Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Ness Lake Bible Camp

Ness Lake Bible Camp as seen from above
Ness Lake Bible Camp and School District 57 are in the news this week: http://www.princegeorgecitizen.com/news/local-news/bible-camp-policies-challenged-1.2306768

I am glad this story has come out. At the beginning of April I received news that a young lady who worked at Ness Lake Bible Camp last summer was told she could not come back as an counsellor because she expressed sympathy for an LGBTQ cause on her Facebook page. While normally a quiet person, she understandably found this outrageous and was willing to go public with her story. I also learned that the PG Pride president was banned from speaking on the topic of gender at a Rotary event booked at Ness Lake. While it does not surprise me that an evangelical Christian organization has a conservative or fundamentalist statement of faith that they require employees to sign, it is disappointing that they feel confident sustaining homophobic policies in an era where no sane person sees sexual orientation as a choice. I was also disappointed that our school district sat on this news for as long as they did, and appeared to have discouraged teachers to whom the young lady reached out from speaking publicly about this issue. This issue had come to the school district's attention in early April, and was, in my mind, an excellent test of the district's new LGBTQ anti-bullying policy; not so much about something happening at school but nonetheless an important opportunity for the district to show that it supports inclusion and breaking down prejudices throughout the community. It was also important for the school district to deal with promptly as there are many school bookings at Ness Lake Bible Camp for class camp-outs and there should be assurances that all students are welcome there regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. These bookings would have been made before April, with deposits paid, so any move to withdraw school district support for Ness Lake school visits would not come without pain. Understandably, the district wanted to ensure they had all the facts before reacting, although that is something that might have taken days or weeks and not months, and not waited until after the issue had become a news story. I can also understand that decisive actions by the school district around controversial events are rarely swift, and involve many closed meetings before they come up at open meetings. Having read the PG Citizen story about this issue last week, I am relieved that out school district is taking this situation seriously and appears willing to consider withdrawing support for school visits to the camp facilities. While I wished they would have acted sooner, they do have a realistic timeline now to encourage the Ness Lake organization to re-examine their prejudicial policies before next year's round of bookings.

I find this story personally compelling because I enjoyed attending Ness Lake Bible Camp for many years as a child and teenager and have had friends and relatives serve as counsellors, maintenance staff, directors, and board members. I grew up in Christian setting and as a youth accepted the conservative interpretation of biblical writings that homosexuality was a choice and a serious sin, and that serious sins land the sinner in some kind of eternal lake of fire. It was not until university when I was exposed to other, less judgemental faith traditions, some science on human sexuality and, more importantly, to gay friends, that I came to accept that homosexuality was not a choice and that there were many Christians who did not condemn others based on their sexual orientation. In fact this was a key theological issue that began a long complex deconstruction of my own faith, a parallel unravelling of the differences between my inherited (and cherished) faith traditions and my "Mennonite" cultural heritage, and the subsequent reconstruction of my current evolving understanding of the meaning of life (and a new appreciation of my cultural heritage). Suffice it to say that there is not a homophobic God at the centre of this construct. This, in turn, led to a difficult decision to leave my home church in the 1990s. I did not feel that it was a place where I could challenge my own faith and beliefs without incurring negative reactions from others, and, although the place and people had all kinds of significance for me, there were too many barriers to inclusion. For example, the church barred women from leadership positions at the time (against the policy recommendation of their parent organization). I believe they have finally put that issue to rest (about 20 years too late), and perhaps one day they will tackle the idea of a homophobic reading/interpretation of biblical writings next.

Ness Lake provided me with great friends, mentors, memories, canoeing skills, confidence in and a love for nature. I fondly remember leaping off the platform onto the jungle swing, paddling into the Lagoon, telling jokes in the cabin at night, singing in the chapel, bat-watching in the huge attic of the old gym, pillow fights, shooting real arrows, BBQs in the Rose Bowl, trying to figure out the opposite sex, playing "mission impossible" in the forest at night, cleaning dishes and cabins (this never caught on at home), lots of running at full speed from one end of the camp to another, debating ideas in my mind and with others in response to the daily religious talks, having thoughtful adults challenge my thoughts and behaviours, and learning (often through mistakes) to become a leader and a teacher. I was a camper there every year from age 7 to 16, plus winter camps, retreats, church picnics, clean-up days, and visits with friends on staff. Ness Lake was also a full immersion into the formulaic version of evangelical Christianity (steady pressure to confess, convert, and convince others to do the same) and consequently a key source of the "lake of fire" rhetoric that made me unreasonably judging of others and what I thought of as their sin. On the whole I do not regret my time at the camp -- it was one of my favorite places on earth and definitely one of the most formative; I agree with the statement by Julianna Ferguson in the PG Citizen story: "It was amazing, it was like a second home to me... [i]t's just been a place where I can feel accepted and be myself".

My 11-yr-old daughter has loved her school visits to the camp, and I would send her there in a heartbeat as a summer camper, but not until they bring their employee code in line with the Charter of Rights. I read and understand the bit in the Citizen article about the BC Human Rights Code governing religious non-profits (rather than the Charter) but I am of the belief that (Section 2) religous freedoms end at the exact moment in where they violate (Section 15) equality rights. Sending a volunteer staffer the message that her sympathy for an LGBTQ cause makes her unsuitable to work with children is plainly discriminatory and unethical. I don't expect the organization behind Ness Lake Bible Camp to change their belief system instantly in response to this news story -- to me this is more about reminding the public that religious organization harbour prejudices that are at odds with an inclusive society --  but I do expect them to have a meaningful conversation about their core mission, the message they want to send to staff, campers, and parents, and whether or not they want to respect basic Charter rights related to equality, regardless of whether they feel legally obliged to do so.  In my mind that would be the moral thing to do.

As a high school teacher, I have watched as the conversation on inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ students (and rights) has gone through a dramatic shift over the last 20 years. When I first started teaching, there was no conversation. Then it became an awkward one, with many students (and sometimes educators) being openly homophobic and making life for queer kids a living hell. We have a long way to go, but I am increasingly confident that our schools are becoming safe places for ALL students and that we are starting to model inclusion for the rest of the community. This has not been a steady shift but rather one that occurs in bumps and reactions to events -- two steps forward, one step back. Each time an incident or news item brings the attention around to inclusion, we have had a chance to discuss, react, and open up. For example, in 2011 our newly elected school board faced pressure from students, teachers, and public policy advocates (including the BCTF) to adopt a stand-alone LGBTQ anti-bullying strategy. When the motion to do this came before the school board in 2012, the vote was 6-1 against. When the issue came up again in 2014, it was passed 6-1, with the dissenting voter advocating for a broader revised policy that included all forms of bullying. What changed? The board became convinced that policy is a key component in the shifting societal norms. They also responded to pressure by teachers, students, and the public, many of whom brought stories of homophobic bullying in school. Sometimes change in societal attitudes comes first, sometimes the law changes and people come to accept that change was necessary. Often it is both -- the Charter of Rights itself is probably the best example of this dynamic at work. I hope this news story about Ness Lake Bible Camp is one such incident that spurs reflection on what inclusion really means and whether religious freedoms should protect organizations from discriminatory practices.

So, my message to Ness Lake Bible Camp is this: keep providing awesome programming to campers and services to camp renters -- your work is providing fabulous nature-based formative experiences that kids do not get anywhere else. Keep doing your Christian thing, too -- parents know what they're signing their kids up for and a little exposure to religion is not a bad thing, especially when it is modelled rather than harangued. Keep bringing up the topic of inclusion at all levels of your organization -- it is not okay to skirt the Equality Rights in your employee practices and it is not okay to tell a young women she should not work with kids if she is sympathetic towards the challenges faces by others who are LGBTQ -- love is love. The message you have sent will send a chill through your other staff -- a perception that they can't ask questions of their faith or explore their beliefs publicly without risking their positions at the camp. Don't be afraid of a diverse and inclusive staff -- you would be amazed at the difference it can make for children to see that their role models face the same complex questions that they do, including how to deal with their own sexuality. Rather than shun a young Christian woman who has (as I understand it) expressed love for others who face discrimination based on their sexual orientation, you should be welcoming her and trying to learn from her. This does not compromise your core mission, in fact it would help test it and make it relevant to other youth. It might actually save some lives.

My message to the School District is to do the right thing and insist that the organization behind Ness Lake Bible camp not only ensure that all kids are welcome there (as they have more or less done in their carefully crafted public statements over the last week), but bring their employee code in line with the Charter of Rights if they want to continue receiving bookings from the school district. Let this also be a lesson for future "controversies" -- don't be afraid of a good conversation, avoid the urge to say "let's not talk about this until it comes out in the media." We have seen a dramatic shift in district leadership over the last few months, some of it fueled by a desire to see a shift in management practice and new strategic directions. One of the "old ways" we need to discontinue is the veil of secrecy and tendency to obfuscate around important and controversial decisions, often rooted in a reticence to accept the role the district has in the community. There was been great progress made over the last few years on this front -- keep up the momentum and be open and honest about both mistakes and intentions. This is an exciting year ahead.

In both cases I should not be surprised to see complex, staid, and tradition-rich organizations take their time to move towards radical ends, but I am confident that both organizations are filled with thoughtful folks that will take the opportunity afforded by this (now public) story to make progressive decisions.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Leadership Change

Over the last two weeks I’ve been meeting with a teaching colleague to plan out a one-week intensive SFU summer course for local teachers. The aim of our course is to explore themes in the development of leadership and mentorship capacity among educators. We start with a central question about identity — the self that teaches, the self that leads. A sublime approach to leadership requires that we both embrace and deconstruct who we are as teachers, learners, leaders, or mentors and also that we move beyond our own experiences in order to open our mindsets to new challenges, theories, strategies, and communities of practice. We see leadership much like a backpack — it is filled both with tools of our own design (and the result of our experience) but also the tools we acquire for a specific trek across a specific landscape. We will also emphasize that leadership is differentiated. It is tempting to see (and respond to) a hierarchy in action when we look at an organization like a school district, with certain people selected and even paid to be “leaders.” When we scratch the surface, however, we see multifaceted roles for diverse approaches to leadership, and that some of the most effective forms of leadership have nothing to do with title. Instead, these forms often relate to values and practices involving moral purpose and intention, authenticity and voice, learning-oriented design, interdependence and relationships, and "followership." Nonetheless our recognized leaders, the ones to whom leadership is attached as a job description, bear our special scrutiny and can provide insight as to how power works, and how we can arrive, individually and collectively, at values and practices that are vital to our contexts as educators.

During the same time as my colleague and I are planning this leadership course, we are witnessing that largest change in School District 57 management in at least 15 years, if not ever; an occasion for reflection on educator identity and deconstructing leadership structures if there ever was one. This is the culmination, or perhaps just the latest development, in a dramatic year at the board office. We’ve had a superintendent depart after being on leave, an acting superintendent come and go and come back again, a new superintendent hired from out of province, and similar comings, goings, leaves, resignations, and new hires from other senior staff (i.e. assistant superintendents). Each of these moves is accompanied with a narrative, with dramatic speculation deserved or not, and theories about "why" involving everything from gentrification to palace revolt. Alongside these moves is a significant administrative shuffle between schools, one of largest of its kind in decades. This entire management transition come with some controversy, casualties, and political intrigue (as expected in any organization) but also with the promise of change and renewal. I, for one, am excited about the prospects.

The senior jobs in a school district come with heavy responsibilities. The local (SD57) superintendent and his/her team makes operational and educational decisions with a $130 million annual budget — larger than the City of Prince George, affecting a staff of over 2000 including about 850 teachers, and about 14,000 students in 40 schools. The superintendent also sets the tone for the organization (or is one of many doing so) in terms of foci, labour relations, student achievement, inclusion of all learners, professional ethics, and stakeholder dialogue (notably with parents and the media).

When the current HR dust settles, it looks like we’ll have almost a complete change “at the top” and next year would definitely be the year to expect new directions in the organization. This is new ground — not unlike a clearcut or razed landscape — but also one with new horizons and unpreventable new growth. The stakes are high; in addition to the new management team, the “double down” next year is that we are expected to pilot or implement all of the new curriculum, and make progress towards the “transformation of our education system.” Landscape is apt metaphor — to the clearcut, fresh burn, or blown down patch of forest comes a lush burst of fireweed and other pioneer species -- the stable and mature ecosystem is a long way off and not a guarantee. In the same way, there are many simple yet important short-term measures that can be taken to start anew. Not taken, this landscape will quickly be filled by whatever comes naturally, for better or worse, and the job at arriving at a stable ecosystem (e.g. an inclusive and productive district culture) becomes more difficult. The "seral stage" or period of regeneration will be an unavoidably awkward process with mistakes made and lessons learned. The long-term measures, however, can not be reactionary and will require more consideration and intent.

Perhaps I’m speaking in circles, so to bring this home I suggest that the new management of our district look to these dozen places for insight on what to do next — in addition to their own experience they can fill their backpacks with the following:
  1. Strategic Plan. Prepared by an external consultant, and the result of extensive stakeholder feedback, this report contains some fresh ideas and vocabulary about the possibilities for change in our district. The strategic planning itself was held up by years of politics, but the outcome may have worth the wait — but only if it is taken up by senior management. The first couple of pages are boilerplate, similar to what has appeared in District Achievement Contracts of the past. Page 4-7 contain the new stuff, an interesting balance of values and actions. If senior management is looking for a departure from the past, they could start by simply focusing on the six community needs: adaptability, community connectedness, uniqueness, relevance, communication skills, and fairness. All district initiatives (e.g. website, media releases, board room procedures, new programs, policy development, budget talks, etc.) will benefit by being filtered through the lens of these six needs. For some reason the Strategic Plan can’t be found on the SD57 website but it is archived here: http://sd57dpac.ca/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/sd57-strategic-plan-april-26-2016.pdf.
  2. Report on Rural Education. We have many rural and remote schools in our district, some just outside Prince George and six others in Mackenzie, McBride, and Valemount. Mainly in 2014 and 2015, some of the rural school staff, as well as their communities and other stakeholders, were consulted about the needs of their schools. A report with great background information and 14 recommendations was created, some of which are practical, others idealistic, and others controversial. One of the latter involves a scheme to increase video conferencing “options” for rural schools —while this is indeed a accepted form of “distributed learning” it has also been decried by the teachers and communities affected as an erosion to teaching and learning conditions in rural schools. There was an attempt this year to force these “options” on schools, but cooler heads and longer memories prevailed — the last attempt at increasing capacity for video conferencing was expensive, seldom used, and unsuccessful. Still, the report contains other viable and practical actions (p. 33-34) — the door is open to experimentation and further collaboration; the stakeholders have stated their commitment to stay involved. For some reason the Report on Rural Education can’t be found on the SD57 website but it is archived here: http://sd57dpac.ca/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/2016.01.18-Report-Ad-Hoc-Committee-on-Rural-Education-FINAL.pdf
  3. Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement. This has been a long time in development and is still in draft form. Once signed, this agreement will guide program development for Aboriginal learners and help address gaps of equity and achievement. At issue appears to be the amount and kind of consultation with local First Nations communities. Surveying other completed AEEAs from around the province, no two are alike although they all share common themes. Most of them have broad support and signatures from local First Nations community leaders. The coming year is the year to get this right and finalize the agreement. Finding an actual copy of the draft AEEA proves difficult. I will post a link if I can find one.
  4. Archived District Plans. Each year the school district, through it’s superintendent and approved by the board, releases a variety of reports and growth plans. Among them are literacy plans, rural school plans, Aboriginal education plans, achievement reports, and facility plans. Each one tells a story, and each one conceals as much as they reveal. Nonetheless, the represent issues and foci that were important at the time, and taken together form a useful data Now that the Ministry of Education has changed its reporting requirements (e.g. see http://www.sd57.bc.ca/Documents/Ministry%20of%20Education%20-%20Enhancing%20Student%20Learning.pdf), many of these documents will no longer be written. The various collections of past reports are sometimes hard to find on the district website, or have been removed, but some of them are archived at https://www.sd57.bc.ca/Programs/Reports/Pages/default.aspx.  Probably one of the most interesting (to me at least) was the 2010 DSC Report (District Sustainability). This omnibus report suggested all kinds of cuts and school closures, some of which were eventually approved. The process leading up to the DSC and the process of deciding what to do with it were laden with problems, too many to get into in this space. Suffice to say that there are powerful lessons to be learned from how that all went down.
  5. District Achievement Contracts.  Chief among the old documents is the "DAC." The former superintendent referred to these as “compliance documents, written for a general audience but intended for the Ministry of Education; not meant to withstand statistical analysis, but indicative of trends and efforts to improve performance.” Why do these have value for new managers of our school district? They contain powerful, if arguable, statements by former senior admin about our district, including their priorities and a summary of the important work that goes on in the district. It is their attempt to pay attention to what is going on. The most recent of the DACs available on the SD website can be found at https://www.sd57.bc.ca/Programs/Reports/Documents/2013-14%20Reports/2014.07.15%20District%20Achievement%20Contract%202014.pdf.
  6. Long Range Facility Plan. The 2015 long-term facility plan is perhaps the most relevant and consequential of past reports. This lays out some possibilities for school reconfiguration in the future, but no actual commitment to close schools and so on. The other data in the report is useful: school capacities, enrolment figures and such -- information that in the past was hard to find without a freedom-of-information request or demand from the elected board. Given the acrimonious nature of the 2010 sustainability process, and the legacy of school closures in SD57 (24 out of 64 school closed since 2001), this document will certainly be put to the test if the topic of school closures or reconfiguration comes up again. In particular, the fate of the secondary French Immersion program will be fun one to watch -- does it stay at the crowded Duchess Park or does it move to the roomy PGSS? The LRFP is archived at https://www.sd57.bc.ca/Programs/Reports/Documents/2014-15%20Reports/2015.05.26%20Long%20Range%20Facility%20Plan.pdf.
  7. Recommendations from the Ad Hoc committee on Technology and Learning. This group met in 2014 and 2015 to discuss long standing technology issues in our school district. Their findings and recommendations have yet to be publicly released, or if they have, can't be found (seeing a pattern here?). In an era of mobile technology, web-based computing, and continuous digital innovation and disruption, the school district is still locked in a technology model from the last century: single platform, restrictive hardware policies, and ongoing issues with wireless networks and access by staff to basic functions such as printing from BYOD devices — a model that is encouraged but not supported. There are some serious and specific unresolved technology issues in our district, going all the way back to centralizing of district technology services almost 20 years ago. Thankfully, the world of educational technology has evolved enough that many of these issues really aren’t that relevant anymore. What remains, though,  are ongoing needs and basic questions about access, function, equity, and assessment (reflection/action on what is working and what is not). The newly formed Technology and Learning District Committee has its work cut out for them.
  8. The School Board Trustees. This group is responsible for much of the management change this year -- that is one of their official roles -- and are the gatekeepers to the various reports and decisions that have set direction in our district past, present, and future. They have not made all of the decisions or written all the reports, but they have made their mark on them. In the past this mark was most often a rubber stamp, but we’ve seen this role evolve to become more activist, progressive, and engaged. Similarly, the board does not manage the school district (that is for senior administration) but they do have a give-and-take role that can and should involve intervention, co-governance, and advocacy within and beyond the management of school and district programs. A key connection between the board and the rest of the district is in the budget process. The “Extended Committee” approach has succeeded in gaining a more inclusive perspective on the needs of the district (or needs of the students), but is not as successful in translating these intentions into changes in direction. A step is missing — the board needs to have a consistent means of taking stakeholder input from the budget process or other yearly feedback opportunities and creating priorities that are actually reflected in the budget.
  9. Employee Stakeholders.  PGDTA (teachers) PGPVPA (admin), CUPE (maintenance), CUPE (support staff) and others. All of these groups were consulted on the criteria for hiring the new superintendent, and this feedback could again be used to see the kinds of values and issues that are important to each stakeholder group. When one or more of these groups speaks up in an official capacity (e.g. at a public board meeting or by letter), management needs to pay attention. If they are at the point of raising an issue publicly, this action has not been taken lightly — there is thought, experience, debate, research, and numerous voices behind their concerns. There are a variety of examples from the last few years to illustrate this point — instances where the board and senior management have been cautioned about the impacts of a particular decision — the initiation of the Northern Learning Centre comes to mind. When management has listened, these kinds of decisions have been modified and the outcome improved. When management has not listened, these decisions have usually resulted in unnecessary failure and “we told you so” moments. 
  10. Community Stakeholders.  DPAC (parents), University of Northern BC, Northern Health, City of PG, Regional Districts. These groups, too, were consulted about what the needs of our district and they should be involved in what happens next. For example, the past chair of the DPAC (Sarah Holland) has amassed a very useful collection of research into our school district over the years, some from the SD itself and some from outside agencies. It is telling that in the past, community groups wanting to know more about their schools could face stonewalling by the SD and had to complete freedom-of-information requests to learn what they needed. The flow of information has improved since then, but there is room to improve.
  11. Individual staff. Our district contains scores of teacher and administrators that are “students of the organizational history;” that have insight into problems and solutions. Find them, invite them, ask them questions, listen to them, discern what can be learned from them. Getting them to be involved in district-wide solutions will be tricky. Some are already involved — they are practicing leadership in its many forms and in their own way. Others have gone into hiding and need to be coaxed out by an inclusive, welcoming climate as free as possible from politics and penalties for speaking up. One great source of insight from individual staff is the collection of Learning Team and Innovation grants conducted by teacher groups over the last few years. While the grant results are difficult to find publicly, the District Principal of Learning Innovations and the District Learning Commons VP are very familiar with the range and depth of these inquiry projects.
  12. The literature. I love it when educational leaders justify a new policy or practice by saying “the literature says…” or "what we see in the literature..." While these phrases are often used as a cover, it does speak to the need for educators to look to theory to help solve problems. New curriculum aside, there is lot of really good stuff being written and practiced about educational reform in BC and beyond right now. We need look no further than the many respected and accomplished educators in our own district and province to help guide us into the literature. Dedicated folks from post-secondary are also ready to help. Experience translates as often to baggage as it does to insight, to the the tools needed to make change. Our leaders need to lighten their backbacks of as much baggage as possible and make room for new equipment. Experience needs to inform our identity as educators, but not predetermine every outcome. Notably, the experience of others is one of the most valuable sources of theory. See #1-9 above!
I encourage our new district management to explore these dozen “places” as they form a vision for next year, or at least accommodate themselves to the various visions at play in a complex organization. To add to the district-wide “year of change” I’ll be sharing what we put together for this SFU leadership course in terms of literature and learnings. Here’s one little gem — an example of what happens when leadership is distributed. Thanks to my colleague Trina Chivilo for sharing this with me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYKH2uSax8U.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

The people in my neighbourhood

Recently, BC Educator Sarah Garr posted a good question on her blog:
"Who are the people in your neighbourhood, your school heroes who contribute to the success and well being of your students, and staff?"
Here's her full post: http://sarahgarr.blogspot.ca/2016/05/who-are-people-in-your-neighbourhood.html

This is actually a tough question. As a teacher, I work in an organization that requires a multitude of roles in order to function, and the system keeps functioning (at some level) even when those roles are not being fulfilled. Classes can survive without their teachers for a while (at least until another is found), likewise we've seen a school can function for a time without a principal and a district without a superintendent. I'm sure we could even carry on without an Education Minister... how long would it take to notice one was gone? We could survive without staff meetings -- in most school these have become information sessions to highlight email content from the previous month and anticipate the next month's emails. For that matter we could survive without 90% of the emails we receive. I digress. How long could we go without custodians, secretaries, support workers, maintenance staff, counsellors, and so on? Everyone plays a part -- some do it well and some do not, but almost all of them are necessary at some level. I must admit I’ve spent many of my years as a teacher shielding myself, my classroom, and my students from the parts of the system that are dysfunctional, unfair, or chaotic. I have thought of my teaching practice as it's own ecosystem and have never assumed that anyone else would build my curriculum and lessons for me, handle my discipline issues or technology needs, and so on. Of course this is not always possible or beneficial, but we teach who we are as they say.  For me, anyways, these were necessary steps in order to figure out what a safe and engaging place of learning could look like, could be like, and I’m quite certain I’m still figuring that out. So, the heroes for me are the ones that make the school and my practice more functional, fair, and calm. Who are the denizens of this forest? Colleagues, mentors, school advocates, sometimes parents and often students. Is it necessary to name names? I appreciate fellow Social Studies teachers in my personal learning network -- the Pacific Slope Consortium (Rob, Ian, JP, and many others) -- for indulging the curricular experiments and providing a context for collaborative practice. I appreciate colleagues at my school that have had the long term “health and wholth” of the students at heart like John Vogt (retired teacher), Joe Pereira (DP Todd), and Sandra Jandric (DP Todd). I appreciate mentors that worked alongside me, challenged me, and provided much-needed counterpoints such as Norm Booth (retired teacher CHSS). I appreciate tireless advocates for public education that helped create positive classroom, school, and district conditions such as Mike Duffey (retired teacher CHSS), Matt Pearce (recently deceased teacher CHSS), many colleagues from the PGDTA and BCTF, and my own partner Kate Cooke who served as a local school trustee for three years and fought for progressive changes, some of which succeeded and some of which bore fruit only after she was done. I appreciate my father Walt and all the other teachers in the family over multiple generations for ennobling the profession and leading by example. I appreciate the students who have shared their inquiry with me and their classes over the years -- the process and product of their efforts at storytelling are the clearest forms of motivation I have as a teacher.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Feedback on Board Policy 1170.3 Rights & Responsibilities of Employees

On April 5th, 2016, the School District 57 Board of Education approved Draft Policy 1170.3 Rights and Responsibilities of Employees for distribution to reference groups for input. The proposed changes (so far) are highlighted in yellow on the document posted at http://dpts.sd57.bc.ca/~gthielmann/share/1170.3 Draft Rights and Responsibilities of Employees.pdf.

Input Regarding:
Policy 1170.3 Standards of Employee Conduct 3.18 "Not engage in irresponsible public comment that would undermine confidence in the public education system."

This comes across as a gag order -- perhaps unintentionally. I suppose the original intent was to guard against defamation and embarrassment of individuals, not to hinder employee's freedom of speech or ability to improve, through constructive criticism, the public education system.

"Irresponsible public comment" should not be taken as anything that undermines public education, but rather a comment about public education that is
a) careless, thoughtless, cruel, or hurtful in a way that can be seen as defamatory
b) unfounded -- speculative in the sense that no evidence exists to support strong claims
c) personal attacks -- attributes blame for problems on named colleagues, management, or local stakeholders (I'm quite sure politicians are fair game, though, depending on how the criticism is worded)

Without more careful wording, 3.18 blurs, by association, the difference between "irresponsible public comment" and legitimate advocacy for public education, which in some cases necessarily undermines confidence in the public education system -- to affect change it it often requires showing that something in the system is problematic and needs change.

Additional Issue:
The ambiguity of 3.18 is reinforced with the only other (problematic) statement about public education in the policy, an employee responsibility (2.5) to "[C]ontribute to the positive climate and reputation of the school, the district and public education." Promotion of the "reputation" (e.g. of the school district) assumes blind support for the processes that have resulted in that reputation. In some cases, problems in a school (e.g. racism, homophobism), district (plans gone awry, decisions made without necessary consultation), or public education (impact of funding cuts) have indeed affected "reputation" -- this needs to be ackowledged and worked on, especially by management for who institutional reputation is of special importance. Using these examples, employees taking notice of (and acting on) racism, homophobism, failed plans, lack of consultation, or inadequate funding to meet needs are in fact doing their own part to contribute to the positive climate in schools but may indeed do so at the cost of "reputation." Employees should be less interested in a policy-mandated contribution to the reputation of the district or public education which could be equal parts poor, fair, good, or excellent (depending on perspective, opinions, choice of evidence, or criteria). Employees should be more interested in actually improving the school, district, and public education. When that work goes well, reputations can also improve in the same way that "confidence in public education" is aided by asking tough questions and engaging in critical dialogue. 

The concerns I have expressed above can be addressed in some simple ways.

a) add a Rights of Employees 1.8 "Engage in responsible public dialogue and advocacy to promote, understand, assess, and improve public education."

b) revise 2.5 from "Contribute to the positive climate and reputation of the school, the district and public education." to "Contribute to the positive climate and improvement of the school, the district and public education."

c) revise 3.18 to read "Not engage in irresponsible or defamatory public comment or attacks on public education that break the duty of good faith and fidelity with the employer, notwithstanding Rights of Employees 1.8."

d) as an alternative to point c), remove 3.18 altogether and instead develop a freedom of speech policy (including whistleblower protection) that respects points a) and c) and addresses point c). This could be stand-alone or could take the form of a revision (e.g. a Section 4) to Policy 1170.3. This police item could contain the obvious statement that employees engaging in public comment about their schools, the district, or the public education system do so on their own and do not represent or speak for their employer.

Examples of "public comment:" 
1) a teacher's letter to the editor about the state of education funding and the impact on classrooms and students from the teacher's perspective
2) a social media "tweet" about the challenges in navigating the Student Information System
3) a blog post critiquing the lack of action taken on the planning, support, and access to educational technology and missed opportunities for students
4) a response to an invitation by a reporter to talk about the increased challenges faced by the school system when responsibility of dealing with children in crisis, poverty in the classroom, or mental health are added to the regular duties of teachers
5) a comment on an online news story centering in on the need for more public consultation on decisions affecting the school district and its students
6) collaborating on a public report that critiqued and challenged management perspective on school closures and the rationale behind proposed cuts in the school district
7) a radio interview about the premature disposal of useful student equipment from schools
8) writing an open letter to the board of trustees expressing concerns about a proposed school district initiative/program for students that lacked adequate planning, denigrated teachers, and failed to follow policy
9) an article contribution in an educational magazine about the explicit, hidden, and "null" agendas behind the implementation of new BC curriculum
10) creating an internet meme during a labour dispute that parodied non-sensical statements from the education minister, chief government negotiator, and labour relations board

These personal examples are in the territory of "responsible public comment" -- intended to improve aspects of the education system, but each of these may indeed undermine confidence in the public education system as they point out flawed thinking, plans gone awry, or something important that is being ignored. These examples show why item 3.18 creates a crisis of interpretation -- policies should resolve dilemmas, not create them.

End Note:
My input, above, does not represent anyone other than myself, although I have no problem assuming that this feedback is intended to address similar concerns from many teachers who do not often get around to offering input on policy development! As someone who has advocated for public education and blogged openly about local and provincial issues in education going for over a decade, Policy 1170.3 item 3.18 rubs me the wrong way. It is not because of "heat" over my advocacy that I believe the policy needs to change. I have had some subtle and not-so-subtle heat, but only once have I experienced a directive about this (can you guess which of the ten examples raised the ire of the powers that be?). In fact, it is for the opposite reason that the policy should change -- it is employees that should be applying the heat, especially teachers who have long been both the guardians and advocates of public education (not to mention its key reformers). We need more employees to "own" the issues in education and speak up when they have something to offer. I have taken encouragement from the support for advocacy that I have been offered over the years by fellow teachers, principals, other colleagues, trustees, parents, students, family, media personnel, union staff, and even the Minister of Education (I have the 2010 letter from Margaret MacDiarmid framed and placed on a shelf in my classroom!). My story is not unique -- pick an educational issue or theme and it is not hard to a dozen advocates in British Columbia who add their voices to the discussion for better or worse.

I have written this end note in order to declare my bias, to which I should add that I have been a Humanities teacher for 20 years in School District 57 and have paid close attention to district management, policy, and governance from about 2003 onwards, spiking around 2010, and admittedly less so in the last few years. Some of the 'advocacy work" I have done has been a complete waste of time, while some of it has made an impact on local policies and practice, attitudes, initiatives, and occasionally a small ripple at the provincial level. It is a testament to the networked nature of our society and education system, and the relative openness towards respectful public dialogue shown by schools districts like ours (towards teachers anyways) that individuals can have both reach and impact. 

I believe that "getting it right" on Policy 1170.3 is very important because, as is the case within any other institution, the statements and interpretations of the rights and responsibilities of employees help determine the differences between a toxic vs. joyful work environment and a cynical vs. cooperative school/district culture.  Employees, especially teachers, will always work to improve the situation for students, including "responsible public comment" -- our policies should acknowledge this important work and revisit the parts which appear to marginalize this work.

respectful submitted,
Glen Thielmann

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Making the case for storytelling

Some recent thoughts and discussions have made it clear to me that something is missing from the new BC Social Studies curriculum. Up until now I was not sure if it was something personal and connected missing from the curricular competencies, a mechanism by which Aboriginal perspectives could enter more fully into the classroom conversation, or an practical extension of the core competencies into the learning standards. Turns out it is at the centre of all three. For those uninitiated into the vast realm of education jargon, I will explain these ideas bit using Social Studies as a context.

Curricular competencies are the skills and strategies that students develop in order to approach problems of history, place (geography), and other topics that come up in Social Studies. They include research skills and inquiry abilities. The competencies include variations of six historical thinking concepts that are well explained at The Historical Thinking Project and also at The Critical Thinking Consortium. These "Big 6" are sometimes described as establishing significance, working with evidence, continuity and change, cause and consequence, taking perspectives, and ethical dimensions. I believe there are two important things missing from these competencies -- language that extends historical thinking into the area of geographic thinking, and the skill/space/support for students to make authentic and meaningful connections to their learning, the Social Studies content, and the other skills they are developing. Regardless of the fine-tuning, the competencies represent an academic approach to the study of Social Studies, capable of being post-colonial and culturally sensitive, but nonetheless a modern (if not fully modernist*) incarnation of the positivist tradition in education. The curricular competencies, starting with inquiry and working with a variety of critical thinking concepts, get students to the edge of answering "so what" questions in Social Studies. *Update: an expert on both the new curriculum and Big 6-derived competencies has pointed out that the Historical Thinking Concepts have been profoundly affected by a turn towards post-modernism (presumably among the academics who developed them for use in education). This in itself is a interesting discussion but I'll leave it at that for now.

The new curriculum emphasizes the opportunity to include more Aboriginal perspectives and knowledge, in some ways a challenge to the positivist tradition and in other ways a means to embed alternate views and powerful stories alongside the empirical approach and a Eurocentric narrative. In parts of the curriculum these opportunities are made clear, and in others it is not. What is missing is some mechanism whereby this emphasis can be layered and interactive with the competencies -- and does more just establish a quota for Aboriginal content. There are many ways in which indigenous perspectives can become more responsive with the Social Studies class. I feel as if I am only starting down this path and have much to learn (see Q6/A6 on this post about Social Studies 9). A good starting point for teachers in the same position is the First Peoples Principles of Learning. If you want a interesting thought experiment, read these principles and then read the curricular competencies for a new BC Social Studies course. What's the connection? For me, it is as if the FPPoL represents the reasons why developing the competencies is important work and to end they should lead. Each Social Studies course could be subtitled with Principle 2, 3, 6, 7, or 8, e.g. "Learning is embedded in memory, history, and story."

In providing a framework for the new curriculum and "personalized" learning, the Ministry of Education and teacher teams developed the Core Competencies. "[A]long with literacy and numeracy foundations and essential content and concepts," these aver-arching standards "are at the centre of the redesign of curriculum and assessment. Core competencies are sets of intellectual, personal, and social and emotional proficiencies that all students need to develop in order to engage in deep learning and life-long learning" (https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/competencies). One of the three core competencies is Communication. There is obvious importance in all course and grades to the various ways in which students interpret prompts, engage in activities, express their understanding, show their learning, and collaborate with others. Where "Communication" could be more practical is at the level of curricular competencies, the discipline-specific skills and strategies that guide exploration of content in each course. What is an actual ability that can be employed alongside interpretation of bias, perspective-taking, and establishing chains of causality in Social Studies?

I believe that all three of these "problems" -- incomplete curricular competencies, inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives, and the need to explicitly apply core competencies -- centers around storytelling. This is skill, a competency, an arena for discovery, and a way of beginning difficult conversations, that has always been indispensable in the Social Studies classroom. I'd like to see storytelling included more prominently in the new curriculum. Read a few of the student stories on this blog post to see my own bias on the importance of storytelling. Maybe one day there will be a Storytelling 12 that leverages interdisciplinary learning from K-12 and allows students to tell their stories. I think it would be a fitting way to finish high school and honour their diverse paths towards success. For now, Storytelling will be an unofficial curricular competency and will be the main strategy with which teaching and learning in my Social Studies class get the heart of the three problems I have described above. For the visual learners out there, I have summarized and represented these thoughts in a graphic below.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Q and A on New Curriculum and SS9

Recently, I was asked some great questions about my draft/sample Social Studies 9 outline that I am using at the moment to pilot the new BCED curriculum. I've been asked "where's the French Revolution" by a few teachers, "where's the competencies" by another, and so on. I've gathered the various tweets, texts, and response emails in what I hope is a useful summary below.

Reference: an outline for Social Studies 9

Q1. Are there topics that have to be included in the new curriculum? Some expected topics are missing from your outline, like the French Revolution and Napoleon. 

A1. No, there are no required topics beyond the "topic areas" that are listed in the content learning standards. Although some teachers could conceivably structure a course that had no firm topics, perhaps around approaches to the study of society, completely based on competencies, or daily analysis of current events, we can be quite confident that many "familiar" topics will remain in BC Social Studies courses. Out of courtesy to fellow teachers, I think most course outlines will not stray too far or too often beyond the new course bookends of 1750-1919. Yes, my new SS9 outline does not include the French Rev and Napoleon (nor the American Revolution per se). These topics, like all the other content, are now optional. Teachers can pick and choose as many of the "old topics" as they wish to tell the story they want, to explore the themes/big ideas, and work out the competencies. Teachers can also add new content, such as other global revolutions or conflicts, if that helps them with their goals. I have explained this in some detail on the 11x17 "content shifting" planning documents posted at http://www.thielmann.ca/new-bc-curriculum.html

Q2. How should teachers decide what to include, or how to set up a SS9 course?

A2. Much of the content will naturally be suggested by the course bookends of 1750-1919. However, the decision to focus more on Canada vs Canada/Europe or Canada/World or just World is up to the teacher. Teachers can pick four favourite or important topics and build a course from there, or they could take on forty topics if they want. Teachers may add topics from outside the bookends (e,g, current events) or from outside of formal history altogether, such as architecture, political science, or sociology. Teachers can work through content (and competencies) through talk-and-chalk, worksheets & assignments, press play on the dvd, project-based-learning, debate & discussion, whatever. Some teachers will have core content, and optional content to be explored by students (e.g. project topics). Some teachers will align topics to themes, the content learning standards, or the competencies themselves, others will stick with a sequential outline powered by the topics themselves. Say farewell to common department exams, unless your dep't has a solid history of doing things the same way. There will be good, bad, and ugly all over the place, not much different than now, really, but I think eventually there will be some consistency and productive models to follow. I intend to work towards that, anyways. 

Q3. Why drop French Revolution and Napoleon, but keep the Industrial Revolution? 

A3. My Grade 9 course has a Canadian focus, so, with the exception of the Industrial Revolution, I've dropped topics that don't directly involve or take place in Canada. The French Revolution is interesting, and so very important to European and World history (as are so many other events), but something has to go. I don't  want to teach a fast-paced, low-depth survey course. Ironically, by extending the historical bookends, the new curriculum does more to encourage "survey" vs" depth" than the old curriculum -- although that was not the intention. Our grade 8 teachers will probably not pick up the French Revolution, although it may be an optional area of study for either Grade 8 or Grade 9. A bit later in the course I plan to a short American vs French Revolution activity; more for the competencies, though, and less about the content, e.g. deconstruct some images and sources that either glorify or condemn revolutionaries from each country. I have included the Industrial Revolution because it is part of a truly global story, it is related to Canadian migration, ties to WWI, and is often ranked by historians as one of the top 5 influential events in history. Almost every object and many of the ideas that govern our society, gender roles, environmental issues, labour conditions, and way of life have a link to the Industrial Revolution. Students can wrap their mind around those kind of connections, far more so than some of the nuanced lessons of the Tennis Court Oath and the Reign of Terror. I started the course with the Industrial Revolution as the backdrop to a "skills bootcamp" -- using invention, factory age, results of enclosure, social conditions, and environmental change as ways of introducing competencies and getting students used to interpreting documents and sources, especially images but also graphs and maps. I keep copies of an aged little text around almost exclusively for these lessons - "Thinking about our Heritage: a Hosford Study Atlas" (example here). I also had a student teacher with me for these lessons and he produced some very effective activities and critical thinking prompts, and used some great media.

Q4. Why so you include virtually every other "Canadian" topic (in some form) from 1750-1919 carried over from existing courses? 

A4. The rest of my course is decidedly Canadian (with plenty on and about British Columbia) because I believe it is important in the few short years of Gr. 8-10 to leave students with a sense of the Canadian story, their place in it, and their agency in regards to its future. All other topics are interesting to me as a Socials teacher, but not mission critical for building active, empathetic, and informed Canadian citizens. It is also the Canadian topics that will help me provide an arc and consistency in the use of themes such as Aboriginal content and perspectives. Students can get plenty of world history and culture in Gr. 11 and 12 if they want it, plus some in Grade 8. I have truncated some Canadian topics and left others alone, mainly a reflection of which of my past lessons resonated with students and were fun to teach, or had good class activities to go with them. The topics in my course are also a reflection of the print resources and media that I like to use with students and that our school already owns. We have been, no doubt most school have been told, that there are very little funds for new learning resources. I try to build a course-long narrative that has a point to it; in the past it was part of our job in the class to decide together what the point was. Now we have "big ideas" to frame that discussion. Perhaps we need a new term to describe the blend of narrative, discovery, and repetition that form some kind of class goal. What is it that we actually expect from a successful Social Studies student? Beyond the ability to apply critical/historical thinking to problems and evidence, and the development of good Canadians (itself a problem worth deconstructing), I think we are well served by stirring students to become storytellers. The objective is as simple as students being able to talk about Canada's past, present, or future using emotion, humour, insight, and authenticity. Part of that ability is ease with which students can look at fresh material (like what's on the daily news) and have something interesting to say about it, something that connects with what they learned in the course. In my mind, that is as solid an indicator of readiness to move on to the next grade as is a test score. 

Q5. Why don't you include other (new) topics that fit the time period and big ideas? 

A5. For SS9 I have not yet planned for entirely new topics, Canadian or otherwise. This is my first time through so I will be recycling many old lessons and focusing more on designing new competency exercises and class activities than I will on new content. I am a busy guy with a 1000 interests and a beautiful family, so crisp topics will have to wait their turn. One of the interests I have, however, is developing curriculum. I am currently working with a group of teachers from the Pacific Slope Consortium on curriculum projects, but that is more a long term thing and does not help me out this semester. I find that without quality resources in place, taking on new topics involves too much internet surfing and photocopied materials. One topic that doesn't come up too much in the old or new curriculum is local history and geography. This is passion of mine and an area that I want to spend more time with in my courses. I am also loathe to add more content to an already full roster because I have designed a large chunk of my SS9 course to include project-based learning - a Heritage Connections project that involves ongoing inquiry, source work, interviews, and multiple classes for student presentation. Three other factors influence my choice of topics and will probably drive any further reduction of content in my SS9 outline: increased use of role-play/simulations and the added presence of WWI -- the kinds of things teachers and students can do with this time period could fill a whole course. The last is more practical; I have arranged my units so that I can use the "Crossroads" text for the first part of the course and make a clean switch to the "Horizons" test for the next part. I figure we can do the handoff with the Social Studies 8 teachers who will use the Crossroads text for the second part of their course, thus we don't need to purchase new class sets of texts while they are still useful and current.

Q6. Any suggestions for including Aboriginal perspectives and knowledge? 

A6. We have a few decent local learning resources in SD#57 related to Indigenous culture, issues, and worldview. We have a large and well-funded Ab-Ed Dep't with many staff that are available to advise or visit classes. They recently put on a successful Ab-Ed Symposium that gave over 700 local educators a sense of the challenges and possibilities ahead. FNESC http://www.fnesc.ca; and BCTF have produced some great resources in the last couple of years. Check out this Project of Heart site http://bctf.ca/HiddenHistory/ and also this one: http://projectofheart.ca/. Like others, I have many existing lessons or lesson elements in various states of development on the Aboriginal cultures of North America (or Canada, or BC), Indian Act/Potlatch ban, residential schools (historical, modern i.e. TRC), land claims (process, results, protests), environmental issues that relate to First Nations, Aboriginal self-government, Aboriginal soldiers in WWI/WWII, 1960 vote, etc., etc. That's where I'll start -- include as much of that as makes sense, keep my eye open for critical thinking activities and continue becoming familiar with the First Peoples Principles of Learning and their implication for my classroom and students. Our union local's Aboriginal Education rep has also posted some resources here: http://www.pgdta.ca/aboriginal.html.

Q7. What's your take on the curricular competencies?

A7. I have been using the Seixas et al Six Historical Thinking concepts (significance, evidence, continuity and change, cause and consequence, perspectives, ethical dimensions) in one way or another for years, so they are not strangers within my lessons, although it has been hit and miss. While they were as good a place as any for the Ministry K-9 team to build their competencies, I feel as if they have squeezed geography in the process and go straight to the complex stuff at the expense of a few old-fashioned Social Studies skills like map-making, charting and graphing, making, and simply learning from a variety of sources and voices (as opposed to decoding them for bias, significance, etc.). I suppose if you teach/learn the core competencies alongside the curricular competencies, you can do it all. The Big 6 can be scaled, too, so that the process/outcome for students is basic... more like "thinking" than "critical thinking." The Gr. 10-12 Ministry team is working on some unique competencies for Geography 11/12 -- these will likely be similar to the six historical thinking concepts and will be useful for Gr. 8-10 Social Studies in the future, perhaps even incorporated in later edits (if that happens). Another area that seems to be missing from the core and curricular competencies is authenticity. Making personal connections to course material, using personal strengths to express learning should be considered a skill that can be developed, refined, and perhaps assessed (or at least self-assessed). Authenticity relates to quality of research, depth of inquiry, choice of strategies, plagiarism education, and acceptance in the learning community. Maybe that's just an extension of the three core competencies.

Q8. How will you use the competencies and how will they be assessed?

A8. It may not obvious from looking at my course outline how competencies fit in. My plan is to be more regular about using at least one competency-driven activity in each of my lesson. This could mean comparison of disparate sources, having students identify and explain turning point, do cause-and-effect webs, pick a position and defend it, debate issues involving ethics, etc. Some of this stuff I can just wing it -- there is enough of it in my lessons already, but some of it needs to be more deliberate, such as dropping direct/specific questions from lesson handouts and having more open-ended inquiry, perhaps around the image on the screen or an object in the classroom. Towards this end, the project I mentioned in A4 above will be useful -- one of the products we hope to end up with are "assessment boxes" with many source documents, laminated photos, and maybe some 3D objects that are meant to provoke thought, center discussion, and be the subject of competency-driven questions and activities. For example, the class gets a series of images of inventions and artifacts from the Industrial Revolution, with enough time or background info to figure out what they did, why they were important or what impact they had. These could be used for so many learning and assessment purposes, group or individual. Arrange in a timeline. Arrange in order of significance, based on criteria developed by your group. Guess (or find out) what technology this invention replaced and what specifically was improved. Predict the social or environmental consequences of the invention. Explain why YOUR invention should be on the cover of a museum exhibit brochure on the industrial revolution. Find one other invention that is related to yours and, with your new partner, explain the connection to the class. You see how this list could go on and on. Instead of having a test bank, we'll have a source bank that can generate fresh assessments simply by changing up the order or the activity. Combined with simple instructions and a couple of different assessment rubrics (e.g. formative, summative, self, peer), we think this method could actually simplify assessment and not take up any more time than the standard test. In our experience, we learn much more about a student's progress from these open-ended "explain your understanding" assessments than we do from ye olde multiple choice tests. I haven't dug into the TC2 http://tc2.ca resources in a while, or had a chance to read The Big 6, but there one can find many more ideas to drive work with competencies.

I wish all schools and colleagues the best as they wrestle with the many issues that come up with the new curriculum. Historical content remains important, and is a great hearth on which to spin a "Social Studies" narrative with your students and practice both critical and creative thinking, but it is not the only thing that matters in Social Studies. In addition to competencies, tend to the geography, tend to the broad themes of the Humanities and other disciplines that make Social Studies more than a history course. For those that are unfamiliar with the "elements of historical thinking" -- learn more at http://historicalthinking.ca or sign up for their summer institute http://pdce.educ.ubc.ca/historical-thinking-summer-institute/. For those that use them all the time, challenge the notion that competencies begin and end with these elements. I encourage BC teachers to experiment with diverse course outlines and find a way to compare notes afterwards. Social media works fine for this. The word will eventually seep out to teachers who don't use social media.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Heritage Inquiry Stories

Each time I have taught Social Studies 10 for the last fifteen years or so, I have cleared some space in the lessons about Confederation, Metis uprisings, the Fraser River Gold Rush, the Physiography of Canada and so on to guide students into some heritage-based project-based learning. I've called it the Culture Project, the Heritage Project, Heritage Connections, and adapted versions of it for Social Studies 9 (the Heritage Skills Venture, Cultural Landscapes Project), Social Studies 11 (The Echo Project), and Geography 12 (GeoNarratives).

Each time the Grade 10s go through their round of project presentations, I am blown away by the results of their inquiry, the personal connections to history (and geography), the impact on the rest of the class and the families of the presenters, and the satisfaction and ease demonstrated by students when they are telling stories that combine curricular inquiry, personal research, and (usually) critical thinking. It is no surprise that students are more invested in their learning when their identity is engaged. Identity as curriculum, developed through story.

Here are some past posts on SS10 Heritage Inquiry:

Below are some of the stories told by my recent class of Grade 10 students.  They learned about the project in Oct 2015, worked on it off and on in Nov-Dec 2015, and presented the projects in Jan 2015. They had class time for some steps of the project, and the rest they did on their own -- this is virtually the only homework I assign in my Social Studies courses. The students usually put together displays, posters, or slideshows, bring in any artifacts they have to support their project, and present to the class the results of their primary source work, interviews, story-gathering, and so on. They all think that 15-20 minutes for a presentation will be daunting, and yet, with questions from me and the class, these presentations routinely take 25-35 minutes. That means I usually have to set aside 10-12 hours of class time for this, including the feast day. These stories were parts of the student presentation (not the whole project) and are written based on my notes taken in class, not necessarily in the students' own words.

RK's Story 1: "Opa" (pictured above) fought for Germany in WWII and had his leg blown off by a mortar shell while at war with Russia. An officer found him and brought him back to a hospital where he convalesced. While there he received one of the perks of some recovering wounded -- a signed pictured from Hitler (while in the family's possession, it did not make it to school as part of of his exhibit). The Opa would spend three years in a refugee camp before immigrating to Canada. During the war, the student's great-uncle was also injured and rescued by the very same officer who had recognized Opa. The officer recognized the family name from the soldier's ID and informed him that his brother was indeed alive. Due to this coincidence, the brothers were later reunited.

SH's Story: This student started by saying that on doing some research, she came to realize that her " family is like the stock characters in a book"  What was familiar to her was not familiar to the class, though. We heard tales of Newfoundland fisherman (and being lost at sea), pirates, Beothuk ancestors, a family tradition of adoption, and mysterious Chinese grandfather in the family tree. The student used ship records, church and burial records, photos, wills, and interview notes to tell her story.

BM's Story: Sometimes the stories we hear are like hyperlinks from the brief outlines we see in textbooks on topics that are important to Canadian history. This student shared his Metis heritage, complete with a gorgeous sash, models of a teepee and a Red River Cart.  Among the documents he shared were reproductions of a petition signed in 1787 by 58 Metis (including an ancestor), and the Scrip used by his Metis ancestor to take up lands near Fort Garry in the aftermath of the Red River Rebellion of 1869-70. We heard stories that belonged to his Great-grandmother, a Metis elder, and followed the family tree as it grew westwards across the Prairies and into British Columbia.

SC's Story: Angola was once a colony of Portugal, and is was here that this student's Portuguese grandfather spent his youth as a soldier in the 1970s, "keeping order" among other things. He had a parrot and monkey, although the monkey dies of a drug overdose, mistaking another soldier's medication for candy. On the other side of the world is Kitimat, BC, a town built by Alcan to house workers for its Aluminum smelter. On the account of the jobs, it was a popular destination for Portuguese immigrants, including the family of young woman who arrived in 1968. There, at the prompting of a friend, she began a correspondence with the soldier in Africa. When Angola achieved its liberation in 1975, he came to Kitimat to marry his pen pal. An atypical Portuguese love story.

EV's Story: This student's great-grandfather was named George.  He was 4th in a line of Georges, born in England in the 1890s. He was the eldest son a family who got their wealth from a printing company among other ventures. George the 4th did not care for the family business, did not want to "live up to the Victorian ideals," so in 1914 he left home, took passage on a ship for Halifax (or Quebec?). He "hitched" across Canada (by rail?) and ended up in Vancouver, far enough away that he could forget about England and his family. Upon arrival he learned that the Great War had begun, and knew he had a choice to make. He decided to flip a coin: heads, he would find and board a ship for Australia; tails, he would enlist in the Canadian army and join the war effort. It was tails, so the 17-yr-old passed himself off as a Canadian 18-yr-old and went to war. Eventually he saw action and fell victim to the German's mustard gas while holed up in a tunnel or trench in eastern France. He was taken back to England to recover, where he met his wife-to-be, a nurse in the hospital. Around this time his family found about about the goings-on of the prodigal son, and when the war was over he was "sent" to a family farm to be respectable and work for a living. In 1952 he took his young family and left for Canada, this time for good. Due to storms, their passenger ship went off course and arrived in New York rather than Halifax. They stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, at the time the tallest and one of the most luxurious hotels in the world. They had a Waldorf salad, of course, and to this day the family still has a tradition of making this salad on any special occasion. although the recipe has morphed into something involving jello, now. George's family soon presen on to Canada, where they scanned a map and picked Prince George, BC as a destination because it had "George" in it.

ER's Story: We learned about the history of Acadia from the viewpoint of an Acadian descendant. Her family has been there from the beginning, immigrating in the 1630s, draining marshland, hiding in New Brunswick during the Expulsion of 1755, starting various businesses, and dispersing across Canada in modern times. Her stories were interspersed with French-Acadian terms, references to land and home(s), to delicious food, to fishing, alcohol, crafts, coffin-making, and the familiar (yet incredible) themes of grief, resilience, and thrift that are common to any people who have endured hard times.

TO's Story: We all leaned forward a bit when the first words of the presentation were "this story is really important to me." The narrative focused on the student's mother, an immigrant from rural Peru who grew up poor on a potato farm. Each day the mother ran barefoot many miles from her village to the closest school. It was there that she proved herself such a remarkable student that he secured scholarships for further education in Lima, and became involved in international development work. The narrative took many turns through world travels, fascinating jobs, photos, and interview quotes, and ended up with an observation that when the student now runs competitively she feels like it is something in her bones.

CM's Story: This student realized that the direct evidence from family-based research would only turn over so many stones, so he took on the broader topic of culture and social context. Focusing on Scottish Heritage, he gave us a history lesson on the fairs of Glasgow in the 1800s (and what was traded there), fishing, architecture, and shipbuilding, the impact of the Industrial Revolution on Scotland, and finished with one of few stories for which he had hard evidence. This was the narrative of his great-grandfather who fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and started a second family, much to the surprise of his first family.

I have notes in front of me for 18 more recent student presentations, so I hope to return to this topic when I have a chance to write some more.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Matt Pearce

I thought I'd post a couple of things I've written lately about the passing of Matt Pearce, the well-known Prince Georgian. The first bit I wrote on our local union folder and also submitted as a letter to the PG Citizen.  Matt was fond of writing letters to the editor, so when a friend suggested I do the same I reckoned it would be a good idea. The second bit I posted somewhere on the The Facebook in response to a "My PG Now" article about how the Prince George District school board recognized Pearce with a moment of silence and some comments from the SD57 Board Chair and current vice-president of the PG Teachers' Association. 

Sent to the PG Citizen:

The news that teacher, husband, father, and P.G. Sports Hall of Famer Matt Pearce has passed away leaves me with a knot of disbelief and dismay. He often wrote letters to the editor, and so I thought I would do the same. I loved how Matt could "speak truth to power" without losing his cool; how he advocated for public education. He normalized advocacy as a way of being for teachers through his many speeches at board meetings, submissions to the media, local committee work as member or chair, provincial work, and P.G. Teachers’ Association presentations. He had a highly developed B.S. detector and paid attention to aspects of interpersonal and organizational dynamics that many others ignore. Because of this, and his integrity, he had fantastic insight into what was worth fighting for and how to do it, commanding as much respect from adversaries as from allies. Those that got to work with him at the Teachers’ Association office and executive meetings saw how deep this water ran. In a few words, he could cut through confusion and present resourceful solutions to complex problems. I loved coaching or watching basketball games when Matt was reffing; I can't think of anyone more consistent and positive with players on the floor. I loved his keen wit, well-placed sarcasm, and wicked sense of humour. I admire his tenacity, his balance of life, work, and health (which makes his passing that much more difficult to process), and his desire to give back to the community as a leader in the union and a coach/ref for multiple sports. I will treasure our conversations about life, politics, education, personality types, etc. on our walks along Ferry & Hwy 16 during the last teachers strike. He had great stories, and loved to talk about his children. During our last conversation a few weeks ago he spoke with tenderness and pride about how his daughter, a former student at my school, was doing. It was also clear that some of his happiest and most fulfilling recent moments came from coaching his son's teams. He was an amazing role model and natural leader in so many ways, and his eccentricities were harmless and endearing. A difficult stretch lies ahead for Matt's family, friends, colleagues, and students. I hope this will also be a time of mutual comfort and the start of some peace.

Reply to "My PG Now" article mentioning moment of silence held for Matt Pearce at the Jan 26, 2016 Board Meeting.

That's a nice gesture from the board. I know that past boards respected and appreciated Matt's work, even when it was directed towards them, because of the passion, thought, and virtue of his approach to educational issues. I am somewhat disturbed, though, to hear from many folks that that the school district administration declined the request to hold a memorial at a school facility. There was a time when schools were considered part of the whole community. I believe there is a strong role for grief and remembrance for schools, and value in students, staff, and community using schools as more than just a daytime learn-house. Memorial involves sadness, coming apart, and anguish, but it also involves storytelling, warmth, and mutual comfort. I think schools are the perfect place for these themes to develop, just as much as they are for sports events, theatre, craft fairs, and polling stations. This strange decision should not take away from our collective sorrow in Matt's passing - as a former student of our schools, as a teacher and someone who visited every school in our district, and coached or refereed kids from almost every school, who was known by virtually every district employee through his role as union president, and spoke out tirelessly for public education -- in many ways he personifies our schools. Wherever the memorial is held, it will be about those things and many others, and not about the building itself. The decision, however, does suggest that our school district should look for the "heart" and "mind" behind its agreements on use of facilities.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

UNBC/CNC/SD57 Joint Feedback on proposed BCED Geography 11/12 Courses

Last fall I put a call out for interested teachers and post-secondary Geography faculty to meet and discuss the Draft BC Curriculum: Human Geography 11/12 and Physical Geography 11/12. Here are the results of that discussion

Joint feedback developed and submitted by:
  • Sinead Earley, Lecturer in UNBC Geography & PhD candidate in Geography (Queen’s University), Prince George
  • Dr. Greg Halseth, Professor, UNBC Geography, Community Development Institute, CRC Chair, Prince George
  • Dr. Neil Hanlon, Professor, UNBC Health Sciences, Prince George
  • Chris Jackson, Senior Lab Instructor, UNBC Geography, Prince George
  • Dr. Peter Jackson, Professor, UNBC Environmental Science, Atmospheric Science and Engineering, Prince George
  • Alex Koiter, lecturer, UNBC Geography, Prince George
  • Mark Lafleur, secondary teacher, Duchess Park Secondary, SD57 Prince George
  • Dr. ZoĆ« Meletis, Associate Professor, UNBC Geography, Prince George
  • Dr. Catherine Nolin, Associate Professor and Chair, UNBC Geography, Prince George
  • Steve Porter, secondary teacher, Kelly Road Secondary, SD57 Prince George
  • Stephanie Powell-Hellyer, Sessional Instructor, UNBC Global and International Studies, Prince George
  • Cliff Raphael, Instructor, Geography and Leadership, College of New Caledonia, Prince George
  • Glen Thielmann, secondary teacher, D.P. Todd Secondary, SD57 Prince George
  • Dr. Roger Wheate, Associate Professor, GIS Coordinator, UNBC Geography, Prince George
Meeting location
Held at University of Northern British Columbia, November 30th, 2015, 4-6pm, Admin Bldg 1069

Meeting agenda:

  1. Orientation to curriculum change in BC K-12 Education system
  2. Overview of the new curriculum framework and role of geography in Social Studies courses
  3. Defining and contextualizing big ideas, competencies, and content
  4. Feedback groups and sharing out (see five questions below)
  5. Wrap-up discussion on geography education and opportunities to connect K-12 teachers with post-secondary faculty and the UNBC Geography Program
“Social Studies: Proposal for Grades 10-12 Curriculum,” BC Ministry of Education, retrieved Nov 20/2015 from https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/curriculum/10-12

Group activity questions:
  1. What is the point in studying Geography? Put another way, what are some of the “Big Ideas” in Geography?
  2. What are some competencies (skills/processes/ways of thinking and expression) in the study of Geography?
  3. What areas of study, key concepts, and topics are important for students to learn about in a well-rounded and interesting introductory course in Human Geography?
  4. What areas of study, key concepts, and topics are important for students to learn about in a well-rounded and interesting introductory course in Physical Geography?
  5. Anything else to add?

General comments:
  • Why two courses (plus environmental studies, plus earth science)? Wouldn’t a general, interdisciplinary geography course with flexible content have more appeal to both students and teachers?
  • Content and competencies should use the heading/bullet approach used in the draft Earth Science course - allows differentiation between main ideas and lesser ideas within each category
  • One course: human-environment interaction and process
  • The draft competencies are for the most part about history education and not geography education
  • How about a holistic geography course with options for students to get credit for human vs physical based on the projects the complete?
Feedback from the group activity

1. What is the point in studying Geography? Put another way, what are some of the “Big Ideas” in Geography? (this section also includes general statements about the draft curriculum)

More about Human Geography:
  • environment
  • spatial learning
  • place
  • inter-relationships (local to global)
  • based on data (observations | measurements
  • human-environment interactions (also expressed as the human-environment dynamic)
  • geography is about the study of space, place, and identity (these are core concepts, prompts for inquiry)
  • why do people live where they do and how do they interact with the environment
  • 3rd and 4th Human Geog “Big Ideas” are too similar
More about Physical Geography:
  • measurement of space
  • earth’s surface as a place of interactions
  • systems
  • understanding our world
  • location, maps,
  • patterns, trends
  • purpose of (physical) geography includes understanding of basic composition and structure of the earth, forces that share the surface of the earth, and biomes
About both Human and Physical Geography:
  • patterns
  • understanding humans on Earth
  • data-based measurements, observations, pattern recognition
  • Geography is applicable to all fields - emphasize where geography takes you, e.g. experience-based learning
  • systems thinking; scales - local to global
  • cycles and interactions
  • location, location, location
  • make the relationship between humans and environment more interactive, less deterministic
  • integration: knowledge of physical and social dynamics shared across both courses
  • if they were one course, they should focus on human/environment interaction/process
  • geography is an integrated science, interdisciplinary
  • focus on underlying processes
  • local-global interdependencies (a key-component in geographic thinking
  • climate change
  • linking human and physical processes
  • globally connected world
  • understanding connections/reciprocal relations between land and life
  • how/why people live where they do
  • basic geographic literacy (various definitions)
2. What are some competencies* in the study of Geography?
* “competencies” is the term used in BC Curriculum documents to describe skills, capacities, practical abilities, and habits of mind. Some are discipline-specific, some are interdisciplinary, while others are meant to apply generally to “critical thinking” and “inquiry.”

More about Human Geography:
  • critical thinking
  • isolating what we’re thinking about (metacognition)
  • levels of “Why?”
  • ability to express in a variety of means (e.g. photo essays)
  • reasoning
  • recognize patterns in the world that relate to people
More about Physical Geography:
  • experiential learning (mentioned multiple times)
  • clear expression from qualitative through to quantitative
  • basic geographic literacy
  • ability to spatially represent and interpret data
  • basic mapping skills
  • inquiry
  • analytical tools to use/interpret geographically referenced data
  • integration of different geographic understandings
  • chain of explanations: be able to explain things that are interconnected
  • transfer and translation of geographic knowledge
  • capacity for interdisciplinary research, thought, and expression
  • refer to http://pics.uvic.ca for competency ideas
  • problem-solving
  • ability to discuss and make chains of explanation (e.g. Syrian Migration)
  • concept maps/mind-mapping
  • writing/expressing thoughts clearly (qualitative and quantitative thinking)
  • integrative; interrelated thinkers - knowledge transfer - discussion - linkages (mind maps)
  • explain “so what”
  • visual representations of space; patterns, meaning
  • see the “Big Picture” when presented with geographic data and phenomenon
  • identify key factors as explanation
  • ability to trace interconnections
  • knowledge translation - from science to policy and back (bridging)
  • data management
  • spatially integrated data - interpretation of multiple data sets
  • make predictions and apply conclusions to geographic evidence
  • find and assess geographic data
About both Human and Physical Geography:
  • math skills
  • recognize patterns in the world that relate to physical characteristics
  • ability to work with case studies
3. What areas of study and key concepts are important for students to learn about in a well-rounded and interesting introductory course in Human Geography?

One group summarized their work as such:
  1. Settlement - urban/rural/mega-city/migration
  2. Culture - conflict/change
  3. Environment - climate change/environ. degradation
  4. Economy - globalization/eneven development
  5. Geopolitics
  6. Colonial Legacies
One group created themes of content:
  • class, race, space, place, identity, gender, diversity, patterns, trends, locations, processes
Other submissions:
  • identification of…, applicability of…, interrelationships…
  • dynamic relations between humans and the environment and human-human relationships
  • scale - interdependence of scale from local to global (e.g. commodity chains)
  • nominative values
  • case study learning
  • inquiry and project-based learning
  • spatial literacy
  • how applicable geography is to all disciplines - interrelationships
  • different kinds of spatial analysis
  • representing the world visually (e.g. animations, maps, art, writing, photography)
4. What areas of study and key concepts are important for students to learn about in a well-rounded and interesting introductory course in Physical Geography?

One group summarized their work as such:
  1. Atmosphere
  2. Lithoshpere
  3. Biosphere
  4. Hydrosphere
    ... interaction and spatial distribution
A second group summarized their work as such:
  • Earth’s systems - and thinking about these systems:
  • Atmosphere
  • Hydroshere - Cryosphere
  • Lithosphere
  • Biosphere - Anthroposphere
    ... for all: processes and flows of energy and matter in each and between each system. Details within - refer to competencies and concepts
And also a third:
  • The Four Spheres (atmosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere)
Other submissions:
  • processes: glaciation, water erosion
  • structure/framework: tectonics, rocks, volcanics
  • systems: equilibrium, open/closed (e.g. watersheds), emergent properties
  • history - past events and conditions, current processes and landforms
  • multiple layers in landscapes
  • significance of physical features (e.g. as resources)
  • earth systems
  • linkages (e.g. between biosphere and lithosphere)
  • organization of phenomena
  • use more inquiry-based learning and media-based learning: offer examples and cases for investigating concepts and themes in geography
  • sources to be included: census data, maps, photos, images, government docs, northern BC archives
  • integration of knowledge
  • local physical geography (integration and experiential learning)
  • local interaction of the spheres
5. Anything else to add?
  • Suggestion: replace language in competencies — replace “assess the significance of…” with “appreciate the diverse nature of our world and patterns within it”
  • The Physical Geography draft does not mention the biosphere — exploring the spheres without the biosphere or ecology does not make sense
Facilitator’s notes :
  • The responses to both Question 1 and Questions 3 and 4 contain many items that the Curriculum Team will recognize as potential competencies in addition to thoughts about big ideas and content.
  • The list of suggested competencies related to Question 2 have great integration of human and physical — it seems likely that a single set of competencies could emerge for both geography courses
  • Most of the feedback group agreed that having a single integrated geography course would have more appeal to students — high schools in northern BC already have a hard time getting a single course of geography going, and might have a harder time trying to sell two courses, or one at the expense of the other