Sunday, 21 November 2021

Imitation Isn't That Flattering

Yoda didn't say that in a vacuum, he was an
attentive and differentiating instructor!
Over the past couple of years I suddenly find myself considered a 'senior teacher'.  You might think this comes with all sorts of resources like extra time to work on training other teachers where you can show them the tricks of the trade, but this is public education so you just do it for free.  You might think that it would result in a curriculum support role where you can prompt system-wide improvements based on your decades of classroom experience and pioneering curriculum development, but those jobs are all full-time permanent gigs for very specific people with criteria for admission that I don't evidently possess.

A previous principal told me that my classes are too difficult and I need to turn them down.  When I pointed out that no one had failed any of my courses since he'd arrived for his stint in our community, that held no weight with him; some students and parents want daycare, not education.  I have no interest in providing daycare so I simply ignored his misguided observation.  I get where it's coming from though, daycare is much cheaper to provide than education.

One of the things we do in my program is get into Arduino microcontrollers in grade 9.  Arduinos offer a tactile introduction to basic electronics circuit prototyping with breadboards and electronics components as well as a coding connection through the C++ based language that runs the microcontrollers.  I've been doing this long enough and in such a brutally honest reflective practice stance that I've gotten pretty good at it.  One of the things that less experienced teachers (which includes many admin) fixate on is the placement of responsibility for engaging with this hands-on learning on the student.  To the unaided eye this looks like I'm chucking them in the deep end and watching them drown, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Pulling apart tech to show students how it
works is a core learning tool in my computer
engineering program. Tech isn't magic!
I present this introduction to circuit building in a remarkably structured environment.  I build the first couple of circuits in front of the students, repeatedly reminding them how the electricity is passing around the circuit which also has the added benefit of showing them the stochastic nature of what we're doing.  Sometimes you do it all right but the part you're using is broken, so you have to approach everything critically, iteratively and with sensitivity and patience.  I then leave those working 3d examples in front of them to look at.  Modelling the work establishes with them that I know what I'm doing and encourages them to ask questions.  I also show them a pulled apart breadboard so they can begin wrapping their heads around how this new-to-them (though they spend their whole social lives on it these days) technology works.

It's that cognitive breakthrough that I'm actually looking for (the hands-on skills are just muscle memory practice).  Some students with strong tactile skills and good visual reasoning are able to imitate the circuits without understanding how they work.  This becomes a problem when they get into more complex circuits later in the unit.  When a student finally begins to see how the electrons are flowing, that's when they begin understanding basic circuit building in our applied technology class.  If you're not a teacher reading this, are you beginning to get a feel for the yawning gap between education and daycare?  Could you email the Ontario Minister of Education and fill him in on it too?

To support that hidden cognitive focus I'm on (metaphorical - health and safety would never go for it) roller-skates when I'm teaching grade 9s in the first day of circuit building.  Alanna knows these introduction to circuit building days are one of the toughest teaching days of my semester because I'm not focused on chucking everyone in the deep end and seeing how many fail, I'm focused on getting everyone from misplaced developmentally delayed students to the previously experienced and gifted (all dropped into the same open level tech course) over this challenging cognitive realization.

Some students require one on one support, some figure it out immediately. Some are able to imitate understanding through mimicry but then run into problems later.  I'm keeping a running tally of all of that in my head as I'm running round and round the room helping those who need it.  I'm doing all this by leveraging technical skills that took decades to hone along with teaching skills that have also taken decades to develop.  I understand that recognition is difficult for many, but just because you don't understand it doesn't mean you should simplify it so you can.

The sink-or-swim misunderstanding creeps back in when less experienced teachers watch me interact with students who aren't engaging with the material.  When the system-trained giver-upper waves me over and tells me they don't know what to do (after extensive set up and support), I don't cater to their apathy inspired edu-hack (ask the teacher to do it for them).  I'm often left wondering how they got 9 years into the system without anyone calling them on this weak move, but many 'teachers' are all about systemic success at all costs - it makes for good statistics and happy management.  I'm in this for the teaching - which is why I'll never find myself with the power to make system wide improvements.  For those edu-hacker students who have learned that helplessness gives them a free pass, I'll often prompt them quite roughly with something like, "you haven't even opened up the how-to webpage or attempted to build the circuit.  I'll come back when you decide to make an effort."

This often knocks them back on their heels.  A teacher expecting them to participate in their learning?  How dare they!  I'm going to get my mom to call the principal and tell him this needs to be easier (code: daycare).  Strangely enough, many of these reticent students end up gaining a great deal of confidence as they come to understand how to build circuits in in my thunderdome - it's the first chance they've had to experience a genuine sense of achievement.  No one learns anything from having other people do it for them, no matter how much cheaper that is at a systemic level.  It's a frustration that this myopia has infected people without enough classroom experience (or common sense) to know that it's nonsense.

https://twitter.com/JohnNosta/status/1462448960753352710
Fail fast only works if you have enough
skill to realize why you're failing. Failing
fast and clueless is both expensive & pointless.
Over the past couple of years I've watched several teachers imitate my approach and it ends up feeling like a rather embarrassing caricature drawing (my nose isn't that big - actually it is).  They see what looks like a rough approach that mulches students in order to look for talent, but this isn't that.  What's happening is that I'm creating a very structured situation for learning something hands-on and difficult (reality is a cruel teacher) while also placing the responsibility for engaging with it clearly where it belongs: on the student.

Another of the many supports in place are the GREEN BRICKS OF DOOM (!!!).  This is a spreadsheet that is put up on the projector showing who has completed what circuits (you get a greened out block in the spreadsheet when you show a working circuit).  It very quickly becomes apparent that some students are quicker than others, but I don't consider that a secret, I use it as a learning support.  If you're sitting next to the girl who has already done the circuit you're struggling with, ask them what's going wrong.  This also has the benefit of showing me those students who are faking an understanding rather than building their circuits based on deeper knowledge.  I've been told that slower students would find this mean, but they generally lean into the information as it helps them.  That is also recognizes students who are engaged and working it out is something I have no problem with.

I once used the term 'pedagogy' in context with a new administrator and she replied with, "pedagogy? what does that even mean anyway?"  I found this response frustrating though unsurprising from someone aimed at system management where you often have to enforce cost cutting measures that cause harm in order to do the job (something I'd be bad at and another reason why I'm never likely to have any system reach).  But wouldn't it be something if pedagogical best practices drove everything we did instead of being dismissed?  Perhaps then more people would have a better idea of what I'm doing in my classroom.

Teaching complex, technical skills is challenging, but you can provide supports without
taking away the immediacy of experiential learning. Some will struggle to understand it though.


Saturday, 30 October 2021

Peculiar, Chancy & Fluid

 Almost ten years ago I came across Matt Crawford's Shop Class As Soulcraft, a brilliant little book that helped frame the value of my tangible real-world skills after years of academic abstraction.  At that time I was changing gears from English to technology teaching and this book helped me reclaim my millwright apprenticeship and years of hands-on skills development in information technology I'd left behind when I wandered into ivory towers.

In addition to framing skills honed in the real world where results rather than opinion mattered (you can't fake brake repairs like you can literacy test scores), Crawford's philosophical treatise on manual skilled labour also explained the challenge of trying to manage in a situation where success criteria are both invented and met in a fictional world of plausible deniability:

"Crawford also does a brilliant dissection of the 'peculiarly chancy and fluid' life of the corporate manager (substitute administrator or educational consultant for equal value here). In a world with no objective means of assessing competence, the manager lives in a purgatory of abstraction using vague language "...staking out a position on all sides of a situation, so you always have plausible deniability of a failure." Crawford goes to great lengths to point out that this isn't done maliciously but rather as a means of psychic protection for the people trapped in this morass."

- Dusty World quoting Shop Class As Soul Craft back in 2012

This chancy and fluid nature has been stretched beyond breaking during the pandemic as the people running public education, sometimes in the same sentence, can offer completely contradictory direction.  From "students must maintain masked cohorts while in class" followed by: "everyone should leave the building in large unsupervised, unmasked groups at lunch" to the arbitrary rules around classroom layout (all tables must face the same way, unless we're trying to stuff 31 students into your room then you can ignore that), I've come to find that I don't thrive in a chancy and fluid world of conflicting rules.  The past two years in OntEd provides ample examples for another Milgram Obedience Experiment.

This was cast in a stark light in a recent online PD session my lovely partner attended on equity.  This is another wildly contradictory example of what is either cynical manipulation or peculiar, chancy and fluid management think:  equity matters, but pivot online during snow days even while we refuse to provide any connectivity or technology support for students in need.  When it costs something or requires effort, equity suddenly becomes quite diffuse.

In that PD session, Alanna noted that many of the people in 'lead' roles aren't walking the talk.  A righteous curriculum lead jumped in to tell her she was wrong and that everyone in administration got into it with the best intentions.  When I heard about it after I found this rhetoric interesting.  I don't doubt administrators get into it for all the right reasons (and never because classroom teaching was something that was beating them up causing them to look for an alternative).  I'm also not so oblivious as to think that administrators have any say in what is going to happen - they're middle management and are told what to do by people higher up.  What I am curious about is, if they're so intent on looking after students with best pedagogical practices, why they push directives that directly hurt student well being and learning.  This has happened a lot in the past two years.

As things have staggered back from the brink last year we continue to see irrational and often cruel decisions being made, often under the auspices of public health in order to prevent an ongoing pandemic health crisis, but they seldom make sense.  I set up my room with as many tables as I could stuff into it following public health requirements and then was told to change it out of compliance with those guidelines so we could stuff more students into the room... during a pandemic.  We're told we have to wear inferior, poorly sized PPE even when we're willing to bring our own superior, properly sized masks.  Staff are being made to cover (but don't call it coverage so we're in compliance with our contract that would have limited the number of coverages) other classes putting them in front of what can end up being hundreds of students every day in order to make a cruel, marathon class quadmestered schedule work.  A schedule that is utterly meaningless as students mix freely before and after school and at lunches every day.  Yesterday I watched a dozen boys leave a washroom together, most of them not wearing masks correctly, and walk back to different classrooms, so cohorts literally mean nothing at all even in the building.  The union is very proud of dunking our membership in this much face to face teaching every day in order to enable the contradictory and meaningless directives of a vindictive government.

Nothing makes sense and while much of it is irrational it's also hurting students.  An English colleague the other day told me her applied 2.5 hour class is one step away from complete chaos every day.  Many other teachers are noting the impossibility of covering curriculum in marathon classes that directly contradict the data we've collected on best practices around student learning.  When told to execute this cruelty everyone in management doesn't hesitate to make it happen though I'm sure they all got into it for the right reasons.

I've been reflecting on Dusty World this fall but the negativity of the posts has me not publishing them as I'm trying to find some sense of well-being in this ongoing mess.  Wallowing in the cruelty and absurdity of what we're doing won't get me there, but I still record what's happening because one day I hope the public education system does more than talk about student learning and wellbeing and actually acts on it.

These past two years have turned into a cautionary tale about what a vindictive government can do during a public health crisis.  They've also shown that the people running public education are willing to do whatever they're told even when it's contradictory and cruel.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, until education (and healthcare) can operate according to best practices rather than the whims of populist politicians, this will keep happening.  I need it to stop happening.  I can do good work when given the framework or even when the framework isn't actively working against me while trying to support student learning and well-being.

Not yet but 2022 is looming large.  COVID might be behind us by next summer, and if Ontario comes to its senses we might have a government that isn't so maliciously short sighted.

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.