Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Sitters, and Tigana Presents

Sunday, Mary and I were both scheduled for the same session, so we obviously needed to make arrangements for Tigana and Kasia. The hotel had a first rate family center which in turn put us through to an excellent babysitting service. As soon as they were notified of Kasia's health problems, the service recruited a pediatric nurse to cover for us, and Mary and I were able to participate in the conference without worrying too much about Kasia. (One of the challenges of having a child who experiences frequent seizures is that one obviously can't leave them with the local 14 year old…)

When the nurse arrived, however, I got some weird vibes – after 15 years supervising student teachers, I have a pretty good eye for what makes a successful teacher/day care worker, and this nurse wasn't demonstrating any of those characteristics. I also found myself explaining more about the seizures and what to do about them then I would have thought necessary, but as the session started in 20 minutes, and as she was to spend most of her time with the kids in the hotel's family center (which had an absolutely first rate staff!) I decided to go with it. There comes a point where one can become too obsessive…

When we returned to our hotel room after the conference had ended for the evening, however, we found Tigana doing aerial somersaults on the hotel bed, Kasia crying in the corner, and Law and Order on the TV. Now, I am the first to recognize that parents will often have the knack of walking in at the exact wrong moment, and that there might be any number of explanations for what we encountered – perhaps Kasia was crying because the sitter had just confiscated the TV remote from her in order to restore the kid's programming, and perhaps Tigana had just that second decided to begin jumping – but on the face of it, it does appear as if the sitter were watching the TV while the kids were left to their own devices. Nevertheless, Tigana hugged her goodbye, to which the sitter responded with shock, another sign that this was not one's usual sitter.

The next morning we phoned the agency back and asked if the sitter the hotel staff had originally recommended was available for the next day (we had another joint function for Monday). The next day when I took Tigana and Kasia to the family center, one of the staff approached us with a neutral, "How did it go with the sitter last night?" and I recited my concerns. The staff member confessed that she had felt there was something off too, because the woman had insisted on being called "The Nurse" rather than 'the sitter', and yet had commented on the need to have something handy to stick in Kasia's mouth if she had a seizure. "Even I know that's wrong! They haven't taught to do that for 20 years." And went on to comment that the woman hadn't interacted much with the kids while in the family center. I strongly suspect the nurse had the attitude that as "The Nurse" she was 'on call' in case of a medical emergency, but not otherwise responsible.

The sitter the next night, in contrast, was fabulous! The hotel staff got it right when they recommended her. Again, the moment I met her I knew I was in the presence of a superb teacher (though in point of fact her calling is as an opera singer, which immediately endeared her to singing-obsessed Tigana). This time when we got back to the room, not only had she gotten Kasia to bed (the first time in her life she had gone to sleep without first nursing!) but Tigana was sitting quietly, working diligently on a art project, which was itself far more creative and artistic than the usual sitter stuff – I mean, it really was good!

But getting back to Sunday's panel, the symposium Mary and I were both presenting at was on work/family dilemmas within academia. Tigana had previously written and presented a piece on "Why kids are more important than work" to Mary's social responsibility course as part of "Take Your Daughter to Work Day" back in December. So, when we realized that Tigana would be traveling with us to this conference, Mary asked her if she would like to present her 'paper' at the symposium Given the topic, and the informal nature of the discussion, Tigana's presentation was a fitting opening to the session, and well received, so although Tigana wasn't listed in the program as a presenter, I think she should include it on her CV, should she ever actually have one….

Monday, May 30, 2005

CN Tower

Saturday, Mary had to work the conference: she was both Chair of the Gender and Diversity Division, and charged with recruiting potential faculty to UofL, so pretty much booked up for the whole day; Consequently I had charge of the kids, and took them to the CN Tower.

Getting there should have been straight forward, but taking a stroller through the Toronto subway turned out to be more problematic than I would have thought: We often got lost trying to find the wheelchair accessible entrances to stations, malls, etc. Toronto is shockingly backward when it comes to building codes accommodating the disabled or moms....

When we finally arrived, Kasia had already started to melt down. It may have only been 10:00 AM, but as far as Kasia was concerned it was noon in Alberta and therefore time for nap. My optimistic scenario that she might fall asleep in the stroller proved completely unrealistic, and she was already crying and struggling to get out of the stroller as we waited in the ticket line up. That he morning had suddenly turned cold and started an icy rain did not help matters, as I struggled to get Kasia into her rain coat exactly as we came up to our turn at the ticket wicket.

I should probably have bailed at that point, but Tigana and I had already invested a fair bit to get there and I held onto the hope that once we got in out of the cold, all would be well. The line ups for the elevators were not too long -- about 20 minutes -- and then there we were, atop the tower!

It was not a good experience. Kasia melted down completely, forcing me to try to find a quiet corner to contain her in, while still being able to monitor Tigana trying to see out the windows. Tigana tired quickly of looking out at the city, and was frustrated that adult tourists felt entitled to summarily push her aside as they snapped photos of themselves at the window. I can't say I blame her. When she was finally able to get a turn at one of the toonie binocular stands, it simply didn't work, refusing to open even as it's digital timer merrily counted down the remaining seconds before turning off. Trying to assist Tigana while keeping Kasia from going hysterical was challenging, and I again found myself sympathizing with single parents who have to manage on their own routinely. Tag teaming with Mary is much much easier.

I eventually broke down and bought a tiny bowl of fresh fruit to feed Kasia, in case she felt it was lunch in her time zone, but she wasn't interested in eating. She did calm down a bit when she found she could feed the fruit to me, but I was too resentful that I had had to pay $7.50 for half a dozen pieces of melon to enjoy the experience. Calm having been partially restored, if only temporarily, I suggested to Tigana that we go, and she readily agreed. Our tickets allowed us to go 'up' to the highest level, but I frankly could not see waiting in line for 50 minutes to go up another couple of hundred feet if Tigana was already bored and Kasia a ticking time bomb.

The next level down, where the 'down' elevators are located, had as its attraction the glass floor. Now this captured Tigana's imagination! Once she found the section of glass floor (about the size of our kitchen floor) she could not be moved from it. I was too busy trying to entertain Kasia to care for the view myself, but Tigana insisted that I at least walk out on it once, believing that she was helping me overcome a fear of heights. Her solicitude was really rather sweet. Then Tigana insisted that Kasia be allowed out on the floor, though I feared greatly for the crowds of tourists tramping onto and off the floor at irregular intervals. Waiting for a break in the crowds, I unstrapped Kasia and set her on the edge of the floor, while Tigana called her to her.

I remember my psychology texts talking about the 'visual cliff' experiments, in which babies are placed on the edge of a sheet of plexiglas that runs across a platform, and then out over what appears to be a cliff. The babies' moms would then call to them from the 'cliff' side of the plexiglas, and the infants would crawl as far as the 'cliff' edge, and then abruptly stop…confused, hurt, but refusing to cross into 'empty space', even for mom. The experiments were conducted for years before they found a small percentage of babies for whom the cliff held no terrors. Well, I have always believed that was a gene missing from my kids, since both of them stepped off into empty space on numerous occasions, and this was no exception. Kasia dashed into Tigana's arms without a moment's hesitation, and once out on the glass, stood starring down and pointing along with the best of the adults.

Once I got Kasia off the glass and into her stroller, I kept her entertained while Tigana spent another half hour on the glass floor. The highlight here was watching a guy pull up a huge case, the size of a steamer trunk, onto the glass, then climb on top of that, before taking a zoom lens photo looking down. What am I missing here? 81 stories up is not enough for this guy, he needs another 4 feet? And what is the point of then using a gigantic lens to eliminate distance? The low point was noticing that over the hour Tigana had been goofing on the glass floor, the line at the 'down' elevators had not moved. The same family was patiently waiting at the front of the line as when we had arrived. But all this time, people had been streaming in from the floor above, presumably as the 'up' elevators continued to bring load after load of tourists up the tower. Consequently, it was becoming increasingly crowded, hot, and claustrophobic. Time to leave.

I rather optimistically got in line, even though it hadn't moved for an hour, but the second we lined up for the elevator, Kasia started to melt down. Nor was she the only one. Tigana started repeating every minute that "I want to go, Dad." I pointed out that we were in line for the elevators, that leaving was also my own heart's desire, and there was nothing I could do about it. "Dad, can we leave now please?" On about a fifth repetition of this cycle I asked what she expected me to do, and she said, "Take the stairs," referring to our earlier experiences with the subway where I would eventually give up on finding the elevator and simply (if somewhat precariously) carry the stroller down a flight of stairs. I pointed out that we were (a) 81 stories up, and (b) there were no stairs, to which I got an admittedly satisfying "Oh, I forgot."But two minutes later, "Dad, can we go yet?"

So the next time a staff member makes one of their rare appearances, I ask if this elevator is working, and if there is another line up we should be in. Over Kasia's screaming, she assures me this is the down elevator and that there will be one a long in just a minute. I point out that the same family has been at the head of the line for over an hour, and she looks confused, but simply repeats that it will be right there, and wanders off. Eventually, as the line up threatens to turn into a mob, a male employee takes it upon himself to reorganize the lineup, so that it bends back and forth around the room in some sort of order, but in so doing manages to move us another 200 people back in the line. I protest to no avail.

Still no elevator has arrived.

Kasia has meanwhile become hysterical, stopped breathing, and had a short seizure. Having recovered from that one, she is working herself up to another. I again see, and corner, the worker who earlier assured me the elevator would be up in a minute. I point out it still has not come, the same family is still waiting, and what's the deal? I point to another line up moving into its elevators every couple of minutes, but she again assures me that I am in the correct line up for the 'down' elevators, and to stay put. As she is talking to me her walkie talkie pings and a male voice informs her that "elevators 11 and 12 are toast!" So I say, naturally enough, "So these elevators aren't working?" to which she replies, "There fine. That was a miscommunication, don't move." She frowns, and runs off.

I'm an optimistic guy, and like to believe the best of people, but there are times when I get the distinct impression I am being lied to. And as Kasia begins holding her breath for the second time in 20 minutes, I have had enough. I grab the next employee going by and say, "My baby is having a seizure, we need down NOW!" This gets her attention, and she says "Come with me," and leads me to the elevator door. She radios down that she needs an elevator, but security tells her not to move me, they will come to me. I say this is not acceptable, I need to get my baby out of this crowd now, and once out in the cold air and free of crowds, she will be fine. She says wait here, and runs off, presumably to meet security. The moment she leaves the elevator doors magically open, and the operator says, "Are you waiting for the elevator?" so I say yes, and we go in. They let in two more families, and then its down we go. The operator asks if we've had a nice time, and a well dressed family man responds that he has not, that it was the worst customer service he had ever experienced; that he had had to wait for over 2 hours to get down. "Well, it's the start of the summer season, so line ups are normal." The man explodes, "How stupid do you think we are? That was no normal delay! The elevators were not working! There were no elevators! Don't insult my intelligence! Just tell us what was happening" The operator shrinks and mumbles about complaints being addressed to customer service, which brings a hearty, if cynical laugh from everyone in the elevator. We are not impressed.

At the bottom is a lone security guard with a first aid kit who makes me fill in a bunch of paper work on Kasia's seizures, even though I keep trying to impress upon him the necessity of getting her out of the tower and out of her stroller before he personally triggers yet another seizure. Since it is obvious he has no clue what to do in the event of a seizure (apply a bandage from his kit?) he glazes over and sends us on our way.

In contrast to the previous day's experience with the Medieval Feast, I could not recommend the CN Tower to anyone, though it must be said that Tigana expressed the opinion that the glass floor had made it all worth it. But then, she wasn't the one dealing with Kasia.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament

After sleeping in late (time zones differences as much as fatigue), Friday was spent equally divided between prepping for the conference and strolling through Eaton center. The big event of the day, however, was dinner at Medieval Times. We had, of course, signed up for Tigana's benefit, though we hoped Kasia would be sufficiently entertained by the horses charging past her table to keep her settled through supper. But I must say that Mary and I enjoyed the experience immensely ourselves, and would highly recommend it to others.

Kasia pets her first falcon...

The first thing to strike me was the mere scale of the place. The facility was huge, completely out of proportion to any ordinary dinner theater, with a correspondingly large staff. When we had first arrived and I had discovered what Mary had paid for the tickets, I confess that I had thought it a bit pricy, but as I counted the number of staff and later the number of performers (though some overlap there!) I quickly reversed myself and wondered how they could possibly afford to mount such a spectacle. In my view, we received more than our money’s worth.

One of the Knights, the one our section was to cheer for, holds up a rose he has won in previous competition, prior to tossing it out into the audience. Note the scale of the theater.

The second thing to strike me was that it was that this wasn't TV. These actors were actually performing the stunts I was watching. No tricky camera angles, no second takes, these guys were actually shooting the arrows and lancing the hoops while galloping their horses through various maneuvers. The fight scenes were of course carefully (apparently convincingly for Tigana and Kasia) choreographed, but even here it was all live action: Knights were routinely ‘knocked’ from their horses to crash on the ground, and I observed one ‘knight’ falling backwards onto a four inch stake left on the field from a previous scene -- that had to hurt!

Tigana holds the rose which the knight had given to her Pretty good trip for us! But I'm afraid Tigana is coming to expect this sort of thing when she goes to plays!

The play itself was a bit predictable, but kept Tigana on the edge of her seat, and the lavish production and general spectacle kept Mary, Kasia and I entertained. And, it has to be said, the food was unexpectedly wonderful. One assumes rubber chicken at any play or conference, but the meal was excellent. They even provided a vegetarian meal for Tigana (though that was admittedly less authentically Medieval.) No knives or forks to clean, pewter dinnerware, the whole bit.

I was interested to note that there was also a genuine attempt to educate the audience, with "entertainments" at the "feast" that explained the purpose of various horse maneuvers, armour, and a very impressive display of falconing (as falcon dives over your head, only inches away.)

All in all, a great evening's entertainment.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Calgary’s Children’s Festival

Set out for Toronto for the annual ASAC conference, at which Mary and I are presenting. First leg of the trip is to Calgary where we stayed over night at the Coast Plaza. (The Plaza essentially pays you to stay over in Calgary, since they not only provide free shuttle service to the airport, but free parking for up to two weeks; parking at the airport for that long would cost considerably more than the one night’s accommodation.)

Wednesday night also happened to be the Children’s Festival in Calgary, so I took Tigana to Shona Reppe puppet production of Cinderella (while Mary put Kasia to bed).Enroute, our C-Train was delayed by the passage of the Queen's motorcade on the way to the airport, so Tigana even got to see the Queen zoom by, an unexpected bonus! We nevertheless arrived early and got seats at the end of the front row. When Shona made her entrance dressed as a maid, she stopped in front of me, and made a production of dusting me with her feather duster as if I were a piece of furniture, then ‘spit polished‘ my glasses; she then dusted Tigana’s face before going on stage. It was a great personalized beginning to an excellent show: I was impressed by how expressive the puppets were, the more so given that the puppeteer was on view at all times, and that the two step sisters were merely a pair of lady’s gloves. I had no problem focusing on Cinderella and ignoring the puppeteer looming over her, as the puppeteer created a multilayered comedy/drama out of a few sound cues and a self-contained table-sized set. I enjoyed some of the sly innuendo for the parents in the audience, while Tigana and other kids laughed themselves silly over the childish slapstick and gags, and we all empathized with the plight of the plucky Cinderella. Highly recommended if it shows up in a venue near you.

The next morning we all went to the Tom Chapin concert--we again sat in the front row, this time so Kasia could dance to the music, which she did with typical toddler abandon. The music was great: children folk with idealistic lyrics, but with an added level of complexity to the music itself that would make it tolerable even given the inevitable repetition one gets with any kid’s record. (As an aside, I can also recommend the Fisher Price lullaby CD as both Kasia and Tigana go to sleep to it every night and I still like it—a surprisingly excellent arrangement and production given its brand name marketing.) Highlight of the concert was the use of a homemade didjeridoo (construction recipe available on Tom’s website) Tigana went up after the concert and spoke to Mr. Chapman, which again personalized the experience for us.

We then took the C-Train back to the Coast Plaza, took the shuttle to the Airport, where Tigana got to go one round of the time travel simulator in the space port (a recent addition to the airport which combines avaition museum with various rides etc --I understand they even have day camps) before we eventually boarded our plane for Toronto.

The flight out was blessedly uneventful (the thought of Kasia having a seizure at 40,000 feet is not a happy one) if tiring, and we managed to get to the Delta and settle in by about 10PM our time (midnight, Toronto.) Tomorrow the conference.

Monday, May 16, 2005

It's good here

One of the reasons I like teaching at the UofL is that my office (in University Hall) is built into the coulees and overlooks the river. It is fairly common for Canada geese to fly by my window at arms reach and eye level; and the first time I went out to the parking lot late at night and realized that the lurking figures were deer, and not muggers, I knew I was in the right place. Here is a day time picture I took of the road up from my parking stall. deer grazing in parking lot
So, what do you see on your drive home from work?

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Grade Inflation

(Okay, I'm really catching up on stuff tonight.)

Spent the last three years or so chairing a Faculty Task Force on Grading, focused mainly on the issues of Grade Inflation. I found it hard to get motivated since I basically don't believe that inflation is a significant issue for our faculty, since the vast majority of our instructors use criterion based grading where the whole issue largely does not apply. So, most of the work for the first two years was done by a colleague who was herself greatly concerned with the issue and so took care of the literature review. The Dean wanted the final report this year, so I did a preliminary presentation to Faculty April 16, then -- based on input from a survey of faculty that meeting -- did a final presentation at our Faculty's annual retreat last Thursday. The results of the committee's deliberations can be found at the Grade Inflation Website I threw together in about 10 hours as a briefing for faculty who missed the initial meeting. I think I managed to create a balanced report that incorporated the views of both myself (and the rest of the committee who basically shared my perspective) and my colleague, even though they were essentially opposite positions. Going through the website one direction gives you my argument; going through the other gives you hers. (My route assumes readers from the digital generation clicking through window-sized 'sound bites'; her route gives one blocks of text you have to scroll through to get the sustained argument. Although I wish to avoid stereotyping here, I think matching the traditionalist message with the traditionalist medium and vice versa was a nice touch, if I do say so myself.)

I'm happy to talk about these issues with anyone who is interested...if there is sufficient interest in academic circles I will probably spend sometime expanding the website to be more complete. The first planned addition would be the survey results that reveal that while there are significant number of faculty concerned about grade inflation, none of the think the problem is with their grading! Quite amusing, really.

Comment from Dr. Wasserman:

I take exception to your remark that the concept of grade inflation does not apply to criterion-based grading.  I have yet to see, and cannot imagine, a real-life application of criterion-referenced scoring that can be applied by everyone with absolute consistency over time to different assignments or other work.  In my years of working with standard setters, the description of the characteristics of borderline students were pretty much the same, whether the standard setters were describing students in Grade 3, 6, 9, or 12.  It is only when descriptors are matched with exemplars that the concept of a borderline student takes on any operational meaning, and since the exemplars change with the particular task, there is plenty of room for drift.  If the standards drift down, one could call it grade inflation.

At any rate, your statement that everyone sees grade inflation as something other people do, while he or she is perfectly reliable, is right on the money.

Robert Again:

(I don't know what has happened to my comment function...it seems now to have completely disappeared...no time at the moment to fix it, perhaps after I get back from Toronto conference next week. In the mean time email runte at uleth.ca with your comments, if any.)

Car Troubles

And on an unrelated note, we got our car back today. It had been off in the body shop for over a week and a half, after a school bus took it out. Fortunately, the car was parked on campus and we were safely in our offices, but it was still traumatic to come out and find the back half of our car missing.

We were a little ticked at Campus Security for neither securing the vehicle nor phoning us with a heads up. We only found out the car had been totaled when a colleague recognized it on the way into the office and told Mary. Otherwise we would have come out with ten minutes to spare to pick up the kids from school and day care and found we had no car. Worse yet, since the back had been smashed completely open, all our stuff -- including student papers and confidential research materials -- were exposed and vulnerable. (Fortunately, no portable computers in the car that day.) The bus driver had contacted security right away, but they do not seem to have followed up at all. So which is the higher priority here, securing an accident scene or handing out parking tickets?

I was greatly relieved when the insurance people decided to fix rather than write off the car, as we had originally feared would be the case, seeing the damage. The book value of the car in no way reflects replacement value, especially since our car had been in much better shape standard for that year and model. We could not afford a new car or even a similar used car at the moment, so big relief that the car could be fixed.

We rented a replacement for the time we were without a car, and it was okay, but lots of minor annoyances -- trying to fit three child seats (we regularly pick up a third child as part of a car pool deal) into a standard "full sized" car is a real pain, so glad to get old car back, even if it is not quite as peppy as the new one was.

Mother's Day

A somewhat belated entry, but here is the story booklet that Tigana put together for her Mom. I find it quite exciting to see the emergence of narrative structure in Tigana's story telling, and her ability to step back and to recognize that Mother's Day is as much about her sister as about her.

Tigana put several hours into this project, which for her is an unusually sustained effort. Mary had hoped that Tigana would give her a particular one of Tigana's recent paintings to frame for her office, and I tried to lead Tigana in that direction, but she would have none of it. She pointed out several minor imperfections in the painting and complained that the rendered the picture unsuitable for a Mother's day present. "It has to be something I really put effort into, and I just did that picture fast. I want Mom to know how important she is to me, so I have to put real effort into her present, not just frame a picture that's lying around!" I was sort of impressed, though I still plan to get the picture framed at some point -- I think I have talked her into it being okay to put up, even if it is not perfect.

New House

My wife having obtained a tenure track position at the UofL, she decided she should celebrate by buying something big for the family -- on the grounds of, what's the point of working this hard unless there is some kind of payoff?

So, she went out and bought a second 'house' for the kids.

As you can see, this thing is enormous! Bouncy house combined with slide, obstacle course, basket ball hoops, and punching bag. It's pretty cool.

Only complaint so far is that the manufacturer has to be kidding when they include directions for how to fold it up to fit back into it's carrying case. I know this is physically possible because I saw it come out of said case, but putting it back in....well, we can't even fold maps back up, and they are just little pieces of paper, not an enormous balloon house. But that aside, we're pretty happy with this.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Kids Today

So Tigana brought home a CD-ROM from school with her latest project on it, a powerpoint presentation on her family for Social Studies. The on-line version doesn't really do the presentation justice, since Tigana had put a lot of thought into sound effects (applause for Mom, fairy sounds for Kasia, and so on) and animation (fades, transitions, etc.) which do not show up on the Web version posted here. But what does show up demonstrates a lot about modern education. Tigana's spelling mistakes might offend a lot of traditionalists, though clearly she has the principles of phonetics, if not some of the details. What the traditionalists are mostly silent on, however, is that Tigana clearly has command of a whole set of skills (point form, powerpoint, graphic design) that were never part of traditional curriculum. Powerpoint Presentations in Grade 1?! My elementary school didn't even have typewriters!

The implications for my student teachers are, of course, obvious: When they complain that too many of my assignments require familiarity with technology (blogs, web sites, powerpoint, search engines, etc.) all I have to do is point to this Grade 1 assignment, and ask them (a) how is it they do not already have the skills now commonly taught in Grade 1, and (b) how do they expect to be able to teach kids in Grade 6 or 12 or etc. if the kids they will be facing are more computer literate then they are....