Monday, May 24, 2021

Post-Covid Educational Reform

 I try to restrain any excitement that bubbles up over the prospect that education will be different when all this ends, assuming it will end. Teachers have suddenly had to learn how to teach in radically different ways, and some of that is gold! But I'm pretty sure we'll end up falling into line again when the time comes. We want everything to be normal again, to get some comfort through familiarity and routine, but now would be the perfect time to bust open some faulty systems that we've accepted as "just the way it's done". 

Many are focusing on the problems Covid-19 has created in schools, but Jonathan Kurtz, in ASCD Express, assembled student responses to a survey he conducted asking for about what changes they actually liked

TIME

In my casual conversations with students, many love that they have more time for hobbies and to go for long hikes or read more during the afternoons, and then finish homework in the evenings. In some ways, everything feels more rushed, but since teachers have been forced to condense the work and make every minute count, students benefit from some breathing time. Kurtz says,

"Even with the lost instructional time, I was able to get further with one of my classes than in the past through maximizing formative assessment. I collected more data from each student, and if students were ready to move on, they did. If they struggled, I worked with them during student support time to fill in the gaps. If the whole class struggled, I retaught using a different format. The mix of group time two to three days a week coupled with unstructured support time has made all of us to be more intentional about how we use our time."

Kurtz discusses the later waking times that come with rolling out of bed seconds before class begins, and hopes there's some way to get later start times at his school. It's always very complicated with bussing and sports and other synchronous programs, but it's possible if we make it a priority. 

I love the flexibility of our time. If my lesson is over, I don't have to find a video or further examples from Plan B to take us to the bell. We just stop. And if we're not done talking, we keep going. Our time together is entirely about learning and not about fitting a specific number of minutes.  Kurtz advises rethinking "seat time" away from the "Carnegie unit of 120 hours of class time." Absolutely! I'm not sure what that would actually look like in a school, but I'm willing to find out. There are all sorts of legal reasons, I believe, for tracking attendance, but what if we just tracked understanding in a variety of ways, and ignored how often students were actually in the room with us? And Kurtz asks a most important question: "Do we care about learning, or the appearance of learning?" 

EMPOWERMENT

Students love to be able to plan their time better, in a way that works for them. Kurtz says,

About 13 percent of my students reported a decrease in anxiety levels and said they are thriving on the independence virtual learning afforded. One student said, "I feel like I can complete my work way more efficiently due to the fact I don't have to spend hours on end listening to lectures … or just sitting in class unable to be productive. Also, my test anxiety has gotten much better … I feel like I'm actually learning as opposed to drilling terms into my head out of stress that I will forget in a month.

Instead of my typical routine of planning and posting lessons day by day, I posted my entire class worth of work at the beginning of each quadmester, organized by date. A couple found it overwhelming at first, but at the end, everyone said they liked to be able to see what would be coming next. And there are always a few in every class that want to work ahead. I can't understand why we don't encourage that except for the overblown concern that they might have nothing to do later. Good for them! Let them read a book or do their math work instead of focusing 100% on my subject in my subject time. Some kids know that a course is their 'extra' class or they find it really easy, or they love it and get it done first, leaving their other classes for later. That's how I work too whenever I have many things on my plate. They've developed strategies for getting everything done, and it makes no sense to put up barriers to prevent these choices. 

ACCESSIBILITY

Many people with disabilities have commented that finally teachers and workplaces are allowing people to work in ways that work for them, that enable more productivity in some cases. It's something they've requested for decades, to be told that it's just not possible. How frustrating is it to see just how possible it all is, but only when it's no longer a 'minority issue'! Kurtz explains,

In my program, 63 percent of students said they were interested in more asynchronous virtual courses. One of my students shared that her grades are better, she is more confident, and she is happier this year than she ever has been in the past. She suffers from a social anxiety disorder and was never able to fully concentrate on studies because of the anxiety sparked by a crowded building. 

Social anxiety, physical disabilities, cognitive difficulties that require repeated instruction or a quieter space, vision and hearing difficulties, allergies, bullying, childcare, work... There are so many reasons that some people find it significantly easier to learn from home. At this point it feels unconscionable that we haven't found a way to address this before now.  I know we're hoping to never teach a hybrid method again, but there are clearly some people who are better served by this model, and we can't just ignore that. Kuntz adds, "If we retain fully virtual education for those who want it, in-person class sizes would shrink, which creates a more efficient use of space." It might seem onerous, particularly for one or two kids in each class, but it's very possible to keep streaming meets so the kids at home can learn at the same time. It makes me think of the classroom setup for The Boy in the Plastic Bubble from the 70s. We knew we could do this all along, we just didn't want to.

SCHOOLS, NOT PRISONS

Kuntz suggests we need to abandon the "industrial-complex model" of education that polices more than it educates. While we're in the processes of dreaming about change, like the students, I love having working time at home. Forcing teachers to prep from school is just a means of policing teachers, which undermines any claims that we're professionals. In Finnish schools, teachers are only in the building during their classes, and then they can prepare and mark from wherever works best for them. Having prepped for the quad already, and the fact that I mark everything within 24 hours, means that this current lockdown has saved me from spending two full weeks going to work to find a corner of the hot, stuffy building that's less occupied, wearing a mask the entire time, just to read books all day and pace, waiting for the final bell to ring. Schools shouldn't feel like cages for anybody. We can do better.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Kendi's How to be an Antiracist

Nearing the end of my two-week long prep period at the END of a year that slayed me with back-to-back senior courses, and I'm finally getting caught up on my reading!


Just on Friday, Vancouver police were looking for a 40-year-old suspect, and arrested an 81-year-old Black man who happened to be a former judge with much to say about the state of the police department that would shackle a man on an early morning walk. We know how horrifically racist some police actions have been, and Ibram X. Kendi's bestseller takes us through to solutions for it all. It's a beautifully written  book that takes us step by step through his own journey from racism/not-racism towards antiracism mixed in with related history for context. It reads like a biography, and then you realize you've been significantly educated by the end of it! I added a few more points to this Canada/US history of colonization chart to avoid cluttering up the main ideas below.

WORDS MATTER

He starts each chapter with definitions to help us see the more useful perception of these problems. Here are two key sets of terms:

non-racist / neutral / colourblind 

"The claim of 'not racist' neutrality is a mask for racism" (7). "The construct of race neutrality actually feeds White nationalist victimhood by positing the notion that any policy protecting or advancing non-White Americans towards equity is 'reverse discrimination'" (20). "White people have their own dueling consciousness, between the segregationist [separate people who don't accept the dominant culture] and the assimilationist [adopt the dominant culture's way of life]: the slave trader and the missionary" (31).

Got a Better Idea?

When I was little, my parents told me never to complain unless I have a better idea or a solution that can work. They likely did that to stop me from complaining so much, but it's actually pretty good advice. I was thinking about that watching the news about the anti-lockdown protests yesterday. Nobody wants to be in lockdown, of course, but what's the solution? We can't just decide to stop the lockdowns (which are barely lockdowns relative to what happens in places like NS) because it gives the virus a chance to spread even more, and our numbers are still pretty high. If they want to stop the lockdowns (and masks and vaccinations - I'm so confused!), then they need a different solution to slow the spread of a deadly virus. Or perhaps they need to watch some videos of people actually suffering and dying from Covid until they believe it's all real and could happen to them. I'm all about rights and freedom, but not the freedom to increase the risk of harm to others. That just doesn't make sense in a civil society. 

One fight they could take on, though, is demanding to be paid to stay home from work through some type of CERB or - gasp - UBI. For many taking to the streets yesterday, it might be less about government control and more about struggling to pay rent. But then that's what all the signs should say. And then I'd totally get behind them! Lots of people need help to weather this difficult time, and that help should be secure, not in bits and pieces. 

I said something similar about protesting almost a decade ago to students striking against teacher strikes. You can't just rally around 'everyone stop fighting so we can play sports'; you either have to argue that teachers have to follow provincial rules OR that the province has to negotiate fairly. Telling both parties of a disagreement to just ignore the problem isn't a viable solution. 

And here's an unpopular opinion: I also stand on this point with hybrid learning. Tons of teachers are protesting the potential move to hybrid for September, where a teacher teaches half the class in the room and half at home. I also hate hybrid teaching, but we need to clarify an alternative or we could end up with something worse to keep contacts low, like teaching one subject at a time, for five straight weeks, with 30 kids in the class. But I've been yelled down on this one, and it looks like many boards have agreed NOT to use the hybrid system. So the protesting worked, but now who knows what we'll have instead. I predict 30 kids in each class, no tests available beyond a questionnaire about symptoms, and kids will take off them masks at one for lunch in the building, relying far too much on the vaccinations to keep us safe.  

I won't say anything about people being allowed to march in the streets without any police stopping them despite the province's 'soft lockdown', though, because I was pretty pleased at the number marching in solidarity for Palestine. The virus pales in comparison with the intentional bombing of children. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Michael Mann's New Climate War

It's not all that new. There are tons of books on this topic now, so it would be hard to find a completely new angle. But the public still needs to learn the basics, and Mann does a good enough job of explaining it all in a very conversational writing style that's approachable for casual readers of science. His big argument, however, is with most of those other books and anyone who errs on the side of worst case predictions of the future because the doomers might provoke us to give up the fight, and this war has just barely started. 

I still know some people who think e-cars are evil because they use cobalt, and fast fashion is the main cause of climate change and are against any carbon tax because it will harm poor people (despite my explanation of the rebate system). They're convinced that vegetarianism is more important than decreasing fossil fuels use, but also that persuading others towards vegetarianism is elitist and privileged because it's cheaper to eat beef, despite my attempts to show them, with grocery store prices, that it's cheaper to buy bulk beans and lentils and cook from scratch; it's only more expensive if you buy 'near-meat' products. Although it takes more time than going through a drive-through, it doesn't have to if you cook a pot full of rice and lentils once/week. I used to live well below the poverty line, and dried beans kept me and my kids afloat. But somehow beef is the road to equity?? 

When I ask for sources, it's all Tiktok videos, so that's where climate scientists and activists have to head next! It's clearly still necessary to explain all this over and over in short soundbites with intense visuals that people will take away with them and share endlessly. These types of books need to be promoted by influencers

Mann has written a different type of climate change book in that it feels sort of personal, and he names lots of names of individuals, corporations, and countries. He seems a little snarky at times, which can be fun, but it's definitely different that the usual dry facts and data. He comes down hard on some of the people and ideas I've supported in the past, which has given me pause, but I don't fully support his take-downs. He wants to mend the rift between various factions of environmental movements, but he's doing so by arguing that they're all wrong. That might not be the best way to build bridges.

The gist: denial isn't the biggest problem anymore; now it's "other breeds of deceivers and dissemblers, namely downpayers, deflectors, dividers, delayers, and doomers" (45). We have to do both individual actions and corporate /political actions, and ignore any fight about which is better or faster. We have to do ALL THE THINGS! (I argued the same last year.) "At the center of the acrimonious debate over individual action versus systemic change is a false dilemma. Both are important and necessary" (68). 

"The solution is already here. We just need to deploy it rapidly and at a massive scale. It all comes down to political will and economic incentives. . . . A renewable energy transition would create millions of new jobs, stabilize energy prices in the absence of fuel costs, reduce power disruption, and increase access to energy by decentralizing power generation" (143-4). 

Monday, May 10, 2021

Safe Schools in September - Second Try

Last September, despite all the science to the contrary, school boards opened schools with "mask breaks" built in to the mornings rather than have a shorter day and let the kids go home for lunch. I left my windows open an inch, and kids complained about the cold. And then I discovered how difficult it is to teach hybrid style, with my attention split between kids in the room and kids at home and with other classes using the hallways to practice skits outside my open door, and while tethered to my laptop by my mic cord so the kids can hear me through my triple-ply mask, I could barely manage a complete thought.

So I started calling in sick. A supply teacher quietly read a book all day as I managed the class from home, where I could teach everyone at once from a warm, quiet room without any PPE blocking the sound of my voice. The marking load was insane in the quadmester system that compressed each class to 22 days,  especially with four senior courses in a row without a prep built in to the schedule. The big changes coming in the fall include having semesters again and full days. It sounds suspiciously like business as usual except with two classes per day and half of each class learning from home. I can't even picture what that will look like! Will some kids come for half the day? Will the kids there all day be eating in our classrooms? How will two classes/day but cut in half stop the spread?? When will the other two classes run: alternating days or weeks??

But now on top of what some scientific journals have argued for over a year, the CDC and WHO have made it very clear that Covid-19 is spread through aerosol transmission, which means distancing, hand sanitizer, desk-washing, and daily symptom quizzes are far less important, and masks, ventilation, eating outdoors, and testing are everything