Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Prison" Schools

Given all the furor over Minister Thwaites's presentation in Parliament of the Ministry Paper “A preventative Initiative in Schools to Ameliorate Jamaica’s Crime Problem” January 20, 2014, I decided to read the source document. There is a one-line reference to a JCF study, which identifies certain schools as being the schools the individuals in the study attended. Based on this, the press chose the unfortunate headline “Prison Schools” and a statement of fact was interpreted as a cause and effect relationship, naturally upsetting teachers and students at the named schools.
The Ministry Paper also said 
 “Criminals are not born; they are formed – often by neglect or poor socialization. The major positive environments in the formative process are school, church and/or family.  Every child goes to school at some time. There is no other institution with such potential for positive socialization. As such, law-abiding habits ought to be expressly connected with the school experience.
And: “Studies show that many who end up committing serious crime were frequently absent from school; exhibited cognitive or social abnormalities; were not assessed or treated adequately; had little or no effective  family/ teacher support and dropped-out/ “graduated” with inadequate or no certification.”
Can we disagree with these statements?
In response, the Ministry of Education plans a special intervention in 56 seriously affected schools (it didn’t say whether any primary schools are included) to
1. Identify troubled, deviant and seriously disadvantaged students
2. Assess and address their situations
3. Prevent drop-outs

 The Ministry of Education gives the following projections:
 The MoE also proposes a system-wide intervention beginning in 2014. It will:
1. Administer a test to determine  the social and emotional state of at-risk students  - first in an early grade and later at an intermediate level, for example Grade 9, in selected schools
2. Complete development of Regional Referral Centres to treat with major dysfunctional tendencies
3. Offer teachers in primary schools training in counselling, parental engagement and primary therapies related to challenged children
4. Request a revision of the courses in Behaviour Management in all teacher training institutions to ensure that they cover the emerging behavioural challenges being displayed by students
5.  Appoint Social Workers in Education Regions who will network with relevant Ministries and Agencies
6. Provide instruction to Principals on how to identify and respond to disturbed students
7.  Implement a programme to detect and address disruptive conduct and drop-out risks in certain grades by September 2015
8. Expand opportunities for students to become involved in uniformed groups, sports and creative arts and thereby to engage and reform those with negative tendencies
9. Engage the Police and Military as part of a team to periodically attend the most vulnerable schools in a non-threatening way to befriend, promote order and reinforce positive constructive behaviour.
Given the potential of schools, I hope that intervention in the early grades of primary school, together with parental engagement, will be given top priority. Many of the at-risk students exhibit disruptive behavior disorders, for example ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) from grade 1 or earlier.  The incidence of this condition has been found to be 5% in developed countries. It is therefore likely that in every average-sized primary school class in Jamaica, there would be 1 or 2 children with this condition. These children are often shouted at, or sent out of the class, and sometimes beaten. They are certainly not given the kind of attention they need in order to learn. In her book “A Teacher’s Guide to Understandingthe Disruptive Behaviour Disorders”, Dr. Pearnel Bell recommends that these children should be diagnosed, after which parents, social workers and teachers should work together to help them reach their maximum potential, and give them a sense of usefulness and belonging. Too often, they label themselves as outcasts from an early age. Any desirable behavior they exhibit should be affirmed 100 times a day (about every 5 minutes)! See my posts of August and September 2013.
     In addition to children with ADHD, there are children with undiagnosed sight and hearing problems, malnourished children and children with learning disabilities, all of whom need special consideration in a class where they can get individual attention. Currently, in many schools, children across the whole ability spectrum are put together in one class, so as not to stigmatize the children, but I question the wisdom of this.  At the end of Grade 2, assessment of such a class showed that 5 boys and 3 girls were reading below grade 1 level; 3 boys and 2 girls were at grade 1 level; 3 boys and 6 girls were at grade 2 level; no boys and 10 girls were at grade 3 level; 3 boys and 7 girls were at grade 4 level and above. The more competent readers, being better able to follow instructions and work on their own, can follow the prescribed syllabus; but the priority  for non-readers and less competent readers should surely be to start where they are and work at their pace, with a strong emphasis on social skills, preferably with a specialist teacher.  In the same way as small potholes are less expensive to fill than big ones, early intervention is less costly than late intervention, and infinitely better for the children.
     My hope is that the Ministry of Education will follow through on the projections listed above; and that they will keep the public informed of the progress, making sure the progress is given the same prominence in the press as “Prison Schools”. It is also up to us to keep them on their toes.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Go Green with Composting

A bucketful of kitchen waste
My objective in writing this blog post is to encourage people in Jamaica, who are not already composting kitchen and garden waste to start, and for those who are already doing so to encourage others.
When a leaf drops from a tree in a forest, it slowly decomposes releasing nutrients that are re-used by the tree. One aim of composting is to allow waste organic matter to break down in the same way, naturally, producing humus which is a good soil conditioner. In the end, organic matter breaks down to carbon dioxide, water and minerals. A second aim of composting is to get rid of unwanted vegetable matter, including kitchen and
Kitchen waste covered with dry leaves
garden waste, at source, without burning it or having it taken away by a truck. It seems to me to be an unnecessary use of scarce resources in Jamaica to pay people to carry, in a gas-guzzling truck, material which in 6 months of composting would be reduced to one hundredth of its original weight and volume.
Much has been written about composting, explaining methods which can be used if you live in an apartment or if you have a small or a big yard. My question is, why don’t people compost more? Some people think it is a complicated process, but you do not need a big yard space, or a purpose built unit. You can collect the kitchen waste in a
Finished compost  (ackee seeds need to be taken out!)
covered container such as a bucket until it is convenient to take it to the compost heap. This can be as simple as a bucket-full of kitchen waste covered over with dry leaves or grass clippings. The next bucket-full is put on top of the dry leaves, and more leaves are put on top of that. After about 3 months, that pile can be left to decompose and a new pile started. If you turn the old pile, so that the fresher material is at the bottom and the more decomposed material is on top, it will break down more quickly. After about 6 months, all that is left is the humus, which you can mix with soil for your potted plants or in your garden beds.   
     When the same material ends up in a landfill or a garbage dump, it is mixed up with all sorts of stuff such as metals, glass and plastics, which do not break down, so it is of no use to anybody.
My preferred method is to have a countersunk heap, in a hole about 1 foot deep by 3 ft square, which can be covered with soil when it is finished.  Given the rocky terrain in my yard, that is not an option.
If you don't have a compost heap, try it nuh!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Fathers' Influence on Boys' Reading

In addition to literacy being the foundation of all learning, reading for pleasure has been shown to improve performance at school in all subjects, including mathematics. It is therefore of the utmost importance that boys not only learn to read but enjoy reading. Fathers have an important part to play in boys achieving this goal.
Most fathers would like to see their sons do well in school, but many are in the dark about of the best way of helping them. Men usually leave matters to do with school and reading up to the mothers, only getting involved when things are going wrong, when they tend to take a heavy-handed approach. Unfortunately, when it comes to reading, that can have the opposite of the intended effect.
     Volumes have been written about methods of teaching children to read, and hundreds of hours have been spent researching how children learn, but how a person actually learns to read is still a mystery. Methods go in and out of fashion, and one set of research contradicts the findings of another. But one observation remains constant— a child learns best in an atmosphere free of stress, in the company of a supportive and caring individual. Badgering and harassing a child, or otherwise communicating anxiety will result in the child having an adverse emotional attitude towards learning.
     Fathers are quite likely unaware of the strong influence they have on their sons’ reading. Boys look up to their fathers, whether those fathers live with them, or see them at frequent or infrequent intervals. Boys want to be like them. If fathers are seen to be reading for pleasure, and if fathers read stories to their young sons, these boys will want to read, too. If not, they won’t see reading as important. Fathers who scorn the activity of reading, and express sentiments such as that reading is a waste of time will certainly make boys lose interest.
     All negative reactions to boys’ attempts at reading, such as shouting, expressing disappointment, or walking away, are likely to have damaging effects.  One boy I was attempting to help with reading told me that his father beat him because he couldn’t read. No wonder he couldn’t read! Instead of seeing reading as a pleasurable experience, any attempts he made would be accompanied by feelings of anxiety and fear. A father who praises all his son’s attempts at reading will be rewarded by further efforts by the boy.
     Even if a father himself cannot read, or is a poor reader, he can still influence his son in the right direction, by expressing regret about his own lack of competency and encouraging his son to read to him. Important also is a father’s attendance at PTA meetings, where they can hear how other parents are helping their children. At one such meeting about literacy, at Chetwood Memorial Primary School, a father told how he likes to play football with his son. He also likes to read, so they read before playing football. Even if the son sees football as a reward for reading, it will still have a positive effect.
     At the time of that meeting, I was trying to help eight students with their reading. The parents of all of them had been specially invited to that meeting. Only one parent came - a mother. No amount of money, or input from institutions or organizations, could achieve such a positive result in promoting literacy in boys as fathers’ encouragement and affirmation.
     My post on Boys' Reading makes some other suggestions about why boys don't like to read and what can be done about  it. At the time of writing, I hadn't considered fathers' influence at all, but it may be the one missing link in all this discussion. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Reading at Buckingham Primary School

On December 9, 2013,  I went to make a presentation of "Delroy in the Marog Kingdom" to Buckingham Primary School, located on the road from Montego Bay to Hopeton through Granville, Camrose and Kempshot. A book-reading was arranged by Tamika Williams to follow my visit to her award-winning Ahhh Ras Natanga Garden and Gallery. The book was donated by Donna Delgado as part of 1 Love Medusa Reunion's activities in July 2012, when members of the group bought copies of my book to be donated either to the school they attended, or to a school of my choosing. I read to grades 4 to 6. As usual, I carried a toy frog and a pot which grabbed the students' attention from the beginning,  They remained focused until the end. I hope the excerpts I read were enough to whet their appetites so they will read the book for themselves.
      I then went to grades 1 and 2 to read "Beautiful Blackbird" by Ashley Bryan. When I read this book to grade 1 classes in another school, the children lost interest halfway through, perhaps because I had no props. This time, inspired by Mara Menzies storytelling, I tried some of her techniques. Of course, I had to read rather than tell the story, but my sister, here on holiday, held the book for me. My arms were free to flap like birds' wings and the children flapped theirs also, like the birds who flew in from all over with a flip-flop-flapping of their wings. For the Show Claws Slide, the children followed instructions to
"Tip tap toe to the left, spin around,
Tip tap toe to the right, stroke the ground."
     There were opportunities throughout the story to involve the children in actions and song. The response was very different this time, as the children were engaged and listening throughout the whole story, so much so that they wanted me to read it again. My next challenge is to choose popular tunes for the songs, so children can join in.
     "Beautiful Blackbird" is adapted from a tale from the Ila speaking peoples from Zambia.  Ashley Bryan (born July 13, 1923) is an African-American writer and illustrator of children's books. Most of his subjects are from the African American experience. He was U.S. nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2006 and he won the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for his contribution to American children's literature in 2009. 
       If you are interested in donating a copy of "Delroy in the Marog Kingdom" or "Beautiful Blackbird" or any other book to your alma mater, please message me at

Presenting my book to Mrs. Allen, Grade 6 Teacher