Saturday, April 28, 2012

Email Blues

An open letter to BC School District 57 teachers on self-reliant communication.

Teachers in our school district have been having lively discussions about the use of our ubiquitous FirstClass 57Online email system (FC). In the wake of Bill 22 and reports that our employer was playing Big Brother with teacher email, the union local encouraged teachers to create internal bounceback messages to administration expressing concerns over the the labour and communication climate. This followed 7 months of job action that included teachers refusing all email communication with administration. As was the case with so many other topics this year, the job action highlighted problems that have existed in our district and school system for years. In some ways this has been great as the problems are being talked about (by teachers, anyways), and in some cases we see altered and adapted behaviour aimed at restoring balance to the way we communicate and collaborate online.

Our employer insists that full and regular use of their email system is an unwritten expectation, while our union's position is that our use of email is a courtesy and can be reserved for such uses as booking labs or accessing paystubs. I suspect the truth (or the resolution) is somewhere in the middle, but while this is being sorted out, the employer has threatened discipline over the use of bouncebacks. I guess they think it is really important for us to receive duplicate (if well-meaning) announcements about report card due dates, locker clean-outs, which room the meeting is in, how to book a sub, field trips, travel discounts, product recall health alerts, reminders to submit forms, and the like. Of course, our inboxes are also filled with more serious exchanges, challenges, inquiries, ultimatums, rhetoric. Then there is classic spam that slips through the filters, almost refreshing because you know right away it is spam.

Slowly, teachers are starting to remove their "political" bounceback messages, in some cases replacing them with more humorous offerings, like: 

"Your message has been received and will be queued for response."

"Please note, this user no longer has a bounceback message regarding adjusted use of the 57Online system."

"I am currently working or otherwise away from my computer. If this message is urgent please contact the office at ___."

Fun aside, it may seem cathartic in the short term to mess with our email as an post-Bill 22 aggravation to admin, but I think it's important that we eventually take a different and more productive fork in the road.

Not much of a news flash, but we have a generally dysfunctional relationship between teachers and our school/district administration. This doesn't mean we don't get along, but it means that getting along involves overcoming substantial institutional barriers. It can be seen in the email games, the micro-management of teacher time, erosion of support structures like tech plans and district committees, the end of key dialogues in the wake of the 2010 "right-sizing," rejection of 21st century learning proposals, creation of plans and programs without teacher input, and the reverberations of this year's job action and Bill 22. We have our action plan to deal with some of that last bit, but the invasive nature of email will not go away without a change in behaviour. I believe we should be the first to make that change.

The FirstClass system has become pervasive because we have allowed it, even encouraged it to be that way. Teacher "pioneers," usually the same ones that introduced networked computers and school servers, fostered FC school by school in the 1990s, provided us with training, and convinced admin to adopt it. Teachers promoted its use as a solution to the stuffing of mailboxes with memos and a way to exchange all of the interesting information that accompanied the dawn of the internet. It was a great tool for that job. Fifteen years later FC has become a time-killer and a tool for admin and other colleagues to reach into areas of our practice that used to be sane, balanced, and responsive to etiquette. The new acceptable use policy contains a variety of gag orders and minor contradictions that, if taken seriously, would make anyone nervous to use FC. Ironically, they've added a social network function visible only to employees; to even use it as one regularly uses social media would be counterintuitive and a clear violation of the acceptable use policy.

The original FC trade-off was supposed to be about giving up some face-to-face contact and paper memos for a wider and more interdependent educational network. I think the summit for that goal has been reached and the torch has been passed off to 3rd party social media. The employer-monitored social network add-on has been used by only a handful of the 1600+ employees in the district, and least of all by teachers and administrators. FC now seems more like numb dependency on administrivia with a veneer of interactivity (or is it a patina of civility?). Even in its most basic function as a school communication tool, it proved itself largely unnecessary during Phase 1 job action. As a parent communication tool it works quite well, but then so do the alternate email addressed supplied by many teachers. In its current use, FC does not seen to be able to fulfill the role of universal bulletin board and place for meaningful discussion at the same time. Our (collective) approach relies on 1990s thinking, the assumption that technology, however nifty, is just a tool; we need to get with the new century and realize that technology is an extension of identity and must be subject to the same self-reflection and discipline that one applies to identity work.  Rather than rely on cumbersome employer-built services that remove control from educators, we need our leaders to model and highlight the ever-changing use of twitter, facebook, wikis, nings, google tools, and other communication mediums. We also need our leaders to come around more often and actually engage teachers and students where they're at.  Like bodily. Like no email.

As many local teachers have shown us this year, it is time to rethink how we use email at work, to set the patterns and habits we want for ourselves with the next three or more years in mind. We need to design our FC presence, and all of our interactions with others, around an idea of what we want it to look like all the time. For me, that means cutting back on my FC time and deleting or ignoring anything with a subject line that does not appear relevant (which won't leave me with much left). Eventually, admin and colleagues will learn not to spam each other or read stuff that aggravates them. We can relearn some heritage skills like using a phone or having a conversation in the hall, and use our email-time for talking with kids or being with our families. From an HR perspective, it is insane to expect employees to wade through hundreds of emails looking for something of lasting value -- that's what twitter is for. Of course, most of our sensible teachers have never allowed FC to invade their lives, and have found a balance in its use.

Additionally, these arguments could all be made about engagement with admin over pro-d, meetings, and collaboration. If it is insidious, dull, or unproductive, stop doing it. If it is intelligent and benefits your students, and the originators are willing to demonstrate change with their own example first, that's a different story. Until our district leadership is willing to take ed reform and functional relationships seriously by actually engaging in dialogue with teachers (as they do in many other districts), we need to say "no, thanks." Collect yourselves instead around big ideas and like-minded educators and cut the school district and province out of the loop. Why shouldn't we model for them what a careful use of email looks like, what cool pro-d looks like, what real collaboration looks like. I think when we've acted with self-reliance ("personalized" the nature of our discourse), the polarity starts to disappear -- administrators will step out from behind the email (just as we need to), and come alongside our efforts and talk about how much they enjoy doing so. Just as teachers once pioneered email and ICT, we should now take the fork in the road towards more elegant communication, interdependent professional learning, authentic theory-building, and creative practice. In clearing this path, it will make it much easier for progressive administrators to know what to do next. In my mind, it is the only realistic way to get past the "us and them" mentality. I think our administrators are just as hungry for inspired leadership as we are, and that inspiration can be modeled by anyone.

Feedback welcome; I'd especially like to hear how other districts' teachers are responding to post-Bill 22 communication challenges.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Candidate Statement

Candidate Statement for PGDTA position of SD57 Pro-D Fund Administrator

We face a challenging year ahead in which our professional autonomy and ability to direct our own professional development will be items of public discussion and contract drama. Maybe this is the year that the School Board and DTA will re-imagine what a healthy relationship looks like, and where we can facilitate points of contact. It's time to start some new traditions and set teacher-built examples to follow.

As a pro-d fund administrator, I would:
  • advocate for teacher autonomy in regards to professional development
  • continue the tradition of coordinating a high quality annual Zone Conference 
  • promote new face-to-face and online opportunities for professional learning throughout the year 
  • connect teachers to others for resources, coursework, and mentorship
  • allocate the district’s teacher pro-d funds according to principles of fairness, transparency, demonstration of need and relevance to student learning
  • model and visibly share successful practices for teacher research, growth plans, session facilitation
  • provide resources and support for teachers challenging and navigating the BC Ed Plan
  • work alongside the pro-d committee and PGDTA membership in all these things 
I have been a career-long district leader and contributor to teacher education through workshops, advocacy, and curricular projects on teaching with technology, assessment practice, organizational change, unpacking 21st Century Learning, citizenship and heritage. I’ve been a secondary teacher for 16 years, staff rep (briefly), member of the District Tech Team and two Leadership Teams (technology and literacy), TLITE mentor, school PD rep at D.P. Todd (2005-2010), and presenter at six Zone Conferences.

More information can be found in my professional growth plan:

You can also scroll through this blog or my twitter feed or website to get a sense of my professional stance and commitment to public education.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Middle Earth 11: a rough course proposal

Here's an idea about the Interplay of Language, Landscape, and Imagination that I've been thinking about lately. How about a Middle Earth 11 course for class of Gr. 10-12 students inspired by the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien?

Students would get credit for English 11 and Geography 12, taking half of their "200 course hours" in class; the other half is flipped, blended, online, independent, connected to the teacher and others outside of the regular timetable (some synchronous and asychronous). The overall goal is to apply critical thinking in the Humanities and Environmental Studies to a creative and relatively unexplored subject area, an experiment in how well our students have "learned how to learn." It would also be interesting to see how students inquiry is shaped when many of them are immersed in the subject material. This is also the kind of experimentation that needs to take place if we want to pull value from the BCED plan and advice on blended learning.

We would read some key works by Tolkien, short and long poetry and prose, and would also consume other Tolkien and Tolkienish media including literary criticism, art work, music, podcasts and fan fiction. We could make use of Tolkien recordings and interviews, Our smaller projects and learning activities (in accordance with the English 11 PLOs) would exploit skills in speaking, listening, reading, viewing, writing, and representing. Use of social media, creative software, and interactive digital tools would be used to reflect and extend what we do in class, and connect the students to the large and dynamic online Tolkien community. The opportunity to publish critical review and creative response online is almost unsurpassed with Tolkien enthusiasts, the forums, wikis, and blogs are all out there waiting for us. Students could create forms of expression that borrow from favourite Middle Earth elements such as the use of Tengwar script, Elvish languages, annotated maps, and archaic poetics. There would also be flexibility on what they read (or consume), past some staples, and delve into some personalized learning with the contents of their portfolio, the lead on project design, and a buy-in on assessment matrices.

We would study the historical geography of Middle Earth, gleaning understanding of ecology, climate, geology, geomorphology, conservation, and human geography (in accordance with the Geog 12 PLOs) from the environs of Eriador, Gondor, Beleriand, Valinor and the like. We would build comparative cultural geographies, examining how Tolkien's peoples an societies were affected by their environment and shaped their landscapes. Of course we'd also have some fun exploring rivers, glaciers, deserts, seascapes, caves, and mountains, and learning about the same basic geographic concepts and principles that govern our planet. Key comparisons with local (northern BC) examples allows me to keep it real and retain what works the best in my existing Geography 12 course.

Putting these two course mandates together is the awesome part, and the place where most of the critical thinking takes place. Tolkien's work had many themes, but two important ones were language and environment. From our "real-world" vantage, Middle Earth is a the perfect learning laboratory in which to learn about how language affects meaning, how people interact with place, how authorship and agency work, how story connects meaning and context, how realistic Tolkien's descriptions were of geographic phenomenon... I could go on about this for a while.

Pre-requisites: English 10 and Social Studies 10, an ability to work independently, a willingness to write/express/discuss in an intense seminar environment, permission to post and express online, and an interest in Tolkien (preferably they've already read Hobbit and LOTR so we can fast forward to discussion and entertain other titles). Students get full credit for English 11 and Geography 12, with all work completed in one semester. I'd use 2 (of my 7) teaching blocks for this double-course, one in-class and one in release of the out-of-class time for the flipped/blended/online/sync/async aspects (most of which would happen during the 2nd block, but some of which would be taking place anytime, anywhere). As such, it would be cost neutral, as the two registered blocks fund the two teaching blocks.

The two courses and PLOs themselves are not new, so board approval would probably not be necessary, not that I would mind. The name of Middle Earth 11 (or whatever) is a placeholder for the two gov't approved courses, not a unique offering. The design approach, teaching & learning strategies, and learning resources are unique, but that is what every teacher makes choices about with every course. The Ministry of Ed and leaders province-wide are begging for blended learning experiments, so the other hurdles for permission should be minimal.

Aside from the massive online Tolkien content, part of the learning resources strategy would be to build a shelf of singleton Tolkien books in the library (as much of the reading would be personalized and not require class sets), perhaps buy one set of class books (e.g. Children of Hurin). Involving our dynamic library & librarian would be a natural; the Tolkien collection becomes a negotiation between student passion and balanced guidance from educators. ePubs are another way to go, so if we could squeeze a few tablets out of the tech budget stone, we could load them up with the CoH or LoTR or the Silmarillion. I think the whole "text" question would involve about between $1100 and $2000, less than a single class set of texts in most other courses. Other existing Eng11 and Geog12 texts could be used as needed. If this was extended include a full-scale tablet or e-reader pilot, we'd have to enlarge our thinking.

Microunits would be themed around a central inquiry related to language and landscape and would focus on a teacher-student negotiated set of places, times, and body of written and graphic work. I would provide a series of scholarly Oxford-style lectures (live, but also recorded for our youtube page), and move into a series of lessons, talks, in-class activities, online explorations, etc. and presentations from students.  I envision each student giving his/her own top-shelf lecture (live, plus archived for our youtube page) on a work they have read and a theme they have explored. So much has been written (and created) by and about Tolkien that students are almost guaranteed they could pick something unique. There is also almost unlimited potential for literary (and geographic) comparison with other Fantasy & Sci-Fi authors. I have no doubt students would arrive with specific ideas of what they wanted to get out of the course.

There lots there to assess already, maybe too much, from either the English 11 or Geog 12 angle, but I also imagine a single summative project would take shape near the beginning and consume more time (and soul) as the course progressed (like a ring of power). One project that comes to mind is the creation of an artifact, like a leather-bound tome or an inscribed object, that carries some (or the best) of the student's learning and blends digital skills with graphic design, multi-modal voice, multi-genre fluency, and critical inquiry. The process of creation would also be documented in writing and film, a component of the "blended" part of the course, maybe something like what did Neil Stephenson did with his cigar box project. I have some newish ideas on assessment that would be great to try here, too, a system where students contract for achievement competencies based on their interpretation of the PLOs and their design for learning and assessment. The result is a kind of matrix that nuances rather than offloads assessment, giving students as much control with assessment design as they want, to the exact degree as they take responsibility for learning outcomes. The way I envision students grasping and working with this process is akin to the kind of character choices gamers make when selecting RPG characters, maybe even with a mimetic digital process. I'm not in to "that" end of the fantasy genre, but I recognize the addiction. To put it simply, I want to know if assessment can revolve around student intention and intrinsic motivation, and still meet high standards in our public education system.

What do you think?
I'm curious for feedback from students, teachers, and administration... would you support something like this, say for 2013-2014? If you're a student, would you take this combo-course? I'd like to hear from others before I sink any serious time into the idea. I realize that every one-off we have in our school of 750 complicates other elective offerings, but that shouldn't stop one from having dreams. 2012-2013 would have been the way to go, capitalize on the first installment of Jackson's Hobbit Movie coming out, but job action kind of killed the ability to plan ahead as a school team. I have no misgivings about the kind of work it would take to set this up, but I also think it would be a great "21st century learning" experiment that would engage students, me, and other educators and provide some evidence about what works and what doesn't with blended learning.

As a Tolkien expert with an English & Geography degree, I'm surprised I didn't push this 15 years ago. The idea has been smoldering for many years, but I suppose I don't move very fast, very much a Hobbit at heart, even if I look more like a Beorning.