours.
Instead of constructing a model, children could cut out a tongue shape from a piece of pink paper, label the taste centres on it, and paste it into their books.

Lesson 5: The Skin
In groups, use a magnifying glass to examine their skin at different points of their body, example: the back and palm of their hand; the upper and lower surfaces of the forearm etc. Then, describe and record their observations (skin tone, hairs, sweat pores, creases and folds etc.). Compare the appearance of the skin at the different points of the body examined. Suggest reasons for the differences and their ideas with the class.
In groups, use a variety online/offline of sources (e.g. videotapes, model, computer software, charts, books) to gather basic information on the external structure and functions of the human skin.
Please note – the curriculum does not require students to look at a diagram of a section through the skin, (which is commonly found in 4th grade text books. Leave that for high school.)
I think it would be good to have a discussion about skin colour. Black pigmentation protects the skin from the sun. White skin gets badly burned in tropical sun. Skin makes vitamin D in sunlight. In temperate climates, where there’s not as much sun in the winter, white skin allows more sun to penetrate and make vitamin D. People with dark skin are likely to be deficient in vitamin D. Bleaching damages the skin and doesn’t help it to make vitamin D.

Lesson 6: Sense organs in the skin
 Identify and record the five stimuli to which the skin responds (pain, pressure, heat, cold and touch). Make a flow chart showing how the skin helps us to feel (stimuli à skin sensors à nerves àbrain).
I would review all the sense organs at this point and relate to Focus Question 1 – why they are important. Discuss how the brain uses input from all the sense organs to make us aware of our environment.  
The following activities can be given for homework.
 Predict what will happen if they insert one hand into a container of cold water, and at the same time the other hand in warm water, then place both hands simultaneously into another container of water at room temperature. Carry out the investigation and record their observations. Compare their predictions and observations. Suggest simple explanations for their observations. Share and discuss their findings and ideas.

Taste samples of fruits, e.g., sweet orange, then sugar, then sour orange/grapefruit, rinsing their mouths with water after each sampling. Record and suggest simple explanations for their observations. Share and discuss their ideas.

Lesson 7: How sense organs can deceive us
Carry out optical illusion activities (e.g. roll a sheet of letter size paper to form a tube with diameter of about 2 cm. Hold the tube with your left hand and look through the tube with the left eye. Place the right hand against the tube with the palm facing the right eye. Move the right hand slowly back and forth alongside the tube while viewing simultaneously through both eyes). Discuss and give possible reasons for their observations.  That’s a good one!
Look at other optical illusions.

What do you see?
Discuss and record ways in which their hearing can deceive them, e.g. reflected sound (echoes) may mislead our ears regarding the origin of a sound. Create a song/poem/drawing/dance etc. to convey how people’s hearing can deceive them.

Review the ways in which their senses can mislead them. Discuss the limitations of the senses. In groups, compose a story on how someone’s senses deceived them. Use story making or presentation software to design and produce the story which should include at least pictures, narration/sound and text. Share stories with class.

Lesson 8: Instruments used to extend the senses.
Do research using a variety of sources (online/offline) or interview a resource person, on how instruments are used to extend the senses, example: detect smoke and odours, view distant objects, view objects at night, detect subtle temperature changes, hear faint sounds, detect vibrations, etc. Make models of the instruments and use these in reporting to class on how the instruments work.

I hope I have demonstrated here that the content prescribed cannot be completed in the time frame given, and that much of it can be deferred to high school.

In case you are concerned that an important aspect of sense organs was omitted,
Focus question 3 is How can I care for and protect my sense organs?

Friday, June 12, 2020

COVID 19 and the Primary Curriculum

COVID 19 has brought into sharp focus inequalities in the education system. While some children, supervised by their parents, have had Zoom classes with their teachers, watched educational videos on Youtube and submitted work to their teachers, others have simply missed three months of schooling. Primary School children will never be able to catch up, because the curriculum is so overloaded with content that there’s no time allowed in it for anything else. 
A student following a class on Zoom
 In my retirement, (I was a biology teacher), I’ve helped children with learning to read, with GSAT and now with PEP. I have looked over class work, assisted with homework and been driven mad by projects, from grades 1 to 6. My opinions are based on what I have observed during the last 15 years, and not on the objectives stated in the curriculum. I realized that one blog post wasn’t sufficient to support my argument, so I’m starting with my list of:
10 Reasons for cutting curriculum
1.         Children need to know that they are loved and wanted and that there is a place for them in society. When children fail to keep up, they lose interest, and start to misbehave.
2.         Children need to learn how to get along with others and co-operate and have empathy. These traits are not developed when there is so much emphasis on competition; and when children are discouraged from expressing their opinions. (See Tracy-Ann McGhie-Sinclair's article on this in the Gleaner.)
3.         Every child has a strength.
a.         Knowing one’s strengths builds self-esteem.
b.         Children’s strengths need to be identified early and coached. Coaching children’s strength encourages them to perform better in their weaker areas.
c.         Praise for good performance is a more effective enforcer than punishment for something done badly.
4.         The Grade 1 curriculum explains to children that we are all different, while at the same time expecting all children to learn at the same pace and with the same attention span. No allowance is made for children suffering from anxiety or ADHD, or even undiagnosed sight or hearing problems. 
5.         The curriculum is designed to inculcate knowledge, skills and attitudes. However, knowledge dominates at the expense of the other two, in spite of the fact that bits of knowledge are soon forgotten. Values and attitudes such as honesty, courtesy, punctuality and reliability are equally as important as knowledge, and are learnt for life.
6.         Children see all assessment as a judgment of themselves. Poor performance in tests lowers their self-esteem, so children label themselves as stupid. The PEP curriculum claims that assessments are student centred and formative, meaning that assessments help teachers identify concepts that students are struggling to understand, and skills they are having difficulty acquiring, so that adjustments can be made to lessons, instructional techniques, and academic support. Teachers have no opportunity to do this, because PEP prescribes factual material to be taught in every lesson in every week of the academic year.
7.         One reason for cramming so much content in the curriculum is that assessment of students’ performance in grades 4, 5 and 6 is the basis on which they are selected for the high schools. Competition for ‘brand-name” schools is so intense that too much attention is given to the children in the top 20% of the ability range. However more important than the top 20%  having mastered grades 7 & 8 work in grade 6, is that all the children should be reading and have mastered computational skills required at their grade level.
8.         Much of the same material that is in the curriculum for grades 4, 5 and 6 is taught again at high school. In fact, some of the better performing students are bored in grade 7, because they’ve done all the work before.
    Math is a building subject. If children haven’t mastered the basics in grades 1 and 2 they
will flounder in higher grades. Hence the dislike and fear of math in the general population.
10.     The best ways of mastering the English language are by reading for pleasure and by writing one’s own thoughts to communicate with others. Children who are taught to read with access to plenty of books they can read on their own are more likely to enjoy reading. As their reading improves, a whole world of knowledge is open to them. They don’t have to have it prescribed in a curriculum. 
Children's reading room at Hanover Parish Library
I welcome comments on the above. 

I written several blog posts on this same topic including 
Reflections on PEP  and
We are failing our children