Bare Minimums

I’ve had a go at professionalism a number of times on Dusty World.  You might even call it a recurring theme.  Here I go again…

“Wha’dyou care?  You get paid whether we learn anything or not.”

In one simple sentence a kid in my son’s grade 10 applied math class might have just summed up everything that’s wrong with Ontario and much of the Western world these days.  For the vast majority of people work is hourly wage labour, even when they’re salaried.  They aim to do the bare minimum – as little as possible – and only what they’re explicitly told to do in order to make as much money as they possibly can.  It’s only in a world predominantly driven by this kind of thinking that a failed businessman can convince people to let him run a province like a business.


The conversations that kid hears around his home must be brutal and simplistic; take all that you can and give as little back as possible.  Capit
alism likes to play the Darwin card where it describes itself as the engine of competition that develops excellence by rewarding strength and destroying the weak.  You’re poor because you’re lazy or stupid.  You’re rich because you’re driven and smart, but that isn’t the way of things…


Teaching is a profoundly challenging profession that demands
a lot from you because you’re dealing with complex people.
If you don’t like people, you’ll struggle to do the job.

Where does professionalism stand in all of this?  When I told people about that comment at the recent ECOO Conference, the teachers there rolled their eyes.  There may be a tiny percentage of teachers who mail it in, but I can only think of one or two in my school, the rest consistently go above and beyond in order to try and reach their students in as many ways as possible.  Teaching is the kind of job that you make too difficult for yourself if you’re not dedicated to doing it as well as you can.  The most miserable teachers I know are the ones with that minimalist approach who aren’t very good at it as a result.


Learning isn’t a linear production line where you can find economic efficiencies by grossly simplifying things.  It’s a complex interaction between many people at once.  A good teacher is always going to be looking for ways to reach as many of their students as they can, partly because doing the job any other way makes it nearly impossible and partly because doing it well feels fantastic.  It’s one of the reasons that class sizes really do matter; there is only so far you can stretch before you break when you’re trying to differentiate and reach dozens of students at once.  An profession has this level of complexity, but many of them are being managed by accountants with little or no understanding of that complexity.


A recent article by the Washington Post chases down much of the success enjoyed by certain education systems (our’s included) in the world…


“We have learned a lot about why some education systems — such as Alberta, Ontario, Japan and Finland — perform better year after year than others in terms of quality and equity of student outcomes.


Among these important lessons are:

  • Education systems and schools shouldn’t be managed like business corporations… successful education systems rely on collaboration, trust, and collegial responsibility in and between schools.
  • The teaching profession shouldn’t be perceived as a technical, temporary craft that anyone with a little guidance can do. Successful education systems rely on continuous professionalization of teaching and school leadership that requires advanced academic education, solid scientific and practical knowledge, and continuous on-the-job training.”



Collegial responsibility, trust, collaboration and rational direction in management seems foreign (and probably a bit frightening) to that majority of money minimalists in the world.  Work is work, you do as little of it as possible to make as much as you can.  If you’re managing, you rip apart complexity and simplify the job at hand into something so abstract and simple that it doesn’t actually work, but you’ve maximized profit.  If you’re in business (or modern politics) you put on the blinkers and aim at the next quarter; this myopia is called called efficiency.  If you’re in a classroom this kind of management is a disaster because you leave most of the class behind.  You save a little money now to spend much more later.  Mr ‘what-d’you-care’ in my son’s math class is going to be costing us all a lot of money for years to come thanks to the values he has internalized.


The concept of professionalism can seem nebulous to the money focused minimalist majority.  It’s important to recognize that this money fixation isn’t necessarily a rich/poor distinction but an addiction shared by both extremes of the socio-economic spectrum.  The people who most idolize the wealthy are the poor and uneducated.  Even with that adoration, the gulf between rich and poor continues to expand as people struggling with money fantasize about joining their heroes in the one percent (the same people who are causing them to struggle).


How do you get wealthy?  By focusing on money beyond all else – as much as you can get while giving as little as you can, but what really matters is if you’re already minted.  That’s when you get into politics to protect your economic advantage.  Amazingly, it takes very little to convince people struggling in the system who idolize your wealth to then vote you into power.


Your place in this socio-economic spectrum largely depends on your circumstances, not on your plucky attitude.  The rich retain more and more wealth even as it moves further away from the rest of us because the system is designed to make money out of money more than it is to make money out of work.  Professionalism can act as a cure to this disease, but so few people are able to access it in a 21st Century where automation and overpopulation conspire to minimize human value that the idea of doing a job as well as you can without money as the primary goal seems antiquated.


What’s left?  Do as little as you can for as much as you can.  A 50 in grade 10 applied maths is a fantastic return on investment if you have to do almost nothing to get it.  You’ve learned your parents’ value theory well kid, they’ll define you for the rest of your life.

Watch the middle class and professionalism melt away before your eyes.  Your arms are indeed getting shorter as your pockets get deeper – unless you’re one of the ultra-rich who have gamed the system for your own benefit, and then gamed politics to convince that burgeoning majority of undereducated poor people to support your obscene wealth.

Professionalism still lurks out there in the corners, and you better hope it survives.  The professional doing the brakes on your car is (you’d better hope) doing the job to the best of her ability, not as fast as she can in order to maximize a pay cheque.  The professional nursing you in hospital is (you really hope) doing the best job he can in ensuring your care, not the cheapest one possible.  The teacher in your child’s class (you sincerely hope) is doing the very best they possibly can to reach your alienated, confused and profoundly ignorant child so that they don’t have a future dictated to them by your money myopia.


Professionalism is a way of looking past the blinkered and culturally emaciated world of money for work that the very rich and the very poor on both sides of a vanishing middle class are fixated on.  When you’re a professional you do the very best job you can and society recognizes that value by looking after you because you give back much more than you take.  In any professional practice you’re going to spend your own time and money improving your craft, that’s what makes it professional.  To the ‘training is what happens to me when I’m at work’ crowd, that grade 10 math student’s comment echoes their own experience.


The most frustrating thing is that anyone in pretty much any job could be a professional.  When I worked in an oil change shop in university, I quickly found my way into the role of service manager because I took the technical work very seriously and was always looking for ways to improve.  I read technical manuals on my own time and did more advanced work after hours in and out of the shop in order to improve my skills, and as a result had a perfect technical record.  When I was in IT it was the same thing – spending my own time and money to improve my craft.  I’ve always had trouble separating work from who I am because if the work is worth doing, it’s worth doing as well as I can.  For too many Ontarians that sounds like a sucker’s game, and that thinking has turned us all into suckers.


For the vast majority of teachers in Ontario there is no start and finish time, there are no weekends or holidays.  You’ll find teachers spending their holidays and weekends at conferences and training, and you’ll often find them working on a Sunday morning or Thursday night, marking or prepping lessons, not because they’re on the clock, but because what they’re doing matters much more than that.


I’ve gotten on planes and seen flight attendants who obviously take their jobs professionally and as a result I’ve had a wonderful flight that would have been misery otherwise.  I’ve seen mechanics who take the time to do a job right, even as their employers and customers whine about every penny they just spent to be safe in their vehicles.  I’ve seen professional drivers who take pride in their efficiency and effectiveness who you’d never see texting behind the wheel.  Professionalism should be something we’re all able to access in order to find our best selves, but to make that happen we have to get off this insane money train we’re on before it burns the world down.


Wouldn’t it be something if everyone were a professional in whatever they did, and they were respected financially for that effort by society instead of being driven to do less for less to make a tiny percentage of us pointlessly wealthy?

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Wanted Word: DIGERACY

http://www.ncte.org/governance/literacies

@banana29 just came back from the OLA super conference (where she presented this).  Thousands of librarians from all across Ontario (and Canada) came together for a huddle.  They are pretty keen technologists and aren’t remotely Luddite, but one of their issues was using the word LITERACY to describe a lack of familiarity when using technology.  Literacy is not the right word, we need something a with better etymological roots.

A lot of other words are trying to describe the gap we are beginning to see between people who use technology effectively and those who are used by it.  21st Century Fluencies is a big one, but it’s a mouthful.

Literacy, numeracy; we need a *acy word to link to technological skills in the same way that literature was linked to *acy in our last big media evolution in order to describe the important new skill set needed around reading and writing.

Digeracy might work.  It implies a wider connection to digital fluencies and doesn’t point to a single platform or skill set.  Cyberacy doesn’t have enough consonants in it for me, and technoracy doesn’t work because it points to too broad a concept (this isn’t about technology as a whole but rather the digital evolution of information).

Digeracy points to a person’s fluency in digital environments.  Their ability to understand the flow of information and how to interact with it efficiently.  While familiarity with hardware and software might help in specific instances, digeracy refers to a wider comfort level with digital information.

A person with high levels of digeracy is able to pick up new equipment and quickly work through its strengths and weaknesses in order to optimize their use of it.  They are able to access information in a variety of software environments and quickly understand the capabilities of the digital tools they are given.

Someone with digeracy might specialize in various bits of software and hardware, but they have developed sufficient breadth of skill that they are able to pick up any digital device and make it sing.  Their comfort level is sometimes seen as magical by others.  This extends beyond individual devices and platforms to knowledge of how to make best use of networks as well.

Like a fluent reader and writer with literacy, or a mathelete with numeracy, the technologist with digeracy is comfortable enough to swim in the digital ocean, to experiment with what they haven’t seen before and quickly come to terms with it.

Riders & Tigers & Rivers (oh my)

a 2003 Triumph Tiger 955i… sketch!

A somewhat-warm and sunny Saturday meant a short ride up and down the river banks.


With a dirth of twisting roads around here, the Grand River is one of the few geological obsticles that forces local roads to do anything other than travel arrow straight.

It was a nice ride with a lot of bikes out and about.  At one point, waiting to turn onto the highway, I came across half a dozen BMWs and a lone Suzuki Vstrom – the local BMW club and a friend?

Were I lucky enough to live near some mountainous terrain, I’d be bending the bike around some real corners.


Saturday morning had me cleaning up my gear (check out those shiny boots in the video!) and fixing my Roof helmet.  I love that thing, best helmet I’ve ever owned.  I’d be heartbroken if I couldn’t fix it.  The plastic cams had gone out of alignment on the visor.  The last time I closed it they snapped, leaving me with an always open helmet.  Fortunately I had a spare set that came with the original clear visor.  It took a bit of aligning, but everything went back together flawlessly.

That Roof is one of the only ones in Canada.  I’d need to take a trip to Europe just to get another!  I’m starting to regret only buying one when I had a chance to pick up the last ones in Canada.




Living in an Information Rich World

The other day I had a senior high school student who has been conditioned to be helpless say, “How am I supposed to know what aperture is?  You’re supposed to teach us!”  Aside from the fact that this student has evidently won photo competitions and got an 81% in grade 11 photography, I suggested that we have this thing now called the internet that has all sorts of information on it.  I was genuinely frustrated at her unwillingness to resolve her own ignorance.

I may have been a bit curt, but this is an essential truth of our age: information is at hand.  If you think education is about imparting information you’re about to become quite redundant.  Education isn’t redundant, it’s more important than ever to prepare students for information that is no longer vetted by the forth estate for them.  Unfortunately this isn’t a focus in education where bells still signal the start of shifts, um, classes, and teachers can still be found talking the whole period long.

Digital access to information greatly emphasizes how out of touch the sage on the stage is nowadays.  The teacher who talks for an hour straight giving their students facts has failed to realize that we no longer live in an information poor world.  Instead of letting students access information pouring out of the technology that surrounds them, the sage teacher puts themselves in the middle of the class and drips information on them slowly, like water torture.

Assuming we have connectivity, something school boards aren’t very good at because they were never meant to be internet service providers (yet have taken on this task poorly), and assuming the people in the room have developed some degree of digital mastery, then information will fall to hand.  Waiting for it to drip, drip, drip out of a teacher’s mouth or out of a static, out of date textbook shows a startling lack of awareness in how the world works nowadays.

The opportunity to collaborate and support each other is continuously available and learning reverts to the self-directed and driven activity it was before we institutionalized it.  Questions of engagement quickly become irrelevant in a world where teachers aren’t vital because of facts they know.  Those sages are going to have to find other ways to pamper their egos.  If they aren’t expert learners themselves they will quickly find that they have no skill to share with students, and if you have no skills to teach you don’t serve much purpose in a world where any fact is a few keystrokes away.

There was a time when you needed a teacher to show you the way into hard to find information.  Nowadays a good high speed internet connection has that information at your fingertips, assuming you know how to use it.  Many teachers are still trying to be a font of information, even as the information revolution passes them by.  The real losers in this aren’t the teachers struggling to keep things the way they were, but the students we’re graduating who have no idea how different the world on the other side of school actually is.

Pandemicky Cancellations And Alternate Means

Thanksgiving weekend in Canada was to be my last big ride of the season.  It’s been a tough year and the chance to get away from the pressure cooker of teaching in a pandemic was something I was clinging to a bit too tight.  The daring plan was to finish another exhausting week of teaching in a too small masks in classrooms that are ignoring all the pandemic rules everyone else is following, get a much needed night of sleep and then make my way up to ride the Haliburton Highlands in all their autumn glory before spending a weekend far away from the noise of pandemicky 2020 in the woods near Bobcaygeon.  The ride back would have been 274 kms of backroads less travelled.


I discovered Friday afternoon that we’d been waved off from the in-law’s cottage because we’re too much of a pandemic risk.  The irony that I can’t get away from the thing that strangles me each week because I’m getting strangled by it each week isn’t lost on me.  Instead I took the sunny and 22°C forecast and headed up to Hornings Mills and River Road for some Niagara Escarpment twisties, except I never got there because forty minutes up the road just north of 89 in Shelburne the rain started to fall.


I turned around and came home again.  Riding with purpose through rain is an enjoyable experience.  The smells and feel during a rainy ride are unique and worth pursuing, but looking for rain when you’re on yet another pointless pandemic loop over familiar roads doesn’t make much sense, so I turned around and went home again.  Autumn colours were lovely and the Tiger ran like a top though.


The fire we thought we’d have that night didn’t happen because everything was wet.  The next day opened sunny and cold, but warmed up to the point where we went for a walk in the woods nearby.

When we got home I backed the Honda out of the garage and went for a ride in the cool, clear, autumn air.


Any weekend where you can take each of your two bikes out for a ride isn’t a bad weekend.  Soon enough we’ll be buried under a blanket of snow while the second wave of the coronavirus spreads in the closed places we share, like my classroom.  


The kick in the groin here was getting dumped by family on the weekend we were aiming to be away without warning.  Nothing like your own family treating you like a plague cow to really drive home the meaning of Thanksgiving.  What really burns my ass is having to depend on them to be able to access the things I was looking for:
  • getting away from the godforsaken suburbs and into THE WILD
  • off roading with my son
  • hanging out on a hammock in the wilderness with my wife
  • having a reason to ride beyond my usually riding range
  • being comfortable while we do it

I don’t live in the right generation to own a cottage (and the generation that does isn’t sharing during a pandemic), so I need to work out a way where I can check those boxes without depending on the vagaries of other people.  My wife won’t sleep on the ground any more so camping won’t cut it, but maybe a camper might.


A Skala Conversions Ram Promaster would do the trick.  With the right sized motor and towing package, we’d be able to tow my son’s ATV and my dirtbike into the woods and find our bliss without depending on anyone else.  Some crafty engineering and smart packaging and we could be mobile and efficient without a ludicrously large camper.  A membership with the OFTR and we could enjoy off roading together in a variety of different places and glamp like rock stars.  When we just wanted to disappear into the wilderness we could do that too.

A cheaper alternative is a used camper, and there are many about.  Eight grand’ll get you a low mileage older small camper.  The Roadtrek RS Adventurous looks promising and arrives in 2021. It gets great mileage (like 20mpg) and sleeps up to four.


If I had the shop space and time I’d go grab this disco 1974 ‘RekVee’ from where it’s parked up near Perry Sound for five hundred bucks, throw it on a flatbed and bring it back, strip it down and convert it to an electric/hybrid.  The electric RV isn’t viable yet with our medieval chemical battery technology but a hybrid diesel/electric option would work.


One way or another I want to get off the depending on other people to decide access to my mental health getaways.  What’s nice about the RV option is that it works while we’re in lock down.  Ontario is a big place and socially isolating when you’ve thousands of miles of wilderness north of you and your own place to sleep is perfectly doable).  When things open up again we could take the thing to Ushuaia.

In other circumstances we’ve gotten ourselves into a hotel when the cottage politics gets too thick, but the pandemic makes that next to impossible.  I need to engineer more flexibility and capability into our escape plans so we get to be the arbiters of our own mental health excursions. 

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Simple Magic

We recently spent a day in Stratford and one of the more surprising and engaging events was a Q&A talk with two of the Festival’s experienced actors.  Maev Beatty and Ben Carlson are both starring in The Front Page.  We hadn’t seen the play and I was a bit worried that it’d be all about that, but it wasn’t at all.  When you get two smart, capable professionals showing you inside their process, whatever their profession, it’s an enlightening experience.  Here are some of the highlights that I’m still mulling over:


Adrenaline


Early on someone intimated that it must be nice only having to work 2-3 times a week for a couple of hours and I think both actors bristled at that suggestion.  One of the stresses on acting that most people wouldn’t think about is the physiology of putting yourself out there in an absolute physical sense.  On an evening you’re going on stage you typically start to feel that intensity in the early afternoon.  By the time you’re on stage your adrenaline is peaking and, though they didn’t mention it, I doubt many actors can go right to bed after performing.  Ben noted a study that showed a working actor experiences as much adrenaline as you’d feel in a car accident, times two!  He noted that if a normal person were to receive that much adrenaline at once they’d have a heart attack and die; it’s a high intensity high.


There’s something to be said for putting yourself out there.  It’s one of the reasons I encourage my students into competition.  The heightened sense of purpose that burst of adrenaline gives you allows you to do things you might not otherwise be able to do.  Experiencing that intensity also teaches you to manage it.  This is one of the reasons why I think things like school plays, competitions and sports are so important, yet they tend to be the first thing we throw under the bus when we start to look for ‘extracurriculars’ to cut.  The fact that the school system calls them extracurriculars is telling in and of itself.


Controlled adrenaline meant the busy kitchen we had lunch at was churning
out dishes at a prodigious rate.  The three chefs barely said a word to each
other, and could often be seen wordlessly handing each other what they needed
just as they needed it.  Professionalism kept popping up in all sorts of places
after that morning talk.

Teaching students to take risks and manage the adrenaline that comes from it should be a vital part of any school experience, but the vast majority of students running through schools don’t and the few that do tend to be the most economically advantaged ones; that’s a real system failure.


Watching these two professionals, who do a job that most people would find too terrifying to imagine (me being one of them), and listening to how they deal with that terror, was fascinating.  Many people say they wish they had a job like that, an extreme job that demands all of you, but even taking the exceptional skill-sets required out of the equation, the vast majority of people couldn’t take the heat of working in a kitchen like that.  For all the jealousy people feel for successful actors, musicians or athletes, most couldn’t handle the intensity of a life like that.  The amount of work involved puts it beyond the reach of most, but it’s the performance aspect that people don’t think about.  The wear and tear on their minds and bodies is astonishing.


Failure


There were a lot of questions around how you deal with failure in theatre production, including a number of questions about how you deal with poor performers or productions, but the most telling moment, again, I suspect in response to that initial intimation that acting was an easy gig, was how they both described auditioning.

These are two of Canada’s more well known actors and both are making a good living at it.  When asked if they still had to audition, they both said they did.  Ben suggested you could find the odd moment when you’d just give a hard no, but that isn’t generally the place of an actor.  Actors act and to do that you audition.



Once again referring back to how a Stratford actor fills their idle days, both said it isn’t uncommon for people in the troop to be on stage in up to half a dozen different plays, all of which required thousands of hours of preparation and rehearsal.  Since all actors are inherently self-employed, they also have to keep their ears to the ground in terms of possible TV and film opportunities and prepare auditions for them, which also take time and commitment.  The agonizing thing about this is that the vast majority, even if you’re a well known name, end up giving you back nothing.  To the I-do-work-and-get-paid-for-it crowd, this is yet another example of why one of those dream jobs like acting isn’t what you think it is.


Both Maev and Ben described weeks where they would audition almost daily and walk away empty handed.  Their experience has taught them to not take this personally (casting is alchemical and complicated and not about who is most well known).


At another point someone asked if they could create productions that suited them, but they said an obvious truth: “that’s not the job of an actor.”  They also mentioned that that’s a good thing.  Twenty-something Ben would have told you he could do anything, but the wiser, older Ben knows now that he couldn’t.  Letting directors direct and actors act is yet another of those intensity based requirements that we should consider in a classroom, but don’t because we shy away from genuine experiences in favour of artificially successful ones.


I’ve long talked about risk aversion and modern education’s almost psychotic insistence on success for everyone all the time.  Building resilience in an environment like that is nearly impossible.  Failure and our response to it is vital in everything from daily life to the grand trajectory of our lives.  Our education system is still built on the idea of passing and failing, but failing is where we learn the most and gain the least in our system.


Watching two toughened veterans of a brutal industry might make you think that they have become hardened themselves, but another repeating theme of their talk was in surviving the onslaught of theatre by working with the right people…

Working from a place of love and support


In the fiery crucible of the stage you really don’t want to be doubting where the people you’re in there with are coming from.  Any ideas of office politics or drama (the pedantic kind) make working in such an intense situation untenable.  Maev talked about a few productions where the people on stage were very difficult to work with due to their nastiness, but as a general rule this isn’t how actors relate.


When you’re displaying that kind of vulnerability on the stage you don’t want to be wondering if your partner is going to throw you under the bus.  She said, and it has stuck with me, that ” you want to be working with people who are coming from a place of love and support”.  Even under the crushing pressure of a live stage performance with everyone OD’ed on adrenaline, knowing that your colleagues have your back is vital.


I’ve been in situations where the pressure has created friendships that have lasted the rest of my life.  I can only imagine the personal connection actors feel with each other after going through that glorious hell together.  Staring into the abyss but knowing the person next to you isn’t going to let you down allows you to do incredible things, like create live art on stage.


That kind of empathic bonding is something else that too few students get to enjoy in school.  Once again this is a division of the haves and havenots.  The kids who have to go to work right after school never get to develop that sense of belonging whether it’s on a sports team or a stage production or a technical competition, and that’s a tragedy.  From that angle there is nothing extra about those extracurriculars.  There is a reason why you can’t remember a single lesson from high school but those experiences are pivotal to who you are today.  We’d be insane to dismantle them and should instead be incorporating them into learning expectations for all students.  Who doesn’t deserve to learn what that kind of love, belonging and support feels like?

Loving a bad character

The idea of having to act a character you hate came up along with the how do you work in a bad production or with bad people questions – there was a lot of curiosity from the audience about how things might go wrong.  The positivity and boundless optimism of the responses points to yet another difference between most people and the few who are willing to throw themselves at seemingly impossible jobs.


Ben’s answer to this once again pointed to that idea of positivity overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.  He and Maev gave several examples of characters they found so difficult that it seemed impossible to express them well.  In looking at the character, Ben said he always looks for something he can love about them and works from that.  Unlike the unwashed masses, actors can’t work from a binary place of I like ’em or I don’t like ’em.  This must seep out into their dealings with other people, though they didn’t mention that.


This was yet another theme that paralleled my own professional experience.  I’ve had students who I couldn’t stand, but I’ve always tried to operate from a place of positivity.  In getting to know them, I’ve always found some aspect of them that is worthy of appreciation.  It’s that approach that keeps me away from the staff room where well meaning binary colleagues want to tell you what a worthless piece of shit a child is when you mention that you’re teaching them for the first time.  I’ve never met a person so unworthy of any consideration.




Simple Magic


My glorious wife, Alanna, asked a question that had been tugging on her since our last trip to Stratford.  I commented, in my usual way, about how we are quite venerable ourselves and yet we were the youngest people in the audience by a decade or more.  In twenty years that theatre would be mostly empty.  My conclusion was that theatre is dying with this demographic.  The audience at the Q&A were of a similar demographic.


Alanna asked if theatre was evaporating before our eyes and Ben picked this up with glee.  He noted that theatre has been dying for centuries, but what always saves it is its simplicity. If you have an actor and an audience, you have theatre.  In talking it through, and this happened on many questions, both actors would think through the implications of a question out loud, he unpacked the history of theatre and came to a conclusion about how it always seems to survive its imminent demise; at its root, theatre is about people getting together.


That simple magic is what keeps theatre alive; it feeds a human need to gather together.  No number of screens, wifi or virtual presences have satisfied that need, and he noted there is some push back against the direction this has taken.  Making anonymous or even just remote comments online is nothing like the same as having a face to face encounter.  My role as a computer teacher and technician has no issue with this observation.  There is a quality in face to face human interaction that not only satisfies a deep human need, but also never be achieved through digitization, something will always be lost in translation whether through a lack of fidelity or a genuine presence and responsibility.


Theatre, like schools, libraries, concerts or sporting events, offer people something that digital experiences don’t.  That complexity of presence (call in bandwidth if you want) and sense of belonging call powerfully to the human psyche.  The sense of being there is important, though our digital adolescence crops up there too with idiots on lousy cell phone cameras making terrible media instead of enjoying the moment they went to so much trouble to experience first hand.


The current drive to elearning as a cost effective way to deliver learning is yet another example of failing forward into the idea that digital experiences can replace the real world.  It’s cheaper because it isn’t as good.  If you consider it from a bandwidth perspective, the sheer amount of data passing between a teacher and student in even a simple face to face encounter is something digital simply can’t touch.  Augment?  Assist?  Absolutely, but we replace basic human needs with poor digital equivalents at our own peril (and a multi-national’s profit).   We’re all poorer as a few get rich in this scenario.


That response got me thinking about how we prioritize our lives.  I’m an avid photographer, always have been, which is one of the reasons I don’t have a lousy cell phone camera in my hand all the time, especially when I’m at an event.  If I take a photo, it’s gonna be a good one.


Sean Penn has a great line in The Secret  Life of Walter Mitty when he’s talking about being in the moment instead of trying to record it, and he’s speaking about it from the perspective of a photographic artist, not some idiot with a cell phone in their hands.  These digital invasions, ironically driven by our need for digitally impoverished social contact, are eating away at our lived experience.


Simple magic is a good way to look at many aspects of modern life.  What core needs do human beings have and how have we always met them socially?  Are we meeting them as well in digital media?  Theatre is going to survive because it has more in common with genuine human need than social media ever will, and it’s able to do it in a simple and direct way.  The response to Alanna’s question gives me hope that one day we’ll wake up from this attention economy nightmare we’ve immersed ourselves in.


***

I went to this initially thinking that it would be a bunch of theatre shop talk, but there was barely any (and what there was came mostly from the audience).  Instead it was an introspective and insightful talk by two talented people at the height of their powers.  Their understanding of themselves, their art and the insight it gives them into the human condition makes it a must-do for anyone who can get out to Stratford… and it’s free!  It runs into October – a field trip including a talk like this  (though each is, of course, different) could change lives.

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A Cruelty Free Response to Pandemic Response Teaching

Instead of double doubling classroom teachers with absurd remote/face to face simultaneous instructional expectations and a schedule that fires a month of work at students that teachers are then expected to prep, deliver (in two places at once) and mark with no time given, let’s review and improve this situation.

Course duration has always been set in Ontario at 110 hours, but instructional time has been systemically devalued by waiving expectations for remote learning and dropping unqualified teachers into make-work support roles instead of using them for what they should be in schools for.

In a pandemic where everyone is stressed, a schedule that is uneven and cruel has put unnecessary pressure on both staff and students.  Let’s take a step back and see if I can’t spitball a better solution.  I ain’t no senator’s son sitting in an office deciding these things, I’m just one of the people who is being waterboarded by them, but I’ll take a swing at that difficult job anyhow.

THE SITUATION WE’RE IN NOW

A teacher typically teaches three classes of 20-31 students per semester.  Let’s say that’s 75 students you’re responsible for (some semesters I’ve had 90+).  If we made all classes capped at 20 students (a single cohort), each teacher would be responsible for 60 students, which is less than most of us normally are.

We have way fewer students in schools right now because many have opted for fully remote learning, so there are empty classrooms all about.

We have a shortage of specialist teachers and can’t provide qualified coverage for them.

We cling to the idea that we need to keep prep periods in our schedule and then fill them with meaningless, un-pedagogically sound busy work while causing always on quadmesters where your prep isn’t happening even as you’re being asked to rejig a curriculum to a schedule no one has ever seen before.

Students with special needs are swamped by the machine gun like efficiency of quadmestering.

Students without special needs are overwhelmed by the drink from the firehose curriculum of quadmestering.

A CRUELTY FREE SOLUTION TO PANDEMIC RESPONSE TEACHING

  • in semester 2 return to semesters and end the quadmester cruelty
  • each week is one class with a weekend to de-COVID the place (that’s a good idea)
  • make every Friday an independent review and catch up day for students to give them time to make sense of the hectic influx of material
  • on those Fridays staff are given time to mark the week’s work, contact students with updates and concerns and prep for the next week’s influx
  • each month/4 weeks is a complete tumble of the schedule
  • teachers don’t have prep ‘periods’ any more (they have the Friday and smaller cohorts)
  • teachers all provide their own remote learning support (so a qualified person is teaching students they are familiar with)
  • leverage the empty classes generated by fully remote learning to spread out cohorts and cover the bump in classes running
  • leverage the teachers currently brought in at teacher salaries to babysit to actually teach classes
  • each class is a three hour face to face morning session (12 hours of instructional f2f time per four day week)
  • each class has a 2 hour remote/online expectation for review and consolidation of learning WITH THE SAME QUALIFIED TEACHER
  • teachers can leverage their relationships with students to engage them in online work
  • at five hours per day of instructional time, and 16 weeks of class (4 tumbles through the schedule), students would experience 48 hours of face to face instruction and 32 hours of guided online instruction with a qualified teacher familiar with them from face to face learning.  They would also have 5 hours of Friday consolidation of learning time each week for a total of 20 hours in the semester.  That adds up to one hundred hours of learning at a pedagogical effectiveness we can only dream of right now.
  • add in an exam/culminating presentation day per class at the end of the year and you’d be at 103 hours of instruction with credible culminating grades generated (exams are cancelled currently)
  • students cannot opt out of remote learning and every effort will be made to ensure they have connectivity and technology at home with which to do it (this is happening now anyway – not the opting out part, you can do that – people are knocking themselves out to ensure this isn’t a digital divide issue though and would continue to)

The benefits of this approach?

  • small cohorts to reduce the chance of COVID transmission
  • a qualified instructor who knows students providing remote learning
  • a much higher quality of remote teaching
  • a teacher not expected to be online and in class simultaneously
  • time given for meaningful one on one feedback both face to face and remotely
  • time given for redesigning an entirely curriculum schedule on the fly (that’s not happening right now)
  • time given to recognize the cognitive load on students trying to cover a month of material each week
  • time given for pedagogically sound learning
  • time given for students to sleep on and review their learning and consolidate it
  • students with special needs would have time given to support them (currently that’s all cancelled)
  • a more reasonable schedule that is evenly distributed and isn’t trying to kill people with stress during a pandemic (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d have to write)
  • restore credibility to online/remote learning after a year of the Minister and now boards suggesting it’s optional and doesn’t matter

SUMMARY

We’ve clung to some assumptions (teacher semestered prep periods in scheduling) while tossing out others (time spent in a course doesn’t really matter).  Our priorities are out of whack and the result is hurting people and damaging learning.  Things are never going to be as they were prior to COVID while we’re under the weight of this pandemic, but we can get closer with a bit of flexibility and kindness.

Teacher prep periods have remained even though they make no sense in a quadmestered system.  The result is a massively uneven quadmester schedule that waterboards staff with high class caps in one and leaves them with make-work in the other.  There is enough real work to go around.

By leveraging the empty space we currently have in schools due to fully remote learners and adjusting the work load by producing smaller class sizes and spreading out instruction, we could have a schedule that comes much closer to providing a kind and more effective learning environment.

But what to I know, I’m just a classroom teacher.

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Going Places

The first real cross country trip

I’ve been going out on local jaunts, no more than an hour out and back again.  Last weekend I did my first cross country trip, actually going somewhere.  A Saturday trip from Elora to Ancaster for an education conference.  75 kms each way and well out of my right around the house roads.

The ride down was a bit awkward.  It was cool, but I went light knowing that it was getting hotter later in the day.  After about half an hour on the bike I realized that I was tense all over, not the best approach to riding.  I made a point of unclenching and trying to go for alert and relaxed.

I got there early, elated, and a bit cold,
the Starbucks on tap helped

The ride had a lot of firsts: my first passing of another vehicle, my first time on a divided, multi-lane highway and my first time on non-local, unfamiliar roads.  I stopped a couple of times to make adjustments and to stretch.  That unclenching thing is perhaps the best thing I learned.  Rather than gripping the handlebars, I started holding them more loosely, which stopped the fingers from stiffening up.  I also made a point to move around a lot on the bike, sometimes getting down behind the windshield and out of the blast, other times sitting up into it.

The ride ended uneventfully with me pulling in to the school parking lot early and parking next to another teacher I’d been talking bikes with the week before.  I was able to drop my gear in an office in the school and enjoyed the gathering.  Showing up to something like this after a bike ride has you full of oxygen and feeling energized, it’s a nice way to start the day.

Sulfur Springs Road out of Ancaster

I left from downtown Ancaster in late afternoon.  The temperature was about fifteen degrees warmer than it had been, but the nicest surprise was stumbling across Sulfur Springs Road as I was mapping my way out.  This was five kilometers of decidedly un-Ontario curvy road.  I got my gearing wrong on almost all of it, but it was nice to wind my way through.  If you’re down Hamilton way, I’d highly recommend it.  There are some really nice, old pubs on Ancaster’s main street as well, which was the only time I regretted riding the bike (no Guinness for me).

The ride back was beautiful.  Warm but not hot, sunny, but I wasn’t riding into it, mostly empty roads, and the ride down had shown me a couple of ways not to get too tense while in the saddle for a long time.  If you can stay loose, you’ll be more aware of what’s going on around you and be better able to respond to it.  If that’s a 150 kilometer trip then I think I could squeeze out 100km bursts four or five times in a day with breaks between quite comfortably.  On a more comfortable bike (the Ninja is a little high strung), I’d do a couple of tanks (about 160 miles to a tank on the Ninja) a day and feel like I’m covering miles well without pushing hard.  That puts me well over 500kms a day on two tanks (about thirty bucks worth of premium gas).

Back over the 401 on my way back I came upon a multi-vehicle accident with ambulances tearing away with lights and sirens and several police and fire/emergency units on hand.  The wrecked vehicles were both SUVs… those things just aren’t safe, especially when one runs a four way stop and broadsides another one.  Many people were very anxious about my riding down to this thing.  I wonder how many worried about making the trip in SUVs.

I’m suspicious of anyone in a car when I’m on the bike, but I find that bleeding over into when I’m in a car too.  I’m beginning to think anyone who wants to drive a car should have to do a year on a bike first, it’d give them some much needed humility, and an opportunity to appreciate the physics of driving without being isolated in a metal box.

Rainy Day Carburators

A cold, rainy Saturday had me break down the carburetor on the Yamaha XS1100.  A Triumph Spitfire and Mercury LN7 owned as a teen made me pretty handy with carburetors.  In addition to multiple rebuilds I also got handy at jury rigging manual chokes thanks to the utterly crap Ford Escort carb set up.

The beautiful Mikuni unit on the Yamaha looks like a piece of industrial art in comparison to the pedestrian Triumph and Ford carbs, unfortunately it’s seized.  After breaking down the top end I soaked it and freed up the seized throttle body.

The next to-do with the Yamaha is to clean up the gas tank and then reassemble the fuel system.  The engine isn’t seized and spins easily, so I think I’ll have an easy time firing it up for the first time in years (knock on wood).

Here are some pics of Mikuni’s Yamaha masterpiece:

 

The throttle cable wasn’t playing nice even after taking apart the handle bar – so into the carb I go…

 

The Yamaha XS1100 engine block with the carbs off – it got the Warhol treatment….

 

Like everything else so far, the internals look to be in good shape on the old (35 year old!) Yamaha

 

Cleaning up the fasteners using the caps from each carb to keep things organized.

 

 

XS1100 is in for surgery

 

Not many riding days left as the weather turns up here in Canada

 

Why We Drive by Matt Crawford

I just started “Why We Drive” by Matthew Crawford.  I was in the middle of transitioning from being an English teacher to a technology teacher back in 2012 when my university prof suggested Shop Class as Soul Craft, Crawford’s first book.  It gave me the philosophical grounding I needed to value my manual expertise and to fight the prevailing academic prejudices of the education system I work in.

A few years later I’d embraced my new role teaching technology and found myself constantly arguing for parity with academic programs like the English one I’d just left.  Crawford came out with his second book called “The World Beyond Your Head“, which made a strong argument for human expertise in a world where blind allegiance to system think made management a fragile grasp at control for people who have no other skills of value.

I’m only through the opening chapters of “Why We Drive“, but I’m enjoying the angle Crawford it taking in using driving (and riding, he doesn’t distinguish) as a means of questioning the assumptions we’re all increasingly living under.  In the opening chapters he suggests that operating a vehicle is one of the few domains left that demand human expertise as the rest of society falls into a WALL-E like world of of systemic technology driven infantilism.

From Uber’s malicious dismantling of existing industries to suit the long term game of its investors to the NHTSA’s outright misleading information on Tesla’s Autopilot feature (they claimed that it radically reduced accidents when this was simply untrue), and the industry driven big government money drive to chase old cars off the street by misleading the public with even more false statistics, Crawford tears apart many of the assumptions around environmental NIMBYISM and the relentless capitalism that underlies it.

I’ve questioned the environmentalism of hybrid and electric cars before.  It’s a classic case of NIMBYism where the wealthy hide their pollution further up the chain and then claim superiority over all the people who can’t afford to give up a tail pipe.  One of the difficulties in being a teacher of technology is that I understand it, warts and all.  Our battery technology is still medieval in both construction and effectiveness.  They don’t hold a lot of power and don’t last very long, but any analysis of electric vehicle efficiency likes to sidestep that factNissan Leaf owners can’t though.

Crawford also brings up the idea of recycling already manufactured vehicles rather than giving in to the relentless futurism of consumer society where owning anything old is paramount to a crime.  He compares a massive new SUV (all modern vehicles are massive compared to older ones as they get weighed down with safety-at-all-costs tech and grown to maximum size) to his old VW.  They get about the same mileage, but driving the Karmen Ghia is a very different experience to driving a modern safety tank.


I’m about half way through it but the hits keep on coming:


It’s a challenging read, but also an opportunity to wake up from the progress pills everyone has been popping and understand that being human isn’t about efficiency and management, it’s about agency.




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