Monday, September 30, 2013

And now for something completely different

This September has been the most unique for me in at least a decade.

I've jumped into an inquiry-based, blended learning program designed for Grade 11 students, a cross-curricular "interrogation" of the BC Edplan combining English 11 and Geography 12. I've called it the Language & Landscape Program and our focus is on imaginative storytelling within the context of environmental themes. My cohort of 28 students is yoked to me for the entire morning all semester long, but we've broken this up into lectures & lessons, student-led Groups, teacher-facilitated Seminars, and independent "Flex Time." Between big projects, "embodied" knowing, writing workshops, lit circles, and building of "geographies" is some place-based learning, too, meaning we have some great field trips planned to local physical and cultural landscapes.

I've also started a new afternoon job as the district teachers' association Professional Development coordinator. Aside from weighing applications for conference travels, managing a fund, chairing a committee, and planning a big conference in Spring, I get to talk with many educators about their plans for professional learning and help make connections to colleagues, presenters, and support time. Part of this is formal (e.g. district's mentoring program, setting up workshops and min-conferences) and some of it is informal -- conversations, visits, phone calls, emails, and social media.

Some career novelty for sure -- a good fit for where I'm at after 17 years teaching. I can feel the pressure I've put on myself for getting the most out of the morning and the afternoon each day (e.g. I can feel it in the form of insomnia!), but I'm loving the student learning that is taking place in the Language & Landscape program and loving the connections I'm making with educators about their professional learning. When the patterns settle out and new becomes familiar once again, I'm hoping I get the sleep part back. Work-life balance has never been an easy one for me, but it certainly helps when the work is dynamic and fulfilling.

The image above, if you don't recognize it, is from Monty Python's Flying Circus, the masters of "something completely different."

Friday, September 13, 2013

Book Talk

For the first seminar in the new Language & Landscape program, I invited our dedicated teacher-librarian to do her amazing book talk for my students as an introduction to a discussion on literacy, book memories, and social media. The way we've set up this inquiry-based, blended learning program gives us one morning each week for Seminar Time - two 80 minute sessions with 14 students each,  a chance to check in on the week's learning, unpack & discuss the focus questions, and do "formative rounds" -- mutual accountability in a safe circle (ok, I just made that up but that's actually what we will move towards). If you're wondering, the 14 that are not in seminar at any given time are provided with some choice as to what to do (e.g. ongoing projects, online work set up in advance, consuming various media resources that have been "flipped" from the lessons). A computer lab is open to them during this time, although some choose to work elswhere.

Anyways, like many lessons that don't turn out the way the teacher plans (but actually go better), this one started with a design for a free-wheeling discussion on a number of topics. What we got instead was a 75 minute tour through young adult fiction from our librarian Ms Jandric. She had a cart full of books, a laptop and sign-out wand, and an incredible knowledge of what students read and what they might want to read next. She spoke to the angst and dreams and life-lessons behind the titles, and probed the students to articulate what they liked reading and why. She has a gift at this, the ability to use thoughtful conversation to match books to students who walk in our "Learning Commons" (fancy for library).

Here are just a few of the titles she paraded through our midst, each one with brief description and an "identity question" to hook the students:

Room by Emma Donoghue
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Harvesting the Heart by Jodi Picoult
I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak
Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham
City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
... lots of fantasy, these ones sell themselves for those already into the genre

The students seemed too quiet to me, something I mistook for reticence but was in fact a respectful patience... they were listening intently, placing themselves in the position of a reader. This is "identity work" -- it often means having an instant empathy for a main character, in this case based solely on the librarian's stirring invitation and what other students had to say about the books. When Ms. Jandric stopped, they jumped on the books, and after two Seminars, about 24 out of 28 had a book they were excited to read. I thought is was cool that our French exchange student happened to be reading The Help translated into French, so the English version was a natural pick for her. The librarian, naturally, will follow up on the other four, never willing to be stumped by students who can'd find a book they like.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

BCED Funding

The other day I came across an article by B.C. political journalist Keith Baldrey about the ongoing bargaining between BCPSEA the Liberal Government and the two main employee groups (BCTF and CUPE). In the middle are the school boards, both the elected trustees (who provide some advocacy and accountability for the local and provincial school system), and the senior staff in school districts (who make most of the decisions about how budgets are spent and programs implemented).  One sentence in Baldrey's article stuck out for me:
"Of course, school trustees can make a fair case that the system is inadequately funded, since every year they grapple with escalating cost pressures such as MSP premiums, inflation, pension adjustments, etc. [emphasis mine]"
I tweeted to Keith Baldrey about the etc. in his article, with the suggestion that the list behind the etc. could be quite long. I followed up with an email and he was kind enough to include some of it in a Surrey Now follow-up article.

Here's the extended context...

Our school districts, especially in the north, face growing inflationary costs & the impacts of funding formula changes for bus transportation, building heat & electricity, and carbon offsets that do not respect the age or condition of our buildings, many of which were designed for warmer climates and lack proper insulation. The pressure to maintain adequate services for rural schools factors into this, too. Other districts face sizeable costs for seismic upgrades and new technology. These are just the start of the unfunded downloads on schools.

While no two districts are alike, we have also seen a sharp increase in the amount of vulnerable, at-risk & special designation students in our classroom, coupled with downloaded parenting costs such as meals programs, after-school supervision, and community transitions/support programs designed to develop basic skills and maintain safety of kids. While this shows our system has heart (which it should), it results in more complex school and classroom composition issues that we typically resolve by hiring more support teachers, educational assistants, Ab-Ed workers, transition workers, psychologists, etc. We already snatch from the money generated from diagnosed special needs students to pay for students who have undiagnosed special needs (e.g. need learning assistance time), and there never seems to be enough money to keep up with demand for diagnosis. Compounding this is the trend towards niche schools (where "respectable" parents send their kids) and more public funds for private schools -- this shifts more costly students (the ones that need extra supports) to the public schools that still service neighbourhoods. Let alone the learning difficulties, the amount of toxic stress in our "inner city" schools and some of our alternative programs is quite stunning; our passionate and justified response to these kids in need has edged into the territory that has traditionally been funded by Ministry of Health and Ministry of Children & Family Development.

The Ministry's BC Ed Plan comes with many challenges for schools to rethink use of technology and learning resources, timetables and calendars, style of learning and reconfiguration of school space. These intentions incur costs that are not funded by the Ministry of Education, such as the infrastructure upgrades to internet pipes and wifi systems necessary to handle wide-spread use of "bring your own technology/device" (BYOD). While the Ministry has committed to an upgrade to the BCED system's ISP (PLNet), internal costs in schools are not covered. The desire to see a "smartboard in every classroom" (some districts are already there) is a pricy proposition, too. For some reason, the BC Ed Plan has not been publicly costed; in fact many see it as a way to save money -- I guess the view is that creative and collaborative students will need less educational services. The reality is that any significant change has costs associated and risks failure if funding does not match commitment.

In the olden days student data management systems were very cheap, but then we got BCeSIS, a multi-million dollar boondoggle. It's time is up, but the proposed new AspenESIS looks to be no less expensive (but hopefully works better). The Saanich School District has developed an alternative system (OpenStudent) for about 1/10th the cost... but it does not have the Ministry's official blessing. Too bad, this could save a district like hundreds of thousands per year (if it works, that is). We are also scheduled for a total curriculum overhaul in the next year or two. In the past, curriculum changes were introduced for single subjects and spread over many years, and accompanied with inservice (curriculum implementation funds). They needed to be done this way due to costs such as new textbooks and the reality of displacing years of teacher prep and introducing new outcomes. Incidentally, we we not even close to being ready for e-texts -- our tech systems/culture, restrictions on tablet purchases (in our district anyways), and the licensing/tracking issues make this option unobtainable at the present, despite what the Ministry might see as best practices. Worth piloting or experimenting with, though. But the current "total" ed reform and curriculum change will be swift and completely unfunded. No doubt the Ministry wishes for us to take money from our paltry Pro-D funds to cover these costs.

When districts face pressures like these, it is no wonder that corporate partnerships, cash-cow international programs, and hiding program cuts within budget jargon look more appealing to school board staff. Our board, to some extent, has been aware of these issues and has tried to be open about the challenges we face, so my comments are not meant as any kind of criticism of what is happening locally. We've had surpluses for the last few years and the only budget arguments at the board level seem to be about how to spend them. It is still a mystery to me how there can be unresolved surplus spending discussions at one level but unfulfilled needs at most other levels in a school district. I suspect it is because providing care and education for our vulnerable students is a financial black hole -- no matter what we spend the problems will still be profound. This is also one of the reasons why the BCTF advocates for poverty reduction strategies and why our whole system has a focus on improving Aboriginal achievement -- eliminating poverty would transform education.

Anyways, I'm off to make sure my kids' backpacks have school supplies to add to the classroom stock and the cheques to cover "transportation fees" and "cultural activity fees."  It looks like my wife and I are doing our part to help fund the school system, too!

Glen Thielmann