What do we teach while our world is burning?

I usually spend August thinking about what I’ll do when I’m back at school again in September but lately all I can think about is 48°C rain.  I keep wondering about what lessons would prepare my teen students for a world where hot water falls from the sky, where oceans are too warm to cool nuclear reactors, and when road surfaces  from India to the U.K keep melting.

What kinds of skills will be needed in order to thrive if a domino effect of deforestation and thawing tundra turns our planet into a hothouse?

I suspect that knowing how to parse a sentence or how to solve for x aren’t going to be essential skills in such an environment.

But what will be?

I’d be willing to bet that teachers in 1918 were confident that a Liberal Arts curriculum would prepare students to fit socially and economically into a rapidly modernizing, industrializing world. An essential skill then was probably a sensibility to not stray too far beyond the boundaries of conformity while thinking critically about established ideas in literature, math and science.  For most of the 20th century, high school graduates who had mastered this skill could look forward to decades of socio-economic rewards.

But is this skill still enough for students who will graduate into the third decade of the 21st century?

What do my fifteen-year-old students need to know?

Certainly there’ll be discussions about the socio-cultural impacts of artificial Intelligence and the economic outlook for a “world without work”, but I’m not quite sure where in our curriculum we’ll be addressing living in a world where new colours have to be added to weather maps to display unprecedented heat.

Should we be teaching them how to recover after a wildfires or rising seas have destroyed their homes?

Should they consider how they’ll respond to the millions of migrants whose homes will have become “the mouth of a shark” as the poet Warsan Shire so eloquently describes?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/24354425@N03/18508601420

A century ago a few teachers may have encouraged teens to question militarism in the aftermath of The Great War but any suggestion that relentless economic growth would lead to millions of deaths and an uninhabitable planet would likely have resulted in a referral to an asylum. After all, the age of mass consumerism was just beginning and there were all those newly-electrified gadgets to buy.

Any day now the back-to-school ads will be popping up on screens everywhere. We’ll keep being reminded to buy, buy, buy. The tragic irony is that we have created an economy that is utterly dependent on consumer confidence and yet it’s mass consumption that is leading us to a new norm of rain that falls at 48.3 degrees Celsius and rivers too warm for salmon to spawn.

And there’s the rub, isn’t it? When our education system is a product of, and is sustained by a consumerist society, is it hypocritical to challenge our conformity to  consumerism?

What is the role of teachers in the necessary transition away from our fossil-fuel dependent economy?

Within the next 24 months, my Grade 10 students are going to have to make choices about future education and careers. What should they know about how their lives may be affected given that many experts are predicting that the “oil bubble is about to burst”?  

Does my teaching role include preparing my students for a post-consumer society?  Can we actually return to a time when we were known by our  “societal roles (parents …doctors, plumbers, etc.) or political status (voters)” not just by our roles as consumers or customers?

I don’t know.

What does one teach when the world is burning?  

Dear Premier John Horgan

Dear Premier John Horgan,

Because we believed you when you told us during the 2017 election campaign that you were committed to supporting all students in public schools, dozens of us spent hundreds of hours canvassing for your candidates in the nine ridings that fall within our school district.  We moved making calls on behalf of your candidates to the top of our priority lists, above the myriad tasks we normally have as parents and as teachers.

We were highly motivated to do this because we could not bear the thought of yet another year of inadequate resources and overcrowded classrooms, yet another year of looking into the faces of our students who struggled to learn without the supports they desperately needed in their classrooms.  

Before 2002 when our collective agreement was shredded by the BC Liberals, students in Surrey who needed help with their learning, whether they were designated or not,  had access to resource rooms and tutorial rooms. There were also enough Learning Assistant Teachers and Education Assistants to support all students who needed it.

As you well know, almost all of that support disappeared during the 16 years that the BC Liberal government was in power.

And so, while we knocked on doors and spoke to voters in spring 2017, we hoped that, if an NDP government were in place, the level of support needed for our students would, at the very least, be restored to what it had been in 2001, the year before the BC Liberal government gutted funding.  

On election night, we were thrilled when six out of the nine ridings in Surrey were won by your colleagues. We were especially ecstatic about the ousting of the former Minister of Education, Peter Fassbender, who had been deaf to our multiple appeals for support on behalf of our students. By the end of the school year in June 2017, we excitedly anticipated that our students’ suffering was time-limited, that there was light on the horizon.

There was indeed some light in the new school year. Your government announced more funding for a new school in our district where students had been subjected to gross overcrowding for too many years. We also happily welcomed all the newly hired teachers and looked forward to the relief they would bring to our schools.  

JOhn Horgan 29 april 2017
Surrey Teachers meet with Horgan during 2017 election. Credit: Julia MacRae

But now, it’s a been a year since your Minister of Education said that it was an urgent issue to restore supports and funding to our schools and we are distressed that the situation for students with special needs in our district has gotten worse than it ever was under the BC Liberals!

We are shocked that your government has allowed BCPSEA to avoid fully implementing our restored language.

We are deeply disturbed by the number of students who are left without supports daily while their Learning Specialist Teachers are called to cover classes because of a shortage of teachers. 

We are dismayed by the number of teachers who have had no prep time for weeks because they’ve had to cover other classes.

And we are extremely perplexed by your government not doing all that it can to honour the Memorandum of Agreement, the document that is meant to guide the restoration of what was lost in 2002. 

Why are you not pressuring all stakeholders to take the actions necessary to remedy the situation in schools, not exacerbate it by preparing to monetize the lost hours of support that too many students endured for far too long?   

Even in our worst nightmares we never thought we’d have to debate the morally repugnant issue of “cash for kids” with your government.

But here we are.

Where do we go next, Premier?

Sincerely,

Voters who teach in Surrey.

Time for a New Normal

Starting this month, there’s going to be an historic demolition of a building in Vancouver. Historic not only because it’s the tallest building to be demolished in the city but also because it’s going to take concrete-crushing robots over a year to turn the Empire Hotel, floor by floor, into a pile of dust and debris.

Since March is also when we celebrate Women’s History and acknowledge International Women’s Day, news of this revolutionary form of demolition got me wondering about how long it’s been taking to dismantle the edifice of patriarchy.

It’s been 226 years since the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, just over a 100 years since White women in Canada got the vote, 58 years since First Nations women could vote, two years since Canada saw the first gender-balanced cabinet and a week since the unveiling of a “gender conscious” federal budget.

It may be 2018 but patriarchy is not yet archaic.  

On the contrary, patriarchy is very much alive and kicking along with its conspirators, colonialism and misogyny.

Patriarchal structures continue to exist because they’ve been perfectly disguised as what passes for normal.

For many people here in North America, the perversion of patriarchy is not overtly visible. Stories of marriage by abduction, female genital mutilation (FGM)  and the abandonment of female babies are horrors that happen in other places.

Over here patriarchy is like that car you don’t notice until you buy one and then you see it everywhere.

Once you know what to look for, you’ll become aware of patriarchy everywhere.

The predominant face of power in corporations and in government is male.

Children still need to have their father’s last name to be considered legitimate.

Teen girls in high school who have sex are sluts but boys who do are players.

Working women, whether in minimum wage jobs or in Hollywood, are paid less for doing the same work, with many still making 87 cents for every dollar a man earns.

You will also notice that not even unions, those bastions of social justice, are immune from patriarchy’s persistence. The BCTF has had just 8 female presidents in 100 years, 5 of them since 1986. Progress yes, but … .

Although we should be encouraged by the recently-started systematic remodelling of structures within the BCTF to include spaces for equity-seeking groups, we need to acknowledge that there is still a lot of work to be done to reveal how male privilege is interwoven into the way our union works.

Most often this male privilege goes unnoticed. For example, a colleague recently shared that, during an important meeting with a school board, he echoed a comment that a female colleague had just made but he didn’t notice that he was carefully listened to while she was ignored.  He only realized that this had happened after she pointed it out to him later.

That’s the thing about male privilege in a patriarchy. It’s so carefully disguised as normal that it’s not even noticed. For many people, living in a patriarchy is like what water is to a fish. It’s so normal it’s invisible.

Perhaps this is why pointing out male privilege invokes a visceral reaction in some people. It’s a shock to realize that you have not actually been seeing what is right there in front of you. Like an elephant in this Magic Eye image. Can you see it?

Exposing male privilege is not to say that men never experience prejudice. Male teachers are well aware of the need to take extra precautions around female students because they remember stories like that of teacher Sean Lanigan whose life was torn apart after being falsely accused of molestation. Others who are routinely called upon to do the heavy lifting and snow-shovelling may also bristle at the suggestion that males are privileged.  Male kindergarten teachers also have stories to share about how they are sometimes negatively received.

However,  these examples of bias cannot discount the entrenchment of the power of males in decision-making positions across all sectors of our society.  Discrimination among people may exist in a multitude of ways but the power to make decisions that affect entire populations within systems, whether political, financial, judicial or educational, is still largely controlled by males.

The 2017 BCTF AGM saw the passing of historic resolutions aimed at creating a space at the executive table for people of colour. It marked a time when many people agreed that the exclusion of people of colour from decision-making power could no longer be tolerated. This is commendable.   

On the other hand, motions limiting the role of males on the executive failed by a large margin of the vote. This was disheartening.  

Delegates at this month’s AGM, happening in the middle of Women’s History month, will once again be presented with resolutions aimed at limiting the roles of males on the executive committee of an organization whose membership is about 75% female.  

What are the chances that delegates, inspired by this Women’s History Month’s stories of the long struggle to demolish the edifice of the 10 000-year-old patriarchy, will vote for an executive that, instead of concentrating power around males, disperses that power in favour of members from equity-seeking groups?  

I hope delegates will see that, for male privilege, time is up.

It’s beyond time to build a new normal.

Recognizing the Consequences

Less than a year before his untimely death, I was lucky enough to be in the audience at a  presentation by Ojibway wordsmith Richard Wagamese . What I remember most about his talk was not only laughing a lot at his incisive humour, but also thinking deeply about what he said about the role of smartphones in the lives of our children. He said that we should not allow smartphones to satisfy the need our children had to gather around a fire to hear stories. He said we should build a new, alternative fire to gather our children so that they could hear from us the stories that would teach them who they were.

I think about that talk a lot these days when I hear about the research that correlates the use of smartphones with high rates of sleep deprivation and depression amongst teens.

I also wonder what Richard would say about the fact that the government of California has, since 2014, been spending millions on ads that encourage parents to talk, read and sing to their children.

Does that fact shock you as much as it did me when I first heard about it? Are you surprised that millions of dollars are being spent to encourage parents to talk to their children? Given how reluctant most governments are to spend money on any kind of social program let alone one that benefits those too young to vote, the consequences of parents not talking to their children must be dire enough to warrant the spending.

California is not alone in taking action. The government of New Brunswick has also launched a campaign to encourage parents “to sing, talk and read to their children under five“. The Clinton Foundation also provides funds to organizations that will expect parents they support to take a pledge to spend time each day talking, singing and reading to their children. There are many other organizations, big and small, focused on the same project of ensuring that parents speak to their children so that they learn the words they’ll need to navigate the world.

Navigating iPad screens is an increasing popular skill among toddlers. Have you noticed how often screens are being used by harried parents to keep their children quiet for hours?

Do you worry like I do about the consequences for society when millions of toddlers grow up to be teens who do not know how to hold a conversation , who do not have the words to express how they feel but who are quite skilled at sending emojis?

This scary future may already be here. Recently primary teachers have been voicing concerns about kindergarteners not being able to manage their emotions and not being able to “use their words”.  Perhaps it’s because they may not have enough words from which to choose.

What are the societal consequences of having children “be quiet” all the time? Will we lose the power of words to weave stories that show us who we are?

Screen Shot 2017-11-19 at 9.26.47 AM

I’m very grateful that we have the First Peoples’ Principles of Learning to remind us what Indigenous Peoples have known about learning for millennia.  The third of the First Peoples’ Principles of Learning states that learning involves recognizing the consequences of one’s actions. I wonder if we adults, who are the hosts to the children who have newly arrived on this planet, fully recognize the consequences of spending so little time talking to our children that we need to be reminded to do so through public service announcements?

Monday, 20th November is Children’s Day, the 58th celebration of the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. The  United Nations hopes the anniversary will inspire people  “to advocate, promote and celebrate children’s rights” and to begin “dialogues and actions that will build a better world for Children”.  I have no doubt that there will be lots of money spent on encouraging such “dialogues” and “actions” but I also know that it would cost nothing at all if knowledgeable adults everywhere fully accepted, as per the fourth principle of learning, their roles and responsibilities,  and put down their phones and instead picked up conversations with children.

If they did, the consequences will be priceless.

 

Relationships in a Climate Change Age

Education literature is well-populated with articles on the centrality of relationships in learning but there is very little discussion on how difficult maintaining healthy relationships can be.  

Relationships are always easy when things are going well, when there’s no conflict. They’re really difficult when things are not going well. And if there’s ever a place where relationships can get into trouble, it’s in classrooms and in schools.

In her explanation and background to the principle of holistic learning among First Peoples, Jo Chrono provides lots of examples of what the integration of this principle may look like in a classroom. Teachers who have already incorporated regular field trips, reflective journalling, experiential learning, place-based learning, and project-based learning into their classroom practice will easily be able to connect their teaching to this learning principle. But what I want to focus on here is something else that she mentions: the critical importance of relationships inherent in this learning principle in particular.

A few months ago, three students who were very angry with me waited to talk to me after school. They wanted the four of us to use a process I teach to all my students to help them to work through any conflict they may experience in their relationships. It took some time but at the end of our excavation of the incident we all realized that we had each interpreted what we saw and heard in completely different ways thus resulting in different stories about what had happened in the classroom earlier in the day.  

Over the past decade, students have told me how this process, The Communication Model, has helped them not only to repair but also to sustain relationships amongst friends and family. Emily, a former student, has written about how she used it to de-escalate conflict between an adult and some students in our school. Countless others have talked about how their relationships with siblings and with parents have been strengthened through using the model.

I’m partial to the Communication model because, unlike other models for the resolution of conflict, its experiential method creates the possibility for a relationship to be strengthened through deepening mutual understanding.

communication model picture

The core premise of The Communication Model is that through examining our perceptions and interpretations, we can discover what we may only unconsciously hold dear.

Another premise is that we are never angry about the thing we think we’re angry about. In other words, anger rears its head when we sense an attack on what we deeply value, what is critically important to our sense of self.

The problem is that other people are often completely unaware of what is important to us and so there are multiple instances each day when they may inadvertently trigger this biological self-defense system. Most often we can brush off incidents quite easily by taking a breath and moving on, but sometimes that’s not easy to do.

At this point I want to stress that anger in and of itself is not a bad thing. Perhaps because the expression of anger in our society is so often associated with violence, there is little acknowledgement of anger’s value in helping us to understand why we do the things we do. As I tell my students, anger provides a direct pathway to our core beliefs, our deepest sense of self.

It’s also interesting to note the differences in the way children are taught about anger in various cultures and within social classes. From a modern western European cultural perspective, the expression of anger is certainly gendered: it’s okay for men to express violent anger but not okay for women to do the same.

I am curious about Indigenous perspectives on the experience and expression of anger and conflict. I would like to learn about how conflict was resolved before colonization and whether there are other examples of it being resolved through games like slahal.  With consensus being a common decision-making process amongst First Peoples before contact, there’s no doubt that we have much to learn from them about how to work through conflicts to arrive at a common understanding. 

When those three students processed their anger that day, we all learned a lot about each other. We learned what we each deeply valued and we realized that we all wanted the same thing: to have fairness and a sense of community in the classroom.

There is a lot of conflict in a world of systemic racism, gross inequality, and climate change impacts. If our children can learn how to work through anger to discover the values and aspirations they have in common with others with whom they are in conflict, the troubles ahead will be much easier for them to navigate.

First Peoples’ Principles of Learning: Well-being

There’s no way that I can fully comprehend what “well-being” means to Canada’s First Peoples as I am not indigenous and I have had barely any exposure to the cultures of the original inhabitants of this land, I’m ashamed to say.  I also suspect that the original term for which “well-being” is the nearest English equivalent includes a far more expansive worldview than can be captured in translation.

I wonder if the Greek concept of eudaimonia, sometimes translated to mean “the highest human good” or sometimes to mean happiness is compatible with what indigenous peoples mean by well-being?  Or is the Japanese concept of ikigai, translated as being “a reason to live” a better fit?

Perhaps the work of Martin Seligman with his concept of PERMA (positive emotion; engagement, relationships, meaning, achievement) comes closest to capturing the main ideas behind this principle of learning? I wonder.

Even though I might not completely understand what First Peoples mean by well-being, I certainly have an acute sense of what it is not.  There is no well-being in a classroom with no laughter, a classroom in which students feel lonely in a crowd. There is no well-being when there is extreme anxiety and overwhelming stress experienced by students who find no meaning or purpose in what they’re doing other than that it’s part of the plot of the story of school.

It’s the story that says if you go all the way through school, from kindergarten to Grade 12, and then go to university, and then graduate, you’ll get a good job and then you’ll be happy. The ridiculousness of this story is perfectly illustrated in Alan Watts’ Music and Life analogy in which he exposes the false promise of education’s holy grail.

This myth about what school is for continues to be perpetuated even though we know that there is absolutely no guarantee that having a job that is well-paid leads to happiness as evidenced by rates of depression and suicide amongst highly-qualified professionals. To put it another way, there is no guarantee that if our children do everything right to get a good job, that the job will do much for their well-being beyond allowing for the provision of material wealth, which our modern western European culture positions as the pinnacle of happiness.

In our society, high purchasing power is equated with high levels of happiness, a necessary myth when our economy depends on increasing consumption of all kinds of stuff from cars to clothing. We are taught to fear a lack of growth in “consumer confidence” as though the worst thing that can happen is for us to stop shopping.

But what is the logical outcome of an unlimited extraction of the earth’s resources in order to manufacture the stuff that we are expected to keep purchasing so that we’ll be happy?

On 2 August this year, we used up the amount of resources that it takes the planet a year to replenish. We used up in 7 months what it will take 12 months to replace. That’s the denouement at the end of the Story of Stuff.

Can we really afford to perpetuate the myth that cancerous consumption leads to happiness?

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 9.41.10 AM

If ever there was a time to replace the current stories of school and of stuff with stories that the First Peoples developed over thousands of years while they sustained a regenerative relationship with their lands, that time would be now.

Well-being for our children and for our planet should be the ultimate goal of learning. We can’t afford for it not to be.

But what would that look like in the classrooms that our children will be in next month?

In her blog explaining the background of First Peoples’ Principles of Learning, Jo Chrono explains that it’s important that the learning principles operate in a “robust and healthy learning environment”.  Now that’s something I do know about! Creating an environment that is engaging along with building a sense of community in my classroom have been my guiding pedagogical principles ever since I began teaching almost 30 years ago.

It’s not always been easy. Focusing on children’s well-being means being willing to get into trouble for allowing students to break school rules that disregard their physiological needs. It also means apologizing to students when there are things you know are not good for their well-being but about which you can do nothing.

But the task is not impossible. It’s not difficult to encourage laughter while learning. It just takes a little bit more planning to ensure that students are not forced to work when they’re fatigued. And it’s not too difficult to always keep in mind that the child sitting in front of you is more than just an empty vessel that needs to be filled with facts. That child is one node in a network of connections that include her family, her community, her ancestors, and, perhaps most importantly, the land around her.  

As Neil DeGrasse Tyson says, the most amazing fact is that we are connected to the earth chemically, to each other biologically, and to the the universe atomically.

But then First Peoples have always known that.  They’ve always known that our individual well-being is directly connected to the well-being of everything around us.

As the impacts of climate change increasingly affect the world around us, let’s help our children to see that in everything they learn at school.

Curriculum for the Age of Climate Change?

Have you heard of First Peoples Principles of Learning, a list of approaches to learning common amongst Indigenous Peoples for the multiple millennia before colonization brought the scourge of Residential Schools? The publication of the principles is a result of a collaboration between the BC Ministry of Education and groups of “Indigenous Elder[s], scholars, and knowledge keepers” and meant to provide an overview of Indigenous pedagogy, a philosophy of learning grounded in relationships and responsibilities. The principles are:

Learning ultimately supports the well-being of the self, the family, the community, the land, the spirits, and the ancestors.

Learning is holistic, reflexive, reflective, experiential, and relational (focused on connectedness, on reciprocal relationships, and a sense of place).

Learning involves recognizing the consequences of one‘s actions.

Learning involves generational roles and responsibilities.

Learning recognizes the role of indigenous knowledge.

Learning is embedded in memory, history, and story.

Learning involves patience and time.

Learning requires exploration of one‘s identity.

Learning involves recognizing that some knowledge is sacred and only shared with permission and/or in certain situations.

What if the Class of 2030 was completely immersed in experiences that upheld First Peoples Principles of Learning? Would they be better prepared to face the challenges brought by climate change when they graduate?

The next series of posts will explore these questions.

But before  continuing with my thoughts about what First Peoples Principles of Learning could look like in classrooms, I need to write about an incident that happened almost twenty years ago, at the beginning of my teaching career in Canada. It’s a memory that makes me feel quite ashamed when I recall it. 

I remember that I was in the middle of one of those crazynutsbusy days that are the norm for teachers when I was told that a parent was wanting to speak to me. I remember wondering why she hadn’t come to the classroom as I walked to where she was. This part of the memory is so vivid I can see it as though it was happening right now.

I am standing at the top of a short flight of stairs at the entrance of our portable building. At the bottom of the stairs is a woman whom I’m told is the mother of one of my students. We greet each other while I’m wondering about why she’d come.

As soon as she begins to speak she starts crying and I don’t understand what she’s saying. It takes me a few minutes to hear her tell me that she’s so happy that her son, my student, was going to pass Grade 11. That he was the first person in the family to do so. And that she was so grateful that my classroom was the kind of space that helped him to succeed.  I don’t know what I said in response but it must have been something quite inadequate like “You’re welcome” or “I’m so glad that he’s enjoyed being with us”.

Here’s why this memory fills me with shame. I didn’t know her son was Indigenous. I didn’t know at the time that graduation rates for Indigenous students were abysmally low. And, most important of all, I really didn’t know what I had done to deserve her thanks.  I didn’t think I deserved it at all since I had not consciously set out to make her son’s learning experiences any different to the learning experiences of all my students.  It took me many years to figure out what possibly could have made the difference to her son. 

Because of my own experiences of alienation while being educated in South Africa during the apartheid era, as a teacher I am biased toward collaboration and cooperation. One of the first tasks that my students have to fulfill at the start of each semester is to learn each other’s names because they spend a lot of time working together. Building community is the focus of the first part of my planning schedule before it becomes the background to much of what we do in my classroom for the rest of the school year. I do it not only for my own sense of comfort but also because I believe that if we can’t learn to be together in public school classrooms, we’re not going to be able to be together in the world beyond the classroom where we need to “live together as brothers [and sisters] or perish together as fools” as Martin Luther King Jr. said.

It was just serendipity that what I needed to be able to teach in my classroom was what her son had needed to succeed.  It’s also what we’re all going to need as we face the impacts of climate change, together.

Connection.

Cooperation.

Collaboration.

Community.