Sunday, 20 June 2021

Equity Theatre, Safety Theatre, COVID19 Theatre: The Appearance of Caring

Wired had an insightful piece on diversity theatre in a recent issue that exposes the organizational lie behind equity programs trotted out by management to give the appearance of caring about current social issues.  

"Diversity theater creates a sense of dissonance: Workers have to represent the company publicly while feeling victimized by it privately; they must identify shortcomings but are punished for acting on them."

The frustation felt by people of colour who take on equity management roles only to discover that they aren't allowed to be critical of anything their employer does casts a harsh light on the game of appearing to care as a marketing promotion.  Actually caring and the systemic change it would prompt is something most organizations are unable or unwilling to do because most organizations exist as a result of some very one sided history, and no one is willing to hand back their systemic privalege.

This isn't just as private company gambit, public services are in the same boat.  Governments formed on the back of economic imperialism aren't willing to move from that position of privalege and dominance.  The primarily white, heteronomative, neurotypicals who roost in organizational management positions are more than happy to spend a pitance on theatrical appearances but would never risk their privaleged positions by pushing for true institutional change.

One of the thrills (for me at least though many others don't seem to be feeling it) in teaching is helping a student in less than ideal circumstances rise above their socio-economic station and get onto a pathway that best reflects their potential.  In the past year I've seen the public educaiton system in Ontario, already under attack from a hostile government, convulse under the weight of a mismanaged health emergency.  The people to blame for this exist at the highest levels of government and, in this particular government's case, have been ushered in to office by a misled electorate who have given them the power to deconstruct the few remaining equity processes in our public education system.  When they couldn't force the system to throw its least privaleged students under the bus, they simply leveraged a pandemic to do it for them; and the political organizations standing against them in public education capitulated in a panic.

I'm not so sure that it did any more.  COVID has been the hammer Ford wished for - everyone else in education has been outsmarted by the virus but Ford seems to be leveraging it.

Theatre is a great way to hammer home inequity while appearing to care.  COVID theatre is the current weapon of choice.  I just learned that we are doing quadmesters again in the fall.  It won't matter that all staff and most students will be vaccinated by then, it's easier to look like you care by throwing a radically inequitable schedule at students and staff and then sitting back to watch it mulch them, all the time saying that it shows how much you care about their safety.

We're facing an unprecidented number of failures in school this year.  I have strong students who have simply given up and fallen silent, and my heart is broken for them.  I'm willing to bet these students in particular are in the middle of family economic crises with parents laid off due to the pandemic, and/or the loss of family members, and/or depression from the lack of genuine social contact for over a year now.  Even with all that happening, I'm hearing from even the strongest students that they are being run into the ground by twelve plus hours a day of maths work as teachers desperately try to jam 110 hours of complex instruction through the key-hole of emergency remote learning in wildly inequitable situations.  STEM is for the rich and privaleged who have the time and space to keep up with the workload.

Many parents of students with IEPs have told me of the crisis their children are experiencing at the hands of a system determined to play the COVID-theatre of business-as-usual in education.  Watching (usually young, energetic teachers looking for contract sections) pipe up about how there are real advantages to quadmestered teaching is laughable, but one of the best ways to get into a system is to help it support its myths.  This slight of hand is heartbreaking and deeply personal because I'm a parent of a student with special needs.  When your child's IEP specifically states they need extra time to work on material and you see teacher after teacher running them off the treadmill of quadmestered/reduced time/accelerated learning, you have to wonder where everyone's heads are at.  Compassion should lie at the heart of equity but it seems that compassion is in short supply over a year into this pandemic.

Last spring we magically passed everyone even though the system lurched into fully remote emergency learning completely unprepared.  After being run through face to face learning only to be pulled out again and again this year when school driven pandemic spread was proven to be the engine driving our provincial disaster, the validity of 'credits' in the 2020/21 school year is, at best, questionable.

Even when we were face to face (in masks, distanced) students were still expected to spend half of their course learning remotely.  The other half had them in barely functioning face to face cohorts where they were being taught in madly restricted classrooms by exhausted teachers trying to be in two places at once.  In the insane year I'm just staggering to the end of I never once had a covering teacher, either online or in person, who was qualified to teach my subject.  I never once even had a technology teacher covering me in live classes so that students could keep using tools and equipment in what little face to face instructional time they did have.

Quadmestered face to face teaching meant two 2.5 hour continuous instructional periods everyday where, if I had to duck out to use the washroom, I was putting my students at risk leaving them with a teacher (sometimes they weren't even teachers) who were unqualified to monitor safety in the room.  Safety-theatre is another one of these smoke and mirror games organizations like to play where (as long as it doesn't mean any extra work for them) they'll put you in a position where you'll do extra to keep things working to the point of hurting yourself, like I did this year.  Had anyone been injured you can bet I'd have had contract specifics being quoted at me as blame was leveled, regardless of the arbitrary nature of all the safety theatre.

Each of those 2.5 hour face to face instructional periods without qualified relief wasn't the only ball I was juggling.  Simultaneously I was also setting up remote learning and monitoring that, because every teacher I was partnered with was unqualified to teach my subject area and usually took that opportunity to fade away and leave me trying to be in two places at once.  Students in my current remote class don't know who our elearning support teacher is because they've never seen her.  Multiple calls to my union were met with silence and I've since stepped back from the position of CBC rep because I'm not sure I actually have a union anymore.

Theatre runs thick in our union too.  This spring at AMPA, the yearly provinical gathering of regional representatives, members of colour were kicked out of the online event for having virtual avatars on their accounts that upset the always-white provinical management.  White supremacy, as described on those avatars, wasn't an over the top suggestion but it hurt the feelings of the delicate white people in charge and so they banned those members of colour.  We've since had it explained to us (multiple times by old white people in charge) that those members broke the parlimentary rules everyone agreed to abide by and that's why they were removed.  They then voted in another white president, though it is a woman and we've only had two of those in a century, so little steps.  The woman of colour who could lead us into a more equitable future was convulsed out of contention as this old Canadian organization does what old Canadian organizations do best: cling to colonial prejudices when it best suits the people running them.

In reference to the attempts to address systemic racism in one of the biggest boards in the proivnce, a member of colour said they felt like OSSTF provincial was weaponizing our own consitution against us.  I've been seeing that side of OSSTF since 2012.  Maybe one day we'll put aside the equity theatre and actually be equitable.  Any mention of this online whips senior (white) union management into a, "you're a union basher!" stance.  I can assure you I am not, but I'm no fan of the status quo and they shouldn't be either.  Instead of weaponizing an archaic paliamentary system that keeps the status quo intact, perhaps we should be looking for ways to rejig the system so it's actually more equitable and representative of all members.  That isn't just something my union should do, it's something our not-so-representative Canadian governments should do too.

The hair-trigger decision to go with quadmestered classes in the fall even though we're not sure where we'll be by then and case numbers continue to fall even as the province opens up thanks to a vaccination system that is finally working is, at best, short-sighted.  It plays the COVID theatre game by showing how serious everyone is about safety while ignoring the gross inequities of quadmestered scheduling.  It also happens to reuse all the planning done last year but I'm sure that easy way out wasn't what prompted the decision.  Someone decided that students with special needs or the ones under durress at home can burn for another inequitable, unsustainable quadmestered school year for valid, pedagogical reasons, I'm sure.

Meanwhile, front line workers will get dunked into another year of unsustainable and inequitable work overload.  Attempting to be in two places at once (for me at least, for many teachers with smaller classes it's an easier ride) is absolutely harrowing.  COVID theatre will also demand that everyone wear masks in a one-size-fits-all organization in poorly ventilated rooms not because vaccinations don't work (they do), but because it's important to look like we're doing something.

We'll probably have a lot of well-meaning (is it well-meaning if it's theatre?) equity PD again this year even as we roll out a schedule that (once again) systemically attacks students with special needs or who lack the privalege needed to effectively leverage remote learning.  It'll once again be left to individuals on the front lines to make up for this systemic failure by trying to bridge the pedgagocial gaps we've opened up.  The theatre of cruelty isn't over yet.

It's not over - it may never be over.  That lack of hope is corrosive.  Some leadership that embraces hope would be... magical.


Monday, 24 May 2021

Do Or Do Not: 2021 Competition Season Reflection

The competition season is finally winding down.  Student competition is one of my favourite parts about being a teacher.  It allows for radical differentiation in a wide variety of directions, shines a light on my gotta-market-it-or-it'll-die program and helps guide our program development by clarifying what we're already covering and pointing us in the direction of emerging digital trends.

I got a good piece of advice from a prof at Nipissing teacher's college back in 2003.  We were all struggling to get through a dense curriculum when he suggested I leverage my computer skills to take a swing at Statistics Canada's yearly awards for post-secondary research (you might have noticed Stats-Can coming up in Dusty world a fair bit - that's why).  We were using Stats-Can to research the communities our practicums were in and I found the data gave me a better understanding of my teaching environment, but doing the contest seemed like more than I could manage at the time.

My professor, John Lundy, said, "you've almost talked yourself out of doing this but so has everyone else.  If you stay with it you might be surprised at the results.  You'd be amazed how often you can win things by sticking with it."  It was good advice.  I stuck it out and the award paid for my last semester at teacher's college.  You'd be amazed how often you can win things just but toughing it out and not giving up.

When I picked up teaching computer technology almost a decade ago we stumbled across a robotics competition at Conestoga College and gave it a shot - and medalled!  I'd been supporting students in media arts at Skills Ontario so I looked at all the digital competitions and started lining us up for them.  As a new teacher attempting to deliver a ridiculously far-reaching curriculum I found competition invaluable for directing our research and development.  Ontario covers IT, networking, electronics, robotics and low and high level programming in the computer technology curriculum.  All of those things would have their own program in any other subject.  No teacher has advanced expertise in all of them (my background is in IT), so Skills Ontario in particularly really helped us get our program into focus and allowed me to differentiate for students developing in those many diverse pathways.

Students almost always doubted their ability to participate let alone compete, even when we found ourselves at national finals, but I was always able to pass on that simple advice:  give it a shot, see what happens.  This consistent approach, though quite minimalist in appearance, has paid dividends.


I'd spent many years coaching various sports teams in school prior to shifting my focus to program based technical competitions.  For many students sports are the hook that keeps them in school but I found that it often ended up providing entertainment for the most privileged students (you don't have time for practices and games four days a week when you're working).  The technology competitions we participate in are accessible to all students and I've seen them raise kids out of difficult home lives and launch them into meaningful careers, so there is equity in this as well.

This year the show-up-when-everyone-else-is-looking-for-reasons-not-to approach has been greatly amplified.  While COVID has caused particular suffering in marginalized populations, it has also dampened the enthusiasm of privileged schools who leverage their socio-economic advantage to win competitions.  Those privileged schools haven't developed the resiliency needed to push back against disparities like those caused by the pandemic and have evaporated from competition, leaving opportunities for the rest of us.

At the Canadian Cyber Defence Challenge our two teams finished well into the top 10, in 6th and 7th place with our female team once again showing the value of communication skills in the field of cybersecurity.  I like CCDC for their multi-pronged approach to cyber defence.  They don't just run it like a hack-a-thon but place emphasis on the team's ability to communicate their technical findings to non-technical management, which is very much a real world aspect of cybersecurity that gets ignored elsewhere.

The girls finished behind the boys in technical scoring but overtook them in the communications round, once again emphasizing for me how important it is to have a gender diverse team that leverages the strengths inherent in different values and approaches.  I'm once again trying to figure out how to develop co-ed approaches to team competition that appreciate the value of diverse and complimentary skills - boys, especially high school boys, can be difficult to work with and present an on-going barrier to this approach.


We were gutted last year to see Skills Ontario vanish in the chaos of the first wave of COVID19.  We had the most finalists in our short history lined up for the 2020 provincial finals and several gold-medal prospects.  It was heart wrenching to see those opportunities borne from years of effort fade away.  A competitive Skills Ontario student takes years to develop so losing an opportunity to compete isn't the loss of a single year of effort.

Skills Ontario was still very much a
'hands on' competition, even in this
year of COVID remote schooling.
This year the organizers have done a spectacular job keeping as many competitions running as they could remotely.  This is especially challenging in a hands-on technical skills competition where many of the students are working with tools, live electricity and other safety challenges, but Skills Ontario pulled it off magnificently.

When our electronics competitor, Rhys, got a package in the mail for electronics engineering I was buoyed by the hope that these weren't going to be all screen based simulations.  We do well on tactile skills at Skills so seeing them retained was encouraging.

It didn't start well though.  Many students are struggling with work life balance in harsh and inequitable quadmestered hybrid scheduling.  Web development is a tricky competition as it's half technical/back-end coding and data management and half front-end graphic design, marketing and ergonomics.  We had one of the most ambidextrous technical and artistic students yet lined up to do it but she couldn't participate due to pandemic related stressors.  I had a graduating student who was already working as a web-developer in the summers.  He didn't have the graphic design skills but he was spectacular at back-end programming and would have been very competitive, but he ended up dropping out due to crushing homework loads that he thought, "should be illegal".  So, our first Skills competition of the 2021 season was also our first ever DNF.

This induced a great deal of anxiety in me.  I coach in these events to engage and enable students, not to make them feel like they're being run over, I shouldn't have worried though.  The next week Max and Russell cranked out our first run at Geography Information Systems (GIS).  We don't work with GIS and didn't know what it was two years ago, but last year we had two students leverage the digital skills we develop in class and figure out the software.  Max continued in it this year and when paired with the incredibly technically talented Russell, they both did a great job winning a bronze medal!

Two days later two of our top digital artists from last year's gamedev class took a run at 3d Character Animation.  This was another competition that we don't cover in our curriculum, though our game development class uses Blender 3d modelling and the Unity game engine, so I thought we might be able to bridge that gap.  Evan and Alexander worked away at their animation over the weekend and submitted the minimum six seconds of work by the due date.  They didn't medal but I hope they placed.

The next week we were in a three day marathon with our three core competitions:  electronics engineering on Tuesday, IT & Networking on Wednesday and Coding on Thursday.  Rhys volunteered to take a swing at electronics.  Being new to secondary competition and only in grade 9 I signed him up as a no-stress reconnaissance of the competition, but I've learned never to underestimate Rhys who astonished everyone with our first ever silver medal at Skills provincials!  Wyatt is one of our most talented IT technicians to date, and we've had many.  He was worried that he'd fumbled the competition in his first run at it online, but I suspected even a bad day for Wyatt was better than most people's good days.  That turned out to the be the case as Wyatt kept our string of five consecutive Skills Ontario medals in IT & Networking alive with a bronze medal.

On the final day the mighty Matteo, who was also still competing in the national finals of CCDC, did Skills Ontario's coding provincial finals.  I've thrown exceptional students at this previously and we'd broken into the top ten but with our school shuttering on-site computer science I've been left as the only teacher in the building covering coding, which seems incredible in 2021.  While juggling CCDC (I had to get him excused from Skills for twenty minutes to present to the judges in CCDC finals), Matteo battled to an astonishing silver medal finish in what is always a very crowded and competitive Skills Ontario competition.

Four out of six (it would have been five if we could have stuck the webdev) is a spectacular run for a program that had only previously cracked IT & Networking.  I'm hoping we can build on this momentum next year as every one of our medalists is returning.


With Skills Ontario behind us we turned to CyberTitan National Finals this past week where our senior co-ed, female captained team was potentially dangerous and our all-female top wild card team simply wanted to do their best and enjoy what would be the second and final national finals event for the senior Terabytches who started the team and changed the complexion of the event three years ago.

My son Max and I were watching the awards ceremony online on Wednesday afternoon.  This event feels like battling giants because the schools we're up against are specialists with access to resources we can only dream about.  I was eating pie and waiting to see who won when I was astonished to see FalconTech Plagueware being awarded the Cyber Defender Award.  I frantically started searching for my competition t-shirt so I could have it on as asked when we went live for an interview.

We've had more academically focused teams (our two 5th place finishing teams in 2018 and 2020 for example) in this competition, but Plagueware is by far the most diverse.  Our team captain (the webdev artist/technician) is a Cisco networking wizard who got some of the highest scores in Canada during CyberPatriot - and she's in grade 10!  Unfortunately, that network architecture skillset doesn't get any exercise at CyberTitan nationals.  Our Skills coding silver medalist is on the team as is our Skills GIS bronze medalist.  The team also contains one of the team members from last year's 5th place team who connected us to that team's skills and experience, along with our first ever grade 9 to get a perfect score in Windows 10 on CyberPatriot and the coop student who ran our award winning junior team last year.

Plagueware are an incredibly diverse and talented group.  A third of the team are applied stream students who couldn't even get into the schools we're up against.  A third of the team are autistic and the majority of the team have individual education plans due to special leaning needs.  From the academic streamist's point of view this team wouldn't rate, and yet they finished 4th in Canada beating most of the competition.  Their audacity and out-of-the-box thinking also won them the Defender of the Year award for the team the judges felt demonstrated the most innovative and team based approach.

That result has me thinking about how to remix teams for a wider range of skills and approaches.  As our first Terabytches graduate I'm thinking maybe it's time to work towards co-ed teams that offer a complimentary set of skills that make students not only competitive but also valued for their differences.

Convincing students to take the risk and compete against students from other boards and provinces gives me a barometer for how effective our program is and offers support and direction as we continue to develop skills in a wide variety of digital disciplines.  For students these experiences can be defining both in developing confidence and technical fluency.  This approach benefits students in all streams and offers both a tool for equity by providing enrichment for students who can't otherwise afford to participate in extracurriculars.

The most difficult part remains convincing students to give it a go, but when they do they often see great success just by giving it a shot.  If you are interested in developing digital fluency in your students there are a variety of competitions available that can help you make that happen for little or no cost.


COMPETITION LINKS

Skills Ontario:  These are the scopes for competition (they describe what each competition is about and how it will run): https://www.skillsontario.com/competitions/secondary/scopes
Whatever you teach, Skills will have a competition that aligns with your curriculum.

CyberTitan: National Student Cybersecurity Competition.  CyberTitan is the Canadian arm of the international U.S. based CyberPatriot competition.  It costs a couple of hundred dollars to participate but the students get a lot of cyber-swag and the competition is very well run and accessible.  The event runs from October to January in three rounds that can happen as an in-school field trip.

Canadian Cyber Defence Challenge:  CCDC runs out of Winnipeg and has good pickup in Western Canada, though I think we still may be the only team east of Winnipeg participating in it.  It is a very accessible and innovative competition with live drama student performances bringing the competition to life and a points assessment that includes quality of student understanding that prevents schools who are scripting their wins from doing well.

CanHack:  based on the PicoCTF U.S. based cyber competition.  It's very computer science/mathematics based and would work well as an enhancement for any comp-sci program.  With no local comp-sci at our school, we use this competition to help fill that hole.

ECOO Programming Contest:  another comp-sci/maths focused contest.  We haven't done it because the math department usually does it, or doesn't.



Saturday, 24 April 2021

Academic Gatekeeping In a Pandemic

What's our job as teachers?  Curriculum police?  Guardians of the ivory towers of academia?  Throughout the pandemic I've had students telling me tales of woe around their core subjects (English, maths & science), all three of which are seem to be chasing curriculum at all costs with radically reduced resources, most especially time.  They seem intent on making up for these shortcomings by burying students in work at a time when many of them are frazzled to the point of ineffectiveness.

In a normal semester you take 75 minutes of instruction a day, have another hour of possible enrichment at lunch or before/after school, and then have time after school for homework that reviews small, 75 minute segments of new learning.  Even in those good times that homework expectation gets my back up.  Teachers who dump an hour of homework on a student each night are part of a cabal that believes that students should spend five hours a day taking in-school instruction and then another four hours a night doing homework (students take four subjects per day).  These nine hour days aren't sit-in-an-office-and-stare-out-the-window situations, they're paying focused attention while developing new knowledge and skills hours, which makes them very tiring.  Even at the best of times that homework load isn't humane, nor is it equitable.

Public education serves everyone and doing so
doesn't make it anti-excellence. A system that
selects the top students based on their socio-
economic status isn't equitable, nor is it doing
what public education is supposed to be doing.
Got a job?  Got other family commitments? The homework cabal doesn't care.  Their job is to shake the tree of dead fruit and only send the most privileged specimens on to the glorified halls of post-secondary academia.  This is in direct conflict with what I believe the function of public education to be:  to maximize the potential of every student and point them towards a more fulfilling life that makes best use of their abilities.  The fact that the socio-economic privilege that supports the homework cabal usually falls to white, hetero-normative, cis gendered, neuro-typical, male students isn't their problem; academic credibility must be maintained at all costs!

I was once one of those dead fruits.  I have no doubt that I struggled in high school with maths and science because I was also working full-time hours in order to help my parents pay their mortgage through senior high school.  Being undiagnosed as neuro-atypical didn't help either but calling a student lazy and unfocused is much easier than identifying their neuro-diversity or acknowledging socio-economic disparities.

I can recall my core subject report cards commenting on my lack of focus, but then I was working until mid-night every day before coming in to school the next morning, though that didn't stop teachers from bracketing me as a weak student and directing me out of university bound pathways (I've since earned 2 degrees).

During the pandemic our typical six month semesters have been crammed into 10 week quad-mesters, each week being a drink-from-the-firehose two and a half hour marathon in-class session followed by another two and a half hour marathon remote learning session, whether you've got the tech and circumstances at home to do it or not.  What was once a classist, inequitable system has doubled down on that approach during COVID19.  Now that we're fully remote again for the third time those inequities are further amplified.

Mountains have been moved to try and address the digital divide, but sending a Chromebook home isn't going to resolve generational socio-economic dysfunction and systemic-repression, and digital literacy has much more to it than whether or not you have access to a computer.  Our unwillingness to make digital fluency a foundational skill in our classrooms has put us in a situation where we are expecting  students to complete over half of their instruction in a course in an environment where the vast majority (teachers included) barely have a working knowledge, let alone fluency.  While fully remote it also makes wild assumptions about student and teacher home lives and what they are able to achieve through the bottle-necked, undersupported and overburdened medium of elearning.

We're currently in another wave of COVID19 prompted by a dysfunctional Ontario government and I'm coaching students in a series of virtual Skills Ontario competitions while instruction is fully remote..  Extracurriculars are nearly impossible this year with the viscous schedule and unapologetic work loads that teachers desperate to meet curriculum requirements are unloading on students.  One of my competitors just dropped out because his calculus class (in addition to virtual instruction all day) is expecting late night homework marathons every night.

If you usually give an hour of homework for a seventy-five minute class spread over six months in a normal semester, you're handing out over four hours of homework per day every day in our cramped quadmestered schedule where every day is the equivalent of 4.2 days of normal instruction.  Core subject teachers with their mandatorily loaded classes seem particularly determined to drive students through their full curriculum by depending almost entirely on overloading students with an avalanche of work.  When your subject is guaranteed to run regardless of how you approach it, that academic credibility seems to become an excuse for inequity.

This academic gate-keeping seems particularly acute in the core subjects where rigorously dictated curriculums have teachers worried about students in future classes if they don't have the fundamentals down.  This year I've had students from grades 9 to 12 tell me that they can't do my course work on the week I'm teaching them because their English/maths/science teacher left them homework for their off-week.  So much for us all being in this together.