Monday, December 19, 2011

barriers to change

Public education is at a crossroads in BC. As our British Columbia Ministry of Education contemplates how best to implement its new BCED plan for reforming our education system, the government's representatives (BCPSEA) continue to meet for fruitless contract negotiations with the teacher's union (BCTF).  As of Dec 7, 2011, they have met 61 times, and have reached no significant agreements on any major bargaining items. The Ministry agenda and the lack of bargaining progress are no doubt related, as the BCPSEA has made it quite clear that changes to the teacher's contract are necessary in order to allow government the ability to realize its educational plan. In return, BCTF would rather have discussion about educational reform take place at local levels where there is more accountability, experience, and context, and is holding out for contract improvements. Their respective arguments for themselves and against their enemies is easy to find on their websites. Search BCPSEA or BCTF.
Whichever side you support (or trust), change is on the table; the charge against our education system is that it represents 20th century adaptations to a 19th century model, and that we need to focus more on a 21st century approach. This is characterized, arguably (and variably) as a flexible system of personalized learning, problem-solving, embedded/disruptive technology, teachers less as content experts and more as learning consultants, and community-based or contracted learning activities. This contrasts with 20th century education which might be defined by an emphasis on knowledge, a reliance on "brick and mortar" schools, teachers as lecturers, and batch processing of students doing the same thing at the same time. Some would suggest that the current reforms are intended to starve traditional learning scenarios and replace them with cheaper ones that require less teachers, staff, and buildings. Rural schools have already felt this sting. 
Regardless of how urgent these new changes seem to be, the reality is that our school system has always been a set of compromises. Any one of the competing reform agendas has consequences to the system that limit other changes -- decision-making structures, role of technology, class composition, class size, prep time, common and/or standardized assessments, assessment reform, collaborative models, control of professional development, new elective programs, and so on.  Make big changes in one area, and something else will suffer, and too seldom do we replace the lousy ideas with better ones. Decrease class sizes, there is less money for technology. Allow teachers to co-develop vision and make decisions, and the ability of administration to affect change is limited.  Start a new cross-curricular program and other core programs get squeezed. Provide flexible hours and blended learning environments and the ability of parents to work full-time is affected. Add more math and elective programs decline. Add more choice schools and students no longer have neighbourhood schools. Provide robust bus service and classroom funding suffers. Insist on network stability and security and lose out on user-generated innovation and differentiation. This could go on forever; the point is that driving hard towards a new goal usually comes at a price to processes or relationships that were already satisfying a need.  I’m not one to defend the status quo, quite the opposite, but I understand how compromises are crucial if any change is to last. Very skilled, progressive, inclusive, and forgiving staff can often work out these compromises and make a school a successful balance of good ideas. Trying to push a particular education reform, especially where progressive thinking and inclusion are lacking or too many ideas are at play at the same time, and the school stalls out on change -- all the successful programs and practices come to a stop as the “new thing” gets pushed. There are indeed some exceptional schools and programs in which a single sustained vision is able to take root and flourish, maybe an exclusive private school, or a program targeted at teen moms, and so on, but large-scale public education is not sustained on singular visions or niche clientele. I’ve also met a few fantastic teachers who can pursue their vision come hell or high water and have students and parents respect them for it, they are masters at their craft and often pull entire schools along with them. There are also some schools, I imagine, with remarkable principals possessed of brilliant ideas; but these, too, require some patience, balance and broad foundations among staff in order to secure long-term success when the principal inevitably moves on. Getting the most out of change cycles, and sustaining successful programs and positive relationships among educational partner groups requires something less toxic than the current climate, with an emphasis on management directing the activity of teachers while counting on them to make undefined/unrefined concepts of reform take hold. Schools operate within a set of licenses: social, educational, political, economic, perhaps environmental, and the dynamic between these licenses requires complex management and paradigmatic compromise. It falls on leadership among administrations, teachers, and others, to manage these licenses, and inevitably on teachers to figure it our student by student. It is not fair to task teachers with the burden of system change nor to leave it to administration and board offices to design learning scenarios for students and control all aspects of district learning and working conditions. The challenge must be shared and some kind of balance between a respectful role for teachers in system change that does not make them scapegoats or reduce the basic autonomy that we enjoy that has provided virtually every innovation and successful program in our school district in the last 30 years. Barriers to educational change are well-studied (e.g. here's a random search result with plausible arguments), but I'm thinking more about the ongoing barriers and politics that our BC system, from the local to provincial, faces in 2012.
I would suggest that both the Ministry and BCPSEA will have more success if they realize that the barriers to change lie not with the teachers or the teacher contract, but with the leadership models that are tasked with managing change at the school, district, and provincial levels. There is much room for the teacher contract to evolve, but agreeable changes will only take place when the inconsistent words and actions of the leadership model are addressed. To put it bluntly, teachers will respect change when their own efforts to lead change are respected and supported, and when their own educational leaders can model change and show it to be successful. Teachers want their principals and district leaders to be good teachers, to have actions consistent with their talk, or failing that, to get out of the way and let good ideas flourish where they originate. The most powerful experiment a leader can undertake is to have some faith in the ability of others to produce change and to say yes when they offer to lead. I would allow that we need better mechanisms for dealing with ineffective teachers and administrators, whether it be retraining for another profession or a program of development for addressing the concerns, but we don’t need to shake the entire set of licenses (contracts, expectations, relationships) to make this happen. 


The government wants to conduct a large-scale social and educational experiment by designing a system in which the experimentation must take place, instead of simply supporting the experiment in progress and seeking (contractual) changes when it can see the results. For example, many of the key tenets of 21st century learning have been practiced and pushed by teachers and a few principals for at least twelve years in our school district, and yet it is only recently that the board office talk has caught up with what has been going on.  Perhaps fearing a loss of control, the board office has in fact put the brakes on 21st century learning projects for some of this time, slowing the process of change and in some cases disassembling processes that supported change. I've witnessed and documented this trend too often -- teachers (and occasionally administrators) suggest and lead change in real contexts that involve actual groups of students, only to be held up with bureaucracy and a fixation on control and government-mandated rhetoric; they are blocked or sidetracked by their own school board office. This is exactly the kind of evidence that is anathema to the BCTF/BCPSEA discussions, because the government is not at the stage where they want to see that the barrier to change is not with teachers. The vocal teachers, with their left-leaning union and sky-is-falling rhetoric, make an easy target for the simplistic arguments of the BCED plan (that we're stuck in a previous century). The intricacies of school district politics and organizational management are harder to unravel, but I suggest this would be the better place to start if the goal is system transformation. Of course, it would make the labour dispute easier to resolve, too, if both parties could remove their fixation on the cliché-fest of 21st century learning. All parts of our education system should be willing to venture a new approach to education, but should not be anxious to break up the foundations of the teaching profession in order to do so. In this way we get to the education system we deserve, never perfect, but possessed of admirable qualities from many centuries and one that adheres to a vibrant societal license that respects both the requirements and demands asked of its educators. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What's in the attic?

One of the ways we started off our SS10 Heritage Project was to ask about the kinds of artifacts that students knew about in their homes. What's the oldest thing in the house? What would you save if your house was on fire (the family and pets are safe, the electronics are covered by insurance, and we'll assume your data is backed up)? What object has the most interesting story behind it? Many students came up with stuff right away -- photo albums, war medals, antique clocks, ancient tools, and so on.  For me it would probably be a shelf full of rare books and a small box full of relics, like the coins that survived my great-grandfather's house fire in the 1930s. A few students had artifacts that were more than 200-years old (e.g. spoon, hymnal, travel-desk), but many more had no clue. These students were encouraged to find out what was lurking in their attic or basement, maybe even their mantel (if they still have such a thing), and start asking about how their family history, for better or worse, is expressed in the way their home is configured now. Many of these objects have made their way to our classroom (physically or virtuually through photo and video) and have anchored student presentations. Yesterday M.J. presented her project, describing her parents' life in South Africa before and (briefly) after apartheid.  Her ancestors had, for the most part, gotten on well with black families and had received gifts or purchased mementos over the years signifying their respect for indigenous culture. One of the objects was a wildebeest shield with cudgel and ceremonial spear (shown in the photo above) given to M.J.'s grandfather by a Zulu chief. What's in your attic? What artifacts have special meaning for you or your family?

Thursday, December 08, 2011

200 yr old spoon


Another great day for heritage project presentations! Christine brought us stories of extreme grief from WWII-era Croatia, counterbalanced as is so often the case with the journey to Canada and an end to grief. Bruce contrasted his German/English background with his Filipino background, a contrast that sometimes led to conflict. Braydon told us about his Kookum and Moosum (Cree for Grandma and Grandpa) and the difficulty of maintaining Aboriginal languages in modern Canadian society. Adam delved into his Irish roots, and showed us some Irish turf dub from a peat bog and a carving made from petrified turf. The carving has based on a 7th century crucifix bearing elements from both Christianity and pagan traditions. It was interesting to think about a civilization in transition, turning to local materials to express their defining aspirations. What do we turn to? Am I doing it now? Tyler had a amazing volume of research assembled from his Scottish, Ukrainian, Acadian roots. He brought up the topic of food, and talked about the various dishes that defined his understanding of family. I was left hungry for tortiere, the famous French-Canadian meat pie, and also borscht, to which I am no stranger.
Justin navigated us back in a few directions, notably into his Danish past. Focusing on one family group's experience in Denmark, the immigration experience to Canada, and adjustments afterwards, we got a sense of how rites of passage, choice of occupation shaped identity. We heard about Pier 21 (first time for almost the entire class), of course this gives me clue what should be in a subsequent lesson (another bonus to these projects). The "Vikings" were very good at recording their history, thus Justin had two big charts that took his connections back to the 1400s. He also showed us a spoon that his great-x5-grandfather carved from an ox-horn. This was a communal utensil, passed along with a main dish and used by everyone at the table. As one of my colleagues pointed out, the intimacy of food is high on the list with the other things that we do with our body, including learning, and has an enormous potential for grounding our identity and providing significance to other areas of our life.  
I'm thankful for the intimate act of learning that occurred today, in that we allowed carefully researched ideas and faithfully guarded memories to enter our heads and give us pause to reflect on how we got here and how we should now conduct ourselves.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Newfoundland

Travis with some props from his Heritage Project
As students present the heritage research they've been at (on and off) for a month or so, I've been thrilled to watch how some of them have taken a fresh approach to project design. I'm sure most teachers can relate to the stubborn student that struggles to find a topic, opens up a powerpoint or brings out a poster board, surfs the web, then starts dumping random material inside with no real direction. Travis did the opposite. He has been thinking about this project for a long time, considering his approach and gathering research material carefully. The arrival of his "poppy" in town from Newfoundland provided him with an interview subject and focus for his presentation. The powerpoint was simply a vessel to tell his story, something done at the end of the process (utility in research) rather than the beginning (wishful research). His slideshow and talk gave the impression that we were getting highlights of what was an ongoing, ardent examination of his own background. The story was Newfoundland, as seen through his family's experience. The Newfie coins and stamps were cool, but the other two objects from/about his family members were amazing. The first was the book about the first 500 enlistees in the Nfld regiment sent to WWI, many of who died at Beaumont-Hamel. This had some significance for us as it was the subject of the guest speaker at our recent Remembrance Day ceremony. The second object was a letter sent to the mother of a John McDonnell of the 1st Nfld Rgt. In it a nun from a Egyptian hospital describes the final hours and death of John by dysentery, which we all agreed was a terrible way to go but probably not that unusual in WWI. As with the other project presentations, Travis proved the hypothesis that when identity is engaged and inseparable from curriculum, the quality of inquiry and the confidence of learning is pretty much guaranteed.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Awesome start to student heritage projects

After a month of preparation mixed in with the other things we do in Social Studies 10, my students are finally ready to present their Heritage Projects (blogged about 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 times now). Having learned from the past, I knew we had to start on Friday with a few students were very organized and inspiring. That way the rest of the class could home for the weekend, sulk for a bit, and then get to work on the last bits of their projects. As Akhil said "okay, that was good, but you set the bar way to high!" What a great start. First class, Travis and Jennifer fit the bill: thorough, engaging, and ready to go (I'll write about them soon). Erin led the next class off, with a tour of her diverse background, and some wonderful storytelling about tolerance of difference based on a story her grandmother shared with her. What made me very proud of Erin was that I often give her a hard time for procrastinating, so she was determined to go first for this project and prove me wrong. We finished the Friday round with a stunning presentation from Hailey. Her slideshow was modeled after a history book, mostly a British one at that, and she had incredible artifacts like the old hymnbook, journals, an unusual ring, and "the box" (shown above) to go with the slides. According to Hailey's family tradition, and the note included in the writing-box, this belonged to William Beatty, part of their family a number of generations back. He was the ship surgeon aboard Admiral Nelson's HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Assuming this checks out, it is quite likely he used this fold out desk aboard the hosptial ship Sussex in 1806 to write his influential work on Nelson's death, something he was unable to prevent (he did the autopsy, though!). The box shows a few defects, and perhaps some more modern repairs, but is otherwise in fine condition. Hailey's mom brought it in to show us at lunch, and it wasn't long before the history buffs and wood enthusiasts among staff & students were gathered around and jumping in on the conversation. Our shop teachers had the veneer, joints, inlay, finish, and species figured out. Our Socials teachers had the Napoleonic struggle dialed in, with some speculation about how this major museum-worthy specimen ends up in a basement in Prince George. Where's the Antique Roadshow when you need them? Hailey also shared a leather-bound notebook with beautiful script from the 1890s belonging to her great-x2-grandfather, a chemist, containing recipes for tonics, ointments, and cure-alls. This was a journey into Victorian medicine ("maggot wash" was my favorite), a time when mercury, arsenic, opium, ground up bones, and all manners of herbs and spices could be had from the local apothecary. One more of the stories she shared was that of her great-great-grandparents who responded to the Laurier/Sifton "Last Best West" campaigns and came to Manitoba in 1911. Needless to say the process leading up to this day involved some cool learning for Hailey and others, for me, for a bunch of parents. The students are picking up skills related to historical empathy, critical thinking, resilient research, the themes of geography, judgement of evidence, strategic use of technology, and authentic presentation. It is amazing how excited students are when the learning is connected to both themselves and the threads of "social studies" that they identify as interesting and important. I'll try and keep up with blogging about some of the other presentations.


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Poutine Glaciation

The end of a "geomorphology" unit in Geography 12 means one thing... the students have pulled out the stops and are unleashing their creative, intelligent projects for our mutual enjoyment. Time enough for the factual details on the unit test, this is about celebration and individual discoveries. Here are some highlights:

A glacial landscape made from poutine (video). A literal mountain of fries, shaped to show a wall of pyramidal peaks, a cirque (alpine bowl) surrounded by aretes (ridges) with a glacial valley below. Chunks of cheese represented the frost-shattered rocks that would be plucked up to become moraine or erratics. Finally, a huge bowl of hot gravy was poured on the mountains, becoming gathering ice that filled the cirque and showed the characteristic plastic flow associated with glacial advance. The boys stirred it all together and the class dove in with forks and spoons. Very tasty, very popular with the hungry kids. Hayden and Brenden were the most excited; their creation went over as they hoped, and they got to mop up the leftovers. As Nic C. put it "what could be more Canadian, a guy in a cowboy hat pouring gravy over a mountain range to make poutine."

Hydraulic Erosion (video). Kelly and Natasha worked with water and sand to show us a few things, including rill erosion and alluvial fans.

Plastic Flow (video). Caitlin and Rhianne mixed flour, water, and ? to create something that would flow like a glacier. They followed it up with basal slipping using a big chunk of ice cream, with smarties playing the part of glacial till.

Puffed Wheat Seashore. Nic C. and Milan built a blue-jello ocean with chocolatey puffed wheat seacliffs. The shoreline was broken by wave action, revealing caves, arches, and stacks. Longshore drift had carried the eroded material away to form a spit and tombolo. A couple of stick puppets guided us through this edible landscape, one of which was named Nelson Mohorovicic (an inside joke).

The Informed Traveller. Anna and Anda narrated a slideshow made up of various family trips they had been on (like Anna's trip to the Grand Canyon, her picture of a desert arch shown above), and now had the knowledge to interpret the kind of geomorphological processes that shaped the landforms in the photos. Like Blake's Innocence and Experience, the travellers will forever be affected by what they have learned, and perhaps never able to simply gaze at a vista without asking questions. Landscapes will still be filled with wonder, but also with a discerning understanding of origins and change over time. Just to make sure we got the point, A&A made us a cake in the form of a u-shaped glacial valley with a ribbon lake, truncated spurs, and aretes.

Speaking of poetry, Tegan wrote some "seapoems" for this unit, and brought out some older poetry on the same topic. Like the tide, her words ebb and flow from the reflective to the technical, and I'd be curious to see how geography tempers or challenges her poetry in the future. Nature's Choice, like Nature's Voice. You can read her verse here (pdf), or hear her read it here (audio).

Oh ya, and some cave thingy.... video to come

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

When did thorough go out of fashion?

I am excited by project-based learning. As a Socials teacher, this has been the meat of my course planning sandwich for 15 years, and is consuming more and more classtime with things like the Heritage (SS10) and Echo (SS11) projects to which the students at my school have been contributing for the last few years. I am excited by learning “empowered by technology” as our ministry of education puts it. This has also been critically embedded my practice for 12 years -- my students and I have tried pretty much anything that has a blinking light and the promise of connecting to something unique or important that supports Social Studies inquiry. I am excited by student ownership of learning outcomes, the pursuit of meaningful learning that connects identity, experience, and curriculum. Fostering critical, independent thinking has been there since the beginning, and trying to make assessment and learning activities formative and authentic has grown alongside my time in the classroom. I am excited by a few aspects of the flipped classroom; starting with my first website in 1998 I've been steadily extending learning connections and opportunities beyond the classroom walls, although I think there will always be a place for teachers to actually lead learning and use classtime for direct instruction. Students have been using smartphones in my class for a few years, and they usually know when to put them away and listen, talk, or write on paper. I am lucky to have such an awesome job in that direct instruction usually involves storytelling about subjects and themes that I care deeply about. I'm just good enough at it that I don't feel I need to turn to youtube everyday to find a better way of getting the point across, although I use youtube, google earth, and streaming news to get points across that I can't put in words or don't know myself. I am excited by other educational theories and practices, too: inquiry-based learning, the role of embodiment and the physical situation of ideas, learning that evokes social and environmental justice, construction of student learning narratives, etc.

So, I should be really excited when I hear that one of our local high schools is planning a project-based learning (PBL) school within a school, a program with maximum flexibility for cross-curricular learning, wide-open permissions on learning outcomes, activities, and assessment, and an emphasis on a creative use of technology.

Instead, I came away from the program presentation stunned and disappointed. I caught the proposal via webcast from our local public school board meeting. The idea is for a district-wide choice program with 50-100 grade 8/9 students, 2-4 unnamed teachers, project-based learning, technology-powered, everything else yet to be determined (find/read proposal in the Nov 22/11 board agenda). The plan that was presented had no actual details about achieving learnings outcomes, what the program would look like, how the teachers would navigate 25 individual plans apiece through the PLOs of multiple curriculums. There was no strategy for managing afternoon field trips and unsupervised activities, no indication of how the rest of the school’s services would be impacted (time/cost).

Perhaps the biggest let-down came when I realized the next day that the entire rationale section for the proposal was taken without acknowledgement from a British for-profit website on 21st century learning, and there was not much else to the proposal than some fill-in-the-blank Q&A to meet choice policy requirements. I had been wondering about where the rationale came from -- some of the expressions seemed out of place and even random given the context, and it kind of made sense once another teacher pointed out the source. As you can imagine, this proposal garnered a great deal of discussion on teacher forums in our school district. I'll go out on a limb and assume it was not outright plagiarism but rather hasty research that the authors probably thought would not really be analyzed. The plan had no details, no pedagogy, and no scheme for addressing a dozen or more issues that are sure to come up. We’re in the middle of a job action right now that precludes meetings and formal communication between teachers and administration, so I can understand why the proposal was missing teacher input, but I expect more from something as key as the originating report that launches a choice program. I want to explore this topic because, 21st century learning notions aren't going away, and I want our school system to be proactive, critical, and thoughtful as it encourages change.

The second shock was the lack of time spent reflecting on the reality that the board office has now approved two conflicting educational parameters for Grade 8 students within the last year. The first example was decision in Spring 2011 to impose three terms of mandatory math instruction on all grade 8 students in the district, effective September 2011, regardless of ability or the loss to elective programs. This was done with the hopes of improving Math 10 provincial exam scores. The second example is this new PBL program, representing a high level of freedom in interpreting learning outcomes. This may result in students entering Grade 10 with standing granted for Gr 8/9 and hoping for the best as they take formal Math, English, Science instruction for the first time (and face Grade 10 provincial exams in these subjects). So, in the first case all students must have more math in order for Gr. 10 results to improve, even those who already excel at math, and even if the extra math term is opposed by the school principal and staff. In the second case, if a student is in this new choice program, these rules do not apply and math becomes an essentially self-taught subject unless your teacher-coach happens to be a math specialist. A mixed message and collision of philosophies (one-sized vs. personalized) is created by simultaneously creating new programming restrictions across the schools, while allowing an end to all programming restrictions in a particular program. Paradigmatic conflicts in education are not uncommon, but should not come from the same leadership team.

At a basic level, a choice program should start with either a demonstrated contextual need or an educational vision focused on an authentic horizon, one that is shared by teachers or at least has a firm sense of their role. Every program plan should include referenced research or original research, pedagogy (or multiple pedagogies), consultation and commitment from stakeholders, professional writing with clear goals, teacher and student exemplars, social context, input from the wider local educational community, budget and shared services impact predictions, a roadmap for planning, implementation, delivery etc. Any section dealing with background, guiding principles, influences, rationale can still be focused and succinct, but it needs to show evidence of a depth of ideas, freedom from jargon and cliche, and appeal to an amateur and academic eye alike. Launching a choice program may only come around once or twice in an administrator's career or the life of a school, so it stands to reason that a high standard of quality is expected.

The group assembled at the board meeting was correct to look at North Peace's Energetic Learning Campus as a great example of what can be done, but it needs to be pointed out that North Peace has been building up to this for years with integrated leadership, comprehensive involvement of teachers, 1-1 laptop projects, a tradition of digital content delivery, extensive planning & research, a building designed with a program in mind, and a long-term culture of collaboration on exactly the kind of teaching and learning that are required for a PBL program. There are many examples of successful PBL programs in BC and North America, and I'm quite sure each of them had a skookum plan in place that gave confidence to the educators, parents, and students affected. There is also a strong role for unplanned, wild experiments in education, teachers giving students freedom to inquire, principals giving teachers freedom to discard and adopt practices that inspire inquiry, and boards giving principals freedom to create unique situations for inquiry. I'm having deja vu right now, something is reminding me of Postman & Weingartner's work. The "let it happen, captain" approach is a great one, and one that often guides the approach I take to my job -- I usually seek forgiveness rather than permission to experiment with new ideas. If I waited for the education to catch up to what I am interested in, I would not have changed much about my practice in 15 years. My dad used to talk about his principal when he was a teacher at D.W. Poppy in the 1960s. Whenever my dad or any other teacher wanted to try a learning experiment, usually something unorthodox, the principal would thank them for their enthusiasm and ask how they could support the project, even in cases when mistakes were expected. That's more like asking questions, responding to a group of students or acting on a compelling idea. This is not the approach that is called for, though, when redesigning a system that affects an entire set of educational partner groups -- a choice program requires a more thorough treatment and "yes" needs a real plan behind it.

Our district has not had the same trajectory or success in laying the kind of foundation seen in the North Peace District, at least not recently. I don’t think this can be attributed to any one person’s bad decisions, but rather to two factors that have dominated district-level changes in the last 10 years: budget strains and decision-making paradigms. I’ll leave the latter for another post or discussion (or for someone else to discuss), but the former is relatively straight-forward. When our board was forced to cut five or six million in structural deficit from the district budget in 2010, it was bound to result in a loss of capacity. We should not expect the same level of service, the same capacity for teacher involvement, funded projects, personnel seconded or promoted from the classroom to dedicate time to coordination, and release time for multi-level collaboration or committee work. As a result of these two factors, we have seen the loss of all of the district-wide tables at which this “foundational work” used to originate. This history has been chronicled in detail elsewhere, most notably in the comprehensive response given by teachers to a collection of technology announcements made by the board office March 31, 2011. These tables include the District Tech Team, Tech for Learning leadership team, the Quality Learning Globally consortium, Key Tech Contacts assembly, Standards Working Group, Tech Coach groups, Teacher Tech leadership positions, Blogging for Change project, Coordinated Workshop and Training program, the Elementary Tech Series, TLITE follow-up initiatives, to name the ones I know about. To put it another way, we had a collaborative renaissance in our district from about 1999-2005, with teachers, administrators, and district staff working on common themes and trying to make sense of how student learning and teacher pedagogy could be improved with technology. They anticipated and participated in almost every aspect of “21st Century Learning” before the buzzwords became a mantra, and the student projects emerging from these efforts were spectacular. Some of this work could be seen at the annual tech fair (now defunct).

The surge of creativity from 1999-2005 was no doubt the result of emerging technology and the internet. This began with the increase of bandwidth, addition of rich media to the web, the ubiquity of email, and the heady days of Napster. Before this, teachers from one school to another did not even know much about each other, islands of learning and often not cognizant of a “district presence” in their midst. Like most teachers, I spent my first few years (1996-1998) not knowing the name of a single person at the board office, or what they did, and wasn't sure what a trustee was. Email, now facebook and twitter, tomorrow something else, have definitely thrown open the doors to cross-pollination of ideas in education, and brought some new joy to the discovery of knowledge, but like anything else this comes at a cost. I've detected at least three costly trends in crossing the email and social media divide, starting with myself. FIrst, the time it takes away from authentic, embodied relationships with the people in the room (family, friends, students). Second, the affect on the brain -- the ability to concentrate on one thing slowly, intensely, has suffered and what looks like multitasking is maybe just doing too many things poorly. Third, the access to knowledge is often wide but not very deep. No doubt the internet contains powerful thinkers, doers, teachers, examples, etc. but when the learner surfs across this knowledge and lacks the tools to interrogate and construct, learning becomes voyeuristic. I've written about the enterprising aspects of life on this side of the digital divide what seems like a long time ago, and strategies for addressing the costs elsewhere. What didn't fully occur to me 6 or 7 years ago was that the transformative capacity of technology and the skills, attitudes, and implications for our school system would be become such an abused fixation in education today, and such a target for corporate interest. What did occur to many educators back then, faced with idea sets like this, was that the coming age required a disciplined and careful approach.

The initial burst of activity waned from 2005-2008, a period of consolidation and standardization, and the phasing out of teacher access to system management. Some of this was highly necessary as the demands of a networked computer environment required some level of control by technical analysts in order to maintain security and stability. The teacher concern during this process was that educational decisions were now being made by non-educators. The last 3-yr District Technology Plan was written and approved by the board in 2005, containing the last serious collaborative/comprehensive planning effort from teachers, admin, and district staff, but was never published to the district website and is all but forgotten as a "best practices" tool. Some efforts were made in 2006 and 2009 to capitalize on the momentum built in the earlier years, particularly by TLITE graduates (SFU teacher tech ed diploma), by offering innovation grants (release time and purchases), and learning team grants (release time). With no sophisticated vehicles for sharing the work of these grants outside of teacher initiated conversations and a handful of pro-d events, the benefits of these grants are hard to assess. The teacher tech coaches wrapped up their service with a "Media Madness" series in 2007 offering a final workshop for recipients of tech grants. By 2009 the last minutes of the District Tech Team were published, signifying a margin to the culture of educational technology that had seen such a wild ride for ten years. A final consolidating move was to phase out the support for two platforms in the district (mac/pc) in April of 2010. This created some real and understandable consternation, and is some cases relief, for the 300-400 teachers and 5000-6000 students using macs. Unfortunately, the portion of innovation that can be associated with platform choice would be sacrificed as part of budget cuts, for which the rationale and transition & support plan is still not clear. We've seen an unprecedented change and downsizing to school district dialogue, strategy, training, support, and leadership on technology over the last 3 years and this has not been accompanied by a single plan or public document, excepting a powerpoint presentation on BYOD and wifi. I had to archive this myself, because at this time the school district doesn't have an active web presence for educational technology.

Some parallel trends show a proximate relationship to this "cooling off" period -- I'm not sure if these are cause or consequence. The first is the shift in the origin and purpose of the District Plan for Student Success. Up until 2009, these plans were a response to common themes and goals within the School Plans for Student Success, a process that required considerable study and reflection. They now work in the opposite direction, conveying Ministry of Education goals and conversations as directions for schools to take. Regardless of whether the ideas are sound and the goals legitimate, this shift reduces the need and mechanisms for local thinking and planning on a range of subjects. A second trend was the replacement of staff and student designed school websites with generic shells packaged as a Content Management System. While this brought some consistency to the look and feel of every site (some schools did not really have sites, others had an extensive web presence), it essentially killed the growing web development movement at the school level. The majority of schools are not using this CMS as intended; some schools have a virtually empty website, and one of our schools has embedded a functioning CMS and an updated site within the inert product provided by the district. One of the positive outcomes of the changes to website development is that many teachers have put more effort into making their own websites contain the function, creativity, and content that used to exist on school sites. There have also been more efforts to use facebook, twitter, etc. to celebrate student success and accompany class-based learning, although these tools are still blocked at most schools, as is commercial email, although students can work around this by using their own data plans and 3G network. This diversification and adaptation is sometimes an unintended result of cutbacks; when the system throws up roadblocks, new paths will be found. One important area that has still not figures out how to thrive under cutbacks and the CMS is our district website. Although this banner was probably meant as a temporary feature, it shows some of the limitations in the CMS and the amount of time that can be afforded for web design. An organization with a $130 million annual budget should not have issues with spacing, cropped logos, and random graphics borrowed from another site. I'm certainly not above reproach... my site contains many borrowed, random objects,there are lots of borrowed graphics on my website, but my little blog cabin on the web river is the right kind of place for mashups and amateur (free/voluntary) design. Our district's site still has a reasonable range of functions despite its design limitations, but taking a look at other district sites in the province gives an indication of what is possible -- SDs 37, 39, 43, 44, 60, 73, and 82 are good places to start. If we are a "can do" organization (as our District Plan for Student Success states), then I really hope these trends are pendulous and budget-dependent rather than directional and philosophic in nature.

In some ways, the change in our school district's ability to sustain and promote discussion about technology is an acknowledgement that the digital age is not a new thing to be studied in isolation of other social forces, and no longer requires such intense focus. The gaze of the district had turned to other concerns. Teachers and students are often thought to have crossed the digital divide, and thus the preparations for the journey may no longer be needed. With vibrant web resources for educators and virtual networks replacing physical ones, it was natural to see the capacity for fostering innovation downsized and outsourced. Perhaps as a result, our school board office must have a hard time seeing and assessing the local evidence it needs to make decisions about program support at the school level. Six or more "21st century learning" projects proposed by teachers and administration in the last two years have been quietly turned down by the board office. These included blended learning experiments, 1-1 personal device plans, two student inquiry-based projects for secondary Social Studies (one of those was mine), a tablet pilot with special needs students, elementary lab greening with tablets instead of computers, etc. Proponents are still wondering if the decisions came from the board office, purchasing, tech support, or school administration; they are still waiting for an invitation to discuss why these innovative projects were dismissed. How willing will these teachers and administrators be to buy in to the next set of ideas when their last attempts at "currency" were rejected (e.g. tablets in the classroom, blended learning pilots). When passionate, talented educators volunteer to move the district's learning agenda forward, it would seem the answer should be yes, but I would posit that articulating this yes requires a capacity for which we are no longer provisioned. The recent push to remove district-level blocks to third-party email, facebook, smartphone use in the classroom, teacher installation of interactive apps, and other technologies has only come with pressure from the outside, notably the ministry of education -- in other words yes has been reactive and issued under duress. My school has had a full-function wireless network for about 7 years, but teachers can't access it on their own devices or laptops. Students and staff at my school got access to limited public wireless about a month ago, but are still blocked from accessing their hotmail to retrieve assignments or facebook to share a project photo with a class, and can't use the wifi to print or access their server account. I talked with a Communications teacher who noted these restrictions turned what should have been a redeeming moment for a marginal student trying to demonstrate what he had learned into a another frustration because "nothing works." When the school district is being told it needs to catch up on “21st century learning” by the government, and teachers (among others) have been saying the same thing for seven years, the mixed messages need to stop. Conditional yes? Say yes but really it's no? Yes at some undisclosed point in the future? How about "yes, that's the right idea, let's confirm together what we can afford, support, and sustain."

I realized last year, in preparing feedback for the March 2011 board office presentation on "tech directions," how much this chilly climate had affected teacher mindsets about district efforts. I invited as many teachers as I could think of to attend the presentation, with the hopes that it represented a turn-around on communication, and also to leave constructive feedback. The overwhelming response I got was "what's the point?" and "we've already been down this road and look where we're at." As a result, although the feedback had depth and expert knowledge, it came from only a handful of individual teachers and one tech committee from our biggest high school. The presentation was a surprise to most of the attendees, as it represented a vision built in almost total isolation of the teachers who would be expected to carry it out, and the follow-up statements bore no evidence that the feedback had been taken into consideration. I fear we passed some tipping point at which a collective approach is no longer feasible or maybe even desirable. Perhaps this is for the best; I've never been a fan of groupthink anyways. When everyone in a room fervently agrees that something must be right, I tend to get a nervous feeling that something bad is going to happen. Smaller, off-the-radar cells of innovation continue as ever, and I believe these are the real hearths of change, because they represent some form of yes in action. The evidence can be seen in how innovation proliferates for a few years in pockets and eventually leaders recognize that these teachers and others have anticipated an important trend and start talking the same language. The danger of this cycle is that when something that is under intense scrutiny (like inquiry-based learning or project-based learning) gains momentum, using the "right language" signifies that "we get it, now." This is how cliches are born, such that I now find myself looking for new words to describe what I do so as not to sound like the repetitious and often shallow discussions on 21st century learning. It works as a hashtag (or blog tag like the one I've used here) because we all know what to expect, but it can't stand in for real ideas grounded in contexts. It's gotten to be ridiculous in our district and probably everywhere in the province (easy to see on Twitter) -- anyone who does anything with a problem-solving skill, a team effort, or social media calls it 21st Century Learning to indicate that they have joined the "movement." I'd love to see more show and less tell... which is the whole point of this blog post: a choice program built on "21st Century" principles needs much more than suggestive language, borrowed no less, to inspire confidence.

This brings me back to the Nov 22nd board meeting. The proposal hits on all of the keywords of the new government plan, and will no doubt test the appetite for "21st Century Learning" among staff, students, and parents. It will also test some contract expectations related to distributed learning ratios, instructional time, school-based supervision responsibilities, etc. At this stage the proposal seems to be at the idea level and does not yet appear to be a teacher-driven program, as there are many teachers at the host school that are unaware of this initiative, and have not been involved in the program planning. I realize, however, that staff-admin consultation is difficult during the current job action.

The proposal does have positive potential, though, and I believe the incoming board should use the discussion of this program proposal as an opportunity to thaw some of the disconnect between teacher & student innovation with technology-embedded learning and a restrictive set of practices from the board office on similar projects elsewhere. Teacher buy-in, particularly by technology leaders, is required for success as they will do the heavy lifting for this kind of program and have felt sidelined by the school district on a range of technology issues over the last eight years. The program might also fulfill one of the key recommendations from the QLG group in 2004. The QLG was a district-supported teacher & admin group that researched blended, distributed, personalized, and online education models. They suggested that all secondary schools encourage and be supported for pilots that combined dynamic teacher and student-group time with online learning and project-based learning. The QLG recommendations related to wide school-based online learning pilots were not well accepted by the board office at the time and the mandate for developing online learning was instead given to our distance educational school. This school is also responsible for wide range of community and alternative programs, and was focused on doing well by these tasks, and has not been able to make the focus on blended learning a priority.

There are an amazing programs, projects, teachers, leaders, students, and learning environments (with or without technology) throughout our district -- and there is always room for change. The problem is that educational change that sinks in and makes a long-term impact requires a high standard for both leadership and also teacher involvement. This is very hard to effect at a class-by-class basis, or to pursue without coordination. It can also be expensive. For a district-wide choice program that claims to lead the way for a new style of learning, I expect it to attain a higher standard for thorough, original, and inclusive planning. The bumpy start and fallout from the proposal’s contents should not be a dismissal of the need to take “21st Century Learning” ideas seriously. Rather, it should initiate a new emphasis on depth of preparation, vigorous discussion, professional writing, avoidance of cliche, and careful critical inquiry into how our programs and pedagogy adapt to the changing world around us. In this regards I would agree with the board member that said “we are a can-do district” if we can use these kinds of discussions to show we are focused on the ultimate impact on the student experience in our school system, and are willing to put in the hard work for teaching, learning design, and coordination. That's the positive part that I want to take away from this experience.

I get excited by possibilities for what we can do, what my students can do, and I try to be thorough about it, ask lots of questions and so on -- I really hope that "thorough" doesn't become an anachronism in our education system. I'm a bit gloomy about present structures and practices, but the past and future stand on either side to show promise and suggest a better way. Feel free to fact-check my history of tech in SD57, or to leave a comment with your own thoughts.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Freerunning and well-spent youth


My very dear friend Derk and I used to run around jumping off of things in university. UBC endowment lands circa 1989 -- tree stumps and the sand banks behind the Museum of Anthropology mostly. I was never particularly good at it, jump up and down kind of thing, but still remember that time period as the "best shape of my life" and something lost that might one day be found. So, it is with some vicarious joy that I watch Derk's son Justin perfecting the art of freerunning. Here he is with his friend and parkour conspirator Liam tearing it up in the Kootenays.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Red Fife

I was giving a lesson yesterday on the big immigration drives during Laurier's time as prime minister (1896-1911) and the work of his minister Clifford Sifton.  My lesson was all over the place, I talked about the CPR and what John A. Macdonald had in mind. I had maps and digital images of "last best west" posters on the go, textbook stuff, a short video clip, asked students to relate the immigration stories they were digging up in the computer lab with their heritage research, etc. We talked about dryland farming, boat rides, sod houses and various people's ancestors (including mine). We found a few of "our people came over" as a result of Sifton's campaigns. I had an recent news story lined up for a current events connection but the streaming video wasn't working on the browser; luckily a student new what I was trying to find (Canadian gov't decision on uniting families of immigrants) and read out another version of the story he found on his iphone. I wanted to introduce them to the concept of critical inquiry benchmarks, thought this was the day to do it, but didn't remember to do it (although I suppose we practiced about 5 of them). Typical chaotic Thielmann lesson, a little bit of everything... yes, some "21C" but lots of 20th Century stand-and-deliver and even "random century" stuff thrown in for good measure (shared story-telling). It bugs me that our educational leaders try to create a divide based on technology where it does not really exist. This lesson is essentially the same as one my father might have given 40 years ago.

Anyways, I made a brief reference to red fife, the wheat that fed Canada until about 1904, and a student chimed in that her family had found a bag of red fife stored in a grandmother's attic. This is interesting, because the original red fife all but disappeared when it fell out of favour in the early 1900s (replaced in large part by Marquis wheat), although it was bred with other varieties to become the "grandfather" to other important wheats. A few farmers have kept the grains, fewer still have kept it growing in small plots, and apparently it has made a bit of a comeback as an heirloom grain with good nutrient and protein characteristics, as a landrace it has an honourable spot in the discussion about genetic diversity and ecological resilience. I imagine few students, especially KT, can envision their great-great-grandparents picking up a bag of red fife grains from caring neighbours at the turn of the 20th century, to begin their Canadian Prairie odyssey. Afterwards, I read through my own "family book" today and realized that this was the same variety of wheat that my great-great-grandfather Jacob Loewen broadcast seeded on his new 160-acre homestead in Dalmeny, Saskatchewan, 1902. I think the students "got it" when I tried to explain that even something like food can have a impact on the social and economic development of a nation. Of course we all asked KT "what did you do with the wheat?!" ..."we threw it out -- it had mouse poop in it."

Monday, November 21, 2011

open letter to trustees re new choice program

Dear trustees,

First of all, I notice this is your final meeting in the current composition, and I would like to thank you for your most recent three years of service to public education. You’ve been very busy with important work set in front of you, and the new board will probably face new challenges you did not but may also be able to avoid the incredibly difficult process of school closure and cutbacks. Good luck to those moving on to new opportunities.

Second, I notice that a choice program proposal for KRSS Northern Learning Centre is on the agenda for the Nov 22 board meeting. The proposal hits on all of the keywords of the new government plan, and will no doubt test the appetite for "21st Century Learning" among staff, students, and parents. It will also test some contract expectations related to distributed learning ratios, instructional time, school-based supervision responsibilities, etc. At this stage the proposal seems to be at the idea level and does not yet appear to be a teacher-driven program, as there are many teachers at KRSS that are unaware of this initiative, and have not been involved in the program planning. I realize, however, that staff-admin consultation is difficult during the current job action.

The proposal does have positive potential, though, and I believe the board should use the discussion of this program proposal as an opportunity to thaw some of the disconnect between teacher & student innovation with technology-embedded learning and a restrictive set of practices from the board office on similar projects elsewhere. Teacher buy-in, particularly by technology leaders, is required for success as they will do the heavy lifting for this program and have felt ignored and excluded by the school district on a range of technology issues over the last eight years. The last 3-5 years in particular has seen what has been referred to as a "chilly climate for 21st century learning" in our school district. There has been lots of talk about innovation and change, but the reality is that virtually every process for educators and district staff to align goals, leverage innovation, and dialogue about program development has been cut off (DTT, KTC, TFL, Tech Coach groups, Teacher Tech leadership positions, TLITE follow-up initiatives, workshop training program, etc.). In their place are a few learning team grants that allow schools to use release time for group study but do not affect district-wide approaches other than what teachers initiate themselves. The details of this “chilly climate” have been thoroughly documented in the feedback given to last April's "Enhancing Learning" presentation by board office staff - this multi-school contribution has been archived if you have not read it. The feedback from the PGSS tech team is an excellent place to start. Perhaps as the capacity for a district-wide collaborative approach to understanding technology for learning has diminished or been cut back, the ability to recognize "21st century learning" where it is thriving has also suffered. Six or more "21st century learning" projects proposed by teachers and administration in the last two years have been rejected by the board office, most of which have never received even an explanation of who did the rejecting, let alone an invitation to discuss why these innovative projects were dismissed. When passionate, talented educators volunteer to move the district's learning agenda forward, I cannot fathom why the default response has been "no.” Again, this irony, and the many restrictions encountered by teachers as they seek to understand how “21st century learning” notions might work for their students are well documented in the “Enhancing Learning” feedback. The proposed KRSS program looks like a proposal submitted at D.P. Todd two years ago (rejected) and also like one of the key recommendations from the QLG group in 2004. The QLG was a district- supported teacher & admin group that researched blended, distributed, personalized, and online education models. They suggested that all secondary schools encourage and be supported for pilots that combined dynamic teacher and student-group time with online learning and project-based learning. The QLG recommendations related to wide school-based online learning pilots were not well accepted by the board office admin and the mandate for developing online learning was instead given to CLA. While the CLA has done many excellent things in the interim, the focus on blended learning has not been a priority. Seven years later perhaps the board office is ready for a second look at these ideas with this KRSS proposal on the agenda. I am pleased that the focus for blended learning is going back out to schools as was suggested in 2004 -- this will help the board office walk its talk on educational change.

The proposal does raise many issues, however, the first of which might be jumping the gun on “21st century learning” prior to the ministry creating an overall plan and guiding framework, review of curriculum, etc. that were outlined in the new direction from the ministry. Aside from the reliance on vague keywords, the apparent lack of teacher buy-in (again, difficult during job action), and potential contract issues, the program does have merits that justify consideration if certain questions are answered. I would like to see a program like this work as I and others have proposed similar projects in the past, but we all need the foundation laid out and tough questions asked before this program is approved and before teachers can be asked to sign on. Getting this right could help warm up the chilly climate in SD57 for collaboration between the board office, admin, and teachers. Failing to do so will result in more misunderstanding and withdrawal from tech leaders and innovative teachers at KRSS and elsewhere.

As you review the proposal, I would suggest you start by asking a few questions:
  1. How can teachers be better involved in the program planning and development? 
  2. How will KRSS engage existing expertise in our district and UNBC regarding blended and/or distributed learning and independent project-based environments? 
  3. Does the lateral growth described in 2.3.1.a) signify that other schools will be encouraged and supported to build similar programs? 
  4. Does the program's existence mean that the board office is now willing to consider the kind of blended learning and 21st century learning projects it has rejected over the last two years? 
  5. Will program support and review benefit by the restoration of some (any) district-level tables for discussion of common issues and aspirations regarding technology and learning? 
  6. Does the program prejudice any contractual considerations re class size ratios, hours of instruction, hiring, and so on? 
  7. The proposal states that schools and teachers are performing for students rather than working with them. What does this mean? 
  8. Is there any accepted research backing the claims made about Grade 8/9 students being qualified to design their own learning plans and work with minimal supervision? 
  9. Are digital devices affordable by all students and do they really replace the need for staffed libraries? 
  10. How will the program address supervision of students when students are working independently, at home, or "out in the community?"

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Weathered Stone

As my students continue to make fabulous connections to their heritage and ask questions about what defines oneself, I find myself drifting back to the hobbyist genealogy work I began a few years ago. One of the links I found for my students (see the Heritage Research Tools on the right bar of the Webriver Blog) introduced me to some new names in my wife's family tree, and some interesting sites on cemetery archiving. Genealogists talk about hitting a brick wall, and how excited they get when it comes down and there is new territory to explore. My students have described this, too, in the last couple of weeks, the experience of staying up all night to find one more story, names, event, or connection online or in an old book rediscovered. Finding out about stuff that was "there" but hidden from them for a variety of reasons, mostly that their curiousity was never trained on the subject.

The students have been telling me their stories, so I told one of mine... here's a part of what I shared in class today, using good old-fashioned story-telling, Google Earth, a couple of websites, and a pull down map. My "treasure" was found at about 1 a.m. as I trained my own curiosity on some of the missing links in my wife's family tree. It seems a researcher visited a Cape Breton cemetery, wandered over to the adjacent woods, and found an old gate leading to more gravestones midst the brush and trees. One of the stones he found marked the grave of my wife's great-great-grandfather in Point Edward Nova Scotia (pic shown above). The only other info I had for him was that he was lost at sea, so now I have two stories to reconcile, and some excitement about the evidence. I'll have to visit there one day to see for myself and look around for the stones of two others whose names are listed as being there. The street view on Google Earth, which includes the old church and cemetery helped me visualize what was going on and speculate about the cultural, economic, and geographical adaptations that had been made in this area of Nova Scotia. Like my students, I find my thoughts drifting back to images, maps, stories, historical contexts, concurrent events, and evolving landscapes... not a bad way to spend time in a Social Studies class.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

kudos for staff websites

There are so many great ways, ancient and new, that we all conduct our teaching practices. I'd like to thank and encourage the teachers who have built new webpages this year or continue to develop their existing websites. Some of you are also blogging, tweeting, and using social media and other digital tools to affect learning (yours and your students). Your work has modeled a thoughtful web presence for students, administration, parents, etc., and shows both the collective commitment to student success and the diversity of teacher interests or approaches to learning. Sometimes it is easy to think that your website or digital activity is mainly for yourself. That's not a bad place to start, but your students eventually pick up what you are doing and saying, and if you keep at it there are rewards, often unexpected, in terms of your student's total development and experience in school. Parents and other educators also see what you are doing -- your web activity forms a narrative of your professional development and extends your impact beyond the classroom.

Specifically, I'd like to express appreciation for the sites you've linked up at http://www.dpts.sd57.bc.ca/index.php?id=3393

Addie - thoughtful site, clean design, great level of detail for a new endeavour, links and positive messages appropriately aimed at her AltEd audience and parents, investment of teacher identity in the site -- Judy's ability to care for others shines through on this site (uses Google sites)

Balazs - at least his second complete rewrite of his web world, very practical, lets his awesome blogs do the heavy lifting (good choices and worth the visit), has been proactive with communication to parents about/during job action. Frank has replaced blinding colour with muted ones and has a great blend of different learning technologies in place (uses Firstclass sites)

Barnett - has a start and is being economical, in true biology fashion he has found a efficient niche by making it easy for students to find their marks (uses Firstclass hosting with a Microsoft product?)

Chow - perfect simple presentation of teacher identity and Chow's sense of humour... what better than a chemistry joke? (uses Firstclass sites)

Connell - very welcoming and places a high value on clear communication with parents and students -- calendar of class activities is updated and links to lesson handouts complete with teacher notes... this is a practical example of extending rich classroom learning into "blended" environments -- effective use of web and tablet technology (uses MIcrosoft web product?)

Doherty - it is easy to see the teacher's passion for the subject on this attractive site. There is something here for everyone -- parents, other educators, and students, including class handouts, powerpoint notes, and marks (uses iWeb)

Forrest - has a great start, happy colours and link that works to updated course marks. This simple function is often the first step on the journey. (uses Firstclass sites)

Ganner - safety first, and pictures of exemplary student projects are a respectful way to link to course expectations for students -- very clear guide to course outcomes, expectations, and assessment (uses MIcrosoft web product?)

Hannigan - beautiful front page and "about" section, like a true musician the parts that are ready for "performance" are refined and inspiring, online marks are working and I'm looking forward to the rest of the symphony getting composed (uses iWeb)

Hicks - off to an authentic and colourful start (pink! who guessed?), the use of a calendar to keep students up to date is a good idea (uses Google sites)

Jandric - this is just one Sandra's pages, and she has used the new digs to do what she does best -- find relevant reading for students, model the kind of curiousity and willingness to try she looks for in others, and create opportunities for students to find themselves. Like Sandra and the library itself, her site is welcoming, student-oriented, and totally unique (uses Firstclass sites)

Klein - She had a wonderful iWeb site and she is starting fresh with a new site... just a marks link and a photo so far, but the photo speaks powerfully about the kind of opportunities our kids have in band (uses Firstclass sites)

Kondratuk - the marks are linked, and the commitment is made to add content and build a presence -- that's how it begins, and we're glad you've done it (uses Firstclass sites)

Leitch - the site mirrors all the great things about Ian: passion for relevant outcomes in all areas of life, humour and originality, connecting oneself to one's learning, dispensing with formality, critical thinking and questioning as the root of all learning, and a tremendous respect for the students. The site hasn't been updated for a while and yet still has gems that draw attention from around the province (uses iWeb)

Macfarlane - there was a lot of thought put into this site, many decisions about what was important to put out there for students. The result is a celebration of student work, clarity about what students can expect, access to marks, and simplicity of "being" - fashion and fitness... these are the reasons why they take the course, and this is what they will achieve if they succeed (uses iWeb)

Mcinnis-Ryan - Like Susan she is starting fresh after a successful iWeb page and has wisely placed the Bard in a prominent location. This simultaneously announces that the muse is in the house, ready to inspire more web development, and also that your teacher loves literature and wants to share this with you (uses Firstclass sites)

McRae - Continuing on Rita's theme, Karen's muse in none other than Einstein. To me this suggests that Math education is founded on creativity and deep understanding. The site is a shortcut to marks, and is a practical start that will be appreciated by students (uses Firstclass sites)

Meier - Grad 2012 news and forms, course info, and marks -- this is why students will go there and this is what they will get. The picture is a curious one and offers a promise that Science and Physics seeks to unpack difficult concepts (uses Firstclass hosting with a Microsoft product?)

Orydzuk - I like the invitation... if you can't find what you are looking for, talk to me... what a great way to allow the users to tell indicate what needs to be built next. As an art teacher, one can imagine she found her way into these website colours the way one might picks clothes to wear in the morning... great combos and no doubt will be fluid and resonant with Jeanette's tenor each time she edits. One of the most impressive parts is that the weekly activities are totally up to date (uses Firstclass sites)

Randrup - I'm glad this is here, for it shows how the share folder can be used. You've come across these before on the internet, directories of information that give us a glimpse of exactly what the author meant to share, a look into the window of the teacher's work. I like that both semesters are archived, as students and parents often want to take a look back at what went well or what didn't long after the courses are done (uses public_html sharing)

Riches - like Kirstin, Linda uses the Debian share folder to get the message out... a place to share student projects at key times of the year that meet the criteria for web publication. This form of sharing makes it simple to give parents and students access to something they need without too much trouble for the teacher. In Linda's case, it also suggests that the really cool stuff, the powerful learning and the transformative experiences that students will have in her classes are hard-earned, embodied & tied to what happens in a safe place, and not easily recreated on the web (uses public_html sharing)

Thielmann - this behemoth has taught me that it is often possible to grasp for something that is practically out of reach, but it comes with a cost... too much time invested and hard to change something of this size (another site that resembles its owner). The webriver is more like a lake these days -- much of the content has been revised only by necessity, but reflects the digital flotsam that comes from all around my time as teacher (uses Dreamweaver)

Wadson - classic Patty colours and a good set-up for her website goals. Science 8 and Badminton make great use of embedded videos, and the marks are set up for both semesters. The most prominent message is an invitation to dialogue -- please email me with any questions (uses Firstclass sites)

Wells - links straight to a blog, what a great idea as this tool is by nature dynamic and interactive. Homework links to another technology - schoolnotes - and the travel link to yet another - google pages. The colours, art, blog photo choices, and font are all creative and wild... just like Denee. Her posts are extremely varied and show both her own professional learning and a deep respect for multi-modal literacy (uses Blogger and others)

There are some many other ways you all make a difference, keep it up. I really hope to see all of our staff visibly online in one way or another over the next year. It does not need to be complicated or compromise your privacy, and you'll be surprised what you get out of it. Just talk to Sandra if you want your web work linked to the school site.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Peace and Remembrance, the Tight Rope


I wrote about this last year, about respect for the war dead, and thought I'd update my thoughts. It didn't really occur to me until recently, but I've been walking a tightrope of sorts for the last 15 years as a teacher, balancing my belief that war is evil with the reality of sacrifice shown by veterans.

Growing up in a home with Anabaptist/Mennonite cultural background and beliefs, I was attracted to the peace theology of the Mennonite church. I had sense of the sacrifices my ancestors made to stand apart from the senseless violence and warfare that accompanied their sojourns in Europe for 400 years. More directly, both of my grandfathers were conscientious objectors. My mom's dad Johann Enns, with many of his brethren in Russia during WWI, was able to do alternate service at forestry camps in Siberia. He returned in time to endure the Russian Revolution. The Mennonite families experienced starvation under war communism as the Red Army soldiers came by to steal their food. The families suffered theft, murder, and rape at the hands of Makhno's bands of so-called anarchists. The White Army used the presence of German-speaking "colonists" to justify invasion. Most Mennonites bunkered down, prepared to flee, and (in a few cases) offered some armed resistance. Every combatant probably felt they had just cause to carry out war, some were simply bloodthirsty and willing to use death and chaos to force change. My Enns grandparents lost 2 children to poverty-related illnesses in Russia before scraping together the fare to escape to Canada. They arrived in 1924; the windswept prairies must have been visually similar to their home town of Dolinsk on the steppes of Russia, but different in most every other way. I can only imagine my grandfather's thoughts as he stepped off the CPR in Southern Saskatchewan, knowing not a word of English, and considered that this could be a landscape free from fear. In some ways this was a hard-earned freedom, purchased with lives, but Canada in the 1920s was not what we would call a tolerant society. My grandparents had one good crop year in 1928, and then experienced a new set of hardships in the forms of drought and the Great Depression.

My other grandfather Gerhard Thielmann was a conscientious objector in Alberta during WWII, exempted from service to continue farming his land. He, too, endured WWI and the Revolution in Russia as a child, and was given food and aid by the Mennonite Central Committee, allowing him to escape starvation and be the only member of his family of 8 kids to make passage to Canada, a skinny 17-yr-old tagging along with some neighbours and hoping to eventually secure his family's safe passage to Canada. Stalin closed the Soviet borders and his family never made it. After marriage and children and the Great Depression, he split his farming time with teaching and preaching, some of which undoubtedly focused on the practice of peace. He preached in German and English for many years; I still have many of his oldest books with underlined passages, mostly English phrases he sought to understand deeply, and many of his early sermon notes written impenetrably in German with fine ink in Gothic script. I may have set aside some of my Mennonite past and beliefs, but the legacy of peace and the cultural memory of a people who were pursued by violence for hundreds of years is still strong.

This heritage is often in stark contrast to the history of my wife's family, steeped in military service, and the stories my students provide about their ancestors who fought in and suffered through various wars. Their narratives are equally riveting, and rooted in authentic service to deeply held beliefs. It is hard to argue with the sincerity in an 18-yr-old's face as he heads off for the European theatre in 1940, or the letter written home describing rations, travels, and lack of sleep. Or the medals and photos from a Canadian peacekeeper, now deceased, the father of one of my students. These and many other war artifacts are coming in and out of my class these days with the student's heritage projects, and have given many of them a profound connection to what will come up in the school Remembrance day ceremony that will be starting in a few minutes. I'll walk the tightrope into the ceremony, still not exactly sure how I feel about the memory part of why we are there. Being a soldier, especially in the distant past, is not by itself a cause for honour, for they have been the witting or unwitting instruments of horror throughout human history, and their needs to be some shame attached to needless bloodletting. There is nonetheless honour in sacrifice, and a need to dwell on the grief born by the families of war dead, casualties, and affected veterans, a need to focus on healing. Do we honour those who took up arms or those who suffer because of war? Is it just about the dead, with judgement suspended on the killers? What measure of shame do we bring to the warmongers and the use of murder as a political tool? Is this still primarily about WWI and other western conflicts or do we shed light on the myriad other conflicts that have plagued the last century, some of which continue today? Canada has usually set a good example for the world, and I'd like to think military service here is more about alleviating suffering and promoting justice than it is about oil or money or unresolved differences. The great-grandparents of my students knew about sacrifice, and some of them gave up their lives for their family, for values of freedom, and perception of what their country required of them. It is enough for me to respect that, but the ideal of peace has to float midst these thoughts, the knowledge that war is a failure of humanity, a destroyer of families, and not something to be celebrated or define our national values. My students will build their own understanding; among them are peacekeepers, heros, martyrs, and proud warriors stretching back over hundreds of years; they have inspired awe and fascination in their descendants.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

A little hymn book

Hailey brought in more artifacts today as part of her heritage inquiry for Social Studies 10, a yearbook from PGSS 1988, where her mom went -- my dad was a teacher there so she wanted to show the picture (apparently I'm looking more like him these days). She had a book of nautical engineering that was given to her (great?)grandfather before going off to WWII.  One can imagine him looking through the book with the horrific backdrop of the war.  He went on to invent many things and register patents... according to Hailey he invented the ping-pong ball and improved the tennis ball. The other cool thing, plucked from a shelf in her basement, was a little leather-bound hymn book. We found the background online and figured out it is the 1780 edition of John Wesley's Methodist hymn book, so it was published some time between then and when the 1876 version came out. The first few pages are missing so it is hard to tell which printing, but it is definitely the earlier edition and appears to be on acid-free paper. We gathered some students and teachers around , and talked about what we were holding and looking at.  This little book was carried to church, carried around, a source of comfort (probably) and also a reflection of faith, theology, values, etc. for her ancestors. This one came from England, but one can imagine many Methodist pioneers in Upper Canada using the same book. But more specifically, more intimately, the holder of the book spent more time on certain hymns as evidenced by worn pages, pencil marks, and ancient finger smudges. It is a reasonable guess to assume that these hymns represented the aspirations, doubts, concerns, and reassurances that would have been very important to her family. Or maybe it belonged to teenager who opened up to the same spot every time he was told to look busy! She didn't know about any of this a week ago (e.g. like the Admiral Nelson story), and she says she goes home these days and brings out the laptop and is trying to figure out these people, places, and ideas and start to fill in the details. The power of a little book worn ragged by a distant hand... in the absence of journals and such, how often do we get a glimpse into the minds of our ancestors? Again, wow... I want the clock to stop so we can dwell in these stories for longer than one hour at a time.

video

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Stories keep breaking like waves on the shore

where Beatrix Potter bought her tinned veggies and tea
I am astounded at how many of my students are learning basic history about their background for the very first time. The conversations that are opening up at home sound very interesting... neutral ground for some of my students to talk to semi-estranged parents or realize that their step-mom's family background has a direct relationship to the kind of values and parenting skills used now, etc. etc. There have been some powerful, awkward, messy stories involving residential school survival and the impact of colonization, and lots of research dead-ends that are that way for a reason. Today, though, was about classic history... Hailey has waited patiently to show me an album and share the family stories she is discovering. Her background seems mainly British, and her grandmother who lives here in Prince George has kept great records. One of the pictures (shown above) is her family's old store in Windermere, UK that was frequented by Beatrix Potter. We've been seeing incredible photos this week, including daguerrotypes going back to the early history of photography. The artifacts in granny's house, though, were what really got us intrigued. One is a tiny worn leather-bound bible or such, maybe old enough to be alkaline paper pre-1800 - she may bring it in tomorrow. Another is a small wooden chest, curly maple with brass strapping. It belonged to the William Beatty, the chief surgeon for Admiral Nelson during the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. He is tied to Hailey's family tree and the box, which looks almost new, has passed down the line and has ended up in our backwoods city in northern BC. What other treasures are hidden here? A movie has been made about Beatty and the surgeon's perspective from the lower decks of the HMS Victory, including the treatment of the injured and dying Lord Nelson.