I’d thought of using that path across my neighbour’s field as a shortcut to the Cataraqui Trail for snowmobile expeditions, but I hadn’t for fear of leaving a track as an open invitation to trespassers.

On a warm-up round of the farm this morning, though, I ran across the tracks of an intruder made the night before: the snowmobiler had found his way onto my property through a gap in the fence not traveled since the plowing match in 2007.

Had he followed my established tracks I wouldn’t have been annoyed, but the yob took a shortcut through several acres of little trees, trampling them in his quest for a short cut over Young’s Hill. Inevitably he ran up against a closed fence, so he made an awkward U-turn, clipping an 8 year-old pine, then waded through more yellow birch, spruce and walnut on his way back off the property. I hope this guy realizes his mistake and does not return.

If this happens again, I’ll be forced to rebuild the fences we took down for the International Plowing Match in 2007 and haven’t had reason to put back up since. But driving a snowmobile over little trees is uncool.

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Over my teaching career I drafted and marked writing tests at the Ministry level and administered a stream of reading and writing tests in schools. Large-scale standardized tests are a useful tool for realtors and the tests sort the cohort somewhat for universities and colleges, but they are the enemy of learning for students.

As a lark I used to train my senior English students to deal with badly-written multiple-choice tests. Instead of a lecture on a play or novel I would assign them a multiple-choice test I had prepared, mark it on the spot, and then over the course of a class or two invite the students to try to persuade me that individual questions on this grossly imperfect test should be thrown out on some grounds, thereby reducing the bottom number while allowing their gross marks to stand. Thus an 18/30 might become an 18/24, or even 20, if the class had clever and alert members. This technique worked on a couple of levels: kids learned to work as a team to a common purpose, they had a license to challenge the teacher’s authority in this area, they could pave over a weak mark with effort, and they quickly learned how to trace the thought processes behind individual questions on a multiple-choice test. I believed then and now that multiple-choice tests are a great teaching tool. They’re just a lousy way to assign marks. I refused to count an individual multiple-choice test for more than 1% of a course.

My students treasured these testing sessions. They frequently reported back from university that those “arguments in your class” had given them a leg up on those who had not had the practice. Turns out my test questions were no worse than many they encountered in their programs next year. When it came down to it the lessons about multiple-choice were pretty simple: treat the test as a game and listen for the marker’s voice.

But in the English department the real value we were able to add was in the writing skills our students developed while at our school. As a department we read and re-read every word the kids wrote. They wrote multiple drafts, outlines, and polished essays. We stayed with the students at all stages of the writing process because that was what worked. We could watch their growth. We assumed as early as 1984 that any meaningful writing in these kids’ lives would be on keyboards, so I converted a series of classrooms to computer labs and as a department we embraced the computer as the central writing tool, even for examinations.

We still look back to assignments such as Define truth. as the ones which taught them how to think, and thus how to adapt. The open-ended task was the valuable one.

In your turn in a one minute seminar to the class tomorrow, account for Hamlet’s reaction to Ophelia in Act III, scene i. Take care to ensure that your explanation is unlike that of any classmate who has spoken before you in the circle, but please do not resort to a tale of alien abduction.

Understandably no one came late, and for the record, thirty plausible interpretations for Get thee to a nunnery, Go! are quite possible from a bright class. Kids love the challenge of coming up with magnificent wrong answers.

Large-scale standardized tests measure only convergent thinking performance. With nothing but standardized tests we’d still be in grass huts. Convergent thinkers don’t invent.

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Afterword: At dinner recently our companion told me of the problem her elderly father faced in preparing for his first written driver’s test at the age of 80. Coming to Canada with a grade 2 education as a young man, he had never learned to read in English. She struggled in attempts to prepare him for the questions, then despaired. He stubbornly went ahead and wrote the thing, and to her enormous surprise, passed.

She asked him how he did it.

“I picked the longest answer to each question.”

Again, standardized tests are great for realtors. Suburban house prices rise and fall on the strength of provincial school ratings based upon math and reading tests, but any learning students actually do is generally in spite of the test, not because of it.

OTTAWA Citizen, March 29 — Saskatchewan Tory MP Garry Breitkreuz found himself in hot water Thursday after an Ottawa mother complained he told a Grade 10 class that everyone in Canada should be armed — especially girls.

Wow! Breitkreuz has obviously never spent much time around a high school.

Any veteran teacher will tell you that the most dangerous creature in a high school is a grade nine or ten girl. From time to time, high school boys fight. The battles are usually structured affairs, played out according to a generally-accepted set of rules, and scored on a primitive points basis. Sure, passions run high, but the goal is a limited one, and at least around the school the thing plays out with an eye to future consequences.

As a vice principal I had occasion to speak to a few pugilists in my office. One conversation which comes to mind was with a young man who was no stranger to battle, in the school after sessions in various detention facilities. He commented upon a couple of his Somali friends: “The reason that those guys are so dangerous is that they are totally unco-ordinated. They just can’t fight. So they pick up anything they can lay hands on and use it as a weapon, and they’re so scared they don’t know how or when to quit.”

The deadliest fight I have ever broken up didn’t look like much. Seven or eight well dressed grade nine girls were gathered in a tight circle outside the school on the lunch hour of a snowy January day. Except that I noticed another equally well dressed girl on the ground, inside the circle. They were methodically stomping her into the ice. I broke it up. The girls moved away while I helped the victim. Then I had to restrain the bruised and bloodied kid from scrambling after the nearest of her attackers, teeth and claws bared.

It was all I could do to restrain a 105 pound, 14 year-old in a berserker’s rage. I had to pick her up. With feet off the ground she calmed down enough for me to get her into the school. The cause of the attack was a rumour linking the victim, a new girl to the school, with the boyfriend of one of her attackers. The scary part of the episode was that none of them knew how to quit.

When Garry Breitkreuz mused about arming teen-aged girls for their own protection, he was probably thinking about a deterrent for predatory older males. But in my experience the biggest threat to the fourteen year-old girl is another fourteen-year-old girl and her friends. Around a school yard boys fight to score points and win status. Girls fight to destroy rivals. This is absolutely not the place for firearms.

Read more: http://www.canada.com/news/Tory+Breitkreuz+lauded+guns+teen+girls+student+says/6380719/story.html#ixzz1qYrwdcjs

After a painstaking analysis of four seasons of the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, my head is full of the episodes and not much else.

You can’t really watch a sitcom at its regularly scheduled time. Commercials and the week’s distractions get in the way. No, to really watch TV nowadays, one must download the episodes, cue them up on a DVD or memory stick, and then set the player to run them in succession.

It helps the “jacked in” effect if the viewer puts on a good set of sound-excluding headphones to intensify the experience. Then one can enter the alternate universe of the sitcom.

It is no surprise that The Big Bang Theory is the most popular T.V. download on the Internet.  It’s a clever, well-written show, even when mainlined in a single sitting.

An episode usually begins with the four friends eating. The sameness of their meals, either in the lunchroom at the university lab in Pasadena where all are employed, or in the living room of roommates Leonard and Sheldon, serves as a springboard for the conversations which largely make up the interest of this program.

Sheldon, the scary-smart physicist, is a thirty-year-old child whose quirks produce much of the action in the series. The other three nerds are saved from typecasting by well-developed back stories, a series of neuroses which gain some viewer sympathy, and uniform anxiety in the presence of women.

Raj, the cosmologist, is so bothered by the presence of a nubile female that he becomes mute unless he has alcohol in his system. Too much alcohol, though, and he has a hard time keeping his clothes on. Raj is not a man of moderation.

Harold, a frail momma’s boy who works as an engineer on NASA projects, is so intimidated by women that he adopts an aggressive, roguish persona which puts everyone off. Harold’s lack of a PHD sets him up as the underdog in the group, but his connections give him access to all sorts of neat toys, from a space toilet he must fix in one episode, to a black ops satellite diverted to photograph models sunbathing, and the Mars Rover, access to the controls of which he uses to get girls until he gets it stuck in a ditch.

The most sympathetic of the four is Leonard, another physicist whose forays into the world of love are hampered by his short stature and a crippling psychologist-mother who seems incapable of affection.

The world of these four friends gains interest with the arrival of the new neighbour, an attractive would-be actress from Nebraska who works as a waitress. Penny quickly discovers she enjoys the free food and companionship of the guys across the hall, and this earthy girl provides a foil to the others, as well as keeping male viewers returning for her loveable ways.

For even though her life is a train wreck of bad relationships and unpaid bills, Penny’s fun to watch and basically generous. Her “Sweetie, …” sentences are often intended to mock the other characters, but we watch each of them grow in confidence under the nurture of this sexually confident, kind woman.

Penny even has moments of heroism. As the only non-nerd in the group, the guys with some embarrassment look to her to deal with bullies. Her responses are often as blunt as a hard kick to the groin, and she quickly gains the respect of the group and the viewers.

Familiar scenes are a big part of sitcoms. The most innovative in Big Bang involves the characters in conversation while climbing nine flights of stairs around the non-functioning elevator shaft to the apartments. Each ascent, of course, is viewed in the context of all of the others, and the directors carefully add little touches of originality. The running gag in the laundry room is Sheldon’s folding fetish.  He stretches each item of clothing over this plastic frame to crease it while he carries on a conversation.

The main romantic interest on the show for the first two seasons involves Leonard’s hopeless longing for Penny. Season three dawns with the boys’ return from the Arctic, and Penny practically ravishes Leonard in the hallway. It seems she missed him. Their affair continues throughout the third season, but then Penny opts for friendship only.   Raj’s high-flying lawyer-sister leaps into the breach at the beginning of season 4. Raj and Priya’s controlling parents appear by computer video-chat, and Priya turns inside out to avoid revealing to them that she’s seeing Leonard, a white American.

The surprise in seasons three and four is the evolution of the relationship between Sheldon and Penny. Penny’s at her best when mothering Sheldon, and the scenes where he regresses to a childlike state show the warmth that sets this program apart from lesser efforts. Leonard moves into the mix as the nervous surrogate father of this brilliant, wayward child.

So what is the effect of immersing oneself in almost a hundred, 21-minute episodes with this company of fools? Leonard, Sheldon, Penny and Raj have become my friends. Real relationships pale somewhat in contrast. This can’t be good.

Viewed in moderation, however, The Big Bang Theory is an intelligent and very amusing show.

The generation gap

May 18, 2011

Someone called me old yesterday. It came as a shock. I was in Ottawa to pick up a load of scaffold for the new garage project and the owner was working out my bill, in longhand. He’s about my age.

He looked up and asked, “Why are so many old guys like you still working?”

“I’m retired,” I countered.

“I know, but you keep working. A lot of you come in here to buy scaffold and take on big projects. Last week I sold an order to a man from Montreal who is 81 years old. He’s starting a house.”

So that was it. This well-meaning business owner who used a pen rather than a computer had lumped me in with an 81-year-old. At the tender age of 60 I have finally bridged the generation gap.