Sunday, 28 February 2021

Union Math

Them Unicorns looked up from the rocks and they cried
And the waters came down and sort of floated them away
And that's why you'll never seen a Unicorn... to this very day.


I'm showing my age here but there you go.  That song came out two years before I was born and it was played in our Norfolk sea-side house regularly when I was very little.  It was playing in my head as I read an astonishing email from our local union executive this week where they repeatedly congratulated themselves on the system they now claim to have had a hand in creating in response to the pandemic.  This is suprising as earlier they claimed that things were happening without their input or consent, but historical hind-sight lets you rewrite the narrative to make it look like you did something, I suppose.

This self congratulatiory email went on to state that teachers should be assigned a maximum of 225 minutes of student instruction daily, and 75 mins of preparation time.  Having never been provided with these things I'm at a loss to explain the rhetoric in any rational terms.  So deaf has been our union that I've quit as our local CBC representative after numerous emails and calls for clarification and support went unanswered, even when I was advocating for other members.  I'm pro-union because I know what would happen if One Percenters had dictatorial control, but our union isn't particularly egalitarian either, though it likes to make noises like it is.  The longer I look at OSSTF the more classist it seems, so I shouldn't be surprised that their support only appears to apply to certain members. 

Our president says we're lucky we don't teach in other boards, which isn't very 'help one another' of him, but I've found that a sense of comraderie isn't very resonant in our small, white, privaleged district.  From throwing other districts under the bus while pandering to provinicial liberal bias to fighting for clear and transparent communication with members, I've found our local a difficult beast to deal with.  And this from a guy who was once mentoring under the district president and attended many weekend trainings.  A guy who regularly shows up to policial protests, tries to present our profession in an honest and postiive light to the public and has volunteered at the school and district level for over a decade in a number of roles.

The problem with the district's current belief in this fantastic schedule is that it conveniently ignores specific situations where the board doesn't have the resources it needs to make it happen.  I think the board made a good decision under no direction or leadership from a broken ministry of education in setting things up as they did, but we then needed a local union ready to work to protect its members when the specifics of the plan could not be met.  What we have instead are a group of self contratulatory district types with a strangle hold on control of our local who are more interested in putting out emails that sound like they were written by our employer than they are in making sure all of their members have access to the same plan in terms of work expected.

What we need, unless qualifications don't matter, is to agree that any teacher working in a classroom should be familiar with the curriculum and qualified to teach the subject they're teaching.  Ironically, in the same email we were told not to do any writing jobs for TVO's upcoming elearning program because there is no guarrantee that a qualified teacher will teach that material - that's exactly what's happening now in our district and we are waving a victory flag about it.

I did some maths this morning to try and work out who exactly is teaching 225 minutes a day as per our local cohorted covid teaching plan:

Someone ignorant to the job might read this as teachers only working 225 mintues a day, but that's 225 minutes of instruction.  You can't just walk in and do that.  You have to prepare what you're doing and also mark the results.  Teaching is more like presenting in media as a DJ or TV presenter - the part you see is only a small part of the job as a whole.  When you see radical differences in instructional time the 'under the water iceberg' part of the job is also magnified.  I'm having trouble sleeping and I'm often up at 4am marking or prepping for my red-all-year schedule because it's the only time available to do it.

You have to fall into a very specific catagory to luck out and get the union advertised 225 minutes of instruction.  The tricky thing about equity is that it needs to be equally distributed.  Having said that, even the 225 minutes of instruction is no cakewalk as you've got to create two sets of material (one remote and one face to face) and then deliver them in two places at once all day every day.  Re-writing and splitting the curriculum into a never-before-taught format on the fly is difficult enough but there are other political factors diminishing the effectiveness of that remote elearning half of our curriculum.

As you might guess, I've been given 6 double cohort sections this year and have never once been given a qualified face to face relief teacher.  Teaching technology means you need to have a tech qualified teacher or students have to stop hands on work for safety and liability reasons.  Hands-on work in class is at such a premium this year (we only have 52.5 hours of it compared to 110 hours in a regular class), that tech teachers are simply staying in class in order to protect what little tactile time students have - of course most tech teachers have small, single-cohort class sizes, but not me.  I get capped the same as a university bound calculus class.  Before this all kicked off admin said to us that they expected we'd all wave off relief support anyway in order to 'let our kids keep on learning'.  The worst thing you want to be in a pandemic is a unicorn, just as in the song, you can expect to get ignored, left behind and drown in the indifference shown to you by your union.

I'm the only person in my building qualified to teach what I teach and this isn't an academic subject that might be taught out of a text book.  Technology, like French or other skills based subjects, needs to be taught by people who know how to do the thing they're teaching; you can't fake it.  Usually the union is all over this, but they're evidently blind to it this year - unless you want to try and escape this nastiness by writing elearning courses for TVO (yes, I've applied).

The union has a long term hatred of elearning and have been dismissive of it outright.  Elearning is a challenge, and I've been involved it in since its germination, but if done right it could offer a differentiated approach to learning that could serve some student needs (that's what we're here for right?).  What you don't want to do (that this government is intent on) is Walmarting elearing into a cheap and pedagogically ineffective wedge that weakens the entire education system.  You don't stop that mean-spirited, self-serving narcisism (the Ontaro PC party has donors who are ready to leap in with charter school options) by refusing to participate in it.  What we need is a union researching best pedagogical practices in elearning including which students it actually works for, and then advocating for that.  The 'keep everything analogue' approach is dangerously out of touch and a sure way to make both the educaiton system and the union itself irrelevant.

Union footdragging on elearing pedagogical effectiveness has made a mess of half our 'class time' with our students.  Double cohorted teachers don't get to support their own class in elearning.  If you're one of the lucky ones you've got a collaborative, technically savvy, qualified colleague who is helping you manage that, though you're still responsible for all the planning, prep and review of work - though that gets hazzy too as we keep turning down exectations (no new content, no assessment and now no attendance) in our online cohorts.

We aren't turning off all these aspects of learning in elearning for pedagogical reasons, we're doing it to lessen the load on remote learning support teachers as per union direction.  This means we're now trying to pack a 110 hour course in 52.5 hours of face to face classroom learning in a dramatically accelerated schedule with little chance for review or differentiation.  This is difficult in any course but in tech courses that rely almost exclusively on tactile, hands-on learning and which have been instructed to allow NO HANDS ON WORK remotely for liability and safety reasons, it reduces pedagogical effectiveness to well under 50% just based on time alone, I won't get into how difficult it has been to get parts in as the pandemic has worn on.

Eleaarning could have been leveraged make this time-crunch work better from a pedagogical perspective.  The first (obvious) step would be to ensure that all tech classes or other specialist taught courses are single cohort in order to ensure both teacher familiarity but also provide qualifiied and meaningful remote support, but that would neccessitate a local union that is fighting for all members, even the ones who teach specialist courses.  It would also require a provincial union that isn't intent on belittling elearning as a tool in Ontario education's toolbox.  We've got dozens of teachers not teaching and providing toilet breaks for people in the building so the money and teaching talent was there, it has just lacked focus.

The result of this game of smoke and mirrors is a steady deterioration of remote learning expectations since this year of pandemic teaching began.  Every time we go fully remote we seem to lose leverage in the remote half of our regular in-school day.

This politically motivated intentional ignoring of remote elearning has resulted in many classes (I'm told by students) who have little or no remote elearning work at all.  There are single cohort teachers doing 120 minutes (2 hours) of face to face instruction in the morning and then simply walking away from the remote half of the course.  Students in that class are earning credits and grades based on less than half the normal class work and can't possibly be coming anywhere close to regular curriculum expectations, but when it suits the political angle the union wants to take on elearning, it's all good.

The other result of this wildly uneven scheduling of work is that some members are being waterboarded by a brutal workload that can include more than twice the instructional time (along with all the prep, marking and logitistical time required for it).  When I pointed this out after my first double cohort double class quadmester and suggested I should have lightened remote support expectations in the quadmester where my prep period resided (something we could have worked around with a more evenly distrubuted schedule instead of clinging to the old one), I was told by admin that wouldn't be fair and everyone has to do the same duties.  That's exactly the moment my union should have stepped in and shown how much extra work I'd already done, but they'd rather pat themselves on the back for a job well-done for a small percentage of their members.  The equity must be great if you're lucky enough to have it.

I don't think the current situation is a failure of the school board.  I think they made difficult choices as well as they could with no support or leadership from the ministry.  What we needed was our local union to show up and help mould that plan into something that is actually fair for everyone involved and differentiates based on availablity of qualifications.  More supported, credible and consistent elearning expectations should also have been developed and evolved over the course of this year, but our union's poltiics can't get out of its own way when it comes to elearning, even when it results in members being hurt by wildly unfair and inequitable work expectations.

I look forward to the next email that looks like an advertisement for my employer and shows no awareness or concern for member circumstances.  It's probably sitting in my inbox right now.  I'm pretty sure I pay the same dues as everyone else, too bad the support isn't equal.

You'll see green alligators and long necked geese
Some humpy-back camels and some chimpanzees
Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you're born
You're never gonna see no Unicorn.

This unicorn with his rare teaching qualifications isn't just dealing with another double cohort double class quadmester.  This time around it's double cohort double classes with stacked multi-grade senior classes, which means even more prep (grade 11 face to face work, grade 12 face to face work, grade 11 remote work, grade 12 remote work), and all packed into a single class capped at 31 students - like a university bound academic class, except my class of 31 includes 10% essential students, 35% applied students and over 50% of the class has an IEP (tech tends to attact students with special needs because it doesn't expect them to sit in rows reading out of the same textbook).  The unicorning going on here is starting to feel less like benign neglect and more like systemic bias intent on extinction, which any technology teacher in Ontario education can tell you is nothing new.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Apps For Education That Aren't

Facebook, Google, whatever...

As we've been forced to shift online during the pandemic we've been placing demands on Google Apps for Education that it simply isn't capable of.  GAFE is, at best, a bunch of cheap software cobbled together by an advertising company in order to collect user data so they can sell things.

Trying to be productive in this environment is infuriating.  This cobbled together suite of software has atrocious UI (user interfaces) that my grade 11s could do a better job with.  Google has a rep as a software company but they're really an advertising company that buys software companies and then twists them to feed their primary business.

The other day I likened using GAFE as a productivity tool to trying to do the Tour de France on a bicycle made out of soap.  Anyone who tells you GAFE is great has probably capped their professional teaching designations with an advertising company's logo and is more interested in selling that than they are in providing you with a working edtech solution.  I'm willing to bet none of them have ever used other business based productivity suites and don't know what they're missing. 

***

Our edtech ecosystems aren't designed with pedagogy in mind and are entirely predicated on liability management at the cheapest possible price, even though they aren't particularly good at protecting privacy or providing a secure environment either.

While chasing this freemium software, education has tied itself to these questionable systems delivered by dodgy advertising companies that aren't designed for productivity.  This makes one of the greatest expenses in education (the professionals who provide it) less efficient than they otherwise could be.  How we got to this point where we hand teachers software that actually gets in the way of teaching is beyond me.

An example of how non-educational the apps-for-edu suite is can be found in the evolution of Google Sites.  What was once a relatively modifiable system that even let you write your own HTML has evolved into a drag and drop toy that lets people 'develop' websites without any understanding of what's going on behind the curtain.  As a means of teaching web development or even just graphic design, it's about as useful as a slideshow.  Google loves to automate things for you to make life easy, but it doesn't do much for you educationally or productively.

If we treated digital fluency, which is a system wide expectation in all aspects of education since the pandemic, in the same way that we treat literacy and numeracy (also expected in all aspects of education), we wouldn't be selecting tools that do things for us to replace our understanding.  We don't use tools in literacy and numeracy that just take the hard work out of your hands and do it for you - if we did no one would be able to read, write or do maths.

Our technology stance with digital fluency is the equivalent of teaching spelling by giving all students a word-processor that reads and writes for them while we pat ourselves on the back for a 100% literacy rate.  This laziness with digital fluency seeps into all aspects of education where automated digital tools are quickly coming to replace fundamental student skills instead of supporting their development.  There are neurologically tested negative results to this kind of digitization, like the inability to recall details when entering new learning digitally.  Of course, Google has no interest in you hand writing notes because they can't monetize that.  Reconsidering our educational digital technology would not only mean we could teach digital literacy like it mattered, we'd also protect pedagogy throughout the system from systems that have no interest in it.

I still dream of a day where we don't line up to spend tax payer's money on inefficient and questionable educational technology that has no interest in providing the best possible pedagogical experience for our students while maximising teacher productivity and focus on teaching.  Working from a credible basis like that, we could build our own open source educational technology (both hardware and software) and develop the kind of deep understanding of digital tools that would make our classrooms relevant and our students world leaders in terms of technology comprehension.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Trudgery: teaching in COVID at the brittle edge

 I've been struggling to reflect my way out of another double cohorted double class semester with no breaks to plan, mark or otherwise manage a radical change in time tabling.  In the face of this I'm trying to describe the situation in the hopes that verbalizing it more clearly defines it for me and helps me figure out a way to survive another quadmester of maximum COVID-classroomness.


In order to keep face to face class sizes below 21 students we are running a split day where half the class is face to face and the other half is remote, then they switch.  This exhausting system has me trying to respond to remote student questions while teaching face to face all day every day.  It has all the challenges of a face to face technology classroom with all the headaches of remote teaching.

The term for it when you have two double cohort classes in a single quadmester is a double-double (ala Tim Hortons).  It basically means you're teaching in two places at once all day every day.

All of my classes this year are double cohort classes.  I appear to be a minority in this even though I'm one of few teachers in the school who has unique qualifications that no one else has or can teach.  This means any 'online support' teacher I get has no facility with what we're teaching, leaving me with the job of managing both cohorts simultaneously.  Piling on this lack of equity in the workplace are the covering teachers we're supplied with in class.  They are supposed to free us from the classroom so we have some prep time to completely re-write the curriculum to suit this new format, but none of those teachers are tech qualified which means if I leave students should be taken off hands-on work (only tech teachers are qualified to cover tech safety requirements in class).  Further cutting hands-on work in a year where we've already cut instructional time in half is problematic.

Because that's not enough, I'm also teaching a double-double with a senior stacked class of two different grades (a double-double-double?).  I'm currently unable to sleep very well and I'm frequently up at 3am, which is when I'm doing all my planning and marking because I have no other time to do it when I'm at work.

We're not given any data on our students so I dig it all up myself.  I've started this double-double-double with a stacked to maximum capacity of 31 students in two grades (20 in the maxed out morning cohort and the other 11 in the afternoon) senior class.  This is an 'M' level senior technology class.  In other places these are capped much lower, but my hands-on technology class is capped the same as a grade 12 university bound calculus or English class even though we're hands on with live electricity, power tools and 400 degree soldering irons.  Out of those 31 students, 26% are applied level students and 10% are essential level.  52% of students in the class have an individual education plan that demands differentiation of instruction (both online and f2f - simultaneously).

Ontario high school classes are supposed to be 110 hours long.  I only get 52.5 hours of face to face instruction with my students in our pandemic quadmesters.  The other 52.5 hours I'm unable to support them online because I'm face to face with the other cohort of the same class.  I suggested we use the empty room next door and spread out across two classes.  My non-shop regular classroom packed with technology makes six foot separation even in cohorts of 20 impossible, but spreading out across two classrooms would allow us to maintain social distancing while also providing a qualified instructor for online learning since we'd be a single cohort class (all 31 students in but spread across two classrooms means smaller cohorts in each room than with the class cut into morning and afternoon cohorts), and I'd be supporting my own students in the afternoon online.

This seemed like a reasonable ask but I got a hard "no" from above.  Evidently what I teach is too dangerous for  me to be able to manage students in two rooms at the same time.  Not too dangerous to stuff 31 students of every skill level into a stacked class, but too dangerous to work in two rooms at the same time.

Our media arts room and even our metal shop full of lathes and other metal cutting tools that can chop your fingers off operate in two spaces walled off into two separate rooms where the teachers have to be in two places at once, but evidently I'm a special case.  My students don't warrant qualified teachers for the remote half of their class, or a safely distanced space to work in.

While I was trying to sort out a pedagogically sensible and safer solution for my senior students I'm also juggling another double cohort of grade 9s in the other week.  That class is more academically leaning than my previous two classes but still rocks a 26% applied, 9% essential mix (including one DD student who is occupying almost all our in-class and remote support).  Over a quarter of that class has IEPs as well.

I'm trying to keep the hands-on aspects of the course alive but finding parts in a pandemic isn't getting any easier as we stagger through another quadmester.  I have only a few PCs left for grade 9s to learn building on and what I do have is in rough shape.  When I'm up at 4am I'm also contacting my usual suppliers to see if I can get any more parts in.  They're moving mountains for me but I'll have to drive down to Brampton to pick them up because I'm not allowed to charge for shipping suddenly.  Not sure when I'm going to do that.

I'm still left wearing the same mask as everyone else.  The other morning I was walking down the hallway with two colleagues.  If you put both of them together I'm still bigger, but we're all handed the same mask, though I half swallow mine because it's much too small for me.  Every day I finish with a cracking sinus headache from the constant pressure.  I offered to bring in my own PPE but I'm not allowed.

While all that's all going on I also helped a science teacher get the cables she needed to run her smartboard in class, helped another with speakers so they could play things out loud in class, explained to multiple people how to get tech working online and helped yet another whose VR pc we'd previous built for them stopped working.  It had stopped working because someone had gone into the PC and taken one of the memory sticks out of it - the other one was half hanging out of the motherboard (likely in the process of being stolen when someone walked in).  So I'm helping that teacher get the RAM they need to get the machine working again.

I've also got a coop student this semester, but I can't get her out into the school doing the usual IT repairs we do because there's a pandemic.  She's actually a life saver in terms of being an extra set of hands in the classroom because we've had a number of technical issues with our DIY lab because many of the grade 9s have never used a desktop computer before and have caused many intermittent crashes that we're trying to diagnose on the fly.

I'm one of the only teachers in the school to keep extracurriculars alive as many students depend on them, and I'm still trying to chase down awards and monetary support for our poor graduates who are trying to navigate this deepening crisis at a critical point in their lives.  Even that has come back to bite me.

Last Friday I discovered that my support of female students pushing back against sexism in technology pathways was so wrong that the higher ups who said no to a more socially distanced and qualified teacher supported classroom wanted me reprimanded.  Only local administration's focus on rebuilding relationships in our school prevented that from happening.  I guess I should be happy for the little things.

Last Tuesday we had a blizzard that shut down the area and caused a number of blackouts.  We don't live in an place with public transit or timely road clearing; weather can still stop things here, but that doesn't stop the always-more treadmill we seem to be running on.  Online the message was, "All students are to shift to remote learning for the day. Staff are not to report to their workplace and are to work remotely."  Meanwhile the telephone message from school said, " school is closed and all buses are cancelled. Students and staff should not report to school, thanks and have a great day."  This mixed messaging resulted in low online engagement.

I got to spend a day I would usually be catching up on the two weeks of marking I'm behind on or trying to recreate entire courses to suit a never-before-seen timetable babysitting students with the socio-economic advantage (who are predominantly 'academic' level students because we stream as much by privilege as we do intellectual ability) online.  The kids who didn't have the tech or connectivity or home life conducive to online learning, or were just unlucky enough to live in the parts of town where infrastructure failed all got to come to school Wednesday already a day behind.  I'm going to be the hammer for that kind of inequity any more.

I keep trying to find ways to make this work but the answer always seems to involve disrespecting the ever deepening difficulties we're drowning in.  I've quit being the school CBC rep because our local OSSTF district won't reply to any questions about working conditions, even when I'm asking on behalf of other members.  It's difficult to not take this personally and I know everyone is struggling to make things work under difficult circumstances, but I'd love to know just how much of a minority I am in terms of teaching load when I'm the only one in the building qualified to teach what I teach.  I'm beginning to see why unicorns died out; it's not easy being unique.

Talking to super-students who at any other time are the epitome of initiative and drive, they tell me that they are exhausted and just don't care any more.  If the go-getters are feeling that way then I'm sure the students without that resilience and drive are in tatters.  Parents of students with IEPs are asking me why their child's grades are falling in all their classes, but saying anything about systemic inequity got me a reprimand.  I'm no longer willing to be the hammer that grinds children into paste so that a broken system can pretend everything is business as usual.

If you're a teacher and you're reading this, everyone is exhausted.  Keeping up the fiction that schools are running as usual is hurting people.  Consider rewiring your classes so that you preserve and protect the children in your care.  You can't possibly expect to cover what you normally do in courses that are half the usual face to face instructional time, especially when that half is full of COVID paperwork, muzzled, frightened faces and demoralized, socially distanced lack of collaboration.  The people who claim that kids need to be face to face in class haven't been in a COVID classroom, no one is face to face.  Getting students through this is now my focus.  It's also how I'll get myself through this without ending up in hospital.