Sunday, 11 July 2021

Recognizing Your Own Accomplishments

 I've written a number of negative end-of-year reflections on this absurd year of teaching and not shared them because swimming in those waters is poisonous.  I'm glad I was able to write and reflect them out of me though.  They're hanging in the blogger draft space and I might just let them loose one day in the future when the idiocy of this past year is a distant memory.  I think it's important to critically assess everything that went wrong in this human disaster in the hopes that it won't happen again.

On Friday I attended a webinar put on by a group of professional creatives that focused on recognizing your own accomplishments.  This group formed to look at ways of maintaining creative output for a living.  This isn't something most people have to worry about since their jobs are quite prescribed.  For too many teachers their teaching is prescribed but I've never been a fan of that approach.  For me teaching is a creative, never-rote activity and talking to professional musicians and visual artists helps me find the capacity to teach in the ever-evolving way that I want to.

I struggle with public acknowledgement of accomplishments.  I don't do what I do for accolades and I prefer to step out of the way and let students take the limelight.  As long as I'm able to find the resources we need to be successful then I couldn't care less about acknowledgement, except acknowledgement is frequently a mechanism that has brought us the resources we need to succeed so dismissing it out of hand isn't sensible.

In listening to the artists in this webinar talk about their wins, I still struggled with the idea that this just sounds like tooting your own horn.  Creative output, for me at least, always comes with a healthy dose of humility.  Having crushed any rose-coloured glasses I'm able to get on with the difficult job of creation without any delusions, but this isn't very marketable and marketing kept cropping up in discussion.  Does creativity have to include suffering?  Can you be clear eyed about your creativity or is being creative inherently delusional?

The other side to this harshness in terms of metacognitively accepting and being able to speak productively about accomplishments is that not being able to recognize your accomplishments can hurt you psychologically and ultimately make you uncreative and unproductive.  If you fall into a depression over abuse or unfairness then you won't be able to do what you do.  Striking a balance with recognition of accomplishments is both a personal mental health and a being a functional creative issue.


From any rational point of view I should be viewing this past year as a towering success in my career.  My students fought their way to two places in the national finals of the CyberTitan Canadian National Student Cybersecurity Competition and both overcame all sorts of adversity in order to produce our best results ever.  Being top ten twice out of over 150 teams should be something we acknowledge positively.

Over in Skills Ontario we did backflips to keep student competitors engaged and although we had one competition drop out, the others performed exceptionally well.  We'd only ever won medals in IT & Networking previously but we didn't just keep our string of IT medals going for a fifth consecutive year, we also won our first provincial medals in electronics, coding and GIS as well.  That too deserves positive reflection that encourages future attempts.

Meanwhile, from a classroom teaching perspective, we managed to retain very high engagement rates in this rudderless year of hybrid simultaneous face to face and remote or fully remote learning.  Even in the final quadmester our fully-remote (again) and exhausted game-development students produced fantastic examples of what digitally fluent Ontario high school students are capable of.  We also punched through to new heights in terms of student achievement while also saving those that were drowning in the sea of systemic failure.  I couldn't see that though because what we were doing was only ever a fraction of what we normally do in a school year.

As a teacher I suddenly found myself being put up for awards and winning them.  NCWIT not only awarded two of our graduating women in technology their provincial award but also acknowledged me as a 2021 educator of the year for supporting girls in technology and engineering.  Then my board gave me an Everyday Hero Award and OTIP let me know I was an honourable mention in their provincial teacher award.  These are the hardest for me to talk about because my reflex is to step back and let students take the accolades, but the support of parents and students in writing those applications means the world to me so ignoring them is neither appropriate nor appreciative.

I've been unable to give these things the positive reflection they deserve because of the cruel year we've just been dragged through.  Next year doesn't look much better with the same sabotaging political mismanagement in an education system paralyzed by our own political failures, but if I let the good things fade into the malaise from all these elements beyond my control then I'm lost.

I've put down several extra jobs this summer in order to find my mojo again.  I can't go back into the classroom having lost all hope in the credibility of our education system.  If I can get my feet under me again I can stand up and fight for what matters for another year.

When the education system fell apart around me and work became frustration piled on frustration I found a creative outlet to release myself through.  Starting last fall I was up at 4am every morning when work anxiety wasn't letting me sleep writing and I'm now 160,000+ words into a novel that I never thought I'd find the time to write.

I'm energized by teaching because it lets me pour my efforts into something that is difficult, important and credible, ideally while being surrounded by people doing the same meaningful work without pretense.  With credibility circling the drain this year and pretense the new normal, I needed to do something real that wouldn't take anything other than my best effort.

I prefer to put my energy into something I believe in and that appreciates and respects that commitment.  When I couldn't find that at school I did what I could to help and refocused my energy on this creative writing project that had no room for pretense.  Should anyone ever read the book I think they will find the frustrations of the last year written into it large.  France's collapse in 1940 against the German Blitzkrieg has many parallels with Ontario's approach to COVID19 in the past year.


Dusty World is going on hiatus for the summer and I'm going to focus on finishing the novel.  Now that I've gotten this negativity out of me I don't need to carry it any more and I'm putting down teaching at least until the ECOO Conference in August because even in a year when I've lost faith in education I still can't help but go above and beyond and start my school year weeks early in hopes of making it better for everyone.

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Hiding History Behind Politics

History isn't just an informational subject, it's also very much about critical media literacy.  Trying to get a clear view of history through what's left to us is nearly impossible because human beings will immediately want to spin it for their own benefit.  These prejudices come from the people at the time, the people who decided what survives and the people in charge now.  This propagandist approach has a great deal of power when applied to the study of national history because it produces dangerous byproducts, like patriotism based on national myths that systemically exclude whole swaths of our society.

This is the cover of Flashback Canada, the history book they handed me to teach a grade 8 class during my teaching practicum in Peel in 2003.  I wasn't a Canadian citizen when this piece of propaganda was handed to me and I was told, as an agent of the system, to indoctrinate the class (most of whom were also new Canadians) with this violently untrue rendition of Canadian Federation.

I can't find the full illustration from inside the book (it's a two page spread!) but I recall it had indigenous groups in traditional garb, unaccompanied women and many BIPOC characters fictionally back-written into the narrative of a multi-cultural Canadian history that never happened.  Teaching this "we've always been multi-cultural" myth of Canada made me very uncomfortable so instead of teaching the text I found some other historical images of Confederation done close to the time and then the students and I looked at the differences between the textbook's rendition and other historical documents.  As you might have guessed, Canadian Confederation in 1867 was a lot of white dudes (because they were the only people considered as people under the law - no one else could vote or politically mattered):

How did this play with a lively, very multi-cultural class of grade 8s in 2003?  Code-switching wasn't a common term back then but many of the BIPOC students talked about how stuff like this makes them doubt their own experiences with racism in Canada.  This made my older, white Canadian supervising teacher uncomfortable.  These days I'm sure she would be on board with the current 'woke' white settler types who want to make make a lot of noise in this moment that will quickly fade to leave us with our lousy status quo again.  Dwelling in the discomfort by prompting discussion and then making systemic change as a result is a way to move beyond our reflexive need to retain a status quo built on lies.

I've talked about historical prejudice before on Dusty World but the events currently happening in Canada are bubbling it all to the surface again, though I don't understand why anyone is so surprised by them.  These children disappeared in plain sight and reports of the nastiness of religious residential schools aren't new.  Choosing to be surprised by them now feels like political spin.  Part of that latest push is to cancel Canada Day but this politically divisive move only shames anyone who disagrees while amplifying the voices of those who want to leverage this disaster for their own political ends.

I've heard (smart, historically aware) people advocate for cancelling Canada Day because aboriginal families are mourning the recent discovery of thousands of children's graves from the Canadian religious residential school genocide, but the only people reeling from this 'discovery' are politicized left-wing Canadians who have now decided to (loudly) acknowledge this hiding-in-plain-sight colonial history.  I doubt native families are 'stunned' by these 'findings' as they've been living them for generations.  This 'white surprise' must seem disingenuous.

I'm left wondering if children's history text books are still as multi-culturally white-washed as that one I was handed in 2003.  My approach to that lesson caused friction with my (white, established-settler Canadian) teacher-mentor.  Teaching rote curriculum out of prejudiced texts works much like taking down statues and cancelling holidays: it's an effective way to revise historical fact to suit the current political narrative which is itself a nasty piece of work.

In the next two centuries the selfish decisions made by current generations around rampant overpopulation, wasteful consumption of resources and pollution of our limited ecosystem will make any previous genocides look tame, yet we're quick to burn anything historical that doesn't meet our myopic ethics.  That well-travelled, carbon spewing first-worlders who hop into their 4x4 SUVs wearing sweatshop made clothing are so loudly self righteous is another example of temporal prejudice, but then you don't see a lot of humility or self-awareness in history.

It's easy to criticize previous generations without making any attempt to contextualize their decisions in the time that they were made.  This temporal prejudice is every bit as corrosive as racial or gender prejudice.  Mass consumers waving social justice flags while making decisions that will kill billions in the future are just as blind to their own contextual short-comings.  Wouldn't it be something if everyone tried to overcome the pomp and circumstance of history with humility, honesty and fairness?

Cancelling holidays  that are guaranteed for you but not for others at the rough end of the socio-economic spectrum reeks of privilege, while taking down statues and renaming things is more about rewriting history to make it less uncomfortable than it is about making any genuine systemic change.  What we should be doing is legally deconstructing confederation and taking the colonial prejudices out of Canada's political structureFirst past the post British electoral systems prop up old prejudices and should be dismantled but won't because party 'representatives' that could make the changes won't because the status quo is what handed them power.

The nastiness of Canadian colonial history isn't easy to stomach but throwing a cancellation blanket over it isn't going to solve anything; we need to dwell in this discomfort if it's ever to prompt real systemic change.  Politically driven divisive ideas like cancelling national holidays and renaming everything to make it less offensive is more likely to support the status quo than change it.  We'll never overcome historically prejudiced propaganda by spinning more of it.  Real change has to happen at the legal level or we'll just keep spinning lies to maintain this poisonous politically charged status quo.

FOLLOWUP

This is still on my mind weeks later as I watch people struggling with how to approach this new awareness.  As a 'new' Canadian I'm finding the loudest white voices in this come from the most established (privileged) white Canadians who are struggling with family histories that are interwoven with Canada's vicious colonial history.

Stats Canada has some interesting breakdowns of Canada's immigration history.  What has me thinking about this from an alternate perspective is that Canada isn't just a colony.  For the vast majority of Canadians today Canada is the place that took them in when their own homes wouldn't or couldn't.  To present modern Canada as just a colony is divisive and untrue, it's so much more than that for the vast majority of its population which includes people of creeds and cultures from all over the planet.

For a poignant realization on modern Canada's place in the world you should make a point of going to Pier 21 in Halifax.  Only a tiny percentage of the people who live here came with expansion of empire in mind, though that isn't how media (social or otherwise) seems to be dealing with it.  For the people dealing with some murky family history I sympathize, but your Canada isn't my Canada.

When we came back from Japan in 2000 we attended an international festival on Toronto's waterfront.  After years living in one of the most mono-cultural societies in the world this burst of international expression was very moving.  As I stood there on the edge of Lake Ontario watching Brazilians express their own culture freely and beautifully in their adopted country that is increasingly built on an international cultural mosaic, I teared up.  That's perhaps the greatest strength modern Canada has:  it shows the way to a future where we can all live together.  Embarrassed descendants of colonist Canadians shouldn't be able to dictate the narrative of this latest chapter in Canada becoming a more perfect version of itself - they've been doing that for too long as it is.

Even though I'm from England I find Canada's adherence to old British habits (first past the post, how our constitution ignores founding cultures) incredibly frustrating.  The most Canadian thing we could do is, as I suggested previously, crack open the British North America Act one last time and create a modern Canadian constitution that is the most radically inclusive charter of rights on the planet.  First Nations people should have the same legal leverage that Quebec has.  With that leverage you'd never see another 'Indian Affairs' ministry - you'd see First Nations doing what Quebec has done:  leveraging the constitution to ensure equity under the law.


RESOURCES

https://blogs.umass.edu/linguist/secret-path-residential-schools-reconciliation/

"Come learn about indigenous people’s history that you probably weren’t taught in school..."

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/first-nations-right-to-vote-granted-50-years-ago-1.899354
First nations Canadians didn't get the vote until 1960!  Canada's concept of representative democracy has always been flawed and yet it's treated as sacred - which is how you ensure that status quo continues.  These days the old white guys in charge casually dismiss the Charter of Rights whenever it suits them.

https://www.cbc.ca/kidscbc2/the-feed/why-it-took-so-long-for-women-to-get-to-vote-in-canada
"...in September 1917, the Wartime Elections Act was passed in Canada. It granted the vote to women in the military and women who had male relatives fighting in World War I, but it also stripped away voting rights from many Canadians who immigrated from ‘enemy’ countries."

Asian Canadians didn't get to vote in Canada until after WW2!

"The story of the right to vote in Canada is the story of a centuries‐long struggle to extend democratic rights to all citizens. It’s a chaotic tale that includes rebellions and riots, as well as protests, and visits to the Supreme Court of Canada."

https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/confederation

"Indigenous peoples were not invited to or represented at the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences. This despite the fact they had established what they believed to be bilateral (nation-to-nation) relationships and commitments with the Crown through historic treaties. (See also: Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada; Royal Proclamation of 1763.) The Fathers of Confederation, however, held dismissive, paternalistic views of Indigenous peoples. As a result, Canada’s first peoples were excluded from formal discussions about unifying the country." 


You won't find anyone on the Canadian Encyclopedia page who isn't an old white dude because they are the ones that confederated Canada, specifically while denying anyone who wasn't from their background any participation.  Re-writing history to ignore what actually happened isn't a great way of learning from those mistakes.

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.