Absurdities

 I came across this article by Yuval Noah Harari called  “Are we living in a post-truth era? Yes, but that’s because we’re a post-truth species.”  It’s not often that I’m rocked by something that I read, but this did that.  He has a particular line in it that explains the dissonance I feel with the world at the moment: 

“…truth has never been high on the agenda of Homo sapiens. If you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you. False stories have an intrinsic advantage over the truth when it comes to uniting people. If you want to gauge group loyalty, requiring people to believe an absurdity is a far better test than asking them to believe the truth. “

This happens with people so often that it’s one of the main reasons I find them so taxing.  Supporting other people’s fictions isn’t something that comes naturally to me.  I understand the social advantage of forcing compliance to untruths in order to establish loyalty between people, I’m just terrible at it.

In the last post talking about how to move forward in the morass of misinformation and negativity surrounding us, I mentioned that if I wanted to give up my idealism I’d go into management.  Management is one of those jobs that demands a facility for moving in post-truth ways.

A few years ago we had a poorly planned grade 8 day happen where an unexpected influx of students from the Catholic system resulted in over fifty children in one of the groups moving around the school seeing what’s on offer.  After half a dozen groups of 25 or so students accompanied by their teacher came through our program, this horde of fifty plus unaccompanied by an adult (because the second school system in Ontario won’t acknowledge the public one) burst into my shop and proceeded to do hundreds of dollars in damage before leaving.

I was livid.  I emailed admin and guidance and said (truthfully) that this was a dangerous situation that never should have been allowed to happen.  This upset our new head of guidance who was a good friend of our new principal.  His solution was to walk up to my room (very angry that I’d made his friend cry) and demand that I apologize for saying that this dangerous situation was dangerous.  I was teaching a class at the time but he wouldn’t let me leave the hallway he’d hauled me out into until I’d apologised.  It was a brutally honest moment of human hierarchical interaction where compliance to a lie was demanded and the usual niceties that we cloak our fictions in were swept aside.

More recently, as we switched to fully remote learning again following the mid-winter break, we were told “no one saw this coming” by admin.  Other than every doctor and epidemiologist in the province?  Other than anyone who had ready a credible news story in the past week?  How big a crane do I need to suspend my disbelief?  The only people who ‘didn’t see this coming’ were the politicians who caused it, and evidently education system managers who are so focused on making the wishes of what is perhaps the most malignant minister of education in Ontario’s history a reality that they’ve lost sight of reality.

One of the reasons I like working with machines is because they are honest in a way that human beings seem to find nearly impossible.  Reality continues to exist beyond the fictions people dress themselves in and will always ultimately win.  I find aligning myself with that reality is an opportunity for enlightenment in a way that the socially lubricating, self-serving human fictions are not.

Shakespeare has Hamlet tell Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth,
Horatio,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, and that’s a good touchstone.  Reality is indeed more vast and complex than the lies we wrap each other up in.  I only wish more people would get as excited about the truth of the world as they do about the self-serving fictions we demand of each other.


In the midst of this chaos a wise colleague suggested the Netflix film, My Octopus Teacher, which tells the story of a man miserably lost in the fictions we all chose to live in finding his way back to reality.  It’s a beautiful story, and one we find hard to hold onto when we’re in the churn of Ontario COVID mis-management.

Rationalism will never have the following that reductionist demagogues find because the one is hard work while the other is slight-of-hand salesmanship, though the sleazy salesmen don’t always get it their way.  Recent North American political change suggests that even the most persuasive demagogues get chased out of office when reality makes its presence felt.  Our political system isn’t perfect, but it does tend to self correct.  After years of abuse in Ontario public services and a year’s worth of fumbling the largest public health crisis in human history, that self correction sure feels a long time coming.

In the past week I’ve read articles about how doctors in Ontario & Quebec are working out protocols to decide who lives and who dies when they run out of capacity to treat pandemic patients.  On the same day an article came up talking about how flights are up to sunny destinations because many people are giving up on doing right by others and just want to satisfy themselves, consequences be damned until they need medical help and there are no beds available then they will be the ones crying loudest.  All while Ontario is experiencing a second wave of the pandemic that makes the first look like a hiccup.

So, we’re running out of hospital capacity to treat severe cases, testing has fallen away most likely as a way to make it look like the numbers are coming down.  The politicians who have mismanaged this crisis are looking for ways to spin fictions in their favour.  I drove in to school the other day and the line for testing at our local centre stretched around the hospital.  People want to get tested but the powers that be are more interested in spinning self-serving fictions.

Meanwhile, at the peak of the worst pandemic in modern history and with the emergence of a new even more transmittable variant of COVID, what are we doing in Ontario education?  We’re preparing to go back to face to face classes next Monday.  Then we too will get to play the ‘who-gets-treatment’ game with other front line workers while interacting with and giving the highest transmitting age groups a chance to drive another spike.  That’s why I’m awake at three in the morning wondering at the hypocrisy of human beings.

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What 2020 Taught Me

This is the fifth attempt at this post.  Sometimes, reflecting your way out of dark place professionally takes some iteration.  Previous attempts ended up heaping frustration on top of frustration until it seemed overwhelming again – not the best way to resolve a metaphysical crisis even if it is all true.  I’m not the smartest, most upwardly mobile educator in the world, but I know my craft and I’m good at getting students to express their talents.  I’m also effective under fire and can always find a way to get back on my feet again when the going gets tough.  This year has been a test of that resilience and at times it has broken me, but reflecting on a year where Ontario education has lost the plot more than once has me thinking about a Banksy piece:

I’ve been tempted to leave education a few times over the past year for pastures less politically misdirected, but I genuinely enjoy my work, recognize its social importance and don’t want to walk away while my profession has forgotten its primary purpose in a fog of political misdirection and pandemic panic.  Education matters.  It matters even more in a crisis.  That’s a simple truth 2020 has taught me.  What else has this epically crappy year taught me?


LESSON 1:  The people running ‘the system’ aren’t focused on pedagogy, they’re focused on making it run (at all costs, even if it makes people sick or abuses their lack of privilege)

I’ve known this since I got thrown under the bus for handling my mother’s suicide too slowly, but 2020 has reminded me of systemic intent by shining a harsh light inside the process.  From taking multiple pay cuts to protect student learning in January while admin sat in empty schools collecting salary, to watching the system lurch back into the classroom unprepared in September, 2020 has shown that the most important thing to people running Ontario education is making a schedule and then ensuring it happens.  Pedagogy and equity might come up in the marketing material, but action around it is non-existent.  Threaten the schedule though and you’ll get an immediate reaction.

This came into focus in November when we watched Ontario Education Workers United’s live webcast on how to stop the ‘pedagogically impoverished‘ hybrid/simultaneous online and face to face learning model.  I’ve had a go at this unsustainable and problematic smoke screen of an approach on Dusty World previously.  There was a great deal of dissonance in listening to educational experts like Doctor Beyhan Farhadi talking about pedagogy when the system itself seems to have turned its back on it entirely.

Our absurd pandemic teaching approach reduces in-class instruction to less than half the normal face to face instructional time while making no changes to curriculum expectations because it’s important to retain the appearance of credibility.  Actual pedagogical credibility, let alone equity, compassion and even teacher burnout doesn’t appear to be a consideration unless it’s an email or newsletter – board newsletters have proliferated this year.  2020 has taught me that the system must run at all costs – even at the cost of the people it serves.

Our broken pandemic teaching models also demand that teachers be simultaneously teaching online and face to face to two different groups of students simultaneously all day every day while throwing about a month’s worth of material at students each week.  It’s doing this having cancelled face to face special education support which has led to even further inequity in the classroom.  It’s an approach that has hurt my son directly.  Listening to parents of students with IEPs begging for support and compassion is heart breaking.  I’m going to make a point of honouring that need even if the system appears to be deaf to these calls for help.

The paradigm shifting moment during that OEWU webcast was a Toronto teacher and union activist who approached the fight from a very pragmatic angle.  She said (and I’m paraphrasing), that the system is only interested in making sure the system works and if you want it to take notice you have to stop if from working.  Killing yourself to make a bad system run and then complaining about it isn’t an effective approach.  System administration will only pay attention to you if you stop the system from functioning.  I’m not sure where to take that truth in 2021, but it’s something to keep in mind if you see systemic abuse occurring and want to stop it.

The Ministry mandated full day of racism training we got in September prior to starting an unprecedented change in schooling feels more like a smokescreen rather than any kind of genuine attempt at addressing inequity.  Trot out a day of racism training (entirely delivered by ‘woke’ white women) and then execute a schedule designed to suit privilege while crushing students who don’t have it.

2020 has taught me to see actions, not words, as the real barometer of an institution’s intent.


LESSON 2:  “This isn’t elearning, it’s emergency remote learning”

A wise colleague said this in one of our earliest online remote meetings and it changed my mind about how to teach in a pandemic.  My reaction in a crisis is to display initiative and work to help people, but systemic paralysis was followed by a lurch into elearning with zero support and then a series of baffling changes of direction by the Ministry in terms of what technology we can use.


Ontario’s experiment in remote learning ended when Stephen Lecce came on one Friday afternoon and told students across the province that marks don’t matter in remote learning, which has established a culture of irrelevance in remote learning that continues.  We aren’t supposed to grade any learning that happens remotely and many teachers have given up on it entirely due to poor student engagement.  The system’s zero support is ongoing – we’ve been given no PD or even time to redesign the entire curriculum for remote learning on the fly.  The metaphor of building a plane in the air hasn’t changed, and we’re going back to full remote learning tomorrow.  How do you think that will fly?

2020 has taught me that curriculum is less important than student and staff welfare. It’s a pity the people in charge only pitch wellness emails at this ongoing mental health crisis, but as a classroom teacher my ever shrinking sphere of control still allows me to address it with my  particular students, and I intend to.  While other teachers are crushing students (especially the ones with IEPs) in a desperate quest for academic credibility in a system that’s only pretending to have it, I shall not.  This involves differentiating, which is another one of those pedagogical best practices we’ve burned to the ground during this crisis.

Some students, like myself, want to be engaged and kept busy lest they go mad with frustration!  For those students I will offer the variation and enrichment I’ve always pursued (yes, even in a pandemic), but for the vast majority less is their new normal.  For this group (which includes many teachers), being gentle is more important than being productive.  2020 has taught me that for the majority of people, when the going gets tough, waiting to be told what to doing as little as possible is the way forward.  It doesn’t bode well for a future bulging with ever increasing overpopulation in a limited ecosystem, but it’s the world our systemic myopia has brought us to.

2020 has taught me that pushing broken people only breaks them more, so I won’t be doing that even if the system demands it.

This is indeed emergency remote teaching.  It isn’t a ‘new normal’ and we shouldn’t all be waving flags proclaiming, ‘I got this’.  What we should be doing is looking after the children in our care, supporting their families and our colleagues and making sure that everyone is alright instead of pretending that everything is business as usual.  We can always learn what we missed on the other side of this.  Meanwhile, we’re getting strident ‘you have to provide blah blah minutes of synchronous instruction online‘ directives as we return to our second bout of emergency remote teaching.

There are too many system-people hanging on too tight that need to unclench.  I realize that this is being driven by a sabotaged Ministry, but enforcing it makes you complicit in it.  I’m going to look after my little patch (even the ones with special needs!) and push back if my student wellbeing first approach isn’t deemed appropriate by the powers that be.


LESSON 3:  Most people just want to be told what to do, even in a crisis…

My first instinct in a crisis is to show initiative and try to act in a way that helps, but the system thinkers don’t want you doing that, they want you to fall in line and do what you’re told.  This is problematic for me as my raison d’être in teaching is my agency as a teacher.  When the best I can hope from the system is benign neglect I can get a lot done in my immediate space, but when the system is in crisis it insinuates itself into my classroom and this is infuriating.  If I wanted to give up my idealism I’d go into management.


I’m able to do what I do in the classroom because I have agency.  One of the reasons I enjoy classroom teaching is because I have the latitude to make decisions that aim at the highest ideals and see them through without having to water them down.  In a crisis it seems that systems clamp down on individual agency and demand compliance.  My issue with that is that I’ve never done the bare minimum, always do excessively more and my students benefit from that in many ways.  I refuse do my job in an online lockstep of systemic expectations, especially if they’re designed for marketing a fiction of a full school experience during a pandemic that is preventing exactly that.  I have no interest in misleading people, most especially my students.


Not all teachers are above-and-beyonders, but I gotta tell ya, the vast majority are.  You’d be hard pressed to find a single teacher in my school that doesn’t do extracurriculars and work on the weekend.  Given some latitude they’ll do more than the minimum simply because they are professionals.  2020 has taught me that I don’t necessarily want to leave the classroom, but I would like to work for a system that recognizes my professionalism and honours it instead of treating me like an errant child.

Many people want to be told what to do and wait for that direction.  You’d think that would change in a crisis but it seems to intensify.  I’ve occasionally had leaders who recognize my need for action and honour it, but they are a minority.  I suspect this is a control issue for most.  Many people find invasive and systemic control a comfort, but for some it feels like strangulation.

Reading Matt Crawford’s latest book, Why We Drive, this fall while I was getting waterboarded at work taught me how to differentiate to students in a crisis by recognizing the need for human agency in an increasingly automated world.  Some people need clear direction and eased expectations while others want to exercise their agency and do something to help.  I only hope that the people running things recognize that.  We could get a lot more done if the doers weren’t being strangled by system lockstep thinking; we need to do much more than we are.

***

We’re about to step back into emergency remote learning after the mid-winter break, which hasn’t been much of a break at all.  Everyone looks grey, stressed out and exhausted.  We are probably not even half way through this pandemic marathon but I’m not about to let it diminish my professional scope.  My classroom will recognize that my students might be providing daycare for their siblings or working to support parents who have lost their jobs.  Others may live in rural locations with spotty internet or might be trying to do remote learning on ancient or poorly working technology that they only have occasional access to.  The school system likes to ignore these issues while sternly demanding full days of remote synchronous instruction.  I’m not going to demand that because I have no interest in maintaining a vicious government’s fiction of business as usual in the classroom.  What I am going to do is help where I can, give each student what they need to feel like they’re achieving something (anything) in this crisis, and make sure the ones who want to do more have the tools and material to create the agency they crave at a time of forced helplessness.  If everyone wakes up the next day feeling recognized and enabled then that’s a sound pedagogical goal.

Personally?  2020 taught me not to throw myself into the massive gap between the system’s failure to do what it should and what my students need, because it’s unsustainable.  I’m not helping anyone if I hurt myself trying to make up for the lack of vision demonstrated by the thousands of people ‘above’ me on the org chart.  I’ll read my Tao Te Ching and follow Lao Tsu’s advice and withdraw when my work is done.  2020 has taught me that the system will happily let me burn myself out attempting to resolve its shortcomings.

To hold and fill a cup to overflowing Is not as good as to stop in time.
Sharpen a sword edge to its very sharpest, And the (edge) will not last long.
When gold and jade fill your hall, You will not be able to keep them.
To be proud with honour and wealth Is to cause one’s own downfall.
withdraw as soon as your work is done. Such is Heaven’s Way.


2020 also taught me that the education system’s academic focus is a fiction we all tell ourselves to justify its existence, but it’s actually much more foundational than that.  The deeper truth is that the system should be less about curriculum and more about equity and inclusion.  Public education is one of our best tools for socially enabling everyone to become their best selves.  If we approached this pandemic by differentiating our expectations and working from a place of compassion and inclusion instead of fake academic integrity we’d do more good and teach students about things that genuinely matter, like kindness.  Ultimately, education should be about recognizing individual needs and enabling students to express their best selves, the rest is paperwork.

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Motorcycle Diaries: Win Your 2020 Dream Ride

Motorcycle Diaries is a website that shares rides from people from around the world.  I’ve posted a number of Ontario specific rides on there.  They currently have a 2020 Dream Ride contest going on until April 30th, so here’s my pitch.


My Moto-Bio:

I didn’t come to motorcycling until later in life. When I was very young, maybe six years old?  I was at my grandparent’s house in Sheringham, Norfolk in England one spring Saturday morning in 1975 when a group of vintage vehicles passed by on what was probably a rally.  I was the little blond kid standing on the railings by the side of the road waving at them as they thundered by, and many of them made a point of smiling and waving back, including a guy on a Triumph Speed Twin.  It was one of those flashbulb moments you never forget.  Nothing looked cooler than that bike and rider thrumming through the receding sea mist in the cool morning air.

Years later after immigrating to Canada, I was finally old enough to start considering driving and I immediately gravitated towards motorcycles, but my mother was strangely insistent that I not do that.   Even though we weren’t well off my parents dug deep to help get me a car instead.  I got deep into cars owning a wide variety of vehicles, learning how to repair them and even pursuing performance driving courses and cart racing while living in Japan, but that bike itch was always there.

After my mum’s suicide I discovered that my great aunt, with whom she shared a name, was an avid rider who was killed in a motorcycle accident a few years before I was born.  I also discovered that my mum’s dad, who I was very close with growing up in Norfolk, was also an avid motorcyclist up until the death of his sister, which must have rocked the family since no one had even mentioned her to me.  I’ve never understood how an accident like that (an army truck accidentally pulled out into her, killing her instantly) warranted this kind of silence, but my mum’s side of the family has always been… interesting.

Despite being a major part of the previous generation’s lives, motorcycling had evidently became a taboo subject that left me ignorant to a deleted great aunt who I now feel a great affinity for and a love of my granddad’s, who I thought I knew well.


I’ve been riding now since 2014 and I’m on my seventh bike.  I’ve taken multiple advanced off road training courses and done some long, international trips, including a trip to the last MotoGP race at Indianapolis that had us ripping down the back straight of the historic Brick Yard on our own bikes – mine being an $800 field find I’d restored in my garage.

I’ve made a point of expanding my familiarity with different bikes by renting them and riding in places ranging from Pacific tsunami zones to the Superstition Mountains in Arizona, usually with my son on the back.  We’ve had some great adventures.  I’ve also made a point of becoming mechanically proficient with motorcycles, having just finished my latest restoration.

That’s my bio.  Here’s the dream ride:

In discovering my family history around motorcycling I also connected my grandfather’s rather incredible Second World War tour of duty to riding where, among other things, he served in the RAF’s motorbike stunt team.


Bill served as an MP in the RAF and travelled with the British Expeditionary Force to France in 1939 in order to repel the oncoming Nazi war machine.  When it all went wrong, Bill ended up trapped in occupied France for a number of weeks after Dunkirk before eventually finding his way back to the UK just in time to catch planes that fell out of the sky during the Battle of Britain.  He then went on to fight in Africa for several years, but it’s his time in France during the ‘Phoney War‘ during the disastrous Battle of France and the allied retreat that is the basis for my dream ride.

After some exhaustive research I discovered Bill’s path through France from the autumn of 1939 to the spring of 1940.  My dream ride would be to follow in my granddad’s footsteps on a period motorcycle through Northern France in the springtime, just as Bill did.





From letters to my grandmother and military records, I discovered that Bill was attached to RAF Squadron 73 who operated across Normandy and up to near the Belgian border over the winter of the Phoney War before being chased south under fire around Paris and through Ruaudin and Saint Nazaire before he finally found a boat back to Plymouth out of Brest, nearly two months after Dunkirk.  In the process he failed to get to the Lancastria with the rest of his squadron, the majority of whom died on it as it was sunk by dive bombers in Saint-Nazaire.


Being able to follow Bill’s chaotic retreat with his squadron through France while finding evidence of the great conflict and seeing things he saw between moments of terror and heartache, and doing it on an RAF Norton H16 or a period Triumph Speed Twin would be a heart wrenching and mind blowing experience that would connect me back to a forgotten piece of family history on a number of levels.


What a dream ride that would be.

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Jeep Motototing South

Over the winter we got whacked by a snow plough and the insurance rental ended up being a Jeep Wrangler 4 door. I worked in an automotive shop to pay for university and Jeeps usually involved bringing an umbrella with you because they leaked so much, but this 2019 model has evolved from that poorly made thing. The mileage was better than I thought it would be for a big six cylinder, but I also discovered they come with an even more efficient turbo four that manages mid-20s MPG.

While we had it I stuck it in four wheel drive and went over a mountain of snow in a parking lot that would have beached anything else – and it did it on all season tires! At another point I had to take about 1500lbs of ewaste out of the school I work at and the Jeep swallowed it all with ease and it didn’t even seem to strain the suspension. On one particularly snowy night in an empty parking lot I four wheel drifted it and it felt surprisingly obliging doing something that athletic. I found the size of it also a nice surprise. I have to fold myself into the Mazda we have, but the Jeep felt like it fit.


What surprised me most about it was that it was genuinely enjoyable to drive.  Initially I found myself fighting the big wheels on the road, but once I came to trust the different driving dynamics of the thing I found it a comfortable long distance coverer.  Being up higher means I’m not getting all the slush in the face, which is nice too.  We never got to try the roof-removing modular nature of it because it was freezing, but that’s another feather in its hat.  I’ve been four wheeling in a tiny hatchback for so long that driving just feels like tedium.  The Wrangler made driving feel like an event instead of just a necessity.

With that all swirling around in my head, I first looked up the Wrangler and found it cost sixty grand, which is ridiculous, but that turned out to be a leather clad special edition thing.  The one I’d be looking at comes in at about forty grand, about the same as our last car, and there are big discounts on them at the moment.  They’ve got one with all the needed options on for about $41K nearby.

Knowing how this thing handles loads, I started looking up bike hauling options with them.  MotoTote has a 600 pound trailer hitch mounted motorcycle carrier that the Jeep could easily manage for $569 (I’m assuming that’s USD – so about $780CAD).  Also knowing its go anywhere cred and how big it is on the inside, I had images of my son and I taking it camping and off-roading.  A trailer with ATV and dirt bike on it would do us well.  Parking up in the wilderness and then camping out of the thing seems like a real possibility.  The Jeep’s outdoor image means there is a rich aftermarket of related products, even roof mounted tents, though it doesn’t need them.  The fold flat rear seats open up a massive back space that two sleeping bags could easily fit in.  A back attached tent makes a bit more sense in that case.


It’s a cool thing that could make the long wished for trip south in the winter a possibility.


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Hibernating a Motorcycle: Oil Changes

That ain’t a cheap oil change, but as expensive as it is,
it’s way cheaper than rebuilding a motor.

In a previous life I was an automotive technician and then service manager at a Quaker State shop.  For a few years there I was right up on my lubricants.  That background makes me very conscious of my motorbike fluid habits.   One of my standing rules when I put away a motorcycle for the winter is to change the oil before I do it.

You watch someone like Nick Sanders ride up and down the Americas for tens of thousands of kilometres and you wonder how his Yamaha looked like it had barely been used at the end of it:



Engines are designed to be running.  The very worst thing you could do is start and stop an engine over and over again (like we all do every day).  In the case of Sander’s epic rides from Alaska to Argentina and back, while what the Yamaha did was astonishing, the fact that the engine was in good shape shouldn’t have been a surprise.  It was barely ever allowed to cool down. 

Oils become acidic and moisture seeps in as things continually heat up and cool down.  Leaving old oil in your engine over the winter isn’t doing it any favours.  Swapping out contaminated oil for clean oil before you put it away is a great idea, so your engine isn’t soaking in the bad stuff.


Swapping it again in the spring is just a waste of money.  Oil doesn’t go bad sitting, but once you’re into the heat up cool down cycle again keep an eye on your mileage, and keep up on your oil changes, your engine will appreciate it.

Chemistry is where the big advances are happening nowadays.  Today’s oils have astonishing temperature ranges and abilities.  Here are some links on what’s going on with lubricants:

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A Bits & Bytes Reboot

 Hello TVO,

I’m active on Teach Ontario and my wife has been a regional councillor with you; we’re both big supporters of TVO.

A long time ago as a 10 year old new immigrant to Canada in the early 1980s I came across Bits & Bytes as I was teaching myself how computers worked.  This became a career in IT that has since morphed into a career in education where I’ve coached students in my small town to national championships in Skills Canada and ICTC’s CyberTitan Student Cybersecurity Competition.

I frequently write about the dearth of computer skills in the education system and society at large.  This one from 2017 is a good exampleThe article that kicked off that blog post offers a staggeringly dark view of digital fluency not just in Canada but around the world.  We have all become increasingly dependent on computer technology while simultaneously wallowing in ignorance around how it all works.

I think back to how Bits & Bytes influenced a whole generation of Ontarians to take on this emerging technology and think it’s time for a reboot.  If we’re going to plug our children into networks for their learning and live our lives in digital spaces then we all need to have a basic understanding of how these digital technologies work or we’re inviting abuse and manipulation.  ICT (information and communications technology) is now considered a critical infrastructure by the government of Canada, yet most Canadians are essentially illiterate in it even as they come to depend on it more and more.

If you ever decide to put together a B&B reboot and are looking for people to work on it I’m all in.  TVO’s mandate is to transform learning through digital technology, but if we don’t understand that technology then we’re nothing more than easily manipulated consumers of it.  Addressing this illiteracy would also raise Ontario’s place on an increasingly interconnected world stage.  Bring back Bits & Bytes 21st Century Edition and help educate Ontarians on the technology we’re all living our lives through!

Sincerely,

Tim King

Elora, ON

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Academic Integrity And Other Lies We Tell About Pandemic Teaching

My son works hard at school and just got his grade 10 honour roll in the mail.  At the same time we got his first quadmester of pandemic learning report card and we were all shocked to see a precipitous drop in grades that means he won’t be on next year’s honour roll.  Unlike previous years where the school made a point of acknowledging his individual education plan and supported him by ‘encouraging’ teachers to follow the medical recommendations on it, this year any support provided had to be snuck in because all support has been officially cancelled due to COVID19.  Classroom teachers can have double cohorts of 20 students coming off busses with 35+ students on them every day, but all supports are cancelled because we don’t want to spread the virus.  Keeping up with the demands of SAFETY when they are so arbitrary and ineffective is exhausting and frustrating.

As a parent of a child with an IEP I’m concerned that our double digit drop in grades is a system wide situation affecting hundreds of thousands of students with special learning needs across the province.  Talking to parents of students with special needs, this seems to be what is happening everywhere.  Kid’s with special needs are getting ground down by this rushed and cruel schedule.

The pandemic schedule slapped together by school boards is different all over the province as the Minister and Ministry of Education failed to demonstrate any leadership in planning a centralized response to this emergency.  The result is a cobbled together mess that makes a mockery of educational expectations in (what was once) one of the highest ranked public education systems in the world.

I’ve worked in Ontario’s public education system for sixteen years and while the system has been far from perfect it has always made attempts to follow data driven, responsible pedagogy.  The other night I attended an online meeting of Ontario Education Workers United who are trying to stop stacked simultaneous face to face and online classes.  It was jarring to hear them talk about pedagogical best practices because it has been so long since I’ve seen any.  I’ve always been led to believe that we follow the research in order to produce the best possible educational outcomes for the widest variety of students.  Those days focused on best practices are far behind us.  I’m still trying to work out how we were on strike last year trying to protect student learning, but this year a virus gives us an excuse to throw it all in the toilet.  I really don’t know what any of the players in public education (unions, school board, ministries, colleges of teachers, etc) that I pay for actually stand for as 2020 closes.  It certainly isn’t equity and support for students with special needs.

What I do see in public education, especially in the past two years, is a government intent on dismantling it for private, for-profit interests.  Meanwhile, as the funding dries up, educational management (which you can only join with a raft of post-graduate degrees) operates on their usual bias of protecting the students most like themselves.  This is upsetting both as a parent and a teacher.  When money is thin those special needs are just an expensive and expendable bother.  This is starting to feel like an unwinnable battle as the parents of special needs kids have to stand up against a biased system and a political party that seems determined to hurt them.

COVID has only intensified this inequitable situation.  This slapped together, high-speed schedule that fakes an appropriate amount of instructional time (we’re at 52.5 hours of face to face instruction down from 110 hours) has no room for students with special needs.  I’d love to see the live data we’ve already got for quadmester one but no one will want to show it because it won’t be flattering.  We only follow the data when it suits us these days.  The credit completion rates of fully remote elearning will pile on top of the grade drops and failures with face to face students to paint a damning picture of this ‘new normal’, but no one wants to work from that kind of data.

I sympathize with teachers struggling to retain some form of academic integrity when the system itself has made a mockery of it.  Ontario curriculums are designed to be 110 hours long.  Teachers are desperately trying to meet those requirements while being given a fraction of the time needed.  We’re doing 52.5 hours of in-class instruction in multiple cohorts so students are in either face to face in the morning or the afternoon.  This is done to keep group sizes under 20, which is wise during a pandemic, though when they stream off buses with up to 40 students on them (while f2f spec-ed support is cancelled) you have to wonder where the random lines are being drawn, and why.

 


More confusing are the instructions around the online half of the school day students are ‘supposed’ to be doing at home.  That remote work is where we’re supposed to make up the other half of lost course time, but we’ve been told we can’t assess anything done remotely and students and/or parents can opt out of it entirely while still earning a credit.  Most teachers seem to have responded to this by marking in a way that is specifically damaging to students with special learning needs, all in the name of academic integrity.

An argument might be made that if the same qualified teacher is running their own remote cohorts then a degree of online instructional effectiveness might be achieved, but I’ve yet to have a teacher qualified to teach my subject as remote support and I’m currently remote supporting a class I’m not qualified or experienced in.  My make-work job there is reduced to helping students find links and make things work online, if they bother to show up, which a third of the class (the third with IEPs) aren’t doing anyway.  We could have limited class sizes to single cohorts for classes with only one qualified teacher in the building, or even connected remote teachers between schools for specialized classes, but none of that happened because qualified teachers and even instructional time doesn’t matter anymore.

You can find this right on the Ministry webpage, but it isn’t true in a pandemic.  The only thing your child with special needs can expect at the moment is to get run over by speeding quadmesters.  Do try and keep them engaged and upbeat during a marathon health emergency though because you can’t expect their schools to be doing it.


Many IEPs will state that a student needs extra time in order to see success in their class, and board administration is expected to adhere to supports for these special needs.  Our own experience getting run over by a rushed quadmester with little or no communication and sudden drops in marks without explanation, support or even an option for extra time is the result of teachers clinging to academic integrity when no one else is, from the Minister on down.  It’s a war parents of kids with special needs can’t win because it seems as if the entire education system has come out in favour of punishing students with IEPs.

Special education is a human rights issue, but you can bet the lawyers are all over the health & safety not withstanding piece in there right now, though they’re strangely quiet about 40 kids on a bus.  Discarding spec-ed supports is a top down decision done by a government with a history of special-needs abuse

At a time when everyone is under exceptional stress and trying to deal with a seemingly never ending health crisis you’d think the education system would focus on equity and support for those students most in need, but the opposite has happened.  Service providers have an obligation to accomodate a person’s needs but this pandemic has unfortunately shown the true colours of both this government, the ministry it has infected and school boards who were more focused on rushing out a solution instead of looking after our most vulnerable students.  Now that the new system is in place you can expect it to continue running over students with special needs which now includes an increasing number of non-IEPed students who are facing anxiety and depression as a result of the pandemic.

Expecting reason and compassion from the minister is a lost cause.  I can only hope people in leadership positions elsewhere in the system take their responsibilities more seriously and start acting to support students and redirect teachers away from playing a part in this latest round of systemic inequity.  We need to stop the myth that these cobbled together pandemic quadmesters have any kind of academic integrity, equity or kindness.  Only then can we fix it, and fix it we must.

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The Great Escape

This time of year always feels like Groundhog Day – go to  work, go to sleep, wake up, do it again.  It becomes so repetitive that it leaks into your mind, filling your thoughts so there is little room for anything else.  This year it’s amplified by the negativity surrounding my work.  All that combined with no riding for dark months on end and it’s hard not to get jammed.

If I time it right I can sneak out of Ontario on an above zero, dry road day.  You can still find double digital daily highs in Cincinatti and south.  A plugged in electric kit bonzai ride to Cinci and I’m out of the snowbelt.  From there it’s a less ragged ride south to New Orleans.  From Cinci I’d angle over to Memphis and follow the Mississipi down to the Big Easy…



After reading books like Todd Blubaugh’s Too Far Gone and watching Austin Vince Mondo Enduro the planet, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to get lost on the road.  Once out of the snowbelt, I’d be in no rush to be somewhere.  Without that very Western time fixation, I wouldn’t have to get wound up over deadlines.


If I’m not fixated on a destination the daily goals might not be that linear.  With local knowledge I’d hope to find things off the beaten path as I meander…





Off the top of my head, I’d leave New Orleans along the Gulf, visit Austin and then ride the Twisted Sisters in Texas Hill Country.  Austin’s also the home of the only North American MotoGP race, so if I timed my return with the race, I could be passing back through Austin on the way home in early April and catch Marc and the rest of the aliens doing their thing.  The goal on the way south would be to get familiar with Austin’s weirdness for the return stop.

After wandering Texas I’d take a run up to the Very Large Array in New Mexico and do my best Jodi Foster immitation.  New Mexico and Arizona have a pile of strange sites to see, so the wandering would get intense.  Norman Reedus did a Ride episode in New Mexico that does a good job of showing what’s on hand out there.

Even that far south the mountains can also catch you out with northern temperatures as we found out a couple of years ago in the Superstition Mountains just outside of Phoenix in early January, so not rushing and timing your rides is important when at altitude.  There are pile of old western towns and ruins in the US South West, along with some astonishing pieces of engineering.  Meandering from photo opportunity to photo opportunity would be a nice way to ease into this slow motion ride.

Tuscon is home of the Aeroplane Boneyard where thousands of retired air force planes sit in the desert.   A wander around there at sunset would be a glorious thing.  I’ve done the Phoenix area a couple of times and travelled from the north end of Arizona from Las Vegas, but haven’t travelled as far south as Tuscon.  From there I’d head across to Yuma, another famous western US location, before diving south into the Baja Penninsula.  A desert riding tour would be a pretty cool way of seeing Baja.

Mexico is a whole other world.  Most riding-the-Americas types blitz through it looking for a fast route south,but Mexico (with a final lunge into Belize) is where I’d wrap up this great escape from the never ending Canadian winter.  Some crystal caves, Mesoamerican pyramids and Belize beaches during the deep freeze and then working my way back up to Austin for early April…


Seeing the Ozarks and the Tail of the Dragon during the weeks after the race would be a nice way to wind up this great escape, getting back to the frozen north just as it’s not frozen anymore.

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Psychology, Cybersecurity and Collaboration in Educational Technology

We were beta testing Field Effect’s state of the art Cyber Range online cybersecurity training system this week in our grade 10 TEJ introduction to computer technology course.  Our skill levels in that open class range from two students who are top ten in Canada in the CyberTitan student cybersecurity competition in their respective disciplines, to students who have never owned a personal computer at home because their parents thought a series of gaming consoles would adequately prepare them for life in the Twenty-First Century.


The challenges of keeping students with such diverse skillsets engaged in a single classroom aside, I’d agreed to beta-test this software because it offers a way past one of the biggest blocks to schools entering the Cyberpatriot/CyberTitan competition.  To participate in the competition you need a desktop or powerful enough laptop computer being run by an operating system that can do more than just browse webpages through a single corporation’s lensVirtual machines are whole computers that can be simulated in a single window, and they offer a valuable tool in examining cybersecurity issues without putting your school network or computers in peril (installing a virus to see what it does on a school computer would produce obvious headaches).  If things go wrong in a virtual machine you just shut the window.

The Field Effect remote software ran fantastically well on our DIY student built classroom desktops and would work equally well on something as simple as a Chromebook,though trying to do this through a single, tiny 1366 pixel wide monitor would be a headache.

Once we got everything up and running I reminded students that they were manipulating a remote, virtual computer stored on a server in Ottawa.  When you’re aware of what’s happening behind the screen, seeing what we can do on networks with enough bandwidth, like the one we now have at school, is mind blowing.


The cybersecurity gurus at Field Effect didn’t muck about when they set up this virtual online image.  When you first boot up the compromised Windows 10 image you’re met with a full screen warning with flashing lights and a locked screen telling you that you’ve been ransomwared.


Even though students had been repeatedly prepared for this and I’d explained what a virtual machine was and how whatever happens in it doesn’t hurt anything, this threw half of them into a panic.  The responses ranged from randomly mashing buttons to giving up, sitting back and loudly commenting on how stupid everything was.  That’s in an optional course full of students who have demonstrated an interest and willingness to learn computer technology.  The vast majority of students (and staff) in education don’t get nearly that much training, yet they’re all still increasingly depended on digital technology in every class they’re in.

The psychology of the attack was interesting.  The flashing warnings and countdown timer did what it was supposed to do with anyone lacking in digital skills (which is a startlingly large number of people in Canada in 2020).  Cybercriminals depend on this technical illiteracy.  My CyberTitans and many of the other digitally savvy kids in the room right clicked on the flashing screen and exited ‘full screen’ mode, which brought them back to a desktop, which some then got lost in:


This ‘geek prank’ fake WindowsXP desktop was also on ‘full screen’ behind the ransomware fullscreen warning, but even when others showed students trapped by the ransomware screen the same F11/exit full screen way out of it, many had already succumbed to frustration and had given up (again).  Several spent long minutes in the fake XP desktop trying to do things even when it said ‘fake XP simulator’ right on the screen.  Being unresponsive to what a computer is telling you when things aren’t working right is a common response in weak users.

The digitally skilled CyberTitans were past the two blocks in seconds and were figuring out how to secure this hacked Windows 10 laptop and restore control for the proper user on it.  More than 70% of the class were stuck in two hacks that were so easily resolved that I was left wondering how we could back things up and restore their mangled pride.  Many of them, only a few days before, had done “my-experience-with-technology” presentations where they’d described themselves as digitally savvy, on Thursday morning this was in tatters.

The actual work of a cybersecurity operator in a case like this is not just to return things to normal but also to diagnose and identify the attack vector.  In an administrative user account that shouldn’t have been on the machine there were files and instructions for how to run the malware, and even some background in downloads and browser histories that explained why this other employee had done what they did, but many of the students – including the quick movers, quickly deleted the evidence instead of forensically examining it.

This brought up the opportunity to talk about how much of what information security professionals do in our very networked world is more like a detective than a traffic cop.  It isn’t just a matter of making sure every user complies with expectations, it’s also vital to understand how the system was compromised because this will guide future security defensive settings.  It’s things like this that have me wondering why there are no cybersecurity courses running in any Ontario high school, or no mention of cybersecurity in Ontario computer technology curriculum.  Any mention of security in the curriculum is rooted in 20th Century ideas of passwords or at best wifi encryption, the world has moved on.  The cloud-based networked world we’re all leveraging in every classroom in Ontario goes unmentioned.

Once we got past the opening chaos, many students got into the detail work of repairing settings deep inside Windows, restoring control to the correct user and locking down firewalls that the ransomware had opened up.  If this all sounds greek to you it shouldn’t, you’re using all those things right now to read this.  And you and your students are using them every time you have them login to a cloud based service.  We’re all offering an ‘attack surface‘ to cybercriminals whenever we go into the cloud, but pretty much everyone is blissfully unaware of it.  People (users) are part of that cyberattack surface.  Not addressing cyber-illiteracy means you’ve just opened up opportunities for bad actors.

The problem then became all the wounded male pride in the room.  The students who struggled and gave up were also the ones who adamantly refused to get up and collaborate with the other people in our mono-gendered morning cohort.  Fragile male pride means you can’t be asking for help – or collaborating, especially in a subject where you’ve convinced yourself you’re an expert.  The more gender balanced afternoon cohort was constantly communicating and hive-minded their way through the infected image so effectively that most of them actually finished it with a perfect score.

The opening hacks were a source of laughter rather than long faces in the afternoon group.  The lack of collaboration in the morning cohort and then the negativity that descended was something I’m thinking about as we proceed into our violently crushed quadmester.  I’ve encouraged collaboration in face to face computer tech classes as no one works alone in modern tech jobs, yet the boys seem at a distinct advantage when it comes to creating or engaging in collaborative work, though even a small population of girls changes this dynamic.

This is an even bigger problem in my conservative country school where girls are peer and system pressured out of taking technology courses.  I’m lucky to have 10% female participation in my junior computer technology courses.  In senior courses we’re lucky to have a single girl in any of the classes of up to thirty-one students.  The is problematic beyond our classroom.  Women are least engaged in engineering and computer science where the most lucrative careers currently are.

At the end of the day many students got their first glimpse into cybersecurity and a number of them are curious, which is good because we need to open up this pathway to students.  My original intent in giving this a try was to give students an opportunity to demonstrate their technical skills, but a surprisingly large chunk of the class, including students I thought would dig through it more effectively, were startlingly quick to give up and get pwned by some pretty simple hacks.  This is making me wonder how Ontario students are doing in our half elearning face to face and fully remote learning courses during this pandemic.  I fear our level of technical fluency is so shallow that unless online teachers are all doing simplistic, repetitive tasks that require no actual digital fluency, they and their students are unable to effectively engage.  This goes a long way to explain poor online engagement.

From the latest attempt to encourage Ontario
Educators to integrate cybersecurity into their
practice, especially if they’re putting children
on hackable online devices.

I realize that cybersecurity scares the daylights out of most people (I’ve spent the past 3 years trying to engage Ontario educators in it to poor effect), but if we’re going to be putting more and more of our education system into digital spaces then we’re all responsible for raising digital fluency to the point where everyone can demonstrate resiliency in the face of unexpected outcomes.  At the moment, throwing up your hands in the air and giving up seems to be the solution for too many people.  Hopefully things like ICTC’s work with Field Effect will help spread a deeper and more resilient tool for improving cyber-fluency.  Everyone working in the cloud needs this.

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Fury Project: final drive & body panels

With the snow finally falling I’ve had time to start into the naked Concours project.  The first thing that needed addressing was the final drive unit which was leaking from the inner seal.  When the Clymers manual says you can do it but it’s a big pain in the ass, it’s best to have a practised hand do the work.  I took the unit off (easily done as it’s held on the drive shaft by four bolts) and loosened all the fasteners on the inner plate.  

Two Wheel Motorsport, my local Kawasaki dealership, said they could do the work and estimated two hours of shop time and a twelve dollar seal.  I dropped off the unit and got a call back four days later saying it was done.  It was a nice surprise to find that the work took less than an hour and my $250 estimate was suddenly a $120 bill.  You hear a lot of negative talk about dealerships but Two Wheel did this job professionally and quickly, and then didn’t overcharge when they easily could have.

I cleaned out the shaft drive end and re-greased everything.  Reinstalling the unit was easy and straightforward.  With the grease holding the spring in place I was able to simply slot the drive unit onto the shaft splines and re-torque the four nuts.  Everything went together smoothly and the drive feels tight and positive.


Since this was the only mechanical issue with the Concours I was able to begin thinking about the customization side of things.  With over 100lbs of plastic and metal removed from the bike I needed to start thinking about how to minimally dress this naked machine in order to cover up the plumbing and electrics.  Having a metal shop at work means handy access to fabrication tools.  Our shop teacher is also a Concours owner and is eager to help with panel building.  He suggested I do cardboard cutouts of the pieces I need and then we can begin the process of creating metal body work.

Body work craft day in the garage.

Doing the cutouts is tricky even in cardboard.  The left side cover goes over some electronics including the fuse panel and needs to bulge outward in order to contain all of that.  The right side is more straightforward but still needs cutouts for the rear brake wiring and rear suspension adjuster.  I’m curious to see how close the metal cutouts come to the cardboard templates.

The shop at school has a plasma cutter and we should be getting a laser engraver shortly.  With such advanced tools I’m already thinking about engraving panels.  Collecting together a bunch of line drawings of iconic images and sayings in a variety of languages would be an interesting way to dress up the minimal panels on this bike.  If the laser engraver can work on compound shapes I might drop the gas tank in there and engrave Kawasaki down the spine of it where the gold stripe will go rather than looking for badges or decals.


I enjoy the mechanical work but now that the Concours is working to spec I can focus on the arts and crafts side of customization.  Next up is trying to figure out how a minimal front panel that contains the headlight and covers up the electrical and plumbing at the front will look.






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