One Size Fits All, Even When It Doesn’t

It’s taken me until Sunday to be able to talk normally again after week one of face to face teaching in a pandemic.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: our board has done an incredible job of charting a path through this poorly planned and funded return to school during a medical emergency, but this has still been one of the worst weeks of my teaching career and not because of all the barriers to teaching.

Top of list are the mandatory medical grade face masks I’m told we have to wear (though the Ministry says, “All staff in schools must wear masks, with reasonable exceptions for medical conditions”).  With a head circumference well beyond the human average, these masks are too small for me and leave me at the end of each day with marks on my face, sinuses and ears.  My head is so big we had to bring my son in for testing for encephalitis because he got my big head.  The specialist immediately said everything was ok when he saw me and realized big heads run in the family.  There is nothing worse than being atypical in a pandemic when every system contracts to only suit the average (that’s a theme).

In addition to not fitting my big head, these masks are very restrictive in terms of breathing, especially if you’re working in a poorly ventilated south facing classroom that hits thirty plus degrees celsius on even a cool day when it has 30 or so computers and twenty people in it.  Being a tech shop I’m also moving equipment around.  In setting up the lab I moved over two thousand pounds of computer parts into place.  Being required to wear a mask that’s too small and restrictive while doing physical work in a hot room had me seeing stars multiple times this week.  The Ministry states that reasonable exceptions are allowed but everywhere I turned this week (union, admin, online) told me to just wear the damned mask.  My biggest anxiety is returning to another week of feeling like I’m being waterboarded by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

I have a history of sinus issues.  My sinuses are so atypical the specialist who did my deviated septum surgery two years ago (so much blood!) had never seen anything like them and was forwarding them on to researchers.  I can breath much better after the surgery, but wearing a high filtration medical quality mask like that for six hours a day means I resort to mouth breathing almost constantly while wearing it, so I leave school every day with a sore throat and inflamed sinuses.  When I expressed this I was told to just wear the mask like everyone else.  My wife is severely immune compromised and I come home every day to immediately put my clothes in the washer and take a scalding shower.  The last thing I want to do is contract this but not being able to breath properly while having to talk more loudly through a mask is destroying me.  There are sports filtration masks I’d be willing to purchase myself but all I keep getting told is to shut up and wear the mask.

Being the only person wearing a medical grade mask in a room of 16 grade nines wearing everything from homemade cloth masks to bandanas, I’m left wondering at the veracity of this demanding compliance.  A number of other staff are also struggling with this one size fits all zero flexibility approach.  They’ve told me that they (variously) pull the mask off to get fresh air if they’re short of breath and/or fold the bottom of the mask up or fit it poorly so it lets air in and out, which is like not wearing a mask at all.  If the only solution is to wear this thing so poorly that it doesn’t do anything then I think we need to rethink our one-size-fits-all policy.

Beyond the mandatory waterboarding mask, the week went well but mainly because I’m making unsustainable catches at the wall all day every day.  All of the IT tech we had in the lab was in the middle of being used when we were shut down at March Break and it was in much worse shape than I realized.  I spent most of the week triaging and rapidly repairing broken computers so that grade 9s could use them, which isn’t sustainable.  A diving catch is a spectacular thing but if that’s all you’re doing all game you won’t be playing the next week.

I got a really good piece of advice from our spec-ed instructor when I was at Nipissing University for teacher’s college: “your first job is to be ready to come in to work again tomorrow.”  This often gets forgotten in the teacher martyr complex and I see people (myself included) throwing themselves into unsustainable situations that end up preventing them from working effectively the next day.  This whole week felt like that.  Every time I looked for support it wasn’t there and the weight I was carrying got that bit more impossible.

Tuesday was the worst day.  After spending all morning trying to get broken tech working (for my classroom and half a dozen other classrooms in the school), and then struggling to get all the grade 9s through safety training because at least two of them are functionally illiterate (which raises interesting questions around the legalities of dragging them through purely text based online safety training) the teacher who was supposed to come in and provide relief saw how busy I was and said, “if you don’t need me I’ll go” instead of showing some initiative while watching me try to be in three places at once.

This is another example of the system checking a box rather than providing actual support.  Our union has argued for us to get relieved during our nearly three hour marathon face to face sessions (two times a day, thank-you) and I appreciate that effort, but the teacher coming in isn’t qualified or knowledgeable in my field of study and is little more than a babysitter who can’t even legally oversee hands-on shop work.  The week before we were told by admin to just skip our prep/relief and keep working if that’s what we wanted to do, but that is neither sustainable nor compliant with the contract we’ve agreed to.  Being asked if they can just leave and take a 45 minute break from giving people breaks while I’m obviously struggling both physically, mentally and emotionally was… (how can I put this professionally?)… aggravating.

Under normal circumstances I’d have sent the two functionally illiterate kids down to resource who would have walked them through the training one on one.  I can’t do one on one when I have twenty other grade nines all needing my attention at once and while I’m responsible for safe hands on work with live electricity and tools in a technology class.  I can’t send them to resource though because our resource room has been closed and all our spec-ed specialists are now teaching regular classes online.  You don’t want to have an IEP or learning challenges during a pandemic, all the spec-ed support has evaporated.

Anytime I’ve asked for someone to assist me with something they’ve reflected it back on me to do.  If a student needs special supports it’s entirely on me to do that.  If a student doesn’t have digital access at home it’s entirely on me to do that.  Towards the end of the week I had board purchasing asking questions about things from last year that I had neither the bandwidth nor knowledge to answer so I just ignored the emails.  When you’re drowning you don’t go looking for more water.

If you’re operating an engine it will have an operating range.  You work in that range as a balance of efficiency, longevity and performance.  There are moments when you might push past the 100% mark in order to get a burst of power, but doing so means you’ve just shortened the life of that engine.  The diving catch made by a baseball player is one of those 120% moments where you do something unsustainable to make the catch, but you can’t keep doing that all day every day, it’ll break you.

Even with all the barriers to teaching thrown up by this pandemic and this particular government I had a good week instructionally.  I was able to differentiate to different students and pretty much everyone in the class was able to do something they’d never done before by the end of the week (build their own PC).  That one on one work with students learning their strengths and developing skills is what I love about my work, and I’m good at it.

I’m unable to do IT again next week with a new class because we don’t have any working tech left, so I’m doing backflips this weekend trying to work out how to teach electronics in two places in two different ways at once.  Our two cohort system means I’m teaching remotely to one cohort while I’m teaching face to face with the other all day every day (they flip).  It’s twice as much prep but as you’ve read above we don’t really have any prep time.  They gave me a teacher who isn’t qualified and doesn’t have any background in my subject to cover the online learning, but that’s just more people I have to direct.  I asked if we could just collapse my class into a single morning cohort then I could be the afternoon online teacher.  The class is only 22 so it wouldn’t be huge and it means I’m not buried alive and trying to be in two places at once.  You can guess the answer: it wouldn’t look good.  They don’t want any pictures of full classes out there.  It makes sense pedagogically and in terms of staff work load, and with appropriate safety precautions there would be minimum risk of pandemic transmission, but if you don’t have optics on your side in a pandemic you have nothing.  I’m not the only teacher who asked for that.

In addition to trying to generate a week of prep every day both remotely and face to face, I’m also trying to get more IT tech in so I can do that unit with my second class.  Getting parts in a pandemic is challenging.  I’m hoping I can work it out and RCTO has been fantastic in getting back to me and making it happen, but that’s just another of those unsustainable balls I’m juggling that’s up in the air somewhere.

I can manage the avalanche of prep, but doing it while in physical distress all day because of an inflexible mask policy means I’m not going to finish this semester on my feet.  I have to find a way to engineer a solution to this because no one around me will.  The most frustrating part is that the solution is obvious but in a pandemic flexibility and individual needs are the first thing we burn.

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Media Literacy: Technical Challenges & Digital Ignorance

Originally published on DUSTY WORLD, September, 2018…

Last year I attended the FITC digital creatives conference in Toronto for the first time.  I teach a senior high school software engineering class where we focus on project management in terms of game design.  We use Unity to develop interactive 3d games, sometimes in virtual reality.  We use Blender to learn how to 3d model.  I attended FITC to try and get some perspective on how we can use current industry standards in our work, but this conference did much more than that.


I thought I was up at the pointy end of 3d computer generated imaging know-how, we do some exceptional work in class and many of our grads have gone on to work in the industry, but FITC floored me with how CGI 3d modelling has insinuated itself into marketing.  The first presentation that made me question everything I thought I knew was by The Mill and their Blackbird car.  This digital studio has revolutionized how automakers advertise.  The next time you’re watching a car advertisement, ask yourself if you’re actually seeing the car:

 


From a media literacy perspective, if you aren’t aware that what you’re watching isn’t real, are you really media literate?  This can lead to all sorts of strange situations where all of us are media illiterate and at the mercy of the people who aren’t:

Made this week by one of our new grade 11s.  Watching an
already talented artist take these digital tools and run with
them is one of the best parts of my job.

I’d originally attended FITC to make sure we were current on 3d technology.  I think we’re doing a remarkably good job of that in our high school program, but what I was unaware of was just how many 3d modelling jobs there are beyond the film and video game industries.  There are a number of companies now that focus entirely on the very lucrative marketing industry with this technology.  I was able to bring that back to my students and offer up a new avenue for our talented digital artists to consider when they graduate.


I haven’t touched on many of the other surprises from FITC.  Relatively new jobs like computer animation that I thought were secure are in doubt.  Other skills that I never considered (traditional visual arts skills, mime and creative thinking) might be much more valuable in our digital future than I thought they might.  This kind of information makes me want to diversify my software class and encourage greater artistic influence and experimentation.  Ideally, we should be learning these digital tools in order to amplify and express the creativity and complex thinking my students are capable of.  Technically proficiency isn’t an end in itself, we learn the tools to make our thoughts tangible.

 

We’ve got one of the top 2d animators in Ontario in our
grade 12 software engineering class.  He’s pretty handy
in 3d as well!

The media literacy side of it still bothers me.  I’m teaching computer engineering so my focus is there, but so few people are interested in learning how this technology works.  I have a pretty healthy program and I work with less than ten percent of our school population.  Many schools in Ontario don’t offer any digital technologies at all.  In my senior programs I’m lucky to have one or two females in the class.  Tech tends to be male heavy and digital tech is no different.  That gender disparity means a digital literacy disparity too.


I see every person in the school using digital technology every day, yet its a curriculum afterthought.   I’ve long argued for digital technology to be a required fluency, especially if we’re going to use it in every classroom and throughout our days.  If you don’t understand the technology it will influence you in ways you won’t even notice.  You’ll also waste a lot of time not doing it properly.  My experiences at FITC this year have opened yet another angle on digital fluency in terms of media literacy.  If you’re watching something you think is real but isn’t, you’re the sucker that PT Barnum and modern marketing dreams about.

If you’re at ECOO #BIT18 this year I’ll be presenting on the many surprises I found at FITC and how you might start to bring 3d modelling or at least an understanding of it into your classroom.  Hope to see you there.





Here’s the presentation:

 

 

 

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The Centre Cannot Hold

I stumbled across this interesting article on curiosity and the neuroscience associated with  it:

“Encourage students to chase their own interests, cultivate curiosity.  It fires up brains and makes them better at remembering new information.  It also engages students in the best possible way.”


“When we’re hungry for answers, our brain activity changes in ways that help us retain new information. For one, the curious mind engages processes and brain regions associated with anticipating a reward. We want to learn more because the answers are satisfying. In addition, the hippocampus, a memory hub, ramps up activity, preparing to store information. The more we want to know an answer, research suggests, the more memorable it becomes.”

If you’re not a teacher and are a big fan of the new Ontario government’s ‘teach ’em like we used ta‘ approach to learning, this is what we call pedagogy.  There is a lot of neuroscience that directs modern pedagogy in the classroom.  Put in simple terms, we don’t just make this stuff up; the education system spends a lot of time and effort understanding how learning works best and then training teachers to work with that.  Scientific research guides modern curriculum building, at least until right wing populist ideology dislodges it in Ontario.


Showing a teacher how curiosity can be used to amplify retention and encourage a focused approach to new knowledge acquisition is pure gold.  I fear the ‘take it back to basics‘ stance of our new government means this neuroscientific research is ignored in favour of the conservative reductive approach of rote memorization and zero differentiation of instruction.  It’s a common conservative belief that everyone (especially in the public sector) needs to suffer in order to show they are trying, but don’t expect anyone to learn anything in an environment like that.  Contrary to this grossly simplified view of education (in that case advocated by an American with no teaching experience), we’re not in it to punish anyone.  You don’t learn well when you’re being subdued.  You don’t teach particularly well in those circumstances either.

Some other gems in from that article:
“teachers can be models of how to be comfortable with uncertainty”


“When we’re hungry for answers, our brain activity changes in ways that help us retain new information. For one, the curious mind engages processes and brain regions associated with anticipating a reward. We want to learn more because the answers are satisfying. In addition, the hippocampus, a memory hub, ramps up activity, preparing to store information. The more we want to know an answer, research suggests, the more memorable it becomes.”


***


An interesting connection with that piece on curiosity and information retention was this article in The Guardian about the age of skim reading. The author draws some interesting connections between Western society’s rise of populist regimes and the new lack of empathy and critical analysis in the population:


“The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.”

If you’re wondering why we’re suddenly faced with these shocking politicians who seem out  of sync with the world around them, it isn’t them that’s out of sync, it’s you (if you’re reading this you aren’t the new normal).  The conservative ‘you must suffer to pay the private sector’s bills‘ thinking plays nicely with the lack of patience, empathy and curiosity we’ve been cooking for the past fifteen years in the incessant digital noise of the attention economy.  It’s easy to blame this on information and communication technology, but the tech itself has allowed us to make enormous scientific and technical advances.  Smart people have leveraged it to great advantage  It’s the attention economy that grew out of it that is causing problems for everyone else.


I’m a big fan of digital tools, but we’ve done almost nothing to actually learn how they work so we can use them effectively and without compromise.  In the past decade education systems around world have handed off control of our online learning environments to advertising companies like Google who have monetized everyone’s attention.  You don’t get the same return on investment if you don’t keep your users in a permanent state of data churn.   You do that by designing systems that encourage short attention data churn.  Every time we accustom a student to that environment we’re training the attention economy’s future users, whether they’re actively advertising to them or not.  As education systems become complicit in preparing our children for the vapid attention economy, many of their parents don’t notice because their noses are in a phone too.  Our political circumstances are a direct result of us all being immersed in this nasty mess.

One of the first casualties of new media has been long form reading:

“We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age.” 


Alanna is teaching a senior creative writing class for the first time in a long time and she is shocked by what the new normal is.  You can expect grade twelves, even academically focused ones intent on university, to have never read a book for pleasure.  In some cases they’ve never read a book at all.  Their days are spent in the bite sized, simplistic cesspool of the internet.  They don’t have the patience to let a narrative develop.  The building of suspense frustrates them.  They live in a world of fleeting introductions immediately followed by puerile climaxes designed to hold on to them for a moment before their attention wanders to the next distraction.


Many students can’t even sit through a film anymore, let alone read a book.  Watch current high school students sneaking out their phones the minute a film starts and squirming if can’t find their digital churn fix; see if I’m not wrong.

Long form reading isn’t impossibly difficult, but it isn’t a natural human skill, we have to learn it.  In doing so we enjoy a richness of shared experience impossible to get any other way.  This leads to the empathy we’re struggling to keep alive in modern society.  It also leads to a richer internal world where you have the vocabulary and shared experience to express yourself succinctly.  If you’re reduced to expressing your deepest thoughts in internet memes, what a sad and dimensionless mind you must feel trapped in.  How much curiosity can you generate if you live in a world of instant, short term satisfaction?

In our ongoing social experiment I’m curious to see how this all plays out.  We introduced digital technologies that have revolutionized science, education, finance and communications, allowing us to take huge steps forward in terms of efficiency and collaboration.  A small group of sociopaths then used this technology to create an attention economy that has actually damaged our democratic institutions and the minds of the general public itself.  We find ourselves in a place where improbable governments suddenly have power and the people who voted them there have neither the ability nor the inclination to actually learn about why this is a bad idea.  We’ve weakened our ability to empathize and connect with each other, all ironically under the name of social media.  It seems this reductive process isn’t finished yet.  With short sighted apathetic government being put into power by an increasingly illiterate, distracted and stressed populace, I’m left wondering just how low we can go.

LINKS

www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf skim reading

www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-its-time-ontario-education-got-back-to-basics/ an american with no teaching experience tells us how to teach

hechingerreport.org/piqued-the-case-for-curiosity/ curiosity

www.fordnationlive.ca/watch_doug_s_plan_to_fix_ontario_s_education_system_by_respecting_parents_and_getting_back_to_basics
discovery math – isn’t a thing, back to basics means what? what are basics?  perhaps code for an excuse to eviscerate a successful system?

twitter.com/acampbell99/status/1034627621559181312 teachers arguing pedagogy online.

www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-in-the-ongoing-math-wars-both-sides-have-a-point/?cmpid=rss&utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter
math wars – see below, Canada is top ten in the world in maths.

***

Just a reminder, Ontario is Canada’s largest education system and Canada is consistently near the top of the world in terms of reading, science and maths.

But don’t let those facts get in the way of your politics:
www.businessinsider.com/pisa-worldwide-ranking-of-math-science-reading-skills-2016-12
Ignore all the single-party authoritarian countries at the tops of those lists – they only put forward their top students for assessment. Western systems put their whole populations forward.

www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/sep/07/us-education-spending-finland-south-korea
“In Ontario, which educates 40% of Canada’s students, nearly 30% of the province’s population are immigrants. According to the 2015 Pisa exam results, Ontario scored fifth in the world in reading. Children of immigrants perform compatibility with their peers with Canadian-born parents in educational achievement.”

Ontario’s education systems is one of our most successful exports, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to the new government. Private schools around the world use the Ontario Curriculum that they just started dismantling. Ontario trained teachers are teaching across the planet because they are Ontario qualified. If our education system were a private enterprise it would be held up as a paragon of success. Remember that in the coming months.

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wind storms and sci-fi reflections

I’m watching the new season of my current favourite sci-fi show, The Expanse.  It’s about the next couple of centuries where Terrans develop the technology to move out into the solar system, but rather than the Star Trek angle that completely ignores the nastiest aspects of human nature, The Expanse imagines a near future with technology advances but none of the social evolution of the Trek universe – it’s a politically messy, self-serving future, much like our present.  It’s something I’m starting to think we’ll never get to.

I’m also spending the day today putting our yard and house back together after a wind storm swept through here, and that got me thinking about all this technology we’re so proud off.  If it gets a bit windy, it all goes away.  After a couple of big gusts yesterday there was no internet and no power.  I was unable to deliver attendance data for my classes at the end of the day, let alone get information on what was happening.

 

We ignore data and facts.

At the height of the wind the local cell tower was down, meaning no information or electricity at all.  In the meantime (and when it works), I’m watching the news closely as the competition we’re supposed to be travelling to in a couple of weeks in Fredericton is in peril because the city is under water.  We’re ever so proud of our vaunted technology, but if it gets windy, or if waters run high, everything stops.  The real irony in this is that our fossil fuel powered society is what’s prompting all this extreme weather.  Even our supposedly green tech is manufactured using fossil fuel based manufacturing.  Our technology doesn’t allow us to control our environment, it provokes it to attack us.


There is this thing called the Kardashev Scale.  If you’re ever thinking how smart the bi-pedal apes are on the third rock from the sun, this scale will give you some perspective.  A level one society is one that harnesses the resources of an entire planet.  We’re not even close to that.  Carl Sagan suggested human society is at about a 0.7 on the way to being able to harness planetary power, but I think that’s wildly optimistic.  Our technology isn’t on its way to managing planetary processes, in many cases it’s prompting the planetary environment to violence – it’s the opposite of control.  There are some cases of sustainable (ie: non-aggravating) human technology, but since we base most of what we produce on fossil fuels and unsustainable manufacturing, it’s hard to say much of any of our technology is actually on its way to sustainable global resource management.  Our stubborn unwillingness to orientate ourselves in that direction is the problem, not our intelligence or technical capability.

When you get up into level 2 your society can manage the energy of an entire solar system.  We’re millennia away from that even assuming we pivoted today and actually worked toward sustainable global management that would allow us to thrive as a civilization long enough to develop it.  The way we’re currently going, we’ll probably cause global environmental upheaval before we’re likely to even establish a foothold in space (by that I mean permanent human habitation off-world, we haven’t even done that yet).  The environmental problems we cause now will eventually produce resource depletion that will result in war.  We love a good war to cap off our own bad habits.  Level 3 (effective galactic resource management and level 4 (universal/pan dimensional resource management) are so far beyond our short sighted, barely evolved minds that they beggar belief.

Meanwhile, here I am about to nail unsustainably manufactured aluminum siding back on to my wood framed house that was built with unsustainable lumber.  We have more in common with squirrels building nests than we do with even a level one civilization, except what the squirrels build isn’t burning a hole in the world.  They’re closer to a level one civilization than we are.


All the other unsustainably built, fossil fuel powered houses in my neighborhood are also missing bits and pieces.  Shortly crews of people will arrive in gas powered trucks to fix these problems.  That very process will further heat up the only world we’re capable of living on at the moment, making future weather violence even more inevitable.  We’ll be lucky to get out into the expanse at all.

Wind storm freak you out?  Don’t worry, it’ll be back to business as usual on Monday…

 

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Is Our Only Choice Less?

Doesn’t matter how experienced you are
in unprecedented times…


This reflection might come out as a firehose of frustration, but this year in Ontario’s public education system has been one for the ages.  After a springtime of flat footed confusion nothing seems to have happened in the summer as the government kept moving the goalposts on what school openings would look like.  School boards have been left to scramble.  We start tomorrow and I have no idea how it’s going to go.  Some people are hanging on so tight their fingers are going to break while others have already taken a big step back.  My magic powers are bloody-mindedness and empathy.  I’m not particularly brilliant or erudite, but I can take a hit and always get back up again, and I care, which is good because we’ve been pummelled senseless in the past few weeks by chaos and the attendant system think that has arisen to try and control it.



*****


The metaphors are flying thick and fast this year as we struggle to launch Ontario’s public school system.  Tens of thousands of adults are trying to put new processes in place to protect millions of children after the provincial government offered little in the way of central organization and then played shell games with funding all summer.  Most recently they’ve paused everything else while half finished plans to open public schools continue to roll out.

While the premier mocked our union president for having an English degree the rest of us were doing his job for him: creating a plan that will (hopefully) protect staff and students from an ongoing pandemic we still don’t really understand.  Will it work?  Worldwide school reopenings, especially if they aren’t centrally organized and properly funded, cause large spikes in this easily spreadable contagion.  Some countries have managed it by pooling resources and working with all their partners closely to leverage everything at their disposal.  Partnership and teamwork aren’t something Doug Ford’s government comprehends so we’re attempting to open schools in Ontario in the least successful manner possible.

With the meta-framework of Ontario’s public education system being held hostage by a government intent on privatizing it, it’s a wonder the system works locally it all.  It has certainly struggled.  With the COVID19 pandemic piled on top I can say, hand on heart, that this has been one of the worst years to teach in Ontario in its history, but we persevere because education matters.  The only people telling you otherwise want to use and abuse you.



At the local level setting up for this school year has been like running a marathon where they keep changing the course and making it longer, while handing you bricks to carry; it feels like running a marathon no one wants to see you finish.  I know what I’m being asked to do is for the common good, but at some point (which we may have already passed), so much will be piled on that the basic functionality of the classroom (teaching, remember?) won’t be any better than in remote/elearning.

After six months of lockdown everyone is longing for face to face interaction.  I’m feeling it too, but in the drive to do that we’ve lost the plot.  When we started back we were told not to worry about curriculum and just make sure the kids are OK.  I understand the sentiment but the places that do that are called daycares and I didn’t spend tens of thousands of dollars and years of my life to become qualified to work in day care.  Public education is one of the most powerful human being enhancers we’ve created.  Along with publicly funded healthcare it’s the beacon a society sends out to show that it is enlightened.  When our citizens are healthy and educated our country benefits in every way.  This isn’t anything as shady as economics which thrives on disempowerment and privilege, though health and education powers our economy too.  Strong public services that maximize our citizens’ potential is what civilization means.  All the other things (art, technology, medicine, economics) grow in this fertile soil.  We so often get this backwards.

The pandemic has cast a harsh light on the many social mechanisms that cause inequity and in the past decade Ontario has constantly chased economic gain while cutting the public systems that enable it.  Since 2010 Ontario police have experienced double digit pay raises, they are the only public service to see this kind of funding.  Meanwhile defund the police has become a cry to action during the pandemic because police are the hand of systemic racism and inequality in Canada.

Our board has since relaxed the hangout and chill stance and is encouraging curriculum and skills development but any teacher worth their salt knows how Maslow would feel about this.

Knowing that basic needs have to be met before we go after the higher cognitive functioning needed to learn effectively is probably why people at the board office were pushing for a relationship focused quadmester.  Schools have always tried to fill that gap between how poorly a society treats its disenfranchised citizens and the privilege others benefit from, but COVID19 has widened that breach to such a point that it’s impossible for a headless, underfunded public education system to come close to crossing that bridge in this crisis.  I’m starting to feel that the people in charge want to fill that gap with our bodies.

We’ve been buried in wordy presentations and piles of emails dictating our new normal which isn’t normal at all.  Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it you can expect it to change.  Admin are as exhausted as everyone else as we all madly dance to this insane tune.  While the onslaught of instructions, signs and rules continues from on high I’m actually expected to be face to face with students (but not really, we’re all socially distanced and behind masks) all day every day.  While that’s going on I’m also supposed to be monitoring and running elearning for the other cohort because our board’s solution to massive class sizes was to have every teacher being in two places at once.

There are stories of classrooms stuffed full of students in Ontario this fall during a pandemic.  Since the Ministry left it to each board to decide how they would proceed, each has gone in a different direction.  Each plan has its own benefits and disadvantages based on no central planning and inconsistent funding support.  In our board they’ve cut any class over twenty students into two cohorts.  The students who are bussed come in in the morning and the walking students come in in the afternoon, but while I’m face to face with my half classes I’m also supposed to be providing material and managing elearning for the other half.

This approach has the benefit of not overloading classrooms with bodies and so takes steps to mitigate the health risks we’re all facing, but it has its own problems.  I’m now trying to be in two places at once.  They given me a teacher who was on prep to oversee the online work, but this teacher is unqualified to teach my subject, knows little about it and isn’t expected to do anything tangible.  What it comes down to is make-work because we’re not trusted to help the school function without being over scheduled and micromanaged into the ground.  I understand the impulse as a few people will use not being in class as an excuse to do as little as possible, but the vast majority would be able to fill these gaps much more effectively using their own initiative, as I’ve already seen many teachers do.  But initiative, like differentiation, is dead in our micro-managed pandemic classrooms.

Our prep time was also cut in this format where we’re teaching face to face (kinda) all day, so now another teacher is coming in to cover us while we take our prep, except that teacher isn’t qualified to teach my subject either.  They aren’t even tech qualified so students can’t keep doing hands on work when face to face (which is the whole point of being face to face) unless I let my prep go and just stay in the room, which was what admin suggested our entire tech department do.  So, downloading work onto classroom teachers with no prep time and twice the planning is the solution – it’s actually the answer to every question:  download anything that comes up onto the already crushed classroom teacher.  One of my grade 9 parents won’t provide internet when she isn’t home so her son can’t do elearning even though they have all the tools.  The solution was for me to print out a special course of study for this one student on paper to study computer technology on paper, which he then takes home… during a contact tracing pandemic.  Don’t expect flexibility this semester, but do expect absurdity.  They’ll tell you all decisions are based on reducing the risk of transmission, but that one wasn’t.

This situation raised another point:  because students are only in half days, parents working in essential jobs all day are stuck trying to decide how to make that work.  We’re a high school and we’re all having to grow up quickly in this ongoing crisis, so I’d hope that a high school age student could provide some self direction and work from home, but not in every case.  A system response that honours equity and tries to help those families that need the extra support would be to direct those students in need to a socially distanced resource for the afternoon when they can’t elearn at home, but our spec-ed resource room has been cut and the experts in there are all teaching instead.  It’s important to treat everyone the same in an emergency.  Our split day schedule assumes that all students have connectivity and technology at home – it’s a system predicated on privilege that ignores home circumstances.  While all this is going on we’ve been getting PD about how unfair systemic privilege is.

I had a plan in May, Ontario still doesn’t
really have one in September.

Looking at how messy some of the other reopenings are in the province I think our board has done an exceptional job with no direction and inconsistent funding, but the two hidden mechanisms that make it work are downloading extra work on classroom teachers and assuming privilege in terms of the digital divide.  We took drastic steps to get  technology and connectivity out to students in the spring but that has since been returned (kinda) and that capacity has dried up.  I dreamt that we’d be building capacity and reducing the digital divide over the summer because you would have to be oblivious to this situation to think we won’t be fully remote learning again at some point, but none of that has happened in the chaos of a mismanaged face to face reopening.

We’re unable to climb Maslow’s hierarchy and do our jobs (developing students’ cognitive skills at the top of the pyramid, remember?).  In the case of such a catastrophic failure of Ontario’s political responsibility to its citizens perhaps all that is left to us is to make sure the kids are ok, as long as we’re all happy living in a less literate and numerate future.  Part of this new < normal is ensuring that you as an educator are still functional physically and mentally.  The ECOO Virtual Conference a few weeks ago kept emphasizing this advice which is inline with what you get from an airline when you get on a plane (remember when we used to do that?).


This past week I’ve been putting my lab together solo because students can’t come in to help me as they usually do.  Even my own son, who is well within my bubble, isn’t allowed to come in and help.  The thick blanket of rules we’re buried under are as much about managing liability as they are about medical safety.  I’ve also been running all over the building helping dozens of teachers, including the many new ones, get their rooms sorted and operational from a digital perspective, all with the usual lack of acknowledgement from administration, though they’re sure to thank everyone at the board office who have been busy making two hour powerpoint presentations that are contrary to our inequitable school opening plan.  A lot of that technical support has also included emotional support because my reflex when I see someone drowning in panic is try and help.

A fine example of this over management was to order all teacher desks to the front of the classrooms.  This was done (presumably) to facilitate better management of people coming and going from the room, but since that isn’t happening much and our face to face class sizes are smaller anyway, I have to wonder which curriculum expert who hasn’t been in teaching in a decade made that decision.  The digital projectors in most rooms are plumbed in to where the teacher desk is so this dictate meant that dozens of rooms were suddenly disconnected from a vital teaching resource.

Another baffling choice in the chaos has been to cancel student safety agreements for science and technology classes.  The board has always vigorously demanded absolute compliance with these documents.  When you’re working on dangerous equipment with legally not responsible teenagers with undeveloped frontal lobes that prevent them from forecasting the results of their poor choices, a signed legal agreement with their legally responsible adult parents or guardians puts everyone on the same page in terms of safety expectations.  These are common sense safety expectations, but common sense and teenagers don’t often occupy the same room, so it’s important to have their parents aware of the weight of this responsibility.  It’s also vital for liability.  When a student ignores the agreement they and their parents have signed and an accident results, it produces a better outcome for everyone, except it’s been cancelled during the pandemic because they don’t want us using paper.  Then in our last staff meeting (which is really a litany of what to do with little collegiality or interactivity) we were told that using paper is fine.  Do try to keep up.

I’m usually able to reflect my way out of a negative place with these blog posts, but I’m still in darkness here.  I’m terrified of bringing home a virus that could be fatal to my partner.  I’m worried about my students’ well being and frustrated that climbing Maslow’s hierarchy is simply a bridge too far this year.  I’m also frustrated by the provincial system’s inability to show any vision or organization in helping us succeed in this crisis.  Finally, my own board’s efforts, while exceptional in terms of what else I’ve seen in the province, are inconsistent, undifferentiated and predicated on assumptions about the digital divide that we’ve already shown to be untrue. 

There are glimmers of hope in the chaos.  I’ve seen cunning and cheap solutions to common technology problems that could expand the functionality of our laptops by turning them into document cameras, and I’ve seen local teachers jump on it and make it happen  (I hope to have these churning out next week).

I also keep finding myself in other people’s ewaste that could be turned into remote learning tools, but being buried under two simultaneous classes a day all day, and having one of my senior sections cancelled by our previous principal, I don’t have the time or the senior student expertise to make this happen.  So much could happen if we depended on teacher initiative and expertise instead of spoon feeding them hours of powerpoint and pages of step by step instructions.  I fully expect to be told to sit in a French class next semester to cover someone else’s prep (I don’t parlez the francais).  Such is the resolution everyone is running at, when it runs at all.

Give me a little latitude and I could perform (bigger) miracles, even in this monstrous circus, but latitude and professional trust was the first victim of this pandemic.  Given a minimal budget and some space I could all but resolve the digital divide in our board and prepare us for fully remote learning that seems inevitable, but they’d rather me just follow the plethora of signs.  Whoever is making those signs seems to have infinite resources.

I just got handed this cart of old netbooks that were headed for ewaste.  With a Linux install they would provide dozens of students with remote learning devices they could keep in a pandemic.  With more latitude I’d be picking up #edtech from RCTO’s Computers For Schools and providing desktops and portable devices for staff and students (as I did in the spring and all summer) across the board.  Give me even more latitude and I’d be in touch with Google’s Loon to see if we couldn’t provide local free school internet to all students who attend a school regardless of the urban/rural digital divide.  But initiative and individual responsibility and expertise are atrophied by a panicked system operating in a pandemic.

Alanna’s been channelling Simon Sinek.  Perspective helps:

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Failing Forward

Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.  – C.S. Lewis

Four years ago I decided to show what we know in the information technology focused computer engineering course I teach at Centre Wellington DHS.  The Skills Canada I.T. and Networking Administration contest seemed custom tailored to do that for us.  That first year we took two competitors down to Guelph and finished second and third to an urban(e) high school in the regional competition.  We took what we learned from that first round and applied again the next year, this time winning our way through to the provincial competition for the first time.  Had we not known the competition by failing at it the first time, we never would never have been able to re-orientate ourselves and get out of the regional battle. 

That first student we sent to provincials was a polymath, gifted at pretty much everything, but once again we were unprepared and we ended up finishing fourth overall.  Like mechanics and other stochastic skills, I.T. is experiential.  You can be the sharpest person in the room, but the more experienced technician will usually figure it out first because the problems aren’t always obvious and linear; instinct based on experience plays a surprisingly large part in analyzing problems.  Still, fourth in the province wasn’t bad for our second go at it.   Our competitor came back and debriefed on the provincial competition just as our previous students had with the regional competition.
 
Our third go at it had two competitors having to face off challengers regionally.  They finished 1-2 and we were off to provincials again.  Our second run at the big competition showed just how much the scope of the competition could change year to year.  We once again finished in the top ten, but didn’t medal.  As before, our competitor came back and did a thorough debrief, helping the next candidate (the one who’d finished second regionally) get ready in more detail than ever before.  The old adage goes: I was able to reach so high because I stood on the backs of giants.  In our case this is completely true.  Had those previous students not leapt into the breach and shown us the way, we would never have seen the steady improvement that we did.

We just got back from provincial competition once again.  We gold medalled in I.T. and then finished top three in all technology competitions combined – meaning we didn’t just beat other competitors, we also got a near perfect score in the process.  The first thing Zach, our gold medalist, did when he found out he won was shout out to the people who came before him, thanking them for the doing all that dangerous reconnaissance blind.
 
We’re off to Moncton next month to compete in Skills Canada at the national level.  Ontario’s is the biggest provincial skills program with the toughest competition, and we scored highly, but it’s our first time nationally.  I didn’t consider changing our approach.  Our goal is to go there and learn.  Zach has benefited from the failures of previous students, and now it’s his turn to go first and pave the way. 
Can a small town school compete against massive, urban
school boards?  Yes, yes we can.

At first glance it might look like those previous students failed, but they didn’t, they were part of something bigger than themselves that has succeeded.  I know some people look at competitions like Skills Canada and wring their hands over how harsh it is on tender adolescent egos, but our failures made us better and our approach meant we were resilient in the face of those failures.  Even when we were sending different individuals year on year there was a team feeling as new competitors read over the notes, advice and encouragement of now long graduated students (all of whom are enjoying post-secondary computer focused success).  In many cases current competitors connected with grads through social media in order to further develop this mentorship.

The education system has focused relentlessly on student success.  A big part of that push is to mitigate failure wherever possible.  When failure is removed from learning you can’t develop nonlinear, experiential skill-sets or take risks on new challenges because those things in particular demand failure in order to learn.  You also can’t learn to fail forward or consider your learning to be a part of something larger than yourself.  No fail learning is remarkably selfish on a number of levels, damaging not only a student’s ability to learn stochastic skills, but also weakening their resiliency, resolve and humility before a task.

The concept of no-fail learning is very academic in origin, no real-world learning process would consider such an approach viable.  It’s unfortunately ironic that one of my best teaching experiences and a unique learning opportunity for many students has to happen outside of the classroom, where the many benefits of failure are still allowed to happen.

 
A couple of years ago I realized were were on a multi-year trajectory, so I started putting up posters in the classroom for each competitor so that new students would realize they are part of a dynasty!
Our school mascot is a falcon… geddit?  For the less sports focused among us, a predatory bird doesn’t really jive with what we’re doing.
 
 

what’s in your digital toolbox?

 

 

This week we’re off to the On The Rise elearning Ontario conference in Mississauga.

I’m presenting Tuesday on how to avoid the pitfalls of a single online learning environment by building a diverse online digital learning ecosystem.


 

 

I’m aiming to outline what I’ve used and how in the classroom, then I’m hoping we can crowdsource what other people have used and create a wiki of current, useful digital learning tools with explanations written by the teachers who have made them work.


 




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the PREZI of the presentation:


What’s In Your eteacher Digital Toolbox?  Prezi of the presentation.

The crowdsourced links to diverse digital tools that our presentation assembled for your enjoyment…



World Class…. again

The PISA results for 2015 have been published and Canada is once again top ten (6th) in the world.  I imagine this means I’ll once again attend a bunch of Canadian educational conferences with American (30th best in the world) speakers who want to tell us how we need to completely re-imagine our (their) failed system.

I tend to take statistics as less of a truth and more of a vague indicator of what’s happening.  They don’t explain complex systems like human education very well but they do take the temperature.

Since Ontario is the largest single education system in Canada we lend a lot of weight to the country’s successes and failures in these UN tests.  If Ontario is performing well it tends to push the country’s scores in that direction, so we must be doing a pretty good job if we’re sixth in the world.

There are a variety of statistics pulled out of the OECD PISA data that are interesting to consider.  To begin with, the top Asian countries only pitch their most gifted students at PISA while Canada, Finland and Estonia are representative of their entire populations.  From that perspective all Canadian students were only beaten by the highest streamed students in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.  If this were an apples to apples comparison we’d have done even better.

Another interesting statistics is truancy (on the left).  There are a number of countries, Finland among them, that have seen a surprising jump in truancy.  Unsurprisingly, the countries that are only putting their strongest students in also don’t tolerate truancy.  Canada, as in every aspect of the results I’ve seen so far, exceeds the OECD average and performs well in this area, even when we include all socio-economic and geographic areas of the country.

The other argument I’d be expecting from the neo-con right is that we pour tons of money into education so of course we get good results, except we don’t.  When compared to OECD countries world-wide, Canada is mid-pack in percent of GDP spent on education.  Australia spends slightly more than us and the US only slightly less to get significantly worse results.  Finland spends significantly more of their GDP on education than Canada does and finished behind us this time around.

It’s a quiet time in Ontario education right now but I’m sure the Ontario Liberal party is already concocting stories in order to villify Ontario educators in the next round of bargaining.  While that’s going on I guess we’ll just keep producing world class results at a reasonable cost.

NOTES

Playing with the data in the World Bank is always interesting:
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The official results page:
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I wonder if publicly funded private religious education systems in Canada brag about these UN numbers because they ignore this:
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ift.tt/1ZfOD8j

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Tough Durable Tech

Tough tech!

This is one of my favorite bits of digital technology:  A Casio Pathfinder wrist watch.  What’s so cool about a watch you ask?  They’re SOOO 20th Century!

Well this one is also an altimeter, barometer, compass and thermometer.  It’s also a stop watch, alarm clock and just plain old watch.

But none of that is what makes it cool.

What makes this piece of tech one of my favorites is that it isn’t tethered to anything; it’s one of the few pieces of digital technology that I own that is entirely self-contained, and that’s somewhere that I want all my hardware to go.

This watch is fantastically accurate, but what makes it even better is that it picks up a signal and keeps itself atomically accurate.  It’s a watch that never has to be set.

It’s also a watch that never has to be wound or have the battery replaced.  The face is also a solar panel that recovers enough charge out of even a well lit room to recharge itself.

On top of all that, it’s virtually indestructible.  It’s encased in a rugged body that can withstand a car driving over it, it’s freeze proof to well below zero, waterproof to diving depths and probably bullet proof as well.

Fragile energy vampire!

What I’ve got here is a tough, self-reliant piece of technology that always works no matter where I am.  When I look at my choices for computers, tablets or even smartphones, I’m looking at fragile, energy vampires that are lucky to work a day in regular use without the need to draw from a socket.

Faster is nice, but I’m also looking for tough and self contained.  Until I can lay in the bath with my e-reader or turn to my phone without seeing red low battery warning lights, the digital tech isn’t nearly as tough and self contained as I need it to be.

The edtech question to ask is should we be putting fragile tech into the slippery hands of teens and children?  The repair/replacement rate of these fragile little digital flowers are going to be much higher than they are in the steadier hands of adults.

Until digital tech is as tough as the analog it’s replacing, it’s an edgy proposition to push it as the main focus in instructional tools.

In the meantime, Casio keeps evolving the tough tech.  Soon enough I’ll have a watch PC that will communicate wirelessly with peripherals and power itself (hope hope).

Casio is also heading into something other than watches!  If there’s a phone, perhaps a gshock tablet can’t be far behind!  That’d take on those slippery student fingers, and look tough while doing it!

Velvet Ropes and Differentiated Access to Schooling in Ontario

As we stagger towards reopening Ontario classrooms, which is something that, quite frankly, I want to see happen, I’m left wondering why a number of obvious things aren’t happening.

In early August we all got a summer cold, but being the pandemic summer that it is we were worried, so we drove twenty miles south to the nearest city and got tested at the nearest COVID test centre that yes, required us to leave our low risk rural area and drive into a city riddled with it.

The testing centre wasn’t busy and was very efficiently run and we were in and out in about fifteen minutes.  Seventy-two hours later we all had piece of mind knowing we were not infected.  Considering how efficient the testing process has become and how important it is to ensure a safe environment, I’m at a loss to explain why no school board in Ontario is testing its face to face educators before we start up again.  Speaking as a parent, it would be a relief to know that all the staff at my son’s school isn’t guessing they don’t have COVID19, they know it.  Our approach to COVID is so low-resolution that its almost blind.  It certainly isn’t cost effective.

What a thing it would be to put out a press release saying all face to face staff have been tested and are COVID19 free prior to classes restarting. This could happen by school site or board wide, but it really should be happening. We’re all walking around school right now wearing masks and afraid of everything. Some piece of mind knowing we have a COVID-free site, even if it’s just in this moment, would be a welcome thing.


A friend who is a chef mentioned that she’s expected to be tested each week.  This is yet another example of how businesses are expected to (and do) comply with public health, but Ontario’s school reopening plan (which has a number of medical experts concerned) seems to go out of its way to ignore the rules that everyone else is complying with.  This virus is a slippery thing that ducks detection with a high number of asymptomatic carriers.  How ignoring the medical directions that everyone else is following to deal with that slipperiness is anything other than political cynicism at its worst is a betrayal of the public trust.  When things go wrong, and the biology suggests it will, I’m sure the weasels running this show will still somehow find a way to make it the teachers’ fault.

This absurd situation is in no way the fault of the school boards.  My own board has done everything it possibly can with no centralized plan, insufficient funding and random changes in direction from our politically misguided Ministry.  If the province wanted to pivot and stop playing political games with staff and students’ lives, aligning Ontario’s school opening plan with what’s happening everywhere is an obvious starting point.  Working with local health units to provide onsite testing at schools would be a great next step.  It would also offer a glimpse into what a more functional COVID19 world might look like in the coming year.

Solutions to viruses in the form of a vaccine don’t arrive with Dustin Hoffman on a helicopter, except in movies.  In the world we actually live in we more often manage viruses with testing and social adaptation.  Our focus on testing has been… poor, but there is hope.  Rapid COVID19 testing is on the horizon and might get to market as soon as October.  What might this look like?  An automated, highly accurate, non-invasive testing system based on spit that provides results in seconds; that’s where the velvet rope comes in.

In my better Ontario we would be opening schools based on need rather than ramming through a poorly executed and underfunded plan that doesn’t even align with other public health rules.  Classes that have to be face to face for liability reasons (I’m thinking technology and physical education specifically), should have priority in f2f classrooms.  The other priority should be students in need.  We should be reopening based on equity needs rather than doing this poorly designed full-court press.  A cautious, differentiated f2f opening means our schools would stay open and the people who need them most would have access to them.

Students who are on the wrong side of the digital divide?  Families who are working in essential services and need schools to normalize?  Subjects that require the safety and expertise of a face to face classroom?  These are where schools should focus their reopening, but Ford’s inequitable government can’t conceive of its responsibilities when it comes to addressing inequity.

Our staged, differentiated, equitable reopening would also include on-site testing which would increase as testing improves.  Ideally, but the end of 2020, we’d have rapid on-site, automated testing at every public school in Ontario.  When we know (not guess) that our schools are COVID19 free, we can relax all of the other expensive and restrictive practices we’re doing poorly, like PPE, social distancing and OCD levels of cleaning, and all students could return to a safe, normalized learning environment.  Our current approach is expensive and not effective because we’re flying blind.

With cheap, effective, accessible testing COVID would stop sneaking around in asymptomatic carriers and spreading like it does.  There might still be COVID19 outbreaks, but they would be quickly recognized and stopped.  Carriers would be isolated and we’d finally have a handle on this thing.  Rapid testing would lead to less transmission and take the wind out of the COVID sails.

After months of flinching everytime someone sneezes, imagine how it would feel knowing your kids were going to school in a COVID-free environment.  Imagine how it would feel going out for dinner knowing everyone in the restaurant is green.  Playing hockey knowing that everyone on the ice was COVID-free?  Life as we once knew it could return and we could start to relax our blind, awkward and expensive social distancing/PPE/OCD cleaning scramble.

I have ten more years of teaching left and I have a number of things I want to achieve before I hang up my boots.  There may be teachers who don’t ever want to go back, but I’m not one of them.  We had a Skills Ontario championships and a pile of travel and learning opportunities taken from us by this lousy virus in 2020 and I want to get back to pushing pedagogy in a rapidly changing technological landscape and showing students that they can achieve things they never imagined.  A staged return focusing on differentiation of learning based on student and curriculum need and then embracing rapid testing as it comes online in the next few months is how we can get there.  What I fear is going to happen instead is that the current plan will cause schools to be shut down and emergency remote learning (which we’ve done nothing to prepare for) will land on us again by Thanksgiving.  And a lot of people will get ill as a result.

We need schools for students and programs that need that infrastructure to succeed, but throwing everyone back into it while ignoring public health requirements is going to cripple public education with another round of school closures and poorly delivered emergency remote learning that we’ve done nothing to resolve digital divide issues with.  A differentiated, staged return with testing anyone?

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