Wednesday, April 30, 2014

PBL slow steady progress

I have had the pleasure of taking in some wonderful student presentations in my Middle Earth 12 class over the last week.  It took considerable time for the students to work through essential questions and other stages of project-based learning (PBL) development. It is not clear to me that PBL is as "productive" as other forms of learning -- and yet I am impressed with how the early projects represent learner identity and authentic research. I am increasingly convinced that with an unsorted group of students (e.g. an average crowd in a public school classroom), PBL must be blended with more traditional forms of learning. The all-or-nothing PBL approach requires resources I do not possess, structures that are unrealistic, and technology that is not accessible. In fact, I think PBL will be most successful in contexts where it is necessary to break down curricular walls. Nonetheless, we are making slow, steady progress towards both our course goals and a thorough examination of PBL.  Here are the first three presentations:
  • Can the use of creative writing and visual arts be used to understand and empathize with daily life in a medieval village?
This turned into an interesting construction of a fictional medieval village in two ways -- writing which explored the evolution of social structures in Britain leading up to feudalism, and a model of the village built out kits that the students crafted from a variety of internet "maker" sources.  I learned some new things from the students' timeline about the evolution of British society and was impressed with the amount of time it took to build the village.  Both presenters had knowledge about their topics that exceeded what they presented... in other words, there was a depth of understanding that formed a foundation for their project, rather than "just-in-time" learning that scratched the surface.
  • What patterns are in place in the lore and creation of Dark Souls characters such as Havel the Rock?
This student project focused on character development and speculated as to what the game writers had in mind when they created various "NPCs" in Dark Souls.  The discussion extended into archetypes, base qualities and symbolism behind the characters, with comparisons to Greek mythology and Tolkien's creations.  The presenter is a hardcore gamer, but this did not prevent him from being overly technical during his narration of video clips.
  • How and why have monsters such as werewolves developed in modern literature and cinema?
The project grew to become a study of the Trio of Gothic Monsters (Werewolf, Vampire, Frankenstein), their literary origins and cinematic debuts, and the role they played in popular culture a century ago compared to today. The student's conclusion was that the roles were similar, but not the same: in the past, these monsters were scapegoats, a way to blame society's ills on external forces, whereas in the present these monsters are used as a release for our tensions and way to address our anxieties, particularly about growing up. The student was definitely "caught" by her own research, and was busy reading Shelly's Frankenstein before and after her presentation.  We got to hear quotes from the Romantics, video clips from 30s and 40s films, and insightful analysis from the student who drew from a deep well in her presentation to the class

Sunday, April 13, 2014

open letter PD

Open Letter to SD57 Trustees and Senior Learning Team:

Recently I learned that Senior Admin has recommended a cut in funding for the Pro-D Fund Administrator (PDFA) position in SD57. Trustees need to be aware that this cut will come at significant cost to teacher growth and work with students. For starters, without coordination the Teacher Pro-D Fund will require a new dispersal model that does not pool funding or allow the extensive organization and leadership currently taking place -- an unravelling of years of PGDTA Pro-D policy and a cooperative relationship between teachers and the school district.

This relationship has been positive in the past because each group that contributes to the "suite" of Pro-D in SD57 does their part well. District In-service and professional learning initiatives are focused on implementation of district goals and provincial curriculum -- that's what C&I is for and it does it well. Teacher-led Pro-D is something different -- it is the professional learning that each teacher chooses for themselves to affect learning in their classrooms -- every district in the province recognizes this, and also respects the difference between in-service (implementation of requirements, a board responsibility) and professional development (teachers have autonomy over their Pro-D, their Pro-D Fund, and their Pro-D Days; this is in contract). This also works well in our district, perhaps better than most in the province, because the Board has funded a coordinator position for the last 18 years and this insures accountable and purposeful use of the Pro-D Fund and provides leadership and organization for teacher-led Pro-D. Teacher-directed Pro-D will not go away (this is in contract), but it can certainly become ineffective and less accountable without coordination. Our set-up is the envy of the province not because of the budget (as you'll see below, teacher-led Pro-D is poorly funded in SD57 regardless of whether there is a PDFA position attached to it), but because it works.

Here are some of the main items that will be lost if the PDFA position is not funded:
  1. Application process for Conference Travel (approximately 100 teachers travel each year for Pro-D they can't get in the North) 
  2. Rural School Travel Subsidies (Mackenzie, McBride, and Valemount would not otherwise be able to access Pro-D events in PG and beyond) 
  3. Involvement in Mentorship Programs (including two new programs co-funded and co-created for next year) 
  4. Year-long Pro-D Facilitation (e.g. Robson Valley Mini-Conference last Fall, a Northern BC New Teachers conference next Fall) 
  5. Communication on Pro-D and Collaboration on Shared Projects (teachers, administrators, C&I, DLC, AbEd, SetBC, CUPE EAs, etc.) 
  6. Spring Fling Educational Conference (the organization and aftermath of this multi-district event is a 6-month process that flows from one desk) 

I can expand on these if you wish, but I will assume for now that you have a sense of what each of these involve. You can also learn more about how Teacher Pro-D is structured in our district at

The district spends over $1 million in Pro-D and Travel each year, but only a small portion of this is directed (by contract) towards the Teacher Pro-D Fund.

The current district investment in Teacher Pro-D is around $150,000 -- $107,000 in the Fund and about $43,000 to buy out three blocks of time for a teacher leadership position. This PDFA position is responsible for the careful administration of a fund but beyond that has the "justification of time" to be fully engaged in the professional growth of teachers and their work with students, as evidenced in the weblink provided above. Like other part-time, half-time, and full-time non-enrolling positions in the district, the PDFA supports student learning and building capacity among educators, and in fact reaches and affects more teachers and their practices over the course of the year than most district-released positions. Through shared projects and the Spring Fling, the work of the PDFA also affects other employee groups. This work used to be 0.75 FTE and is now 0.5 FTE but there really has been no reduction of roles or work with teachers.

$150,000 is a small amount for a district our size and a shoe-string budget for the amount of professional development we support. It is a lower investment per teacher than virtually every district outside of the Lower Mainland and Southern Vancouver Island -- they typically pay less because travel costs for conference are very low. For comparison SD27 (Cariboo-Chilcotin), with less than half as many teachers as SD57, has a Teacher Pro-D Fund valued at $172,000 (budget, TTOC time, and 0.4 FTE position for a coordinator). Incidentally, this is the only other district in the province with a similar level of PD Coordinator release paid for with district funds -- they use their district-supplied Funds to release 2 days per week for their Teacher PD person. Some districts have smaller release arrangements (but do not attempt the roles that we see in our district such as conference travel approval and conference organization) and some large districts have attached a "Pro-D portfolio" to union-released table officers. SD57 is somewhat unique, and as a result we have a better Pro-D set-up than most other districts in the province -- it is a recognized drawing card for new teachers despite the low overall investment from the district.

Cutting a third of this investment in teacher professional development will have lasting harm on the positive relationship and momentum for professional learning that has developed in our school district. Our district may have its challenges, but one thing we do well is professional development. This cut would also send a chilling message to teachers from senior admin and the board about the value they placed on teacher-led professional development.

I have very much enjoyed the experience of working with teachers this year on their designs for professional growth and improving student success. I have also enjoyed working with others in the school district on shared projects, including plans for next year that are now in limbo: organization of a Northern BC New Teachers' Conference, funding and support for a Math Conference, and involvement in two new programs for mid-career teacher mentorship ("Learning Alongside" to address areas of challenge, and "Fresh Air Days" to allow teachers to observe and collaborate with teachers working on similar problems).

Within the "suite" of Pro-D in SD57 we have diverse and complex district, school, cross-school, and group/individual teacher-directed goals for professional development. Each is different -- by contract they have to be different -- e.g. the difference between BC Edplan implementation (in-service on paid time, board responsibility) and teacher Pro-D (autonomous, can take place on PD Days and teachers' own time). The first three are very well funded in our district, and have in fact grown substantially in each of the last four years (e.g. C&I is now up to 23 members at various levels of release). The last area, teacher-directed pro-d, has done very well on a limited budget for many years, and could soon be cut by a third with the loss of the PDFA position. A very minor shift in the way Pro-D is funded among these four areas is all it would take to keep the PDFA position. I encourage the trustees to include a recommendation to make this shift as part of their budget amendment directives that result from ECOW (Budget Consulation).

Feel free to get in touch or respond with questions. This should not be a decision that is made without discussing "what next" with the affected partner group. In the very least I urge you to fund the position for another year in order to allow time for discussion on "what next." If the position does disappear, there are layers of policy to unwind and many actions to consider. Disengaging from district involvements or shared projects, and transitioning to any new form of Pro-D Fund dispersion, record management, and travel application, etc. will take time. This needs to be done respectfully and carefully as will the explanation to teachers, conference presenters & vendors, and other contacts from our educational community and elsewhere who have become accustomed to the excellent Pro-D relationships and opportunities over the years.

Best regards,
Glen Thielmann