Monday, December 19, 2016

Handel's Messiah

The music and words of Handel's Messiah have been ringing through my head for the last few weeks. A couple of days ago I was a chorister for a production of the Messiah, and the oratorio is still with me in almost every waking moment and even in my sleep.

After avoiding choirs and choral music for most of my adult life, I joined the Prince George Cantata Singers in order to be part of this production. This is a community choir led ably by volunteer board and conducted by the fascinating character of Lyn Vernon, a renowned opera singer who has retired to a quiet rural life near Prince George.

I am now very glad that I did join on three accounts. First, it brought back great memories from my teen years of cracking jokes and hamming it up with the basses in the back row of the church choir. The only difference is that I was 17 then and they were in their 30s and 40s, and now I'm 47 and the basses are in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Same basic set of relationships and jokes even though the characters are different. The second reason was to recall and revive my ability to read and sing music; it seemed with each practice I could hit one note higher and by the end didn't have to fake it. A specific guilty pleasure in this effort was to be able to sing at the top my lungs in a room full of people doing more or less the same thing. The third joy was the sensation from the rehearsals leading up to Dec 17th, and the performance at Vanier Hall, and the lingering sentiment.

Being on stage with 72 singers and the PG Symphony Orchestra was special. The guest conductor, Michael Newnham, was truly inspiring, particularly his quirky style and bold interpretations of the music. He tells great stories and makes powerful analogies during rehearsal, and makes all kinds of noises while he conducts. I don't have much to compare him with, but I can see he pushed the musicians to try new things and expand their ability to express. I loved his animated style, humour and comments about the text and music that he offered during rehearsals.

I have strong memories of the Messiah from my childhood and after. I have never sang in a Messiah production, but like anyone else growing up Mennonite I have sang bits and pieces in church, listened to it hundreds of times at home in a variety of arrangements, and gone to a sing-along Messiah at the Queen E in Vancouver. This experience was moving, to say the least. Unlike others among family and friends, I am not particularly musical, and quite ignorant of the breadth and depth of the classical music world. Nonetheless, if it moves it moves. I choked up a number of times in almost every rehearsal, and not just in the Hallelujah chorus. During the performance, with each completion of each chorus, the fellow next to me, Mike, sighed deeply and wiped his brow and eyes, sometimes with a quiet "wow" or "oh boy." I suppose we have become friends over the fall season -- he is an older Welshman, full of stories, folk tunes, and jokes -- exactly the sort of person I had hoped to meet when I joined the choir. I shared his emotional reaction to the music, compounded by stage nerves, the sopranos just in front of us, and the expressive conductor. After we belted out the final amen at the end of Worthy is the Lamb, he turned to me and said softly what was also in my mind, "I am shattered."

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Exit Plan

A year ago, then Superintendent of School District 57 Brian Pepper fanned out a letter of resignation -- he was stepping down "for reasons of health and opportunity." A year later, we have learned through the BC Ministry of Finance's financial disclosure statements that Mr. Pepper received a sizeable severance and vacation buyout in addition to other compensations including his annual salary, benefits, and so on. The $222,952 severance brought his total compensation in 2015 to $436,082. With the vacation buyout and the $67,411 paid to an acting superintendent (Sharon Cairns) during a medical leave-of-absence prior to his Mr. Pepper's departure, that brings to a total of $319,315 over and above regular compensation paid by the school district for the superintendent resignation in 2015. I have no idea about the inevitable lawyers's fees associated with this kind of business, but that, too, would be billed to the district. $319,000 is is a significant amount for a school district. For example, it is almost three times the amount available to teachers annually in their Pro-d Fund which supports about 85 applicants for conference expenses, subsidizes local professional development activities throughout the year, and pays for an annual educational conference with 1000 attendees.

Normally a resignation of this nature doesn't come with a severance package; it suggest a termination, buyout, or a parting of the ways. The specific circumstances of Mr. Pepper's departure have not been open to the public, so is now the stuff for speculation, which does not really get anywhere useful. Based on my own long and complicaged history of advocating for various reforms within our district, I have my own assessment of his tenure, but in this context the best and worst I'll say about him can be summed up with the word "guile" -- a not unfamiliar quality for someone in his position. However, the departure, along with others from among senior administration in the last year, should best be used as a cause for reflection. I wrote a post about some of that back in summer -- the need to take advantage of this change in leadership: Essentially, it is a good time for our new district administration to examine and respond to twelve ready sources that will help them decide what to do next, including a newly adopted (but largely unexplored) Strategic Plan.

The news about Mr. Pepper's severance led some teacher friends and I into a conversation about what to do when members of an organization need to go, are asked to go, or leave unexpectedly. In particular, when individuals hold key positions, it is not enough to wait for them to go before figuring out the process for replacement -- this leads to rash decisions and often the replacement is chosen with criteria completely focused on the strengths and deficits of the last person in that position. We've heard the same concerns from other school districts, boards of organizations, companies, intentional communities, clubs and associations etc., so we had many people with whom to make assessments and wonder about what went right and wrong before it was clear someone had to go.

What is needed is an exit strategy. How long is too long for a leader to hold power? What are the signs that an organization needs to make a personnel change? Who is responsible for starting a conversation with an individual when things fall apart. It is not as simple as looking to the next people in the hierarchy -- they are often reluctant to act on the data, so to speak, but it becomes less arbitrary when their is an exit plan. Do the existing performance reviews actually have the credibility to identify deep problems and the teeth to do something about it? Does the review process actually make sense in terms of the job criteria? Can it ferret out the difference between practices that need attention vs items that can't be accepted? What kinds of "first steps" are necessary before moving to termination? Is it better to buy out or wait it out? At what point in at the ongoing "power struggles" within an organization do people with the ability to intervene do so? What should be done early on so that legal battles can be avoided? How do you explain dramatic personnel decisions to others in the organization? Is there a dignified way to transition employees or leaders out of an organization?

We wrapped up our discussion by bringing it back to the school system. Sadly, we all know many teachers that made a lousy career choice decision to become teachers. Some need help, and often are willing to take it, but others should simply go and find something else to do. Our system of performance reviews is not up to the task of making this happen, and our collegiate solidarity makes it difficult for teachers to hold each other accountable. Those ill-suited to the profession tend to linger for years or even decades past their best-before date. As one of our group suggested, perhaps we should have a buy-out fund ready to go to provide a way out. It might not be particularly dignified but it would solve some problems. The other, perhaps more serious solution we had is to view important positions as a tour of duty with a set expiration, and that, once served, there should not be a stigma around returning to a "lower position." In the case of many principals and leaders within the school system, it would be great to get them back in the classroom. That kind of change would be hard to ignite... but not impossible. If Mr. Pepper would have started his tenure as superintendent with the knowledge that he had five years to make a difference, and then would have a variety of jobs to choose from afterwards within the district, we would probably have an extra $319,000 to spend in schools. Lots of ways to put it together, but hopefully our district leadership, especially the school board, are cognizant of the need to build an exit plan for all levels of the organization.

Monday, November 14, 2016

BCSSTA conference and LSA inquiry

Van Tech Secondary
On Oct 21st I attended the BC Social Studies Teachers' Association annual conference at Van Tech Secondary in Vancouver. First of all, what an interesting school -- at the front entrance were annotated photo panels of Van Tech students who went off to WWI and WWII. The building is castle-like, but stark, and has been used as a movie set for a prison show. The vendor displays were interesting -- all related to Social Studies in some way. The keynote speaker was Mohamed Fahmy, the Canadian journalist who was imprisoned in Egypt for over 400 days due to his association with Al Jazeera, a news service based in Qatar and seen to be sympathetic towards the Muslim Brotherhood. I attended most of a session on teaching Economics, and then presented on the topic of Heritage Inquiry.

Last year I was approached by BCSSTA past president Wayne Axford, and also Kim Rutherford (who is also a member-at-large) about whether Prince George was interested in forming a Social Studies LSA (Local Specialist Association). At the time I did not get the sense that it would fulfill a need. There are already opportunities for Social Studies teachers to collaborate at their school and across the district, and our PD events for Socials teachers on PD days are rarely full. Those that have the time belong to various networks, and those that don't have the time quite possibly don't need "one more thing" with which to be affiliated. 

New information may have convinced me otherwise.

While at the BCSSTA conference I attended their AGM. The BCSSTA has funds for chapter support. At present, they have two LSAs that are properly affiliated with the BCSSTA -- North Peace (Ft. St. John) and Central Okanagan (Kelowna). There may be other Social Studies LSAs but they are not formally tied to the BCSSTA, e.g. I know there is one on the Sunshine Coast. Based on the 2015-16 BCSSTA budget, most of their annual allotment for chapter support remains unused. Being a Pro-D-minded fellow, I would love to see some funds support the work of local teachers and perhaps help us bring in great presenters and facilitators from time to time. I also learned that they are launching an academic journal that will require both an editorial board and contributing writers. I have joined their executive as a member-at-large and let them know that I will test the waters for an LSA.

I see the following as the main pros/cons of forming an LSA:

  • new funding opportunities for Prince George SS teachers and their professional development
  • opportunities to be involved with the activities of the BCSSTA e.g. their new journal
  • connection to a broader network of teachers, resources, and ideas
  • keep up the multi-year momentum of renewed focus on curriculum
  • promote Social Studies Education, the need for the Humanities (i.e. History and other Social Sciences), as well as Physical Geography
  • we already have opportunities to collaborate (PD days, Learning/Innovation Grants, Pro-D Fund, small networks) and share resources (e.g. Teach BC website), etc.
  • LSAs as source of teaching resources kind of faded away in conjunction with the rise of the internet
  • there are currently few barriers to PD opportunities other than time (which is always in short supply)
  • having an open inclusive group can create multiple agendas, leave the formation of a committed core to chance, and awaken personality dynamics (let's face it, some teachers go to great lengths to avoid each other)
For me, the tipping point is that there is not much to lose in giving this a try. I'm intrigued by the possibilities and think it can be wrapped up each year with a minimum of meetings (1 or 2 annually), a few good PD events (1 or 2 annually) and a greater sense of collegial bonhomie -- "cheerful friendliness, humour, and geniality." I feel that, along with others, I have been working hard on the "Social Studies" file for many years and that we have been doing some of the work of an LSA without actually being an LSA. We have literally provided thousands of hours to provide leadership on curriculum, build and share teaching resources, and mentor new teachers -- so my thinking is that these efforts might just as well be linked to similar work going on elsewhere in the province.

So, if there are any SD57 Social studies teachers that would like to discuss the inauguration of an LSA, perhaps look at a draft constitution and establish some roles, join myself and others at the Black Clover on Friday Nov 25th at 3:45 pm. If we can find support to get this started, we'll schedule a general meeting in the New Year. You can also email me about this.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Assessing Curricular Competencies

Recently, a colleague asked if I had any thoughts on the following problems
  • We are looking at the curricular competencies for Social Studies and trying to find ways to assess them – i.e. significance, perspective, ethical judgement.
  • We find we are comfortable assessing essays based on content and structure – aka the old learning outcomes. However, we are trying to wrap our heads around assessing these new competencies. How are you (the student) able to show your understanding of significance, cause and effect etc… on some sort of scale or rubric. We can’t seem to find anything from the ministry. 
  • Our understanding of our new direction (once the government can figure out their new course codes!!!) is a shift in assessment to a more skill based focus. Thus looking at our students’ ability to articulate their skills (again these curricular competencies on the left hand side of the curriculum document).
Good questions!

In my mind, the competencies should be taught/earned in a variety of ways — stand-alone concepts or approaches for interpreting evidence, but also as a holistic set of lenses for critical thinking and putting content into a “operable-based” context (and not just a historical or geographic narrative.”

Assessing competencies should also be about developing skills with each of them, but also looking at the students’ overall approach to problems based on their use of all of them. I dislike the idea of a rubric or checklists or marking items for competencies, for they should not the actual focus of evaluation, but part of the process that leads students to broader conclusions. Assessing them, therefore is something done along the way — mostly about the formative.

Here are a few ideas:
  1. Regularly present sources or evidence to students that require interpretation — on the screen, on a worksheet, or laminated card. Primary sources like quotes, images, maps, reports, etc. Secondary sources like paintings, news items, passages from articles and books, etc. Work through each of the relevant competencies and call on students to offer opinions with explanations. This is a good 5-minute to start a class and orient them to the topic. Also a good way to help make connections between current events and the themes of your course.
  2. Place the same (or similar) sources on tests with generic prompts (i.e. broad questions about why the source is important) . It will be obvious when students employ competency-based thinking — their responses will be robust, critical, and probably accurate whereas those that don’t will produce repetitive, hollow responses. At this point you can use a five-point rubric or whatever to confirm or challenge the notion that they “get it."
  3. Include the competencies as a note-taking template for research or notes on a theme (e.g. inclusion in Canada, Canada’s role in WWI and WWII), problem (e.g. how many immigrants should Canada receive?, Canada’s response to Climate Change)) or event (Seven Years War, Confederation)
  4. Require students to build six research questions for all major projects that address the competencies. This helps direct them towards a much more meaningful project. Students include a sheet that includes either a response to the questions or lists the evidence they have used to respond to the question. This can be their self-evaluation portion of the project and is a great tool for doing a check-in, having discussions with them during the project, and also afterward for feedback. For example it is easier to tell a student that they tanked the project by asking them what they actually did to answer their own research questions. Have them turn in their draft research questions mid-way through the project as a way to make sure they are actually doing it — this helps prevent those projects that are just random information slapped together the night before. It also takes the emphasis off or “pretty projects” and put the focus on critical thinking.
  5. Use the competencies as an essay structure. Introduction outlines the topic and puts out an argument (which addresses significance and any ethical dimensions), student pick three pieces of primary evidence to support their claim (one per paragraph), for each one they examine patterns at play (preferably ones that support their argument), what led to what, at least two perspectives on the evidence, and in their conclusion discuss any action that should come from the evidence (ethical dimensions) and reaffirm the significance in light of the evidence. Mark on essay reflects how effective they are at working with competencies.
  6. Set the class in six groups up to work on a problem (e.g. turn any historical event or geographic phenomenon into an essential question). Write this up and place it in the middle of a bulletin board. Supply some basic sources (e.g. some primary and secondary), and have each group take on a competency and fill a chart paper with their findings. For the cause and consequence group, they may want to use smaller paper and build outwards like a web. They primary evidence group might want to choose 3 sources (not necessarily the one you provide) to reproduce and put up, plus interpretations. Could even be done with a rotation through stations so that each group can try out a different competency. If you need to mark this have them write a paragraph after on what they learned, etc.
Disclaimer: have tried 1 and 2 many times. I have tried 3 and 4 a few times. I just made up 5 and 6.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Casualties of Ideology - Remembrance Day 2016

Coming from a culturally Mennonite background, with its attendant beliefs about non-conformity, non-resistance, and avoidance of military service, there are no war heroes in my family tree. There are, however, too many stories of war survival, of heroic sacrifices and struggles in the face of abject terror, poverty, and prejudice. This photo shows my grandpa Johann Heinrich Enns who served in the Russian Forestry and Non-combatant Medical Service during WWI. As a conscientious objector, this was the alternative duty afforded to German-speaking Mennonite colonists who refused to bear arms against other human beings. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution ended the war and sent my grandfather home to his family in Neu-Samara, Central Russia (southwest of the Ural Mountains, near the city of Orenburg). It was then that the real terror began for the Mennonites (and almost everyone else) in Russia. The struggle for control of Russia meant frequent thieving raids from the Red Army (and sometimes White Army), wanton murder and molestation from gangs of bandits. In particular, Mennonites who took up arms against the revolutionaries or resisted collectivization were special targets of retribution -- to Russian peasants, communists, anarchists, and other revolutionaries, the Mennonites were wealthy kulaks who were complicit in the class struggle and economic inequality of Tsarist Russia. During and after this Civil War, the Mennonites faced starvation, drought and crop failure, outbreaks of typhus, cholera, and malaria. The reality for my almost all my direct "Russian Mennonite" ancestors was a simple life, religious devotion, and relative poverty leading up to the Great War, followed by severe poverty and premature death for all who remained in the Soviet Union.

In the midst of this chaos, my grandfather married my grandmother Anna Loewen in 1921; their first home was a sod house with a dirt floor on her father's farm. The first two children born to them on the cold Russian Steppe lived 18 months and 6 months respectively before succumbing to typhus and pneumonia. In the growing national fear and acts of state-sponsored terror against all who opposed communism (or held land, or spoke German, or withheld crops, or even their wives and children), many Russian Mennonites fled to Canada. My grandparents left in 1925, not long before this exodus became impossible. They arrived in Quebec on the SS Minnedosa, and "must have looked like a real show piece standing there on the dock in their plain dress with 'Schemadaun' in hand, not knowing a single word of English between them."* By the time they had established a farm of their own in southern Saskatchewan, they managed to get one good crop yield in 1928 before the Great Depression made life difficult once more. Still, they raised 10 children in the Canadian prairies and never saw the ravages of war up close again.

Not so for the other members of Johann's family.  His brothers and brothers-in-law and their families were not able to leave Russia during the 1920s, and thus remained to endure Stalin's collectivization, purges, and state-induced famine. As formerly productive farmers, the Mennonite "kulaks" of my grandfather's colony in central Russia were again made the target of negative attention by the communist government.  They were German-speaking, so during in the wake of Stalin's second Five Year Plan (1933-1937), and again when Nazi Germany invaded Russia in 1941, many of the Mennonite men (including most of my grandfather's immediate family) were rounded up and sent to the gulag, tortured, and killed. Most of this information was unknown to my grandfather in Canada and has only come to light through research by my aunt. The witnesses to these "war crimes" were too afraid to tell their stories until the 1980s.

War and service means different things to different people. For my, grandfather, during WWI, it meant hard work in the forests at Tossna near Petersburg, followed by two decades of hardships. I knew him as a happy, gentle man, and realize that he had it pretty good, including a long life, compared to others in his family and others who lived and served in 20th century conflicts or met their fate because of them.

So, this Remembrance Day I remember my grandfather's brothers and brothers-in-law who were casualties to Stalinist ideology and bloodlust.  At least six of eight died at the gulag in Orenburg. These are my mother's uncles, whose crime was that their ancestors were from German-speaking countries and that they were once productive land-owning farmers:
  • Johann Bergman, born 1893, died in prison 1942. His daughter, studying to be doctor, endured incredible suffering during the Siege of Leningrad in 1942; her husband and daughter starved to death)
  • Isaak Penner, born 1879, arrested by NKVD and presumed to have died in prison 1939
  • Bernhardt Neufeld, b? d?, did not accompany members of his family who left Russia for Germany in the 1920s, possibly killed during Civil War
  • Peter Bergmann, born 1890, "ruthlessly taken from his home, falsely arrested and imprisoned, and then shot by the communists" in 1943 
  • Heinrich Enns, born c. 1902, "falsely arrested by the NKVD and imprisoned, then shot on November 4, 1942"
  • Kornelius Klassen, born c. 1900, arrested in 1942, died in prison. His wife Justina (my grandfather's youngest sister) died in forced labour camp in Kazakhstan
  • Peter Enns, born 1905, who, with his brothers, was "taken to the Ural River on Nov 4, 1942, 'with hands tied behind their back with barbed wire.' The prisoners were tortured, cold water poured over their heads before they were shot. Their bodies were rolled into a grave beside the river. The next spring, the waters rose and the bodies came to the surface."
  • Aron Enns, born 1906, suffered the same fate as his brothers Peter and Heinrich in 1942
*This post is modified from a similar version posted in 2013. I have included new information from a 2016 publication, The Aron Enns Family History and Genealogy by my aunt Susan Suderman -- all quotes, and the photo are from this book. Further information came from her earlier volume on another branch of our family.

Here were some earlier thoughts on Peace and Remembrance 2010 and 2011 and 2012.  

Monday, October 17, 2016

Technology for Learning Briefing

Technology for Learning Briefing be shared with the School District 57 Trustees at the upcoming dinner meeting with the Executive of the Prince George District Teachers' Association

Educational Technology is a broad topic:
  • tech in an integral part of day-to-day "workflow" use by staff and students in many contexts -- no one system meets everyone's needs 
  • tech is used regularly for teaching and learning by teachers and students -- some of it ordinary and predictable, some of it innovative or experimental (try/fail/reflect/try/abandon/retry/etc.) 
  • tech is about the "what" and how to use it: software, hardware, and the myriad devices that are used in an educational system 
  • tech is about the "why" -- pedagogy, learning paradigms, universal design, and choices about balance -- when to use tech and when not to 
  • tech brings up issues of equity and access, issues about how to pay for it, and issues about who should make decisions about the technology that is used for teaching and learning 
  • tech is more than a tool and more than a fad -- whether digital "natives" or "immigrants," tech forms a key part of people's identity, especially our students, and for better or worse its impact is not going away 
  • tech use is differentiated -- we have innovators, early adopters, late adopters, reluctant adopters, etc., each with their own expectations about levels of service, training, and opportunity 
In 2010 the school district appeared to have sent a Trojan Horse of sorts into schools, a seeming strategy to move away from the support for the innovative/ experimental use of technology and just provide the basics. The shell for this maneuver was the district decision to move to "single platform" for desktop computing,. This was ostensibly a cost-saving measure, but was accompanied by many other simultaneous changes that had little to do with platform. What else was affected? The District Tech Team and other technology leadership and collaborative structures would be abandoned, including the elimination of a teacher/principal leadership position for educational technology, the "Key Tech Contact" system and collaborative meetings. Unexplained restrictions were placed on tech purchases (e.g. a ban on tablet purchases, even those compatible with the "single platform"), and tech budgets would be slashed at most schools and also at the district level. Additionally, no more District Plans to support Tech for Leaning would be developed, or any other actual plan to support platform transition and address loss of services in, even though there was a specific commitment to do so but the board in April 2010. In other words, we entered an era where technology became a low priority. In some ways this reflects the transition away from technology as its own focus towards technology being integrated and embedded through- out the system, but a lot has been lost in this transition. One example of this is the lost opportunity to embrace or even allow tablet technology in schools. For a while the district banned them all, then restricted them to expensive models that did not do what teachers needed them to do.

As a whole the technology directions of the district have resulted in many talented educators simply walking away from innovative uses of technology; some have even left the district to find a place where their vision could be supported. There is no doubt that innovative uses of technology for teaching and learning still occur, but they happen in pockets, oHen without support or adequate funding, and sometimes in secret because of the restrictions in place at the district level.

In 2011 an attempt was made to gather feedback on how the district should support technology, but this feedback was hardly acknowledged and largely ignored. At the time, the district proposed to meet growing needs in two ways: support BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) for staff and students, and focus more on cloud computing. Five years later we have a wireless network that is slow, disconnects frequently, and does not provide adequate access for staff to use it for teaching. For example, a teacher following the district's advice to BYOD is blocked from accessing printers. A dedicated staff network is needed in order to make BYOD a reality.

Our district went from being a provincial leader in educational technology (roughly 2001-2008) to being a district that has fallen behind in terms of access, function, networks, and innovation. Most district computers to which students have access are used strictly for word processing and internet access, and the public wifi has neither the bandwidth nor stability to be used for teaching or learning. Introduction of new services or innovations has often been met with obfuscation -- teachers interested in trying Fresh Grade or Google School services have had to fight to get the issue on the radar and then face years of delays in having the issues death with.

It would not take much to get us back on track. An "Ad Hoc Committee on Technology" has already identified areas of frustration and potential solutions, and last year the "District Tech Team" was renewed, although it has yet to meet. Hopefully they can sort out some of these issues, but they will need gentle pressure and support from trustees, senior admin, and other stakeholders to both get it right and get it done.

Two things stand out for me as I write these notes:
  • I'm having deja vu -- along with many other young and old staff who know their way around technology, I have raised this issue many times -- these are not new items. 
  • I'm so sorry to have to take a "complainer" stance on these issues -- I am having a great year and I am otherwise grateful for wonderful students, thoughtful colleagues, an effective administrator, great opportunities for collaboration and leadership, and a school district that has nurtured my passion for teaching.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Ness Lake Bible Camp

Ness Lake Bible Camp as seen from above
Ness Lake Bible Camp and School District 57 are in the news this week:

I am glad this story has come out. At the beginning of April I received news that a young lady who worked at Ness Lake Bible Camp last summer was told she could not come back as an counsellor because she expressed sympathy for an LGBTQ cause on her Facebook page. While normally a quiet person, she understandably found this outrageous and was willing to go public with her story. I also learned that the PG Pride president was banned from speaking on the topic of gender at a Rotary event booked at Ness Lake. While it does not surprise me that an evangelical Christian organization has a conservative or fundamentalist statement of faith that they require employees to sign, it is disappointing that they feel confident sustaining homophobic policies in an era where no sane person sees sexual orientation as a choice. I was also disappointed that our school district sat on this news for as long as they did, and appeared to have discouraged teachers to whom the young lady reached out from speaking publicly about this issue. This issue had come to the school district's attention in early April, and was, in my mind, an excellent test of the district's new LGBTQ anti-bullying policy; not so much about something happening at school but nonetheless an important opportunity for the district to show that it supports inclusion and breaking down prejudices throughout the community. It was also important for the school district to deal with promptly as there are many school bookings at Ness Lake Bible Camp for class camp-outs and there should be assurances that all students are welcome there regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. These bookings would have been made before April, with deposits paid, so any move to withdraw school district support for Ness Lake school visits would not come without pain. Understandably, the district wanted to ensure they had all the facts before reacting, although that is something that might have taken days or weeks and not months, and not waited until after the issue had become a news story. I can also understand that decisive actions by the school district around controversial events are rarely swift, and involve many closed meetings before they come up at open meetings. Having read the PG Citizen story about this issue last week, I am relieved that out school district is taking this situation seriously and appears willing to consider withdrawing support for school visits to the camp facilities. While I wished they would have acted sooner, they do have a realistic timeline now to encourage the Ness Lake organization to re-examine their prejudicial policies before next year's round of bookings.

I find this story personally compelling because I enjoyed attending Ness Lake Bible Camp for many years as a child and teenager and have had friends and relatives serve as counsellors, maintenance staff, directors, and board members. I grew up in Christian setting and as a youth accepted the conservative interpretation of biblical writings that homosexuality was a choice and a serious sin, and that serious sins land the sinner in some kind of eternal lake of fire. It was not until university when I was exposed to other, less judgemental faith traditions, some science on human sexuality and, more importantly, to gay friends, that I came to accept that homosexuality was not a choice and that there were many Christians who did not condemn others based on their sexual orientation. In fact this was a key theological issue that began a long complex deconstruction of my own faith, a parallel unravelling of the differences between my inherited (and cherished) faith traditions and my "Mennonite" cultural heritage, and the subsequent reconstruction of my current evolving understanding of the meaning of life (and a new appreciation of my cultural heritage). Suffice it to say that there is not a homophobic God at the centre of this construct. This, in turn, led to a difficult decision to leave my home church in the 1990s. I did not feel that it was a place where I could challenge my own faith and beliefs without incurring negative reactions from others, and, although the place and people had all kinds of significance for me, there were too many barriers to inclusion. For example, the church barred women from leadership positions at the time (against the policy recommendation of their parent organization). I believe they have finally put that issue to rest (about 20 years too late), and perhaps one day they will tackle the idea of a homophobic reading/interpretation of biblical writings next.

Ness Lake provided me with great friends, mentors, memories, canoeing skills, confidence in and a love for nature. I fondly remember leaping off the platform onto the jungle swing, paddling into the Lagoon, telling jokes in the cabin at night, singing in the chapel, bat-watching in the huge attic of the old gym, pillow fights, shooting real arrows, BBQs in the Rose Bowl, trying to figure out the opposite sex, playing "mission impossible" in the forest at night, cleaning dishes and cabins (this never caught on at home), lots of running at full speed from one end of the camp to another, debating ideas in my mind and with others in response to the daily religious talks, having thoughtful adults challenge my thoughts and behaviours, and learning (often through mistakes) to become a leader and a teacher. I was a camper there every year from age 7 to 16, plus winter camps, retreats, church picnics, clean-up days, and visits with friends on staff. Ness Lake was also a full immersion into the formulaic version of evangelical Christianity (steady pressure to confess, convert, and convince others to do the same) and consequently a key source of the "lake of fire" rhetoric that made me unreasonably judging of others and what I thought of as their sin. On the whole I do not regret my time at the camp -- it was one of my favorite places on earth and definitely one of the most formative; I agree with the statement by Julianna Ferguson in the PG Citizen story: "It was amazing, it was like a second home to me... [i]t's just been a place where I can feel accepted and be myself".

My 11-yr-old daughter has loved her school visits to the camp, and I would send her there in a heartbeat as a summer camper, but not until they bring their employee code in line with the Charter of Rights. I read and understand the bit in the Citizen article about the BC Human Rights Code governing religious non-profits (rather than the Charter) but I am of the belief that (Section 2) religous freedoms end at the exact moment in where they violate (Section 15) equality rights. Sending a volunteer staffer the message that her sympathy for an LGBTQ cause makes her unsuitable to work with children is plainly discriminatory and unethical. I don't expect the organization behind Ness Lake Bible Camp to change their belief system instantly in response to this news story -- to me this is more about reminding the public that religious organization harbour prejudices that are at odds with an inclusive society --  but I do expect them to have a meaningful conversation about their core mission, the message they want to send to staff, campers, and parents, and whether or not they want to respect basic Charter rights related to equality, regardless of whether they feel legally obliged to do so.  In my mind that would be the moral thing to do.

As a high school teacher, I have watched as the conversation on inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ students (and rights) has gone through a dramatic shift over the last 20 years. When I first started teaching, there was no conversation. Then it became an awkward one, with many students (and sometimes educators) being openly homophobic and making life for queer kids a living hell. We have a long way to go, but I am increasingly confident that our schools are becoming safe places for ALL students and that we are starting to model inclusion for the rest of the community. This has not been a steady shift but rather one that occurs in bumps and reactions to events -- two steps forward, one step back. Each time an incident or news item brings the attention around to inclusion, we have had a chance to discuss, react, and open up. For example, in 2011 our newly elected school board faced pressure from students, teachers, and public policy advocates (including the BCTF) to adopt a stand-alone LGBTQ anti-bullying strategy. When the motion to do this came before the school board in 2012, the vote was 6-1 against. When the issue came up again in 2014, it was passed 6-1, with the dissenting voter advocating for a broader revised policy that included all forms of bullying. What changed? The board became convinced that policy is a key component in the shifting societal norms. They also responded to pressure by teachers, students, and the public, many of whom brought stories of homophobic bullying in school. Sometimes change in societal attitudes comes first, sometimes the law changes and people come to accept that change was necessary. Often it is both -- the Charter of Rights itself is probably the best example of this dynamic at work. I hope this news story about Ness Lake Bible Camp is one such incident that spurs reflection on what inclusion really means and whether religious freedoms should protect organizations from discriminatory practices.

So, my message to Ness Lake Bible Camp is this: keep providing awesome programming to campers and services to camp renters -- your work is providing fabulous nature-based formative experiences that kids do not get anywhere else. Keep doing your Christian thing, too -- parents know what they're signing their kids up for and a little exposure to religion is not a bad thing, especially when it is modelled rather than harangued. Keep bringing up the topic of inclusion at all levels of your organization -- it is not okay to skirt the Equality Rights in your employee practices and it is not okay to tell a young women she should not work with kids if she is sympathetic towards the challenges faces by others who are LGBTQ -- love is love. The message you have sent will send a chill through your other staff -- a perception that they can't ask questions of their faith or explore their beliefs publicly without risking their positions at the camp. Don't be afraid of a diverse and inclusive staff -- you would be amazed at the difference it can make for children to see that their role models face the same complex questions that they do, including how to deal with their own sexuality. Rather than shun a young Christian woman who has (as I understand it) expressed love for others who face discrimination based on their sexual orientation, you should be welcoming her and trying to learn from her. This does not compromise your core mission, in fact it would help test it and make it relevant to other youth. It might actually save some lives.

My message to the School District is to do the right thing and insist that the organization behind Ness Lake Bible camp not only ensure that all kids are welcome there (as they have more or less done in their carefully crafted public statements over the last week), but bring their employee code in line with the Charter of Rights if they want to continue receiving bookings from the school district. Let this also be a lesson for future "controversies" -- don't be afraid of a good conversation, avoid the urge to say "let's not talk about this until it comes out in the media." We have seen a dramatic shift in district leadership over the last few months, some of it fueled by a desire to see a shift in management practice and new strategic directions. One of the "old ways" we need to discontinue is the veil of secrecy and tendency to obfuscate around important and controversial decisions, often rooted in a reticence to accept the role the district has in the community. There was been great progress made over the last few years on this front -- keep up the momentum and be open and honest about both mistakes and intentions. This is an exciting year ahead.

In both cases I should not be surprised to see complex, staid, and tradition-rich organizations take their time to move towards radical ends, but I am confident that both organizations are filled with thoughtful folks that will take the opportunity afforded by this (now public) story to make progressive decisions.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Leadership Change

Over the last two weeks I’ve been meeting with a teaching colleague to plan out a one-week intensive SFU summer course for local teachers. The aim of our course is to explore themes in the development of leadership and mentorship capacity among educators. We start with a central question about identity — the self that teaches, the self that leads. A sublime approach to leadership requires that we both embrace and deconstruct who we are as teachers, learners, leaders, or mentors and also that we move beyond our own experiences in order to open our mindsets to new challenges, theories, strategies, and communities of practice. We see leadership much like a backpack — it is filled both with tools of our own design (and the result of our experience) but also the tools we acquire for a specific trek across a specific landscape. We will also emphasize that leadership is differentiated. It is tempting to see (and respond to) a hierarchy in action when we look at an organization like a school district, with certain people selected and even paid to be “leaders.” When we scratch the surface, however, we see multifaceted roles for diverse approaches to leadership, and that some of the most effective forms of leadership have nothing to do with title. Instead, these forms often relate to values and practices involving moral purpose and intention, authenticity and voice, learning-oriented design, interdependence and relationships, and "followership." Nonetheless our recognized leaders, the ones to whom leadership is attached as a job description, bear our special scrutiny and can provide insight as to how power works, and how we can arrive, individually and collectively, at values and practices that are vital to our contexts as educators.

During the same time as my colleague and I are planning this leadership course, we are witnessing that largest change in School District 57 management in at least 15 years, if not ever; an occasion for reflection on educator identity and deconstructing leadership structures if there ever was one. This is the culmination, or perhaps just the latest development, in a dramatic year at the board office. We’ve had a superintendent depart after being on leave, an acting superintendent come and go and come back again, a new superintendent hired from out of province, and similar comings, goings, leaves, resignations, and new hires from other senior staff (i.e. assistant superintendents). Each of these moves is accompanied with a narrative, with dramatic speculation deserved or not, and theories about "why" involving everything from gentrification to palace revolt. Alongside these moves is a significant administrative shuffle between schools, one of largest of its kind in decades. This entire management transition come with some controversy, casualties, and political intrigue (as expected in any organization) but also with the promise of change and renewal. I, for one, am excited about the prospects.

The senior jobs in a school district come with heavy responsibilities. The local (SD57) superintendent and his/her team makes operational and educational decisions with a $130 million annual budget — larger than the City of Prince George, affecting a staff of over 2000 including about 850 teachers, and about 14,000 students in 40 schools. The superintendent also sets the tone for the organization (or is one of many doing so) in terms of foci, labour relations, student achievement, inclusion of all learners, professional ethics, and stakeholder dialogue (notably with parents and the media).

When the current HR dust settles, it looks like we’ll have almost a complete change “at the top” and next year would definitely be the year to expect new directions in the organization. This is new ground — not unlike a clearcut or razed landscape — but also one with new horizons and unpreventable new growth. The stakes are high; in addition to the new management team, the “double down” next year is that we are expected to pilot or implement all of the new curriculum, and make progress towards the “transformation of our education system.” Landscape is apt metaphor — to the clearcut, fresh burn, or blown down patch of forest comes a lush burst of fireweed and other pioneer species -- the stable and mature ecosystem is a long way off and not a guarantee. In the same way, there are many simple yet important short-term measures that can be taken to start anew. Not taken, this landscape will quickly be filled by whatever comes naturally, for better or worse, and the job at arriving at a stable ecosystem (e.g. an inclusive and productive district culture) becomes more difficult. The "seral stage" or period of regeneration will be an unavoidably awkward process with mistakes made and lessons learned. The long-term measures, however, can not be reactionary and will require more consideration and intent.

Perhaps I’m speaking in circles, so to bring this home I suggest that the new management of our district look to these dozen places for insight on what to do next — in addition to their own experience they can fill their backpacks with the following:
  1. Strategic Plan. Prepared by an external consultant, and the result of extensive stakeholder feedback, this report contains some fresh ideas and vocabulary about the possibilities for change in our district. The strategic planning itself was held up by years of politics, but the outcome may have worth the wait — but only if it is taken up by senior management. The first couple of pages are boilerplate, similar to what has appeared in District Achievement Contracts of the past. Page 4-7 contain the new stuff, an interesting balance of values and actions. If senior management is looking for a departure from the past, they could start by simply focusing on the six community needs: adaptability, community connectedness, uniqueness, relevance, communication skills, and fairness. All district initiatives (e.g. website, media releases, board room procedures, new programs, policy development, budget talks, etc.) will benefit by being filtered through the lens of these six needs. For some reason the Strategic Plan can’t be found on the SD57 website but it is archived here:
  2. Report on Rural Education. We have many rural and remote schools in our district, some just outside Prince George and six others in Mackenzie, McBride, and Valemount. Mainly in 2014 and 2015, some of the rural school staff, as well as their communities and other stakeholders, were consulted about the needs of their schools. A report with great background information and 14 recommendations was created, some of which are practical, others idealistic, and others controversial. One of the latter involves a scheme to increase video conferencing “options” for rural schools —while this is indeed a accepted form of “distributed learning” it has also been decried by the teachers and communities affected as an erosion to teaching and learning conditions in rural schools. There was an attempt this year to force these “options” on schools, but cooler heads and longer memories prevailed — the last attempt at increasing capacity for video conferencing was expensive, seldom used, and unsuccessful. Still, the report contains other viable and practical actions (p. 33-34) — the door is open to experimentation and further collaboration; the stakeholders have stated their commitment to stay involved. For some reason the Report on Rural Education can’t be found on the SD57 website but it is archived here:
  3. Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement. This has been a long time in development and is still in draft form. Once signed, this agreement will guide program development for Aboriginal learners and help address gaps of equity and achievement. At issue appears to be the amount and kind of consultation with local First Nations communities. Surveying other completed AEEAs from around the province, no two are alike although they all share common themes. Most of them have broad support and signatures from local First Nations community leaders. The coming year is the year to get this right and finalize the agreement. Finding an actual copy of the draft AEEA proves difficult. I will post a link if I can find one.
  4. Archived District Plans. Each year the school district, through it’s superintendent and approved by the board, releases a variety of reports and growth plans. Among them are literacy plans, rural school plans, Aboriginal education plans, achievement reports, and facility plans. Each one tells a story, and each one conceals as much as they reveal. Nonetheless, the represent issues and foci that were important at the time, and taken together form a useful data Now that the Ministry of Education has changed its reporting requirements (e.g. see, many of these documents will no longer be written. The various collections of past reports are sometimes hard to find on the district website, or have been removed, but some of them are archived at  Probably one of the most interesting (to me at least) was the 2010 DSC Report (District Sustainability). This omnibus report suggested all kinds of cuts and school closures, some of which were eventually approved. The process leading up to the DSC and the process of deciding what to do with it were laden with problems, too many to get into in this space. Suffice to say that there are powerful lessons to be learned from how that all went down.
  5. District Achievement Contracts.  Chief among the old documents is the "DAC." The former superintendent referred to these as “compliance documents, written for a general audience but intended for the Ministry of Education; not meant to withstand statistical analysis, but indicative of trends and efforts to improve performance.” Why do these have value for new managers of our school district? They contain powerful, if arguable, statements by former senior admin about our district, including their priorities and a summary of the important work that goes on in the district. It is their attempt to pay attention to what is going on. The most recent of the DACs available on the SD website can be found at
  6. Long Range Facility Plan. The 2015 long-term facility plan is perhaps the most relevant and consequential of past reports. This lays out some possibilities for school reconfiguration in the future, but no actual commitment to close schools and so on. The other data in the report is useful: school capacities, enrolment figures and such -- information that in the past was hard to find without a freedom-of-information request or demand from the elected board. Given the acrimonious nature of the 2010 sustainability process, and the legacy of school closures in SD57 (24 out of 64 school closed since 2001), this document will certainly be put to the test if the topic of school closures or reconfiguration comes up again. In particular, the fate of the secondary French Immersion program will be fun one to watch -- does it stay at the crowded Duchess Park or does it move to the roomy PGSS? The LRFP is archived at
  7. Recommendations from the Ad Hoc committee on Technology and Learning. This group met in 2014 and 2015 to discuss long standing technology issues in our school district. Their findings and recommendations have yet to be publicly released, or if they have, can't be found (seeing a pattern here?). In an era of mobile technology, web-based computing, and continuous digital innovation and disruption, the school district is still locked in a technology model from the last century: single platform, restrictive hardware policies, and ongoing issues with wireless networks and access by staff to basic functions such as printing from BYOD devices — a model that is encouraged but not supported. There are some serious and specific unresolved technology issues in our district, going all the way back to centralizing of district technology services almost 20 years ago. Thankfully, the world of educational technology has evolved enough that many of these issues really aren’t that relevant anymore. What remains, though,  are ongoing needs and basic questions about access, function, equity, and assessment (reflection/action on what is working and what is not). The newly formed Technology and Learning District Committee has its work cut out for them.
  8. The School Board Trustees. This group is responsible for much of the management change this year -- that is one of their official roles -- and are the gatekeepers to the various reports and decisions that have set direction in our district past, present, and future. They have not made all of the decisions or written all the reports, but they have made their mark on them. In the past this mark was most often a rubber stamp, but we’ve seen this role evolve to become more activist, progressive, and engaged. Similarly, the board does not manage the school district (that is for senior administration) but they do have a give-and-take role that can and should involve intervention, co-governance, and advocacy within and beyond the management of school and district programs. A key connection between the board and the rest of the district is in the budget process. The “Extended Committee” approach has succeeded in gaining a more inclusive perspective on the needs of the district (or needs of the students), but is not as successful in translating these intentions into changes in direction. A step is missing — the board needs to have a consistent means of taking stakeholder input from the budget process or other yearly feedback opportunities and creating priorities that are actually reflected in the budget.
  9. Employee Stakeholders.  PGDTA (teachers) PGPVPA (admin), CUPE (maintenance), CUPE (support staff) and others. All of these groups were consulted on the criteria for hiring the new superintendent, and this feedback could again be used to see the kinds of values and issues that are important to each stakeholder group. When one or more of these groups speaks up in an official capacity (e.g. at a public board meeting or by letter), management needs to pay attention. If they are at the point of raising an issue publicly, this action has not been taken lightly — there is thought, experience, debate, research, and numerous voices behind their concerns. There are a variety of examples from the last few years to illustrate this point — instances where the board and senior management have been cautioned about the impacts of a particular decision — the initiation of the Northern Learning Centre comes to mind. When management has listened, these kinds of decisions have been modified and the outcome improved. When management has not listened, these decisions have usually resulted in unnecessary failure and “we told you so” moments. 
  10. Community Stakeholders.  DPAC (parents), University of Northern BC, Northern Health, City of PG, Regional Districts. These groups, too, were consulted about what the needs of our district and they should be involved in what happens next. For example, the past chair of the DPAC (Sarah Holland) has amassed a very useful collection of research into our school district over the years, some from the SD itself and some from outside agencies. It is telling that in the past, community groups wanting to know more about their schools could face stonewalling by the SD and had to complete freedom-of-information requests to learn what they needed. The flow of information has improved since then, but there is room to improve.
  11. Individual staff. Our district contains scores of teacher and administrators that are “students of the organizational history;” that have insight into problems and solutions. Find them, invite them, ask them questions, listen to them, discern what can be learned from them. Getting them to be involved in district-wide solutions will be tricky. Some are already involved — they are practicing leadership in its many forms and in their own way. Others have gone into hiding and need to be coaxed out by an inclusive, welcoming climate as free as possible from politics and penalties for speaking up. One great source of insight from individual staff is the collection of Learning Team and Innovation grants conducted by teacher groups over the last few years. While the grant results are difficult to find publicly, the District Principal of Learning Innovations and the District Learning Commons VP are very familiar with the range and depth of these inquiry projects.
  12. The literature. I love it when educational leaders justify a new policy or practice by saying “the literature says…” or "what we see in the literature..." While these phrases are often used as a cover, it does speak to the need for educators to look to theory to help solve problems. New curriculum aside, there is lot of really good stuff being written and practiced about educational reform in BC and beyond right now. We need look no further than the many respected and accomplished educators in our own district and province to help guide us into the literature. Dedicated folks from post-secondary are also ready to help. Experience translates as often to baggage as it does to insight, to the the tools needed to make change. Our leaders need to lighten their backbacks of as much baggage as possible and make room for new equipment. Experience needs to inform our identity as educators, but not predetermine every outcome. Notably, the experience of others is one of the most valuable sources of theory. See #1-9 above!
I encourage our new district management to explore these dozen “places” as they form a vision for next year, or at least accommodate themselves to the various visions at play in a complex organization. To add to the district-wide “year of change” I’ll be sharing what we put together for this SFU leadership course in terms of literature and learnings. Here’s one little gem — an example of what happens when leadership is distributed. Thanks to my colleague Trina Chivilo for sharing this with me:

Thursday, May 05, 2016

The people in my neighbourhood

Recently, BC Educator Sarah Garr posted a good question on her blog:
"Who are the people in your neighbourhood, your school heroes who contribute to the success and well being of your students, and staff?"
Here's her full post:

This is actually a tough question. As a teacher, I work in an organization that requires a multitude of roles in order to function, and the system keeps functioning (at some level) even when those roles are not being fulfilled. Classes can survive without their teachers for a while (at least until another is found), likewise we've seen a school can function for a time without a principal and a district without a superintendent. I'm sure we could even carry on without an Education Minister... how long would it take to notice one was gone? We could survive without staff meetings -- in most school these have become information sessions to highlight email content from the previous month and anticipate the next month's emails. For that matter we could survive without 90% of the emails we receive. I digress. How long could we go without custodians, secretaries, support workers, maintenance staff, counsellors, and so on? Everyone plays a part -- some do it well and some do not, but almost all of them are necessary at some level. I must admit I’ve spent many of my years as a teacher shielding myself, my classroom, and my students from the parts of the system that are dysfunctional, unfair, or chaotic. I have thought of my teaching practice as it's own ecosystem and have never assumed that anyone else would build my curriculum and lessons for me, handle my discipline issues or technology needs, and so on. Of course this is not always possible or beneficial, but we teach who we are as they say.  For me, anyways, these were necessary steps in order to figure out what a safe and engaging place of learning could look like, could be like, and I’m quite certain I’m still figuring that out. So, the heroes for me are the ones that make the school and my practice more functional, fair, and calm. Who are the denizens of this forest? Colleagues, mentors, school advocates, sometimes parents and often students. Is it necessary to name names? I appreciate fellow Social Studies teachers in my personal learning network -- the Pacific Slope Consortium (Rob, Ian, JP, and many others) -- for indulging the curricular experiments and providing a context for collaborative practice. I appreciate colleagues at my school that have had the long term “health and wholth” of the students at heart like John Vogt (retired teacher), Joe Pereira (DP Todd), and Sandra Jandric (DP Todd). I appreciate mentors that worked alongside me, challenged me, and provided much-needed counterpoints such as Norm Booth (retired teacher CHSS). I appreciate tireless advocates for public education that helped create positive classroom, school, and district conditions such as Mike Duffey (retired teacher CHSS), Matt Pearce (recently deceased teacher CHSS), many colleagues from the PGDTA and BCTF, and my own partner Kate Cooke who served as a local school trustee for three years and fought for progressive changes, some of which succeeded and some of which bore fruit only after she was done. I appreciate my father Walt and all the other teachers in the family over multiple generations for ennobling the profession and leading by example. I appreciate the students who have shared their inquiry with me and their classes over the years -- the process and product of their efforts at storytelling are the clearest forms of motivation I have as a teacher.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Feedback on Board Policy 1170.3 Rights & Responsibilities of Employees

On April 5th, 2016, the School District 57 Board of Education approved Draft Policy 1170.3 Rights and Responsibilities of Employees for distribution to reference groups for input. The proposed changes (so far) are highlighted in yellow on the document posted at Draft Rights and Responsibilities of Employees.pdf.

Input Regarding:
Policy 1170.3 Standards of Employee Conduct 3.18 "Not engage in irresponsible public comment that would undermine confidence in the public education system."

This comes across as a gag order -- perhaps unintentionally. I suppose the original intent was to guard against defamation and embarrassment of individuals, not to hinder employee's freedom of speech or ability to improve, through constructive criticism, the public education system.

"Irresponsible public comment" should not be taken as anything that undermines public education, but rather a comment about public education that is
a) careless, thoughtless, cruel, or hurtful in a way that can be seen as defamatory
b) unfounded -- speculative in the sense that no evidence exists to support strong claims
c) personal attacks -- attributes blame for problems on named colleagues, management, or local stakeholders (I'm quite sure politicians are fair game, though, depending on how the criticism is worded)

Without more careful wording, 3.18 blurs, by association, the difference between "irresponsible public comment" and legitimate advocacy for public education, which in some cases necessarily undermines confidence in the public education system -- to affect change it it often requires showing that something in the system is problematic and needs change.

Additional Issue:
The ambiguity of 3.18 is reinforced with the only other (problematic) statement about public education in the policy, an employee responsibility (2.5) to "[C]ontribute to the positive climate and reputation of the school, the district and public education." Promotion of the "reputation" (e.g. of the school district) assumes blind support for the processes that have resulted in that reputation. In some cases, problems in a school (e.g. racism, homophobism), district (plans gone awry, decisions made without necessary consultation), or public education (impact of funding cuts) have indeed affected "reputation" -- this needs to be ackowledged and worked on, especially by management for who institutional reputation is of special importance. Using these examples, employees taking notice of (and acting on) racism, homophobism, failed plans, lack of consultation, or inadequate funding to meet needs are in fact doing their own part to contribute to the positive climate in schools but may indeed do so at the cost of "reputation." Employees should be less interested in a policy-mandated contribution to the reputation of the district or public education which could be equal parts poor, fair, good, or excellent (depending on perspective, opinions, choice of evidence, or criteria). Employees should be more interested in actually improving the school, district, and public education. When that work goes well, reputations can also improve in the same way that "confidence in public education" is aided by asking tough questions and engaging in critical dialogue. 

The concerns I have expressed above can be addressed in some simple ways.

a) add a Rights of Employees 1.8 "Engage in responsible public dialogue and advocacy to promote, understand, assess, and improve public education."

b) revise 2.5 from "Contribute to the positive climate and reputation of the school, the district and public education." to "Contribute to the positive climate and improvement of the school, the district and public education."

c) revise 3.18 to read "Not engage in irresponsible or defamatory public comment or attacks on public education that break the duty of good faith and fidelity with the employer, notwithstanding Rights of Employees 1.8."

d) as an alternative to point c), remove 3.18 altogether and instead develop a freedom of speech policy (including whistleblower protection) that respects points a) and c) and addresses point c). This could be stand-alone or could take the form of a revision (e.g. a Section 4) to Policy 1170.3. This police item could contain the obvious statement that employees engaging in public comment about their schools, the district, or the public education system do so on their own and do not represent or speak for their employer.

Examples of "public comment:" 
1) a teacher's letter to the editor about the state of education funding and the impact on classrooms and students from the teacher's perspective
2) a social media "tweet" about the challenges in navigating the Student Information System
3) a blog post critiquing the lack of action taken on the planning, support, and access to educational technology and missed opportunities for students
4) a response to an invitation by a reporter to talk about the increased challenges faced by the school system when responsibility of dealing with children in crisis, poverty in the classroom, or mental health are added to the regular duties of teachers
5) a comment on an online news story centering in on the need for more public consultation on decisions affecting the school district and its students
6) collaborating on a public report that critiqued and challenged management perspective on school closures and the rationale behind proposed cuts in the school district
7) a radio interview about the premature disposal of useful student equipment from schools
8) writing an open letter to the board of trustees expressing concerns about a proposed school district initiative/program for students that lacked adequate planning, denigrated teachers, and failed to follow policy
9) an article contribution in an educational magazine about the explicit, hidden, and "null" agendas behind the implementation of new BC curriculum
10) creating an internet meme during a labour dispute that parodied non-sensical statements from the education minister, chief government negotiator, and labour relations board

These personal examples are in the territory of "responsible public comment" -- intended to improve aspects of the education system, but each of these may indeed undermine confidence in the public education system as they point out flawed thinking, plans gone awry, or something important that is being ignored. These examples show why item 3.18 creates a crisis of interpretation -- policies should resolve dilemmas, not create them.

End Note:
My input, above, does not represent anyone other than myself, although I have no problem assuming that this feedback is intended to address similar concerns from many teachers who do not often get around to offering input on policy development! As someone who has advocated for public education and blogged openly about local and provincial issues in education going for over a decade, Policy 1170.3 item 3.18 rubs me the wrong way. It is not because of "heat" over my advocacy that I believe the policy needs to change. I have had some subtle and not-so-subtle heat, but only once have I experienced a directive about this (can you guess which of the ten examples raised the ire of the powers that be?). In fact, it is for the opposite reason that the policy should change -- it is employees that should be applying the heat, especially teachers who have long been both the guardians and advocates of public education (not to mention its key reformers). We need more employees to "own" the issues in education and speak up when they have something to offer. I have taken encouragement from the support for advocacy that I have been offered over the years by fellow teachers, principals, other colleagues, trustees, parents, students, family, media personnel, union staff, and even the Minister of Education (I have the 2010 letter from Margaret MacDiarmid framed and placed on a shelf in my classroom!). My story is not unique -- pick an educational issue or theme and it is not hard to a dozen advocates in British Columbia who add their voices to the discussion for better or worse.

I have written this end note in order to declare my bias, to which I should add that I have been a Humanities teacher for 20 years in School District 57 and have paid close attention to district management, policy, and governance from about 2003 onwards, spiking around 2010, and admittedly less so in the last few years. Some of the 'advocacy work" I have done has been a complete waste of time, while some of it has made an impact on local policies and practice, attitudes, initiatives, and occasionally a small ripple at the provincial level. It is a testament to the networked nature of our society and education system, and the relative openness towards respectful public dialogue shown by schools districts like ours (towards teachers anyways) that individuals can have both reach and impact. 

I believe that "getting it right" on Policy 1170.3 is very important because, as is the case within any other institution, the statements and interpretations of the rights and responsibilities of employees help determine the differences between a toxic vs. joyful work environment and a cynical vs. cooperative school/district culture.  Employees, especially teachers, will always work to improve the situation for students, including "responsible public comment" -- our policies should acknowledge this important work and revisit the parts which appear to marginalize this work.

respectful submitted,
Glen Thielmann

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Making the case for storytelling

Some recent thoughts and discussions have made it clear to me that something is missing from the new BC Social Studies curriculum. Up until now I was not sure if it was something personal and connected missing from the curricular competencies, a mechanism by which Aboriginal perspectives could enter more fully into the classroom conversation, or an practical extension of the core competencies into the learning standards. Turns out it is at the centre of all three. For those uninitiated into the vast realm of education jargon, I will explain these ideas bit using Social Studies as a context.

Curricular competencies are the skills and strategies that students develop in order to approach problems of history, place (geography), and other topics that come up in Social Studies. They include research skills and inquiry abilities. The competencies include variations of six historical thinking concepts that are well explained at The Historical Thinking Project and also at The Critical Thinking Consortium. These "Big 6" are sometimes described as establishing significance, working with evidence, continuity and change, cause and consequence, taking perspectives, and ethical dimensions. I believe there are two important things missing from these competencies -- language that extends historical thinking into the area of geographic thinking, and the skill/space/support for students to make authentic and meaningful connections to their learning, the Social Studies content, and the other skills they are developing. Regardless of the fine-tuning, the competencies represent an academic approach to the study of Social Studies, capable of being post-colonial and culturally sensitive, but nonetheless a modern (if not fully modernist*) incarnation of the positivist tradition in education. The curricular competencies, starting with inquiry and working with a variety of critical thinking concepts, get students to the edge of answering "so what" questions in Social Studies. *Update: an expert on both the new curriculum and Big 6-derived competencies has pointed out that the Historical Thinking Concepts have been profoundly affected by a turn towards post-modernism (presumably among the academics who developed them for use in education). This in itself is a interesting discussion but I'll leave it at that for now.

The new curriculum emphasizes the opportunity to include more Aboriginal perspectives and knowledge, in some ways a challenge to the positivist tradition and in other ways a means to embed alternate views and powerful stories alongside the empirical approach and a Eurocentric narrative. In parts of the curriculum these opportunities are made clear, and in others it is not. What is missing is some mechanism whereby this emphasis can be layered and interactive with the competencies -- and does more just establish a quota for Aboriginal content. There are many ways in which indigenous perspectives can become more responsive with the Social Studies class. I feel as if I am only starting down this path and have much to learn (see Q6/A6 on this post about Social Studies 9). A good starting point for teachers in the same position is the First Peoples Principles of Learning. If you want a interesting thought experiment, read these principles and then read the curricular competencies for a new BC Social Studies course. What's the connection? For me, it is as if the FPPoL represents the reasons why developing the competencies is important work and to end they should lead. Each Social Studies course could be subtitled with Principle 2, 3, 6, 7, or 8, e.g. "Learning is embedded in memory, history, and story."

In providing a framework for the new curriculum and "personalized" learning, the Ministry of Education and teacher teams developed the Core Competencies. "[A]long with literacy and numeracy foundations and essential content and concepts," these aver-arching standards "are at the centre of the redesign of curriculum and assessment. Core competencies are sets of intellectual, personal, and social and emotional proficiencies that all students need to develop in order to engage in deep learning and life-long learning" ( One of the three core competencies is Communication. There is obvious importance in all course and grades to the various ways in which students interpret prompts, engage in activities, express their understanding, show their learning, and collaborate with others. Where "Communication" could be more practical is at the level of curricular competencies, the discipline-specific skills and strategies that guide exploration of content in each course. What is an actual ability that can be employed alongside interpretation of bias, perspective-taking, and establishing chains of causality in Social Studies?

I believe that all three of these "problems" -- incomplete curricular competencies, inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives, and the need to explicitly apply core competencies -- centers around storytelling. This is skill, a competency, an arena for discovery, and a way of beginning difficult conversations, that has always been indispensable in the Social Studies classroom. I'd like to see storytelling included more prominently in the new curriculum. Read a few of the student stories on this blog post to see my own bias on the importance of storytelling. Maybe one day there will be a Storytelling 12 that leverages interdisciplinary learning from K-12 and allows students to tell their stories. I think it would be a fitting way to finish high school and honour their diverse paths towards success. For now, Storytelling will be an unofficial curricular competency and will be the main strategy with which teaching and learning in my Social Studies class get the heart of the three problems I have described above. For the visual learners out there, I have summarized and represented these thoughts in a graphic below.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Q and A on New Curriculum and SS9

Recently, I was asked some great questions about my draft/sample Social Studies 9 outline that I am using at the moment to pilot the new BCED curriculum. I've been asked "where's the French Revolution" by a few teachers, "where's the competencies" by another, and so on. I've gathered the various tweets, texts, and response emails in what I hope is a useful summary below.

Reference: an outline for Social Studies 9

Q1. Are there topics that have to be included in the new curriculum? Some expected topics are missing from your outline, like the French Revolution and Napoleon. 

A1. No, there are no required topics beyond the "topic areas" that are listed in the content learning standards. Although some teachers could conceivably structure a course that had no firm topics, perhaps around approaches to the study of society, completely based on competencies, or daily analysis of current events, we can be quite confident that many "familiar" topics will remain in BC Social Studies courses. Out of courtesy to fellow teachers, I think most course outlines will not stray too far or too often beyond the new course bookends of 1750-1919. Yes, my new SS9 outline does not include the French Rev and Napoleon (nor the American Revolution per se). These topics, like all the other content, are now optional. Teachers can pick and choose as many of the "old topics" as they wish to tell the story they want, to explore the themes/big ideas, and work out the competencies. Teachers can also add new content, such as other global revolutions or conflicts, if that helps them with their goals. I have explained this in some detail on the 11x17 "content shifting" planning documents posted at

Q2. How should teachers decide what to include, or how to set up a SS9 course?

A2. Much of the content will naturally be suggested by the course bookends of 1750-1919. However, the decision to focus more on Canada vs Canada/Europe or Canada/World or just World is up to the teacher. Teachers can pick four favourite or important topics and build a course from there, or they could take on forty topics if they want. Teachers may add topics from outside the bookends (e,g, current events) or from outside of formal history altogether, such as architecture, political science, or sociology. Teachers can work through content (and competencies) through talk-and-chalk, worksheets & assignments, press play on the dvd, project-based-learning, debate & discussion, whatever. Some teachers will have core content, and optional content to be explored by students (e.g. project topics). Some teachers will align topics to themes, the content learning standards, or the competencies themselves, others will stick with a sequential outline powered by the topics themselves. Say farewell to common department exams, unless your dep't has a solid history of doing things the same way. There will be good, bad, and ugly all over the place, not much different than now, really, but I think eventually there will be some consistency and productive models to follow. I intend to work towards that, anyways. 

Q3. Why drop French Revolution and Napoleon, but keep the Industrial Revolution? 

A3. My Grade 9 course has a Canadian focus, so, with the exception of the Industrial Revolution, I've dropped topics that don't directly involve or take place in Canada. The French Revolution is interesting, and so very important to European and World history (as are so many other events), but something has to go. I don't  want to teach a fast-paced, low-depth survey course. Ironically, by extending the historical bookends, the new curriculum does more to encourage "survey" vs" depth" than the old curriculum -- although that was not the intention. Our grade 8 teachers will probably not pick up the French Revolution, although it may be an optional area of study for either Grade 8 or Grade 9. A bit later in the course I plan to a short American vs French Revolution activity; more for the competencies, though, and less about the content, e.g. deconstruct some images and sources that either glorify or condemn revolutionaries from each country. I have included the Industrial Revolution because it is part of a truly global story, it is related to Canadian migration, ties to WWI, and is often ranked by historians as one of the top 5 influential events in history. Almost every object and many of the ideas that govern our society, gender roles, environmental issues, labour conditions, and way of life have a link to the Industrial Revolution. Students can wrap their mind around those kind of connections, far more so than some of the nuanced lessons of the Tennis Court Oath and the Reign of Terror. I started the course with the Industrial Revolution as the backdrop to a "skills bootcamp" -- using invention, factory age, results of enclosure, social conditions, and environmental change as ways of introducing competencies and getting students used to interpreting documents and sources, especially images but also graphs and maps. I keep copies of an aged little text around almost exclusively for these lessons - "Thinking about our Heritage: a Hosford Study Atlas" (example here). I also had a student teacher with me for these lessons and he produced some very effective activities and critical thinking prompts, and used some great media.

Q4. Why so you include virtually every other "Canadian" topic (in some form) from 1750-1919 carried over from existing courses? 

A4. The rest of my course is decidedly Canadian (with plenty on and about British Columbia) because I believe it is important in the few short years of Gr. 8-10 to leave students with a sense of the Canadian story, their place in it, and their agency in regards to its future. All other topics are interesting to me as a Socials teacher, but not mission critical for building active, empathetic, and informed Canadian citizens. It is also the Canadian topics that will help me provide an arc and consistency in the use of themes such as Aboriginal content and perspectives. Students can get plenty of world history and culture in Gr. 11 and 12 if they want it, plus some in Grade 8. I have truncated some Canadian topics and left others alone, mainly a reflection of which of my past lessons resonated with students and were fun to teach, or had good class activities to go with them. The topics in my course are also a reflection of the print resources and media that I like to use with students and that our school already owns. We have been, no doubt most school have been told, that there are very little funds for new learning resources. I try to build a course-long narrative that has a point to it; in the past it was part of our job in the class to decide together what the point was. Now we have "big ideas" to frame that discussion. Perhaps we need a new term to describe the blend of narrative, discovery, and repetition that form some kind of class goal. What is it that we actually expect from a successful Social Studies student? Beyond the ability to apply critical/historical thinking to problems and evidence, and the development of good Canadians (itself a problem worth deconstructing), I think we are well served by stirring students to become storytellers. The objective is as simple as students being able to talk about Canada's past, present, or future using emotion, humour, insight, and authenticity. Part of that ability is ease with which students can look at fresh material (like what's on the daily news) and have something interesting to say about it, something that connects with what they learned in the course. In my mind, that is as solid an indicator of readiness to move on to the next grade as is a test score. 

Q5. Why don't you include other (new) topics that fit the time period and big ideas? 

A5. For SS9 I have not yet planned for entirely new topics, Canadian or otherwise. This is my first time through so I will be recycling many old lessons and focusing more on designing new competency exercises and class activities than I will on new content. I am a busy guy with a 1000 interests and a beautiful family, so crisp topics will have to wait their turn. One of the interests I have, however, is developing curriculum. I am currently working with a group of teachers from the Pacific Slope Consortium on curriculum projects, but that is more a long term thing and does not help me out this semester. I find that without quality resources in place, taking on new topics involves too much internet surfing and photocopied materials. One topic that doesn't come up too much in the old or new curriculum is local history and geography. This is passion of mine and an area that I want to spend more time with in my courses. I am also loathe to add more content to an already full roster because I have designed a large chunk of my SS9 course to include project-based learning - a Heritage Connections project that involves ongoing inquiry, source work, interviews, and multiple classes for student presentation. Three other factors influence my choice of topics and will probably drive any further reduction of content in my SS9 outline: increased use of role-play/simulations and the added presence of WWI -- the kinds of things teachers and students can do with this time period could fill a whole course. The last is more practical; I have arranged my units so that I can use the "Crossroads" text for the first part of the course and make a clean switch to the "Horizons" test for the next part. I figure we can do the handoff with the Social Studies 8 teachers who will use the Crossroads text for the second part of their course, thus we don't need to purchase new class sets of texts while they are still useful and current.

Q6. Any suggestions for including Aboriginal perspectives and knowledge? 

A6. We have a few decent local learning resources in SD#57 related to Indigenous culture, issues, and worldview. We have a large and well-funded Ab-Ed Dep't with many staff that are available to advise or visit classes. They recently put on a successful Ab-Ed Symposium that gave over 700 local educators a sense of the challenges and possibilities ahead. FNESC; and BCTF have produced some great resources in the last couple of years. Check out this Project of Heart site and also this one: Like others, I have many existing lessons or lesson elements in various states of development on the Aboriginal cultures of North America (or Canada, or BC), Indian Act/Potlatch ban, residential schools (historical, modern i.e. TRC), land claims (process, results, protests), environmental issues that relate to First Nations, Aboriginal self-government, Aboriginal soldiers in WWI/WWII, 1960 vote, etc., etc. That's where I'll start -- include as much of that as makes sense, keep my eye open for critical thinking activities and continue becoming familiar with the First Peoples Principles of Learning and their implication for my classroom and students. Our union local's Aboriginal Education rep has also posted some resources here:

Q7. What's your take on the curricular competencies?

A7. I have been using the Seixas et al Six Historical Thinking concepts (significance, evidence, continuity and change, cause and consequence, perspectives, ethical dimensions) in one way or another for years, so they are not strangers within my lessons, although it has been hit and miss. While they were as good a place as any for the Ministry K-9 team to build their competencies, I feel as if they have squeezed geography in the process and go straight to the complex stuff at the expense of a few old-fashioned Social Studies skills like map-making, charting and graphing, making, and simply learning from a variety of sources and voices (as opposed to decoding them for bias, significance, etc.). I suppose if you teach/learn the core competencies alongside the curricular competencies, you can do it all. The Big 6 can be scaled, too, so that the process/outcome for students is basic... more like "thinking" than "critical thinking." The Gr. 10-12 Ministry team is working on some unique competencies for Geography 11/12 -- these will likely be similar to the six historical thinking concepts and will be useful for Gr. 8-10 Social Studies in the future, perhaps even incorporated in later edits (if that happens). Another area that seems to be missing from the core and curricular competencies is authenticity. Making personal connections to course material, using personal strengths to express learning should be considered a skill that can be developed, refined, and perhaps assessed (or at least self-assessed). Authenticity relates to quality of research, depth of inquiry, choice of strategies, plagiarism education, and acceptance in the learning community. Maybe that's just an extension of the three core competencies.

Q8. How will you use the competencies and how will they be assessed?

A8. It may not obvious from looking at my course outline how competencies fit in. My plan is to be more regular about using at least one competency-driven activity in each of my lesson. This could mean comparison of disparate sources, having students identify and explain turning point, do cause-and-effect webs, pick a position and defend it, debate issues involving ethics, etc. Some of this stuff I can just wing it -- there is enough of it in my lessons already, but some of it needs to be more deliberate, such as dropping direct/specific questions from lesson handouts and having more open-ended inquiry, perhaps around the image on the screen or an object in the classroom. Towards this end, the project I mentioned in A4 above will be useful -- one of the products we hope to end up with are "assessment boxes" with many source documents, laminated photos, and maybe some 3D objects that are meant to provoke thought, center discussion, and be the subject of competency-driven questions and activities. For example, the class gets a series of images of inventions and artifacts from the Industrial Revolution, with enough time or background info to figure out what they did, why they were important or what impact they had. These could be used for so many learning and assessment purposes, group or individual. Arrange in a timeline. Arrange in order of significance, based on criteria developed by your group. Guess (or find out) what technology this invention replaced and what specifically was improved. Predict the social or environmental consequences of the invention. Explain why YOUR invention should be on the cover of a museum exhibit brochure on the industrial revolution. Find one other invention that is related to yours and, with your new partner, explain the connection to the class. You see how this list could go on and on. Instead of having a test bank, we'll have a source bank that can generate fresh assessments simply by changing up the order or the activity. Combined with simple instructions and a couple of different assessment rubrics (e.g. formative, summative, self, peer), we think this method could actually simplify assessment and not take up any more time than the standard test. In our experience, we learn much more about a student's progress from these open-ended "explain your understanding" assessments than we do from ye olde multiple choice tests. I haven't dug into the TC2 resources in a while, or had a chance to read The Big 6, but there one can find many more ideas to drive work with competencies.

I wish all schools and colleagues the best as they wrestle with the many issues that come up with the new curriculum. Historical content remains important, and is a great hearth on which to spin a "Social Studies" narrative with your students and practice both critical and creative thinking, but it is not the only thing that matters in Social Studies. In addition to competencies, tend to the geography, tend to the broad themes of the Humanities and other disciplines that make Social Studies more than a history course. For those that are unfamiliar with the "elements of historical thinking" -- learn more at or sign up for their summer institute For those that use them all the time, challenge the notion that competencies begin and end with these elements. I encourage BC teachers to experiment with diverse course outlines and find a way to compare notes afterwards. Social media works fine for this. The word will eventually seep out to teachers who don't use social media.