Concerns about the impacts and effectiveness of French Immersion programs aren’t new. As Ayesha Barmania wrote in “La Vie Bilingue: French immersion programs in Canada through the ages” school boards have been dealing with the same problems with French Immersion for almost forty years.

Seven years ago Kristin Rushowy wrote about how French Immersion schools in Oakville (Halton District School Board, HDSB) were “driving students out of their neighbourhood in search of an English program“. Rushowy revisited the issue in 2014 and found the same issues were now cropping up in Burlington (also HDSB).

I began writing about French Immersion on this blog in February of 2013, and then later that year in The Globe and Mail. Shortly after my piece was published in The Globe and Mail I was interviewed by a Vancouver radio station about French Immersion.


In 2015 I was interviewed for “Just say ‘non’: The problem with French immersion“. It was, in a way, a follow-up to “8 things I wish I’d known about French immersion” where parent and writer Emma Waverman wrote about her frustrations with French Immersion. Particularly compelling is Waverman’s insight that the French Immersion curriculum is often boring and outdated, using lots of rote learning. Waverman also mentioned that it’s challenging for many parents to support FI learning at home when they don’t speak the language.

This year, The Globe and Mail’s Caroline Alphonso applied a much needed critical perspective to French Immersion programs in Canadian schools. Alphonso’s investigative articles kicked off a month of meaningful public debate about the implications of the French Immersion program for public education in Canada.

Alphonso’s “The Shrinking English Classroom” in March was followed closely by Kelly Egan’s “How French immersion swallowed Ottawa’s English public school board“. Both pieces explored the impact that the uncontrolled growth of French Immersion programs is having on the education of all students.

Egan wondered whether the growth of French Immersion would lead to English becoming a “speciality program” in the English Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB). Worryingly, Pino Buffone, the OCDSB’s superintendent of curriculum responded “That’s possible, depending on the interests of our parents and guardians.” English a marginal program in an English language school board. Hmmm…

In February The OCDSB made changes to address some of the problems they were experiencing with French Immersion.  Starting in September 2016, all KG classes will be French Immersion (50% French, 50 % English) and math in French Immersion classes (grade 1-3) will be taught English. Why did they decide to make these changes?

OCDSB trustee Donna Blackburn explained:

“I think the piece around equity was very important to me, that we have lower uptakes in the French immersion program for certain groups of students. People coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, English language learners, students with disabilities, and male students … take early French immersion and middle French immersion at lower rates than the rest of the population.”

Even in Ottawa, Canada’s most bilingual city, French Immersion classes aren’t reflective of the school population. If Ottawa is struggling to make French Immersion work, what hope is there for the rest of Canada?

Shortly after the OCDSB decision I was invited to discuss my thoughts about some of the problems with French Immersion on the CBC Radio show The 180 .


In late May Alphonso wrote that HDSB trustees were considering delaying students entry into French Immersion until Grade 2, and increasing the amount of French language instruction from 50% to 100%. Alphonso’s “Ontario schools struggle to keep students in French immersion” reported that half of elementary French Immersion students drop out of the program before they enter high school.

Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee followed this up a few days later with his column “French immersion could do with a dose of reality.” Gee called on school boards to evaluate whether French Immersion is actually working:

But the whole program needs a good hard look. Enrolment in immersion is soaring. School boards are struggling to meet the demand. It’s a good time to examine whether it is working as it should.”

Margaret Wente agreed that there are many problems with French Immersion.

Peel DSB Superintendent Poleen Grewal and I were interviewed on CBC’s Metro Morning about some of the problems with French Immersion and The HDSB’s upcoming decision.


The next day I did a similar interview with Wei Chen on the CBC show Ontario Morning.


Finally Cross Country Canada hosted a national call in show to the discuss the question: “Has French immersion for school children failed to live up to its promise?

The concerns raised about French Immersion programs over these last few months are:

  1. French Immersion is negatively affecting the quality of education offered to non-FI students.
  2. French Immersion classrooms don’t reflect the diversity of Canadian society. French Immersion students are more likely to be richer, better educated, girls, native English speakers, non-immigrant, white and less likely to have special education needs.
  3. The rate of attrition from French Immersion programs is unacceptably high.
  4. There aren’t enough qualified French Immersion teachers and resources to offer a high quality program.
  5. French Immersion isn’t very effective at teaching students how to be fluent in French (i.e. many have stated the goal of FI is to produce bilingual citizens).

There was really only one substantive mainstream reply to this maelstrom of criticism, and it didn’t really come from the French Immersion “community”. Graham Fraser, The Commissioner of Official Languages, wrote in The Globe and Mail “Of course French immersion is not perfect“. In this piece, Mr, Fraser basically agrees that, yes, there are problems with French Immersion, but argues that the benefits outweigh them. Not exactly a stunning endorsement.

The largest advocacy group for French Immersion, Canadian Parents for French, kept mostly to the fringes of the discussion and continued their grass-roots lobbying of school board trustees. This make s sense, because, ultimately, their goal isn’t to ensure we have a healthy, functioning public education system, but rather to make sure that, no matter the cost, French Immersion, in it’s current form, will endure.

It now falls to our elected officials, the school board trustees and Members of Provincial Parliament to step forward and begin an evaluation of French Immersion. Until that happens, they are avoiding their responsibility to ensure that all students have the an education that meets their needs.

The following story is 100% true.

I went to a Canada Post outlet to mail a package to Laos. The Canada Post representative looked at the address of the package suspiciously and said “Laos? That’s not a country..that’s in Vietnam”.

“No, it’s next to Vietnam, but it’s a separate country” I helpfully replied. She shook her head, unconvinced, but turned to her computer anyway, just in case she might be wrong. Unlikely.

“Well, it’s not listed here. Are you sure it’s a country?”

I assured her that Laos was in fact a country, and to help prove the point I showed her the Wikipedia page for Laos. She was unimpressed by this so she, naturally, asked her manager for help.

“Lay-Os? I’ve never heard of that. Are you sure it’s a country?” he said. I assured him it was and I began looking around for the hidden camera that surely must be there.

“Maybe it’s on one of those terrorist watch lists like I-Raq??” (he said “eye-raq” like I imagine Sheriff Pepper would’ve to Roger Moore). I reassured him Laos wasn’t part of the axis of evil so he walked away.

The first rep returned and said “Well, it’s not on our computer”. I pointed out to her that I had completed the Customs Declaration form on the Canada Post website, as required by Canada Post, and it showed Laos as a country. I showed her this on my phone but she was unconvinced.

“I’ll take the package but if it doesn’t get there it isn’t our fault and I don’t want you coming back and complaining about it”, she said. I assured her that if I was paying to have a package delivered and it didn’t get there I would indeed be coming back and complaining about it.

In response she placed my package on the counter in front of me, wiped her hands clean and walked away. The ultimate power move.

Confused, I politely said “Excuse me?? Are you refusing to deliver my package?” This was apparently the right thing to say because she stopped dead in her tracks, turned, walked back and picked up my package, while giving me a death stare.

She began looking on her computer again and as she did she said “I’ve been working here for 21 years and I’ve never heard of a country called Lay-Os. It’s not in our system”. And then she tried to catch me out by saying “Which continent is it in??”.

This is a tricky question for a grade 5 student, but I’m not one of those, so I was ready and said “Asia”. She wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so she began angrily tapping the keys again.

I suggested “Maybe you could call someone and get some help?”. She stalked over to the phone and called the Canada Post Help Line.

While she was on hold her boss came over and confirmed to me that “It isn’t in the system”, which seemed a bit redundant since I already knew that and I didn’t really care if it was in the system. I just wanted them to take my parcel so I could get the hell out of this bizarro parallel universe I’d stumbled into.

After a few minutes on the phone she turned back to the counter and said, in an obvious attempt to make sure I could hear her conversation “yes, and can you give me your name and a confirmation number because if this package isn’t delivered I want to be able to prove that it wasn’t my fault”. She angrily wrote down the information on a piece of paper and stowed it away in a drawer in a way that would’ve made Gollum jealous.

She then printed the label and postage and attached it to my parcel, which was impressive since she was also locked in a “to the death” staring match with me.

After placing the package in the appropriate bin she took a breath, smiled the most insincere smile ever and said “thank you for your patience. That will be $14.62”.

I paid and immediately left. I’m still confused about what to make of it. What a bizarre 20 minutes.

One of my first roles as a teacher was to spy on students. I was offered a teaching job at one of the first schools in Ontario to have a school-wide network. The principal wasn’t entirely sure what a network was, and so she needed some help.

I was hired to teach grade 8, but I was also in charge of the school First Class network. I spent a lot of time reading students’ messages, flagging problems and revoking student privileges. I felt very uncomfortable doing this. I was relieved when a significant problem gave us a reason to shut down the chat function. Ever since I’ve been very uneasy with schools surveilling students.

Supervising students is important and necessary for safety, but secret surveillance runs counter to the goals of schools. How can we create safe, trusting learning environments, when we are secretly watching students? Internet filters and security cameras scream that, in spite of statements to the contrary, we don’t trust students.

Jane Mitchinson’s post “Big Brother in Our Schools” does a great job of outlining the issues with internet filters in schools. Jane explains that Guelph based company Netsweeper “…offered “free” internet filtering to the Waterloo Region District School Board on a trial basis”. This is the same Netsweeper that sold internet filtering software used to censor the internet in Pakistan. It’s a disturbing thought that schools might treat students with the same callous disregard an oppressive government shows its’ citizens.

Internet filters prevent learning. They are never 100% accurate, no matter how well managed they are. If a site is at all questionable it will be blocked. It’s frustrating to both teachers and students to find a legitimate resource blocked. Mitch Wagner outlines several examples of how internet filters harm schools.

As Cory Doctorow points out, internet filters have several other problems.

Internet filters don’t prevent motivated students from accessing inappropriate material. I’ve never seen an internet filter that a motivated 13 year-old can’t bypass. Internet filters don’t work even in China, home of the “Great Firewall“.

From "What is missing from the kids’ internet?"

From “What is missing from the kids’ internet?”


Internet filters also prevent students from becoming digital citizens.

“Is there anyone who believes that your kids will never get unfiltered internet access? When (not if) they do, how will you have prepared them to use it responsibly? What life-skills will you have equipped them with? Abstinence-based education is not evidence-based education.” (Doctorow)

How will students develop the digital literacy required to be responsible digital citizens if we never let them experience the real internet, and let them test the skills and strategies they need to be safe?

The presence of internet filters also suppresses student voice and discourages students from expressing contrary opinions. Expressing dissenting opinions online is already difficult, but internet filters add another discouragement. Recent research reveals that online surveillance “…significantly reduced the likelihood of speaking out” and “may contribute to the reinforcement of majority opinion”. It’s hard to see how any school that uses internet filters can seriously say they value student voice.

Finally, as Jessy Irwin explains in “Grooming Students for A Lifetime of Surveillance“, internet filters, desensitize students to surveillance. They make surveillance the norm, and make students much more willing to accept mass surveillance as adults. These practices threaten all students, but are especially dangerous when applied to our most vulnerable students.

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Given all this, why do we do this to our students? Why do so many schools use internet filters?

Certainly, students need supervision when they’re online, but part of the role of educators is to supervise and guide students. Why do we need another layer?

What’s really at fault here isn’t students or technology but how we combine the two in the classroom. Too often, technology is the focus of learning rather than a support that helps students learn. Rows of students staring glassy eyed at screens isn’t more progressive or effective than students robotically chanting their times tables. Schools trying to prevent students from accessing inappropriate internet content would do better to ensure that learning is engaging.

Internet filters, rather than being the cause of the problem, are really just a symptom of the misguided ways we use technology in schools. Our focus shouldn’t be on creating systems to help keep students safe, but rather on creating students that don’t need to be surveilled.

There are many good reasons to question the increasing use of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs in schools. BYOD brings income inequity into the classroom in a way that directly affects instruction. Families that don’t provide “up to date technology” limit students’ ability to learn. BYOD also affects the kind of learning that can be done in the classroom and creates a host of technical issues for educators. In fact Gary Stager has called BYOD the “Worst Idea of the 21st Century“.

In spite of these concerns BYOD continues to become common practice in schools. People for Education’s 2014 report found that BYOD was used in 58% of Ontario schools, with more all the time.

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From Digital Learning in Ontario Schools: The ‘new normal’ (2014)

The popularity of BYOD in schools is driven by economics rather than pedagogy. Cash strapped schools are desperate to use more technology in the classroom, but don’t have the money to pay for it. So they turn to families, asking students to use their personal devices for learning. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.

Now we can add another reason to the list of reasons schools shouldn’t use BYOD. Student privacy.

Privacy, the right to be left alone, has, for a significant time, been recognized as a basic human right. However, that right is increasingly being eroded, especially with respect to online privacy. In fact, this trend has progressed to where privacy is increasingly a luxury.

Take Apple’s iPhone for example. Apple has branded themselves as both a seller of luxury electronics and the foremost protector of users digital privacy. Want to protect your privacy? You’ll need to pay top dollar for the latest iPhone.

If privacy is now a commodity, bought and sold, then privacy must be the new digital divide. As we approach a society where everyone is connected, what separates the rich from the poor is the ability to afford privacy. The devices poor families can afford are less secure, the poor more often must access the internet through less secure WiFi, and the poor often have to trade their personal data to get services.

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From “Privacy is the new ‘digital divide’”


When schools implement BYOD they require students from low-SES families to use cheap, insecure devices for educational purposes. Students use insecure devices over insecure public WiFi (libraries and coffee shops) for academic purposes. Now students must risk their personal academic data in order to learn. That’s not a choice any public school student should ever be faced with having to make.

How can the problems with BYOD be mitigated? Here’s a couple of ideas.

Many school boards have successfully implemented large scale “one to one” computing programs where all students are provided with a device. One-to-one programs are a clear statement that technology is an essential core requirement for learning, while ensuring that every student has a secure device for learning

One-to-one programs aren’t a theoretical notion. They are current practice. The first one-to-one laptop program started twenty-five years ago at Methodist Ladies’ College, an independent girls’ school in Melbourne, Australia. The best known North American example of this approach is the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI) which has been providing laptops to all students in grades 7-12 since 2002. Notably, the number one stated goal of the MLTI is equity.

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Other notable examples of one-to-one computing programs are the “Dennis McCullough Initiative- Enhanced Learning Strategy” in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, and the recent “Transforming Learning Everywhere” strategy of the Hamilton-Wentworth DSB.

A second way schools can minimize some of the issues with BYOD is to assist families in purchasing their own technology. This is what the Peel DSB did in 2014 as they negotiated with technology vendors, on behalf of the families they serve, to make the purchase of secure technology affordable for all students. Currently, families with students in Peel DSB schools can purchase a new $60 netbook or a new $110 desktop to support learning both in the classroom and at home.

The responsibility of schools to protect student privacy and meet the needs of students from low-income families can no longer be ignored. It’s time for schools to step up and implement technology plans that address the divergent needs of all families. It’s time we start ensuring school technology plans meet the needs of all our students, especially our most vulnerable.



Some education issues are like zombies, they just won’t die. Like teaching cursive in schools. Every week brings an article explaining why cursive must be taught in schools, followed quickly by a response as to why it’s a dying skill that needs to be removed from the curriculum.

My experience with cursive as a student wasn’t positive. In my elementary school there was a heavy emphasis on learning “joined-up writing”, and we spent a lot of time practicing. The best samples were displayed on a bulletin board in the hallway so that everyone could gaze at them with wonder and admiration.

I remember very clearly how it felt to see my writing on the board, because it was preceded by months and months of failure. Months of me looking at the handwriting board, not seeing my writing up there and feeling embarrassed. Nothing seemed to help; not fancy writing implements, rewards, bribery, or practice at home. I just couldn’t get it right.

I now know, but didn’t then, that this is a common experience for boys trying to learn cursive. There’s significant evidence that boys struggle more with cursive because of developmental differences in how their brains develop.

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What would we call requiring students to perfect a skill they just don’t have the capacity to learn? Misguided? Cruel? How many students are turned off school at an early age by being forced to practice cursive?

I’ve had an extensive and thoughtful online discussion about the value of teaching cursive with PLN members like Aviva Dunsinger, Valerie Bennett and Cyndie Jacobs. I think it was those discussions that lead me to be interviewed about teaching cursive for Today’s Parent. After that, I thought the “cursive debate” was over. Not so.

Here, I’ll try to emulate Royan Lee‘s fantastic “Podcasts for Pedagogues” series and direct your attention to Freakonomics February 10, 2016 podcast “Who Needs Handwriting?“. If you’re interested at all in the issue of whether schools should be teaching cursive, I recommend you give it a listen.

(Who Needs Handwriting?

Some key learnings for me:

  • Cursive is very definitely on the way out. Only 15 percent of the students who took the 2006 SAT test wrote their answers in cursive.
  • “The Handwriting Effect” shows that there’s a correlation between good handwriting and higher test scores. I think this is probably a reflection of the kind of students who do well on tests and that some teachers think handwriting equates with intelligence.
  • Teaching cursive in schools is a relatively new development, only about 125 years old. There’s a time in the very recent past when schools didn’t teach cursive.
  • Taking notes by hand leads to better long-term comprehension. Fascinating. I’ve started taking some of my notes by hand to see if it makes any difference. This effect reminds me of the benefits of sketchnoting and how it helps with comprehension and understanding. Interacting with a text involves much more than just decoding. (Let me point out that the benefits are not for cursive writing, but any writing)
  • Many of the studies proving the value of handwriting are sponsored by pen and pencil companies.
  • If we needed a sign that writing by hand is dying, at least as an everyday activity, can there be anything more telling than notebooks and pencils have become highly prized luxury items?

The  most interesting part of the discussion about cursive is not whether we should or shouldn’t teach it, but why the debate persists? We’ve had many things added, changed or taken away from the curriculum without the angst cursive has generated. What’s the difference?

The reluctance of some to let go of cursive is evidence of a powerful force in education. Nostalgia.

How we teach and the schools and classrooms we create are, in one way or another, heavily influenced by our experiences as students. If those experiences were positive, we seek to recreate them for our students. If we were told, as a student, that having perfect cursive writing was crucial to your future success, and you were successful, you ascribe some of that success to cursive, and you want those same benefits for the students you teach. The same influences also affect parents and policy makers.

At the heart of the cursive debate is a question. What skills do we want our schools to teach? In a crowded curriculum, with many objectives, we need to make choices. What skills do we value and which are we going drop in order to make room for new skills?

Overall, I don’t think we have room in the language curriculum for teaching cursive. Any potential benefits of teaching cursive are outweighed by the damage teaching cursive does to young students, especially boys. Maybe the best place for teaching cursive is as a visual arts skill, but it’s no longer a necessary skill for communication.

I’d love to hear your experiences or comments on cursive.

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