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.