Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Sourcebook

Along with 8 other BC teachers, I've had the pleasure of working on a teaching & learning resource for BC Social Studies 9 -- "Thinking it Through." The other teachers were Rob Lewis, Joe Pereira, JP Martin, Vince Truant, and Jennifer Pighin from Prince George, Paula Waatainen from Nanaimo, Janet Ruest from Chemainus, and Shannon Leggett from Vancouver. We each wrote some of the topics or case studies in the Sourcebook, and I had the fun job of editing, writing the introduction, and other tasks along the way. It was an enjoyable learning curve on curriculum design and publishing a book, and a good experience working with the folks from Pearson Canada.

Here's a little primer on the book for those that might consider using it in their classroom.

This “Thinking it Through” Sourcebook will help students develop their critical thinking skills as they explore selected topics from the revised BC Social Studies 9 Curriculum.

This book is organized according to seven CONTENT STANDARDS, each with four case studies in critical thinking: Revolution and Change, Imperialism and Colonialism, Migration and Shifting Population, Nationalism and Nation-Building, Regional and Global Conflict, Injustices and Rights, Land and People.

The authors have selected primary and secondary sources, all kinds of questions, and suggested extension activities for 28 case studies. Each one is a sandbox for teachers and students to explore CURRICULAR COMPETENCIES and apply historical (and geographic) thinking concepts. Students will push their thinking about what they can learn from evidence, and realize how the account changes depending on the evidence they use.

Finally, by developing the ability to think through historical, social, or geographic evidence, students will learn how BIG IDEAS have shaped the past and the present.

Perhaps the most important purpose of the Sourcebook is to suggest to teachers and students a method of “doing” Social Studies. Whether the focus is on instruction, discussion, inquiry, story-telling, or project-based learning, Social Studies should be grounded in the work of exploring relevant sources from the past and present, the work of creating valid accounts about important ideas and events through the examination of evidence and application of historic and geographic thinking concepts.

The Sourcebook can be an “untextbook” – not meant to be the only resource used by the teacher and students (which is sometimes the criticism of past textbooks), but something that appears at regular intervals in the classroom in order to develop the capacity for critical thinking. It also makes an excellent bridge between the many texts and resources designed for the previous BC curriculum and the “asks” and content shifts of the revised curriculum.

The authors hope that teachers and students replicate this process beyond the examples used in the Sourcebook -- that they develop the habit of finding provocative sources that delve into the heart of historic, social, and geographic problems, and then applying critical thinking concepts to discover their worth in building understanding about the relevance of history and place in everyday life.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

To Trump or Not to Trump

"I may be 13, but I’m wide awake to the racism in America" reference: Opinion, Globe and Mail, August 23rd, 2017
A friend and colleague shared this article from a 13-yr-old student in Seattle... and it got me thinking about how discussions of privilege, race, current events, silence, and appropriate action will play out in my teaching practice this year.

With the return to school imminent, I am wondering how to approach the subject of Trump's America with my Social Studies students. With many others, I’ve watched on in both fascination and horror as the bizarro version of the American Dream has unfolded over the last eight months — the successful merger of reality television with their political system. While it’s been easy coming to my own conclusions about how Trump is contributing to racist, xenophobic, and anti-LGBTQ attitudes, it will be a bit harder to figure out how to bring fair and reasonable discussions about Trump into the classroom.

There is a tradition among Social Studies teachers of remaining politically neutral (if there is such a thing), and presenting many side of issues so that students can draw their own conclusions. This is especially important when it comes to current events and controversial topics. While not tantamount to silence, teachers often hold back on ethical judgments so as not to drag students towards their own beliefs. In practice this is hard to do -- should I be surprised that students, by the end of course, will share many of my own perspectives on the world? Hopefully they develop the skills to disagree with me as well.

Developing critical thinking in Social Studies is not a precise exercise in objectivity. As we examine evidence, consider the judgments of others, and develop our own opinions, we take up values and confirm beliefs, we align ourselves with causes, and we sometimes commit to a course of action as a result of our stances. This is what we want. But we also challenge the judgments of ourselves and others, question beliefs, redefine values, and change course from time to time -- hopefully as a result of carefully considering and reflection on evidence. There are "objective" aims and methods within these exercises, but always in some kind of dialectic with the subjective, with our experience and reaction. We also encounter turning points, where our (ideally) objective foray into the evidence makes some positions untenable, and others responsible. The scientific evidence of climate change comes to mind. Or confronting racism. There may be two sides to a story, or many sides, but it is not wrong to come to a critical assessment that implicates the untenable and promotes the responsible.

Trump's presidency has produced ample evidence on which we can and should make critical assessments. After Charlottesville, it has become clear to me that Trump has crossed a line into demagoguery, and that his growing negative legacy is now fair game for Social Studies teachers and their students.

How will I do this? I'm thinking of using articles on Trump, video clips, statements from public thinkers, Trump's tweets, reactions from American and non-American politicians, and sources from other demagogues, presidents, or maverick leaders in some kind of station activity. The proximate goal is for students to put Trump into some kind of historical perspective, but there are other intentions behind this activity. Maybe we can use this to introduce protocols for unpacking current events, for practicing critical thinking (the "competencies" in Social Studies), and for reinforcing that history is something we build based on evidence and interpretation, not something static that is received.

Or, I could simply write "Trump" on the board and see what students have to say.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Assessment in Social Studies



Why do we need a new way to assess progress in Social Studies?

It may not come as a surprise but most teachers loathe marking. Being a part of student success, monitoring progress, providing feedback -- that's not so bad, but actually giving up late afternoons, early mornings, evenings and weekends to work through piles of student papers and projects can be a real killer. Marking is the new smoking.

I don't claim to have figured out how to provide valid student assessment without putting in some actual time with student work, but I want to clear that the work I am paying attention to is actually indicative of success and that my efforts at marking and evaluation are of some benefit to students and not just something I have to do.

To compensate for the arduous nature of marking, many teachers have adapted some strategies to shorten the tasks and "thin-slice" their reporting of student progress. Recently, I have worked with BCTF staff and another teacher to develop a workshop on assessment. The video above might horrify teachers, but there are recognizable elements in Mr. D's approach to assessment that we have seen in ourselves and in our colleagues over the years. Who hasn't found shortcuts?

While I continue to search for my own valid shortcuts, I have put some thought into how Social Studies courses and assessment schemes could align better with competency-based curriculum and prove better bang-for-the-buck when it comes to assessing what students are actually learning. Here are some reasons some change is necessary:
  1. Students (and teachers) often don’t actually know what a grade means. Does a C+ signify an average job on some learning outcomes or failure at some and mastery of others? Do accumulated scores of 8/10, 10/10, 1/10. and 9/10 indicate a C+? Simply adding up scores does not always tell the story of what a student has learned or how they have progressed. Teachers are often confident that It should be straightforward for students to see the connection between what they do, how they are assessed, how they are graded, and what to do when they don’t succeed. Many schemes allow or even encourage students to do the bare minimum in order to get to the next level -- setting 50% as a pass is often a poor indication of competency. Students should be meeting expectations in all areas that are key indicators of success -- if it is important, it is an expectation.
  2. The idea of separating work habits from assessment of learning has obscured the fact that habits & study skills, social conditions for learning, and personal achievement are hopelessly intertwined. Students need a way to move beyond the cards they are dealt. This requires an assessment practice that respects personal stories and allows students to “contract” for advancement. Assessment should be more like swimming lessons: areas of progress that students can track, with feedback that is useful for their next attempt. Assessment should focus on performance and aim for objectivity, but we can’t be oblivious to the differentiated abilities and backgrounds of students, nor the need for elegance, nuance, and equity.
  3. It is not enough to simply assess content (whether factual recall or deeper understanding), nor is it any better to focus solely on the new (and partially developed) competencies. Similarly, schemes based on abstract or subjective standards make collection of meaningful data difficult. Something holistic and yet specific and clear is needed. We should be assessing both “competence” (ability to perform certain tasks) and “capacity” (ability to manage and complete many tasks).
So what would a new assessment scheme look like?  Rather than explain it I have mapped it out in this rather convoluted graphic. It is also posted at my New BC Curriculum site. Feel free to contact me if you want it explained further.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Equity Motions and the BCTF AGM

At the upcoming BCTF AGM, there are a series of recommendations (from the BCTF executive) and one recommendation (from a union local) that deal with equity issues among elected officials within the BCTF.  I will list the relevant motions below (copied from the BCTF Reports and Resolutions booklet) and follow-up with a summary (my interpretation), my response and voting intentions. I have also attached here a complete list of my voting intentions for all of the recommendations and resolutions that are proposed for the AGM.

Recommendation 33
That By-law 5.1.a be amended as follows:
5.1.a There shall be an Executive Committee, which shall consist of a President, First Vice-President, Second Vice-President, an Immediate Past- President (when applicable), and seven
nine Members-at-Large, elected in such a manner as to ensure that at least three Member-at-Large vacancies are filled at each AGM. One Member-at-Large position shall be designated to be held by a racialized member and one shall be designated to be held by an Aboriginal member. The designated positions shall have the same term and role as the non-designated positions. They The Executive Committee positions are shall be elected by at the Annual General Meeting and shall take office on the following July 1 next following. Each member of the Executive Committee shall be a member in good standing entitled to vote, in accordance with By-law 1.1. An Executive Committee member may be removed from office under the provisions of By-law 1.7 or By-law 7. 


Recommendation 34
That By-law 5.1 be amended as follows:
d. All members of the Executive Committee shall be eligible for re-election 
subject to the equity criteria established in By-law 5.1.a.e. The Member-at-Large position designated to be held by an Aboriginal member is open only to the election of a member who identifies as being Aboriginal.
f. The Member-at-Large position designated to be held by a racialized member is open only to the election of a member who identifies as racialized, including those members who identify as being Aboriginal.


Summary: The executive will be expanded to include two new member-at-large positions to be held by an Aboriginal person and a racialized person*.

Recommendation 35
That By-law 5.4 be amended to add the following and be renumbered accordingly:
d. Candidates for the Executive Committee who intend to run for positions with equity criteria shall confirm that they meet the equity criteria by self- identification on the nomination form provided to the Nominating Chairperson. During the election process a candidate can drop down to run for an equity position for which they have self-identified on the nomination form, or drop down to the remaining positions without equity criteria.

Recommendation 36
That AGM Standing Rules of Order 13.3 be amended as follows:
That the election shall be conducted in the following order:
1. President
2
. First Vice-President
3. Second Vice-President
4. Member-at-Large designated for an Aboriginal 
member
5. Member-at-Large designated for a racialized member
6. Members-at-Large.

Recommendation 37
That AGM Standing Rule of Order 13.11 be amended as follows:
Candidates defeated in an election for any office shall be deemed to have been nominated for the office next to be filled, provided they meet the equity criteria. If they do not meet the equity criteria for a specific position or they choose not to run for a designated Member-at-Large position, they will be deemed to have been nominated for the next office to be filled for which they meet the criteria. At any time in the conducting of a ballot, any candidate may, by giving notice to the meeting, withdraw from the contest election.

Summary: Persons from equity-seeking groups, if not successful in filling designated positions, can run for non-designated positions. Also establishes sequence of votes.

Recommendation 38
That By-law 5.1.a be amended as follows:
There shall be an Executive Committee, which shall consist of a President, First Vice-President, Second Vice-President, and two Vice-Presidents, elected for one-year terms, an Immediate Past-President, serving a one-year term, and seven Members-at- Large, elected for two-year terms. They The Executive Committee positions are shall be elected at by the Annual General Meeting and shall take office on the following July 1 next following. Each member of the Executive Committee shall be a member in good standing entitled to vote, in accordance with the provisions of By-law 1.1. An Executive Committee member may be removed from office under the provisions of By-law 1.7 or By-law 7. 5.

Summary: Instead of a 1st VP and 2nd VP, just have two VPs with equal status.**

Recommendation 39
That By-law 5.1 be amended to add the following: g. At least two of the three table-officer positions— President and two Vice-Presidents—must be held by members who self-identify as being from an equity- seeking group, which includes members who self- identify as women. This ratio would be achieved over a two-year election cycle with at least one of the three table-officer positions being held by a member who self-identifies as being from an equity-seeking group in 2018–19 and at least two being held by members who self-identify as being from an equity-seeking group in 2019–20, and this ratio be maintained thereafter.

Summary: Of the top three positions in the executive (President, 1st & 2nd Vice-Presidents), two will be from equity-seeking groups, e.g. women, LGBTQ, Aboriginal, or racialized.

Recommendation 40
That AGM Standing Rules of Order 13 be amended to add a new 13.14 and be renumbered accordingly. 13.14 In the election of the table-officer positions (President and Vice-Presidents), if a member who does not identify as being from an equity-seeking group is elected to one of the positions, only those candidates who identify as being from an equity- seeking group will be eligible for the remaining table- officer positions to be elected. Candidates who were declared ineligible or who were unsuccessful may have their name remain on the ballot for subsequent positions for which they are eligible. 

Summary: Two of the top three positions must be held by persons from equity-seeking groups, thus they can't be filled by a "non-equity" person even if there are no "equity" persons running for the positions.  See Recommendation 43 for solution to this potential problem.

Recommendation 41
That By-law 5.1 be amended to add the following: h. Up to two of the seven non-designated Member-at- Large positions may be held by members who self- identify as men with this ratio being achieved over a three-year election cycle, with up to four positions open to being held by men in 2018–19, up to three in 2019–20, and up to two in 2020–21, to be maintained thereafter. 

Recommendation 42
That AGM Standing Rules of Order 13 be amended to add a new 13.15 as follows and be renumbered accordingly:
The election for the non-designated Member-at- Large positions must be conducted in accordance with the representation established in By-law 5.1.g and take into account the numbers of members who identify as men in the Member-at-Large positions not up for election that particular year. At any stage during the balloting process, once the ratios for the years listed below are met, candidates who identify as men will no longer be eligible to continue with their name on the ballot or be declared as elected.
1. 2018–19 up to four members who identify as men 2. 2019–20 up to three members who identify as men
3. 2020–21 and thereafter up to two members who identify as men.” 


Summary: The remaining seven positions on the executive for non-designated members-at-large can only have up to two men. This will be phased in over three years.

Recommendation 43
That By-law 5.5 be amended to add:
If, in any given year, the AGM is not able to fill the positions that require specific equity representation or meet the ratios designated in the by-laws, due to there being an insufficient number of candidates meeting the criteria, the positions shall be declared vacant and shall be filled by the Representative Assembly, applying the same criteria, until June 30 of the following year. 


Summary: If the equity quotas are not met, they will not be filled by "non-equity' persons but will be filled by election at a subsequent Rep Assembly using the same rules.

Resolution 101—Greater Victoria
That By-Law 5.1.a and 5.1.b be amended as follows: 5.1.a There shall be an Executive Committee, which shall consist of a President, First Vice-President, Second Vice-President, an Immediate Past- President, a TTOC/New Teacher Representative that is currently a TTOC in their first five years of teaching, and six members-at-large and seven members-at-large. They shall be elected at the Annual General Meeting and shall take office on July 1 next following. Each member of the Executive Committee shall be a member in good standing entitled to vote. An Executive Committee member may be removed from office under the provisions of By-law 1.7 or By-law 7.
5.1.b Notwithstanding the foregoing,
the TTOC/New Teacher Representative, and each member-at-large, shall be elected for a term of two years. If for any reason either position becomes vacated a member-at- large leaves the position after only one year, a successor shall be elected to fill the unexpired portion of the two-year term. 


Summary: The executive will contain a designated position for a TTOC/New Teacher Rep that is within their first five years of teaching.

------------------------- 

Response: I think the BCTF has evolved over the years, and has perhaps adopted many of its progressive views in advance of the general public (e.g. they have been leaders not followers). There are more women in leadership positions, including BCTF staff and the BCTF executive than ever before. There are frequently as many women running for executive positions as men, and with approximately the same chance of succcess given the electoral history. Some, but not all, of our recent executive committee have been composed by a majority of women. This does not yet reflect the fact that majority of BTCF members are women, but it is reflective of society in general. Aboriginal persons and persons of colour, women in particular, have also seen increased representation on committees and leadership positions, including the executive. In my mind this means that the BCTF drive for social justice and promotion of the rights of equity-seeking groups has been working. Persons from equity-seeking groups that have won elected positions and taken positions of importance in the BCTF can rightly say that they have earned it, that barriers or ceilings to their success have been reduced, and that they are there because they have earned it AND because the voting members saw their identity markers as assets and not detractors. Further evidence that existing equity measures have been successful: of our last five BCTF presidents (going back 13 years), three have been women (Sims, Lanzinger, Lambert), one racialized (Sims), and one openly gay (Hansman). Only one of the last five (Iker) was not from an equity-seeking group, but he was certainly one-of-a-kind!

One angle in the debate about the use of race and gender based quotas is that any attempt to mandate diversity will automatically exclude some groups. I think it is well established as to why race and gender form key aspects of privilege and therefore equity-seeking status. I get that, and my also my own status of privilege as a straight white male, but I also believe that we have a capable membership that can become democratically involved in ensuring diversity among elected officials without being forced to use race and gender as a voting criteria. If these recommendations are an attempt to create a more accurate reflection of society, they do not work. If they are an attempt to create a more inclusive set of voices around the table at the executive, they are missing some key voices. Why not create designated spots for persons with disabilities? How about a mandated cross-section of generations? How about regional representation? Is it okay for multiple executive members to come from the same region or even local? What about elementary vs secondary designations? What about subject specialties, e.g. so-called academic vs elective vs non-enrolling designations? What about designations for DL teachers, rural and remote school teachers, representation for bilingualism, etc.

I do not believe that creating hard quotas and ratios based on a selection of identity characteristics (particularly race or skin colour) is a productive approach to increasing overall equity, be that in leadership, the general membership, or society. Such a move will be divisive among teachers rather than increase member engagement. The remaining barriers to equity and diversity of representation within the BCTF do no lie in the electoral system, but in the appeal and recruitment for these positions. An example from the general membership -- there are far more women than men in the teaching force. This does not represent society as a whole, and has led to a lack of male role models for many of our students, particularly at the elementary level. There are also very few transgendered role models for students. To resolve problems like that, the system could impose gender quotas for hiring (alongside race), or it could put its effort into recruitment and retention. Another example -- the current push for an Aboriginal Employment Equity Agreement. While I support the idea, the problem in getting more Aboriginal teachers isn't in hiring quotas, it is in recruiting Aboriginal men and women to complete degrees and apply to teacher training programs. To me, hard quotas are the easy way out -- they appear to solve the problem by forcing diversity at the expense of democracy, but do not necessarily increase representation or the addition of new perspectives.

While I am open to further thought, reading, and dialogue about this issues, at this point I will not support these motions. I think they swing to the extreme in their response to last year's equity audit and will be a conundrum on the AGM floor in terms of emotions and procedure (expect many proposed amendments). It is quite possible that there will be unfilled positions, while at the same time earnest and capable candidates will be turned away from vacant spots because of their cultural background or gender identity. I was one of the 3000 randomly selected persons (out of 41,000 teachers) to take a members' survey connected with the equity audit, of which there were 327 valid responses. I found it to contain loaded and leading questions. While a survey of less than 1% of BCTF members might indicate some trends and range of views, it is not a clear call to make the kinds of changes suggested in these equity motions.  Also, many of the recommendations of the equity audit report did not become AGM recommendations -- the use of the report was selective.

Despite the survey, I certainly respect the intent of the BCTF executive and staff to take equity issues seriously and to keep diversity near the top of its agenda. If these motions pass, however, it will signal to women, persons of colour, Aboriginals, and LGBTQ members that they need an electoral advantage in order to succeed. I'd say give them a head-start by encouraging them to come forward for these positions. And guess what, they already do come forward, and we can see that by the relative diversity on current and past executives. I would find the motions easier to accept if there were simply

I'd love to see a more diverse BCTF executive, but not through mandated identity quotas. I would find these motion more agreeable if there were simply some spots opened up on the executive (e.g. 3 of 7 members-at-large) and perhaps just one among the table officers open to all equity-seeking candidates and that if none step forward then they could to anyone.  I believe the motions as they stand go too far and at a cost. Our executive has become increasingly equitable not through quotas but because the BCTF has become accepting of diversity and welcoming to all, and has taken democracy seriously.


*I am assuming that a "racialized" means a person of colour or a visible minority, or someone who identifies through ancestry to persons of colour or visible minorities as opposed to some sense of "European descent." Or is racialized about racial equity, about races that some social historians would consider to have been the Other for some part of the past? If that is the case does racialized include "white" folks that have been historically marginalized, such as Jews, certain Slavic peoples, people from the Basque region, Roma, Mennonites, etc.? The term requires further definition (perhaps the BCTF has done this somewhere but I have missed it), and raises some serious ethical and historical issues when used as criteria for holding office.

** In regards to recommendation 38 (just two VPs, not a 1st and 2nd VP), I am less certain of my voting intention. In principle, it makes the spot of president more competitive and less of a coronation, however it removes the tradition of preparing table officers for the top position. Does this motion imbed the "slate" politics at the AGM, or does it open it up to more movement. Perhaps only time will tell, but one thing I know now is that I want the president to be the best person possible to represent teachers at the bargaining table -- everything else is bonus. In my mind, we know if we're getting the best by allowing that person to demonstrate proficiency in roles with gradually increasing responsibility. While inclined to support this motion jus to see what happens, I also wonder if this is simply a change in order to make Recommendations 39 and 40 easier to implement.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Skookum Stories 2017

Wow.  We are a few days into "Skookum Stories" -- heritage inquiry for Grade 9 Social Studies students. I have provided a summary of the first nine presentations. These students have been working on these projects off and on since November, and their presentation included story-telling, educating the class about historical events they might not know about, and explanation of the posters, slides, documents, pictures, and artifacts they have brought in to anchor their talk. I especially appreciate how dialed in these students are to what they are talking about, and how they have made connections to history and geography, many of them from the content area of their Social Studies 9 course. See if you can pick that up in these summaries and (in brackets) a reference to the sources they used.

MJ
  • Family left Ireland due to potato famine (journals)
  • Scottish Immigration to Canada 1906 (ship passenger list)
  • WWI vet - Canadian gunner (attestation papers, photo)
  • immigration from Utah to Alberta with a family connection to Alexander Galt, a father of Confederation (journals, photo)
  • Impact of the death of a family member in Crimean War in the 1850s (journal)
KL
  • Great x 5 Grandparents (Scottish) part of the Great Migration to Canada 1820s: ship to Quebec (37 days), steamboat up St. Lawrence, wagon to Upper Canada (interview, journals)
  • family migration  to Alberta; worked on CNR, brothers went to WWI (journals, photos, interview)
BB
  • Loyalist family, many buried by a New Brunswick church built in 1789 (interview)
  • Family contains a WWI vet and many Caribou pioneers, goldminers, and rodeo pros (interviews, photos, 1875 voters’ list)
  • New-found connection to Shuswap Aboriginal Nation (interview)
AS
  • Ontario Loyalists, later migrated to Prairies (interviews, family documents)
  • family departing Saskatchewan for BC upon Tommy Douglas’ election (interview)
  • Metis family stories, godfather was Gabriel Dumont, one member became policeman in 1930s but was discharged when a friend used his police vehicle in a bank robbery (interviews)
  • Great-grandfather WWII captured at Dieppe raid, survived war but later went missing while goldpanning (interviews)
  • Great-grandparents emigrated from Fukushima, Japan to Vancouver, interned in Tashme camp 1941, later left for beet farm in Alberta (map, government identification card issued to Japanese internees, photos, interview)
TE
  • Swedish family legacy and immigration in 1870 (family tree)
  • descendent of Chief Gw’eh (Kwah) of Ft. St. James, bearer of a pre-contact metal knife (got through trade) and involved in story of early fur-trade, James Douglas, etc. (interview, memorial plaque, photo of knife from museum)
  • interwoven stories of multiple Aboriginal relatives from different nations (interviews, family photos)
  • father is current hereditary chief of Beaver Clan; ancestors permitted to switch to this clan due to clan imbalance caused by Spanish Flu of 1918 (interviews)
  • horrific stories about family members and others Lejac residential school at Fraser Lake, and uncles and aunts taken in “Sixties Scoop” (interviews, photos)
SS
  • immigration from India to California in 1908 by steamship (interview)
  • Great x2 Grandfather a founding member and of building sponsor of a Sikh temple in California, also made bombs in the 1920s for the Indian Freedom Fighters back in India (interview, photos)
CN
  • three different WWII vets in family, involvements with shipbuilding, Battle of the Bulge, and liberation of Italy (photos, interview)
  • family member who helped construct beach features at local provincial park (photo, interview)
  • great-uncle, a jockey, who rode Secretariat and was later thrown from a horse and paralyzed in 1978 (interview, photo)
EB
  • two stories of marriages between German and Dutch family members that were rejected by family in 1800s (journals)
  • homesteading activities in the early 1900s, including use of home remedies still in use by family today (interview, direct observation)
  • attempts to learn more about push factors for Dutch immigration to Canada met multiple dead ends - story was known but family members didn’t want to talk about it 150 years later (interview)
BG
  • Great x2 Grandfather who fought and died at the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel; his will was made 7 days prior, his grave was later shelled in 1918 (multiple military records kept both by family and available online

Monday, December 19, 2016

Handel's Messiah


The music and words of Handel's Messiah have been ringing through my head for the last few weeks. A couple of days ago I was a chorister for a production of the Messiah, and the oratorio is still with me in almost every waking moment and even in my sleep.

After avoiding choirs and choral music for most of my adult life, I joined the Prince George Cantata Singers in order to be part of this production. This is a community choir led ably by volunteer board and conducted by the fascinating character of Lyn Vernon, a renowned opera singer who has retired to a quiet rural life near Prince George.

I am now very glad that I did join on three accounts. First, it brought back great memories from my teen years of cracking jokes and hamming it up with the basses in the back row of the church choir. The only difference is that I was 17 then and they were in their 30s and 40s, and now I'm 47 and the basses are in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Same basic set of relationships and jokes even though the characters are different. The second reason was to recall and revive my ability to read and sing music; it seemed with each practice I could hit one note higher and by the end didn't have to fake it. A specific guilty pleasure in this effort was to be able to sing at the top my lungs in a room full of people doing more or less the same thing. The third joy was the sensation from the rehearsals leading up to Dec 17th, and the performance at Vanier Hall, and the lingering sentiment.

Being on stage with 72 singers and the PG Symphony Orchestra was special. The guest conductor, Michael Newnham, was truly inspiring, particularly his quirky style and bold interpretations of the music. He tells great stories and makes powerful analogies during rehearsal, and makes all kinds of noises while he conducts. I don't have much to compare him with, but I can see he pushed the musicians to try new things and expand their ability to express. I loved his animated style, humour and comments about the text and music that he offered during rehearsals.

I have strong memories of the Messiah from my childhood and after. I have never sang in a Messiah production, but like anyone else growing up Mennonite I have sang bits and pieces in church, listened to it hundreds of times at home in a variety of arrangements, and gone to a sing-along Messiah at the Queen E in Vancouver. This experience was moving, to say the least. Unlike others among family and friends, I am not particularly musical, and quite ignorant of the breadth and depth of the classical music world. Nonetheless, if it moves it moves. I choked up a number of times in almost every rehearsal, and not just in the Hallelujah chorus. During the performance, with each completion of each chorus, the fellow next to me, Mike, sighed deeply and wiped his brow and eyes, sometimes with a quiet "wow" or "oh boy." I suppose we have become friends over the fall season -- he is an older Welshman, full of stories, folk tunes, and jokes -- exactly the sort of person I had hoped to meet when I joined the choir. I shared his emotional reaction to the music, compounded by stage nerves, the sopranos just in front of us, and the expressive conductor. After we belted out the final amen at the end of Worthy is the Lamb, he turned to me and said softly what was also in my mind, "I am shattered."

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Exit Plan

A year ago, then Superintendent of School District 57 Brian Pepper fanned out a letter of resignation -- he was stepping down "for reasons of health and opportunity." A year later, we have learned through the BC Ministry of Finance's financial disclosure statements that Mr. Pepper received a sizeable severance and vacation buyout in addition to other compensations including his annual salary, benefits, and so on. The $222,952 severance brought his total compensation in 2015 to $436,082. With the vacation buyout and the $67,411 paid to an acting superintendent (Sharon Cairns) during a medical leave-of-absence prior to his Mr. Pepper's departure, that brings to a total of $319,315 over and above regular compensation paid by the school district for the superintendent resignation in 2015. I have no idea about the inevitable lawyers's fees associated with this kind of business, but that, too, would be billed to the district. $319,000 is is a significant amount for a school district. For example, it is almost three times the amount available to teachers annually in their Pro-d Fund which supports about 85 applicants for conference expenses, subsidizes local professional development activities throughout the year, and pays for an annual educational conference with 1000 attendees.

Normally a resignation of this nature doesn't come with a severance package; it suggest a termination, buyout, or a parting of the ways. The specific circumstances of Mr. Pepper's departure have not been open to the public, so is now the stuff for speculation, which does not really get anywhere useful. Based on my own long and complicaged history of advocating for various reforms within our district, I have my own assessment of his tenure, but in this context the best and worst I'll say about him can be summed up with the word "guile" -- a not unfamiliar quality for someone in his position. However, the departure, along with others from among senior administration in the last year, should best be used as a cause for reflection. I wrote a post about some of that back in summer -- the need to take advantage of this change in leadership: http://thielmann.blogspot.ca/2016/06/leadership-change.html. Essentially, it is a good time for our new district administration to examine and respond to twelve ready sources that will help them decide what to do next, including a newly adopted (but largely unexplored) Strategic Plan.

The news about Mr. Pepper's severance led some teacher friends and I into a conversation about what to do when members of an organization need to go, are asked to go, or leave unexpectedly. In particular, when individuals hold key positions, it is not enough to wait for them to go before figuring out the process for replacement -- this leads to rash decisions and often the replacement is chosen with criteria completely focused on the strengths and deficits of the last person in that position. We've heard the same concerns from other school districts, boards of organizations, companies, intentional communities, clubs and associations etc., so we had many people with whom to make assessments and wonder about what went right and wrong before it was clear someone had to go.

What is needed is an exit strategy. How long is too long for a leader to hold power? What are the signs that an organization needs to make a personnel change? Who is responsible for starting a conversation with an individual when things fall apart. It is not as simple as looking to the next people in the hierarchy -- they are often reluctant to act on the data, so to speak, but it becomes less arbitrary when their is an exit plan. Do the existing performance reviews actually have the credibility to identify deep problems and the teeth to do something about it? Does the review process actually make sense in terms of the job criteria? Can it ferret out the difference between practices that need attention vs items that can't be accepted? What kinds of "first steps" are necessary before moving to termination? Is it better to buy out or wait it out? At what point in at the ongoing "power struggles" within an organization do people with the ability to intervene do so? What should be done early on so that legal battles can be avoided? How do you explain dramatic personnel decisions to others in the organization? Is there a dignified way to transition employees or leaders out of an organization?

We wrapped up our discussion by bringing it back to the school system. Sadly, we all know many teachers that made a lousy career choice decision to become teachers. Some need help, and often are willing to take it, but others should simply go and find something else to do. Our system of performance reviews is not up to the task of making this happen, and our collegiate solidarity makes it difficult for teachers to hold each other accountable. Those ill-suited to the profession tend to linger for years or even decades past their best-before date. As one of our group suggested, perhaps we should have a buy-out fund ready to go to provide a way out. It might not be particularly dignified but it would solve some problems. The other, perhaps more serious solution we had is to view important positions as a tour of duty with a set expiration, and that, once served, there should not be a stigma around returning to a "lower position." In the case of many principals and leaders within the school system, it would be great to get them back in the classroom. That kind of change would be hard to ignite... but not impossible. If Mr. Pepper would have started his tenure as superintendent with the knowledge that he had five years to make a difference, and then would have a variety of jobs to choose from afterwards within the district, we would probably have an extra $319,000 to spend in schools. Lots of ways to put it together, but hopefully our district leadership, especially the school board, are cognizant of the need to build an exit plan for all levels of the organization.

Monday, November 14, 2016

BCSSTA conference and LSA inquiry

Van Tech Secondary
On Oct 21st I attended the BC Social Studies Teachers' Association annual conference at Van Tech Secondary in Vancouver. First of all, what an interesting school -- at the front entrance were annotated photo panels of Van Tech students who went off to WWI and WWII. The building is castle-like, but stark, and has been used as a movie set for a prison show. The vendor displays were interesting -- all related to Social Studies in some way. The keynote speaker was Mohamed Fahmy, the Canadian journalist who was imprisoned in Egypt for over 400 days due to his association with Al Jazeera, a news service based in Qatar and seen to be sympathetic towards the Muslim Brotherhood. I attended most of a session on teaching Economics, and then presented on the topic of Heritage Inquiry.

Last year I was approached by BCSSTA past president Wayne Axford, and also Kim Rutherford (who is also a member-at-large) about whether Prince George was interested in forming a Social Studies LSA (Local Specialist Association). At the time I did not get the sense that it would fulfill a need. There are already opportunities for Social Studies teachers to collaborate at their school and across the district, and our PD events for Socials teachers on PD days are rarely full. Those that have the time belong to various networks, and those that don't have the time quite possibly don't need "one more thing" with which to be affiliated. 

New information may have convinced me otherwise.

While at the BCSSTA conference I attended their AGM. The BCSSTA has funds for chapter support. At present, they have two LSAs that are properly affiliated with the BCSSTA -- North Peace (Ft. St. John) and Central Okanagan (Kelowna). There may be other Social Studies LSAs but they are not formally tied to the BCSSTA, e.g. I know there is one on the Sunshine Coast. Based on the 2015-16 BCSSTA budget, most of their annual allotment for chapter support remains unused. Being a Pro-D-minded fellow, I would love to see some funds support the work of local teachers and perhaps help us bring in great presenters and facilitators from time to time. I also learned that they are launching an academic journal that will require both an editorial board and contributing writers. I have joined their executive as a member-at-large and let them know that I will test the waters for an LSA.

I see the following as the main pros/cons of forming an LSA:

Pros: 
  • new funding opportunities for Prince George SS teachers and their professional development
  • opportunities to be involved with the activities of the BCSSTA e.g. their new journal
  • connection to a broader network of teachers, resources, and ideas
  • keep up the multi-year momentum of renewed focus on curriculum
  • promote Social Studies Education, the need for the Humanities (i.e. History and other Social Sciences), as well as Physical Geography
Cons:
  • we already have opportunities to collaborate (PD days, Learning/Innovation Grants, Pro-D Fund, small networks) and share resources (e.g. Teach BC website), etc.
  • LSAs as source of teaching resources kind of faded away in conjunction with the rise of the internet
  • there are currently few barriers to PD opportunities other than time (which is always in short supply)
  • having an open inclusive group can create multiple agendas, leave the formation of a committed core to chance, and awaken personality dynamics (let's face it, some teachers go to great lengths to avoid each other)
For me, the tipping point is that there is not much to lose in giving this a try. I'm intrigued by the possibilities and think it can be wrapped up each year with a minimum of meetings (1 or 2 annually), a few good PD events (1 or 2 annually) and a greater sense of collegial bonhomie -- "cheerful friendliness, humour, and geniality." I feel that, along with others, I have been working hard on the "Social Studies" file for many years and that we have been doing some of the work of an LSA without actually being an LSA. We have literally provided thousands of hours to provide leadership on curriculum, build and share teaching resources, and mentor new teachers -- so my thinking is that these efforts might just as well be linked to similar work going on elsewhere in the province.

So, if there are any SD57 Social studies teachers that would like to discuss the inauguration of an LSA, perhaps look at a draft constitution and establish some roles, join myself and others at the Black Clover on Friday Nov 25th at 3:45 pm. If we can find support to get this started, we'll schedule a general meeting in the New Year. You can also email me about this.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Assessing Curricular Competencies

Recently, a colleague asked if I had any thoughts on the following problems
  • We are looking at the curricular competencies for Social Studies and trying to find ways to assess them – i.e. significance, perspective, ethical judgement.
  • We find we are comfortable assessing essays based on content and structure – aka the old learning outcomes. However, we are trying to wrap our heads around assessing these new competencies. How are you (the student) able to show your understanding of significance, cause and effect etc… on some sort of scale or rubric. We can’t seem to find anything from the ministry. 
  • Our understanding of our new direction (once the government can figure out their new course codes!!!) is a shift in assessment to a more skill based focus. Thus looking at our students’ ability to articulate their skills (again these curricular competencies on the left hand side of the curriculum document).
Good questions!

In my mind, the competencies should be taught/earned in a variety of ways — stand-alone concepts or approaches for interpreting evidence, but also as a holistic set of lenses for critical thinking and putting content into a “operable-based” context (and not just a historical or geographic narrative.”

Assessing competencies should also be about developing skills with each of them, but also looking at the students’ overall approach to problems based on their use of all of them. I dislike the idea of a rubric or checklists or marking items for competencies, for they should not the actual focus of evaluation, but part of the process that leads students to broader conclusions. Assessing them, therefore is something done along the way — mostly about the formative.

Here are a few ideas:
  1. Regularly present sources or evidence to students that require interpretation — on the screen, on a worksheet, or laminated card. Primary sources like quotes, images, maps, reports, etc. Secondary sources like paintings, news items, passages from articles and books, etc. Work through each of the relevant competencies and call on students to offer opinions with explanations. This is a good 5-minute to start a class and orient them to the topic. Also a good way to help make connections between current events and the themes of your course.
  2. Place the same (or similar) sources on tests with generic prompts (i.e. broad questions about why the source is important) . It will be obvious when students employ competency-based thinking — their responses will be robust, critical, and probably accurate whereas those that don’t will produce repetitive, hollow responses. At this point you can use a five-point rubric or whatever to confirm or challenge the notion that they “get it."
  3. Include the competencies as a note-taking template for research or notes on a theme (e.g. inclusion in Canada, Canada’s role in WWI and WWII), problem (e.g. how many immigrants should Canada receive?, Canada’s response to Climate Change)) or event (Seven Years War, Confederation)
  4. Require students to build six research questions for all major projects that address the competencies. This helps direct them towards a much more meaningful project. Students include a sheet that includes either a response to the questions or lists the evidence they have used to respond to the question. This can be their self-evaluation portion of the project and is a great tool for doing a check-in, having discussions with them during the project, and also afterward for feedback. For example it is easier to tell a student that they tanked the project by asking them what they actually did to answer their own research questions. Have them turn in their draft research questions mid-way through the project as a way to make sure they are actually doing it — this helps prevent those projects that are just random information slapped together the night before. It also takes the emphasis off or “pretty projects” and put the focus on critical thinking.
  5. Use the competencies as an essay structure. Introduction outlines the topic and puts out an argument (which addresses significance and any ethical dimensions), student pick three pieces of primary evidence to support their claim (one per paragraph), for each one they examine patterns at play (preferably ones that support their argument), what led to what, at least two perspectives on the evidence, and in their conclusion discuss any action that should come from the evidence (ethical dimensions) and reaffirm the significance in light of the evidence. Mark on essay reflects how effective they are at working with competencies.
  6. Set the class in six groups up to work on a problem (e.g. turn any historical event or geographic phenomenon into an essential question). Write this up and place it in the middle of a bulletin board. Supply some basic sources (e.g. some primary and secondary), and have each group take on a competency and fill a chart paper with their findings. For the cause and consequence group, they may want to use smaller paper and build outwards like a web. They primary evidence group might want to choose 3 sources (not necessarily the one you provide) to reproduce and put up, plus interpretations. Could even be done with a rotation through stations so that each group can try out a different competency. If you need to mark this have them write a paragraph after on what they learned, etc.
Disclaimer: have tried 1 and 2 many times. I have tried 3 and 4 a few times. I just made up 5 and 6.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Casualties of Ideology - Remembrance Day 2016

Coming from a culturally Mennonite background, with its attendant beliefs about non-conformity, non-resistance, and avoidance of military service, there are no war heroes in my family tree. There are, however, too many stories of war survival, of heroic sacrifices and struggles in the face of abject terror, poverty, and prejudice. This photo shows my grandpa Johann Heinrich Enns who served in the Russian Forestry and Non-combatant Medical Service during WWI. As a conscientious objector, this was the alternative duty afforded to German-speaking Mennonite colonists who refused to bear arms against other human beings. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution ended the war and sent my grandfather home to his family in Neu-Samara, Central Russia (southwest of the Ural Mountains, near the city of Orenburg). It was then that the real terror began for the Mennonites (and almost everyone else) in Russia. The struggle for control of Russia meant frequent thieving raids from the Red Army (and sometimes White Army), wanton murder and molestation from gangs of bandits. In particular, Mennonites who took up arms against the revolutionaries or resisted collectivization were special targets of retribution -- to Russian peasants, communists, anarchists, and other revolutionaries, the Mennonites were wealthy kulaks who were complicit in the class struggle and economic inequality of Tsarist Russia. During and after this Civil War, the Mennonites faced starvation, drought and crop failure, outbreaks of typhus, cholera, and malaria. The reality for my almost all my direct "Russian Mennonite" ancestors was a simple life, religious devotion, and relative poverty leading up to the Great War, followed by severe poverty and premature death for all who remained in the Soviet Union.

In the midst of this chaos, my grandfather married my grandmother Anna Loewen in 1921; their first home was a sod house with a dirt floor on her father's farm. The first two children born to them on the cold Russian Steppe lived 18 months and 6 months respectively before succumbing to typhus and pneumonia. In the growing national fear and acts of state-sponsored terror against all who opposed communism (or held land, or spoke German, or withheld crops, or even their wives and children), many Russian Mennonites fled to Canada. My grandparents left in 1925, not long before this exodus became impossible. They arrived in Quebec on the SS Minnedosa, and "must have looked like a real show piece standing there on the dock in their plain dress with 'Schemadaun' in hand, not knowing a single word of English between them." By the time they had established a farm of their own in southern Saskatchewan, they managed to get one good crop yield in 1928 before the Great Depression made life difficult once more. Still, they raised 10 children in the Canadian prairies and never saw the ravages of war up close again.

Not so for the other members of Johann's family.  His brothers and brothers-in-law and their families were not able to leave Russia during the 1920s, and thus remained to endure Stalin's collectivization, purges, and state-induced famine. As formerly productive farmers, the Mennonite "kulaks" of my grandfather's "colony" in central Russia were again made the target of negative attention by the communist government.  They were German-speaking, so during in the wake of Stalin's second Five Year Plan (1933-1937), and again when Nazi Germany invaded Russia in 1941, many of the Mennonite men (including most of my grandfather's immediate family) were rounded up and sent to the gulag, tortured, and killed. Most of this information was unknown to my grandfather in Canada and has only come to light through research by my aunt. The witnesses to these "war crimes" were too afraid to tell their stories until the 1980s.

War and service means different things to different people. For my, grandfather, during WWI, it meant hard work in the forests at Tossna near Petersburg, followed by two decades of hardships. I knew him as a happy, gentle man, and realize that he had it pretty good, including a long life, compared to others in his family and others who lived and served in 20th century conflicts or met their fate because of them.

So, this Remembrance Day I remember my grandfather's brothers and brothers-in-law who were casualties to Stalinist ideology and bloodlust.  At least six of eight died at the gulag in Orenburg. These are my mother's uncles, whose crime was that their ancestors were from German-speaking countries and that they were once productive land-owning farmers:
  • Johann Bergman, born 1893, died in prison 1942. His daughter, studying to be doctor, endured incredible suffering during the Siege of Leningrad in 1942; her husband and daughter starved to death)
  • Isaak Penner, born 1879, arrested by NKVD and presumed to have died in prison 1939
  • Bernhardt Neufeld, b? d?, did not accompany members of his family who left Russia for Germany in the 1920s, possibly killed during Civil War
  • Peter Bergmann, born 1890, "ruthlessly taken from his home, falsely arrested and imprisoned, and then shot by the communists" in 1943 
  • Heinrich Enns, born c. 1902, "falsely arrested by the NKVD and imprisoned, then shot on November 4, 1942"
  • Kornelius Klassen, born c. 1900, arrested in 1942, died in prison. His wife Justina (my grandfather's youngest sister) died in forced labour camp in Kazakhstan
  • Peter Enns, born 1905, who, with his brothers, was "taken to the Ural River on Nov 4, 1942, 'with hands tied behind their back with barbed wire.' The prisoners were tortured, cold water poured over their heads before they were shot. Their bodies were rolled into a grave beside the river. The next spring, the waters rose and the bodies came to the surface."
  • Aron Enns, born 1906, suffered the same fate as his brothers Peter and Heinrich in 1942
------------------
This post is modified from a similar version posted in 2013. I have included new information from a 2016 publication, The Aron Enns Family History and Genealogy by my aunt Susan Suderman -- all quotes, and the photo are from this book. Further information came from her earlier volume on another branch of our family.

Here were some earlier thoughts on Peace and Remembrance 2010 and 2011 and 2012.  

Monday, October 17, 2016

Technology for Learning Briefing

Technology for Learning Briefing

...to be shared with the School District 57 Trustees at the upcoming dinner meeting with the Executive of the Prince George District Teachers' Association

Educational Technology is a broad topic:
  • tech in an integral part of day-to-day "workflow" use by staff and students in many contexts -- no one system meets everyone's needs 
  • tech is used regularly for teaching and learning by teachers and students -- some of it ordinary and predictable, some of it innovative or experimental (try/fail/reflect/try/abandon/retry/etc.) 
  • tech is about the "what" and how to use it: software, hardware, and the myriad devices that are used in an educational system 
  • tech is about the "why" -- pedagogy, learning paradigms, universal design, and choices about balance -- when to use tech and when not to 
  • tech brings up issues of equity and access, issues about how to pay for it, and issues about who should make decisions about the technology that is used for teaching and learning 
  • tech is more than a tool and more than a fad -- whether digital "natives" or "immigrants," tech forms a key part of people's identity, especially our students, and for better or worse its impact is not going away 
  • tech use is differentiated -- we have innovators, early adopters, late adopters, reluctant adopters, etc., each with their own expectations about levels of service, training, and opportunity 
In 2010 the school district appeared to have sent a Trojan Horse of sorts into schools, a seeming strategy to move away from the support for the innovative/ experimental use of technology and just provide the basics. The shell for this maneuver was the district decision to move to "single platform" for desktop computing,. This was ostensibly a cost-saving measure, but was accompanied by many other simultaneous changes that had little to do with platform. What else was affected? The District Tech Team and other technology leadership and collaborative structures would be abandoned, including the elimination of a teacher/principal leadership position for educational technology, the "Key Tech Contact" system and collaborative meetings. Unexplained restrictions were placed on tech purchases (e.g. a ban on tablet purchases, even those compatible with the "single platform"), and tech budgets would be slashed at most schools and also at the district level. Additionally, no more District Plans to support Tech for Leaning would be developed, or any other actual plan to support platform transition and address loss of services in, even though there was a specific commitment to do so but the board in April 2010. In other words, we entered an era where technology became a low priority. In some ways this reflects the transition away from technology as its own focus towards technology being integrated and embedded through- out the system, but a lot has been lost in this transition. One example of this is the lost opportunity to embrace or even allow tablet technology in schools. For a while the district banned them all, then restricted them to expensive models that did not do what teachers needed them to do.

As a whole the technology directions of the district have resulted in many talented educators simply walking away from innovative uses of technology; some have even left the district to find a place where their vision could be supported. There is no doubt that innovative uses of technology for teaching and learning still occur, but they happen in pockets, oHen without support or adequate funding, and sometimes in secret because of the restrictions in place at the district level.

In 2011 an attempt was made to gather feedback on how the district should support technology, but this feedback was hardly acknowledged and largely ignored. At the time, the district proposed to meet growing needs in two ways: support BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) for staff and students, and focus more on cloud computing. Five years later we have a wireless network that is slow, disconnects frequently, and does not provide adequate access for staff to use it for teaching. For example, a teacher following the district's advice to BYOD is blocked from accessing printers. A dedicated staff network is needed in order to make BYOD a reality.

Our district went from being a provincial leader in educational technology (roughly 2001-2008) to being a district that has fallen behind in terms of access, function, networks, and innovation. Most district computers to which students have access are used strictly for word processing and internet access, and the public wifi has neither the bandwidth nor stability to be used for teaching or learning. Introduction of new services or innovations has often been met with obfuscation -- teachers interested in trying Fresh Grade or Google School services have had to fight to get the issue on the radar and then face years of delays in having the issues death with.

It would not take much to get us back on track. An "Ad Hoc Committee on Technology" has already identified areas of frustration and potential solutions, and last year the "District Tech Team" was renewed, although it has yet to meet. Hopefully they can sort out some of these issues, but they will need gentle pressure and support from trustees, senior admin, and other stakeholders to both get it right and get it done.

Two things stand out for me as I write these notes:
  • I'm having deja vu -- along with many other young and old staff who know their way around technology, I have raised this issue many times -- these are not new items. 
  • I'm so sorry to have to take a "complainer" stance on these issues -- I am having a great year and I am otherwise grateful for wonderful students, thoughtful colleagues, an effective administrator, great opportunities for collaboration and leadership, and a school district that has nurtured my passion for teaching.

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.