Saturday, February 27, 2016

On That Time I Fell and Hurt My Head

I fell on ice a few days ago. My feet were swept clear out from under me, and apparently I injured my brain. At the hospital, they said it's either a migraine or a concussion, and since I don't have a history of migraines, and since I wiped out earlier that day, it's probably a concussion. The lack of conviction in the diagnosis was a bit unnerving. It sounded more like a guess than a judgment, but I guess I have to go with it.

It's like that time I had a plumber come when my basement was flooded, and he couldn't find a problem with the pipes, so he deduced that it was coming from outside and that I needed to make sure the ground sloped away from the house. But I was dubious because it hadn't rained in weeks, yet suddenly my basement had water. Together we found that the water softener hose had slipped out of the washtub. He duct-taped the hose to the inside of the tub and charged me a pretty penny for his detective work. The hospital trip felt a lot like that.

It worried me right away when the emergency nurse insisted I sit at one of those machines you see at an optometrist's office, because she kept motioning me to the doctor end of the machine. "Have a seat! Sit down there. Yes, THERE!" Had I remained in place, the doctor would have been resting his weary head on the little chin rest, but I switched sides after she left the room. That kind of thing gives one pause.

ETA: I forgot the funniest part. I was in and out of emerg within 2 hours because I'm not just someone who fell, I'm a WOMAN OVER 50 who fell. They kept calling referring that way whenever I changed hands as if to further elucidate my frailty. But it got me to the front of the line.

My eyes are fine, and everything feels symmetrical, and I'm equally weak on both sides of my body, and I didn't even have much of a headache. My butt hurt way more than my head.  But it's still a bit of a challenge to read for any length of time. It's far, far easier to write. I can do it without looking much. Not reading anything or looking at a screen for three days is really, really boring. I tried just listening to The Office, but I was missing too many sight gags, so I admit to cheating a bit and peeking from time to time. At this point, four days in, nothing bothers me as long as I don't read.

Truth is, I forgot about wiping out by the time I got to school. I hadn't given it a second thought. It registered at all only because I had actually said, "Oof!" right out loud like they do in cartoons. I pride myself on falling with some measure of stoicism, particularly since I'm perpetually surrounded by students. But this was an exception. It knocked the wind out of me. I was wearing Docs, which are notoriously slippery, and it had just started freezing rain, so I was walking at a good clip instead of carefully. After it happened, a student across the street called out to see if I was okay, and I noticed others take to the uneven lawns instead of risking the smooth, hard cement of the sidewalks. Smart.

I even forgot that I had had a headache, and it wasn't until the admissions nurse asked if I had taken anything like Advil or Tylenol, that I remember I had taken BOTH shortly after getting to work. So, logically, I must have had a headache and treated it myself, then soldiered onwards ready to attack the day. I felt fine.

During my first class, I was showing a film, We Were Children. It's a haunting video about the horrors of child sexual assaults in the residential schools. I had previewed it and warned the students up and down, but one viewing was enough for me, so I busied myself with marking online. Except I struggled to see the words in a brief response paragraph. I could see them, but it was as if the right side was faded, and it didn't change if I covered my right or left eye. I had just gotten reading glasses, so I tried them too, but they made no difference. I started reading each word separately, and it felt like I was making some headway, but then I couldn't put all the words together to make sense of them. They were separate entities without connection to their neighbours.

I decided I was going blind, and it's curious how quickly I resign myself to tragedies. Decades ago, when my oldest was stung by a bee and her face started swelling up dramatically, I just stared at her, stunned and useless, until a neighbour happened by. Shoved in the back of her car, with my toddler in my lap, I remember thinking that it's nice that Mother Teresa had just died to help her on her way. You can take the girl out of the Catholic church...   Anyway, I had resigned myself to her death long before anyone had a chance to take her pulse, much less call it. But she recovered completely and life went on as before. I tried googling sudden blindness, but I could only read enough singular words to solidify my uneducated diagnosis. I would have to get a program to read to me and that could type what I dictate. I started wondering about the cost of such a thing, when there was a pause in the action of the film. It might be a good place to stop for the day.

I stood up and checked the clock at the back of the room to judge if it was a good time to stop and re-cap before the bell. But I couldn't seem to read the clock. Not being able to see words on a screen is one thing, but losing my vision entirely meant no more biking. That's a different kettle of fish, and I'm not sure I could afford whatever mechanics might be necessary to allow my life to continue as is. I sat back down and just waited for the bell to pause the film.

With the lights on like a stadium, and the next class filtering in, things got so much worse. I started explaining taxation - where the money comes from at each level and where it goes. It's something most kids don't really have their head around, so it's an important lesson. But the kids were confused. Except instead of typical comments like, "It's not fair they charge more taxes on cigarettes," they were saying, "What are you talking about?" and "What are you trying to say? You're not making any sense!" I told them I didn't know what I was saying, and I started to laugh. It was so bizarre. There were waves of light making their faces all woogley in my right field. It was like driving with a bright afternoon sun filtered through trees on the highway like a strobe light, and I felt the need to put my hand up to try to shield myself from the light. If someone had admitted to putting acid in my drinking water, I would have been so relieved! No such luck. I gave up on the lesson and handed out an assignment that typically takes significant instruction, but I had the handouts at the ready, so they'd have to muddle through on their own. Then I said I'd be right back, and I bolted for the office.

It occurred to me I should call the office for help, instead of deserting my class, but there was no way I could figure out the phone. It was a mystery to me.

I told our secretary that I thought I was having a migraine, which I had only heard of described like this, or maybe I had a pinched nerve or something weird, and she got me in to the VPs. I didn't tell them I was going blind. It seemed ridiculous, and saying it might somehow make it true. They turned off the lights, and I felt much better. After a few minutes, I could read and understand the clock in the room. They had the wherewithal to ask if I might have injured myself recently, and I told them about falling on the ice that morning. The one line I remember: "I don't think we can discount a possible connection between falling on the ice and what you're experiencing right now." Actually, he said it better than that (better meaning it made me laugh), but apparently there isn't even one line I can remember from that morning.

But I still don't entirely believe there's nothing wrong with my eyes. I mean, I believe it intellectually, but it's hard to take in entirely when it's so painful to look at things, and it's still an effort to read a string of words online.

But now I'm days behind on marking. Maybe tomorrow. I'm glad I can still think and write fluidly. This little exercise in descriptive writing was very encouraging - except when I tried to proof it.

I appreciate when I get to these times that have me resigned to a misfortune blown way out of proportion. I was okay with never writing anything significant or sensical again - maybe even not teaching again. I could have become that weird teacher who doesn't really make any sense but is absurdly hilarious and gives everyone 90s. And there's always taped books to listen to. But biking is more important to me than I had thought. There's just no substitute for that.

Monday, February 15, 2016

On Appropriation

I'm teaching First Nations in Canada this semester, and it's a bit of a challenge for me. I spent 7 years in school studying philosophy and social sciences - all from a western European point of view, so I feel confident teaching those subjects from that perspective, but I know little more about First Nations than what I've read in the paper and a few books (by John Ralston Saul and Charlie Angus). I have a general sense of the history, but I'm not up on the specifics of the treaties and the various groups that I feel I need to learn to do an adequate job. The last time I took a history course was when I was in grade ten. It'll be a busy semester, and I'll only be teaching it this once during a department transition.

The course is actually called Current Aboriginal Issues in Canada, but we looked at some articles on the first day that criticize the name, so I've changed the official title for our purposes. There's no history in the course description, but I can't imagine diving into current issues without looking at the background to each issue first, so I've added in some historical research, major tribes, languages, and locations circa 1490 to today (with a bit from 10000 BCE to 1490).

We started by looking at some stereotypes seen in media, and jumped on the "tribute" to the First Nations in the front hall of our very own school. A wooden figure was gifted to the school by graduates about 20 years ago, and it stays regardless some concerns with it. Here's what the description of it says:
"This statue is a compilation of various First Nations of Turtle Island. The breastplate, made of bone and bead is most commonly worn by the northern and central plains Nations such as the Lakota and Dakota people. They are often referred to by their language group, the Sioux. Likewise, the scalp lock seen here is not a Mohawk, but a "Pariki" or "horn." Pawnee is a derivation of Pariki and this Nation is found in the central plains and Oklahoma regions." 
First of all, when is creating an amalgamation of many different people ever a act of honour? To create something emblematic of my family, I'd make something that showed our similarities, or, if I wanted to show one interesting thing from each member, I'd make sure not leave anyone out.  Here three groups have to stand in for many different tribes. It's also curious that the depiction is of peoples far south of here rather than in honour of people of our region. The whole display make it seem like this is a foreign, alien group, so my class created our own version of an amalgamation of Europeans. We titled it, "Is This What Respect Looks Like?" and taped it right beside the statue, but it was quickly removed. Apparently it's offensive to stereotype people like that.

Our school teams are called "Raiders," and our school used to have a horribly offensive First Nations mascot which was pretty recently changed to a pirate. I don't understand why we're so married to "Raiders" though. A nearby school changed their teams from the Marauders to the Mustangs, so it's possible to change names. But not for us. At the time of finally letting go of the images, I suggested, if we must be Raiders, that we have a raccoon as a mascot. They raid things! I didn't win enough support. And, of course, shortly after the mascot change, Somali pirates started attacking ships in the Indian Ocean. Are we supposed to be encouraging the bravery and tenacity of pirates in our sports teams? It's not something I really understand at all.

I tried to embrace the change like a good stoic and get people on board to celebrate talk like a pirate day, but that didn't take off either. If we're going to do it, then can't we have some fun with it? Apparently I don't have much clout in these parts. But back to the course.

I decided to have students do a novel study which they'll present in a month. Because it's not an English class, they don't have to write a report on the novel; they're free to present in any way they like. Since it's sometimes hard for kids to think outside the box, I figured I'd read a book and present it in a non-essay format myself. I barrelled through Richard Wagamese's Indian Horse, then yesterday I painted a summary of the gut-wrenching book about an Ojibway boy's life, and I used art from a variety of Ojibway artists as inspiration for the depiction. But the whole time I wondered if I was in appropriation territory.

It made for a disjointed composition that doesn't work artistically - it's a weird mix of flattened images on a landscape - but it's useful to start a discussion on the story as it mirrors the painful clash of cultures. I interspersed quotations through select scenes to summarize the essence of the text. There's a little piece of it below to give you a sense of it, but I'm won't share more online.

I sourced the artists I imitated right on the painting, Norval Morrisseau, Jim Oskineegish, William Monague, Simone McLeod, and Christian Morrisseau, and I'll likely be painting over it after the course is over. I'd ditch it entirely except it got my 11-year-old daughter asking lots of questions. She had no idea about the residential schools and wondered why it's not taught in regular classes. She knows all about the holocaust because they all read Hana's Suitcase, but they read nothing about this Canadian holocaust. My piece is clearly effective as a way of teaching some of the issues in the story.

But even with the citations, it still feels a little wrong. In art classes we were often encouraged to copy the masters to get a feel for how to paint in a certain style. My house is full of my copies of Picasso, Matisse, and Rousseau. I obviously can't afford the originals, and I prefer paint on canvas to prints, and they're just for my purposes. I painted Three Musicians full size on my basement wall after seeing it for the first time. I don't feel any guilt over that. But it's not the same as copying a Morrisseau.

And I looked at student projects done in the past years of the course: pipes, longhouses, dream catchers, medicine wheels.... That really doesn't feel right. It's fun for kids to create, but...

Part of it is shocking ignorance. Some of the creations are re-creating something of honour as if it's a toy. Without intimate knowledge of the background and meaning behind artifacts, it's too easy to inadvertently offend. It's like if someone created a marker of our culture, but accidentally got the flag upside-down. It would be offensive to Canadians regardless the intention.

The goal is to amplify the voice of people who have been marginalized, to tell their stories without speaking for them. That can be tricky for a white teacher. Years ago I considered teaching The History of Mary Prince, but I was taken to task in an online forum for being a white girl who dares to teach a black story. So it went untaught. That's not the optimal solution either.

Perhaps it's best if I just supply the original material, add in some field trips and guest speakers, and summarize as little as possible.

So, why did I even paint the piece with a bit of the style of some Ojibway artists? I could have just depicted the scenes in my own style, but I wanted to add the flavour of the culture within the piece. I haven't studied the iconography the way I have with Byzantine art, for instance, but I did research each of the artists and where they're from to ensure they have a connection to the storyline. But I'll keep that final product within a small circle of my six students where we can discuss my internal struggle as well.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

On Command F: a Bittersweet Function

I tell my students of the magic of "command F" on Macs and "control F" on PCs. This F function key, that can find a word or phrase anywhere in the text, is a game-changer when hunting for the best quotation or for that juicy bit of information or when searching through lines of code to add a fancy new feature to a blog. But it has a dark side.

Now when I try to skim through a hard-copy document, like a book, I grow impatient with the task. If I suddenly realize the brilliant acuity of a passage a few pages back, it's painful to have to skim over what I've already read to find it. Sure I can try to laugh it off, ignore that irritating feeling, and persist. But that niggling feeling continues to torment my brain, hampering my focus, and making it even more difficult to skim with any skill. This is a skill I was once lauded for (perhaps owing to my scarcity of abilities). Now I get grumbly after a few pages, and, after a few more, I desperately want to relinquish the pursuit. It takes a steely resolve now to do something I used to do effortlessly. It could be as time-consuming as always, but the effort is marred with the knowledge that there is an easier way.

More than two millennia ago, Socrates warned against putting words in print because those new-fangled books would destroy the memories - and hence the minds - of the populous. Without exercising our minds by demanding more and more of their talents, they'll atrophy. Current brain science concurs, and my anecdote adds further evidence to the pile. If we stop doing a task as often, the pathways in our brain get sluggish, and we can no longer do the task as well.
“As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit…the chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons progam us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they’ve formed. Once we’ve wired new circuitry in our brain…’we long to keep it activated.’ That’s the way the brain fine-tunes its operations. Routine activities are carried out ever more quickly and efficiently, while unused circuits are pruned away....“If we stop exercising our mental skills…we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead….the possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains. That doesn’t mean that we can’t, with concerted effort, once again redirect our neural signals and rebuild the skills we’ve lost. What is does mean is that the vital paths in our brains become…the paths of least resistance” (34-35).
It sometimes feels like we're left with two options: either we improve the technology so we never need our brains to do such a menial task again (a command F-bot for print), or we avoid the technology, or at least avoid reliance on the technology, in order to strengthen our brain's ability to attack that text and prevent skills from being 'pruned away.' It seems like a no-brainer to take up the technology for all it's worth but for the loss of our sense of industry and usefulness.

It makes me worry a bit about self-driving cars. Will we all become incompetent drivers, or perhaps more incompetent is appropriate here? But then again, will it even matter if that skill becomes obsolete? Maybe it's better if we don't have to learn to pay attention to the road. Our car can takes us to work and home without commanding our attention so we can pay for all our stuff we bought online during our daily commute!

But then, what about sex robots? Will we become a culture annoyed with the incompetence of a human partner when we could have the accuracy and effortlessness of a sex toy that never demands a turn? Are we already impatient with imperfection?

I'm glad that books grew to be commonplace, and I spend no time lamenting my inability to remember epic tales in detail. Maybe in 2,000 years, if we're still here and still have enough resources for advances in technology, we'll think it funny that people ever used birth control or fertility drugs or prostitutes when they could have just had sex with programmable machines without all the hassles. And why be concerned with our ability to find information in a book when we can likely find the book online (or put it online ourselves) and then let the computer skim for us?

Self-efficacy.

Our ability to hone skills is tied to our feelings of self-worth. If we have fewer skills that matter, then we won't matter. Students will stop coming to me to find a specific quote in a lengthy essay and show delight with how quickly I can do it. They won't need my help. We might laud independence to our detriment. I have a friend who can rhyme off the birthdays of every person she knows, but facebook notifications have already rendered her skill redundant. And car-chases will no longer draw a crowd to a film like these:



(They always leave out a favourite:)




The loss of an ability to give pleasure to one another could be the most profound disruption to our culture. Honing personal skills that are exclusively developed to suit the particular taste of one other person enhances a recognition and knowledge of the other in a depth that conversation merely skims. A robot could be programmed to hit the mark perfectly every time, but this is a classic case of the perfect being enemy of the good. And it's never as simple and universal as it's presented in media:




Obviously skill-destroying technology is not always an all or nothing situation nor is it always a problem.  I can't remember any friends' phone numbers or e-mail addresses any more because I don't have to, but I'm happy I no longer have any use for a washboard besides possibly in a rhythm section of a band. How soon before we all forget skills and later deeply regret their loss? It might be useful to consider how necessary each piece technology is to our lives relative to how useful the eroding skills may be to our sense of self-worth.


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Cold Calls in the Classroom

I do it, sort of. I don't call on kids who don't have their hands up generally, but I do evaluate their level of understanding through classroom discussion, one way to better triangulate marks between products created, observations, and conversations. And I often make lingering eye-contact with kids who haven't spoken up in a while. I don't do it because of the new policy, but for other reasons. It livens up the class if it's not just me talking. It ensures that students stay focused. And discussing and debating in class can help students remember the course content.

I let students know that I often start classes with easy questions about the previous day, which allows quieter, well-prepared students the option to get something out at the start when others are still shuffling papers and the focus on the speakers is diminished. Once they talk a little, though, even if it's because they feel they have to, it seems to open a door a crack for more comments during the meatier discussions.

Doug Lemov, in a Guardian article, agrees:
"...teachers need to maximise the amount of thinking and learning going on in their classroom at any one time, and to ensure that this effort is widely distributed. Take “cold calling”. Instead of asking a question of the class and then picking a hand, you call on a student regardless of whether they have raised their hand. It sounds too simple to be significant. But, to use one of Lemov’s favourite phrases, cold calling is “a small change that cascades.” Cold calling enables the teacher to check on the level of learning of any student in the class; it keeps the pace of the lesson high, because the teacher no longer has to wait for volunteers; it makes the teacher look more authoritative. Crucially, it increases the amount of thinking going on in the classroom at any one time because everyone knows the next question might be for them."
As a student, I had an Animal Learning prof who did a daily once-around with a different question for each student. It was nerve-wracking, but I learned the content of the course effortlessly. We couldn't not pay attention. In terms of effective teaching, it worked. In another class, a well-meaning, young prof lectured without demanding much student response. We could relax and were free to zone out at will. Then a guest-speaker came in for a class, and she made sure she heard every student speak once. It's the only lesson I remember. I can't even picture the original prof's face.

However, in his most recent post, Alfie Kohn refers to these tactics as "bullying." He suggest that the practice,
"...is so fundamentally disrespectful of students that I'd be disinclined to take advice about anything from someone who endorsed it. . . . a teacher is basically saying, 'It appears you'd rather not contribute to the discussion right now, but I don't care about your preference and I'll use my power to force you to contribute.' If this isn't disrespectful, then that word has no meaning. . . . The goal is to produce a certain observable behavior; the experience of the student - his or her inner life - is irrelevant."  
He recognizes the problems with 20% of the class talking and the remainder silent, but maintains that the right to refuse to participate is paramount. And then he ends his essay with an odd hope that we'll all learn to use "self-governing conversation" in which no student feels the need to raise their hands, but they take turns without being mediated.

I'm not convinced students talking without raising hands is in any way preferable to having a monitor of some sort choose hands roughly in the order they were raised or in a way that allows all voices to be heard. It feels friendlier without, but even among friends, if there are enough of us in a room having a heated debate, we'll start raising out hands because it's a useful way to make sure we're all heard. I generally am the "caller of names" during discussions, but students are quick to let me know if I've missed someone's hand. They have a keen sense of equity. Raising hands makes the conversation faster and more equitable with an attentive monitor who ensures nobody dominates.

But I also want to address an underlying premise in Kohn's piece, that being uncomfortable or anxious in class is necessarily a bad thing - or a brutal thing by his estimation. Allowing shy students to avoid ever speaking in class reinforces their fear of speaking in front of people. It seems nice in the short term, but in the long run they're accommodated to their own detriment. Like playing piano and learning multiplication table, sometimes we have to be made to do things we don't want to do, but it does get easier the more we actually do it.


Tuesday, February 9, 2016

On Unions and Boycotts

The elementary schools in our board have decided to boycott the local paper because one columnist has been known to take a decidedly negative view of teachers. So a local MPP, Michael Harris, petitioned Sandals, the Education Minister, to... I'm not really sure what he wants her to do. But he wrote her a letter telling on the teachers.

First of all, I'm not in favour of the boycott. I think there are many forms of media, even other local papers, to be use in the classroom, and the kids won't suffer from the boycott. That's not the problem. I don't agree with refusing to listen to dissenting opinions, poorly argued or otherwise, nor do I agree with modelling that behaviour to students. I've exchanged words with this columnist before, and it was certainly in bad taste for her to call teachers "boneheads" who were "using kids as human shields" when we stopped running extra-curriculars to protest a government-imposed contract with clauses that allowed alterations to be made without further negotiations - basically dismantling workers' rights entirely. And it didn't help her cause when that "human shields" line was still hanging in the air a few weeks later during the Sandy Hook shooting. But I'll still read her column - even if only to get my blood pumping in the morning.

If we're going to collectively boycott something in our schools, we should make it something that causes longterm harm to our kids, like cigarettes or bottled water or the mountains of Tim's cups in the trash or single-sided handouts from the board office.

Secondly, what the hell? Is Harris hoping Sandals will tell teachers what they're allowed to read in the classroom? The boycott isn't going to prevent students from learning about local issues. There are few news stories in The Record that can't be found in The Star a day earlier, and kids can read about LRT-induced road closures online. But I'm curious what legislation he's hoping could be imposed to prevent acts from offending him in future.

What's really bugging me, however, is Harris's suggestion that it was inappropriate for the "union to direct its members" thusly. The union doesn't dictate what members do; the union is made up of the members. Decisions are a matter of majority rule after significant discussion among representatives from each school. OSSTF decided against supporting the boycott after a lengthy discussion and a vote by representatives from each school in the region. The union runs in a similar manner to parliament except that union reps have no reason to ignore their constituents in favour of party politics. Reps don't get extra pay to attend meetings, nor are we basking in glory for our efforts. We're voted in but often by acclamation such are the perks.

Suggesting that the union directs members to strike or work-to-rule or boycott is similar to suggesting that our government dictatorially directs the people towards actions beyond their will, but even less the case. For serious issues, like strike votes, members are offered as much information as they can manage, their questions answered in as much depth as possible, and then they vote without any effort to sway them to one side or another. It's an automatic referendum. For smaller issues, the reps vote as a typical MP might vote in the House. If we don't like the decisions the government makes, we can vote them out. And if a member doesn't like the way the union votes on a decision, change is as simple as offering to replace one of your school's reps. Come on down!

Finally, a word on bias. One letter to the editor suggests, "we are all biased in what we think." I've seen bias used in this context increasingly, but there's a difference between an opinion and a biased opinion. A biased opinion is conceived before or outside of facts; it's a prejudiced idea. It presents an argument that leaves out important information, skews details, uses loaded terms, and/or misrepresents idea. We can have a strong opinion for or against something without being biased, without being led by emotionally-driven appeals instead of facts and data. Bias isn't necessarily the case as long as we keep thinking.


Sunday, February 7, 2016

On Student Stress

I've been teaching long enough to have watched a generation of students file passed me. It's fascinating from a social science standpoint because I can watch trends evolving before my eyes. And, being a bit of a hoarder, I've kept everything I've used and all my marks along the way, so I feel like I have a good handle on changes in this population. And they are stressed out like never before.

To get my Challenges of Change kids in the head space of demographic changes in general, I talked to them about why stress has increased for teenagers, and this is what we came up with.

The first suggestion was that there's just too much work to do. But my many binders of old curriculum show the opposite. In my classes over the past 25 years, I've given progressively less work. The exams from my early career are significantly more focused on nit-picky details and few would be able to pass them today. They were also significantly longer, one requiring two opinion essays in half an hour! Now, I might give one opinion essay in an hour - four times the earlier duration. And I couldn't imagine implementing the standards of yore. So, from my anecdotal evidence (and that of colleagues), the stress level is higher with a diminished workload. How does that happen?

Then they offered that they need higher marks to get into university now. Students used to need a 67% to get into a general arts program, and now they need an 82%. Ah, BUT all the marks really are higher across the board. It's not the case that there are higher expectations, but that mark inflation has been acknowledged by the universities. My averages in courses used to be in the mid to high 60s (everyone's were), and now they are consistently in the low 80s. So, generally speaking, university admittance seems to correlate with high-school course averages. They're still just taking the top half of the group. If things keep going in this direction, one day we could have to take it to one decimal point, with all students in the 99% range, and 99 point what? being the indicator of excellence.


And then they started to get at what's really changed over the decades:

Social media has changed everything. Absolutely. One problem raised is that kids today are surrounded by negativity. Instead of being personally shared with close friends, every negative thought or worry is shared and circulated with multitudes. I added the corollary, that they also see people who seem to effortlessly succeed at everything. There's a sense that we're missing out on the good life. And on top of those two factors, there's the time it all takes. If we did a time audit on how long kids actually spend on homework compared to how much time they shift to texting, facebook, twitter, instagram, tumblr, games, and online shopping, I think we might find that students don't spend nearly as much time on schoolwork as they think they do. It's as if we're expecting them to excel on their homework with all their friends in the room talking to them at once. Fat chance. Furthermore, studies have made it clear that every interruption, even useful ones, impede our ability to work efficiently with each interruption possibly adding as mush as 23 minutes to the time the task takes as we struggle to get back to where we were, deep in thought.

Competition is fierce. Yup. It's not the competition to get into universities that's changed, as universities have been taking an increasing percentage of students each year since 2000, but competition for jobs. The university degree is the new high-school diploma. More jobs are being outsourced or computerized. This, in turn, is making parents more frantic as they fear for their children's very survival. So they push them into what they think might be highly successful fields that the kids aren't necessarily interested in, and then the expectations in the field are raised because of the glut that this causes. In India, the concern is so high, parents scaled a building to help their children cheat on exams.

About those parents. Parenting has changed. Back in the day, parents let us get hurt. It's good for us; it builds character! Kids need skinned knees and hurt feelings and to fall out of trees, to be humiliated occasionally, and to fail things horribly in order to develop into useful human beings. Our parents knew that (well, mine did, but they were born in the 20s), but then we all forgot. And now we protect our children to a fault and need to see research before we'll consider letting any harm come to our bumbles of joy. Parents are swooping in to rescue their kids by intercepting discussions with teachers or bosses instead of giving their kids words to use and by being a little too hands on with the homework.  It's painful for parents to watch their kids struggle, so they don't. But we're the adults here, and we MUST take a long range view on what's actually best for our children. Kids have lost their resiliency as a result of being over-protected. They're immobilized by a fear of failure and have become perfectionistic in nature. And the anxiety in the room is palpable. 

Changing lifestyle expectations have added to this. We used to be content with having a job and didn't expect a life-affirming career full of creative opportunities and advancement.  Most of us were excited for our own apartment, now we all need our own houses with big yards. Our entire mentality has shifted from one of contentment to one of growth. Everything's expected to get better and better within a finite system, and that's just untenable. This is related to social media and to competition, but it deserves its own little paragraph. And I've written before about this paradigm shift in the beginning of this post where you'll find John Oliver explaining the very American perspective that we can actually live like the very wealthy if we keep trying; a Gucci knock-off can do in a pinch. It will do us well if we can reverse this trend in thinking before we have to, back to accepting good enough.

Low marks are too devastating to students' self-esteem now.  Marks have become commodified; they hold value as tradable for university admittance and scholarships as well as indicators of school performance as we're ranked against other schools, so it's no wonder there's such a push to raise them artificially and to cheat whenever possible. This commodification has led students toward a tendency to look at marks as an indicator of their worth in the world. We have to recognize what marks really are: an indication of students' ability to communicate their understanding of specific content and skills at a specific time. That's it. It's not a measure of intelligence nor status nor value as a human being. It just tells us how well people were able to demonstrate their knowledge.


So, how can students reduce their stress levels?

  • Do homework without social media enabled on your computers and with your phones off and in another room. People will get used to the fact that you go offline to do homework. Get the work done first, and leave social media as a reward when you're done. 
  • Watch for the crabs in a bucket effect. People who aren't doing their work will feel better about themselves if you don't do your work either. They'll try to pull you back in the bucket! Be prepared with a rebuttal to their taunts: you're not doing homework to be a keener, or because you obsessively follow rules, or because you're afraid of getting in trouble, but because it feels so much better to get it done and out of the way. You can party harder after the work's done.
  • Trust that you don't need all the trappings of the rich and famous to lead happy lives. Like de Botton suggests in Status Anxiety, we should follow role models that celebrate intelligence and creativity, not those that celebrate having lots of shiny things. This is a slower shift, but it's possible. 
  • Resist the pressure to go to university if it's not a good fit for you. Or, at least, don't feel rushed to go immediately. And don't feel like you have to stay once you're there. An electrician with five years of on-the-job training with college terms mixed in can make as much as a teacher after five years of university followed by ten years of teaching. You need a job to be able to pay for food and shelter, but it doesn't have to define you. There's more to you than your work.
  • Tell your parents to let you struggle against some firm boundaries. Accept failure gracefully. It will happen at some point. Do your best, but don't worry about being the best or even close to it, and then take responsibility for what you've accomplished. If you take the blame when you don't do it, you also get all the glory when you do. And if you can muster the courage to face your fears of failure, it'll be easier to do next time because you've created neural pathways.
  • You can't much affect the number of jobs available, but you can keep in mind that that the stakes are not nearly as high as you think they are. In this time and place, low marks are not a life or death situation. And beyond the economic realities, your marks affects you only because of your perception of what they mean. And they really don't make you any less lovable.

Or, as Epictetus told us, stop trying to change things outside of your control, and instead change the things you can control. It's all attitude.



On Expectations and Time Limits

In the words of Tina Fey, "The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it's eleven-thirty."

I had a rough semester with several students pushing every boundary repeatedly. I set down expectations, and sometimes students question them a bit to see if I actually mean it. But this term was full of meetings with admin and lengthy e-mails with parents. And I'm not doing anything differently.  I think sometimes one student can start the ball rolling in a direction, and then it gets others in the class going too, until there's a bit of a mutiny.

The big complaint was, "It's not fair that you take down assignments after the due dates and that you won't accept things at the end of term that we forgot to do at the beginning." This is from students heading off to university next year. I worry for them.

I want kids to learn to be responsible, so, for my grade 12s that are university bound, I set clear, hard due dates way in advance and expect them to meet them. I start with small assignments that don't count for very much, and each time they miss one, I talk to them and call home, but I don't let them submit that work. Their opportunity for feedback and evaluation on that piece of work is over. BUT they're welcome to ask for an extension on the work before the due date, and I'll always say yes. Life happens and sometimes more time is necessary, it's just up to the students to pay attention to the due dates and actually remember to ask for more time.

If I don't follow my own rules, I end up with a pile of marking at the end of the semester because I have a hard, unwavering due date at the end when marks are expected. And if I allow the boundaries to snap, then students end up with a pile of work to do at the end; they do a lacklustre job of it all, and they miss out on any feedback along the way.

Some students have an interesting idea of what fair means. From an equity ≠ equal stance, I take fair to mean that they all have equal opportunity to do the work within a time limit that is variable according to their requests for extensions. It's not possible for me to judge objectively how much time and support each student will need given their intellectual limitations, current workload, and home life, so I put it back on them to make that decision for themselves. They just have to have the wherewithal and the gumption to ask for a different deadline, and then to actually meet the deadline they set for themselves. They're expected to know themselves and their own ability.

Some students seem to think fair means that it shouldn't count if they forget to do it, and that they should be able to hand in work when they're ready without any timeline at all. Beyond hindering any sense of burgeoning responsibility, it sets them up to have assignments on top of older assignments. I've had to tell many students over the years that if they can't do all the work for all their courses, it's not the case that teachers have to give them fewer assignments, but that they have to take fewer courses at a time. Fair can't mean changing standards of excellence, or it will be a race to the bottom. We can't give easier or less work to some people and expect the marks to mean something on the same scale. If we have a different scale for each person, then marks become meaningless. That being said, I'd love to get rid of marks altogether in favour of university entrance exams, but that's not in the cards any time soon.

There has to be an endpoint after which work is not longer accepted. We can all improve our work given unlimited time to revise, but, as teachers, we're measuring the ability to understand the concepts at a particular time. We need to put glass on our artwork and actually hit "publish" on blog posts, and then move on. Learning is an on-going process. We can't measure learning when it's completely finished because it will never be completely finished. Marks are necessarily a record of ability at a specific point in time.

I teach by explaining information, getting students to apply this knowledge by investigating and communicating their understanding of topics within boundaries of the content I provided (determined by the curriculum), and then, after getting feedback on their understanding of it all, I give them a test - an additional measure of evaluation.  If students are allowed to hand in work after the test, then they don't benefit from the feedback they would have gotten prior. It doesn't make sense in the context of learning.

I love the idea of mastery learning, of having the chance to show improvement until an idea is mastered. It falls apart if the first demonstrated attempt at learning doesn't happen until well into the term. And it also doesn't work when some students want to re-write essays after I've shown them all their errors. That's not mastery learning.  Swimming lessons are a great example of mastery learning: You get to the next level after you successfully swim 200 m.  But if you get close and do 180 m in one go, you can't go back and show the last 20 m later. You have to do the entire 200 m again. Likewise, to show competence, they have to write a second essay.

Luckily, they often have that opportunity, just not always within the same course. They need to take advantage of comments from their essay and actually apply them the next time they write. This is where things generally fall apart. Many students (and people in general) don't see learning as something continuous, but in piecemeal. They don't seem to expect to have to apply knowledge from grade 10 courses in grade 12. This is the part I'd like to work on - to get them to understand that learning isn't about passing a course, it's about understanding the world.