Sunday, April 13, 2014

It's Possible...

That's something, then, isn't it.

The IPCC released the final third of their missive today.  We can get out alive, and with reasonable economic stability, but only if we dismantle fossil fuel energy and replace it with renewable energy sources.  "The era of fossil fuel energy is ending."  Desmond Tutu adds, we need to campaign against all fossil fuels causing the "injustice" of climate change.

It means that some very very powerful people will be out billions of dollars.  What will it take for that to happen?  Are we ready for it?  Can we apply consistent pressure long enough to see it through?

Well see....

Sunday, March 30, 2014

On The Sixth Extinction

Look inside!
We're in the midst of a mass extinction, but Elizabeth Kolbert is actually somewhat hopeful about it all.  We are at a truly extraordinary moment of history in which we are cognizant of our own demise (except for those in denial) and, therefore, able to affect how it turns out if we can just get our act together!

This book has been on the NY Best Sellers list for four weeks for good reason.  It's full of scientific data, but it's written conversationally.  We get to know all the people involved in the research.  They're all pivotal to this engaging story.

Here are the facts in a nutshell:

There have been five mass extinctions so far.  An extinction is exponentially different from a "fall."  It's not just a civilization that's being destroyed leaving ashes for another to rise up in.  An extinction of a species means every single one is gone.  And a mass extinction means many species are lost in a relatively short period of time - when we lose more species than we gain (extinction > speciation).  Mass extinctions are "substantial biodiversity losses that occur rapidly and are global in extent" (16).
"Species are at a low risk of extinction most of the time.  But this condition of relative safety is punctuated at rare intervals by a vastly higher risk.  The history of life thus consists of long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic" (16).
There is no one cause of mass extinctions:  "As in Tolstoy, every extinction event appears to be unhappy - and fatally so - in its own way" (104).  Here are the big five (but she doesn't give much space to numbers 2 and 4):

1st:  Ending the Ordovician period - 444 million years ago.  Life was mainly in water, then 85% of marine species died off due to glaciation.  Carbon dioxide levels dropped possibly due to the development of plant matter (early mosses) which absorbed the CO2 and then the ocean became more oxygenated.  That chemical change in the ocean's gasses coupled with the colder weather made the place inhospitable (103).

2nd: During the Late Devonian period - 370 million years ago.  After this, reptiles started to gain ground.

3rd:  Ending the Permian period - 252 million years ago.  This was the most devastating - called "the great dying."  It was caused by an increase in carbon which acidified the oceans and, with the oxygen level dropping, most organisms probably suffocated.  Reefs collapsed.  It lasted maybe 100,000 years from start to finish, and eliminated 90% of all species on earth (104).  The best explanation for this increased carbon is a massive burst of vulcanism in Siberia.  "But this spectacular event probably released, on an annual basis, less carbon than our cars and factories and power plants" (123).  This one is most similar to what we're currently experiencing, but these days we like to do things much faster.

4th:  At the end of the Triassic period - 200 million years ago.  This ushered in the Jurassic period and the origin of birds and flowering plants.

5th:  At the end of the Cretaceous period - 66 million years ago.  This most recent one, the "K-T" extinction, wiped out the dinosaurs when an astroid hit the earth and incinerated everything nearby, then the dust created by the impact broiled anything left (86).  This was followed by the dawn of the first Primates (our ancestors).

There was also an extinction of megafauna about 11,700 years ago (woolly mammoths, sabre-tooth tigers and the other creature from Ice Age), but that doesn't rate as a mass extinction.

We're always dealing with extinctions of individual species.  During ordinary times, the millions of years between mass extinctions, we have "background extinctions."  It happens throughout history as species evolve and fight for resources.  For the strongest species to survive, others have to go.  As far as typical background extinction goes, we expect to lose about one species of mammals every 700 years and one amphibian species every 1000 years or so, worldwide (17).

Today, though, the amphibian extinction rate is about 45,000 times higher than the background rate.  A third of all reef-building corals, fresh-water mollusks, sharks and rays, and a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are close to extinction (18).

Something that I can't help notice is that one of humanity's strongest survival traits, adaptation, is one that is leading us towards destruction.  The extinction rate has been creeping up, and now we just accept that we're losing many species of life every day as if it's normal.  We're adjusted to this news to the extent that it doesn't shock us the way it should - the way it needs to!  A little too adaptable for our own good, I'd say!  
White-nose syndrome.

The losses are happening worldwide, and one culprit is human travel.  We unwittingly carry disease with us wherever we go that can destroy life in other parts of the world (like a fungus that doesn't bother one species of bat, but completed obliterated another - the North American brown bat which used to be out there eating mosquitoes by the thousands).

But, people have a hard time processing disruptive information.  This is a "paradigm shift discovery."  It's hard to accept that catastrophes like this happen - and to us - and because of us.  

We live in the newly-named Anthropocene Era - a "human-dominated geological epoch" in which we have transformed almost half the land surface of the planet, damned or diverted most of the world's major rivers, added more nitrogen to the soil than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems, removed more than a third of the fish, and used more than half the world's readily accessible fresh water runoff.
"Most significantly, people have altered the composition of the atmosphere.  Owing to a combination of fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air has risen by 40% over the last two centuries, while the concentration of methane, an even more potent green-house gas, has more than doubled" (108).  About a third of the CO2 that humans pump into the air is absorbed by the oceans.  "This year alone the oceans will absorb two and a half billion tons of carbon...Every day, every American in effect pumps seven pounds of carbon into the sea" (114). 
We're altering the chemistry of the air and water, and that type of rapid change is what kick-starts mass extinctions.  Most species manage within a small window of acceptable conditions, and we're taking them outside this acceptable range.
"By burning through coal and oil deposits, humans are putting carbon back into the air that has been sequestered for tens - in most cases hundreds - of millions of years.  In the process, we are running geologic history not only in reverse but at warp speed" (124).  
The prediction of one scientist interviewed:  "Under business as usual, by mid-century [35 years] things are looking rather grim" (132):
"It's quite possible that by the end of this century, CO2 levels could reach a level not seen since...some 50 million years ago. Whether species still possess the features that allowed their ancestors to thrive in that ancient, warmer world is, at this point, impossible to say" (172).   
All the coral reefs will dissolve, and they affect everything else in that delicate eco-system.  It's a chain-reaction that will affect us.  "Warming today is taking place at least ten time faster than it did at the end of the last glaciation, and at the end of all those glaciations that preceded it..  To keep up, organisms will have to migrate, or otherwise adapt, at least ten times more quickly" (162).  In one area of Peru, researchers have noticed the trees actually shifting location and dubbed it the "Birnam Wood scenario" (158).

Which species will go?  According to Jared Diamond, "the main predictor of local extinction was 'small population size'" (181).  Species that totally died off in the past were ones that had only one or two offspring at a time and with a long gestational period.  Kinda like us. "Which is why, with the exception of humans, all the great apes today are facing oblivion...By the time we're done, it's quite possible that there will be among the great apes not a single representative left, except, that is, for us." (254). Wishful thinking.  And the species that survive and flourish after we're through are the ones with a speedy reproductive rate.  They're not talking cockroaches, but rats - giant rats (104).

Another interim problem is that the "world is changing in ways that compel species to move," but it's also "changing in ways that create barriers - roads, clear-cuts, cities - that prevent them from doing so....human activity has created an obstacle course for the dispersal of biodiversity" (189).

We're creating a "new Pangea" that has more diversity in areas formerly bereft, but overall global diversity has dropped significantly (212).  What we're not destroying by altering the habitat - including the air and water - we are hunting to extinction.  "Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it's not clear that he ever really did" (235).

The first eleven chapters of the book all explain and compare what's happening now to causes and effects of prior extinctions, but the ending is far more interesting.  The last two chapters look at our psychology and potential for improvement.

We are the only primate that is driven to explore and take over new places, to venture "out on the ocean where you don't see land" (251).  Now that we've charted all of this planet, we have aims for another.  No other animal does that (but viruses do), and Kolbert refers to it as a madness or a "Faustian restlessness."

Faust signing his soul away.

But something else we do that no other primate does is collective problem-solving.  Apes are great at solving puzzles, often faster than a 5-year-old.  But they're no match for a group of 5-year-olds working together.  "When the children were given a hint about where to find a reward...they took it.  The apes either didn't understand that they were being offered help or couldn't follow the cue" (249).  And with "the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it" (258).  So things could really go either way at this point.

The final chapter chronicles the many projects people are currently undertaking to save species:  keeping cells alive in a Frozen Zoo, banning DDT, passing the Endangered Species Act, saving condors by helping with lead poisoning, banning poaching, and performing "ultrasounds on rhinos and handjobs on crows" (265).

But, like so many books about the future of our species, the final rallying cry is, "People have to have hope" (263).  Saying we need it isn't the same as giving it to us.  It's suggesting, maybe, that we should live a bit in denial of the tragedy we've caused.  Eleven chapters of bleak data followed by two chapters of hope might actually suffice for those who haven't managed the paradigm shift towards understanding our potential for catastrophe.  And I'm not convinced Kolbert doesn't have huge doubts of her own.  But I concur that it really doesn't get us anywhere to just give up and resign ourselves to the end of our kind.  If there's a possibility that we have the ability to slow this thing down, then we'll be remiss if we don't continue to try in every way imaginable.
"Life is extremely resilient but not infinitely so.  There have been very long uneventful stretches and very, very occasionally revolutions on the surface of the earth."  The causes of these events are varied incluing "one weedy species" (that's us!).  "The one feature these disparate events have in common is...rate of change.  When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out....What matters is that people change the world.....through: Our restlessness, our creativity, our ability to cooperate to solve problems and complete complicated tasks.....Having freed ourselves from the contraints of evolution, humans nevertheless remain dependent on the earth's biological and geochemical systems.  By disrupting these systems - cutting down tropical rainforests, altering the composition of the atmosphere, aciifying the oceans - we're putting our own survival in danger....In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.....Another that human ingenuity will outrun any disaster human ingenuity sets in motion."  

We'll see how it all play out then, shall we?

EQAO, Literacy and Ability

My 9-year-old says that EQAO stands for Evil Questions Attacking Ontario.  I think she's on to something.

We just administered the literacy test at our school this week.  I've always understood administering this standardized test as a means to ensure that nobody graduates high-school without demonstrating an ability to read and write at a specific level so that nobody ends up at a job unable to read the safety signs or the equipment manuals all by themselves.  And how embarrassing would it be to pass someone through the system who can't actually read?!

But many students with exceptionalities are allowed to have a scribe to read the test to them and record their answers verbatim in twice the time given other kids.  I'm baffled how a test measures literacy, the ability to read and write, if the taker is neither reading nor writing it.  This group of students are really just having one portion of their reading comprehension skills tested, not their level of literacy.  And the kids who clearly struggle with reading and writing, but who haven't been tested for an "exceptionality" are kinda getting ripped-off.  They have to do it all themselves within the time limit.  It's a conundrum how to offer a standardized test on any semblance of an even playing field.  I don't think it's possible.

Furthermore, one skill of the highly literate is being able to use a dictionary when encountering a foreign word.  But dictionaries aren't allowed during the lit test, and the vocabulary of this one was quite advanced.  Last year, many students were unable to write the essay portion because they got stuck on the word "compulsory" with respect to a question on mandatory courses in schools.  If they don't understand one word, looking it up isn't allowed; they have to guess or fail or both.  That doesn't measure their literacy but their I.Q. (or their luck).

The test costs a small fortune - over $30 million yearly.  That's only 2% of the cost of running full-day kindergarten, but still.  That's money that could be better spent on increasing special ed services in the primary grades to really attack literacy issues before they become permanent problems.

The great success of the test, that the scores have improved, is only because schools are teaching to the test - often taking time from novel studies, plays, poetry, formal essay writing, and grammar lessons to have students write myriad news articles and opinion essays. Part of the mandate of the EQAO is to "...contribute to the enhancement of the quality of education in Ontario," but education is compromised by the EQAO by creating a near obsessive concern with students focusing on the very few skills tested at the expense of a well-rounded curriculum.

But the worst problem, beyond the fact that they don't test literacy and that it's costly and time-consuming, is that it destroys the kids.  They get stressed out for a week beforehand, and they are terrified of failing because it means they're dumb.  The ones that fail have to write and fail again before they're given the option of taking a literacy course in order to get their OSSD.  It doesn't prevent students from graduating without being able to read and write, and it does clarify for them that their struggles with reading writing will define them.  

An essay in a 2007 CJEAP reported that,
"...low achieving students are 25% more likely to drop out of school in states that employ graduation tests versus non-tested states. Recent announcements by the Ontario government suggest that the province may be experiencing a similar trend. For example, the high school completion rate was steady in the mid 1990’s to 2001 at 78 per cent, but dropped sharply in 2001 to 71 per cent, and has remained relatively unchanged. The 2001 date is significant since the OSSLT was introduced as a graduation requirement during the 2000/2001 school year."
Why would anyone stay in an institution that makes it clear they're below par?  The reality is that, by high-school, some students might never be able to write a good new article or opinion essay.  They're employable and enjoyable, but they get screwed by this one disability in persuasive writing and journalism - skills they're unlikely to need in any job ever.

It's not being special or exceptional or differently-abled.  The inability to learn how to effectively read and write is a dis-ability.  Some kids who aren't literate are excellent with hands-on work, but many others have no saving talents.  They'll get jobs based on their ability to be polite and likeable and work well with others.  But they won't get a job without a high-school diploma.   There are many jobs that require minimal reading and no writing. Maybe being literate as measured by this test is too much to ask for this generation in which many graduate with a teacher scribing every test and assignment anyway.

I get on my students' case when I think they're being lazy, when they just don't feel like doing work.  I hound them daily to turn off the music during class and - new this year - during a film.  This is the first year I have people singing to their music while we're watching an entertaining but curriculum-driven movie in class.  They require endless stimulation to ward off boredom.  Parents are concerned, but not enough to take their devices away, and I'm not allowed to touch them.  And I can't send the whole class to the office.  This is a new set of problems being created that is so far beyond their inability to read and write.  They might get a job even without standard literacy skills, but they can't work with earbuds in during the day's instruction.  Erin Anderssen wrote a piece yesterday about digital overload and the quest for attention from corporations, suggesting, "the prize is our eyeballs." Absolutely.  Unfortunately, I don't have a whole team working on my marketing strategies.  

But, while I challenge them to work just above their perceived ability in order to stretch their skills, I accept that they have some intellectual limitations.  There's no pedagogical basis for giving them a test that's so far beyond the abilities of the students I teach, so I have a hard time believing that the testing is somehow for their benefit.

We need the political will to end this loss of time, money, and self-esteem.  And we need to address the very real challenges of this very different population.  Next time we define educational priorities, I believe extrapolating literacy rates from a test that doesn't prove literacy at all should be the first thing to go.   

Saturday, March 22, 2014

What We Know: We're Screwed

Addressing the issues of climate change is an issue for policymakers and leaders.  It's important they're informed by the most accurate data.
-  Katharine Hayhoe, Atmospheric Scientist, Professor, and director of the Climate Science Center

A group of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has put together a "What We Know" initiative to communicate the "three 'R's" of climate change:
* Reality - 97% of climate experts have concluded human-caused climate change is happening
* Risk - There will be impacts we can expect and some abrupt changes with massively disruptive impacts.
* Response - There are still measures we can take, and the sooner we act, the better.  
The full, 20-paged document full of facts gathered from around the planet is available to read, and/or watch the video below for a 5 minute question and answer session with a climate scientist.  There are more climate scientist videos here.

Katharine Hayhoe interview from What We Know on Vimeo.

They know that climate change is increasing extreme weather events, and we might be in store for a record-breaking heat wave this summer due to a "super" El Niño.  

It's not just extreme weather events that we have to worry about, of course.  Climate change is causing animals to migrate and spread diseases. Sea ice is melting releasing methane and no longer reflecting as much sunlight.  Oceans are heating up and rising.  Fracking is raising methane levels, and we will almost certainly kill off large numbers of species.

What I worry about at this point is, if we don't do anything to change the situation because, for some reason - likely our profound inability to measure long-term gains against short-term losses - we lack the will to save our grandchildren and great grandchildren, then things will get ugly.  It's hard to maintain a rational, level head when we start to run out of food, water, and oxygen.   (h/t Z Magazine)

Clara Hughes' Mental Health Tour

Our school had the honour of hosting a visit from Clara Hughes yesterday - six time Olympic winner for cycling and speed skating.  She's biking around Canada - ALL around Canada - talking about mental health.  She biked through a snow storm in Woodstock on her way to K-W.  Very hard core!

She had a rough childhood but then turned her energy from delinquency to sports in her late teens.  She didn't start speed skating until 27, and the kids were surprised to find out she's 41 - practically ancient!    Her dad was an alcoholic and had bi-polar, and her sister also has bi-polar, so she had a tough time telling her mom when she found herself in a pit of depression.  Her mantra is "stop the stigma," and she did a great job by sharing her story so frankly.  She was such a warm, open, and authentic speaker (with a great Canadian accent!) that she'd be an inspiration even without the medals.  

She spoke of the importance of access to sports and art for kids to use as an outlet for expression and emotional energy.  They're not extras in society but essentials.

The emcee made it very clear in the presentation that Bell is paying all the costs of her tour and that every penny donated goes straight to mental health initiatives - an important note for the more cynical among us!  Mental health phone lines and care and support is costly, and there's not enough money coming from the government to give access to all Canadians.  Bell has already donated $62 million to mental health institutions since 2010.  The more people that use the #BellLetsTalk hashtag, the more they'll donate in lieu of spending money on advertising.

ETA:  I also liked that Clara encouraged people to petition the government for real change.  Her 12,000 km ride ends on July 1st in Ottawa at Parliament Hill.  Getting donations from corporations is only a part of the solution.

I was a lucky recipient of a hug from Clara as she thanked a group of us who collaborated on a mural to honour her journey.  I was just one of many painters, but the real kudos go to the teacher who made it all happen and did the final details, Caz Bentley, and the designer, a student, Jacqueline Snyder, who spoke in a CTV video filmed at a talk Clara did the night before coming to KCI.

Here's the symbolism behind it all:  The number of bikes represents the number of medals she won.  The colours (black, blue, green, red, and gold) are the colours of the olympic rings.  But more importantly the bikes move from the black to the gold symbolic of the hilly process of emerging into the light with a mental illness.  Isn't that lovely!  (Apologies for the blurriness; t's the only photo I could find.)

And Clara got a kiss from KCI's goats before leaving:

h/t Matt Morris
Follow her ride on twitter, and don't forget to add #BellLetsTalk whenever you tweet!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

What Do Teachers Want?

I seem to have missed hitting "publish" on this one from a few days ago:

I've gleaned, from Steve Paikin's twitter feed, a version of teachers that don't fit the media stereotype of money-grubbing lazy bums.  The quotes are from his tweets, so here they're thrice removed.

Kathleen Wynne just spoke to OSSTF teachers at AMPA.  I wish I had gone, but I have too much schoolwork to do!  I broke the custodial barriers (waxed floors) to get to my desk yesterday and today because I've got two new preps and a total ministry-dictated re-haul of a course I've taught for years.  I've been scrambling towards the break to get on top of it all.  But back to Wynne and the teachers' questions:

In her speech she said her goal is,
"to continue to make the legislature work. But I'm going to challenge their ideas. Hudak's agenda is more radical than expected....They want a war with education and we can't let that happen again....The NDP focused on populism at the expense of long term planning and lack of economic growth."
So, basically nothing but a little political slamming.  The Liberals are best, but we're not going to tell you what our plan of action is.  Then to the four questions:

1.  The first question was about grassy narrows and clear cutting the forest.  Paikin didn't tweet Wynne's response.

2.  "In 2012 you voted to take away our bargaining rights and let the Ministry of Education impose a contract. What can you do to persuade people here that you believe in restoring collective bargaining rights?"  Wynne replied, "We've all admitted, even my predecessor, that things didn't go the way we wanted last time. Help me restore our relationship.

3. The third question was about "line 9" and reversing the gas flow from east to west.  The questioner wants a full environmental assessment.  Wynne promised to "keep an eye on environmental issues but is not committing to full EA."

4. "Things are worse in education funding under the Liberals than under Mike Harris. When will we see more sustainable funding?"  Wynne replied, "We are facing challenges....We're not out of the woods in our fiscal situation. We're not going to cut & slash."

Here's the biggest change to our funding formula as felt from the inside (I mean, as a teacher):  If a student misses 15 consecutive days, s/he's dropped from the roll and we lose funding.  Enough students skip enough classes, even just MSIPs, and we lose a teacher.  But if the student is under 18, then we have to take them back, even if the teachers have been transferred or let go.  The irony is, the kids that are not in class cause far more work than the ones that attend regularly.  We don't just mark them absent and teach a smaller group; we are required to intervene, to call home every three days to listen to parents and guardians who sometimes yell and sometimes cry, to discuss the student with admin, guidance, and resource teachers, and to create packages of materials that can be completed outside the classroom - anything to help them learn the material and get the credit.  We're still teaching the kids who aren't in the room.  

Changing the funding formula, isn't about getting a raise or even maintaining our salaries.  It's about keeping much needed teachers employed and in the building.

But, I have to say, the fact that half the questions asked were of an environmental nature, clarifies the kind of concerns teachers have.  It's not about their profession getting dinged, it's about us - all of us.  I've said before that this recent contract issue wasn't about salaries, but about an infringement of the democratic process.  I don't want to live in a country in which a leader can dictate the rules without discussion, but that's the direction we're headed.  OSSTF is working to put a stop to that.

Backing for My Views on Education

There's an article in The Spectator, and a new book out (at your left there), that says everything I've been saying about education for a couple years now.  It's actually to the point that, if I weren't such a D-list blogger, I might actually think she plagiarized from my blog posts!

The article points to two main issues:

* The new system isn't new, it's at least as old as Rousseau, and it's been tried before, over and over, and it always fails for the majority of students. (I said that here and a bit more here.)

* We keep doing it because it tells us what we want to hear - that we have untapped creativity and brilliance if only our school system didn't destroy our creativity.  (My version of the argument is here - near the end, and a bit here, .)

I'll have to read the book now to see if I can better back-up my claims that are still a minority view (unless it's a fearful majority). 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

What Do Women Want?

It can be a goofy question because it sets up an expectation that half the world, 3.5 billion people, can answer it the same way if it's asked in exasperation because a woman was maybe annoyed at a man for insisting on paying for dinner, or didn't want to go on a second date after all he did for her, or didn't want him moving in.  Something like that.  In that context, it suggests women should get it together and be more consistent in their collective behaviour so hetero men can understand the "rules" instead of having to make an effort to get to know each woman one at a time.  Curious.

But, in another context, it can be answered for everyone at once, including men:  Health and access to whatever will promote that, enough money to live with dignity - particularly when the kids are young, freedom from physical violence or the threat of violence, you know, generally to be treated with respect.  We know the deal.  People like to be treated as if they are valuable in their own right, as people with opinions and ideas to be discussed and debated civilly, not as commodities to be used as needed, to win over, to manipulate, to own.  Nothing earth-shattering.

My mom always told me to have one foot out the door whenever I'm talking to a mortgage broker, and, she added, whenever I'm on a date.  Always let them know you don't have to be there, and they will have to behave in a way that will make you choose to stay.  We need days like today because there are too many women who don't understand when they have a choice, and far too many more who really don't have one.  It's a frightening world out there.

Or little boys, either.  (h/t Globe Aware)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

On Downloading

I'm a movie-junkie, and I'll happily pay to watch.  That's why I'm love Netflix.  But sometimes there are movies people want to see that aren't on Netflix.  They're out there, but not in a format that can offer remuneration.

So people download.

It seems like such a reasonable thing to do.  I understand that people should be compensated for their work.  Absolutely!  If that's possible to do conveniently, I bet most people would do it - or accept a reasonable fine tied to their viewing pleasure.  Thankfully, in Canada there's a $5,000 cap on damages awarded for copyright infringement.  That's lucky for many right now because a Federal Court has decided that Teksavvy has to hand over all the IP addresses of people who download movies.  Specifically, it's just a list of people who downloaded from Voltage Pictures, so some people might luck out if they haven't wanted to see any of their films.  

The fact that it's so much easier to download than to find a site to pay for the films is the heart of the problem.  Technology changes the way people work and play, and some industries haven't entirely figured out to how to continue to flourish within the new playing field.  When I watch The Daily Show on-line, I'm forced to suffer through commercials - strangely, often the same commercial over and over.  That's one way to get around the reality that many, many people are viewing on-line instead of using cable TV access to shows.

The film industry has to use services like Netflix to present their work in a way they can be compensated.  Instead of wasting time and money chasing after people viewing illegally, they should invest their efforts in making their films faster and easier for the general public to access.

And I promise people will still go to the theatre.  At least once a month, I go to a movie for the big screen, for the slimy popcorn, for the gasps and laughter in unison, and sometimes, just sometimes, for the air conditioning.  That won't go away because everything's available on-line.  They'll still get the bucks from the opening weekend - and then some.

After all, we will continue to need something to distract us from the real world.  That's not going to change any time soon!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Learning with the Olympics

We've been warned not to say anything publicly that could make our board or school or identifiable colleagues look bad in any way.  I don't think I'm doing that here.  I'm merely expressing a different opinion, and I expect I'll be in the minority of public opinion.  I'll really just be making myself look petty, yet I continue undeterred.  People can judge the board's tweets on their own merit without the help of my ranting.

The Olympics only happen once every four years (sort of).  And it's only for a limited time.  And it's all about celebrating our country's achievements.  But I need some clarification around what to do in class during this pivotal period of time in our history.  All week, I've been negotiating with kids watching on their phones while I tried to teach.  One student astutely pointed out, "They have it on all the TV screens in the school, so they obviously want us to watch it."

And the school board concurs:

This was sent out yesterday morning, and similar tweets previous to that, and it gives tacit permission for students to go ahead and enjoy the games even if it's not what your teacher had in mind.   They don't say that explicitly, but I'm willing to bet it's the message many students are getting.  The board twitter rep recanted briefly only when a student questioned if he could miss a test to watch the games, but their silence was permission when others tweeted about skipping school.  The Games are related to school (in some unmentioned way), so therefore it's acceptable to watch them during class time. 

I can think of a lot of things that are even more school-related that we don't allow students to do during class time.  Some teachers might want to try to stop students from doing math homework long enough to explain an English project during English class.        

But the Olympics is bigger than math.  It's an infrequent spectacle that brings our country together.  This is true.  And from that vantage point, it's really not a big deal to miss a little school for the sake of community.

But what is disconcerting about the board's view, and of many schools' practice of showing the Olympics in auditoriums, is how contrary it is to everything else we're being told this year.  Aye, there's the rub.

Shortly after reading the board's blessing, I replied with this tweet, tongue-in-cheek (couldn't copy and paste it as a tweet for some reason):
"I'm struggling to determine my learning goals for this activity as reflective of the essential learnings tied to my curriculum."
And then I swiftly deleted it.  People love the Olympics, and how dare I bring opposition onto the floor, particularly in a forum frequented by students hoping for a snow day and, at the very least, looking forward to an afternoon of passive viewing - a group, I hasten to add, who used many nasty words and threats when the board chose to keep school open on a very cold day this year.

But I maintain the sentiment.  Since September, we have been directed towards an approach to learning that must now overtly and clearly link everything we do in class to the curriculum.  There's no more room to go off on student-directed tangents until they run their course.  As I understand it - and my understanding of it shifts regularly - we are required to determine how best to evaluate student understanding of essential learnings based on each course's individual curriculum documents, then provide transparent learning goals daily (or close to daily) to help the students understand why and how they will reach the final target of satisfying the curriculum requirements.  For my purposes, it means if I have a class that is going to town on discrimination issues, we can't just take an extra week or two to do more exploration on it because then we won't have sufficient time to cover the rest of the learning expectations for the course.  And covered they must be or else no students, technically and officially, will have passed the course.

I'm getting on board with the more stringent approach, but how do the Olympics fit in here?  For some courses, it's an easy curricular tie-in.  Not mine.  Maybe I could fudge something but is that what the board is hoping we'll do?  Or are the AER rules out the window when it's convenient for them.  Or does school spirit trump AER?  I hope it does.  And I hope this series of tweets from the board office is an indication that we can all relax and not fret so when the AER-police drop in, as is expected, to ask our students what the learning goals and success criterion are for my specific lesson today.

It's a shame they didn't drop by this afternoon!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

On Flag Waving

The twin-cities, Kitchener and Waterloo, have both decided to put a rainbow flag inside city hall for the duration of the Olympics rather than fly one outside the building.

From The Record:
[Coun. Frank] Etherington [who proposed the motion] was critical of the city's flag solution. "My argument was (putting the flag inside) in no way was as good as a very open, very public demonstration of the city's support for gay athletes and to protest the Russian laws which discriminate," he said. "There's no comparison between the two (flag options) … one tucked away inside the rotunda and the other flying."
Many cities have decided to fly the flag outside their city hall including Ottawa, Edmonton, Montreal, Guelph, Hamilton, and, yes, even Toronto has a flag on a "courtesy flagpole" outside city hall despite Ford's protests.

Some Mayors, like Ottawa's Jim Watson, "ordered the pride flag raised immediately."

But not us.

I'd like to address one type of comment in support of K-W's position runs along the lines of, "But the Canadian flag already supports being inclusive.  That's all we need."  Some see our flag as representative of the Charter even though the flag came out in 1965 and the Charter in 1982.

The flag is a symbol of Canada, and Canada is not inclusive.  We need to acknowledge that fact and a few raised flags might be a symbol of our effort to develop that myth of inclusivity into a reality.  I'd like to go further than the Olympic issue to see at least three flags raised until no longer necessary, until we've proven ourselves in the eyes of the excluded:

1.  The Rainbow/Pride Flag.  We just put a transgender woman in a male prison cell.  We still have way too many LGBTQ teenagers committing or attempting suicide because they can't take the bullying - much of which happens in our public school systems.  We are so much better than many countries on this front, legalizing gay marriage nine whole years ago.  But being better than some, doesn't make the slip-ups any more acceptable.  We're still working on this one even if we like to think we're done.

2.  First Nation Flags.  Do I have to say anything about the unbelievable treatment of First Nation peoples in Canada?  About the schools being inequitable even though it's right in the Constitution Act of 1982, Part III (the charter is Part I),  that Parliament and the legislatures are committed to...
"(a) promoting equal opportunities for the well-being of Canadians; (b) furthering economic development to reduce disparity in opportunities; and (c) providing essential public services of reasonable quality to all Canadians."
People often call on residential schools as the main indicator of Canada's poor treatment of the First Nations, then respond to their own concern with, "But that's all over now.  It's all in the past."  Straw man much?   We haven't stopped discriminating.  If we can't take the land, we'll use it as a garbage dump.  On it goes.  Blarg.

3.  Anti-Slavery Flags.  I'm not sure how to word this one, or what kind of flag to encourage, but we haven't stopped using slaves to do our work, we've just outsourced them to other countries.  We benefit from the work of teenagers working over 60 hours a week for token pay in China so we can have cheap products here.  We turn a blind eye to actual slavery, just as bad or worse as anything that happened in 12 Years a Slave, on cocao plantations so we can eat cheap chocolate.  Until we refuse to support slavery conditions worldwide, I can't understand how we can call ourselves inclusive.  Inclusive shouldn't be allowed to mean, "We'll be nice to you and give you equal rights and all if you're on our soil, but otherwise we'll totally screw you over for our own benefit. "

No, Canada is neither inclusive nor equitable.  I think we're trying, though.  And I hope that the one good thing Harper's government is doing is helping us find one another, find the marginalized and supporters among us who are willing to rally for real change.  Something like that.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

On Mesothelioma: Dying to be Heard

Today isn't just Groundhog's Day, it's "Lung Leavin' Day" - a commemorative day sparked by Heather Von St. James who had her lung removed eight years ago today due to mesothelioma.  Check out the ritual she cultivated on her website and an interview with her here.  This is a very specific cancer caused by asbestos exposure.  Most people diagnosed don't last a year, but she was lucky to find a specialist who was willing to remove a lung to save her life.

How to tell if your tiles are asbestos.
She wore her dad's work coat as a kid.  That's all it takes.

Asbestos is in many older building - any construction done in your home or workplace pre-1980s might mean you have asbestos lurking somewhere:  insulation in your attic or ceiling tiles above your head as you work.  It's one of those things I try not to think about too much as I go about my day in my 87-year-old house, and 159-year-old school.  And let's not talk about the number of old houses I've gutted over the years when I stupidly took no precautions, as I'm sure many don't.

Somehow I'm wary of lead paint, wearing full body-armour and a ventilator to strip wood, but oblivious to asbestos wearing only a t-shirt and shorts to put in a floor on top of the attic insulation.  Attention must be paid.

And some still want to export it.
"As recently as 2010, Canada was producing 150,000 tonnes of asbestos annually, all of it in Quebec, and exporting 90 per cent — worth about $90 million — to developing countries. More than 50 countries ban the mining and use of asbestos because it causes cancer, but Canada, traditionally a major exporter, has successfully lobbied in the past to keep it off a UN list of hazardous substances."
A park in Sarnia - a former asbestos producer - was recently closed last spring because they found asbestos in the soil.
The Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec.
Premier Pauline Marois
The Jeffrey Mine in Quebec is the last of them, and the province, under Marois, refused to financially help them restart production.  Ottawa offered $50 million to keep the plant open, but Quebec refused it.  And a lot of people lost their jobs.   It's been "temporarily closed" since October 2011.

It's a hopeful sign, at the very least, that some politicians can sometimes see the forest for the trees.  It's always horrible to take away jobs from people in need, but those jobs are deadly -  for the employees, their families, and anyone working with the product down the line.   We have to focus on the bigger picture in everything we do from here on in.  Of course we need sufficient help for those affected by the immediate changes to our economy, but change it must.       

Monday, January 20, 2014

Further to York University's Discrimination Issues...

If you haven't heard, a York University prof denied a student's request to work in all male groups for religious reasons.  York's Centre for Human Rights suggested the student should be granted the request to avoid being with women in public.   I commented with my views here:
I see education as a stepping stone for the working world. If he expects to work in Canada, he has to get used to working with women, so it's in the male student's best interest to find a way to cope with this expectation within a Canadian institution.
Then today I was reviewing the new Ontario Curriculum for Social Sciences and Humanities for a course I'm teaching, and I came across this bit:
"Accommodations consistent with the board’s religious accommodations guidelines must be made for students from various faith communities – for example, same-sex partnering for small-group activities may be required" (43).    
That's in the section called "Equity and Inclusive Education."  So it appears we're to be inclusive by honouring a wide variety of moral precepts even if there's an inherent sexism within.  But, of course, what if my religion sees a specific ethnicity or race as unclean and basically scum, and suggests I "smite them, and utterly destroy them" (Deuteronomy 7:2)?  It seems far less likely to see accommodations made to avoid a specific race within a Canadian governmental publication.  And that's a problem.  It's not, of course, that we should all be allowed to avoid communicating with undesirables or anyone that might awaken temptation if it's suggested by our religion, but that nobody should be able use religion to be exclusionary.  It seems to me a religious doctrine cannot be allowed to override human rights in a Canadian institution.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Tao of Environmentalism

At Politics Respun, Stephen Elliott-Buckley suggests we make decarbonizing our New Year's resolution.  In a fit of frustration, I commented thusly:

What does it look like to join you? I mean I'm totally in, but what do I do to "seriously begin to decarbonize"? 
How to stop this?
I already don't own a car, freezer, clothes drier, or A/C, and I've got solar panels for electricity, but I still heat my house with natural gas. Do I have to get a fireplace and go completely off-grid - using zero fossil fuels - because my neighbours already think I'm a bit weird for the panels? 
I already write to Harper enough he sent my an 8x10 signed glossy as if he's a rock star getting fan mail, but my letters aren't having much of an effect. I can't convince many of my students that climate change is a tragedy caused by our unfettered use of energy, so I can't convince them to write angry letters or protest either. They tolerate having the lights off when I teach on sunny days, but I can't get other teachers to turn them off as well.
I'll keep trying on all these fronts, but I fear there are more of them than us. Most people just won't fight to end their own conveniences. Not yet, and, therefore, not nearly soon enough. 
Like the plethora of sites that tell us HOW to lose ten pounds with one neat trick, we need to know the next steps. HOW do we convince the elites - or even just our neighbours and friends - to radically change our world? How do we change the minds of the many who are happy with Harper? How radical are we willing to be to save our species?
His very sympathetic response, in part, after a good-for-you bit, went like this:
Teachers, I find, are not a terribly progressive bunch. I knew maybe 5% of people on staff, when I was a teacher, who understood what walking the talk looks like. But keep trying and cling to those colleagues who do get it. 
We convince the elites by threatening their power. Elected or wannabe-elected politicians need our support. If we can mobilize to hold that support in the balance, based on obeying our climate agenda, we will win. It’s mobilizing that effort. But when the federal green party [generally a pro-capitalist/consumer party] SUPPORTS* the tarsands, we have a long way to go. 
And it may just make more ice storms, Calgary/Toronto floods and effects of climate change to wake up the apathetic and complacent people. But by then it may be too late. We’ll have to see.
So...okay.   We just have to mobilize people who are largely apathetic or ignorant, but we might not be able to in time.

My point exactly.

The Tyee also has a call out to become "conscious, anti-consumerist warriors."  Like Politics Respun, they call 2014, "...the year of living - and giving - consciously.  Up until now, we haven't been serious."

Well, speak for yourself - although I was convinced to donate more.  But, once again, how to convince the masses?

We tend to see it all as a problem of justice, of stopping the evilness of the few.  But, it's not that the 1% are making evil decisions that need to be rectified, but that the masses are benefitting too greatly from many of these decisions to ever really try to stop them.  We think we're the good, but I'm not so convinced.  Scott Neigh has a post up that says it better:
"Some of us are the passive beneficiaries (and often celebrators) of the brutal violence that our state dishes out. Some of us are the exploited but still relatively privileged guardians and enforcers of how things are. That doesn't mean that life is all sunshine and roses. That doesn't mean that resistance isn't necessary, or even that resistance to oppression and exploitation isn't integral to daily life in important ways for many white North Americans -- it clearly is, and that is something to acknowledge, respect, support, and nurture....In real life, most of humanity is not clearly divided into the righteous, the shepherds, and the tyranny of evil men -- the lives of most ordinary people express a mix of the three."
It's not us against them. It's us against us.

And then I watched this George Carlin anti-environmentist rant, and it provoked a few thoughts.  (Sorry, lots of swears, of course: it's freakin' George Carlin!)

Carlin says the planet will be fine.  I agree a big mass will likely continue on, pretty definitely, but its ability to support life might not – or not for a long time. So the fight is not just about people but about all other living things. Extinctions happen, but not at this rate. We really have sped thing up.  And, closer to his point, it's never happened to us before!  

Our "indicator species" are messed up
I've said before that our problem is that we're viruses, and that we're too compassionate to live within nature since we want to make sure as many of us live as possible (but not too compassionate, however, to allow many to live horribly for the conveniences of the few).  A student recently gave me another analogy to use:  we're like an invasive species.  We're doing all we can to survive and spread to our outer limits, just like every other creature in the world, except we have no predators here.  There are no outer limits - yet.  Or, another way to see it is we're like the fox/mouse cycle in nature except with a really long scale.  We will hit that food shortage that will finally keep our population in check, just maybe not before we hit fatal hydrogen sulfide levels in our air.  That'll work too.

Long-term survival of the species requires selfish acts to keep the world going in the future - yes it is about us - but they work against the selfish acts to keep us entertained and convenienced in the present.  And it all comes back to Plato's admonishment that we need to be taught the art of measurement (the ability to measure future rewards/consequences against those closer and more current).  I'm not convinced we can be taught.

So maybe Carlin's right about this:  We are arrogant to think we are better able to deal with this than any other animal.  You'd think we have large enough brains to see the long game - and a few do, but not the same few who hold all the power.  The powerful bunch are the survivors defending their territory (in dollars) and spreading out as far as they can, in denial of the potential for a major total-planet catastrophe.  And, a key problem is, if the ones who see the long game get power, they sometimes start amassing wealth instead.   If we're offered enough cash today to ignore the problems of tomorrow, not many can resist that deal.  And those that can resist, often don't go for the power anyway, so they remain impotent to change anything.  It's a conundrum.  

Unlike what we understand of most mammals' grasp of the world, humans have the ability to understand time - to look to the past in order to predict the future.  But a fat lot of good it does us!!  

And the Tao Te Ching (ch. 29, which I've also discussed before) backs up Carlin's rant:
"Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.
The world is sacred. It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.
There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe, a time for being in danger.  
The Master sees things as they are, without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way, and resides at the center of the circle."
It's certainly more calming to accept that this is the way of the world, and it's not something we can change.  We can barely manage to keep our own house in order much less worldwide eco-systems.

But is refusing to keep badgering the politicians and our friends and relations just giving up and admitting defeat or is it accepting the way of the world?  Or does it just feel like a cop-out?  It certainly feels more selfish to decide to turn up the heat than it does to try to convince governments to shut down the tar sands.  It feels better to be part of the solution even if it's really out of our hands, but maybe just because we like spinning our wheels.

As Carlin suggests glibly, "So pack your shit, folks; we're goin' away!"

*I can't find a link to any news that says the Greens support the tar sands, but I did find one that says the NDP supports a Canadian west-to-east pipeline.  Drag.  When Mulcair said "no" to a wealth tax, it gave credence to a suspected shift:  the Liberals are the new Conservatives, and the NDP are the new Liberals.  And I fear we don't really have a significant left-leaning party anymore when we really need one.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

On the New Math

Elizabeth Renzetti has a funny and somewhat insightful article in the Globe & Mail today about our obsession with math.

In a nutshell, we're equating math with jobs.  She says,
"The problem is that we have started to think of our children as future employees, even the ones who can't yet put on their own snow suits, and the world as increasily Hobbesian battle for a few good slots in the matrix."
Math isn't all there is to life; it's true.  And I think it's folly to compare ourselves with China and other countries where the culture is a huge factor in their math scores.  We've chosen to raise children who hang out with friends and family in the evenings and on weekends.  There's no teaching method that will have Canada rise above a country that praises a 24/7 work ethic.  We can't have both, and I think we made the better choice on that one.

But what Renzetti doesn't talk about is another reason for the recent concerns:  the way math is being taught now.  It's a shift from rote learning of basics to "conceptual-based" math.  Let's take multiplication as an example.  We all used to learn one standard way to multiply two-digit numbers, now there are a variety of strategies.  Sometimes more strategies is better, but sometimes it's just confusing and unnecessary.  As one math prof says,
"The lack of structure in the curriculum really interferes with the students' ability to become procedurally competent enough, so when they're challenged with higher level math, their working memory overloads, and they're completely confused and can't cope. But it's not because the children are stupid or unable [to do it]. It's just that the structure of the learning experience has been too casual."
That one method that was drilled in our heads was - and is - very effective.  And now that we're seeing that this new way that offers numerous strategies and requires written explanations to prove understand - "Why does 7 x 6 equal 42?" - isn't working as well as we hoped, and the numbers are starting to look bad for us, hopefully we'll switch back.

I know it's new, but prove to me that it's improved, because the two don't always go together.

The same thing happened when I was a kid, and we learned a 44-letter alphabet to teach us how to read better.  Luckily, my mom taught me to read at home already, but I still can't spell worth beans.  When that failed across the board, we went back to regular phonetic learning for an interim until some guru discovered the "whole language" method - which was also a disaster.  We're currently back to sounding out words again because it's worked for a really, really long time.

It's great for kids to be able to follow their passion and learn to love school because it's so creative and fun, but the basic fundamentals take some repetitive drilling to really stick.  And that's okay.  Drills aren't the enemy.  School doesn't have to be fun and exciting all the time.  Sometimes a little tedious work is good for us!   And a mix of teacher-driven mandatory lessons with student-driven creativity has lasted the test of time. 

But, one thing really bugs me about all this:  Nobody is accountable for introducing a method that didn't have multiple examples of impressive, significant, peer-reviewed research conducted by persons independent of profit-driven education-materials production companies.  If we're going to make sweeping changes to the way we teach, it better be because we have solid proof that the new way really IS better.  But, when there isn't, it's nobody's fault that the education - and sometimes the livelihood - of many students has been messed up.  It's nobody's responsibility.  The buck stops nowhere.

Parents, and sometimes the Minister of Ed, will blame the teachers, but the teachers have to follow the curriculum and current procedural fads.  The cleverer ones might sneak in the old ways alongside the new methods, but that's the best they can do.  A decade ago, my son's french immersion math teach sent home regular math homework in English (shhh) so the kids wouldn't get behind because of the language.  I loved her for that!

I recently saw The Wolf of Wall Street.  It's a great piece of entertainment, and, in the end, the top guys get busted.  We like it in a story when people pay for the mistakes they made.  But in education, the Minister of Ed, often someone with little knowledge of teaching beyond having been in a school decades earlier, approves the new rules then walks away.  It's like a general, who's never seen the front lines, giving orders to the troops - a little dubious at best.  They see the big picture, but sometimes they don't entirely understand what it's like on the ground.  And the fallout is a matter of numbers, statistics, not real people struggling to manage the next grade when they couldn't get their heads around the previous one.

But I'm old school.  I use a blackboard instead of power points.  I tell kids stuff, get them to work with the ideas in a variety of ways, remind them of the stuff over and over, quiz them orally from time to time, then give them a test on it.  And for the most part they learn it.  I'm encouraged to play more games and spend more time on computers and give lots of freedom and choices with the teacher no longer at the front of the room.  I tried that for a couple years, and it's not nearly as effective.  That is to say, it wasn't as effective in my class, but a different teacher might do better with computers and games and student-run classrooms. Teachers see first hand what works and what doesn't for them.  But we get little say in the decision-making.  When we figure out what works for us, we should be allowed to run with it always with an eye on current studies.

Renzetti closes with a call to relax from a NYU education prof who clarifies, "[Math] scores tell us nothing about the students' imagination, their drive, their ability to ask good questions, their insight, their inventiveness, their creativity."

True that, but I still want my kids to know how to multiply.

Friday, January 10, 2014

On Self-Obsession and Self-Hatred

Today some students were discussing Victoria Secrets models.  Some of the girls have significant contempt for the women that show off the latest fashions in lingerie.  It's curious to me that I don't think I ever felt that way in high-school even though it seems to be the dominant mindset.  I don't know if it's because I studied art or if it's why I studied art, but as far as I recall, I've always been able to separate the ideals of beauty from my own body-image stuff.

Magazine ads and articles are often slagged for teaching girls to live up to an unrealistic ideal.  I wonder if, for someone deleteriously affected by the magazines or runway shows, that there's something amiss already. I think it has to do with a growing sense of entitlement.

We're a covetous lot.  Many of us don't even know what that means not to mention why it's a problem. When we see something, we don't even try to stop ourselves from dwelling on our desire for it.  We just want it.  And we work for it, and take out a loan, and own it.  And we're happy - briefly.  So many of the early philosophers spilled a lot of ink on the benefits of reducing our desires that I think they were probably on to something.

From time to time we're set up against something we can't so easily own, like a perfectly symmetrical face and slender body both faithful to fibonacci's proportions.  Because the mind-set is to get it, we suffer cognitive dissonance when we fail until we decide the problem isn't with us, but with the magazine or model.  For a long while now we've just decided the problem is with ideal forms of beauty.  Sure, there's a strong correlation between magazine sales and body image problems, BUT maybe they're both precipitated by this me-oriented culture.

My mother used to say that the secret of happiness is to never compare yourself to others.  The stoics did her one better and suggested we compare ourselves to people worse off than ourselves.  I'm not sure if it was great self-esteem, or a body image so poor I didn't see myself on the same plane as these women, but I've never compared myself to a model.  I have problems understanding why anyone would.  And I think maybe a big part of that is that I believe we all have something interesting about us, and interesting trumps perfection.  A picture-perfect (or photoshopped) woman likely has something interesting too, but it'll be different than what I'm currently rockin'.

Unfortunately, I don't know how I bought into that notion so completely, so I can't adequately teach it to others beyond just the telling of it.   But it's not just useful to convince people to stop desiring ideals with respect to beauty, but to stop desiring anything unnecessary to their life and outside their power to attain, and to start recognizing how much they already have.  Particularly in this part of the world.

It takes a bit of practice, but I think it's entirely possible to train ourselves to stop wanting everything we see.

And, if we can look at beauty without an impulse to have it (to be or to possess), then it can be appreciated with relish.  It's a different feeling, an intoxicating one too many miss out on, to look at a beautifully interesting face and body with reverence rather than contempt.

I don't believe it's the case that people will stop finding less-than-perfect women desirable.  Attraction is different than attractiveness.  It involves a draw towards gestures and words and ideas and connections.  You don't have to look like a super model to get laid or married.  I'm not even sure it necessarily helps.  

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

An Eco-Conservative?

Conservative MP Peter Braid, my MP, broke ranks and admitted that this weather we're having here and elsewhere is definitely linked to climate change.  Is this another sign the party is beginning to crumble?

I've seen an environmental side to Braid much earlier on, and I always wondered how he fit in with the Conservative Party of Canada.  Now I wonder how - or whether - he'll continue to fit in.  

But I've also seen him answer questions in a very politician-y way:  saying many words, yet not really answering the question being asked.

Time will tell if this 20 seconds of rebellion will affect anything in the party or in his career.

Teacher Blogging Challenge Meme

I had a neighbour question my blogging habits.  I told him I love to get my thoughts down in writing.  He scoffed, "But why put it out there for others to see?"  He seemed incredulous of the idea that this is a way to connect with like-minded souls or a way to share ideas in hopes of criticisms that will help further refine my thinking.  So, in solidarity with other teacher-bloggers, I'm doing this 20-day challenge, but, because I abhor single-sentence or repetitive posts, and to minimize the number of teaching posts here, I'll do it all in one go.

Favourite Book to use in Teaching:

The Drunkard's Walk - It's a fantastic read about how we misunderstand statistics.  (Anyone who bows at the feet of Malcolm Gladwell or many current educational writers should give it a thorough reading.)  It has a great analogy in it that I use often to explain human behaviour:  We're like molecules.  As a group, we are very predictable - if it gets cold we'll move closer together.  But individually, we're utterly unpredictable.  We know molecules will get closer together, but we've no idea the trajectory of each individual molecule.  So, when stats suggest that people do x because of y, they mean most people, which could include you, but we don't know if it will.  We just don't know.   This is yet another reason I prefer teaching philosophy over social science - it's more honest about the limits of our understanding of humanity.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

On Fear of the Worst Thing and First-World Anxiety

I just successfully transferred four years of family photos onto albums on-line that got shipped to my home as big colourful books. Then I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I was ever anxious about anything happening to my laptop because I’d be devastated to lose all my photos, and my dropbox is full.  Now I just have to fear a house fire.

Apple's dealing with it!
I used iPhoto albums, even though the company uses slave labour. I struggle to rectify my political beliefs and current practices sometimes. There are a lot of things I do well, but I really love how well my MacBook works compared to my old PC. And I'm not sure there's a computer company free from labour violations. This is right up there with eating meat. There's no good argument to convince me it’s ethical, but that doesn’t stop me from doing it. I’m just living with the reality that I’m fallible and knowingly unethical. It’s no reason to stop trying, though. And if we exclude from “us” (the fighters against the system) anyone who uses products from a corrupt company, our numbers will dwindle to being completely inconsequential instead of just being temporarily ineffective.  But that's not what I'm on about today.

It’s funny how fearful I was of making these albums. I’m still a Luddite enough to think that if I touch anything on iPhoto, everything will get deleted. It took me years, literally, to get the courage to do this very simple thing. And then the worst happened: when we looked for my son’s photos to include, they were all lost because I had tried to use Time Machine with our external hard-drive, partitioned out what was already there, and somehow it's all empty now. So I’m not completely crazy in my anxiety over computers. I really do unwittingly destroy things somehow! I've never been able to make my Time Machine work, but I back-up as much as space allows in dropbox. My son, the primary photographer of the family, doesn't. Everything was on the external hard drive.  I explained the concept of a backup as other than the primary holding place for files. But it’s most interesting to me that he didn’t really care that he lost all the photos he took in the last few years. I wish I could let go like that.

Not the guy from Lost.
My feeling of potential loss is far too great for the circumstances - as if someone could die in the photos’ absence. My memory's not gone, and my children are alive and well, and we almost never even look at the old albums. It’s curious how strong is our sentimental connection to mere objects representative of our memories, of our self.  Maybe it from a need to further clarify for ourselves who we really are.  John Locke pointed out the connection between our collection of memories and our identity a while back:
Consciousness alone unites actions into the same person.... Any substance vitally united to the present thinking being is a part of that very same self which now is; anything united to it by a consciousness of former actions, makes also a part of the same self, which is the same both then and now.
Keepsakes aren't just niceties but a means of self-preservation.

But another part of our obsession with photos is a need to live past our lives with an illusion of immortality as well as a need to show we did something. We’re not content just to be. We have to do things and have proof we did them in order to feel like we're in the game. I felt a weird satisfaction that 2013 was so busy. Whew! I’m not wasting time after all!

And then when the recent storm hit, it largely bypassed us, but that didn’t prevent me from worrying and particularly obsessing about the water pipes. What if the furnace died at night, and we didn’t know, and the pipes froze and burst?? I considered turning the water off at night – a ridiculous idea with older kids up at all hours. But I am looking into a woodstove for an underused corner of the kitchen.

Hoping it's the only one.
Of course, as if thinking it made it so, last Friday my furnace died in the middle of the night. My son noticed the cold enough to put on a sweater and go back to bed, but I was snuggled in under layers of blankets. When I got up, it was 8 degrees. After finding someone to come fix the furnace, I tried to make a pot of tea only to find the pipes frozen. I cleverly wedged a running hair dryer beside the pipes in the basement and went upstairs to wait. A funny noise sent me back down to find water gushing from the cracked pipe.

The worst happened, and it wasn’t really that big a deal. I think it’s good to be reminded of that from time to time, especially when my “worst” is relatively inconsequential.

And it all makes me wonder if maybe we need a worst thing to dwell on. I wonder if the rise in anxiety and depression in the developed world is because so many of us have so few problems of real significance.  In today's Toronto Star, Marcia Kaye reviewed Scott Stossel's My Age of Anxiety.  Stossell suggests that, " the face of real dangers, as happened in wartime concentration camps, neuroses can vanish."  Maybe a lack of activity more clearly linked to our survival (building a house, foraging for food) keeps us in a state of quiet panic feeling like we're not doing enough to live.  Maybe we're still not entirely comfortable with our civilized lifestyle.  Curious.