Thursday, May 14, 2015

Vaccinating Against Discrimination

Jane Elliot is an internationally renowned educator because of her work to eliminate discrimination. This video outlines her exercise. Basically, she repeatedly demonstrates that one arbitrary group (blue eye or brown eyes) is superior to another. The superior group is provided with perks and benefits, while the inferior group suffers from exclusion and ridicule.

This lesson was developed for her grade 2 class after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Her goal was to allow her students to truly experience racism, if only for a moment. Some of her methods seem cruel, especially for a group of young students - but wouldn't an authentic discriminatory experience need to be cruel?

Her findings were surprising. Obviously, the students being discriminated against felt bad. They got into fights over it, and they felt negative emotions. More disturbing, however, is the fact that most of the "superior" students improved their scores on spelling tests, while the "inferior" students' scores dropped. The implications of this are far-reaching, especially for teachers.

Ms. Elliot eventually takes her show on the road. She performs the same exercise with adults, albeit in a slightly different manner. Adults, she found, tend to quietly accept discrimination so long as they are not the focus of abuse. This also raises an interesting point for educators. Perhaps the best way to eliminate racism is to teach young people how to stand up against it.

My favourite moment in the video is around 17:70, when the students throw away their discriminatory collars. They are happy, not because of any kind of perk or incentive, but because they are free and equal. The look in their eyes reflects a profound sense of joy that the world will no longer separate and hurt them. Perhaps we could all learn a lesson from them.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Teen Rights and Reasonable Assimilation

Maclean's recently published an article titled "As teens learn their rights, they’re defending them—and winning" which describes a phenomena which has increased significantly in recent years: young individuals demanding that their society accommodate them. In many ways this is a positive thing. Students have developed the requisite communication skills and are advocating for themselves. They are challenging authority using Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They are also becoming active, contributing members of their society. The examples provided in the article include:

  • Toronto students fighting against the use of a breathalyzer at their prom (Unreasonable search and seizure)
  • A 17-year old gaining an exemption from religion classes (Freedom of Religion)
  • One family demanding that transgendered students not "choose their own bathroom" (Privacy)
  • Teens suspected of selling drugs fighting against a search of their person (Unreasonable search)
Most of these examples are relatively benign, but they point to a growing attitude in Canadian society. I noticed it most when I returned home from a one-year teaching assignment in South Korea. I immediately saw how much more independent we are as Canadian citizens. Most of our choices are based on our individual needs, or the needs of our close friends and family. When we vote, we tend to vote for the candidate who will help us directly. In contrast, Koreans tend to consider the needs of the collective when they make decisions. They view themselves of part of a whole, and are willing to adapt in order to assimilate into a stronger society. (Their reason for this might be the fact that they are surrounded by China, Russia, North Korea, and Japan).
I worry that as our World War survivors die, Canadians are becoming less thoughtful about the implications of their actions. Those who lived through the World Wars gave up many of their "rights" in order to benefit society. Rather than ask, "What's in it for me?" they operated as part of a collective that was made stronger by their decisions. I am not advocating for wholesale acceptance of authority, but only for reasonable assimilation. It is reasonable to expect that students will not attend a dance when they are drunk. If a pattern of student drinking is evident, then it is reasonable to test their breath. If you don't want to take a religious class, then it is reasonable to expect that you would not enroll in a religious school. If there is reasonable suspicion that you are selling drugs, then it is reasonable for you to be searched while you are a minor in a public school (although that search should be conducted by police - not school officials). 
The principal of Northern Secondary School in Toronto was being reasonable. Alcohol use was rampant at his school's dances. After police delivered an ineffective school-wide presentation on safe partying, and after cancelling all senior dances except the prom, this principal decided to implement a breath test to prom goers. Rather than cancel cultural events, he asked students to submit to a simple test to see if they were following the school rules. The students saw this as an invasion of their individual rights. 
Educators operate in loco parentis while students are at school. Increasingly, as parents act more like friends and less like parents, teachers have been asked to fulfill a greater social responsibility. This is obvious by the need for a breath test. Either the parents did not teach their children to follow the rules, or they are unable to manage their children's behaviour. Instead, the principal must address this problem at the public level. Perhaps the principal should call the police for each one of these students and they could be charged with public intoxication instead. 
It is not surprising to me that young people rebel against authority. This is not new. Plato attributes the following quotation to Socrates:
“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”
This was almost 2500 years ago. It  is interesting to note that Socrates was speaking about a period of unparalleled political freedom. What followed was the subjugation of Athens by Sparta, then Alexander of Macedon, and finally Rome. Socrates foresaw the end of independent politics in Athens if the citizens did not cooperate with one another to create and maintain a strong society. How will Canada be changed by these young Canadians who fight authority? Time will tell.  

Monday, April 20, 2015

What is Literacy?

My staff discussed "literacy" during our Friday PD session last week. One of our tasks was to write six beliefs about literacy. My beliefs are outlined below:

1. I believe that literacy is a basic term referring to the ability of an individual to use letters to communicate. 

The impetus for our discussion was a collection of articles that Alberta Education has been using to create their own definition of literacy. Currently, the Alberta Ed (2010) definition reads as the following:
"Literacy is acquiring, creating, connecting and communicating meaning in a wide variety of contexts". 

This definition is different from the Government of Alberta vision in 2009:

"Literacy is more than the ability to read and write. It involves the knowledge, skills and abilities—the competencies—that enable individuals to think critically, communicate effectively, deal with change and solve problems in a variety of contexts to achieve their personal goals, develop their knowledge and potential, and participate fully in society."
Both definitions stray from a classical perception of literacy. The root word of literacy comes from Latin word littera/litera meaning "letter." Quite literally, a literate person was "one who knows the letters." I am a bit of a traditionalist with language. I don't like when words are misused. If literacy is co-opted to this new meaning, how will we describe a literate person? What words will we use to identify a person who can read or write?

2. I believe that literacy has become a metaphor for an individual's knowledge of language and cultures. 

The 2009 definition speaks to this new metaphor; literacy is everything. The ability to do anything requires "literacy". The definition is describing intelligence or aptitude - not literacy. I am not saying that various "new literacies" such as technology literacy and art literacy are not important and valued skills for students to develop. Rather, I don't like using a misnomer like "literacy" to describe what the human mind does when it engages with a new tool or attempts to understand artistic impression.

This new concept of literacy has gained credence thanks to philosophers like Paulo Friere who argue against dichotomizing reading and writing from knowing (2005).  Of course, Friere's approach to knowledge was very much that of a counter-culturalist attacking a system which he perceived (rightly) to subjugate large groups of people. My problem with his work is not that he is incorrect, but that he, ironically, has "named" the wrong tool for education: literacy.

3. I believe that Alberta Education's definition of literacy is too broad to be effectively developed in my classroom.

4. I believe that literacy can be improved by identifying its constituent components and teaching these skills - not by promoting "literacy" as some kind of holistic skill.

Most language arts educators are familiar with the whole language-phonics debate. On one side we have education philosophers (like Friere) who argue that language cannot be reduced to parts and must be viewed holistically. On the other, we have language teachers who argue it is more effective to teach students specific concepts. Basically, it is a battle between top-down constructivists and bottom up behaviourists. This topic is worthy of a lengthy discussion, but suffice to say it is easier to teach behaviourally even though we naturally learn constructively. The classroom is not a natural learning environment; it is an artificial construct designed by the teacher. Behaviourist approaches are generally more successful in this type of space. The library or lab is a better space for constructive inquiry.

A similar debate has been fought over math instruction. A new "inquiry" approach to math has promoted critical thinking and problem solving over rote drill and math practice. This has been great for the brightest students in each class, but has led to a whole generation of students who must use a calculator to solve basic facts.

The problem with promoting literacy as this educational catch-all term is that it is too complex to be taught in a classroom. Certainly, language is learned holistically. The brain adds bits here and bits there, eventually forming knowledge. Equally certain, is that a teacher cannot teach in this manner. Teachers need identifiable "skills" that they can focus on. Without this chunking, I worry that language teachers may be heading down the same rabbit hole that their math counterparts fell into several years ago.

5. I believe that students must learn how to read and write in a variety of contexts.

6. I believe that basic reading and writing skills (such as capitalization, sentence building, grammar, and punctuation) must be practised and assessed in all classes - not just Language Arts class.

I agree with Alberta Education's cross-curricular approach to literacy. In an ideal world, all core curriculum would include outcomes related to reading and writing for that particular subject. Outcome-driven assessment has forced most science and math educators to abandon any type of assessment based on the quality of a student's written work. This must be stopped. Students must see and understand that the rules of language are present in all classrooms. This could be accomplished in a variety of ways. Our school could create a list of acceptable standards for written work which could be posted in every room (eg: All sentences must begin with a capital letter. All sentences require end punctuation.) Or, each department could sit down and identify the key literacy outcomes that they will assess in the classrooms, immediately giving these outcomes "currency" in the minds of (some of) their students. Even better, Alberta Education could mandate these competencies. The key is that students must begin to understand that language is everywhere, but that each context uses it somewhat differently.


Alberta Education (2010). Literacy First: A Plan for Action

Freire, P. (2005). FIRST LETTER: Reading the World/reading the word. (pp. 31-47) Perseus Books, LLC.

Government of Alberta. (2009). Living Literacy: A Literacy Framework for Alberta’s Next Generation Economy.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A String of Pearls: Reforming Enrichment Block at ELJHS

As I have discussed in earlier posts, my school has undergone a significant reform this school year. We have, among other things, implemented a school-wide Intervention/Enrichment program. Some students are placed in interventions and the remainder select from available enrichments. To prepare for this, we met as grade-level subject groups (ie: Math 9, ELA 7) last year to identify essential outcomes, scope and sequence, and develop common assessments. We approached this complex task with a Ready-Fire-Aim mindset, since we did not know what our final product should look like.

As humanities teachers we struggled with this, much as we had previously struggled with creating common course outlines and common exams. We naturally resist attempts to standardize our teaching practice, as that tends to take the humanity out of humanities. Moreover, the ELA curriculum is not designed to utilize a common scope and sequence. It is primarily skill-based, and does not lend itself to easy unit-based teaching. Structurally, we met as grade-level subject groups but we now place students in interventions as one large "humanities" group. This means that much of our work last year, while a valuable analysis of our essential outcomes, has not been used to select and develop our interventions and enrichments. Finally, we did not know how many interventions we would be running, so we did not know how many common assessments to develop. All of this has led to a situation this year where we wish we could go back and plan for our tutorial time again.

As we contemplate the way forward, I think it is beneficial to start with a clearer plan of what we hope to accomplish. Last year we did not know what kind of sandbox we would be playing in; now we do. Rather than Ready-Fire-Aim, it is time for a Ready-Aim-Fire approach. In his recent essay, Noam Chomsky (2014) described two models of education:

"One image of education was that it should be like a vessel that is filled with, say, water. That’s what we call these days “teaching to test”: you pour water into the vessel and then the vessel returns the water. But it’s a pretty leaky vessel, as all of us who went through school experienced, since you could memorize something for an exam that you had no interest in to pass an exam and a week later you forgot what the course was about. The vessel model these days is called “no child left behind,” “teaching to test,” “race to top,” whatever the name may be, and similar things in universities. Enlightenment thinkers opposed that model."

"The other model was described as laying out a string along which the student progresses in his or her own way under his or her own initiative, maybe moving the string, maybe deciding to go somewhere else, maybe raising questions. Laying out the string means imposing some degree of structure. So an educational program, whatever it may be, a course on physics or something, isn’t going to be just anything goes; it has a certain structure. But the goal of it is for the student to acquire the capacity to inquire, to create, to innovate, to challenge—that’s education."

I would like to implement an approach that is much closer to the second method described by Chomsky. Basically, our humanities group would sit down and decide upon seven common assessments which would assess the essential outcomes of language arts using social studies content (when possible). Based on the results of this assessment, students would be placed in interventions or select an enrichment. Every student in would complete these keystone assessments, and they would become the cornerstones of our gradebooks. This allows for an element of standardization without sacrificing the unique learning experiences being offered in each humanities classroom.

This could happen in a variety of ways. I have provided one possible method describing how this might work in the image below:

The common assessments are represented by the white circles, the interventions are the lower boxes, and the enrichments could be the upper boxes. This means that a student would have a variety of options at their grade level. If they do not show success through the common assessment then they would be placed in the corresponding intervention. If they demonstrated satisfactory skills in the assessment and would like to complete an enriched project using these skills, then they might sign up for the corresponding enrichment project. If they would prefer to have more time to complete their classwork, they might sign up for grade-level guided help.

Essentially, each common assessment would represent one pearl on the string. This pearl would evaluate a collection of essential outcomes grouped together in a single cross-curricular project. Success with each pearl could be the criteria for placement in interventions, enrichments, or guided help.

Even with this possible plan, I still have several questions:
  • Where does Social Studies assessment come into play here? Will we utilize our common assessments in Social Studies as well, since many of them will be driven by social studies concepts?
  • How will we meet the needs of students whose skills are so low that they will not benefit from the grade-level intervention?
  • How might we promote enrichment opportunities as enjoyable projects rather than extra work?
  • How might we promote our interventions as positive, when the lack of student choice for them will lead to students thinking of them in a negative manner?
  • Would a "Student Convention" at the start of the year be a good way to introduce students to the various types of interventions, enrichments, and guided help options?

Chomsky, N. (2014). How America's Great University System Is Being Destroyed. Alternet.