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.

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.

Accidental Engineers: Making Technology And Engineering Accessible to All

In one of those strange coincidences that seem to be happening a lot lately, I read an article in Wired Magazine about the secret development of the F14 Tomcat fighter plane, which had a complex micro-processor controlling many aspects of this incredible plane years before Intel invented the 'first microprocessor'.  I love hidden histories like this that show how technology actually evolved rather than depending on corporate revisionist history.

Wireds' article on the engineer that almost wasn't who helped
to develop the world's first micro-processor speaks to the
academic prejudice that still fuels our schools.
The article highlighted Ray Holt, an 'accidental' engineer who played a pivotal role in physically creating this ground-breaking piece of technology.  Ray was discounted in high school and deflected out of STEM pathways in much the same way I was.  It's a 'do it our way or forget about it' approach in most high school STEM classes.  That experience is why I teach technology in the way that I do.

The article describes how Ray, this groundbreaking engineer, found his way into education.  His approach in teaching it is very similar to my own:

“We are trying to find out what the kids are really interested in, Some like to build, some like to program, some like electricity.”  

I've developed this to the point where my senior students can weigh their marks in each area of the course (computer technology curriculum is absurdly wide-ranging from electronics engineering to coding to information technology to robotics - each of which would be its own program in post-secondary), so that they can focus on their specialty without being swamped by a vague and capricious curriculum.  I could get all academically rigorous about it and hold their feet in the fire through all aspects of the curriculum, but that isn't realistic, nor is it humane.

I'm also all about the underdogs, to the point where my program logo is a junkyard dog.  Helping socio-economically disadvantaged or neuro-atypical or non-gender-normative students find their way into technology is one of the things that drives me.  I love that we come out of nowhere at national events from a composite, rural, community school representing students that wouldn't even be admitted to the schools who we often compete against... and beat.

One of the ways I make sure that my optional, open level, pathways driven program is accessible and equitable is to not tie it up in time and engagement expectations so absurd that only the privileged can access them.  I only wish core subject teachers would take a moment to consider the inequitable nature of their academic rigour and rejig things so that more people can explore opportunities in these fields without feeling like they're too poor to access them.  It's not like my approach isn't producing academic excellence, and it's done without systemically removing students who can't supplement their public education with their privilege.



The Illusion of a Functioning Public Education System in a Pandemic


I was talking to one of the
 smartest people I know last week and she described the education system as being built of popsicle sticks and tape.  This past year has thrown that into a stark light.  The amount of hours we instruct don't matter.  Having a qualified teacher teaching doesn't matter.  The quality of instruction is irrelevant and even ensuring that students have the circumstances needed to learn doesn't matter.


We're now fully remote again for the third time with no time to prepare and, a year into the pandemic I'm still seeing students who, due to circumstances at home, don't have the time, space or tech to do remote learning, but that isn't what the illusionists who keep up the fiction of a credible education system want to talk about.  The fix is to pile on on inequitable and wildly unfair expectations just to keep up the fiction of a credible school system.  It'll pay off for the privileged students, so I guess it's really just business as usual.

Whenever we have a moment we seem to be talking about equity in PD sessions in school this year but it always just seems to be talk.  Every day we practice wildly inequitable actions in education without a second thought.  IEPed students who are supposed to be given extra time aren't because of the quadmestered schedule and students without a functional learning environment at home are simply out of luck - but the grades keep rolling over them; grading for privilege isn't new but it's amplified in COVID.

During face to face instruction in this pandemic these inequities are exacerbated by a schedule that's half remote and relentlessly unsustainable as it attempts to cover 4.2 days of regular class every day, only half of it face to face and even that half isn't really face to face.

When we go fully remote we push even further in the direction of inequity, all just to keep the fiction of an academically credible public education system alive.  There is so much more to public education than this cruel metric based on students attempting to chase education illusions from home.

That a it took a pandemic to highlight this house of cards is telling.  Even when it's over you can't expect equity, just slightly less inequity.  Meanwhile the toxic positivists are loudly declaring that some students thrive in this brave new world.  If they are then they're rich and secure and able to operate without IEP needs.  I'm not sure that those students need to be put on a pedestal, society will do that for them for their entire lives.

We're into the final quad-mester of the worst year of teaching I've ever experienced.  I'm no longer interested in academic rigour.  I'm interested in making sure all my students are able to make it to the end of this cruel and inequitable social experiment without feeling like they are being run into the ground by circumstances beyond their control.