If you’re new to structured literacy or the science of reading, this book will be an excellent introduction, particularly if you’re a secondary teacher facing dozens of students who are struggling to read. On the other hand, if these are familiar topics, as they are to me, then there may not be enough specific advice to be very helpful. That said, Thinking Reading does recommend practices like spelling and vocabulary development, background knowledge, and the study of morphology. Unfortunately, if your school or district can’t or won’t sponsor widescale secondary-level testing and intervention, there may not be (according to the authors) much you can do as a solitary classroom teacher.
More a philosophical treatise than a history text, Bregman’s Humankind is a fascinating attempt to define a new realism: human beings are essentially decent and compassionate, and all attempts to show otherwise are cynical and false.
Did you know we are the only species that blushes? That the whites of our eyes are unique to humans? This is because we are an inherently social species. Far from being violent and selfish, human beings have existed and evolved primarily because we are social, and our intelligence is elevated because we learn from others. Not all is unicorns and rainbows, of course. The difficulty in knowing others from afar creates an evolutionary preference for those like us. Bregman admits that this is the biological basis of racism and xenophobia.
So what is the alternative? For one thing, we must seriously examine the old bromides about a solitary, nasty, and brutish human nature. Bregman provides an effective and highly readable deconstruction of the narratives around Lord of the Flies, the Stanford prison experiment, and the Milgram shock machine. For the rest, I’ll let you read further.
I’m not wholly convinced of his thesis at the end, but I admire Bregman’s attempt. It’s a refreshingly contrarian and positive view of the world. Had he tackled the role of capitalism in a more systematic manner, I would have given the book 5/5. Nevertheless, I’d highly recommend Humankind. You’ll be thinking about it long after you finish it.
I live in an educational jurisdiction that has lost its way; there is a collective amnesia regarding effective explicit instruction. Tom Sherrington’s small book is a pleasant corrective. Building upon Barak Rosenshine’s 10 principles of good instruction, Sherrington explains and expands on these principles, provides practical classroom examples, and elegantly bridges the gap between theory and practice. I recommend the book for new teachers or old geezers like myself who want to refine their pedagogy. It’s a bit pricey for the size, so see if you can snag someone else’s copy or get your department head to cover the cost.
If you are a teacher who’s wanted to create a website for your classes, but thought it was too daunting a task, there is a relatively easy solution: Blogger.
Blogger is Google’s free online blogging tool that is easy to use and access, and can be adapted to almost any online requirement. I am scaling up my use of Blogger from a daily homework blog to a full website, complete with multiple web pages and online tools. It will supplement my communication platforms (Outlook and Teams) by providing an online location that houses all of my instructions, assignments, links, and videos. These resources are permanent; they don’t get lost in the daily scroll of posts. Moreover, students don’t require passwords, training or special software to access the resources. If they have a smartphone or laptop, my students can easily and quickly access my resources.
To help you get started, I’ve created three videos. The first is a brief justification for using Blogger as an educational tool, the second helps you create a blog and make your first post, and the third refines your blog by examining the key elements of your blog’s dashboard.
I think this is a great time to be using Blogger. Please let me know if you have any questions!
[Once you start a video, it might help to click on the Youtube square icon to view the video in full screen.]
Why should a teacher use Blogger?
Getting started with Blogger
Looking at the Blogger Dashboard (And How to Build Webpages)
If British Columbia and other jurisdictions are serious about a “continuity of learning”, then it’s clear that distance or distributed learning (DL) will play an integral part. As such, I would like to offer the following suggestions based on my 27 years as a secondary public-school teacher, seven of which were in DL. I certainly have no magic eight ball; I offer my thoughts merely to add to a difficult but important conversation.
1. Keep it simple: Many excellent teachers would have trouble creating a decent PowerPoint, let alone a complete online course. Let’s not burden teachers with a complex Learning Management System (LMS) if simpler alternatives are available. Even though I taught in a DL school for seven years, I would prefer to keep it straightforward. If I’m allowed, I’ll use OneDrive or Teams to house my files and Blogger to communicate my instructions. That’s it. We don’t have the time or ability to get fancy. And I’m not just talking about delivery. Our assignments and assessment will need to be radically streamlined, too. One of the dirty secrets in asynchronous online learning, particularly for courses that can’t rely on multiple choice, is that it is extraordinarily inefficient. For example, opening, assessing and giving feedback one assignment at a time is incredibly time-consuming, and is much more inefficient than hand marking, say, a set of paragraphs all at once. And that assumes we are processing the same assignment all day, which is unlikely to happen. So, don’t go overboard! If we can avoid that, our jury-rigged DL offerings may not be pretty, but they will be manageable.
2. Keep it flexible: One size will certainly not fit all. Already, after one week, I’ve heard dozens of different solutions that educators are eager to try. And why not? If individual teachers, departments and schools are motivated by their own solutions, why should we deny that enthusiasm? IT people will be swamped as it is; we need the good will and participation of interested teachers to mentor and support fellow educators who are not technologically savvy. [I will be happy to help if asked!] To be sure, school district IT departments still have a valuable role to play. We’ll certainly require a common page that all teachers can link to, and presumably a school’s administrative system will still be in place for marks and communication. If IT departments want to offer a common platform like Moodle or D2L, I have no problem with that, as long as we aren’t all compelled to join. In other words, instead of having to support the entire teaching staff, it would make sense to limit IT support to those without alternatives.
3. This is not the time for “disaster pedagogy”: In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein warns us against disaster capitalism, a form of neo-liberal opportunism that uses crises and chaos to push through a radical agenda on behalf of entrenched interests. Unfortunately, as she writes, “in moments of crisis, people are willing to hand over a great deal of power to anyone who claims to have a magic cure”. Let’s not make this a moment of transformational change in education. If certain educators think this is the moment to fundamentally alter our pedagogy, as many have suggested on social media this past week, then we’ll run up against #1 and 2. We simply don’t have the time, tools or expertise to implement something drastic, and despite our profession’s love of bandwagons, I just don’t see many teachers willing to put forth 16 hour days to transform on the fly. Given the stress we’re under, I think we’d actually see a great deal of pushback.
4. Acknowledge the problems up front: There are a lot of critical challenges that I and others foresee, and I certainly don’t have many answers. On the other hand, ignoring these questions is likely to backfire.
a. Even if we lend out our school laptops (which will be a logistical challenge in itself), do all our students have Wi-Fi access at home?
b. When I was in DL, the common rule of thumb was that a 20% completion rate for paper correspondence courses and a 40% rate for online courses was pretty good for asynchronous, learn-at-your-own-pace learning. Almost universally, those students who were successful had one or both of the following assets: self-discipline and supportive parents. What do we do if massive numbers of students lack those elements and don’t complete their work? [If we only mark the work that is submitted, as some have suggested this week, then good luck getting anything submitted.]
c. If a teacher’s course is “hands-on”, how does he or she teach the course online? Vocational programs, physical education and art are difficult to replicate in DL, and they usually rely on community resources that aren’t easy to access right now.
d. Many educators are suggesting one-on-one video conferencing as part of the solution. How do we offer video conferencing for 200+ students in a linear secondary or 100+ students (x2 interactions) in a semester school? If we are going to meet with multiple students in one video conference, do we have the robust technology to accomplish this? And, once again, what if students can’t and won’t participate?
e. How will our most vulnerable students react to online learning? This is a tough one!
f. BC teachers and CUPE workers will apparently return to school, without students, on March 30. How will staff congregate in a school to support each other, but avoid violating the current 50 person limit? I’m worried about Covid-19 transmission. Seriously, do I wear gloves and a mask next Monday?
g. Will school districts provide teachers access to resources like TurnItIn.Com? Speaking from personal experience, I can guarantee you that plagiarism is going to be a real problem, particularly at the end of May and June if we hold firm to our traditional deadlines.
h. Is there a way to deliver paper tests? Creating online exams with proper invigilation is a massive undertaking that would take us well beyond next September. At my old DL school, we had to pay for a network of community testing sites with certified invigilators. Otherwise, I’m sorry to say, cheating would have been rampant. Could schools still allow students to write paper exams at school? Are there safety protocols that would allow it?
i. If certain teachers do build their courses in and contribute content to an LMS, who owns the courses and content? Teachers should be very careful and ask questions before committing to a district learning platform.
j. How will we get certain necessary resources, like textbooks and novels, to our students?
I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed right now. The daily emails that assure us “we are working on it” haven’t exactly helped. I’m starting to think we should provide a final mark now, but allow students a chance to improve their mark if they so wish.
In any case, I’m going to try to relax for a few more days and then jump into the deep end once again. Any thoughts? Any suggestions? Have I missed some important issues and questions? I’d love to hear from you. [Meanwhile, I just discovered a six year-old bottle of wine at the bottom of my wine rack. Things aren’t all bad, it seems.]
- Looming on the horizon: English Studies 12
- Curriculum must be a teacher’s ally, not a teacher’s foe.
- Choice and flexibility: some thoughts on the new curriculum
- Reflections on a 21st Century School
- Same Coin, Two Sides: Resurrecting the Liberal Arts Ideal
- The Rise of the Electives and the Smorgasbord Kids (And Why Trades vs Academics is Obsolete)
- A Lament for the (Grade 12 ) Provincial Exams
The following is a letter I submitted to the North Shore News regarding the North Vancouver School Board’s recent decision to eliminate the honour roll.
This policy should be a clear warning sign for parents about the general drift of BC’s new curriculum. The automobile industry uses the term “decontenting” to describe the gradual reduction in quality of various car brands. The same thing is happening to BC’s education system. After the NDP stopped the Year 2000 movement in its tracks in 1994, the Ministry of Education has slowly been chipping away and implementing Year 2000 by stealth, and now we have Year 2000 in all but name.
So what do we have? Its proponents – including the Year 2000 education professors who are still around from the early 1990s – like to brand the new curriculum as innovative, student-centered and focused on skills. Unfortunately, the movement has been around for centuries and, frankly, not stood the test of time. It ignores the large body of evidence that thinking skills cannot be taught as autonomous and portable abilities. Critical thinking is developed within a particular realm of knowledge, and cannot be exported as a discrete skill removed from the knowledge it comes from. As a result, so-called “21st century” thinking skills require a knowledge-rich, properly sequenced and fully resourced curriculum in order to thrive. However, the new BC curriculum has had significant reductions in mandated content (almost zero in some English courses), a self-consciously anarchic approach to organization as opposed to a careful scope and sequence, and very few resources (in the humanities, virtually none).
An intrinsic element of this decontenting is a lack of outside accountability. The days of taking four provincial exams to enter university are long gone, and the last vestige of accountability, the English 12 provincial exam, will expire this year. It’s a great setup, isn’t it? Implement a new curriculum… without any way to test its effectiveness! The only metric left is the graduation rate, but given all the other changes, it will mean very little.*
So how does this relate to the attack on the honour roll? Well, the whole ethos of the skills movement – a movement that goes back to the 19th century – has been to dismiss intellectual achievement and academic excellence. Celebrations of intellectual achievement and academic excellence are apparently too threatening to other students, despite our continued celebration of athletics, leadership and community service. Killing the honour roll sends a powerful message: Keep your success to yourself; we don’t care about it and don’t want to acknowledge it.
Such explicit anti-intellectualism in a school district is exclusionary and should be fought at every turn.
*To be honest, the graduation rate hasn’t meant much for a long time,
particularly since the end of the Grade 12 provincial exams.
Of the many changes to British Columbia’s new English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum, none may be more problematic than English Studies 12. If all goes according to plan, the BC education system will see the wide-spread adoption of this new course in 2019-2020. In other words, folks, it’s arriving next September.
Why is it problematic? In short, English 12 Studies will replace the current English 12 and Communications 12 courses, and merge them – and their respective students – into one common course.* At a time when math and science remain largely streamed – a double-standard that I find staggering – English will now have a single required course in the final year before graduation. [Don’t bother fighting for a re-instatement of Communications; that horse has left the barn and is in the next valley. There are simply too many outside advocacy groups arrayed against its reappearance.]
Two massive problems are already obvious. The first is that English 12 Studies will have to act like a funnel (or is it a filter?) after two years of potentially disparate English education. In both Grades 10 and 11, students can take one of five different courses to fulfill that year’s ELA requirement. The courses are Composition, Creative Writing, Literary Studies, New Media and Spoken Language, and all are fully equivalent.** These five courses, particularly the final two, already present problems due to their shockingly flimsy curriculum documents. But when we add a final gatekeeper course that must bring together students from all five streams, the difficulties are clear. What do we do with students who have read little literature in the last two years? Or have written few, if any, formal compositions? Given the absurdly meager nature of the five new courses, this is certain to be a problem for many educators and their students. Nevertheless, I believe the second major problem will be much more daunting. That is, what do teachers do with the students who used to take Communications, a course designed for young people who have acute challenges with reading and writing? Put another way, how do we successfully combine in one classroom students who are heading to university with students who struggle to identify the subject and predicate in a simple sentence?
There has been a great deal of discussion within my department and between colleagues across the province. Here are, in short, the four potential outcomes we foresee. None is pleasant.
- Run English 12 Studies like a regular English 12 course.
- Problem? Weaker students will need to work much, much harder or they will fall through the cracks. If they don’t or can’t ask for help after school, or find help from their learning assistance departments, we may see a significant rise in drop-outs or adult grads.
- Run English 12 Studies like a slightly more challenging Communications 12 course.
- Problem? University-bound students will be badly under-served. Drop-out rates after the first semester in universities will likely get much worse. Of course, that won’t be the K-12 system’s problem.
- Appeal to the careerists and “personalize” our classrooms for the individual needs of each student.
- Problem? If we personalize for all of our students (and I have over 200 this year), we may find ourselves leaving the profession well before our retirement date. This is not a joke. Many administrators and MoE apparatchiks are actually suggesting this as an option. Alternatively, we could try package learning within our classrooms and create tiers of assignments, each with a different level of challenge. Of course, this creates a further headache: How do we assess these different tiers? Does a Gr. 12 student who earns a “B” while analyzing The Great Gatsby deserve the same mark as her best friend who earns a “B” while studying The Outsiders?
- Run a phantom Communications course as a response to Option #1. It might be labeled something like “English 12 Studies E” in the school calendar, but will appear as “English 12 Studies” on the official transcript.
- Problem? I have received very officious letters from MoE staff, and they are adamant that no student shall be streamed into a Communications course. So, essentially, the phantom Communications stream would contravene government policy, though it would make a lot of stakeholders (secretly) very happy. I would personally consider it a fraud.
So, what do you have to say? Which option will your school choose? Have I missed an option? Is there a way to invoke the magic beans of “core competency” or “proficiency-based learning” and wish the problem away? Please let me know in the comment section below.
* Students may opt for an alternative course, English First Peoples 12, a course that in my estimation has a much richer and more fully realized curriculum. However, many schools in BC, because of low numbers, simply do not run EFP; other schools are lucky to run a few blocks. The key point is that the vast majority of students will choose English 12 Studies. And even teachers of EFP will have to face the same challenges that teachers of English 12 Studies will face.
** In Gr. 10, these options are two credits; most schools have implemented four credit “combo” courses.
If you’re a BC resident, don’t forget to send in your ballot for the 2018 Referendum on Electoral Reform. This opportunity may not come along again in our life time, so don’t waste a rare chance to have a direct say in how our democracy is run. When I used to teach political science at UFV, I would always start my lecture on elections with this line from David Foster Wallace:
“By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some diehard’s vote.”
I’m a diehard. You can see how I voted. So why did I vote this way? The simple answer is that no electoral system is perfect. Each one has flaws, so we should choose the system with fewest weaknesses and the best chance of maintaining the best features of each system.
The First Past the Post system, the one we have now, is grossly undemocratic. It allows the candidate with the most votes to take all the power in his or her riding (that is, 100%), even if the candidate only receives 40% of the vote. All the other votes – and the candidates the votes are attached to – are ignored. Add that up 87 times and you can imagine how lopsided the results can be. In fact, the Socreds, NDP and the Liberals have all benefited from lopsided BC votes, getting far more ridings than their popular vote would suggest. If a democracy is supposed to represent the will of the people, FPTP simply isn’t kosher.
Of course, a purely proportional system has one key disadvantage too. A proportional system is usually based on party lists that are published by each political party before the election. As such, there is no politician elected by constituents to represent their local interests. As someone who’s had a family member work for a local MP, I know this representation is an important link between citizens and government.
Ranked ballot systems (RBS) allow you choice, and, in fact, the current ballot uses a ranking system to decide which proportional system you prefer. If we use RBS in a system with political ridings like we have in BC, we will certainly get more candidates over the 50% mark, and allow them to say they represent the “majority” of the riding. Of course, given all the 2nd and 3rd votes, this majority is often artificial, and only partially legitimizes all of the votes in that riding. RBS also requires complicated computer tallies, which removes an important part of the election system from popular oversight. [This is one reason I don’t like the RUP option.] Finally, RBS sometimes allows a fringe third party to gain power, as voters of the two dominant parties will often refuse to give a 2nd vote to the other main party.
So what is the best course of action? Given that no system is perfect, I say we choose a system that strikes a balance, and provides the best features of an electoral system while mitigating the worst. For me that is Mixed Member Proportionality (MMP). It is part FPTP (which provides local representation) and part proportionality, which allows for a list of party candidates that is chosen on straight percentages. A 5% minimum filters out the crazies. Two questions on a ballot, one for a local representative and one for your party. Easy to vote, easy to figure out.
What do you think?
In the spring of 1993, despite working in a temporary five month teaching contract in the lower mainland, I faced the reality that permanent, full-time teaching positions in British Columbia were scarce, so I found myself looking northward. Thus, in September, I started teaching in a small rural school two kilometres from the Alaska border. I was the social studies department. I taught seven distinct courses in my first full year, five of which I had hitherto never encountered. It was a brutal ten months, and I almost left the profession at the end of June.
What saved me? Desperation, for the most part. My wife worked at home raising our two young children, but they depended on me to provide an outside income, and we didn’t have many other options. Another element that sustained me was a fairly impressive armoury of resources. My first indispensable tool was the social studies curriculum binder. Back then, curriculum documents were somewhat helpful. They included resource lists and recommended periods of time for each unit. In addition, one teacher at my first school took pity on me before I left for the north and lent me multiple thick binders that provided the bare bones of four different courses (including fill-in-the-blank worksheets, crosswords and questions). To that teacher, I offer my eternal thanks; to the photocopier technician, I apologize for all the extra strain I put on the machines. I also visited the BCTF Lesson Aid service [the loss of which was a real misfortune] and purchased as many unit and lesson items as I could. Finally, my new northern school offered a complete surprise: a well stocked resource room. In return for educating a small number of American students from across the border, I was paid in part by the neighbouring Alaskan school district. As part of this unique arrangement, the Americans supplied my school with a vast array of videos, handouts, overheads and suggested lesson plans for the American government and history courses that were part of my bailiwick. Collectively, all of these resources offered me a necessary lifeline. They may not have been original, complete or elegant, but I don’t think I could have survived my first full year without them.
So that brings me to the central point of this post. Do we want new educators to survive past the first year? Do we want to ensure their students aren’t subjected to seriously fatigued and stressed out teachers, as well as hit and miss schooling? The questions should be rhetorical. Obviously we must not throw teachers into the bonfire without fireproofing them. And an essential part of this process must be a rich, helpful curriculum with a wide range of resources that ensure new teachers aren’t creating everything from scratch and reinventing the proverbial wheel.
But… teacher autonomy!
Ah yes, that hoary old chestnut. Let’s address it. Teachers are not autonomous when their teachers’ training has ignored the nuts and bolts of everyday education in favour of (bad) theory, leaving teachers to their own devices. Teachers are not autonomous when they’re stuck in school until 10 o’clock building worksheets and sweating over lesson plans, wondering how they’ll create – yet again – something out of nothing. Teachers are not autonomous when they’re forced to rely on a textbook, because sleep deprivation prevents them from building a “golden” lesson plan. And teachers are not autonomous if their curriculum documents are so vague that buying unit plans or copying other people’s work are the only barriers between them and a nervous breakdown. In short, if teachers only have time for the bare necessities, then they are slaves to necessity. That’s not autonomy.
So what is teacher autonomy? It should be enough time for teachers to pick and choose from a variety of options, rather than start from nothing. It should be enough time for teachers to modify and refine existing resources to meet the particular needs of their students, or create an original resource without feeling their careers depend on it. It should be enough time for teachers to work with their students and colleagues, and not resent the loss of precious prep time. And it should be enough time for teachers to, dare I say, spend quality time with their families. Thus, rich curricula, a plethora of resources, and suggested lesson plans do not infringe on teacher autonomy. Quite the opposite. They enhance the ability of teachers to create, to adapt and to refine.
All of this leads to my final point. In British Columbia, we have a particularly perverse approach to teacher support. At the secondary level, and particularly in social studies and English/language arts, curriculum and resources have steadily dwindled.
- In the mid-1990’s, for instance, recommended time allocations were eliminated. I remember attending a summer conference at SFU on the new curriculum; the central justification for the time allocation change was, not surprisingly, “teacher autonomy”.
- Only a handful of large school districts have curriculum departments that actually produce useful classroom resources or learning objects anymore, or at least that’s what I have been told by other teachers. I haven’t taught in a district for over 20 years that has produced such tools. [Please correct me if my impressions here are incorrect.]
- In the early 2000’s, official resource lists for English/language arts were removed. As a consequence, in many districts with middle and secondary schools, we now encounter teachers in earlier grades using texts that used to be taught in later grades. In these cases, the costs of rebuilding secondary-level resources and units have been quite substantial. In my experience, this free-for-all has caused a great deal of confusion and ill-will, and damaged inter-school cooperation. [This lack of resource articulation will also negatively impact the implementation of aboriginal content, in my opinion.]
- After a number of iterations, the latest secondary curricula for English Language Arts has reached a new low. For example, the five new Grade 10 courses, predicated on an unsupported belief in expanded choice, offer little help to practising teachers. The curriculum document for each of the five new courses is seven or eight pages long. Only the first page is unique in each document; as you can see above for New Media 10, only a few vague platitudes and suggestions are offered. After that, the rest of the documents are almost identical to each other: six to seven pages each of boilerplate language arts edu-jargon that will be of little use to classroom teachers who need to build the courses… for tomorrow morning. In other words, BC secondary English teachers will now need to build courses from nothing (particularly New Media and Spoken Language) or – assuming they are experienced teachers with access to them – from the pieces of the old curriculum (like in Composition, Literary Studies and Creative Writing). Oh, and do the new courses come with curated and articulated lists of recommended resources? So far, nope, nothing, zilch and nada, though some enterprising publishing companies are trying to fill the void with de facto corporate substitutes. The ministry’s “curriculum” above is, in a word, preposterous.
In brief, we can’t keep going down the path we’ve been taking for decades here in B.C. If we’re truly concerned with teacher burnout, we need to address the need for a rich, properly articulated and fully resourced curriculum. Throwing teachers to the wolves is not respecting teacher autonomy; it is, in fact, profoundly disparaging to educators who should spend more time with their students and less time re-creating what has already been created. Put another way, teachers should survive and thrive with the help of curriculum, not in spite of curriculum.
There is a renewed push in BC to remove letter grades from report cards. The front line of this struggle is currently in Squamish. Here is my response to the local newspaper’s story on this issue.
The push against letter grades is, of course, not new. It’s just the latest salvo from the Romantics who brought you, among other things, open-air classrooms in the 70’s and the Year 2000 initiative in the 90’s. And yes, neither of them lasted.
Two significant problems with anecdotal reporting are jargon and lack of context. We can already see the creeping edubabble from phrases like “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset”. These are not only highly ideological and loaded terms for teachers but also, frankly, the beginning of an impenetrable fog of specialist language that means little to the average parent. Depending on the report card format, parents might also gain little sense of how their children are doing versus other children or against fixed standards. Indeed, part of the philosophical (or, dare I say, political) nature of this bandwagon is the fear that letter grades might harm children. If you hear this argument, ask for the scientifically valid double-blind studies that support this belief. Don’t just accept that educators’ fears are “based on research”. In my experience as an educator, I have seen precious little evidence in this regard.
If I were a parent in Squamish, I would demand letter grades along with all other potential feedback. More is better, and those letter grades might just help you cut through the miasma of so-called innovation.