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Malcolm Jolley: A trio of Dominion-country white wines to drink this holiday weekend

Commentary

I had the pleasure this week of dining in Toronto with Ken Forrester, whose 2022 Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc I wrote about a few columns ago. He brought some lovely wines with him from South Africa including a bottle of 2013 Old Vines Reserve, which has aged into a beautifully honeyed succulent white wine, proving once more that Chenin Blanc is truly one of the world’s top white grapes suited to aging and that great wines can still be had for $20 Canadian dollars. Buy a bottle, forget about it for a decade, and see what happens. 

Ken’s visit, on the eve of what we now call Canada Day, got me thinking of the old Dominions, the name that Sir John A. MacDonald and company came up with in 1867 for the newly confederated realm of British North America. Necessity being the mother of invention, our Dominion title was settled on the premise that our American cousins wouldn’t put up with the “Kingdom of Canada.” Dominion might not be cool now, but at the time it was catchy amongst some of the other corners of the Empire, like (for a while) South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

Not so much these days, which I think is a shame. I am happy to live in the Dominion of Canada and think it’s a moniker that could stick no matter who ends up being our head of state. There enough kingdoms and republics; it seems to me to be absolutely Canadian to find something in between, taking (I hope) the best and leaving the rest. Vive le Canada.

Before my dinner with a favourite South African, I was put in front of three impressive white wines, from three of the remaining dominions (if they still have the courage to call themselves by their real names).

Allow me to momentarily digress and bring up the final scene in the 1987 Richard Attenborough movie Cry Freedom. It stars Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline, and it is about the murdered South African human rights activist Steven Biko and the journalist Donald Woods. Woods told Biko’s story and was persecuted by the then-apartheid police state for it. 

Woods and his family escape from racist tyranny to the free world, by way of Lesotho Airlines, which in a quick aside is revealed to be an airline run by a triumvirate made up of a Canadian, an Australian, and a New Zealander. A trio of dominion decency. We dominionists might have more in common than we care to think of regularly. Here are three wines, that I think prove it, and might offer some refreshment and contemplation on what’s in a name on this July 1st weekend.

Prices are for Ontario, but should more or less correspond nationally, depending on one’s particular provincial liquor tyranny.

Under $40: Stratus White 2021, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada

God bless the man with money who sinks it into a winery. (Or woman, of course, just so far it’s been mostly guys.) I don’t know if David Feldburg has had a return on his investment since he founded Stratus in Niagara at the beginning of this century, but Canadian winos like me certainly have. The 2021 vintage is Stratus’ 19th and the blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and a bit of Sémillon purrs out of the glass like a fine-tuned performance car’s motor. It resonates and brings tropical notes, especially pineapple and guava north of the border. Tension, complexity, and superlative balance mean this is a wine of contemplation. If you live around the great lakes, find some pickerel (walleye). Failing that, whitefish. If you live by an ocean, you know better than me. If you live by neither, it doesn’t matter because your lunch will be eaten quickly just so you can spend less time chewing and more time sipping. This wine will stand on guard for thee well into the afternoon.

Under $30: Wakefield Jaraman Chardonnay, South Australia

The Taylor family make affordable luxurious wines. (They also make a few very expensive ones, but I think that’s more for fun.) Their Jaraman Chardonnay is a blend of grapes sourced from the Adelaide hills and the Clare Valley, where they established their winery more than a half-century ago. The 2021 could be drunk standing up, but that would be a shame because it’s fancy enough to warrant some attention and worth sitting down for study. First the peaches and stone fruit, then citrus held together with a very gentle seasoning of ladies-who-lunch, Montrachet-style oak. This is a grown-up wine on a kid’s budget. Makes for a good day.

Under $20: Rapaura Springs Sauvignon Blanc 2022, Marlborough, New Zealand

Are Kiwis even more prosaic than Canucks? Evidence on the back label of Rapaura Spring’s Sauvignon Blanc suggests they might be. It’s given the adjective “Classic,” and it certainly is. Having spent a good deal of time in the summer in Great Britain, I have first-hand knowledge of what an actual gooseberry tastes like, and it’s in this glass of wine. But over that, in triumphant harmony, is passion fruit. Lots of passion fruit. I like passion fruit; passion fruit is fun and so is this wine. And it isn’t just a really good value bottle, it’s a super one if you live in-between Quebec and Manitoba because it’s two loonies off the regular price at the provincial alcohol cartel. Kia ora, Canada.

Michael Zwaagstra: Don’t make student failure impossible—sometimes it’s necessary 

Commentary

As the school year draws to a close, students will receive their final grades. If you’re a student in the Toronto school district, it’s not easy to fail. In fact, you have to really work at it.

According to official Toronto District School Board policy, a student will be held back “only after all alternatives are exhausted and only in exceptional circumstances.” Not only does a student need to fail every single core course, but the student’s overall average must be at Level 1 (the lowest possible level) across all subjects. With requirements like these, it’s almost more difficult to fail a grade than to pass it.

Considering that other school boards in Canada have similar policies, repeating a grade is rare in most Canadian schools, at least at the K-8 level. Most school administrators oppose holding students back and argue that grade retention damages student self-esteem, claiming that research overwhelmingly supports this contention.

However, research on this issue is far from clear-cut. In fact, there’s evidence that making students repeat a grade appears to benefit them. For example, since 2013 the state of Mississippi has required Grade 3 students to repeat the year if they score below a set threshold on the state reading exam. Since this policy was implemented, Mississippi has recorded substantial improvements in student reading outcomes.

To be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean that repeating a grade was the direct cause of Mississippi’s improved performance. Students who repeat the year also receive intensive reading instruction, and it’s possible that Mississippi’s academic improvement has more to do with these interventions than with grade retention. 

Nevertheless, even if this is the case, the data still show that being held back a year did not negatively impact most students. Thus, there’s no reason to assume that grade retention is always harmful. 

However, while a blanket ban on grade retention is obviously a mistake, it would be equally problematic to mandate rigid promotion standards. If a student works hard and falls slightly short of the grade level standard, it makes far more sense to let that student progress to the next grade with their peers than to hold that student back.

On the other hand, a student who intentionally does little work throughout the school year is a prime candidate for repeating a grade. Such a student would likely benefit from spending an additional year at the same grade level.

In short, deciding whether to make a student repeat a grade is something that needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. This means genuinely looking at all the factors and making a decision in the best interests of the student. It’s not a time for ideological rigidity.

It’s also important to remember that contested issues in education cannot always be resolved by experiments. Of course, there’s systematic inquiry and research in education, but often the results of the research are not strong enough to identify exactly what teachers and administrators ought to do in each situation. This is certainly the case when deciding whether to make a student repeat a grade.

Because schools are in the business of educating people, not robots, we must allow for flexibility. This is true not just in individual classrooms but also at the school board level. It’s unrealistic to expect all schools to take an identical approach to grade retention. It makes far more sense to allow for a variety of options from which parents can choose.

Thus, parents who feel that their children would benefit from stricter promotion standards can enroll their children in schools that enforce these standards while those who believe their children would be harmed by being held back can choose a school that promotes them with their peers. 

Obviously, schools must be held accountable, but there’s no need to mandate the specific educational philosophy of each and every school. There should be room for many educational approaches that help students to learn. 

We must not get sidetracked by the ongoing debate over whether grade retention is a good idea. Rather, let’s focus on whether students are learning the curriculum. That’s what matters most.