Ma! They're Digging Up My Field!

This is a picture from last Winter

It's a bit of an unkind one really. It shows the elevated dark asphalt of a tennis court where volunteers were unable to create a skating rink. Beyond, you can see a patch of sunken, wet field where an ice surface formed on its own. With a little tending, that natural ice surface might have become something, though that's far from certain. What is certain is that you can't build an outdoor skating pond on a raised, dry, dark, porous surface without a great deal of sustained effort, organization and cooperative weather.

Over-organization, an inability to "read" the environment, and brief, splashy (often money-making) big ideas followed by grinding socio-economic failure - these things characterized social and urban engineering throughout the 20th century. As far as I can see, they are going to characterize the 21st century as well.

When we started work in Crescent Valley - our grand plan to bring literacy to families instead of bringing families to literacy (centres, etc.) - we moved slowly, carefully. We walked around a lot, pulling our wagon-load of books or tent & books, talking to the neighbours. We made mistakes. But because we took little steps, they were always little mistakes. We tried to keep things simple, to read the environment, to build on assets.

Well, it was fun while it lasted.

It looks like we'll be running a much reduced Storytent program this year - and maybe none in years to come - because the business community is determined to rescue Crescent Valley, and they're digging up our field.

This is literally the case in Flemming Court, where the common green space is going to be dug up and replaced with a splash-pad, playground, and shoulder-high shrubs at a cost of about $600,000.

Lots of people think this is a good thing, except for the shrubs. (The parents were explicit and nearly unanimous: they wanted an unobstructed view of their children. But the architect liked shrubs, and the politicians liked shrubs, and the business people liked shrubs, and... well, you can always find more parents, I guess.)

I think this is a Bad Idea. Quite apart from the outrageous handout to the construction industry cost, there are serious gaps in the plan. Neither the city nor the province have been able to provide plowed winter sidewalks, glass and garbage free streets, or green spaces free of animal droppings. The two, small existing playgrounds are un- or under-maintained - with province and city arguing over who is responsible for them. The publicly managed, recently created resource centre building was so badly done that now it can't house a stove because of inadequate wiring. And you can see how that whole skating rink thing worked out. How will they ever maintain something as complicated as a splash-pad operation? Who will clean it, picking up the broken beer bottles and dog shit each morning before the children appear? How will... ???

Okay. You get the idea.

You know, some dear soul actually marked out a location for the storytent in the plans for the field. Unfortunately, no one talked to us about it.

If they had, we could have explained that running a storytent beside a splash-pad would require us to spend time saying to four-year-olds, "No, you can't come in and read because you're all wet." We don't want the job of saying "no" to little kids who want to read, so we're not going to run a storytent in Flemming Court.

These yahoos are also digging up my other, bigger field - community literacy.

Here's a fun picture. Just a couple of guys sitting around working on early childhood literacy.

One of them had a Mar 2007 to Mar 2008 budget of $3,500,000. Can you guess which one? Here's a hint: it wasn't the guy sitting on a skateboard actually reading with a child.

A few weeks back, Jamie Irving, millionaire newspaper publisher, and Kelly Lamrock, Minister of Education, hooked up with Don Jamieson (the guy sitting in a chair) to talk about their plans for fighting "illiteracy." Yes, as you can see from today's editorial, Mr. Irving is one of those guys who's still comfortable with the term "illiteracy." No building from strength here.

Anyway, young James made his "expert presentation" at Jamieson's roadshow.** Then, a little while later, J. and K. were giving interviews and writing newspaper stories in which they agreed that recent improvements in reading scores among Crescent Valley kids was due to their two years of something-or-other work in the local school.

Please note that they didn't exactly dismiss us, these experts. They didn't say that six years of storytent and bookwagon - 45,000 books and almost 1500 direct contact hours, plus one-on-one parent support and about 20 community-wide promotional events - had no impact. They just ignored our very existence.*

Then, to rub in the salt, Kelly gave Jamie $250,000 taxpayer dollars for his project (volunteers to read to about 3000 kids who are made to stay after school).

Said Mr. Irving, "It's amazing how quickly things progress once you put a co-ordinated effort towards it."


Still, due to his smashing good looks or something, Mr. Irving scored a seat on the board of directors of our provincial literacy coalition.

Oh good, says I.

From there he can ignore, devalue and divert, or just dig up the literacy field as a whole.

* Don, Jamie and Kelly have ignored the hard work and commitment of parents as well, but it's me I'm feeling sorry for here.

** He's the director of the Canadian Centre of Excellence for Literacy attached to the University of Western Ontario. In a Toronto Star piece from February [link], we were told "The literacy network's grant ($3.5 million a year) ended on March 31, 2008. Since then, it has been running on momentum and goodwill. But Jamieson knew [funding] would eventually peter out. So he scrounged up money from a variety of sources to craft a long-term survival plan."

The article received this comment:

Just what does this network do? I have worked in grassroots literacy for a long time, and I've never heard of them. Better to spend the money in programs where people are actually learning rather than just ivory tower thinking going on.
I sympathize, but the commenter got it wrong. The Network is not interested in an ivory tower existence. They say "Homelessness, anti-social behaviour and adolescent suicide are consequence (sic) of undetected and unremediated learning disabilities,"[*] but "appropriate classroom-based intervention can remediate or prevent these problems from developing."[*]

(Notice, again, the absence of parents and families from this picture.)

These big boys are coming out of their ivory towers. They're coming, and they've got big, expensive plans for us all.

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