Sunday, 20 September 2020

One Size Fits All, Even When It Doesn't

It's taken me until Sunday to be able to talk normally again after week one of face to face teaching in a pandemic.  I've said it before and I'll say it again: our board has done an incredible job of charting a path through this poorly planned and funded return to school during a medical emergency, but this has still been one of the worst weeks of my teaching career and not because of all the barriers to teaching.

Top of list are the mandatory medical grade face masks I'm told we have to wear (though the Ministry says, "All staff in schools must wear masks, with reasonable exceptions for medical conditions").  With a head circumference well beyond the human average, these masks are too small for me and leave me at the end of each day with marks on my face, sinuses and ears.  My head is so big we had to bring my son in for testing for encephalitis because he got my big head.  The specialist immediately said everything was ok when he saw me and realized big heads run in the family.  There is nothing worse than being atypical in a pandemic when every system contracts to only suit the average (that's a theme).

In addition to not fitting my big head, these masks are very restrictive in terms of breathing, especially if you're working in a poorly ventilated south facing classroom that hits thirty plus degrees celsius on even a cool day when it has 30 or so computers and twenty people in it.  Being a tech shop I'm also moving equipment around.  In setting up the lab I moved over two thousand pounds of computer parts into place.  Being required to wear a mask that's too small and restrictive while doing physical work in a hot room had me seeing stars multiple times this week.  The Ministry states that reasonable exceptions are allowed but everywhere I turned this week (union, admin, online) told me to just wear the damned mask.  My biggest anxiety is returning to another week of feeling like I'm being waterboarded by someone who doesn't know what they're doing.

I have a history of sinus issues.  My sinuses are so atypical the specialist who did my deviated septum surgery two years ago (so much blood!) had never seen anything like them and was forwarding them on to researchers.  I can breath much better after the surgery, but wearing a high filtration medical quality mask like that for six hours a day means I resort to mouth breathing almost constantly while wearing it, so I leave school every day with a sore throat and inflamed sinuses.  When I expressed this I was told to just wear the mask like everyone else.  My wife is severely immune compromised and I come home every day to immediately put my clothes in the washer and take a scalding shower.  The last thing I want to do is contract this but not being able to breath properly while having to talk more loudly through a mask is destroying me.  There are sports filtration masks I'd be willing to purchase myself but all I keep getting told is to shut up and wear the mask.

Being the only person wearing a medical grade mask in a room of 16 grade nines wearing everything from homemade cloth masks to bandanas, I'm left wondering at the veracity of this demanding compliance.  A number of other staff are also struggling with this one size fits all zero flexibility approach.  They've told me that they (variously) pull the mask off to get fresh air if they're short of breath and/or fold the bottom of the mask up or fit it poorly so it lets air in and out, which is like not wearing a mask at all.  If the only solution is to wear this thing so poorly that it doesn't do anything then I think we need to rethink our one-size-fits-all policy.

Beyond the mandatory waterboarding mask, the week went well but mainly because I'm making unsustainable catches at the wall all day every day.  All of the IT tech we had in the lab was in the middle of being used when we were shut down at March Break and it was in much worse shape than I realized.  I spent most of the week triaging and rapidly repairing broken computers so that grade 9s could use them, which isn't sustainable.  A diving catch is a spectacular thing but if that's all you're doing all game you won't be playing the next week.

I got a really good piece of advice from our spec-ed instructor when I was at Nipissing University for teacher's college: "your first job is to be ready to come in to work again tomorrow."  This often gets forgotten in the teacher martyr complex and I see people (myself included) throwing themselves into unsustainable situations that end up preventing them from working effectively the next day.  This whole week felt like that.  Every time I looked for support it wasn't there and the weight I was carrying got that bit more impossible.

Tuesday was the worst day.  After spending all morning trying to get broken tech working (for my classroom and half a dozen other classrooms in the school), and then struggling to get all the grade 9s through safety training because at least two of them are functionally illiterate (which raises interesting questions around the legalities of dragging them through purely text based online safety training) the teacher who was supposed to come in and provide relief saw how busy I was and said, "if you don't need me I'll go" instead of showing some initiative while watching me try to be in three places at once.

This is another example of the system checking a box rather than providing actual support.  Our union has argued for us to get relieved during our nearly three hour marathon face to face sessions (two times a day, thank-you) and I appreciate that effort, but the teacher coming in isn't qualified or knowledgeable in my field of study and is little more than a babysitter who can't even legally oversee hands-on shop work.  The week before we were told by admin to just skip our prep/relief and keep working if that's what we wanted to do, but that is neither sustainable nor compliant with the contract we've agreed to.  Being asked if they can just leave and take a 45 minute break from giving people breaks while I'm obviously struggling both physically, mentally and emotionally was... (how can I put this professionally?)... aggravating.

Under normal circumstances I'd have sent the two functionally illiterate kids down to resource who would have walked them through the training one on one.  I can't do one on one when I have twenty other grade nines all needing my attention at once and while I'm responsible for safe hands on work with live electricity and tools in a technology class.  I can't send them to resource though because our resource room has been closed and all our spec-ed specialists are now teaching regular classes online.  You don't want to have an IEP or learning challenges during a pandemic, all the spec-ed support has evaporated.

Anytime I've asked for someone to assist me with something they've reflected it back on me to do.  If a student needs special supports it's entirely on me to do that.  If a student doesn't have digital access at home it's entirely on me to do that.  Towards the end of the week I had board purchasing asking questions about things from last year that I had neither the bandwidth nor knowledge to answer so I just ignored the emails.  When you're drowning you don't go looking for more water.

If you're operating an engine it will have an operating range.  You work in that range as a balance of efficiency, longevity and performance.  There are moments when you might push past the 100% mark in order to get a burst of power, but doing so means you've just shortened the life of that engine.  The diving catch made by a baseball player is one of those 120% moments where you do something unsustainable to make the catch, but you can't keep doing that all day every day, it'll break you.

Even with all the barriers to teaching thrown up by this pandemic and this particular government I had a good week instructionally.  I was able to differentiate to different students and pretty much everyone in the class was able to do something they'd never done before by the end of the week (build their own PC).  That one on one work with students learning their strengths and developing skills is what I love about my work, and I'm good at it.

I'm unable to do IT again next week with a new class because we don't have any working tech left, so I'm doing backflips this weekend trying to work out how to teach electronics in two places in two different ways at once.  Our two cohort system means I'm teaching remotely to one cohort while I'm teaching face to face with the other all day every day (they flip).  It's twice as much prep but as you've read above we don't really have any prep time.  They gave me a teacher who isn't qualified and doesn't have any background in my subject to cover the online learning, but that's just more people I have to direct.  I asked if we could just collapse my class into a single morning cohort then I could be the afternoon online teacher.  The class is only 22 so it wouldn't be huge and it means I'm not buried alive and trying to be in two places at once.  You can guess the answer: it wouldn't look good.  They don't want any pictures of full classes out there.  It makes sense pedagogically and in terms of staff work load, and with appropriate safety precautions there would be minimum risk of pandemic transmission, but if you don't have optics on your side in a pandemic you have nothing.  I'm not the only teacher who asked for that.

In addition to trying to generate a week of prep every day both remotely and face to face, I'm also trying to get more IT tech in so I can do that unit with my second class.  Getting parts in a pandemic is challenging.  I'm hoping I can work it out and RCTO has been fantastic in getting back to me and making it happen, but that's just another of those unsustainable balls I'm juggling that's up in the air somewhere.

I can manage the avalanche of prep, but doing it while in physical distress all day because of an inflexible mask policy means I'm not going to finish this semester on my feet.  I have to find a way to engineer a solution to this because no one around me will.  The most frustrating part is that the solution is obvious but in a pandemic flexibility and individual needs are the first thing we burn.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Is Our Only Choice Less?

Doesn't matter how experienced you are
in unprecedented times...


This reflection might come out as a firehose of frustration, but this year in Ontario's public education system has been one for the ages.  After a springtime of flat footed confusion nothing seems to have happened in the summer as the government kept moving the goalposts on what school openings would look like.  School boards have been left to scramble.  We start tomorrow and I have no idea how it's going to go.  Some people are hanging on so tight their fingers are going to break while others have already taken a big step back.  My magic powers are bloody-mindedness and empathy.  I'm not particularly brilliant or erudite, but I can take a hit and always get back up again, and I care, which is good because we've been pummelled senseless in the past few weeks by chaos and the attendant system think that has arisen to try and control it.



*****


The metaphors are flying thick and fast this year as we struggle to launch Ontario's public school system.  Tens of thousands of adults are trying to put new processes in place to protect millions of children after the provincial government offered little in the way of central organization and then played shell games with funding all summer.  Most recently they've paused everything else while half finished plans to open public schools continue to roll out.

While the premier mocked our union president for having an English degree the rest of us were doing his job for him: creating a plan that will (hopefully) protect staff and students from an ongoing pandemic we still don't really understand.  Will it work?  Worldwide school reopenings, especially if they aren't centrally organized and properly funded, cause large spikes in this easily spreadable contagion.  Some countries have managed it by pooling resources and working with all their partners closely to leverage everything at their disposal.  Partnership and teamwork aren't something Doug Ford's government comprehends so we're attempting to open schools in Ontario in the least successful manner possible.

With the meta-framework of Ontario's public education system being held hostage by a government intent on privatizing it, it's a wonder the system works locally it all.  It has certainly struggled.  With the COVID19 pandemic piled on top I can say, hand on heart, that this has been one of the worst years to teach in Ontario in its history, but we persevere because education matters.  The only people telling you otherwise want to use and abuse you.



At the local level setting up for this school year has been like running a marathon where they keep changing the course and making it longer, while handing you bricks to carry; it feels like running a marathon no one wants to see you finish.  I know what I'm being asked to do is for the common good, but at some point (which we may have already passed), so much will be piled on that the basic functionality of the classroom (teaching, remember?) won't be any better than in remote/elearning.

After six months of lockdown everyone is longing for face to face interaction.  I'm feeling it too, but in the drive to do that we've lost the plot.  When we started back we were told not to worry about curriculum and just make sure the kids are OK.  I understand the sentiment but the places that do that are called daycares and I didn't spend tens of thousands of dollars and years of my life to become qualified to work in day care.  Public education is one of the most powerful human being enhancers we've created.  Along with publicly funded healthcare it's the beacon a society sends out to show that it is enlightened.  When our citizens are healthy and educated our country benefits in every way.  This isn't anything as shady as economics which thrives on disempowerment and privilege, though health and education powers our economy too.  Strong public services that maximize our citizens' potential is what civilization means.  All the other things (art, technology, medicine, economics) grow in this fertile soil.  We so often get this backwards.

The pandemic has cast a harsh light on the many social mechanisms that cause inequity and in the past decade Ontario has constantly chased economic gain while cutting the public systems that enable it.  Since 2010 Ontario police have experienced double digit pay raises, they are the only public service to see this kind of funding.  Meanwhile defund the police has become a cry to action during the pandemic because police are the hand of systemic racism and inequality in Canada.

Our board has since relaxed the hangout and chill stance and is encouraging curriculum and skills development but any teacher worth their salt knows how Maslow would feel about this.


Knowing that basic needs have to be met before we go after the higher cognitive functioning needed to learn effectively is probably why people at the board office were pushing for a relationship focused quadmester.  Schools have always tried to fill that gap between how poorly a society treats its disenfranchised citizens and the privilege others benefit from, but COVID19 has widened that breach to such a point that it's impossible for a headless, underfunded public education system to come close to crossing that bridge in this crisis.  I'm starting to feel that the people in charge want to fill that gap with our bodies.


We've been buried in wordy presentations and piles of emails dictating our new normal which isn't normal at all.  Just when you think you've got a handle on it you can expect it to change.  Admin are as exhausted as everyone else as we all madly dance to this insane tune.  While the onslaught of instructions, signs and rules continues from on high I'm actually expected to be face to face with students (but not really, we're all socially distanced and behind masks) all day every day.  While that's going on I'm also supposed to be monitoring and running elearning for the other cohort because our board's solution to massive class sizes was to have every teacher being in two places at once.

There are stories of classrooms stuffed full of students in Ontario this fall during a pandemic.  Since the Ministry left it to each board to decide how they would proceed, each has gone in a different direction.  Each plan has its own benefits and disadvantages based on no central planning and inconsistent funding support.  In our board they've cut any class over twenty students into two cohorts.  The students who are bussed come in in the morning and the walking students come in in the afternoon, but while I'm face to face with my half classes I'm also supposed to be providing material and managing elearning for the other half.

This approach has the benefit of not overloading classrooms with bodies and so takes steps to mitigate the health risks we're all facing, but it has its own problems.  I'm now trying to be in two places at once.  They given me a teacher who was on prep to oversee the online work, but this teacher is unqualified to teach my subject, knows little about it and isn't expected to do anything tangible.  What it comes down to is make-work because we're not trusted to help the school function without being over scheduled and micromanaged into the ground.  I understand the impulse as a few people will use not being in class as an excuse to do as little as possible, but the vast majority would be able to fill these gaps much more effectively using their own initiative, as I've already seen many teachers do.  But initiative, like differentiation, is dead in our micro-managed pandemic classrooms.

Our prep time was also cut in this format where we're teaching face to face (kinda) all day, so now another teacher is coming in to cover us while we take our prep, except that teacher isn't qualified to teach my subject either.  They aren't even tech qualified so students can't keep doing hands on work when face to face (which is the whole point of being face to face) unless I let my prep go and just stay in the room, which was what admin suggested our entire tech department do.  So, downloading work onto classroom teachers with no prep time and twice the planning is the solution - it's actually the answer to every question:  download anything that comes up onto the already crushed classroom teacher.  One of my grade 9 parents won't provide internet when she isn't home so her son can't do elearning even though they have all the tools.  The solution was for me to print out a special course of study for this one student on paper to study computer technology on paper, which he then takes home... during a contact tracing pandemic.  Don't expect flexibility this semester, but do expect absurdity.  They'll tell you all decisions are based on reducing the risk of transmission, but that one wasn't.

This situation raised another point:  because students are only in half days, parents working in essential jobs all day are stuck trying to decide how to make that work.  We're a high school and we're all having to grow up quickly in this ongoing crisis, so I'd hope that a high school age student could provide some self direction and work from home, but not in every case.  A system response that honours equity and tries to help those families that need the extra support would be to direct those students in need to a socially distanced resource for the afternoon when they can't elearn at home, but our spec-ed resource room has been cut and the experts in there are all teaching instead.  It's important to treat everyone the same in an emergency.  Our split day schedule assumes that all students have connectivity and technology at home - it's a system predicated on privilege that ignores home circumstances.  While all this is going on we've been getting PD about how unfair systemic privilege is.

I had a plan in May, Ontario still doesn't
really have one in September.
Looking at how messy some of the other reopenings are in the province I think our board has done an exceptional job with no direction and inconsistent funding, but the two hidden mechanisms that make it work are downloading extra work on classroom teachers and assuming privilege in terms of the digital divide.  We took drastic steps to get  technology and connectivity out to students in the spring but that has since been returned (kinda) and that capacity has dried up.  I dreamt that we'd be building capacity and reducing the digital divide over the summer because you would have to be oblivious to this situation to think we won't be fully remote learning again at some point, but none of that has happened in the chaos of a mismanaged face to face reopening.

We're unable to climb Maslow's hierarchy and do our jobs (developing students' cognitive skills at the top of the pyramid, remember?).  In the case of such a catastrophic failure of Ontario's political responsibility to its citizens perhaps all that is left to us is to make sure the kids are ok, as long as we're all happy living in a less literate and numerate future.  Part of this new < normal is ensuring that you as an educator are still functional physically and mentally.  The ECOO Virtual Conference a few weeks ago kept emphasizing this advice which is inline with what you get from an airline when you get on a plane (remember when we used to do that?).


This past week I've been putting my lab together solo because students can't come in to help
 me as they usually do.  Even my own son, who is well within my bubble, isn't allowed to come in and help.  The thick blanket of rules we're buried under are as much about managing liability as they are about medical safety.  I've also been running all over the building helping dozens of teachers, including the many new ones, get their rooms sorted and operational from a digital perspective, all with the usual lack of acknowledgement from administration, though they're sure to thank everyone at the board office who have been busy making two hour powerpoint presentations that are contrary to our inequitable school opening plan.  A lot of that technical support has also included emotional support because my reflex when I see someone drowning in panic is try and help.

A fine example of this over management was to order all teacher desks to the front of the classrooms.  This was done (presumably) to facilitate better management of people coming and going from the room, but since that isn't happening much and our face to face class sizes are smaller anyway, I have to wonder which curriculum expert who hasn't been in teaching in a decade made that decision.  The digital projectors in most rooms are plumbed in to where the teacher desk is so this dictate meant that dozens of rooms were suddenly disconnected from a vital teaching resource.

Another baffling choice in the chaos has been to cancel student safety agreements for science and technology classes.  The board has always vigorously demanded absolute compliance with these documents.  When you're working on dangerous equipment with legally not responsible teenagers with undeveloped frontal lobes that prevent them from forecasting the results of their poor choices, a signed legal agreement with their legally responsible adult parents or guardians puts everyone on the same page in terms of safety expectations.  These are common sense safety expectations, but common sense and teenagers don't often occupy the same room, so it's important to have their parents aware of the weight of this responsibility.  It's also vital for liability.  When a student ignores the agreement they and their parents have signed and an accident results, it produces a better outcome for everyone, except it's been cancelled during the pandemic because they don't want us using paper.  Then in our last staff meeting (which is really a litany of what to do with little collegiality or interactivity) we were told that using paper is fine.  Do try to keep up.

I'm usually able to reflect my way out of a negative place with these blog posts, but I'm still in darkness here.  I'm terrified of bringing home a virus that could be fatal to my partner.  I'm worried about my students' well being and frustrated that climbing Maslow's hierarchy is simply a bridge too far this year.  I'm also frustrated by the provincial system's inability to show any vision or organization in helping us succeed in this crisis.  Finally, my own board's efforts, while exceptional in terms of what else I've seen in the province, are inconsistent, undifferentiated and predicated on assumptions about the digital divide that we've already shown to be untrue. 

There are glimmers of hope in the chaos.  I've seen cunning and cheap solutions to common technology problems that could expand the functionality of our laptops by turning them into document cameras, and I've seen local teachers jump on it and make it happen  (I hope to have these churning out next week).

I also keep finding myself in other people's ewaste that could be turned into remote learning tools, but being buried under two simultaneous classes a day all day, and having one of my senior sections cancelled by our previous principal, I don't have the time or the senior student expertise to make this happen.  So much could happen if we depended on teacher initiative and expertise instead of spoon feeding them hours of powerpoint and pages of step by step instructions.  I fully expect to be told to sit in a French class next semester to cover someone else's prep (I don't parlez the francais).  Such is the resolution everyone is running at, when it runs at all.

Give me a little latitude and I could perform (bigger) miracles, even in this monstrous circus, but latitude and professional trust was the first victim of this pandemic.  Given a minimal budget and some space I could all but resolve the digital divide in our board and prepare us for fully remote learning that seems inevitable, but they'd rather me just follow the plethora of signs.  Whoever is making those signs seems to have infinite resources.

I just got handed this cart of old netbooks that were headed for ewaste.  With a Linux install they would provide dozens of students with remote learning devices they could keep in a pandemic.  With more latitude I'd be picking up #edtech from RCTO's Computers For Schools and providing desktops and portable devices for staff and students (as I did in the spring and all summer) across the board.  Give me even more latitude and I'd be in touch with Google's Loon to see if we couldn't provide local free school internet to all students who attend a school regardless of the urban/rural digital divide.  But initiative and individual responsibility and expertise are atrophied by a panicked system operating in a pandemic.

Alanna's been channelling Simon Sinek.  Perspective helps:


Friday, 4 September 2020

Velvet Ropes and Differentiated Access to Schooling in Ontario

As we stagger towards reopening Ontario classrooms, which is something that, quite frankly, I want to see happen, I'm left wondering why a number of obvious things aren't happening.

In early August we all got a summer cold, but being the pandemic summer that it is we were worried, so we drove twenty miles south to the nearest city and got tested at the nearest COVID test centre that yes, required us to leave our low risk rural area and drive into a city riddled with it.

The testing centre wasn't busy and was very efficiently run and we were in and out in about fifteen minutes.  Seventy-two hours later we all had piece of mind knowing we were not infected.  Considering how efficient the testing process has become and how important it is to ensure a safe environment, I'm at a loss to explain why no school board in Ontario is testing its face to face educators before we start up again.  Speaking as a parent, it would be a relief to know that all the staff at my son's school isn't guessing they don't have COVID19, they know it.  Our approach to COVID is so low-resolution that its almost blind.  It certainly isn't cost effective.

What a thing it would be to put out a press release saying all face to face staff have been tested and are COVID19 free prior to classes restarting. This could happen by school site or board wide, but it really should be happening. We're all walking around school right now wearing masks and afraid of everything. Some piece of mind knowing we have a COVID-free site, even if it's just in this moment, would be a welcome thing.

A friend who is a chef mentioned that she's expected to be tested each week.  This is yet another example of how businesses are expected to (and do) comply with public health, but Ontario's school reopening plan (which has a number of medical experts concerned) seems to go out of its way to ignore the rules that everyone else is complying with.  This virus is a slippery thing that ducks detection with a high number of asymptomatic carriers.  How ignoring the medical directions that everyone else is following to deal with that slipperiness is anything other than political cynicism at its worst is a betrayal of the public trust.  When things go wrong, and the biology suggests it will, I'm sure the weasels running this show will still somehow find a way to make it the teachers' fault.

This absurd situation is in no way the fault of the school boards.  My own board has done everything it possibly can with no centralized plan, insufficient funding and random changes in direction from our politically misguided Ministry.  If the province wanted to pivot and stop playing political games with staff and students' lives, aligning Ontario's school opening plan with what's happening everywhere is an obvious starting point.  Working with local health units to provide onsite testing at schools would be a great next step.  It would also offer a glimpse into what a more functional COVID19 world might look like in the coming year.

Solutions to viruses in the form of a vaccine don't arrive with Dustin Hoffman on a helicopter, except in movies.  In the world we actually live in we more often manage viruses with testing and social adaptation.  Our focus on testing has been... poor, but there is hope.  Rapid COVID19 testing is on the horizon and might get to market as soon as October.  What might this look like?  An automated, highly accurate, non-invasive testing system based on spit that provides results in seconds; that's where the velvet rope comes in.

In my better Ontario we would be opening schools based on need rather than ramming through a poorly executed and underfunded plan that doesn't even align with other public health rules.  Classes that have to be face to face for liability reasons (I'm thinking technology and physical education specifically), should have priority in f2f classrooms.  The other priority should be students in need.  We should be reopening based on equity needs rather than doing this poorly designed full-court press.  A cautious, differentiated f2f opening means our schools would stay open and the people who need them most would have access to them.

Students who are on the wrong side of the digital divide?  Families who are working in essential services and need schools to normalize?  Subjects that require the safety and expertise of a face to face classroom?  These are where schools should focus their reopening, but Ford's inequitable government can't conceive of its responsibilities when it comes to addressing inequity.

Our staged, differentiated, equitable reopening would also include on-site testing which would increase as testing improves.  Ideally, but the end of 2020, we'd have rapid on-site, automated testing at every public school in Ontario.  When we know (not guess) that our schools are COVID19 free, we can relax all of the other expensive and restrictive practices we're doing poorly, like PPE, social distancing and OCD levels of cleaning, and all students could return to a safe, normalized learning environment.  Our current approach is expensive and not effective because we're flying blind.

With cheap, effective, accessible testing COVID would stop sneaking around in asymptomatic carriers and spreading like it does.  There might still be COVID19 outbreaks, but they would be quickly recognized and stopped.  Carriers would be isolated and we'd finally have a handle on this thing.  Rapid testing would lead to less transmission and take the wind out of the COVID sails.

After months of flinching everytime someone sneezes, imagine how it would feel knowing your kids were going to school in a COVID-free environment.  Imagine how it would feel going out for dinner knowing everyone in the restaurant is green.  Playing hockey knowing that everyone on the ice was COVID-free?  Life as we once knew it could return and we could start to relax our blind, awkward and expensive social distancing/PPE/OCD cleaning scramble.

I have ten more years of teaching left and I have a number of things I want to achieve before I hang up my boots.  There may be teachers who don't ever want to go back, but I'm not one of them.  We had a Skills Ontario championships and a pile of travel and learning opportunities taken from us by this lousy virus in 2020 and I want to get back to pushing pedagogy in a rapidly changing technological landscape and showing students that they can achieve things they never imagined.  A staged return focusing on differentiation of learning based on student and curriculum need and then embracing rapid testing as it comes online in the next few months is how we can get there.  What I fear is going to happen instead is that the current plan will cause schools to be shut down and emergency remote learning (which we've done nothing to prepare for) will land on us again by Thanksgiving.  And a lot of people will get ill as a result.

We need schools for students and programs that need that infrastructure to succeed, but throwing everyone back into it while ignoring public health requirements is going to cripple public education with another round of school closures and poorly delivered emergency remote learning that we've done nothing to resolve digital divide issues with.  A differentiated, staged return with testing anyone?

#ECOOcampON 2020 Virtual Conference Reflections

ECOOcamp Ontario happened in Peterborough last year and was the usual mix of keen people getting together to improve their technical skills and launch another year of teaching in an avant garde style.  Had you asked anyone there what the summer of 2020's ECOOcamp would look like, a virtual online conference during a pandemic wouldn't have been the obvious guess, but ECOO managed to pull off #ECOOcampON, a virtual conference using tech most people hadn't used before, with astonishing fidelity.

As you'd expect there were technical issues, but what ECOO does a good job of spreading is the idea that teachers can become digitally fluent enough to resolve these problems themselves.  Early on link issues stopped the conference in its tracks, but the tech-savvy educators running the event iterated at high speed through troubleshooting and within twenty minutes everything was back on track again.

Digital fluency has been cast in a stark light this year with Ontario's sudden move to emergency remote learning, so you'd think that more educators have technical proficiency at front of mind as the first school year in a century kicks off in an ongoing pandemic.  ECOOcampON managed over 500 registrations this summer, which goes to show you just how resilient some Ontario educators can be in trying to get literate teaching in a still new(ish) digital medium, though only 0.3% of teachers attended in Ontario and I'd guess that 70% of them need it.  In a better world this conference would have drawn over one hundred thousand educators looking to raise their digital fluency in order to prepare for the inevitable next round of remote teaching.

What follows are some personal reflections prompted by the event.

Krista Sarginson and I presented on CyberTitan, the Canadian Student Cybersecurity Competition on the first day of the conference.  Krista's CyberLions rocked a 2nd place finish in the middle school division in her first year coaching in 2019.  I'd been looking for a brave teacher to leap into this and help me advocate for it.  Krista is fierce and fearless and did a great job encouraging other elementary panelists to consider giving it a try.

Secondary teachers tend to be more reticent about participating in things they can't show intellectual dominance in.  I'm hoping that Krista's influence engages more elementary Ontario teachers in participating in this competition.  It's a great way to raise awareness around information security and opens up an entire industry to students who might otherwise have no idea it exists.  It's a tough year to encourage extracurriculars, but something like CyberTitan could become the basis for a cybersecurity course, which is something Ontario is way behind the curve on.  Here's our presentation if you're curious:



The round table discussion that night talked about resilience and how we frame challenges.  This past year seems like almost infinite challenges.  From a vindictive government intent on attacking our profession and diminishing public education to a worldwide pandemic, it's been a burning dumpster fire of a year for educators in Ontario, with no end in site.  The new mix is the vindictive government using the pandemic to physically threaten staff and students.  It's not understatement to say that I've never seen colleagues so scared and uncertain about teaching in a few weeks.  How can we be in poorly ventilated classrooms that ignore the rules we've been told to follow for the past six months and feel safe?  Our doughty premier is frustrated at the response (usually framed as an attack on unions), but no other front line workers are being forced to ignore public health rules in their workplaces.


In this context I found the roundtable discussion difficult to navigate, though they gave it a good try.  One of the speakers was a big fan of nature, but it was a romanticized view of nature where people should just find themselves at their ease in natural surroundings.  That park-setting idea of nature is very much dependent on a manicured and managed environment.  I love being out in nature, but I enjoy it because it's relentless in its expectations of competence.  Being happy in nature is as simple as not being hungry or cold, or avoiding being eaten.  Few people have been face to face with that kind of nature.


Disney's romanticized version of nature,
in reality this is a great way to get rabies.
Austin Vince has a documentary on riding into the Sahara Desert called Mondo Sahara.  In it he talks to an off-road expert who has spent a lot of time in the deep desert.  He makes a clear distinction on what your focus should be: always make sure you're dictating what is happening because the moment the desert is in charge things fall apart quickly.

Survival training was like that too, especially the winter stuff.  Our instructors were insistent on the exhausting job of managing cold and wet to ward off the ever present fear of hypothermia.  Nature isn't only beautiful, it's also so immersive and demanding that you can quite easily drown in it.  Most people have never been in a survival situation like that.  Society does everything it can to ensure you don't have to keep yourself alive in nature, it'll do it for you - usually while killing nature in the process.  If most people got driven into the wilderness and dropped off they'd be dead in a week.  That is terribly beautiful, but that isn't how nature was presented.  Being demanding is what makes nature teach resilience, but we try and weed harsh lessons like that out of education wherever we can.

I've recently had trouble with how our return to face to face classrooms was being framed.  We were initially told that relationships are all that matter and that we shouldn't even worry about curriculum.  There is a place where that is the case, it's a daycare centre, but I didn't go through the long and difficult task of becoming a teacher so I could provide daycare.  Yet in the greatest social crisis we've seen in recent years, instead of focusing on being resilient and holding everyone to higher standards, the reflex is to do whatever it takes to make people more comfortable.  You can learn a lot by being uncomfortable.  A good place to realize that is in nature.

The other side of the roundtable focused on happiness, which is much more complicated because we're more than happy to destroy nature just to ensure our own short-term comfort, future generations be damned.  If we want to consider nature it's as a form of entertainment.  Living in nature is nasty, brutish and short, to paraphrase Hobbes, and too much like hard work unless you think nature is pulling your RV into a campground.  Look no further than our response to COVID19 (which is nature at work).  We've actually slew footed our own self-serving, cancerous economic system just to keep as many humans alive as we can, yet even during a world wide health emergency we're still adding the populations of Guelph AND North Bay to the planet every single day, while stopping economies to keep everyone alive for as long as we can.  Everything we do with technology, economics and society are contrary to nature, so holding it up as a solution seems a bit disingenuous.  It doesn't matter though, nature will sort things out soon enough.  If we're too stupid and selfish to be on the right side of that it won't matter because ultimately what we think doesn't matter.

The happiness side of the discussion was enlightening.  The question of what is happiness is a surprisingly complicated one.  I was chasing it in an online psych course from Yale earlier this year called The Science of Well Being.  For many people happiness is doing as little as possible, but I'm all about agency (your ability to act).  When that is cut away from me I become very frustrated.  The best leaders I've had recognise that I'm a self starter who wants to act and provide a framework that directs me into doing what they need to get done.  The vast majority of leaders I've had are frustrated by my inability to stand in line waiting to be handed the same work as someone who doesn't want to do anything at all.  During the pandemic this everyone-do-less approach has been strangling me.  Most of the managers I've had in Ontario education are of the lesser variety who want to cookie cutter everyone into undifferentiated jobs.  I'd hoped being a professional in a recognized field would bypass that, but Ontario education is remarkably juvenile in how it directs its employees.

If you've ever seen Saving Private Ryan, I'm a Tom Hanks kinda guy: I don't care if the work's difficult, but I need the people in charge to recognize that with a bit of latitude I can get things done that others cannot.  Most organizations' inability to differentiate their duties for employees is why I often have problems with organizational structure.  The people who maintain that structure very much identify their own self worth through it, and I frequently come into conflict with them as a result.  Give me a big, difficult job and the latitude to attack it and that's happiness for me.  It's why I've never been on a cruise or to an all-inclusive resort, it's my idea of hell.  That understanding was a great metacognitive reflection that ECOOcampON provided for me at the end of day one.

I attended a number of sessions ranging from equity to media literacy around the credibility of sources, and found them rich and helpful in framing this year's difficulties, but it was the closing keynote that closed the circle for me.  Daniel Lewis is a successful entrepreneur who struggled in the education system and overcame a number of personal hardships to find success.  He is inspirational by nature, and I enjoyed his relentless positivity, though I'm often cautious with optimism because it can be used to overly simplify a difficult situation.  When someone says, "you got this" in terms of going back to school it feels an attempt to ignore the difficulties.

Daniel didn't take that approach though.  He emphasized the power of your own thinking; self determination was the underlying message.  Even if you're in a broken, leaderless system staggering under absurd political machinations, you are still free to think what you want to think.  There is power in that kind of stoicism, especially in tough times.

There was a lot of talk about getting out of the box in terms of thinking without being restricted by the people and systems around you, which aligned well with the keynote's theme (though it contrasted with the resiliency and happiness roundtable from the beginning).

I'm always cautious around entrepreneurial pep talks.  Business has a way of turning that optimism and relentless enthusiasm into sales.  In this case it was the idea that once you free yourself of the boxes other people have put your thinking in, YOU then get to make the boxes.  I took that to mean for other people.  Why would you want to make a box to limit your own thinking?

Perhaps I'm odd in that I educate to empower, so breaking out of the box aligns with that, but the last thing I'd want people to do with that freedom is start boxing in other people, but that's society.  I was troubled by the idea that the moment we free our minds we look to use that freedom to enslave others, but maybe that's just how people work.  Freeing people doesn't guarantee happiness in any case.


Boxes aside, it was an engaging and uplifting closing keynote to a remarkably resonant ECOO Conference.  We are free in our own minds regardless of how tightly our struggling school system ties us, and there is comfort in that.  If you're able to free your mind from the fear and uncertainty you can grasp your own agency and get things done.  The pandemic has deeply wounded everyone's agency, so Daniel's stoic message resonated well, though I'm still troubled by the reflexive need to box people.

If you bounce over to the ECOOcampON webpage, you'll find links to all the presentations.  I think they're also wrangling the recordings of all the presentations together so you can view what you might have missed.  I've always found ECOO's model of teachers directing their own PD to be both engaging and effective.  When I compare it to professional development that's mandated and thrown at me, this feels much more valuable, but that's probably because I use my own agency to create and participate in it.  There is a distinctinction in there somewhere around passive and active learning that anyone interested in pedagogy should be considering, especially in a world where a passive-do-nothing approach is now a governmental demand.

***

I"ve been reading a lot of Tao Te Ching this week.  It offers me some perspective when the walls feel like they're closing in.

Tao is empty (like a bowl). It may be used but its capacity is never exhausted
It is bottomless, perhaps the ancestor of all things.
It blunts its sharpness. It unties its tangles. It softens its light. It becomes one with the dusty world.
Deep and still, it appears to exist forever.
I do not know whose son it is. It seems to have existed before the Lord.

Heaven is eternal and Earth everlasting.
They can be eternal and everlasting because they do not exist for themselves, And for this reason can exist forever.
Therefore the sage places himself in the background but finds himself in the foreground.
He puts himself away, and yet he always remains.
Is it not because he has no personal interests? This is the reason why his personal interests are fulfilled.

To hold and fill a cup to overflowing Is not as good as to stop in time.
Sharpen a sword edge to its very sharpest, And the (edge) will not last long.
When gold and jade fill your hall, You will not be able to keep them.
To be proud with honour and wealth Is to cause one's own downfall.
withdraw as soon as your work is done. Such is Heaven's Way.