January 28, 2006

Education Failing

I'd like to think I'm not that old. I don't feel very far removed from high school, CEGEP and University, but I already find myself sounding antiquated, waxing nostalgic about "back in my day..." I often find myself discussing how children today have no idea about anything, just as my parents probably thought of me and my world. I fear for the coming generation, raised on Google and TiVo, where anything less than instant gratification is not enough. I worry about the overwhelming stupidity which accompanies the high school culture that students are growing up in. I worry about the few options available for Muslim children to be protected from all the nonsense in school.

So when I was asked to help some struggling Muslim middle-school students with English and Math, I accepted without hesitation. The children I am tutoring right now are fairly recent immigrants, and their parents have absolutely no idea about the world their kids are living in. Thus, I take my responsibility as a tutor very seriously; not just as one who can teach grammar and geometry, but as one who made it through that challenge of trying to hold on to some religious values while somehow fitting in.

But even leaving aside all the Islamic/Western culture issues, there is still so much wrong with the way children are being educated today - particularly in Ontario. I recall elementary school evenings when our assigned homework would include answering 50-100 math problems. For us, it wasn't enough to simply understand the concepts - we needed to be extremely efficient in taking numbers and deriving results from them. Multiplication tables were drilled into us. In the end, the students - even the weaker ones - were computational machines with minds that were capable of processing a lot of data. It wasn't fun, and we all hated it at the time.

Today, a typical math textbook is a colourful scrapbook full of pictures of multicultural, trendy teenagers saying things like "Math is cool!" or "I can use geometry to design a ramp for my skateboard!" As I teach my students, I study their textbooks closely; looking through them, I realize that their brains are not processing anything. I had to help one of my students with a problem which involved putting together a ramp for a circus trick; underneath the ramp, there had to be room for a performer to hide. Without giving any numbers except for the cost of materials - 16.50$/m2 - students were asked to "discuss" how the performers should design the ramp. In the end, there are rarely actual answers - just "discussions". While it may sound like a good idea to have students discuss applications of what they study, no students actually discuss these things; in the end, they don't actually do anything except draw a few pointless diagrams. Unfortunately, this is usually enough to give them the marks they need. As Calvin correctly observed, all students are learning is how to manipulate the system.

I had the fortune of having some excellent English teachers throughout high school and CEGEP. When I entered high school, I was admitted into the advanced program. As a grade seven student, highly experienced at the age of 13, I was insulted when our Advanced English teacher told us she was going to teach us grammar. My classmates and I thought to ourselves, "what do we need grammar for? We're the smart students!" Little did we know how much we had to learn. And while students of the regular English classes laughed at us for learning grammar, I knew that I was learning something valuable. Ultimately, I learned more in that one year than many of my friends learned throughout all of high school.

During CEGEP, I participated in the John Abbott College Writing Tutors programme, a special English course reserved for the better writers in the college. Our professor did not teach us classical literature or essay writing; she taught us how to teach. Our reading material was a combination of timeless essays about writing itself, and a collection of poorly written student essays. Our job was to understand where other students struggle, and how to rectify their situation. She taught me that critical thinking was something that can be taught, and that it is the foundation of all writing skills. She used to rail against the education system for assuming that Anglophone students will know how to write English, and for failing to teach grammar and critical thinking from the outset.

The students I teach, in grades 7 and 8, have never learned grammar. When I told them that I was going to teach them as I had been taught, they thought I would be wasting their time as it appeared to be unrelated to what they were actually doing. (What one was actually doing was making a bristol board presentation about the top ten events in his life during 2005 - the sort of mindless busy work that my Writing Tutors professor cringed at.) I quickly discovered, however, how important it was - they could not determine which words were nouns, adjectives, or verbs in a sentence. Seemingly, they had never been taught these terms, though they had been educated in British Columbia for 4 years prior to coming to Ontario in 2004. Today, I feel a sense of pride when my students can pick out not just basic word types, but can also identify different types of phrases, understand how appositives are used, and identify subjects and predicates in any sentence. My next lesson is on dependant and independant clauses.

The main objective of all of this is to eventually bring the students to a point where they can critically think about an issue, and articulate their feelings about these issues. I once had a discussion with a friend about the importance of teaching Critical Thinking from a young age. This friend grew up in Saudi Arabia, where Critical Thinking was never taught - in any language. I have spoken with many other immigrants who all attest to the fact that they were never expected to objectively analyze opinions or literature; they were only expected to write gramatically correct sentences. None of them ever understood logical fallacies until learning about them in University, nor did they learn how to structure arguments, or how to maintain a cohesive thesis. These things simply were not taught. Somehow, this eerily reminded me of Orwell's 1984, where the vocabulary itself prevented citizens of Oceania from formulating critical opinions about their society.

I have no real background in Education, nor have I ever been at the front of a classroom teaching 30-40 students simultaneously, so perhaps my lofty ideals on education are not practical on a large scale. I still feel, however, that there is so much more that can be done. Children should not be using calculators in the second grade. Children should not be relying on computer spellchecks and grammar checks from such a young age. Children need to learn that there is more to research than Google and Wikipedia. Something must be done to challenge these young minds to prevent the stagnation that will likely occur otherwise.

I may continue along this theme with a later post, as I haven't even started on the social aspects of high school education. That's where things really get messy.

January 24, 2006


I woke up this morning and looked out the window as I always do. I looked upon the Canadian Parliament buildings, the famous Peace Tower rising above downtown office buildings. The flag perched above the tower blew in the wind, much like it has every other day.

Much has changed beneath that tower and flag, but the structure remains the same. The surroundings remain the same. The country looks the same. For the most part, the people have not changed. The government may have changed, but many things remain constant. My neighbours still smiled in the hallways. Strangers still chatted merrily on the bus. The Ottawa Senators beat the Maple Leafs again. Unfortunately, the Habs kept losing.

I stepped outside; the weather was warm, only a few degrees below zero. I slept well the night before; I was ready to put in a good days work.

The election may not have gone as I hoped, but things aren't so bad after all.

January 13, 2006

Jamarah Plans

I'm thankful that last years Hajj was incident-free. Though pushing through the floods on the last day was exhausting, we did not encounter any major difficulties. I have a lot of family and friends attending Hajj this year, and pray that everyone is safe after the deadly stampedes yesterday. May Allah grant Paradise to all those who lost their lives during this journey.

Several months ago, I received some pictures of the proposed redesign to the Jamarah area. These plans have been approved, and insha-Allah should be in place for next years Hajj. I have also heard people suggesting a monorail system to connect all the major sites of Hajj. If it can be designed well, this should help alleviate the insane traffic around Muzdalifah, Arafah, and the surrounding areas.

Top View of the redesigned Jamarah area.

Another top view.

A model of the current setup.

In the end though, somehow I feel that there will always be some tragedies associated with Hajj. Just one hundred years ago, getting to Makkah and Madinah from anywhere outside the Arabian peninsula must have taken weeks or months; now, you can be there from anywhere in the world in less than two days. But the Hajj is not meant to be a holiday; it is all about sacrifice and undergoing hardships for the sake of Allah. Somehow, there will always be some difficulties.


The Child circled around the empty rink a number of times, dragging his feet along to the cries of the Coach.

"Be like Lemieux!", the Coach cried. "Be Jagr! Be Spezza!"

The Child found some determination hearing the names of his modern heroes, kicked his skates back, and rushed towards the puck. He pushed forward and handled the puck with his stick and then focused squarely on the empty net. Pushing the puck from side to side, the Child reached the slot, and fired a shot towards the net with all the force and aggression he could muster.

He missed completely. The puck bounced off the corner, and settled in the snow along the boards.

"Go after it!" cried the coach.

The Child grabbed the puck from the corner, circled around, and fired another shot at a sharp angle. He missed completely.

The Child looked back at the Coach while skating towards the puck on the other side. With his eyes focused squarely on the Coach, he fired another shot. Again, the puck went nowhere near the net.

Dejected, the Child skated back towards the bench. The Coach frowned, but was not ready to give up hope.

"If you take a thousand shots, eventually one will hit. Just keep shooting," the Coach instructed. "You will score."

"What about the nearly thousand times I miss though? Someone else will grab it, I might hurt someone, the other team can pick it up, people will laugh at me..." The Child wasn't too keen on this strategy. Nevertheless, it had worked for the Coach before.

"Never mind about that; come, we'll take a break. Let's grab some food." The Child skated off the rink, pulled off his skates, and put on a pair of sneakers. The two walked towards the lobby, and spotted a café therein.

The Coach was also the Scout, looking for the final member of the local Womens team. The Child took a seat with the Coach in the arena café, buying a hot chocolate while the Coach ordered a sandwich.

The Child could not wipe the frown from his face, thinking back to all the shots he missed. To have been practicing this long, and not hit the net even once was something that did not sit well with him. A year earlier, he had hit a post. He still thinks back to that with mixed feelings of optimism and regret. Optimism, because it was the closest he had ever come, but the regret overpowered the optimism. He had never come any closer. The Child sat there, moping about the lost opportunities and failed attempts he was becoming accustomed to.

A young woman, a pair of skates tied over her shoulders, came to the café and sat down at the table behind the Coach and the Child. The Coach nudged the Child out of his moping, and pointed towards the young woman seated behind him. "She might be the one," the Coach whispered, gazing at the woman seated behind the Child. "She might be the right one," the Coach repeated. "I'm going to ask her."

Already, the Coach had it figured out. As a Scout, the Coach had enough experience in assembling the rest of the team, and could identify the characteristics that were needed to fill in that last gap. Yes, this woman might be the one, streaking down the left side, taking a crisp pass from the centre, pulling a tricky move around the defenceman, and putting the puck home past the goaltender. The Coach could already see it; where she would play, how she would fit in. Should she be made the captain? She's probably too young for that. But she'll be good. Maybe someday. She's probably had a very good history. It looks like she's played with some other great players; there were others who had walked into the café with her that also looked good. She definitely has the potential to be the star. She's got it all; talent, charisma, and charm. She will be front and centre on the team picture, the Coach thought.

"You can't just ask her," the Child whimpered. "What do we know about her? Nothing!"

"There's nothing wrong in asking," the Coach told the Child. "If you take a thousand shots, eventually one will hit." The Child thought back to the first several shots he had taken; statistically speaking, things did not look good.

With that, the Coach stood up from the table, and approached the woman.

"I couldn't help but notice your skates. I'm assembling a hockey team and think you might be the one I was looking for to complete it." the Coach asked.

The young woman was startled. "Oh, hockey?" she asked. "Oh, gee, that's nice of you to offer, but I don't really think I would help. I haven't played hockey before, I'm here for figure skating."

Figure skating. "Oh, I see. Well, good luck with that," said the Coach .

The Coach, slightly embarassed, apologized, and sat back down. The Child looked on, somewhat disappointed, but feeling a little smug; he refrained from saying "I told you so", but perhaps his restrained smile gave it away.

The Child later returned to the ice, with the Coach following after. The Child put on his gear, stepped on the ice, and charged towards the lone puck sitting idly at centre ice.

The Coach, rather perplexed by the episode that had just transpired, could not think of any legendary players to inspire the Child as he rushed towards the net with the puck. Inadvertently, the Coach called out to the Child, "Be Chara!"

The Child, puzzled by the reference to the Ottawa defenceman, fired the puck waywards, again failing to come anywhere near the net. He looked back at the Coach, who sat head down, muttering something incoherently.

"Be Chara, child. Be Chara."

January 11, 2006

A tribute to the bugs in my cereal

Part of what inspired me to write that previous post was my frustration with people who pretend to be things they're not. I see lots of these people particularly in Toronto, though this happens everywhere else. In particular, I was tired of seeing people posing as thugged-out gangsters living in ghettos when they actually live in posh, expensive neighbourhoods in suburban Mississauga.

So in tribute to those posers, I present "Bugs in mah Cereal", the thugged-out version, courtesy of the Dialectizer.

Click on the "Dialectize" button for thugged-out fun!

January 03, 2006

Bugs in my cereal

It's been a while since I wrote anything here. It was not for lack of content; recently, there have been many amusing stories in my life that some of my readers already know about. All I will say on that is that there are some search problems even Google can't solve. That's probably a good thing. When searching for your other half, the bumps and bruises along the way usually provide valuable lessons that can last a lifetime. If the results were instant, we'd miss out on one of life's most amusing adventures.

People have assumed that I have been unhappy of late. This is not necessarily true, but I won't deny that my behaviour and actions perhaps reflected an aura of unhappiness. Alhamdolillah, I'm very content these days, but somehow I haven't been able to show that. During my recent Toronto trip, I struggled to show much enthusiasm, which everyone seemed to notice. I'm not sure why; I've never been able to put a finger on it. But thanks to a blog post courtesy of Izzy Mo, I discovered that this feeling has a name; they call it quarter-life crisis.

It is a bit of a misnomer; we can never know what fraction of life has passed, but my understanding is that it represents that little transitionary period in the late teens and early 20s when so many of lifes major decisions come at once. Where is my life going? Am I directing it the right way? Incidentally, it's also the period in which people tend to start blogs, where they ask these same questions to whoever is listening.

Our generation must have invented this term, as we seem to have an obsession with depression. What should be considered as an exciting transitional period has been called a "crisis". Outwardly, we have little reason to be depressed. And inwardly, we don't have any valid reasons for depression either. But when we grow up hearing stupid song lyrics like "I'm not okay!! I'm not okay!" and "Life's not fair!", it is no surprise that when the slightest misdirection creeps into life, we fall into extended bouts of melancholy. Sure, we may live in nice homes in quiet neighbourhoods; we may have home-cooked food waiting for us every day; we may have university educations and challenging careers ahead of us, even. But we still play the victim, secretly seeking sympathy but publicly showing disdain for the world. As soon as conditions appear to be against our favour, we lash out at society for marginalizing us and disregarding our woes. Only in retrospect do we realize how irrelevant our "woes" actually were. We have never seen real adversity, but still believe it's us against the world.

This is partly why the Goth subculture has always fascinated and disgusted me. I've always wondered how so many people can get duped into a culture which unifies only on a colour and a sound; they stand up for so little, yet they attract so many followers. I was mistaken though; it's not the colour or the music which is the unifying force between them; it is the disdain of society, and the attraction towards depression and marginalization. These are often people who really are living privileged lives; I see them on the bus all the time, and I can tell where they live by the bus they take. Many live in half-million dollar homes, their parents are probably engineers, and they have incredibly nice schools and shopping centres all around them.

Still, our generation has created a culture that values being rejected. The Goth culture has responded by reflecting their anger at society by dressing like the Addams family. Another contingent has chosen the path of living the fake thug life. Again, people with all the privileges in the world choose to create this image where they are scorned by society and need to fight back. It's all so artificial, but reality has been losing a lot of battles these days.

The most ironic part of it all is that this disdain for society has been commercialized. Goths chose to express their individuality by dressing against social norms; now, most young people in Ottawa appear to dress that way. There are Goth megastores where you can buy these funky shirts with all the patches and slogans sewed on already. That crazy makeup that makes them all look so pale? Only 3,99$! They bought into the culture to show they were different; in the end, they've been sucked into a commercial jackpot like everyone else. Anti-commercialism itself has been commercialized.

This culture of angst fails because it unifies on something so meaningless. In the end, it will blow away like every other passing phase, and all these people will wonder what they were doing with their lives. They'll realize that this whole venture was a farce, and terms like quarter-life crisis will also disappear. Eventually, economic conditions will become much worse in North America, and we'll be reminded what used to be meant by "Depression". Hopefully, we'll learn to deal with the adversity rather than just mope about it.

Islam thrived because people were uniting on something meaningful; something which not only changed them, but changed society. I once did some research about the Goth perspective on Islam. I came across a messageboard where someone argued that "being Goth transcends all religion; you can be a buddhist, a jew, a muslim, or an atheist, and still be Goth." He added later that as long as the image was right, the ideology didn't matter. The image. That's all it is.

Everyone else is uniting on just an image, though some of them may claim otherwise. (You don't understand man, you gotta feel the music.) As Muslims, we must unite on the values Islam taught us. Those values will reflect on our image as well; indeed, they should. I listened to a talk recently by an amazing local Muslim scholar, who argued against the common refrain of "I've got Islam in my heart; that's all I need." He argued that the Islam in our heart must reflect on our actions, our character, and our appearance. He quoted an ayaah of Quran, where Allah compares the Imaan of a person to a tree, which has strong roots in the ground, outside of view, and branches and fruits springing forth out of the trunk. The branches and the fruits are the a'maal - the righteous actions, the sunnah of Rasulullah SAWS - that are outwardly reflected by those deep roots. Sure, a tree might have deep roots, but if it's not providing fruit, it's no good to anyone.

The challenge then is to decorate the belief in our hearts with the actions required by that belief. It is not enough just to hold the image; that won't last on it's own, just as all of these other cultures based on image won't last. And claiming that our roots are firm while failing to produce the fruits of Islam is also not enough. In the early stages, this tree needs constant care in order to eventually produce those fruits. And once it does, others will benefit from it too.