Grade 5 book gets go-ahead

City council has granted the school board’s $3,000 request to print an additional two-year supply of the grade 5 resource book “My New Westminster: a Neighbourhood History.”

The book, originally funded as a 150th anniversary project and authored and illustrated by Literacy Visual Arts Coordinator (yes, we have one of those) Jill Doyle, explains the history of New Westminster and tells the story of each of the city’s neighbourhoods and schools.

At Monday night’s council meeting, students from Lord Tweedsmuir Community School brought smiles to the trustees’ faces with enthusiastic speeches they had prepared about the book.

“I think this book is great because it is not a textbook,” said Ben, a grade 5 student. “We can fit it into our desk easily and we can write in it. But most of all we get to keep it to look back on when we’re older.”

Classmate Fatuma said that having just moved to New Westminster last year, the book has helped her learn more about her new city.

“When reading this book I feel as if I am watching a movie,” she said. “The movie has adventures and is exciting. I learn something from every scene and I have a fun time learning.”

Their teacher Tanya Kaselj reiterated their praise, saying that she herself has learned a lot from teaching the book and she thinks all New Westminsterites could benefit from giving it a read.

The New Westminster Public Library does have several copies of the book available for those who are keen to learn about paddle wheelers and the gold rush but who don’t happen to be in grade 5.

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Of dumbwaiters and wraparound porches

Monday marks the beginning of heritage week in B.C., and while New Westminster’s kids sharpen their pencil crayons to colour in Victorian homes, I’ve been waxing nostalgic about the city’s history and reflecting on the importance of preserving our urban heritage.

Galbraith House, located at the corner of Queen's Avenue and 8th Street in New Westminster, was built in 1894. Once decaying and in a state of collapse, Galbraith House has since been bought, renovated and turned into office suites and a conference centre.

There are around 1,000 registered heritage homes in New Westminster, and in my own neighbourhood, Queen’s Park, weekend warrior types have lovingly restored many of the area’s 100-year-old homes to their former (and in some cases, probably better than former) glory.

(If you’ve got some spare time to kill and are as fascinated by “old stuff” as I am, the Heritage Resource Inventory — an unofficial list of heritage properties drawn up by the city and some summer work students in the 1980s — provides hours of cheap thrills.)

Growing up in New West, servant stair cases, milk doors, laundry chutes and fold-out ironing boards made my childhood environment every bit as stimulating as my friends who grew up in more rural areas, building forts and playing games of their own invention in the woods.

After it was abandoned but before it was torn down, my brother and I spent our summers playing hide-and-go-seek in the overgrown gardens and empty swimming pool behind the A.M. Parsons house down the street (that’s what the HRI calls it — we, for some reason, called it the boat house).

"The boat house," captured sometime around 1985 as it appears in the Heritage Resource Inventory.

Over the years, we’ve dug up countless treasures in our backyard, including half a dozen ebony piano keys, a collection of  glass medecine bottles and a ladies boot that I would expertly carbon date to the “Barkerville era”.

Aside from the fact that I still have nightmares about the bullet lodged in the doorframe at Irving House, growing up in a place so steeped in and proud of its heritage as New Westminster is has contributed to my curiosity and my appreciation for this place.

Kids in most cities don’t get much of an education about their city, but events like May Day and girl guide trips to the old penitentiary (now home to my physiotherapist’s office) meant that I did.

Two years ago, the city introduced a unit on the civic history to the grade 5 social studies curriculum with the interactive book, My New Westminster: A Neighbourhood History. Elementary students now get the unique opportunity to learn about New Westminster’s beginnings as a Gold Rush pioneer settlement, to its regal days as the capital of British Columbia, to the Great Fire and the ensuing rebuild.

When so much of our attention is drawn to what is new, it’s important to take the time to think about what came before. Buildings, monuments, cemeteries, street patterns and homes are all important reminders of our city’s remarkable achievements, conflicts and changes. I’m grateful to live in a city that understands and values that.

Scaling grades sets dangerous precedent

People seem to be moving on from what was probably the most media coverage grade 11 math has ever received anywhere ever, but can we pause for a moment and consider the (absolutely ludicrous) outcome of all this?

For those that haven’t been following the story, parents began raising concerns in early January about their children’s (mostly failing) high school math grades. Though the teachers’ union normally does not comment on personnel matters, NWTU President Grant Osborne defended the teacher in question, saying that if there are problems, they stem from the (recently revised) curriculum, not the individual “hard marking” teacher. Parents continued to be upset, district administrators tried to diffuse the situation, revisions to the complaints process were presented, and high school students on both sides wrote letters to the local papers.

And then report cards came out and students saw their grades suddenly and inexplicably jump five to 15 per cent.

Why? Because district administrators (though no one  is saying who) scaled their marks.

There are several ways that scaling can be done, but basically students’ grades are compared with each other and students are assigned new grades based on where they fall on a relative scale.

Though I’ll admit that the district’s decision to up students’ math marks rubs me the wrong way (I think it sends a dangerous message to students about the value of grades, and how to go about getting what you want), what I am most concerned about is the doubt it casts on teachers’ abilities to do their jobs.

According to Osborne, members of the high school’s math department weren’t consulted or asked to have any part in the scaling.

I’m not insensitive to the feelings of “demoralization” that these failing students allegedly felt. Math is a hard subject — something, like the girl who spent many nights in tears over her looming final exam, I know from personal experience.

But responding to mass failure by simply elevating marks to passing grades helps no one. It renders grades meaningless and says that teachers know neither how to teach nor evaluate their students.

Instead of fully investigating the problem, administrators have slapped a quick fix on it, potentially rewarding students their for laziness and stripping the teacher of her authority.

Osborne has called the decision to scale “new territory” for the district and says he’s worried about the precedent it has set.

I, for one, have to agree. Is indiscriminately boosting marks by entire letter grades regardless of ability or effort to about become the new norm? It’s a question I’m afraid to learn the answer to.

Hyack honeybees educate and pollinate

Biology teacher and beekeeper Axel Krause at work in NWSS's rooftop apiary. Photo cred: NWSS environment club

New Westminster Secondary School is a hive of activity these days, and not only because students are buzzing about the hallways, gearing up for second semester.

Four years ago this month, at the urging of his students, biology teacher Axel Krause approached the school board with a plan to build an apiary on the roof of the Pearson wing.

The plan was approved, and NWSS is now home to two beehives, with another shipment of bees on its way.

“It’s a unique kind of thing to our school,” said environment club president Isabel Sadowski, 17. “Not a lot of schools have beehives.”

The bees are part of an International Baccalaureate unit Krause teaches on social biology, and students are encouraged to get involved as beekeepers, honey collectors and candle makers through the environment club.

The club sells the handmade candles and pots of ‘Hyack honey’ at parent nights and Christmas fairs as a fundraiser.

“A hard part of being part of environment club is that sometimes your actions don’t really produce a lot,” said Sadowski. “You can raise awareness, you can change your own habits, but it’s hard to see the effect that you’re having. With the beehives, you can actually see the work you’ve been doing is creating something.”

But for Krause and Sadowski, bees are so much more important than the substances they produce.

“Every third mouthful of food you eat has had a bee involved,” said Krause, explaining that even dairy cows depend on bees to pollinate the alfalfa they eat. “It’s amazing how much food we eat that’s pollinated by bees. And the bees are dying.”

This month in California, one million beehives will arrive from all over the United States to pollinate over 700,000 acres of almonds. In the summer, many of those bees will be shipped to the Fraser Valley to pollinate blueberry crops, then to Alberta for canola.

Krause believes this practice may be a factor in Colony Collapse Disorder – the sudden loss of entire hives of bees that has plagued beekeepers since it was first documented in 2006.

“Do you like bananas?” asked Krause. “Do you want to eat bananas for two weeks straight? No. But that’s what we’re doing to our bees. We’re putting them into the almonds, and for two weeks all they get is almond pollen.”

Steady diets of a single kind of pollen, pesticides and viruses have contributed to the deaths of billions of bees in recent years, but Krause believes urban beekeeping is one solution.

Like many municipalities in the Lower Mainland, New Westminster has a pesticide bylaw that prohibits the use of toxic chemicals in gardens. Bees therefore have a much cleaner, more diverse area to pollinate.

“People get our honey and they say, ‘the honey is just so good, what’s in it?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know, whatever the people around the school have in their gardens,” said Krause. “This is garden variety honey.”

Since the beehives arrived in 2008, several other teachers at the school have taken up beekeeping in their own backyards. With Krause set to retire in June, Sadowski (who is graduating this year) said she hopes one of them will take command of the rooftop apiary.

“It really is Mr. Krause’s project. He makes the honey, prepares the wax for the candles, so I just hope that the beehives still continue … It will be upsetting if it doesn’t continue in the way that it has in the past.”

But given the strong interest and support of the community, Sadowski said the beehives will likely be there long after she and Krause are gone.

“We have such a big school, it’s nice that we have some kind of project that is a little more unique and really beneficial.”