Why I voted no…

It’s an interesting time in Ontario to be in either education or politics.  And things keep getting more and more interesting.

In the fall, the legislature was recalled to pass a law, Bill 115 – An Act to Put Students First (or some other political mumbo-jumbo).  End of the day, the bill imposed a contract on teachers, effective December 31st, if their local unions didn’t negotiate a deal with their regional employers (i.e. school boards) before the end of the year.  Sounds easy, as our union has always been able to negotiate.  But the fly in the ointment… any locally negotiated deal had to be ‘substantially identical’ to the one laid out in the law.  Well wait a second… what’s the point in negotiating if the outcome is already clear.

Throughout the fall, negotiations occurred at both the provincial level and the regional level.  A couple of weeks ago though, to much fanfare in the media, the negotiations feel apart at the provincial level, and we were told that no new negotiations were planned.  Imagine our surprise, when four days later, we were told that we had a tentative agreement, days before legal job action was supposed to begin.  The deal presented met the same parameters set out under the act, but had a lot of what-ifs (i.e. what if we don’t meet the savings target with a set number of days off… well, there’d be more… how many more though… we’re unsure  and what about our benefits… well… they should be o.k., but we haven’t negotiated that yet either and class sizes… yep… nope… can’t tell you anything about that yet).  At the end of the day, we were frustrated.  Our union has agreed all along to the pay freezes required.  We’ve been willing to discuss terms openly and honestly.  Yet, we’ve been told we have to fit within the government’s parameters….

Staff are disappointed that the union reached a tentative agreement, which at the end of the day is similar to the bill that we’ve been fighting all along.  Not to mention there are too many unanswered questions.

Contrary to the news reports, we’re still performing extra-curricular. I have student clubs/activities at least three days a week (Student Council, the Bridge club for ESL students, Mock Trial and GSA to name the current ones).  We’re living up to our end of the bargain, but not getting anywhere with a government, which it seems doesn’t even support the law.

The ruling Liberals have a leadership convention coming in January, and reading what some of the contenders are saying about Bill 115, why should we agree to abide by the law when they don’t even support it:

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I don’t know how this going to end.  Worst case scenario: another year and a half under a Draconian law that has stripped teachers of their fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the Charter.  I’d rather be forced to those conditions though, then accept them willingly.  Only time will tell I guess.

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A taste of the future?

Our board hosted an annual education conference, and bills it is a definitive moment in educational learning every year.  I’ve been.  I was underwhelmed and frankly, when the opportunity is now presented, I choose to “let someone else go”… to build capacity.  Good decision on my part this year, as it meant that I was available to be “Acting Administrator” in the building today.  22 years ago, I walked in as a meek Grade 9 (yes, I was meek at one time), and now, I had keys to the place (not really).  I’ve been involved in the school for a while to know that it’s pretty self sufficient, and looked forward to a pretty quiet day.  At the end of the day, at least I can say that I was busy….

The day started about 8:15, when a teacher reported that the ambulance was on site, and a student with medical issues had called it himself.  Great… thanks for the heads up, not to mention that it’s the busiest time for the school driveway.  Some parents, when realizing that their kids had to walk 50 feet to the front door, as opposed to dropping them there, were almost beligierent, irrespective of the multiple vehicles from emergency services.  45 minutes later, things returned to relative calm, and we were good to go.  Then, a teacher arrived, with a student in tow, allegedly a victim of an altercation.  Some investigation later, sent the aggressor home for a couple of days to think about his actions (but feel sort of bad for him, as it turns out that he was provoked by a comment about a deceased family member) and left the VPs to write the suspension letter.  Then a parent arrived, to discuss a personal issue.  YIKES!  Didn’t turn out as weighty as I had assumed, but again, something that I could band-aid until admin team returned tomorrow.  And finally, a student who defaced a school basketball WITH HIS OWN NAME.  You have a choice… a three day suspension OR you’ve got 14 minutes (till the end of the day) to wash that basketball clean.  He showed up, with a couple of minutes to spare, with a cleaned basketball, but a very very wet hoodie.  I figure, for an empty threat of a three day suspension, I won that one.

What was interesting was seeing the range of things that administrators have to deal with one a given day.  And I think I liked it.  I think.

I remember.

Today is Remembrance Day.  As the calendar falls, this year, it’s a weekend.  We had two very powerful assemblies at school on Friday, and am proud that a Grade 9 student asked a teacher “Are the assemblies always this good?”.  It was a small compliment, but suggests that we are on to something.

Headed to Old City Hall today to mark the day. Somehow, a gorgeous warm and sunny Sunday morning didn’t seem appropriate for the thousands gathered there to remember.  Found a spot, close to the Cenotaph and waited, awkwardly almost, for 11 o’clock to arrive.  In the distance, the sounds of bag pipes and a marching band started, growing steadily.  The applause told you that the veterans and currently-serving members had arrived.  The clock struck 11, and the Last Post began.  I thought about my Great-Grandfather who fought in both World War I and World War II and made it home.  I thought about my Grandfather who flew with the R.A.F. Ferry Command, shuttling Lancasters to Europe for the invasion, and who met my Granny, who’d soon become a War Bride, leaving her home in Stoke-on-Trent for a life in Canada, what must have seemed like a million miles away.  And I thought about my Great Uncle Bill, who died during the Liberation of the Netherlands, in March 1945, months before the end of the war.

It was about this point that protestors on the other side of the ceremony started the chant “Shame”.  Classless?  Absolutely!  Disrespectful?  Darn right!  But, I realized that it was o.k.  It was their right.  The mere fact that they have the freedom to express their opinion in this country is thanks to the men and women who fought during the World Wars, Korea, and subsequent conflicts as Peacekeepers.  Apparently, according to the news, they were hustled off by the Toronto Police Department.

It bothers me that the Toronto Rock decided to have a Remembrance Day Sale…. but again, by the same token, I guess that’s their right.  Poorly planned and executed, but that’s their right.

“If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.”

Toronto Remembrance Day Ceremony

It’s Technology dummy

But first, a quote from Plato:

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”

I’ve never hidden the fact that I like technology.  I’ve used it for as long as I can remember.  While it is sad that I didn’t really have the internet growing up, I did have a Speak and Spell, it was one of the coolest things you could imagine.  Then came the Commodore 64, followed by the old-school Nintendo (how comes games for that cost like $80 each, 25 years ago, where as the new games cost less and are way better?), and eventually my own first-Mac in 1997.  I remember creating webpages in University, for use on a PC, without net access, more to impress the Prof and dazzle them with technology, therefore blinding them to the stunning lack of content.  Mission accomplished.  I can’t, really, imagine life without it now.  I use it, effectively I think, to travel cheaply, read and read and read, and watch t.v. without the necessity of cable (and commercials!)

I’ve also used it a lot in my practice, ever since I returned from my year abroad where I had access to a laptop and whiteboard in my classroom (something unheard of in many classrooms in Ontario today, but thankfully not at my school).  I use an online classroom system to work with kids in cyberspace.  I use collaborative apps (namely Google Documents) to monitor my students as they work together.  I use programs to check for originality (i.e. search for plagiarism  so that I can spend more time providing actual concrete feedback as opposed to performing Google searches.  I had the opportunity last year, to be part of a board pilot project, for choosing a cloud-based system for students.  A long process, and Google was selected as the host.  My principal (who is a tech lover) is wanting to roll-out the platform across the school, realizing that students are itching to use technology more and more often (some of them were born after my first $3,000 computer).  At our Leadership Team meeting (by definition, it should be made up of ‘leaders’ within the school), we demo’ed how to use the ‘cloud’ to share information with students and monitor their usage.  But, at the end of the meeting, a department head presented a study that suggests that the use of Powerpoint is shrinking part of our brains, used for memory.  As a result, technology, and Powerpoint specifically, has no place in those classrooms we were told.

I can understand someone’s willingness (or lack thereof) to adopt something new.  But it’s important to remember, that at some point, everything was new.  Shopping on Sundays, a convenience that most of us would rather not live without, is a relatively new invention.  So was the telephone, or even writing, as Plato laments.  But at the end of the day, we’ve got to move on.

Personally, I look at it as what is best for students.  At the end of the day, we might not be as comfortable as them in the digital environment, but by the same way that we’ve demanded that our health care system not just be open from 9 – 3, or our banks to having banking hours, we to, as teachers need to ensure we can engage with our clients.  Clients might be the wrong word, but when we use the terms teachers and students, it automatically denotes a power balance which is rapidly shifting.  No longer are we the jockeys at the gas pump of knowledge, waiting to fill young vessels with information.  Now it’s all about working together, discovering knowledge and applying it to real world situations.  We can’t know the future, or what it will hold, but pretending the technology is going to go away isn’t the answer.

Why I hate teaching online learning

In an effort to stem the tide of students buying their credits at fly-by-night private schools (The Toronto Star did a great expose earlier this summer, which of course led to no action from the government), we now offer students the option to complete credits online.  The idea being that students might not be able to take this course at their own school, or fit it into their timetable, they can take it online, with us.  We generate a ‘credit’ which helps keep staffing up, the kids learn the material on their own time, and everyone is a winner.  The only ‘obligation’ that I have to it is that I must have online office hours for 75 minutes a day, in addition to regular marking expectations.  In theory, a great model.

I started the semester with 8 students, from a range of high schools, across our school board.  We started the class, and as weeks went by, more and more students joined it.  In theory, the expectation is that the students will spend at least 75 minutes a day on their course material, asking questions and seeking guidance as required.  We have an Alternative Education department in our school which tailors to students who benefit from one-on-one support.  They attend classes (generally a lot smaller than a regular class), and complete work with assistance from a teacher.  Online teaching is not the same environment though, as students must be self driven and disciplined to complete the work.  Unfortunately, this message has been lost by the various guidance departments registering students.

I currently have 18 students in the class.  6 are passing. 3 have never even signed into the course.  The remaining 9 sign in on a daily basis, but don’t actually complete any work.  Normally, if these students were registered at my school, I’d call them out of class and figure out what was going wrong.  I don’t have that option.  Instead I rely on emails and voice-mail messages to parents (which are rarely returned), frantic emails to guidance counselors, asking them to find out what the story is (but realizing that they’re busy in their own right), and pleading messages to Vice Principals, asking them to follow up with the students/parents who I’ve never heard from.  And where does all this work get me? Nowhere!

The program works well for the right students.  Of my 6 students who make the effort, they are intelligent and articulate young individuals, able to balance their various responsibilities and ask for help when they need it.  I can see that they are getting something out of the program, and that’s re-assuring.  The rest of them?  Well… we shall see what happens when report cards come due, and I don’t have a stitch of their work to show for it.

Meanwhile, on line #2…

So I was thinking, and still am, about going and volunteering in Uganda next summer.  It’ll be an amazing opportunity.  But then…

I’ve just started my second last qualification to be able to take the Principal’s course.  I’ve always said that administration wasn’t for me.  But the more I get involved in helping run a school, the more appealing it becomes.  There is the opportunity to make a change, but it’s not something that happens overnight.  I’ve realized already, this semester, that anything I do will probably have minimal buy in from staff.  Fair enough… I’ve scoffed at enough initiatives in my own time (and still do…). But I’m unsure if I want to be in the classroom for the rest of my days.

I hate having the feeling that I’ve got something to do hanging over my head, and would prefer to get it done sooner, rather than later (whether it be marking, prepping, difficult conversations, professional development).  My thought it to finish one course now, this fall, and another in the spring.  Then, spend three and a half weeks next July doing the first part of my Principal’s papers, instead of doing it over the fall next year, for a day and a half, EVERY WEEEKEND (with the exception of Thanksgiving).  That’d throw a real wrench into the weekend travel plans me thinks.  If I stayed at home next July, did the course, I could still travel in August.  And September.  And October.  Hmmmm….

Death by atrophy – The Toronto Zoo

Headed out to the zoo yesterday.  Granted, it’s been a while since I was last year (I suspect, maybe six years ago, when I was teaching Special Education) but what’s amazing about the Toronto Zoo is that nothing changes.  NOTHING!  Not in the past 30 years.  Hence the issue.

Going to the zoo as a kid was a big deal.  I remember vividly the last time that that panda bears were here, remember the excitement about seeing these exotic creatures from half way around the world and remember the bitter disappointed when they turned out to be more dirty brown and white and a bunch of lazy sods lying in the grass.  It seems when you travel, you go to zoos, cause it’s something to do.  In recent memory, I’ve been to the Singapore Zoo and the Denver Zoo.  Hands down, the Toronto Zoo needs to take some lessons.

Lesson 1: Think outside the box.

Recommended in all the tour books of Singapore was a visit to the night safari.  Long story short, close the zoo at it’s regular time, and re-open a couple of hours later, once darkness settles, and charge people.  That’s what they do in Singapore.  We headed off, lined up for what seemed like hours, and rode a ‘zoo-mobile’ contraption, looking at the same animals that were on display a couple of hours earlier.  Would we have gone to the Singapore zoo for a visit, when we were there for less than 48 hours?  No.  Did we go because it was something different?  Yes.  Turns out, Toronto already owns the zoo-mobile equipment and has a route around the zoo.  Granted, they probably wouldn’t be able to charge people twice for the same ride (once at night, once during the day), but it would open up a whole other stream of lucrative visitors to experience the zoo in a new way.

Lesson 2: Welcome to the 21st Century.  Get with it.

I was struck yesterday by the fact that the display boards, listing the various animals and their characteristics haven’t changed in the past six years, if not longer (I think I remember some of the info sheets in the pavilions distinctly from my childhood, mainly because they lacked any other information than the name of the animal).  Regardless, technology has changed a lot in six years.  Here’s an idea Toronto Zoo: QR Codes.  Most people have a cell phone.  A quick snap of a QR code and a link through to a website… you could have pages and pages of information about the animals, threats they face, characteristics… blah blah blah.  It doesn’t matter.  It would make for a far more engaging visit for your audience, cost relative peanuts and demonstrate that you’re actually committed to the idea of the zoo being more than a simple show and tell.

Lesson 3: Privatize or not… get off the pot.

I’ve often wished that zoo/museums/any other publicly owned attraction in Toronto/Ontario/Canada was free.  The British Museum?  Free.  The Smithsonian? Free.  These are world class collections, and they’re free, so why, oh why, should I pay $25 bucks to visit something that my tax dollars supports anyways.  It’s not like you’re not ripping me off in the place with $5 ice cream, $8 rope courses and incredibly expensive souvenirs.  Imagine, if the zoo were free, how many people would go. You’d still charge $10 parking.  The fact that the zoo admission jumped from $21 to $25 this year, AND that the entire EurAsian pavilion is closed currently to create an environment for the pandas (arriving in Spring 2013… not quite the excitement this time as last), seems to be a world class rip off.  There’s been talk of privatizing the zoo, and after my visit, I’m all for it.  The zoo is looking worn down, and I’m worried it’ll suffer the same fate as Ontario Place.

Lesson 4: Shamed to do better.

I’ll admit, I have my favourites at the zoo.  Everyone does.  Mine are the polar bears and the elephants, representing opposite ends of the animal kingdom.  And they both get the shaft at the zoo.  There has been a lot of talk about the elephants at the zoo, and moving them into retirement at a sanctuary in California.  I won’t get into the politics of the decision, nor why they are still stuck in Toronto over a year after the plan was first floated.  I will say that their enclosure is an embarrassment    A quick Google image search of  “elephants in the wild” returns the following image, and this one and this one.  And now, courtesy of Google Maps, the view of Toronto’s Elephant enclosure:

 The Toronto Zoo Elephant Enclosure

Notice the differences?  Namely that the elephants live their days, when outside, on a dusty and barren landscape with artificial trees as their own source of shade (hence the octagonal shaped shadows.)  It’s an embarrassment to think of any animal living in conditions like this.  And their indoor space isn’t much better… concrete floors, small living spaces.  The polar bears you ask?  The same fate. A run down enclosure, made of concrete, with a wading pool where the bears have figured out that floating on your back and being pushed around by the current is the best (perhaps only way) to spend your days.

Whatever they decide to do… they’d better do it quick.  The zoo is on it’s last legs.