Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Cold Calls in the Classroom

I do it, sort of. I don't call on kids who don't have their hands up generally, but I do evaluate their level of understanding through classroom discussion, one way to better triangulate marks between products created, observations, and conversations. And I often make lingering eye-contact with kids who haven't spoken up in a while. I don't do it because of the new policy, but for other reasons. It livens up the class if it's not just me talking. It ensures that students stay focused. And discussing and debating in class can help students remember the course content.

I let students know that I often start classes with easy questions about the previous day, which allows quieter, well-prepared students the option to get something out at the start when others are still shuffling papers and the focus on the speakers is diminished. Once they talk a little, though, even if it's because they feel they have to, it seems to open a door a crack for more comments during the meatier discussions.

Doug Lemov, in a Guardian article, agrees:
"...teachers need to maximise the amount of thinking and learning going on in their classroom at any one time, and to ensure that this effort is widely distributed. Take “cold calling”. Instead of asking a question of the class and then picking a hand, you call on a student regardless of whether they have raised their hand. It sounds too simple to be significant. But, to use one of Lemov’s favourite phrases, cold calling is “a small change that cascades.” Cold calling enables the teacher to check on the level of learning of any student in the class; it keeps the pace of the lesson high, because the teacher no longer has to wait for volunteers; it makes the teacher look more authoritative. Crucially, it increases the amount of thinking going on in the classroom at any one time because everyone knows the next question might be for them."
As a student, I had an Animal Learning prof who did a daily once-around with a different question for each student. It was nerve-wracking, but I learned the content of the course effortlessly. We couldn't not pay attention. In terms of effective teaching, it worked. In another class, a well-meaning, young prof lectured without demanding much student response. We could relax and were free to zone out at will. Then a guest-speaker came in for a class, and she made sure she heard every student speak once. It's the only lesson I remember. I can't even picture the original prof's face.

However, in his most recent post, Alfie Kohn refers to these tactics as "bullying." He suggest that the practice,
" so fundamentally disrespectful of students that I'd be disinclined to take advice about anything from someone who endorsed it. . . . a teacher is basically saying, 'It appears you'd rather not contribute to the discussion right now, but I don't care about your preference and I'll use my power to force you to contribute.' If this isn't disrespectful, then that word has no meaning. . . . The goal is to produce a certain observable behavior; the experience of the student - his or her inner life - is irrelevant."  
He recognizes the problems with 20% of the class talking and the remainder silent, but maintains that the right to refuse to participate is paramount. And then he ends his essay with an odd hope that we'll all learn to use "self-governing conversation" in which no student feels the need to raise their hands, but they take turns without being mediated.

I'm not convinced students talking without raising hands is in any way preferable to having a monitor of some sort choose hands roughly in the order they were raised or in a way that allows all voices to be heard. It feels friendlier without, but even among friends, if there are enough of us in a room having a heated debate, we'll start raising out hands because it's a useful way to make sure we're all heard. I generally am the "caller of names" during discussions, but students are quick to let me know if I've missed someone's hand. They have a keen sense of equity. Raising hands makes the conversation faster and more equitable with an attentive monitor who ensures nobody dominates.

But I also want to address an underlying premise in Kohn's piece, that being uncomfortable or anxious in class is necessarily a bad thing - or a brutal thing by his estimation. Allowing shy students to avoid ever speaking in class reinforces their fear of speaking in front of people. It seems nice in the short term, but in the long run they're accommodated to their own detriment. Like playing piano and learning multiplication table, sometimes we have to be made to do things we don't want to do, but it does get easier the more we actually do it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

On Unions and Boycotts

The elementary schools in our board have decided to boycott the local paper because one columnist has been known to take a decidedly negative view of teachers. So a local MPP, Michael Harris, petitioned Sandals, the Education Minister, to... I'm not really sure what he wants her to do. But he wrote her a letter telling on the teachers.

First of all, I'm not in favour of the boycott. I think there are many forms of media, even other local papers, to be use in the classroom, and the kids won't suffer from the boycott. That's not the problem. I don't agree with refusing to listen to dissenting opinions, poorly argued or otherwise, nor do I agree with modelling that behaviour to students. I've exchanged words with this columnist before, and it was certainly in bad taste for her to call teachers "boneheads" who were "using kids as human shields" when we stopped running extra-curriculars to protest a government-imposed contract with clauses that allowed alterations to be made without further negotiations - basically dismantling workers' rights entirely. And it didn't help her cause when that "human shields" line was still hanging in the air a few weeks later during the Sandy Hook shooting. But I'll still read her column - even if only to get my blood pumping in the morning.

If we're going to collectively boycott something in our schools, we should make it something that causes longterm harm to our kids, like cigarettes or bottled water or the mountains of Tim's cups in the trash or single-sided handouts from the board office.

Secondly, what the hell? Is Harris hoping Sandals will tell teachers what they're allowed to read in the classroom? The boycott isn't going to prevent students from learning about local issues. There are few news stories in The Record that can't be found in The Star a day earlier, and kids can read about LRT-induced road closures online. But I'm curious what legislation he's hoping could be imposed to prevent acts from offending him in future.

What's really bugging me, however, is Harris's suggestion that it was inappropriate for the "union to direct its members" thusly. The union doesn't dictate what members do; the union is made up of the members. Decisions are a matter of majority rule after significant discussion among representatives from each school. OSSTF decided against supporting the boycott after a lengthy discussion and a vote by representatives from each school in the region. The union runs in a similar manner to parliament except that union reps have no reason to ignore their constituents in favour of party politics. Reps don't get extra pay to attend meetings, nor are we basking in glory for our efforts. We're voted in but often by acclamation such are the perks.

Suggesting that the union directs members to strike or work-to-rule or boycott is similar to suggesting that our government dictatorially directs the people towards actions beyond their will, but even less the case. For serious issues, like strike votes, members are offered as much information as they can manage, their questions answered in as much depth as possible, and then they vote without any effort to sway them to one side or another. It's an automatic referendum. For smaller issues, the reps votes as a typical MP might vote in the House. If we don't like the decisions the government makes, we can vote them out. And if a member doesn't like the way the union votes on a decision, change is as simple as offering to replace one of your school's reps. Come on down!

Finally, a word on bias. One letter to the editor suggests, "we are all biased in what we think." I've seen bias used in this context increasingly, but there's a difference between an opinion and a biased opinion. A biased opinion is conceived before or outside of facts; it's a prejudiced idea. It presents an argument that leaves out important information, skews details, uses loaded terms, and/or misrepresents idea. We can have a strong opinion for or against something without being biased, without being led by emotionally-driven appeals instead of facts and data. Bias isn't necessarily the case as long as we keep thinking.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

On Student Stress

I've been teaching long enough to have watched a generation of students file passed me. It's fascinating from a social science standpoint because I can watch trends evolving before my eyes. And, being a bit of a hoarder, I've kept everything I've used and all my marks along the way, so I feel like I have a good handle on changes in this population. And they are stressed out like never before.

To get my Challenges of Change kids in the head space of demographic changes in general, I talked to them about why stress has increased for teenagers, and this is what we came up with.

The first suggestion was that there's just too much work to do. But my many binders of old curriculum show the opposite. In my classes over the past 25 years, I've given progressively less work. The exams from my early career are significantly more focused on nit-picky details and few would be able to pass them today. They were also significantly longer, one requiring two opinion essays in half an hour! Now, I might give one opinion essay in an hour - four times the earlier duration. And I couldn't imagine implementing the standards of yore. So, from my anecdotal evidence (and that of colleagues), the stress level is higher with a diminished workload. How does that happen?

Then they offered that they need higher marks to get into university now. Students used to need a 67% to get into a general arts program, and now they need an 82%. Ah, BUT all the marks really are higher across the board. It's not the case that there are higher expectations, but that mark inflation has been acknowledged by the universities. My averages in courses used to be in the mid to high 60s (everyone's were), and now they are consistently in the low 80s. So, generally speaking, university admittance seems to correlate with high-school course averages. They're still just taking the top half of the group. If things keep going in this direction, one day we could have to take it to one decimal point, with all students in the 99% range, and 99 point what? being the indicator of excellence.

And then they started to get at what's really changed over the decades:

Social media has changed everything. Absolutely. One problem raised is that kids today are surrounded by negativity. Instead of being personally shared with close friends, every negative thought or worry is shared and circulated with multitudes. I added the corollary, that they also see people who seem to effortlessly succeed at everything. There's a sense that we're missing out on the good life. And on top of those two factors, there's the time it all takes. If we did a time audit on how long kids actually spend on homework compared to how much time they shift to texting, facebook, twitter, instagram, tumblr, games, and online shopping, I think we might find that students don't spend nearly as much time on schoolwork as they think they do. It's as if we're expecting them to excel on their homework with all their friends in the room talking to them at once. Fat chance. Furthermore, studies have made it clear that every interruption, even useful ones, impede our ability to work efficiently with each interruption possibly adding as mush as 23 minutes to the time the task takes as we struggle to get back to where we were, deep in thought.

Competition is fierce. Yup. It's not the competition to get into universities that's changed, as universities have been taking an increasing percentage of students each year since 2000, but competition for jobs. The university degree is the new high-school diploma. More jobs are being outsourced or computerized. This, in turn, is making parents more frantic as they fear for their children's very survival. So they push them into what they think might be highly successful fields that the kids aren't necessarily interested in, and then the expectations in the field are raised because of the glut that this causes. In India, the concern is so high, parents scaled a building to help their children cheat on exams.

About those parents. Parenting has changed. Back in the day, parents let us get hurt. It's good for us; it builds character! Kids need skinned knees and hurt feelings and to fall out of trees, to be humiliated occasionally, and to fail things horribly in order to develop into useful human beings. Our parents knew that (well, mine did, but they were born in the 20s), but then we all forgot. And now we protect our children to a fault and need to see research before we'll consider letting any harm come to our bumbles of joy. Parents are swooping in to rescue their kids by intercepting discussions with teachers or bosses instead of giving their kids words to use and by being a little too hands on with the homework.  It's painful for parents to watch their kids struggle, so they don't. But we're the adults here, and we MUST take a long range view on what's actually best for our children. Kids have lost their resiliency as a result of being over-protected. They're immobilized by a fear of failure and have become perfectionistic in nature. And the anxiety in the room is palpable. 

Changing lifestyle expectations have added to this. We used to be content with having a job and didn't expect a life-affirming career full of creative opportunities and advancement.  Most of us were excited for our own apartment, now we all need our own houses with big yards. Our entire mentality has shifted from one of contentment to one of growth. Everything's expected to get better and better within a finite system, and that's just untenable. This is related to social media and to competition, but it deserves its own little paragraph. And I've written before about this paradigm shift in the beginning of this post where you'll find John Oliver explaining the very American perspective that we can actually live like the very wealthy if we keep trying; a Gucci knock-off can do in a pinch. It will do us well if we can reverse this trend in thinking before we have to, back to accepting good enough.

Low marks are too devastating to students' self-esteem now.  Marks have become commodified; they hold value as tradable for university admittance and scholarships as well as indicators of school performance as we're ranked against other schools, so it's no wonder there's such a push to raise them artificially and to cheat whenever possible. This commodification has led students toward a tendency to look at marks as an indicator of their worth in the world. We have to recognize what marks really are: an indication of students' ability to communicate their understanding of specific content and skills at a specific time. That's it. It's not a measure of intelligence nor status nor value as a human being. It just tells us how well people were able to demonstrate their knowledge.

So, how can students reduce their stress levels?

  • Do homework without social media enabled on your computers and with your phones off and in another room. People will get used to the fact that you go offline to do homework. Get the work done first, and leave social media as a reward when you're done. 
  • Watch for the crabs in a bucket effect. People who aren't doing their work will feel better about themselves if you don't do your work either. They'll try to pull you back in the bucket! Be prepared with a rebuttal to their taunts: you're not doing homework to be a keener, or because you obsessively follow rules, or because you're afraid of getting in trouble, but because it feels so much better to get it done and out of the way.
  • Trust that you don't need all the trappings of the rich and famous to lead happy lives. Like de Botton suggests in Status Anxiety, we should follow role models that celebrate intelligence and creativity, not those that celebrate having lots of shiny things. This is a slower shift, but it's possible. 
  • Resist the pressure to go to university if it's not a good fit for you. Or, at least, don't feel rushed to go immediately. And don't feel like you have to stay once you're there. An electrician with five years of on-the-job training with college terms mixed in can make as much as a teacher after five years of university followed by ten years of teaching. You need a job to be able to pay for food and shelter, but it doesn't have to define you. There's more to you than your work.
  • Tell your parents to let you struggle against some firm boundaries. Accept failure gracefully. It will happen at some point. Do your best, but don't worry about being the best or even close to it, and then take responsibility for what you've accomplished. If you take the blame when you don't do it, you also get all the glory when you do. And if you can muster the courage to face your fears of failure, it'll be easier to do next time because you've created neural pathways.
  • You can't much affect the number of jobs available, but you can keep in mind that that the stakes are not nearly as high as you think they are. In this time and place, low marks are not a life or death situation. And beyond the economic realities, your marks affects you only because of your perception of what they mean. And they really don't make you any less lovable.

Or, as Epictetus told us, stop trying to change things outside of your control, and instead change the things you can control. It's all attitude.

On Expectations and Time Limits

In the words of Tina Fey, "The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it's eleven-thirty."

I had a rough semester with several students pushing every boundary repeatedly. I set down expectations, and sometimes students question them a bit and see if I actually mean it. But this term was full of meetings with admin and lengthy e-mails with parents. And I'm not doing anything differently.  I think sometimes one student can start the ball rolling in a direction, and then it gets others in the class going too, until there's a bit of a mutiny.

The big complaint was, "It's not fair that you take down assignments after the due dates and that you won't accept things at the end of term that we forgot to do at the beginning." This is from students heading off to university next year. I worry for them.

I want kids to learn to be responsible, so, for my grade 12s that are university bound, I set clear, hard due dates way in advance and expect them to meet them. I start with small assignments that don't count for very much, and each time they miss one, I talk to them and call home, but I don't let them submit that work. Their opportunity for feedback and evaluation on that piece of work is over. BUT they're welcome to ask for an extension on the work before the due date, and I'll always say yes. Life happens and sometimes more time is necessary, it's just up to the students to pay attention to the due dates and actually remember to ask for more time.

If I don't follow my own rules, I end up with a pile of marking at the end of the semester because I have a hard, unwavering due date at the end when marks are expected. And if I allow the boundaries to snap, then students end up with a pile of work to do at the end; they do a lacklustre job of it all, and they miss out on any feedback along the way.

Some students have an interesting idea of what fair means. From an equity ≠ equal stance, I take fair to mean that they all have equal opportunity to do the work within a time limit that is variable according to their requests for extensions. It's not possible for me to judge objectively how much time and support each student will need given their intellectual limitations, current workload, and home life, so I put it back on them to make that decision for themselves. They just have to have the wherewithal and the gumption to ask for a different deadline, and then to actually meet the deadline they set for themselves. They're expected to know themselves and their own ability.

Some students seem to think fair means that it shouldn't count if they forget to do it, and that they should be able to hand in work when they're ready without any timeline at all. Beyond hindering any sense of burgeoning responsibility, it sets them up to have assignments on top of older assignments. I've had to tell many students over the years that if they can't do all the work for all their courses, it's not the case that teachers have to give them fewer assignments, but that they have to take fewer courses at a time. Fair can't mean changing standards of excellence, or it will be a race to the bottom. We can't give easier or less work to some people and expect the marks to mean something on the same scale. If we have a different scale for each person, then marks become meaningless. That being said, I'd love to get rid of marks altogether in favour of university entrance exams, but that's not in the cards any time soon.

There has to be an endpoint after which work is not longer accepted. We can all improve our work given unlimited time to revise, but, as teachers, we're measuring the ability to understand the concepts at a particular time. We need to put glass on our artwork and actually hit "publish" on blog posts, and then move on. Learning is an on-going process. We can't measure learning when it's completely finished because it will never be completely finished. Marks are necessarily a record of ability at a specific point in time.

I teach by explaining information, getting students to apply this knowledge by investigating and communicating their understanding of topics within boundaries of the content I provided (determined by the curriculum), and then, after getting feedback on their understanding of it all, I give them a test - an additional measure of evaluation.  If students are allowed to hand in work after the test, then they don't benefit from the feedback they would have gotten prior. It doesn't make sense in the context of learning.

I love the idea of mastery learning, of having the chance to show improvement until an idea is mastered. It falls apart if the first demonstrated attempt at learning doesn't happen until well into the term. And it also doesn't work when some students want to re-write essays after I've shown them all their errors. That's not mastery learning.  Swimming lessons are a great example of mastery learning: You get to the next level after you successfully swim 200 m.  But if you get close and do 180 m in one go, you can't go back and show the last 20 m later. You have to do the entire 200 m again. Likewise, to show competence, they have to write a second essay.

Luckily, they often have that opportunity, just not always within the same course. They need to take advantage of comments from their essay and actually apply them the next time they write. This is where things generally fall apart. Many students (and people in general) don't see learning as something continuous, but in piecemeal. They don't seem to expect to have to apply knowledge from grade 10 courses in grade 12. This is the part I'd like to work on - to get them to understand that learning isn't about passing a course, it's about understanding the world.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Truth is Like Poetry

... and people fucking hate poetry.

It's a line from the excellent film The Big Short, which is brought to us by Adam McKay, the director known for goofball comedies like Anchorman and Step-Brothers. But it's nothing like that. At all.

It's listed on IMDB as "Biography, Drama," but it has its funny moments. It's really a rare form of docudrama. It could be used for a flipped class in economics. Star-studded, the actors break the fourth wall from time to time to explain what really happened. And, even better, to help us grasp the essentials of complex subjects like derivative trading and synthetic funds, they use celebrities to act out analogies in mini-seminars throughout the story.

You can get essentially the same story from Inside Job, but nobody wants to see a bunch of talking heads explaining how the market collapsed. Instead of watching real people talk about real events that they experienced first hand, we want to see actors bring some colour and staging to it all. Curious, but there it is. And it really works!  People will see this and understand. Well... they'll understand more than they did two hours earlier.

It's similar to what happened with Trumbo, a 2007 documentary, and Trumbo, a 2015 drama. People will watch the latter because of the stars in it. Except the former documentary is significantly better entertainment.

Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett (Greg Lippmann)
Steve Carell as Mark Baum (Steve Eisman)

Christian Bale as Michael Burry

In The Big Short, the actors are perfectly cast, but what's particularly impressive is that they carried out the mission to create an engrossing vehicle for a very upsetting message that so many knew about and chose to ignore or actively bury with pleas like:  "Could you please stop being such a buzzkill, dude?"

Now if McKay could do it again for climate change.

ETA this link "debunking" the film (h/t Larry). The article clears up some aspects of the film, but I put debunking in quotes because the article takes the film to task for making these men out to be heroes saving the day. I didn't think they were portrayed that way at all. I thought it was pretty clear they were also con men taking advantage of, what they hoped was, the stupidity of certain players in the system. At one point, Vennett clarifies that he's no hero. And although Baum waited to trade his shorts until the very end, and even though he seemed to feel badly about it, he still did it knowing, very clearly at this point, that he was also part of the problem. They were heroes the way Newman and Redford were heroes in The Sting. They were conning the cons, but they were still clearly immoral themselves. It's just fun to watch them in action.

ETA another criticism. I'd say the errors listed in this one are errors of omission rather than inaccuracies. When I saw it, I noticed they don't get into the shift in governmental policies starting in the early 70s. It might be too much to ask in a film that passes the 2 hour mark, but it would have been amazing from a teaching p.o.v.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

On Justice and Hatred

I had an online discussion at Dawg's Blawg about the primary theme of Tarantino's newest film, The Hateful Eight, and it got a bit too provocative to manage a sincere response in the window of a comment, so I brought it here. Unfortunately I can't discuss the ideas without spoiling the film, so do see it first before continuing to read. This is a movie you won't want spoiled.

The film traps ten characters in a cabin in the middle of a blizzard: two bounty hunters, a prisoner, a Sheriff, a General, four disguised gang members out to free the prisoner (one in hiding), and the coach driver. The coach driver, O.B., clearly doesn't count in the hateful eight, but it's debatable which miscreant is excluded from the tally. The movie poster above suggests the hidden outlaw doesn't rate regardless his acts of violence, but John Ruth is the only one that doesn't actually shoot anyone.

First of all, a few things stood out to me as I watched. The film celebrates ruggedness and tenacity. Daisy, the prisoner, garners our respect for being able to take a punch with a wicked little smile. She is one tough cookie. The bounty hunters argue over the merits of John Ruth's insistence on taking prisoners in alive for the hangman as opposed to Major Warren's refusal to work harder than necessary for the same pay. I'm not convinced Ruth is more moral, but that he better enjoys the game of bringing his work to its final conclusion, perhaps of toying with his prey. But this lengthy discussion serves to open the question of the right way to complete a despicable act such as watching a woman die, which, I'd argue, primes the audience to consider the type of morality necessary within a sphere of the kind of harsh reality expected of this setting. This is key.

O.B. is the only soft character in the bunch. He can barely tolerate the cold much less any violence. He's the designated "bitch" of the group, sent on errands he barely manages. One outlaw kindly offers him food, but a little later another poisons him. His softness warrants him no favours.

The film also celebrates cunning. The Sheriff is on to Warren and outs his Lincoln-letter ruse to the cabin, but later he commends the little touches included in the piece of writing. There are all sorts of cleverness and sneaky goings-on here.

Also notable to me was the spotlight cast on the many documents of import: the Lincoln-letter, the bounty hunters' respective warrants, and the faux hangman's order of execution. These acted as proof of the acceptable boundaries of their brutal behaviours and the respect duly afforded to them.

There were curious little loyalties among the group, spoken or unspoken contracts. The outlaws were tight and purposeful. The General was keeping their secret on a promise of being released at the end. The two bounty hunters made a deal to watch over either other's bounty. And Ruth and Daisy, although the most brutal relationship, show a camaraderie from time to time, like when he genially offered her a shot of whiskey and drinks with her.

One of the gang members, Oswaldo, playing the part of a licensed hangman, gave a speech about the necessity of cool heads in the pursuit of justice. He argues that the hangman's impartiality is what makes a hanging moral: "The good part about frontier justice is it’s very thirst-quenching. The bad part is, it’s apt to be wrong as right." It's the dispassionate act of killing that makes it more likely to be a moral act. But the courthouse is just another venue where a good story can win the case, and many characters here might be spinning a convincing tale. The fun in the film is figuring what's actually true, and not everything is clarified by the end.

And at the end, against Warren's first impulse to put a quick bullet into her, the Sheriff insist on stringing up Daisy under the guise of right action because it follows the letter of the law, yet clearly there was some joy garnered in watching her dance. That was a mere show of morality hiding an ulterior motive.

So, here's how I understand it all: We can't know what really is right or wrong in many cases. We can't deliver justice accurately, with any certainty, even in a court of law. Justice is a slippery notion and relative to each perspective. It's not to say it can't be found, but that it can't be done easily or with certainty, and I'm not convinced the justice metered out by a society is necessarily more fair than that determined by individuals within the claustrophobic confines of a cabin.

With respect to the debate at Dawg's Blawg, Dawg argues that the theme of the film is hatred, but I see the slipperiness of justice dominating scenes far more prevalently. By way of comparison, The Revenant was a movie about hatred. One character is driven by hate from the pivotal act of injustice to the very end. I think it can be argued that the deaths in The Hateful Eight are from a sense of survival of the self or a kinship affiliation; sometimes the murders were awash in hatred, but that hatred wasn't the primary motive of most of the acts. The film is a symposium of sorts with each key player bringing his or her own philosophy of justice to the fore leaving the audience to sort out the coherence of each claim, and a variety claims to justice do exist. Keep in mind Plato argued in favour of slavery: "Justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior" (Gorgias section 483). It's an argument we abhor now, but there it is, on the table with the rest of the ideas.

From the outlaw perspective, saving one of their own is an act of bravery. They murdered many innocents before the beginning of the story, then continued as necessary toward their final end of freeing Daisy. Dawg suggests "Their casual killing highlights the underlying theme of hatred," and, in the comments refers to hatred as "the binary opposite of love." None of these murders was an act of hatred, but of indifference, which I'd argue is the antithesis of love. The moral fortitude of the outlaws was such that two of the gang members, Gage and Jody, gave themselves up to Warren as soon as Daisy's life was threatened.

When O.B. and Ruth are mysteriously poisoned, Warren doesn't open fire on the unarmed suspects or threaten them with torturous acts, but lines them up for questioning. He has a different set of rules than us civilized folk, but he's still operating within a system. One notion of justice is that we respect other's free actions without interference unless they violate other's rights. In that respect, he acted justly.

Warren kills the General, but it's not an impassioned acting out, but a patient game of preventing the General's hot revenge against him for a provocative tale. He manipulated the situation so he wasn't directly punishing the General for the inequities of years past but for taking aim to shoot at him. Now this was an act awash in hatred. Hatred demands pain and suffering - the kind Warren imposed on the General by implanting a horrific final memory, and the kind Warren and the Sheriff put Daisy through when an expedient death was a far easier and more merciful option. But the rest of the killings were basically collateral damage in the quest for life.

If they all acted from hatred, we might expect more torturous scenes. However, for the sake of argument, if we accept hatred as the opposite of love, then consider how a cast acting from loving kindness might behave in each situation. Warren might forgive the General his transgressions and the many derogatory comments he was asked to endure. The gang members might trap the household in the stable with adequate provisions and enable them to be found long after they escape with Daisy. And if they were caught, Warren and Ruth might have brought the outlaws to be held in a prison where they could be rehabilitated without risking harm to anyone. It might look something like O Brother Where Art Thou, a lovely film, but then we wouldn't get to see their heads blow off!

The discussion that precipitated this post ended with Dawg's very provocative point:
"Justice, to me, is based upon a social contract, and this was the most anti-social bunch of miscreants imaginable! I am wondering if we unconsciously expect hatred to be enacted in anger, given how bound up in destructive violence it is. Yet Eichmann did not strike me as an angry man. He was, however, enacting hatred at Auschwitz."
I'm not sure the analogy rings true unless we look at it from the point of view that Eichmann was working to rid his society of a perceived "Jewish Problem," and the bounty hunters were working to rid their society of the outlaw problem. Clearly these differ in that outlaws, by definition, have done some damage to society than requires punishing consequences. But they're similar in so far as the murderers are, within the perception of each time and place, acting for the greater good of their society (of their people). The law, acting from the power given it by the people, put those names on paper, not the bounty hunters. They merely acted as agents of the law - so long as they had those warrants in their pockets.

This brings it all back to the slipperiness of justice. Is the social contract the objectively true determinant of Justice, or is it just the best we've got so far? And the more I think of it, the more it occurs to me the film really is a mirror of Plato's Symposium with arguments of justice in place of love and certain death replacing party crashers ending the final scene! Cool.

ETA - Check out this review too!

Thursday, December 31, 2015

On Those Counterfeit Diplomas

An editorial in today's NYT suggests that some recent high school graduates are not competent in basic skills that should be required to earn their standing. The headline refers to these students' diplomas as counterfeit, implying that students had a hand in conspiring to be granted documents under false pretenses. A better word for them might be undeserved, as the diploma requirements are unwittingly incomplete or inaccurate.

The article concerns itself primarily with claims of weak curriculum in many states, citing a rise in high-school graduate rates matched with a decrease in successful college entrance exams:
"Nationally, graduation rates are rising - yet less than 40 percent of 12th graders are ready for math and reading at the college level....more than one in five recent high school graduates could not meet minimum entry test standards to enlist in the Army."
The editorial board writing the article leans heavily on teachers unions, who opposed standardized testing used as a means to evaluated teachers based on how much students learned. The article concludes that,
"Many states reacted by settling for cosmetic changes in school curriculums and using weak tests that virtually anyone could pass. This allows them to hide how dismal their schools actually are and misleads families and students into believing that high school diplomas have value."
Canada's school systems differs from the states considerably, but we often follow where they have led. There are certainly commonalities here, but some important issues have been conflated.

On Teaching Evaluation Tied to Student Ability

It's a bad idea. As I've written previously, if we decide which teachers can keep their jobs based on the results of a standardized test then,
Demographics will play a big part in the results, and teachers in schools near the universities or RIM will appear to be phenomenal, while those of us in the downtown core will look like imbeciles. If we want to accurately assess teachers based on their ability to get students to a certain level, then we'd have to randomly assign students to schools. Unwise and unlikely.
But more importantly, teaching just doesn't work like that. We don't become better teachers because suddenly our lives depend on it. People generally want to be effective in their chosen field. Dan Ariely, a professor of "behavioural economics," writes about the effectiveness of social norms and how quickly market norms can override them, i.e. bringing money into the picture makes people work less:
"Standardized testing and performance-based salaries are likely to push education from social norms to market norms. . . . Instead of focusing the attention of the teachers, parents, and kids on test scores, salaries, and competition, it might be better to instil in all of us a sense of purpose, mission, and pride in education. . . . Market norms also erode the pride and meaning people get from the workplace (for example, when we pay schoolteachers according to their students' performance on standardized tests)" (93-99).
I believe few teachers practice ineffective techniques because they'll be paid the same regardless; it's not the case that they avoid working hard if there's not a giant career-killing carrot or stick prompting them. We have many smaller punishments keeping us in line. Rather, it's far more likely that we have some poor practices because we erroneously believe they're effective. And we think they work because sometimes they do.

There have been studies on best practices that are useful. I think by far this little handbook - The Science of Learning - is the best I've seen. BUT, people are all different. Students are not easily catalogued. Some need a firm hand and others need leeway. Some need rubrics and others won't read them preferring a more open-ended approach. Some need myriad examples, and others want to figure it out themselves. Sometimes films and powerpoints help, but sometimes they hinder. Some students learn best by reading the textbook and filling in handouts even though we're not really supposed to do that anymore. I get my students to evaluate what worked and what didn't for them in each class each year, and then I just have to fly with the majority on any significant changes I make to my practice. There's a science to learning when we look at students in general, yet it's clearly an art when we focus on each individual. And we're supposed to be individuating each lesson and assignment, but, to the degree that we can hit every student every time, that's impossible.

On Rising Grades Coupled with Diminishing Excellence

I completely agree that grades are inflated. I said so here a couple years ago:
A sneaky thing's happened over my last 20 years of teaching. The median grade in most courses used to be in the high 60s, and now it's in the low 80s. Yet I don't think the grads are significantly more knowledgable nor skilled. In fact, when I look at what I've taught since I started, when I look at saved exams and assignments, my courses have gotten more and more watered down each year. The fact that many of the grade 12s entering my course don't know how to cite sources or really what plagiarism is (something I learned cold in grade four) or that many grade 10 Academic students need reminders to capitalize the first word in a sentence and the word "I", really, leads me to believe I'm not the only one cutting out content to ensure everyone passes with flying colours. Out of fear of not measuring up with other countries we've lowered the bar so more kids can jump it successfully. Now our students have the marks to compete with international students for university entrance, but I worry about the monster we're creating.
However, it's not clear to me that this is about the quality of teaching or of the curriculum. I think it's about student expectation. Due to a few interacting forces, students have been able to get away with learning less content and fewer skills. I've written about this previously as well:
From what I see, it's not so much disengagement from the subject matter as from the requirement to do the work of thinking and analyzing the material. That's hard and time consuming, largely because it so new. Slavin, [a Trent University prof], goes on to lament that a third of students don't hand in assignments or don't read feedback on assignments to learn where they've gone wrong. They're just jumping through the hoops instead of trying to learn something useful.

About that Downward Spiral 

I think it looks something like this:

There's global pressure to rank in the top for education which is, in some cases, measured by graduation rate, but, in other cases, measured by standardized tests. Neither of these, I argue, actually show student ability. The former is marred by the move to make courses easier so grades are higher than real ability would indicate: for an additional example, the same English tests that used to be given in one class is now allotted two classes. The latter is marred by a program of teaching to the test that drills students in only the areas being measured, and results in other, arguably more important skills, warranting less attention. Our literacy tests are also skewed by the amount of help given during the test to the point of some students having the questions read to them and their oral answers written down, enacting the very antithesis of literacy testing.

This pressure to rank well internationally is countered by parental pressure for their child to do well individually. Parents are terrified their children won't be able to compete for scholarships or even university entrance. With fewer good, stable jobs to go around, the competition becomes more fierce, and parents pleading for higher grades often get what they demand. That concern is well-founded, but unfortunately results in elevated grades. But beyond the economics of the situation, we have a culture focused on our children's grades instead of focused on what they're actually learning in school. I'm okay with my daughter, in grade-school, doing poorly on a project but spending hours of time showing me what she learned. It tells me she's able to learn, but not yet able to show her learning in the way that's expected for the assignment. But who cares? She'll figure out how to play that game soon enough. But it can be difficult to disallow lower grades from provoking significant anxiety in parents instead of mere disappointment. This is a relatively new phenomenon for the masses.

But the biggest factor in the spiral, is that teachers have become entirely accountable for student ability. It used to be the case that if a class did poorly on a test, then the teacher was taken to task and would have to prove the efficacy of the test and prior lessons. But now if a student does poorly, even if all the other students in the class do exemplary, the teacher is still taken to task for that one student's inability to do the work. It's no longer possible for a student to do poorly in a subject because they're just unable or unwilling to do the work. When I was a student, we used to look long and hard at the ranking that appeared beside our report card grades, dreading an LQ, which indicated we were in the lower quarter of the class. We cared about how well we ranked in the classroom, not in the world. It was a clear indicator of how hard we were working, or, if we were slogging books home each night, it showed us our general ability in the subject. Students can still compare their results to the course median, but with medians in the 80s, and all the marks squished into a smaller percentage range (75 to 95 instead of 35 to 95), distance from the median is a less useful indicator. This is particularly true when students, parents, counsellors, and administrators badger teachers to adjust their marks just a bit.

If a student refuses to do work, it comes back at the teacher for making an assignment that wasn't strongly enough tied to student interest. We're to call home any time a student misses an assignment, but half the class might miss a most fascinating project. We can't just impart information and rest on the reality that much of it is fascinating to us, and therefore will be fascinating to others. We can't be boring. And in a world of diminishing attention spans, that's getting harder and harder to do without a secondary degree in song and dance. This has created a climate in which many students are quite convinced that neglecting work is entirely due to teachers failing to make the work fascinating enough for students to be fully motivated to try their hand at it.

If students don't feel a smidgen of guilt or shame for neglecting their studies, in a world rife with alternative activities at their fingertips, then, really, it's amazing that any of them do any work at all.

The focus on who's to blame for the weak skills of the recent crops of grads is a final concern. We need a cultural shift that cajoles us into challenging ourselves to learn something new and difficult each day, something that makes us struggle just a bit. We're a society of passive viewers, and we've accepted that label without complaint. To save ourselves, we need to rally against that sloth-like view of ourselves. It's not enough to continually reinforce what we're interested in or what we're good at. It's really comfortable to focus on what we already know when we embark on learning, but it's only fruitful if that one area has enormous potential. For the masses, we need a breadth of understanding and knowledge and skills that we'll only attempt if we are ashamed when we don't live up to our own potential regardless the entertainment value of our teachers or the quality of our leaders.

Barring a complete shift in culture, one more concrete tactic we could take to change things is to require university entrance exams. The SAT exams (lots of fun practice questions here) are a useful means to determine if a student is skilled enough for a particular program. And the fact that the exams exist, mean students will be motivated to develop the right skills to an excellent degree regardless their interest in each facet of learning. If they want to enter a general English lit program, they will have to learn the nuances of grammar regardless how much more interesting it is to enjoy some poetry than to learn the particulars of principal clauses.

And then their diplomas might mean something.

ETA - Here are some letters to the editor about the original editorial with a few points of agreement:

"In many states the strategy has been to raise standards and then lower passing scores on exit exams in order to maintain or even raise the graduation rate."

"The graduation rates increased because parents and politicians demanded that they increase. Instead of improving education, states lowered standards."

"Does the fact that a high school diploma is now essentially meaningless cause problems for colleges, private employers and the military? Not really. Colleges have the ACT and SAT for potential entrants. . . . The only people really harmed are the marginal students who were passed on instead of helped."

"Taxpayers are entitled to know that students are receiving at least a basic education. Instead, they are told a comforting fairy tale that shortchanges all stakeholders."

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

On Desires and Commodities

I've just been reading books and watching films lately. I'll write again soon. But check out this passage from The Obsolescence of Man by Gunther Anders, first published in 1956:


The mere fact that I had no car and therefore could be caught in flagrante not buying anything and, ultimately, of having no needs, was the cause in 1941 of the following embarrassing incident in California:


Yesterday, in the Los Angeles area, while I was walking along a highway, a police car pulled over in front of me with its siren wailing and blocked my path.

The policeman shouted at me: “Say, what’s the matter with your car?”

“My car?”, I asked him, not understanding what he was talking about.

“Sold her?”

I shook my head.

“At the shop for repairs?”

Once again I shook my head.

The policeman paused in thought, since it seemed to him to be impossible that there should be a third reason for not having a car. “Then why aren’t you driving it?”

“My car? But I don’t have a car.”

This simple piece of information also went right over his head.

To help him understand, I explained that I had never owned a car.

Now I really stuck my foot in it. A clear case of self-incrimination. The policeman stared at me with his mouth hanging open. “You never had a car?”

“Look, no”, I said, pondering his powers of comprehension. “That’s the boy.” And then I waved to him in a friendly and innocent way and attempted to resume my walk.

But he would have none of that. To the contrary. “Don’t force me, sonny,” he thought and pulled out his citation booklet, “don’t tell me any stories, please”. The pleasure of interrupting the dull boredom of his job with the capture of a vagrant almost gave him a friendly, innocent air. “And why haven’t you ever owned a car?”

I thought for a second about what I should not say in response. So instead of saying: “Because it never occurred to me to get a car”, I responded—and for added emphasis, I shrugged my shoulders and assumed a distracted look—“Because I never needed a car.”

This answer seemed to put him in a good mood. “Is that so?”, he then exclaimed, almost with enthusiasm. I sensed that I had committed a second, even worse mistake. “And why don’t you need a car, sonnyboy?”

Sonnyboy shrugged his shoulders, afraid. “Because I had more need of other things.”

“Such as?”


“Aha!”, the policeman said thoughtfully, and he repeated the word, “books”. Evidently he was now certain of his diagnosis. And then: “Don’t act the moron!”, which is how he made it clear to me that he had discovered that sonnyboy was a “highbrow who was faking imbecility” and that, in attempt to simulate an inability to understand that offers were orders, pretended to be an idiot. “We know your kind”, he thought, giving me a friendly poke in the chest. And then, with a sweeping gesture that indicated the distant horizons: “And where do you want to go?”

This was the question that I most feared, since I still had sixty-four kilometers of highway until San L; and once there, I had nowhere to go. If I had tried to define for him the absence of a goal for someone who is on the road, I would definitely have seemed like a vagrant. God knows where I would be sitting now if, at that very moment, L. had not arrived, truly like a deus in machina, if he had not pulled up alongside us with his imposing six-seat sedan, if he had not stopped suddenly and gestured to me, inviting me to get into his car, something that not only left the policeman flabbergasted, but also seriously challenged his philosophy.

“Don’t do it again!”, he snapped, as I got into our car.

What is it that I am not supposed to do again?

Evidently, I must not refrain from buying what is offered in the form of a command to everyone.

When in these offers you recognize the commandments of our time, one is no longer surprised that even those who cannot afford to do so also end up buying the commodities that are offered. And they do so because they are even less capable of affording not following orders; that is, not buying the commodities. And since when has the appeal to duty [Pflicht] respected those without resources? And since when has duty [Sollen] ever exempted the have-nots from its commands? Just as, according to Kant, one must comply with one’s duty even when, or especially when, it is contrary to one’s inclination, so today one has to comply even when it is contrary to one’s own “responsibility”. Especially today. In the same way, the mandates of the offers are categorical. And when they announce their must-have, to appeal to one’s own precarious situation of duty-and-responsibility would be pure sentimentalism.

Of course, this analogy is a philosophical exaggeration, but it nonetheless contains a kernel of truth, since it is no metaphor to truly claim that today there is hardly anything in the spiritual life of contemporary man that plays as fundamental a role as the difference between what one cannot afford and what cannot be afforded; and this difference furthermore becomes real in the form of a “battle”. If for the man of our time there is a characteristic conflict of duties, it is none other than the no-holds-barred, ferocious and exhausting battle that takes place in the hearts of customers and within the bosom of the family. True, “no-holds-barred, ferocious” and “exhausting”, because the fact that the object of the struggle can make us stupid and the battle itself could take place as a comical version of real conflicts, does not at all detract from its bitterness and must suffice as the fundamental conflict of a contemporary bourgeois tragedy.

As everyone knows, this tragedy usually ends with the victory of the “mandate of the offer”; that is, with the acquisition of the commodity. But this victory is dearly bought, since from that very moment the customer begins to experience the servile compulsion of paying in installments for the acquired object.


Anders goes on to explain how we become slaves to our things as we harbour a belief that if we don't use them regularly, then all that money and time spent working to get the object has gone to waste. So we use it even when we no longer get pleasure from it just to avoid wasting our hard-earned things. Which is nuts. And if we could just think a bit, we could rise above this mess of things.

It makes me think of one of my favourite lines of poetry, published the same year:
"What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?"
Anders comes to the same conclusion as Epicurus, Epictetus, Plato, Lao Tzu, Jesus, and many others: We can have greater pleasure in life if we reduce our desires for things instead of getting sucked into an endless battle to fulfill every desire. But it's not just about desire for commodities. We have strong desires for progress and perfection. We can't fall for that either. Life is messy, and we will always be flawed and ever unfinished. Epictetus in particular advised recognizing what's within our control and not bothering much about anything else. Reputation, honour, status are not within our control. It's just an illusion that if we work hard enough, we can get them. Once we can accept that fact, then we can let go of expectations and striving for something we might never achieve.

I don't see it as cut and dry as Epictetus does, however. To me, those things are just a greater gamble with a lower probability of success than what we can control with certainty. Instead of resigning myself to what's out of my control, I just get better at playing the odds. But imagine a life with fewer goals, with fewer expectations, like Anders' contentious walk to nowhere. That's not allowed in our age that glorifies progress at any cost.

I thought of this as I watched The End of the Tour followed by several interviews and speeches by Wallace.

And way down here, way below the fold, I've been thinking a lot about the "sudden deaths" of three male teachers from my board, ranging in age from 36 to 55. One at FHCI, one at my school, and one at SSS. All within a year. The absences of any evidence to the contrary leads me to believe they took their own lives. At our school, we were instructed to shut down that discussion out of respect for the family. And I don't understand that. So I'm whispering this here because it's begging to be cracked wide open.

ETA: And now a fourth, a female breaks the pattern a bit.

Our schools are all about working to reduce the stigma around mental health. Caz, my departed colleague, and I worked on a mural in honour of Clara Hughes' struggle with mental health.  But we're not to discuss his condition or speculate about possible contributing factors with an eye towards improving the odds for others. We're supposed to wade in the ambiguities of yet another 'sudden death.'

If all three were hit by a car, students and teachers would rally and petition to make the streets safer. If all three were victims of assault or cancer or lyme disease or any other single cause, we would join together to raise money and awareness to prevent similar deaths in future. But as it is, we sit silently, in anguish, trying hard to ignore the pattern of cases.

As teachers, we're afraid to get in trouble like never before, acting to avoid punitive measures rather than for the love of teaching. We have new mandates that are unclear and the dictates continue to waver with each administrator, yet teaching reviews can be labelled unsatisfactory and jobs lost if these fuzzy rules aren't followed accurately. It's a time of profound chaos leading to a general state of anomie. We have a professional organization that focuses on teacher error, from the mundane to the profane, and publishes them regularly with names and details in a magazine that we are obligated to fund, rather than discretely and respectfully working with teachers to resolve concerns and to restore professional relationships. One disgruntled student with a parent willing to go the distance can end a career.

And criticizing any of it can lead to termination. Shhhhh..... This is but a minor act of embarrassingly cowardly rebellion.

The reality right now is that keeping a job by working hard is no longer within our control. I've had more student complaints about me this year than in all the previous 24 years combined. Every time I've been supported by my administration, but the complainants are undeterred insisting they should be able to re-submit projects endlessly to get a mark that shows their best ability. There's a belief that we should mark work repeatedly until the end of term, and I will quit if I'm made to mark each piece of work several times over until they each have 100% in the course. The absurdity of the situation requires us to accept that we shouldn't expect to be able to retire in good standing regardless our dedication to the craft.

This is not to say that careers were a driving force in these deaths, but I imagine they were at least a contributing factor. We spend a third of our lives at work, and, for people like me, under the new conditions, it consumes a majority of waking hours. But these tragedies are also a piece of a new statistic that the suicide rate of middle age white males has risen by 40% in the last seven years.

Some think this increase is due to the expectation of the stoic male and the "gym culture" that has foisted unattainable goals on men. Others focus on a similar split between dual expectations of being strong and being vulnerable. Others look to the singleness of most of the men in the study, others on how coping skills fall apart with age, on alcohol use, and on our glorification of youth.  Some think it's simply a factor of the economic downturn as suicides peaked during the depression as well. And others note that it's highest in those without a high-school education.  Economic insecurity is certainly a stress too much to bare for some, but Durkheim's research found that suicide rates rise during positive changes as much as negative changes. "Even fortunate crises, the effect of which is abruptly to enhance a country's prosperity, affect suicide like economic disasters" (203).  Too much change that creates upheaval in a society affects the desire to take a quick exit. We are in a point of increasingly frequent and hurried disruptions, and we can't settle in. We can't feel secure in what we're doing to improve it before we have to change it.

The school board seems to recognize that it's causing some problems as evidenced by one perk of our new contract being a promise of no new initiatives for a year. We used to get a rush of changes at every provincial election, then those ideas would be overruled by the next government before they were ever fully implemented. Now it seems like new changes bombard us for the sake of change, as if they believe that constantly moving is the same as progressing.

Granted Epictetus would advise that the expectation that our colleagues will live full lives to their natural end is unreasonable to hold as it's not at all within our control. And yet...  An urge to act, to do something to prevent others' misery and loneliness and fear and desperation bubbles up uncontained and rudderless. Impotent.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

On Aging and Playfulness

My city is full of construction in preparation for Light Rail Transit. I hit the bookstore today and was walking towards the hardware store for some blinds when the sidewalk abruptly ended. An orange mesh fence framing a "Pedestrians, use the other sidewalk" sign stopped me in my tracks. I considered turning back, but I had come this far. So I made my way across four lanes of traffic to the other side where, lo and behold, there was a twin sign and fence bookending the highway. There WAS no other sidewalk!

After determining that there was absolutely no other way to get from point A to point B, I slithered my way around the fence and into a 2' deep trench that once featured a walkway. Sloshing through lovely suctiony mud, I was further pleased that I wasn't able to find my sneakers at home earlier and had resigned myself to heavy boots on a reasonably mild day. And as I was happily stomping through the muck on the busy street, just 20' or so from where the sidewalk would begin again, I thought about a book I had just paged through but hadn't bought.

Ian Brown is a favourite writer of mine. I even e-mailed him about a bit of writing I had done once, and he courteously responded (which I printed and saved). His newest book is about turning 60. He wrote a diary-like entry once a day for a year, and I immediately regretted not doing the same at the start of this year, my 50th, except I know I'd never keep it up for a year. Once I started a blog taking a picture a day of myself - no words or ideas, just a snapshot. I lasted three days. Routine is not my forté.

But I didn't buy the book because it would make me too introspective. I buy books to face me outside of myself. John Ralston Saul's The Comeback was my choice today. A book about someone turning 60 would have me dwelling on turning 50. Even just paging through it a bit has done that well enough, obviously!  Brown wonders about what 60 looks like, what pleasures are found and lost, what it means to be 60 these days. I understand those questions as I find myself searching out which famous people are close to my age. Woody Harrelson is close, and Robert Downey Jr. But famous women my age don't often look like anything I could recognize in the mirror. What does 50 look like? It's so hidden it's become foreign to us. And how do 50-year-olds act?

I thought of Brown's book as I enjoyed my muddy journey trespassing around barricades on a busy street in broad daylight, and I became briefly self-conscious, suddenly aware that I'm not 10-years-old, but a middle-aged lady intentionally splashing mud like a crazy* person! This makes it all the more hilarious. Somehow I'm typically saved from acknowledging the gaze of the other through some magical built-in obliviousness to norms, which allows for a strange sort of freedom. I might look ridiculous, but I'm causing no harm.

Why is unself-conscious playfulness the thing we give up as we get older when we could just as easily give up judgment and spite and crabbiness. Because shouldn't we all enjoy a bit of a splash now and again?


* I waffled over how to word that line for ages. I considered "like something's wrong with me" or "like I'm on drugs" but both have the same problem of stereotyping behaviours. Yet I do want to get across that childhood behaviours in an adult are ridiculed - people think less of us as they would someone with a mental challenge or illness. And the whole point is, wouldn't it be cool if they didn't?

On Making Change

For decades, I've been bringing cloth bags to the grocery store to avoid using plastic bags and bringing home superfluous garbage. But for decades, it's been an annoyance for the poor cashier who had to figure out what to do with my pile of assorted sacks, and who, more often than not, would just leave all the groceries for me to sort and stuff.

In the last 3-5 years, all that has changed. Ever since they started charging for plastic bags and offering store-logo'd bags for sale at the check-out, cashiers now ASK if I have my own bags. They welcome my thread-bare sacks without hesitation. That change is nearing completion: a state in which bringing containers for groceries is the norm, and accepting plastic bags for a price is deviant. Of course we're understanding when people forget their bags; we all do it from time to time. But I can't imagine people having that same pitying reaction to "I'll need some bags too" just five years ago.

Similarly, I've avoided most paper in my classroom for years. I have a website with all my handouts and assignments, and I collect and mark all work online. I don't just do that for the environment: my course notes are clearly organized and easier for students to find than a bunch of handouts at the bottom of their knapsack. It's also much faster to mark online, and all student work is automatically organized for me. I avoid marking programs in favour of simple, straightforward Gmail, which I've been using since 2002 when I worked on a teacher's guide and was introduced to online editing. I've been using that "Review" option on word documents ever since. Now I can just search a name in my mailbox to find a list of all the work a student's submitted with my comments and rubrics attached.

With google docs available for free, some students don't see the point in buying a word program, so I accommodate that too, reluctantly. Students aren't yet adept at sharing with the right settings that enable an easy communication, and it adds an extra step of checking dates when a document is "live." But it's still easier than collecting paper copies.

And, like the shift away from plastic bags, the hard copy advocates are becoming the deviants, which makes my life so much easier. It used to be the case that I had to also provide paper copies of assignments in case students didn't like using computers, and I had to accept hard-copies of work. Now that our school board is trying to cut back paper use by 75% in the next four years (75/5 started a year ago), it's acceptable to have all work online, and students have resigned themselves to the change. Some students even complain when teachers give handouts. They used to lament having to type up their work, but now they're up in arms if they're asked to print an assignment. The shift is almost complete. Some teachers are going further to make all their tests online, but then they have to watch all the screens like a hawk for googlers (with no LanSchool for chromebooks on wifi). Paper does still have its benefits, and so far I don't feel too guilty about one paper test each unit.

This shift is handy for me. It's good for the board's bottom line (money). And it saves trees. I'm surprised there aren't pulp and paper lobby groups all over this; maybe they've had to recognize times are changing and they won't be able to stop this kind of shift. Maybe.

How I feel when I talk about reducing paper,
and how I think other people feel: Oh bother.
So it is possible to change behaviours to the extent that people are appalled or embarrassed to be asked to do something that was commonplace just a few years back. It seems to have to involve business concerns over the financial costs of wastefulness. The change in paper use wouldn't have happened without the board being concerned with the cost and amount of paper being used. One person (me) jumping up and down about it, showing off my marked essays, and putting boxes for good-on-one-side paper in every room does absolute squat to change behaviours. Now can we apply the model to other issues?

Tim Horton's sort of charges for a cup, but they do it backwards with a discount if you bring your own mug. If they reversed that and decreased their prices by ten cents, but then charged a dime for the cost of a cup, AND encouraged people to buy a mug at the checkout, I think single-use cups could be dramatically reduced.

But those are really small potatoes. Can we reduce cars (single-use vehicles) and meat consumption the same way? That's the real challenge.

Stickers on gas pumps might help. I've long suggested stickers of child slaves on free trade chocolate bars to remind us to buy fair trade*, so maybe we can get some squished animals for meat packs from factory farms (even though we can't get GMO labelling here). But all the stickers might have the effect they did on cigarette packets, which is nil.

To follow this demonstrably effective model, we need the government to put in place a firm and dramatic limit on consumption of gas and factory farmed meat; I think that 75/5 target for typical residential use might help make a change, and it could be do-able. And they'd need to offer easy alternatives to use, like increase taxes enough to obliterate bus fares, or have promotions on other ways to get protein with recipes to help people make the transition to meat only on Mondays. Except that Big Oil and Monsanto might have something to say about it all. That's a bugger.

With political will, it could be done. It would mean a couple years of grumbling, but then we might get to a place where people complain if they're actually asked to do something that requires serving meat, like the boss is coming over and expects a steak, or that requires a vehicle, like moving across town.

It could happen.


* John Oliver on Last Week Tonight also had a bit in which people could get labels to stick on food products to tell the truth about the products. I posted the video on facebook, but it has since been deleted. And all other videos with the same name have edited out the ending with the citizen re-labelling suggestion. It makes me wonder if their legal department canned it not necessarily on "copyright grounds" as he just provided downloadable stickers his staff had created, but because it inspired an effective citizen backlash.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

On Those Statues Again

the first statue
There are dueling petitions out to continue and to stop statues of all 22 prime ministers being planted on the grounds of Wilfrid Laurier University, my old school that I loved all to bits. I wrote about this statue project on its inception two years ago. The statues were originally to be set up at Victoria Park, but a survey of our citizens showed 79% rejected the idea. This debate has made news at The Star, The National Post, and The Globe and Mail, where one professor noted,
"Parliament wants to encourage the participation of diverse groups for the 150th celebrations. No one here was asked what they wanted,” said Nelson Joannette, a history professor at the university. . . . "Imagine any other marginalized group walking around campus and seeing those 22 monuments celebrating great white leaders. What kind of message does that communicate? It flies in the face of what contemporary universities are about." 
I talked to my grade 10 students about this issue. They were in full support of the project, but their arguments are telling. They more vocal respondents fell along two lines:

1. "If it's free, then it's good. If someone wants to give you something for free, you'd be crazy not to take it."

The fact that it's privately funded takes away some of the concern of taxpayers, but it raises a different issue. Should wealthy benefactors be allowed to dictate the art that permanently represents our city? As Joannette suggests, if we want to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada, our voices should all be heard with respect to what type of display is warranted. Our voices were heard once in this city, and now the majority that protested the statues is being ignored.

2. "I don't see a problem with the First Nation issue. It was so long ago, who really cares about that anymore?"

Yikes! And, exactly. People don't get the connections and the long strings of history that sit behind the current occupation of land, and they don't understand problems with some of the policies of the past that have left a lasting negative impact on our nation. Missing and Murdered Indigenous  Women and the disproportional number of Indigenous people in jails are just skimming the surface of the number of problems created by colonization.

I recognize that we have to understand people's lives within a historical context, much as I praise some of Plato's work even though he was cool with slavery. We can't attack their entire body of work because of one piece. But some PMs don't have much of a piece to praise, certainly not compared to other Canadians focused more on social reform than personal status.

Some American cities have been taking down confederate memorials. It's curious we'd want to put up something that could be seen as glorifying a dark history, just as our neighbours are becoming more enlightened.

And our own Luisa D'Amato tried to explain the problems with the opposition to the statue project:
It will be one of the ways that visitors, students and employees get information, both critical and supportive, about the behaviour and legacy of that prime minister. Perhaps a conversation or two will happen. "We're not trying so much to celebrate as we've tried to document," said one of the proponents of this privately funded project, Jim Rodger.
They want to display the PMs with warts and all to elicit further discussion about our history. The problem with Rodger's argument is that he wants to change the meaning of erecting a statue, but we can't arbitrarily change the symbolic vernacular of a culture. We don't look at statues and think, "This group of people obviously wanted to discuss this person further." Culturally, we understand statues to be a commemoration. We can't just change that definition as it suits us.

We should celebrate people who have sacrificed and fought in order to help our nation flourish. Terry Fox, the Famous Five, and Shannen Koostachin are good examples. Being a politician that gets to the top through trickery, dumb luck, or honourable means shouldn't be enough to warrant a bronze legacy. Some politicians fight for the top position for power and prestige, not necessarily to make Canada a better nation. Title alone doesn't make one laudable.

If the statues are about learning about history, then a smaller version of the statues could sit in a display travelling through museums and galleries across Canada. As a temporary display, people will come to see the statues when they're near where they can remark on the trajectory through one PM to another and look for the hidden iconography of the pieces. Maybe they can end up housed in the foyer of Kitchener's The Museum. In a museum, they are clearly an educational tool. As public art, they are celebrations of former Canadians. There's no getting around that.

D'Amato closes with these words: "When people at a university start instantly dismissing something because it makes them uncomfortable, that makes me uncomfortable."

Professors openly discussing and debating an issue in the news is not the same as "instantly dismissing" them. They're presenting their views for larger consideration, and the debate will continue.

But what's really interesting to me about this issue, is how passionately I feel about it. Beyond all the rational discourse, it should be noted that I am shaking with rage at the very idea that a statue commemorating Stephen Harper could go up in MY city. After all he has done to destroy what made Canada great, if he is to be celebrated here, then I WILL MOVE!

Just sayin'.

ETA this on Cornwallis statue in Halifax.

On Population Control and Freedom at Any Cost

China has officially ended its one-child policy, and the New York Times argues against any similar policy ever existing again.
The Chinese government’s decision to end its draconian one-child policy is a pragmatic economic move, but it’s hardly sufficient. The government continues to control personal freedom by limiting the number of children a couple can have to two, an abhorrent policy that no nation should have.
The editorial talks about limiting freedoms like it's the worst possible action, but there are far worse consequences if we don't. If no nation should limit their population, then we'll have some bigger problems in our hands. We have to begin to control our population, and asking people nicely isn't going to do squat! I explained the logic behind this a whole other blog ago. Most of us just aren't made to care about the entire world, so the masses have to be forced to do what's right for the greater good.

In my school board, they've implemented a 75/5 paper reduction policy starting a year ago: we're to decrease paper use by 75% within the next five (now four) years. Stats were run, and I tried to convince the keeper of the numbers to accidentally leak them - or, better, openly post them and warn that updated numbers will be posted quarterly.  He already suggested that we limit printing to 600 pages/year, and there was an uproar. With stats in hand, he's clarified that most people are doing that already, but a few - about 10 in 80 teachers - are way, way above those numbers. Unfortunately he's not quite comfortable posting those names yet, but I think it's the only thing that will work.

As I walked out of that paper meeting, another teacher said we'll never get teachers to do this - even with on-line resources in our back pockets - literally. But back in the day when I started teaching, we rarely photocopied anything because we had one mimeograph machine (Remember smelling the paper to get a buzz?), and it took forever to make copies. We got by without copies and without computers. So it's entirely possible to reduce paper use, but the masses won't do it out of the goodness of their hearts. It won't happen until it's forced to happen. People will complain for a couple years because change is hard, but then they'll get used to the new rules, and life will go on with a few more trees in the ground (and more money at the board office).

If we don't create some rules around population, it will be truly disastrous. Suzuki illustrates that here:

After reading Jared Diamond's Collapse, I summarized his research on the reality of not having any pro-active population control:
Diamond moved on to collapse through genocides with a caution that it's not enough to increase food production to feed the world; we must simultaneously rein in population growth (312). Many genocidal studies focus on ethnic hatred as the catalyst that must be prevented, but Diamond points out the real problem is typically over-population of an area. He looks at Rwanda in which, in 1993, 40% of citizens were living below the poverty level, and 100% of 25-year-old men were still living at home unable to live on their own or start their own families. ”It is not rare, even today, to hear Rwandans argue that a war is necessary to wipe out an excess of population and to bring numbers into line with the available land resources" (326). Population pressure, the strain of hunger is the powder in the keg, and the ethnic division was the match. “The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs” (328).
It seems pretty clear that either we can choose to allow genocides to reduce populations, or we consciously prevent more children from being born. I think we'd all like to choose that second option... except when it directly affects us, which is much of the time.

The reality is that if we want to have a healthy planet for our grandchildren to live on, we have to stop having so many grandchildren. We have to spread the word to anyone from 15 to 40 to have fewer children, and from 40 up to tell their children to stop having children at all, or maybe to have one among the lot of them. I have three kids, and, so far,  I've convinced two of them not to have any kids. But intelligent friends my age laugh at this suggestion. They just don't believe this is a real problem that they need to actually act on in any real way. So we need something else to get us going.

We could try incentives, and I suggested to my grade 12s that we offer free education in exchange for voluntary permanent sterilization. We'd have to do it when they're 18-20, before they get a strong biological urge to reproduce. It's young for them to make such an important decision, but that's the point. I think it's the only time we could conceivable (ha!) convince people to willingly give up their right to have children. They pointed out that if we tie incentives to university, then we might reduce population in the smartest group of people and potentially end up with an Idiocracy:

So that plan might not work.

We need to change our entire mythology around freedom in order to survive another couple generations. We need to stop thinking that freedom should come at any cost. I said as much after watching Mad Max: Fury Road. In that film, the bad guy rationed water, and our hero opened the valves for all to drink freely. Fast-forward twenty years, and we'd see the fatal short-sightedness of that style of leadership.

We're back to Plato's Republic where control = freedom, except it doesn't have to turn out like 1984 or a Nazi regime. Quite the opposite. We can have a very transparent government explain the consequences of our actions and suggest a series of reforms that limit our reproductive freedoms. We can be asked to vote on the best method of limitation, but we have to limit it in some way. In Canada, we're happy to limit the freedom to buy automatic weapons and the freedom to elicit others towards hatred of an identifiable group of people. We force teenagers to go to school against their will if necessary. We've banned the sale of sugary foods in schools, and some cities have successfully banned water bottles. Now can we learn to recognize the wisdom of limiting our freedom to reproduce even though it fights against a significant biological instinct? That's the question this generation must answer. Immediately.

But what about our pensions and jobs and the economy? We can't have an economy without a tolerable planet to put it on. It's too late to look on this as a 50/50 choice. Environmental legislation has to win or else we all lose.