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Science & History Lessons

Teachers: Be Like Robin Barker-James

By April 23, 2015 2 Comments

For the majority of my public school education I was not what you would call academically inclined. To my mind, school was something you did, not a means to an end. This was all until the 10th or 11th grade when I learned that good grades could lead to a scholarship and further education that would lead to a life in the big city, a place I was convinced I belonged as I didn’t seem to fit in around my small town. I decided to do what teachers had been imploring me to do since elementary school: buckle down and apply myself.

Yet history was one of those subjects I loathed and struggled to adapt to. It was a seemingly disconnected series of dates and events. No narrative, no cause and effect, no trajectory. Just random wars, random names, random dates to memorize. Until I had Mr. Barker-James.

I’d heard of Mr. Barker-James before he became my teacher in the 11th grade. Some students loved him, others said he was just weird. I was one of the students that loved him. He threw out the text books – we were going to talk about history he said, and talk we did. Classes were filled with his hand-drawn maps on the chalkboard, we debated how things could have been different, the roles of concepts such as imperialism, realism and idealism. We threw out the dates and memorization, but somehow I remembered more names dates and events from those long classes where everyone just talked than I did from any history class before.

This past Wednesday Mr. Barker-James died. He was only 59.  The news stopped me cold in my tracks, and I have spent the last two days talking with former classmates about this legend of a man, who made such a difference in my life and the lives of many other students. Here’s why.

A news article about the WWI trench warfare scenario at the time.

A news article about the WWI trench warfare scenario at the time.

The year after I had Mr. Barker-James, he was able to realize a project that had taken him years to see through to fruition. He lived on a large fallow farm and had petitioned (and petitioned, and petitioned) school officials to allow students to come on to his land to recreate and actually relive history. First up was a recreation of World War I. His idea was brilliantly creative and on the cutting edge of what education experts say is both an innovative and effective learning methodology: the art of engagement – knowing your subject, knowing your audience, and bringing them together strategically for a masterful outcome.

Mr. Barker-James had planned everything to be as accurate as possible. The students would dig the trenches over a series of months. We would sleep outside and we would only be allowed to take clothing and comforts with us that would have been allowed by our “side” at the time. We would eat what they ate, we would sleep on their schedules.

For two months, after school and during our spare periods, we went to Mr. Barker-James’ farm and hand dug trenches. I remember my hands being blistered and by mid-October being miserable with the choice to either wear gloves and not have a good enough grip on the shovel to break through the frost, or do it bare-handed. One day I remember throwing a 17-year-old’s hissy fit, which Mr. Barker-James stopped by reminding me that a mere 80 years before, boys my age had to do this in France, all day, without the luxury of gloves and wool hats, and snacks.

Point to Mr. Barker-James.

Mementos from the WWI trench warfare recreation.

Mementos from the WWI trench warfare recreation.

When the weekend of the trench warfare scenario came, I remember there were a handful of seniors on the Allied and Axis (my assignment) sides and we were over-run by sophomores who were ready for a weekend of camping. We were offered our first breakfast of a slice of bread, water and a cheese slice. Many decided not to eat it and instead marched the 8 kilometers to his farm on an empty stomach. By the time we arrived, the mood had gone from excitement to exhaustion.

We set up camp, laid out wooden weapons, and started our first patrols. At lunch we were offered what soldiers from our side would have eaten: Hard tack and bully beef. I remember cutting the roof of my mouth on the hard tack and dry heaving as I tried to swallow the fatty bully beef. I couldn’t get it down. I was very hungry, but I knew that was the point.

The first battle we recreated was the Somme. I remember being relieved because it was supposed to be easy for our side, the Germans. The Canadians would walk down the hill, in the trench at the base we would mow them down. At first our side was having fun, enjoying as the refs called their friends out as dead. The ‘dead’ students would then revive and move up to the top of the hill and come down again in the next wave, only to be killed by us again.


A blank shell from the Canadian Armed Forces mock attack on the German students’ trench.

I remember a girl stopping at one point and saying, “this sucks.” I asked her why, this was the easy part for us. “We’re just killing them and killing them and killing them. It doesn’t stop. We have to do this for 45 more minutes. Just killing people. It’s depressing.” “That’s the point.” I said. I saw the same light go off in her eyes as it did when Mr. Barker-James had pointed out that my sore hands were nothing to complain about. By giving us the opportunity to be outside of the classroom, and gain a first-hand reflective experience of the actual impact of war (however minor), Mr. Barker-James acted as an educational mediator – not a teacher, and yet, higher ranked than any teacher could be. His lessons instilled critical thinking, reflection, curiosity, and a drive for us to understand, which is considered some of the best sort of teaching around.

And it was evident that this cold, depressing, and exhausting scenario was sparking understanding among those students, including myself. No one slept that night. It was too cold and we had to rotate every two hours. Students that had been enthusiastic about the over night trip soon became sullen, several cried. Parents came to visit, but none of them took their kids home.

At around 3am Mr. Barker-James had arranged for a local arm of the Canadian military to spring a sneak attack on the German side. We threw zip lock bags filled with flour as stand-ins for mustard gas at them. I remember the referees calling my fellow officers out as dead one by one. Then I was the only one left. I remember turning to one of the refs and saying, “what am I supposed to do?” He looked at me with a half grin and said, “well sweetie, they’re coming in, so you’d better make peace with God and be prepared to meet him.” I ducked as I was trampled on by several soldiers in military-grade steel toed boots, which combined with the freezing temperatures stung in addition to hurt.

Later that year Mr. Barker-James called on us again, to reenact the Nuremburg trials with his sophomores. What surprised me more than anything was how the sophomores had a better grasp on history than I did at their age. They saw WWI and WWII as extensions of the same conflict, they were able to reference names, dates and events that, at their age, I had doodled my way through in the text book. Mr. Barker-James understood what most students know intrinsically, which is that engaging in the material is so much more effective than memorization and teaching to the test.


Faux mustard gas mask from the trench warfare scenario, still filled with dirt.

Students have higher recall of information when they’re able to play with it.  Recent studies have found that gameifying education (a form of what Mr. Barker-James was doing) results in much higher recall of information than those that learn in the traditional ways.  Part of this has to do with experiential information.  When we learn through hands-on experience, different parts of our brains are activated, including those that have to do with emotion, and humans recall emotional information much better than we do statistical information.  Enhancing this recall is the fact that Mr. Barker-James’ exercises took days to execute, meaning students needed to recall and analyze the information in different real-life scenarios, heightening the recall.

I can’t tell you if Mr. Barker-James knew all of this before he petitioned to conduct that first trench warfare scenario.  Maybe he was tired of seeing students like myself who could have excelled in a subject they hated had someone presented the information to them in the right frame.  What I do know is what Mr. Barker-James did worked.  I have made WWI history a bit of a personal interest, and of the dozens of books I’ve read on the subject, nothing has stuck like those two days in October 1998. I know that I wouldn’t have gone on to earn a double honors degree in political science and history had it not been for Mr. Barker-James.





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Categories: Ages + Stages, School-Aged Children, Science 101 + Mythbusting, Tweens + Teens

The Science of Kelly Clarkson’s Baby Fat, Because We Apparently Need to Talk About It.

By March 12, 2015 No Comments

Let’s talk about something that’s none of our business: Kelly Clarkson’s postpartum body. We’re not going to talk about her third number one album on the billboard charts, her awesome duet with Jimmy Fallon or her adorable baby girl. We’re going to put her recent accomplishments aside and talk about her postpartum body because she had the nerve to have a baby in June and not be “skinny again” by March, and that’s what really matters.</sarcasm>

Before we talk about Clarkson specifically, let’s talk about what’s average and what’s recommended in terms of pregnancy and postpartum weight gain. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends a gestational weight gain (GWG) of 25-35 pounds for a

Trends in Gestational Weight Gain 1990-2005 via

Trends in Gestational Weight Gain 1990-2005 via

woman that began her pregnancy with a body mass index of 18.5-24.9 and is pregnant with a single fetus. In reality what we’re seeing is an increasing trend in women gaining both less than and more than the recommended GWG. This is because more women are beginning their pregnancies with a BMI considered overweight or obese.

Postpartum trends also show that a year after giving birth, women that began their pregnancy at a “normal” weight and gained the recommended amount retained three pounds of their pregnancy weight a year later. Those that gained more than the recommended weight retained about 10 pounds. Within some weight ranges the retained gestational weight can become problematic, putting women at risk for the development of type 2 diabetes post-pregnancy.

Postpartum GWG by week via

Postpartum GWG by week via

Retained gestational weight gain can compound with subsequent pregnancies, increasing a woman’s pre-pregnancy BMI and putting them at risk for gestational complications such as gestational diabetesHELLP syndrome and preeclampsia.

A major assumption in previous research (and it seems by society in general) is that postpartum “baby weight” serves no purpose, but that assumption is being challenged by evolutionary biologists.  Research in this field over the last decade has posited that postpartum weight retention plays an important role in lactation, providing nursing mothers with energy reserves should their baby’s need for milk outpace the mother’s energy (food) intake.

Pregnancy is hard, recovering from childbirth is hard, new motherhood is hard and in the West we do an abysmal job of supporting new mothers. One of the unspoken rules of new motherhood is that if you’re not pregnant anymore, you have to look like you never were. That’s an incredibly powerful but negative message to send to a woman.  This is where we get Tori Spelling’s “Just Keep Your [Bleeping] Mouth Shut and Eat Air [postpartum] diet,” which is incredibly dangerous, new mother or not.

I’m glad that we can now put Kelly Clarkson in the category of women who have openly taken a healthy approach to postpartum weight loss, along with Tia Mowry, Hilary Duff, Jenna Fisher and Bryce Dallas Howard.  At the end of the day, what Kelly Clarkson’s postpartum body matters only to herself and her doctor, new album or not.


Institute of Medicine (US) and National Research Council (US) Committee to Reexamine IOM Pregnancy Weight Guidelines; Rasmussen KM, Yaktine AL, editors. Weight Gain During Pregnancy: Reexamining the Guidelines. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2009. 2, Descriptive Epidemiology and Trends. Retrieved March 11, 2015.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pediatric and Pregnancy Nutrition Surveillance System (PNSS). Updated December 17, 2014. Retrieved March 11, 2015.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infant Feeding Practices Study II and its Year Six Follow-Up. Updated August 26, 2014. Retrieved March 11, 2015.
Weight gain during pregnancy. Committee Opinion No. 548. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Obstet Gynecol 2013;121:210–2.

Leahy-Warren, P., McCarthy, G. and Corcoran, P. First-time mothers: social support, maternal parental self-efficacy and postnatal depression. Journal of Clinical Nursing. March 25, 2011. Retrieved March 11, 2015.

Bedor, E. and Tajima, A. No Fat Moms! Celebrity Mothers’ Weight-Loss Narratives in People Magazine Journal of Magazine & New Media Research Summer 2012. Retrieved March 11, 2015.

American Pregnancy Association. Pregnancy Complications: HELLP Syndrome. Retrieved March 11, 2015.

Mayo Clinic. Preeclampsia Risk Factors. Retrieved March 11, 2015.

Mayo Clinic. Gestational Diabetes Risk Factors. Retrieved March 11, 2015.

Dufour, D.L. and Sauther, M.L. Comparative and evolutionary dimensions of the energetics of human pregnancy and lactation. American Journal of Human Biology. August 21, 2002. Retrieved March 11, 2015.

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Categories: Pregnancy, Birth + Family Planning