Sunday, 5 September 2021

The Politics of Pandemics: Quadmestering Schedules

A smart friend this past summer described last year as being a lobster in a pot as the temperature was slowly turned up to boiling.  It's a good metaphor - I didn't realize I was in the boiling water until it was too late.  This year I'm making a conscious attempt to understand my circumstances so I don't end up in that boiling pot again...


Last year's last minute emergency schedule was a mess.  With little central planning or leadership from the Ministry, school boards had to cobble together a pandemic compliant quadmestered schedule and the end result made for radically inequitable work expectations.  For some it was an easy year of half-day instruction with afternoons at home.  I wasn't so lucky, teaching over twice the face to face instructional hours of some colleagues while also simultaneously having to cover twice the online instruction because my school couldn't provide qualified support.

I ended up throwing myself into the gaps in that cobbled together schedule last year to the point where I hurt myself and my family.  That isn't happening this year.  Alanna had a colleague who said, "this year my extracurriculars are going to be me!" in reference to being run into the ground in order to keep our politically sabotaged public education system running.  That sense of self-care is prevalent in a lot of teachers I follow:

What was most difficult last year (other than the constant switches to fully remote learning because safety precautions in schools obviously weren't working) was trying to teach a 110 hour course in 52.5 hours of instructional time.  The expectation that students would work on the other half of the course remotely was more of a daydream than a reality, especially in my case where I never once had a face to face relief or online instructor qualified in or with any experience in my subject area.  This had me producing 5 hours of daily instruction while simultaneously trying to cover face to face and remote student needs.  My principal has moved mountains this year to resolve that inequity and I intend to lean on that support.

Teaching in class is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this gig.  Prepping for class is a big part of the workload and then assessing and marking student efforts is on the backend, so when I'm buried in instructional hours I'm also buried in additional prep and marking.  In a typical school year I'm responsible for three seventy-five minute instructional periods.  This means I'm teaching for 225 minutes (or just under four hours) per day.  Because I teach technology, much of my prep involves preparing electronics, computers and software in our lab for students to use.  Sometimes I can streamline this process (which is good because I also get on-calls where I covering another absent teacher's class), but I typically spend about thirty minutes prepping for each instructional period.  This gets me up to about 315 minutes of focused work each day (that's just over five hours).

A five hour work day?  Must be nice, right?  Well, you're forgetting the marking and you're also forgetting that a teacher's work day doesn't end at me instructing my own classes.  There are duties which can range from covering other absent teachers classes (this can be if they're sick but also if they're away coaching a team or taking a class on a field trip).  There are also lunch duties and other extracurricular expectations that take up hours in the day.  What the regular schedule allows for is teachers covering each other off and enabling a rich ecosystem of additional learning opportunities for students.  There are very few teachers in my building who aren't coaching teams, running committees ranging from graduation planning to career pathways and curriculum development, or managing school productions, clubs or other enrichment.  With all that piled on your typical teacher is at school from 8am to 4pm and then working on it outside of time at school too.

The good news about this year's adjusted schedule is that we're no longer pretending that cohorted hybrid classes are sustainable or credible.  Face to face instructional hours have been restored to something like normal but in order to do that our workplace (and our union) has demanded a radical increase in teacher productivity - during a pandemic where everyone is exhausted and more likely to be away ill themselves.  In order to make this condensed schedule work the contract was scrutinized and every possible moment of instructional time possible was stuffed in.  This timetable not only buries teachers under increased instructional workloads, it also thrusts students into marathon two-and-a-half-hour classes while removing any capacity for absenteeism or enrichment, which is contrary to what the Minister of Education said would happen in the summer.

We're still quadmestered, though why we are is a bit confusing.  The argument is that there is less mixing of students in a quadmestered schedule, but this is a shell game in terms of student mixing and it isn't true for teachers at all.  In a regular semester I'd be mixing with three classes of students every day.  In our current system I'm face to face with two classes in quadmester one and three classes in quadmester two - so the solution is to put me in front of more students during a pandemic?  And my union agrees?  My dues are too busy being focused on provincial political careers for me to expect support, I guess.

In the case of students, they might only have two instead of three classes per semester but they are also being encouraged to leave at lunch because we don't have the capacity to seat them all in class cohorts in the building, so any concept of cohorting students to reduce transmission evaporates at lunch time.  Even if they stay in the school to eat they are doing it unmasked in large rooms full of other unmasked people.  Even before they get to school, 80% of our students arrive on school buses with up to 37 students shoulder to shoulder on board.  In that environment there is little adult oversight (the adult on the bus is driving the thing), so masking compliance will be minimal.  If students aren't being cohorted at all other than in their classrooms, why run quadmesters with onerous productivity demands for teachers and untenable (and pedagogically questionable) marathon two and a half hour classes for students?

Why we're not back in a regular schedule is beyond me.  It would reduce workloads for teachers, enable the promised extracurriculars and give students that sense of normalcy that everyone keeps saying is so important.  With busing and unsupervised lunches off-site in the plan, we aren't strictly cohorting students when they're at school anyway.  This incoherent and absurdist COVID theatre is what I'm finding most draining about the pandemic.  We have absolute rules designed to protect everyone at all costs at certain times of the day and then do things that directly contradict them when we run out of capacity.  You don't dare contradict the rules unless you're the one making them.  And all this in a schedule designed to offer no overhead in terms of absenteeism or extracurricular capacity.  That my union is silent on this is something I'm finding increasingly impossible to forgive.

When we first got our new schedule (last week, a week before school started because once again we were given no central direction or support from the provincial government - actually it was all just cuts this summer), I was immediately concerned about how this year had been pieced together.  Our contract is based on a semestered system, so 225 minute instructional days are written in, but because this is written for semesters it doesn't recognize the imbalances implicit in a quadmestered system.  In my first quad I'm responsible for 2 x 2.5 hour classes - that's four regular periods of prep and assessment or a 25% bump in my workload.  They get around exceeding the contract's time limits by dropping other teachers into my classes and giving me a 37.5 minute prep time in each 2.5 hour class period.  When I finally get out of the always on quadmester I'm thrust into a coverage quadmester where I'm still having to prepare 2 x 75 minutes of instruction but I'm also expected to cover two other teacher's classes so they can get prep time.  I'm also supposed to cover unmasked students from many classes eating lunches.  There is a limit to how many coverages I can do in our contract but to get around that they've decided that the coverages we're doing aren't going to be called coverages and don't count as such.  The words in our contract literally don't mean anything any more and no language around quadmestering has been added even though we're in our second year of them.

My preps are now cut to confetti and reduced to 37.5 minute blocks covered by another teacher.  I also won't have access to my classroom to prepare equipment because students are already in it with another teacher, so my physical prep will have to happen outside of school hours.  My admin has done backflips to provide qualified support but we computer technology qualified teachers are thin on the ground.  I'm working with a new teacher in my department but he hasn't finished the senior qualifications for comp-tech yet so he's not qualified to cover and my afternoon class has a business teacher covering, so despite best efforts I still don't have qualified coverage.  On top of that, the schedule is so tight that there is no travel time for covering teachers doing these extra duties (but we're not going to call it extra duties and instead we'll use quadmestering as a means of ramping up work expectations), so my prep times will never be 37.5 minutes anyway.  When you stuff everything to capacity in a tight schedule leaks are inevitable, but don't worry, teachers will just jump into the gaps again even after already being pressurized systemically.

This always on schedule means there is no time for extracurriculars, or sports, or field trips or anything other than always on teaching.  And don't get sick and be away... during a pandemic.  I can't help but think this schedule is built on the assumption that we'll all be fully remote again.  If that sounds impossible, do a bit of research on Delta Variant"the Delta variant is more transmissible than the MERS, SARS, Ebola, the common cold, the seasonal flu, and smallpox viruses and is as contagious as chickenpox...  74% of infections with Delta took place during the pre-symptomatic phase, which means people spread the virus before knowing they are infected"   We're still doing daily screening even though Delta works around it because we're still clinging to the systems we developed last year to fight an entirely different COVID19.  More alarmingly, the provincial government has downgraded all masks for staff to level one ASTM and cut extra cleaning, so we're not even fighting spread as well as we did last year - against a variant that spreads significantly more efficiently.  Maybe overloading the schedule with the expectation of going remote (again, more than any other province in the country) is just the sort of cynicism we should all get used to.  I don't have time for cynicism as I'm more interested in not bringing home a pandemic to my medically compromised partner.

It was suggested to me that we can't back out of quadmesters now because they align with the in-again out-again needs of elearning students who might want to move between courses presented remotely and face to face as it suits them.  You can't do that in a semestered system but cut the schedule to confetti and you can have people dropping in and out of elearning as you like.  Sure, learning for everyone suffers, but quadmestering helps make mandatory elearning the new normal.  I don't know if this is true or not but it does align with the current government's intention to force elearning on all students regardless of whether it suits them or not.

I only have sympathy for the people at the board level trying to make this work.  It's like trying to weather a storm on a boat with no captain.  The sailors are doing the best they can with next to no direction and the ship has no one at the helm.  We're lost in rough seas and land is well out of sight.  With no control of my work situation, I'm slogging away on the lower decks as water rushes in.

This year I'm not going to climb back into the pot without realizing that it is a pot and it's set to boil.  For the sake of my own sanity and the well being of my family I have to take a step back and recognize that the only person who will save me is myself.  If you're teaching this year, making you your extracurriculars, especially when they have been scheduled out of existence, is how you might end up washed up on a beach instead of sinking under absurd expectations.

Friday, 3 September 2021

A Numbers Game

Can't say I'm a big fan of Marx, I'm more of a
Leibniz guy, but he's a useful tool for examining
the blind spots around systemic privilege.

One of the perils of having a degree in philosophy is that it provides you with a wide range of tools for dismantling bureaucratic doubletalk.  One of the most dangerous of these tools is Karl Marx.  I can't help but apply Marx' aggressive economic analysis to any idea from the powers that be being floated as, 'dismantling systemic prejudice'. This week in PD this reflex was twinged by how the upcoming destreaming of grade 9 mathematics is being framed in Ontario education.

The way destreaming was portrayed to us (in keeping with current educational value theory) is as anti-racist pedagogy.  We were earnestly told that destreaming destigmatizes our students of colour and sets them free from educational oppression.

It helps to live in a rich area that offers
limited access to specialist schools that
don't admit the proles if you want to science!
I'm no fan of streaming.  The myth of STEM and many other educational prejudices are founded on a university focused system being run by academics from that same privilege powered university system.  In extreme cases this ends up creating specialist urban academic schools that cater to privilege and create social barriers between people.  Some of the things that get said by people in these ivory towers would shock you - they aren't good for anyone.

I believe that there is a distinct advantage to running de-streamed classes.  The neuro-diversity in an open level class offers all students insight into how people other than themselves think and also offers a qualitative performance advantage when students can leverage many different thinking approaches rather than all following the same (terrifyingly tedious) route to a singular solution.  This implies open level classes are at least (if not more) pedagogically rigorous than current, streamed academic classes.  Having said all that, my last principal said that my open level classes 'were too difficult' and that I 'should make them easier' (even though we hadn't had a failure in years).  I've never found an open level de-streamed class an excuse to do less.  It's an opportunity for students to escape their intellectual ghettos and understand the world and how to solve it from many perspectives.  If only de-streaming were treated as a pedagogical tool rather than a financial one we'd see real advantages to de-streaming, but the cynic in me suspects that pedagogy isn't actually what's motivating de-streaming.

I teach technology courses and all my classes have been de-streamed forever.  Even my 'M' level supposedly post-secondary focused senior classes are typically filled with 10-20% essential students and an even split between applied and academic streams (I'm still capped like an academic class at 31 though).  What this means is that the system drops high-needs essential students in my class while offering no increase in resources to support these children.  In my experience, de-streaming is an excuse to offload more work onto teachers while pulling funding in sections and resources.

Ontario's current push to de-stream grade 9 mathematics is, I believe, a good idea, but I have little faith in the system doing it for the high-falutin equity ideals they claim are motivating them.  When equity is used as a marketing tool for financial oppression, no one wins, and when we're all sitting in larger classes with more diverse, higher-need learners and less resources to help them find success I can't help but wonder how the people marketing this can sleep at night.

The current representatives in Ontario government
are taking educational oppression to new heights.
A brutally honest Marxist analysis might look like this:

A school has 20 sections of grade 9 mathematics, 2 essential level, 10 applied level and 8 academic level classes.  Essential classes are currently capped at 21 out where I am in order to provide more support for these high-need learners.  Applied classes are capped at 23 and academic classes at 31.  I imagine you can see where this is going but I'll take you there anyway.

In our imaginary school this would result in 2 sections for 42 essential students, 10 sections for 230 applied students and 8 sections for 248 academic students.  That's 20 mathematics sections serving 520 students.  In our system, open level classes are capped at 27 students, so our 520 students would find themselves in 19 sections once de-streamed, which begs the question: are we doing this to save money or help students find success?  I know what Karl would say:  we're doing this in order to concentrate capital in the oppressing class while reducing the ability of the proletariat to upset systemic privilege.

I don't know what the caps are for these new, de-streamed classes, but if the system ignores its own class caps for open level classes and magically sets the class cap for de-streamed math at 28 or 29 students (changes like this always offer an opportunity to get more for less), suddenly our 520 students are being stuffed into even fewer sections and larger classes, which makes the whole 'we can decolonialize and produce greater equity in education by destreaming' angle look a bit disingenuous.

Ontario's de-streaming is being heavily marketed as an anti-colonial escape from systemic oppression,
and it could be if it isn't actually cost cutting lurking under an equity marketing banner.

There are genuine benefits to destreaming.  Prompting more neuro-diversity in a learning context offers rich alternatives to rote learning catering to the neuro-uniformity prompted by streamed classes.  Struggling students are surrounded by peers who can show them better habits and capable students can soak up rich opportunities to mentor while also exploring alternate pathways to solutions.  There is also an equity benefit in that everyone is humanized and formerly streamed students are less likely to look down on their peers or turn into teachers who dismiss blue collar subjects out of hand.

These advantages are predicated on de-streaming happening in order to nurture student success, not as the result of hidden financial imperatives designed to cut costs while marketing the whole exercise as the enlightened removal of systemic oppression.  If this really is a numbers game then everyone loses, and who loses the most?  The kids with less social privilege to begin with.

Monday, 23 August 2021

Project Management as a Fundamental Skillset

Unbeknownst to many in the education sector, project management has grown into a complex academic and applied discipline of study with clearly defined best practices and standards.  As technology continues to evolve and offer efficiencies in productivity, it has also prompted a revolution in project management that is becoming a foundational aspect of modern work life, but we don't teach it.

Last week Alanna and I presented on this foundational collaborative standard from two angles at the well attended ECOOCamp 2021 online Ontario educator's conference.  Alanna's recent post-graduate course covered project management from an academic/industry angle and my grade 11-12 software engineering class has basically become a project management course as a result of many students having had no contact with it in any other courses.  From those two angles we asked the big question, "why aren't project management best practices taught and used in public education?"

Like many aspects of modern work evolution, project management (PM) best practices aren't a focus of study in public education.  This is a disservice both to students and educators alike.  Following project management best practices means you're not wasting time in meetings that aren't meetings.  If a meeting isn't predicated on necessary two-way communication in order to reach a consensus, it's a bad meeting.  When was your last staff meeting about two-way/consensus building?  Teacher contempt for the the institution of the staff meeting would quickly fade if PM best practices were applied to them.

There are other obvious benefits to public education engaging with PM best practices.  If everyone on your staff has a clear idea of what they are responsible for, the timeframes and resources they have to work with, and access to support in order to meet expectations, your in-school projects will be more than an empty checklist and will actually engage and motivate your staff.

From the student angle, applying PM best practices allows for consistent, meaningful assessment of process while also ensuring better outcomes for student led projects.  When students graduate they're able to immediately understand and engage with post-secondary and workplace expectations around collaboration without being surprised by this world-wide literacy they've never been exposed to in class.  Why project management best practices haven't been integrated into curriculum across all disciplines is a very good question.

Modern PM leverages digital tools to achieve credible levels of clarity and shared purpose in group work.  In our presentation, Alanna leveraged the PM industry awareness she had just developed from her Instructional Design post-graduate course from Royal Roads University.  In our presentation Alanna explained Kanban and covered how it grew out of Japanese manufacturing management from the mid-twentieth century.  From there we introduced Trello, a virtual Kanban inspired online tool that helps remote groups organize, clarify and assign responsibility though an intuitive and remarkably high-fidelity online interface.

This all came about because, as Alanna was taking her project management course, she was listening to me behind her in our shared office applying PM best practices with my software engineering class.  The combination of my applied project management and the academic research Alanna was doing for the course produced the grist for our presentation:

Vague and inconsistent group project expectations
in student collaborative projects result in headaches
for both teachers and students.  You owe it to
yourself and your students to engage
 with PM best practices!
Teachers and students both struggle with collaboration.  From the assessment side, group work, especially without clearly defined guidelines and expectations, can quickly devolve into chaos where work is not even distributed and projects do not reflect collaboration so much as the efforts of one or two key people.  That happens to students in classrooms but it also happens in staff management.  One of the main benefits of following PM best practices is that group work isn't an excuse for doing less.  Individual accountability is obvious to everyone involved and this leads not only to satisfyingly successful collaborative work but also to an appreciation of your individual best efforts.  The students who struggle most in my class with project managements are the ones who have learned that they can Jedi Mind Trick their way through group work and do very little.  The leads quickly realize how important it is to clearly communicate consistent expectations and many quieter students in the class thrive because group activity isn't equated with having a big mouth.  There are real benefits to adopting these standards of project management excellence beyond just productivity.

Using PM best practices allows us to tackle complex
technology in groups and produce a rich, engaging
and ultimately successful student directed project
for a wider variety of students.
In our software engineering course students begin grade 11 by training in Unity game development and Blender 3d modelling.  These challenging technical skills were (I thought) the biggest hurdles, but it turns out they weren't at all.  We're at the point now where the grade 12s teach the technical training in only a couple of weeks and then support junior students in a live software development environment.  Students are able to produce complex, genuine software engineering and digital creativity with our process.  For the students committed to developing these high-demand skills, our technical training gets them there efficiently and supportively.

The big struggle turned out to be getting high school students to recognize why their project management strategies weren't working and providing guidance and tools that would support best project management practices, which most were unaware of.  When we looked at how group projects are developed in other classes, we found a wide range of approaches ranging from almost completely lacking in any organization or credibility to rote, restrictive, step-by-step strategies that offered no genuine management control by students and stifled creativity and self direction.  We couldn't find any other courses following industry standard project management and I struggled to find any on the staff side of the equation either.

Engaging with PM best practices and then giving your students the guidance and tools needed to successfully work together on collaborative projects is an individually empowering step that will help students not only in school, but when they graduate too.  I've had university students return and say that my open level technology course did more to prepare them for challenging university project work than any 'U' level class they took.  I've had college and apprenticeship students return with the same insight.  In case you think this doesn't apply to workplace students, I've had them return saying that this experience has gotten them jobs and helped them find promotion once employed.  This really is a 21st Century fluency we've missed.

If PM best practices started in classrooms, I'd hope at some point that they would begin to infect educational management as well.  I had a former department head tell me that she diligently kept receipts for the first couple of years of managing her department budget but eventually let it slide because the budgets they were operating under were frequently adjusted in the murky world of public sector accounting.  I've frequently been asked to do project work within the system where we are given no clear budget, timeline or even specific outcomes.  This kind of vagary produces frustration and disengagement in staff and students alike.  PM best practices not only result in greater individual engagement and positive morale, they also let you get stuff done fairly and effectively.

We had a great crowd at ECOOcamp and now we're going to aim the presentation at the Ontario Library Association super-conference.  If we can engage teachers to adopt PM best practices, their students will benefit in many ways.  If we can reach a critical mass in aligning public education with PM best practices, we could revolutionize the bureaucratically obscure system we're all living under and produce happier, more engaged staff who produce more efficient and effective projects.  I don't enjoy the disengaged, sardonic staff thing that happens in education.  If we could all believe in the system it would make for a more pedagogically meaningful working environment for all.  It just takes following PM best practices transparently to achieve.

The benefits of digital tools aligned with PM best practices also promises to raise the engagement and effectiveness of your online classroom.  With everyone on the same page in terms of expectations, and with rich online tools like Trello to intuitively interface with what's happening in group work, rich, meaningful learning can happen collaboratively, even in a remote setting.  In a digitally powered face to face classroom tools like Trello can keep students organized and focused on their specific tasks and responsibilities, leading to greater student project success.  Because the collaboration is transparent and meaningful it is also a genuine learning opportunity because each student's actions have a credible impact on the outcome.

Here's hoping project management best practices and professional understandings can find their way into our public education system sooner than later.


The presentation slide deck:

The Project Management Institute

"Project Management Institute (PMI) is the world's leading professional association for a growing community of millions of project professionals and changemakers worldwide."

Trello, a (free!) online project management tool:

Project Management 2nd Edition freely available text:

Online Resources for Project Managers:

Resource Management 101:  Guide for Project Managers:

Ontario Colleges Project Management Courses: