Wednesday, December 22, 2010

2010 in review

That was quite a year... I'd have to say the highlight was our summer travels. The cruise to Alaska with my parents & family and the preceding camping across three provinces made for a great vacation. Kate had it all planned out and I’ll admit to some skepticism about it all working out. Our tent trailer was thoroughly broken in and we got to see some amazing sights and people. Cookes, Zimmers, Gorbys, Campbells, and a Friesen for good measure. Onboard the Volendam our Thielmann party of 15 comprised 1% of the passenger list. We had some time to reconnect; it was a blessing to see my parents surrounded by such a healthy, loving, and individuated family, a real witness to their 50 years of marriage.

This year, I find myself growing more... hmm... I’m not sure what word to use. Not conservative, if that’s what you were thinking. Perhaps more cynical (see the school stuff below), maybe stalwart or something like disaffected (in the misanthropic sense), and overall more grim. This has something to do with the time of year and the fact that my chopped woodpile is empty and it is -21˚C right now. Balancing this is the love and joy from a very amazing family; I really can’t or shouldn’t complain. I think 2011 will be less grim.

Our school district went through a rough patch in 2010 with a massive deficit brought on through changes in government funding, declining enrollment, and some delayed financial planning at the board office. I invested far too much time trying to keep our district accountable and honest in terms of spending, the nature of cuts, alternatives to school closures, and some sanity around technology decisions. I was also able to work with an amazing group of parents and teachers who modeled “sustainability” for the district as it offered its own plans and recommendations based on rigorous educational and community values, excellent research, and diverse perspectives. In the end we saved the French Immersion program from being dismantled and exposed some incompetencies, but I don’t think we were able to shift the basic narcissism that guides our local system. In the area of technology, our BC school system envisions that teachers will be able to use digital tools to increasingly guide students at a distance, and that face-to-face classrooms where the teachers are experts in their subject is an outdated mode of learning. As problematic as this may seem, our school district has embraced this vision while at the same time restricting access and planning to the very technologies that are supposed to bring about this brave new world. My own school mirrors many of these disturbing trends and ironies. So, that provides some context for all this talk of grimness and cynicism, but I am growing weary of being a whistleblower, especially when it is off the side of my desk and has come at a cost to my family, self, and students. Thankfully, I’ve been able to share this load with a dedicated and humorous group of teachers we’ve dubbed the Pacific Slope Initiative. Kate forgave me of many evenings locked away at a computer or at meetings, and was always the first one to push me into a good debate.

This is my 15th year as a teacher and I still feel lucky to be in the midst of so many stories, so many discoveries. I’ve had some challenging Grade 9s in Social Studies but I’ve tried to put their high energy to use. I haven’t taught SS9 for many years so it has been constant experimentation on my part, some of it pure disaster. New lessons, assignments, resources, assessments. Two projects in particular stand out. The first centered on Heritage Skills -- how people made a live for themselves, adapted the resources at hand to their needs “then and now.” One student brought out his grandpa’s hand-made woodworking tools and talked about the objects in his house (made by GP) that had special significance. Another talked of canning salmon with grandma and how this was one aspect of her ancient culture that she was keen to learn, remember, and pass on. Some of the projects were a bit rough -- I’ll admit that the students benefit from exemplars and previous trial-and-error but one must do what one can. The second project involved students examining a cultural landscape of 17th and 18th century North America and reporting back on their research and conclusions. We used “benchmarks of historic thinking” (a critical inquiry model) to explore the topics and each student used a modern example to compare with their topic. Order of Good Cheer & the Habitation at Port Royal, the Seigneuries of the St. Lawrence valley, draining the marshlands of Acadia, and so on. One of the students came across information that linked her family to one of the first habitants that were brought over by Jean Talon as settlers in the Royal Colony of New France. Her great x 10 grandfather turned the earth a few miles from Quebec in the 1660s. Another student examined the Jesuit subculture as they made deep impacts on the Huron people. His modern comparison was the humanitarian interventions in Haiti. There were some interesting parallels between clashing cultural values and also between the spread of smallpox (Huronia) and cholera (Haiti). Again, some of the projects evidenced incredible learning and some fell flat, but I think I’ll try this again the next time I teach SS9 and try to work out some of the kinks. I was also lucky to be a small part in the creation of Pearson Education’s new Social Studies 11 textbook over the last year, and I also had a contract to create and write an online course for the Distance Ed Consortium of BC -- Sustainable Resources 12 Forestry. As of this exact moment, it is not 100% complete!

I hope 2011 brings you health, happiness, and insight.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Premier Campbell's Vision for Education

I've just read through the Premier's Technology Council (PTC) vision for education:

I think it is safe to say that the core of ideas come from John Abbott. This work appears to be the well from which the PTC has drawn most of its educational design theory.

Beyond that, the PTC vision has mashed up a few parallel (and not necessarily compatible) ideas from the Assessment for Learning "shift in global learning," charter/voucher school movements, technology-driven online learning as the future ("brick & mortar" is passé), and a right-wing privatization orientation.  It fits neatly at the conservative end of the growing body of "21st Century Education" research, near-research, and commentary. The PTC itself, the group that commissioned the vision, is comprised entirely of business leaders, corporate execs, and a few lawyers (see p. 40)s and handful of academics. The actual vision was written mainly by educators, albeit drawn from government, administration of various rank, and academia. There appeared to be a single practicing teacher on the team.

A lot of it is stuff our district has already seen. Some of it, in perfect world, appears positive (I am a fan of Ivan Illich's "Deschooling Society" after all). Some of it will be ugly, teacher-strike ugly, if it ever actually comes to be. A lot of it seems open for local interpretation. The technology part is, of course, offensive in our School District 57 as we've left virtually every one of the "advances" mentioned in the report out by the curb. The "teachers don't need to know more than their students" part is bizarre... will we be like gov't service agents at a help desk? I don't get that part, sounds like decertification. The parent involvement part is very weak, too. It almost suggest that parents who are not able to get involved can count on the school system to provide the parenting for them.

Get ready for another round of "moving forward." We're very used to having something whole and interesting broken down to something lacking and ineffective, so learn to recognize the PTC vision as it flows towards us. If you don't believe me, here's the pattern:

PLCs started as an attempt to revive staff culture by improving structures and focusing on student achievement but ends up as forumlaic pro-d model that assumes group adhesion without examining how collaboration actually works. The buzzwords remain, but the thrust of what DuFour was doing in his American context is pretty much opaque to most teachers. The most offensive use of "PLC" occurs when schools announce they are PLCs when many of the teachers (and students) don't even now what this means, haven't been baptized at a PLC conference, haven't studied the PLC literature, or haven't substantially changed the school structures to move in a new direction. At some schools, just rearranging the timetable to allow for a collaboration/tutorial block was enough for the schools to be rebranded as PLCs. It didn't matter if collaboration meetings continued to be dysfucntional department meetings or the student tutorial was mandatory with random students supervised by random teachers simply to fulfill contractual instruction time.

AFL starts out being about discarding some of the "sorting" that teachers do and making assessment about accountability for learning outcomes. Instead the emphasis shifts accountability away from students by finding a hundred ways for everyone to pass. I've seen some notable exceptions to this among colleagues who have managed to walk the line between meaningful assessment and no child left behind. The NPBS, drawing off of the AFL namely the work of Halpert and Kaser, and locally by caring educators like Francis Roch, aims at putting dynamic, flexible instruction and interactive learning at the heart of the classroom. What we often end up with are educators that have used this as a portmanteau for education change in general, and think that if teachers have seen a powerpoint about the stategies and principles of AFL they are now accountable for a new paradigm, or that using a rubric somehow solves all the problems with sorting-based marking.

Collaboration and Inquiry models pushed from the board office as a model for school staff to follow, but there is resistance and structural design to prevent collaboration or inquiry with the board office on issues like technology paradigms or district sustainability. Collaboration, them, is not a leadership model, only a curriculum and student support model. this is not compatible with the vision articulated in the PLC literature, nor does it show fidelity to any mainstream definition of inquiry-based education articulated in the last 41 years (since Postman and Weingartner). Even as a model for staff within schools, it breaks down -- inquiry is not about asking big questions with open-ended answers, but about completing the School Plan for Student Success.

Data-based decision making was supposed to change everything and give us the direction we needed and the tools to get there. Unfortunately there were no mechanisms developed to assess qualitative data or educational context, so we exchanged this for quantitative data that rarely fits the study subject (real, individual students in classrooms with a specific teacher). The SPSS became the dumping point for all this data, and was touted as a school growth plan when most of it is compiled after the fact and almost universally ignored by staff and the school district. My favorite quote from the board office (in 2007) was that after 5 years of growth plans, district goal-setting, and coordinated planning for student success, there had no measurable improvement of student acheivement, but the DPSS/SPSS process was still important as it showed we were still committed to change. The district's plan contains some of these very data and change issues that are hard to reconcile. For example, on the same page that emphasizes the importance of personalized learning and assessment specific to strategies, the district admits it can't find any specific assessment indicators to measure progress and so falls back to completion rates and FSA results. There is no way of knowing, not even an attempt at knowing whether completion rates and FSA results have anything to do with the school and district-approved strategies for student success. Some teachers may actually know what their department agreed to, or invented, as a yearly goal. Few could tell you what their school set as a goal, and fewer still have even look at the district's plan for stuent success.

DPA was intended to get kids healthy but devolved into a record-keeping game, reminicent of TAG, Grad Portfolio, and School Planning Councils (do we still have these?).

We can take these half-hearted implementation back quite a while. I was not yet a teacher during the "Year 2000" push, but from what I gather it fit the pattern, too -- the message seems to be that the bigger the plan, the better the chance it will get really messed up before it gets to the classroom. This new one may fall into the same groove, but in one fundamental way, it will prove to be different -- because of money. I don't think the government will take no for an answer with the PTC vision, and I fully expect it will form the basis of any new Ministry of Education plan and a bargaining condition for our next teacher collective agreement. This sounds a bit much, but, unlike Year 2000 and all the other trends I mentioned, this one represents huge cost savings and thus will be natural fit with deficit-reduction strategies, user-fees and private options attached to what used to be universal social services in Canada, and a way to shift funding from Education to Health Care as our province ages. This isn't just an Education vision, it is also a Political and Financial vision. Looks to be a corporate strategy, too, with plenty of business leaders lined up in support and no doubt privatized services ready to take up the slack in a leaner public education system. When the vision turns into the next Education Contract, expect the Ministers of Education, Finance, Labour, and Social Development to be there for the photo-op with the premier.

A message for my personal learning network...

Anyways, a progressive thing that caring, intelligent teachers could do is to actually stay ahead of the banal curve that our district and province will inevitably throw at us as the vision takes root. Imagine the renewed pleasure of sitting through another staff meeting presentation about a 10-yr-old idea that we must all embrace (with half the room saying "whaaaat" and the other half saying "been there done that").  I can't wait to be told, in 2011, that we should get ready for 21st century learning. Read up on the John Abbott & Co. stuff and think about how we could provide avenues for parents to co-develop the kind of citizenship and sustainability education we try to build as Socials teachers. The model has already been set in place this spring with the activism we helped awaken. Figure out what it is about technology that we need more of, and definitely less of. Reaffirm why story-telling is at the heart of your classroom -- your stories, the students' stories, the stories you build as you travel. Realize that the narrative requires more than just passion, that the need for skill and knowledge among educators has never been stronger. I'm not sure we'll need to refute the PTC vision, but need to upgrade our "crap detectors" (as Hemingway put it).