Question Box


Something I love about my job is when my teen students tell me something that ‘blows my mind’ (in teenspeak). Being a teacher of teens means that I am frequently having to adjust what I thought I knew about a whole range of issues.  The most recent adjustment has been to what I thought I knew about teens’ relationship with the Internet.

Before this week, I believed that a teacher of teens should never ask a question that Google could answer because a teacher’s reservoir of knowledge could not compete in any way with what Google could deliver in nanoseconds.

Turns out, teens are not impressed with that instantaneous delivery of piles of content. As was made clear to me this week, teens much prefer to have conversations about topics they are interested in, rather than just consuming content whether from a teacher or the Internet.

It’s not that I did not have an inkling that teens interacted with information differently to the way my generation did.  Don Tapscott in Grown Up Digital did warn us in 2009 that the Net Generation (aka the Digital Generation, the teens I teach) have a radically different way of interacting with information than those of us born before the Internet existed.

In his book, Tapscott reveals that the Net Generation prefers to learn collaboratively and through discovery rather than through the traditional ‘downloading’ of information.

But it’s one thing to read about research and quite another to experience a phenomenon first hand as I did in my classroom this week.

My Psychology students had been tasked with presenting what they discovered about a topic they were personally interested in within the field of psychology.  While presenting what they had learned, they also had to explain why they found the topic interesting/significant.

As I listened to their presentations, I was struck by how frequently a student would mention that they had always wanted to know more about the topic but that they just didn’t have time to ‘look it up’.

I found this very strange.  After all, they are the first generation in human history that is able to carry in their pockets a device that gives them instant access to all of human knowledge. How was it possible that they did not use that device to look up what they wanted to know?

To help me to understand, I asked them about this in a circle discussion.  At first they could not clearly articulate what it was that was stopping them from ‘looking something up’ but gradually I was able to ascertain that it was not the availability of the information that they needed. Instead, it was having someone to talk to about the information. They wanted to have a conversation about what they read. They wanted to be able to ask questions, to talk about what they were reading, what it actually meant for them, in their own lives.

When I finally understood why they had not ‘looked up’ the information before, I also understood why the Question Box is the most popular of my teaching tools.

The Question Box is a little cardboard box in my classroom into which students can anonymously  place questions about anything they want to understand but do not want to directly ask an adult about. The questions that are placed in the box can range from the sublime to the ridiculous and everything in between. I have had the Question Box in my classroom for over a decade but have never really fully understood its popularity. Now I do.

Although my students can search Google for information on any topic, they can’t have a real world conversation with the author/s of the information. They can’t ask questions, in real time, about what they still don’t understand after reading the links.  They may be able to send a comment that may or may not be responded to sooner or later but this is not the same as having a direct conversation with the writer/s of the information.

Thanks to lessons on media literacy, teens are fairly adept at sifting through search results to find credible sources for information but they seem to be not quite satisfied once they do find reliable information.  In fact, the students I spoke with seemed to have a  kind of disdain for what they “learned” about the topic this way.  I was stunned to realize that they preferred putting a question into the little cardboard box in the classroom rather than into a Google search box.

Perhaps the Greeks were right about true learning arriving through dialogue, not through the dumping of information.

But what does all this mean for the latest education reforms that are focused on technologizing teaching, adding more computers into classrooms under the guise of ‘personalizing learning’ ?

I would suggest that education reformers speak to teens about what they would prefer to have as learning experiences. Teens would tell them that, although they enjoy using technology,  they prefer to have teachers to talk to about what they are learning.   Perhaps everyone involved in education could learn a thing or two from teens about personalized learning.

Reading, ecologically…

Alice and Isaac in nature

Alice, a neighbour’s 6 year old daughter, is learning how to read. She’s learning how squiggles on a page can be filled with meaning. She’s learning that these squiggles ‘say’ things. A whole new world is opening up for her, a world of different spaces and places she can travel to through those squiggles.

But I wonder what other kinds of reading she will need to master in order to make sense of the world in this age of climate change?  Should she know how to ‘read’ the land as her ancestors used to do?  To know what to expect when certain flowers are in bud or when the wind shifts or when particular birds arrive in the garden?

David Suzuki seems to think so. In a recent column he makes the case that children should learn how to observe the natural world. What he calls “observe” others like David Orr and Fritjof Capra call ecological literacy, a way of observation that decodes signs in nature in the same way that we decode squiggles on the page in traditional literacy.

If children learned to read their environment, what changes could we expect in society as they grew up?

One change perhaps would be the eradication of what Richard Louv calls nature deficit disorder, a result of children spending less time outdoors and too much time indoors, cut off from the natural world.

Each year when I take my  teen students on field trips into natural spaces, I am amazed at the transformation that happens when they spend time among the trees or just skipping stones on the water. It’s as though they have just woken from a deep sleep and are seeing the world anew. In effect, they probably are, given the amount of time they spend staring at screens instead of their immediate environments.

If children learned to  read their environment, they would have first hand experiences of changes wrought by climate change, experiences and knowledge that could not be ‘spun’ by the fossil fuel industry that spends billions each year fuelling climate change denial.

Environmentalist often lament the fact that our children can recognize more brand logos than they can tree leaves. Ecologically literate children would not only be able to name trees and describe their leaves but would also be able to name the kinds of fauna that depend on the tree for survival.

An ecologically literate child would know that she was not in the environment, that the environment was inside her.

An ecologically literate child would know that some forest bathing would do more for her stress level than retail therapy would.

An ecologically literate child would know the connectedness of all things, that whatever we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.

The scientific revolution gave us new tools to read the world beyond the visible light section of the electromagnetic spectrum. Before that dramatic change in the way we saw the world,  we had to know how to read the land for our own survival and so paid close attention to every detail of the natural environment.  These days we would sooner check the Weather Network online on our computers before we went outside to see what the weather was.

Before the scientific revolution, we would know when seasons changed when we saw signs of the coming change in trees, in plants, in the sky. Now we look at a calendar.

If we could integrate the kind of knowledge humans had about the natural world before, with the knowledge that we have gained through math and science, how much more could we read and see and know about this place, our cosmic home?

In an age of climate change, when all around us nature is signalling her distress, perhaps one of the most critical skills we all can have is the ability to read our environment,  the ability to read the sky, the land, the water, the plants and the trees.

We can’t all have the knowledge that the scientists on the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change do, but we all can know a little more than we currently do about what is normal and what is not in the natural world around us.

We should all join Alice in learning how to read, ecologically.

Fracking their Future

pumpjack reindeer
Pumpjack Reindeer were part of a Christmas parade in nothern BC last night. The normalizing of an environmentally destructive industry continues unchecked. Image courtesy of Destiny Ashdown

Why are we allowing the BC Liberal government to hijack our education system to provide workers for the fracking industry at a time when climate change, caused by massive emissions of greenhouse gases, is already wreaking havoc in the lives of millions of people around the planet?

Why we are funnelling our children toward an industry that is associated with environmental death and destruction, an industry that has a long track record of contaminating waterways?

I can understand why adults who already work in oil and gas industries would continue to do so, but why, at a time when there are viable alternative energy industries, are we not preparing our children to live in an age of climate change?  

Evidence that the  BC Skills for Jobs Blueprint is nothing more than a fracking industry recruitment drive is abundantly clear in the LNG seminars that are currently touring our province. Designed to spin all the benefits of the fracking industry, there will be a lot that will not be mentioned in the presentations to our children.

Groundwater being contaminated by undisclosed chemicals won’t be mentioned.   The folly of pursuing training for a single industry won’t be mentioned either. And certainly the fact that fracking wells leak dangerous methane gases daily, won’t be mentioned.

What will be mentioned is how much money our children will make in the jobs not taken by the many Temporary Foreign Workers we are to expect.

But even when money is the topic, what won’t be mentioned is how many billions oil and gas corporations will make and how little of that will actually be collected in taxes, how little they will pay for the extraction of our collective resources and the destruction of our environment.

Why are we standing by while profit is prioritized above ensuring there is  a livable planet for our children? 

With the money that they will earn, where will our children go to buy a new planet once the oil and gas industry has destroyed the possibility of human life on this one?

Why is it so difficult for people to understand that we are not in the environment, that the environment is in us.

Whatever we put into our water, we put into our bodies. 

Whatever we put into the air, we put into our bodies.

Whatever we put into the soil, we put into our bodies.

Is the fact that there are PCBs and other pesticides in the breastmilk of nursing mothers not enough to cause us to pause and to reflect upon what we are doing in the name of the economy?

There can be no economy if there is no healthy environment.

Our children are entering a world they did not create. What kind of world is our education preparing them for?

When enormous resources are being spent in a spin machine that is trying to persuade our children that the only viable option for employment is an industry that destroys the environment, what are we doing? 

Why are we not insisting that our children are trained for skills in green technology industries?  Why are we not demanding that our governments follow the example of countries like Denmark that are rapidly moving away from fossil fuel dependence?

Why not teach our children a new way of being in the world, a way of living that does not destroy what our lives depend on?

Why are we fracking our children’s future?

Would a poem elucidate our options more clearly?

The Ark of Consequence by Marge Piercy

The classic rainbow shows an arc,
a bridge strung in thinning clouds,
but I have seen it flash a perfect circle,
rising and falling and rising again
through the octave of colours,
a sun shape rolling like a wheel of light.

Commonly it is a fraction of a circle,
a promise only partial, not a banal
Sign of safety like a smile pin,
that rainbow cartoon affixed to vans
and baby carriages. No, it promises
only, this world will not self-destruct.

Account the rainbow a boomerang of liquid
light, foretelling rather that what we
toss out returns in the water table;
flows from the faucet into our bones.
What we shoot up into orbit falls
to earth one night through the roof.

Think of it as a promise that what
we do continues in an arc
of consequence, flickers in our
children’s genes, collects in each
spine and liver, gleams in the apple,
coats the down of the drowning auk.

When you see the rainbow iridescence
shiver in the oil slick, smeared
on the waves of the poisoned river,
shudder for the covenant broken, for we
are given only this floating round ark
with the dead moon for company and warning.

From Mars and Her Children, Knopf, 1992

Holding the Line for Democracy


Right at this very moment, millions of people dream of having the right to vote. Thousands are in prison or being tortured for daring to demand the franchise, the right to participate in the governing of their countries. The fight for the franchise is often a prolonged struggle, as we saw with the Arab Spring that seemed to hold so much promise but has yet to deliver fully the democracy it promised.

The holy grail of so many is what we already have.

Today, four days after Remembrance Day, there is an election for local governments throughout our province. Traditionally the turnout for these elections has been low with only around 30 per cent of eligible voters casting a ballot. The successful candidates will be those who win 50 percent of those votes. They will then spend their mandate representing 100 per cent of the citizens within cities and towns after having won the approval of only a fraction of the electorate.

Is this what our democracy has come to?

During the prolonged labour dispute between the B.C. Liberal government and our union, we teachers had our flagging spirits boosted when we received a message from a Canadian soldier.

Here is part of what he said to us:

When I enlisted, and from time to time thereafter, I remember reading the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms so that I would gain a sense of the values and rules I would be fighting, and even dying, to protect. Some of those values are under assault today, and while I may be on the other side of our great nation, and while you have my gratitude and highest regard for the efforts you have made so far, I have one seemingly impossible request to make — for those minds of tomorrow: Hold the line.

I am thinking of that message a lot these days. I think about it when I hear people say that it is important to show respect for all soldiers, past and present, that it’s important to honour their sacrifices.

I hope that our respect goes beyond pinning the poppy on our lapels.

I hope our respect goes beyond standing at attention at the cenotaph.

I hope our respect extends to standing in line at a polling booth.

Our leaders speak about our democracy whenever they tell us about the reason they need to send our soldiers, our brothers and sisters, our fathers and mothers, our sons and daughters, into battle. They tell us that it’s our democratic values that are under attack, that they need to be defended.

But perhaps sending our soldiers into battle is just one way to defend our democracy. Perhaps another way is by exercising our right to vote.

The soldier who wrote to teachers urged us to hold the line in the defence of public education in B.C.  Now that public education has been successfully defended from the most recent attack, I am suggesting that the new “line” we need to hold is the one that we stand in when we line up at polling booths.

I believe that one of the most powerful ways to respect our soldiers, past and present,  is  to participate fully in our democracy.

Let’s hold the line for democracy.

Please vote.

A Green Dream

environment piece

I have asthma and so I’m always acutely aware of my dependence on air to keep me alive.  The curse of asthma is also a gift in that way as it is a constant reminder to me that I do not live in the environment, that the environment is in me.  That everything that is in the environment will eventually find its way into my body through the air I breathe, the food I eat and the water I drink. Which is why I think about the environment a lot.

Lately those thoughts have been focused on the changes that are happening in the environment as a result of climate change.  As though in a demonstration of the scientific evidence of this change, fish are moving to colder waters,  birds are showing up in areas that they have never lived,  and insects are moving away from the tropics toward the poles.

But this is not about the mountain of evidence that climate change is happening. This is about the fact that we citizens are at a historic moment when we not only have the understanding and the tools to mitigate the effects of climate change but we also have the opportunity to do so in a way that will simultaneously address other intractable societal problems.

Premier Christy Clark’s BC Jobs Blueprint has a few worthy goals  that, if achieved, will go a long way toward addressing both societal injustices and economic needs:   a dramatic increase in the number of young people entering the trades,  support for students who want to enter trades while they are still in high school, the provision of  training opportunities for Aboriginal students  and  support for education and training for people with disabilities.

But where the plan falls apart is that it focuses on an industry that not only spews vast amounts of chemicals into our waterways but also speeds up global warming, the driver of climate change.

There is now serious doubt that a BC LNG industry will provide one million, good paying  jobs as the Blueprint promises.

There are also serious concerns about the environmental damage that fracking causes to land, water and air.

Every minute that we are breathing, oil and gas wells are leaking deadly methane gas into the atmosphere.  Methane gas is 30 times more potent than carbon when it comes to warming the atmosphere.

Thirty times more potent…

Should this fact not give us pause?

Gordon Campbell, Christy Clark’s predecessor,  had a  “road to Damascus” moment in November 2006 when he went to Beijing to see the preparations for the  Olympics. Instead of being in awe of the amazing architecture, he was instead struck by the quality of the air there.  On sunny days when one should be able to see far off into the horizon, it’s possible to only see a few feet in front of you because of the smog.

Campbell’s experience of Beijing smog was what led to several actions by the then BC Liberal government to address pollution and climate change.  Did you know that the BC government has had an Air Quality Action Plan since 2008?

What would it take for Christy Clark to have her own “road to Damascus”  moment?  More Mount Polleys?

Or perhaps she needs to take a helicopter flight over the Skeena Watershed, an area that she has targeted for fracking.

Wade Davis recalls that Gordon Campbell had another moment of environmental destruction awareness when he took a helicopter flight over the Sacred Headwaters, the area where the Red Chris mine is planned.  Campbell was stunned by the beauty of the land that was soon going to be deforested and exploded in the pursuit of profit. It’s too bad that this experience  did not stop the plans for development of the mine. Is this when the the Green Dream the BC Liberals used to have turned into the fracking nightmare?

What happened to our leadership that lead to our current situation when we  are allowing ourselves to be blackmailed by a multinational corporation into giving up a pristine environment  in exchange for the equivalent of  relative pennies?

The current BC  government already has all the means it needs to take advantage of this historic moment.   All it has to do is to implement the environmental  plans that have already been  published by previous BC Liberal governments.

Did you know that our government has a Climate Action Plan for the 21st century that calls for an increase in renewable energy use?

All that is needed for Today’s BC Liberals to leave an ethical legacy is the willingness to put children, not corporations,  first.

That legacy would include ensuring that our children are  prepared for a world of wild weather as climate change speeds up.

Our children should be learning more about the environment, not less.  One of the major flaws in the new curriculum proposed by the BC Liberal government  is that  it decreases the focus on environmental studies at precisely the time we should be increasing awareness of our impact on the environment.

If our children do not receive a good foundation in environmental literacy, how will they have meaningful discussions and debates,  as citizens in a democracy,  about what they will be witnessing in a dramatically changing environment?

Post-secondary institutions have already recognized the need for more environmental education with SFU just recently announcing the new Bachelor of Environment, the only such degree in Canada.   A search on reveals 53 post-secondary environmental programs. These are what should receive the money earmarked for post-secondary education in the BC Jobs Blueprint.

We need to turn the Blueprint green.

We need to turn away from seeing environmental destruction and low wages as the only way to build an economy.

One of the most significant aspects of a green economy is that there is an added benefit, apart from jobs and a return on investments, of ensuring that we also have a healthy environment. A goal that our current economy does not even recognize as necessary.

We can transform our economy into one that provides good paying  jobs with benefits, an economy  that does not place people in an invidious position of having to choose between feeding their families and polluting the land, water and air on which we all survive.

If Germany can turn its economy around, so can we.

We have the means and the knowledge to create an economy that will not cost us clean air to breathe, does not cost us the chemical death of fish and fowl and does not cost us the earth.

We owe it to our children to turn away from the Faustian bargain that we are being offered by the LNG industry.

We can do better.

We must.

For the love of our children…

mother and child

You know Christy sometimes I think you must just not love children, your election promise of Families First notwithstanding. I don’t know how else to understand your government’s policies when it comes to future taxpayers, the children of our province.

On Friday we citizens learned from Mary Ellen Turpel-LaFond  that there are 93 000 children living in poverty in this province.  93 000 children who are hungry most days of the week, whose development is being affected by their not having their basic needs met. 93 000 children who should be looking forward to a fulfilling future in one of the richest countries in the world but who are instead caught in a poverty trap.

How many Malalas are there among that 93 000?  How many brilliant children whose minds could hold creative ideas for solutions to our most intractable problems are instead focused on when their next meal will come from?

Is it that you simply don’t think about children at all when you make the choices you do?

How is it possible that you continue to ignore the fact that BC has the highest child poverty rate in Canada? Why do you continue to ignore calls for a poverty reduction plan?

Do you manage to do that by simply changing the definition of poverty like your MLA Mark Dalton did?

Your attacks on children and the people who work with them started in 2002 when you first began to fight teachers’ rights to have class size and composition issues part of collective bargaining. In your attack on teachers did you not consider that teachers’ working conditions are children’s learning conditions? That when teachers insist on support for students with special needs, it’s for the benefit of children? Instead your government’s PR machine tried to portray support for students as a salary benefit for teachers when you argued that you could not “afford” to support students.

How do you sleep at night knowing that many children attend schools where there are rat infestations, where there is mould and asbestos and where a lack of custodial staff means that vomit is not cleaned up for 3 hours sometimes?

Not only do you attack the people who work with children but you make life difficult for their parents too. Why did you choose to not provide daycare subsidies? If Quebec can find a way to subsidize daycare so that parents only pay $7per day, why did you ignore the calls for a $10-per-day cost for daycare in BC?

You said that you needed “balance the budget” but why do children have to continue to pay for your balanced budget and not corporations who enjoy one of the lowest tax rates in the country? How many  daycare subsidies could have been provided by the $750 million sent to California in the Powerex deal? How many could have been provided with the money you spent on BC Place stadium’s roof?  Why are those things affordable but not what children need?

I’m sorry that there are so many questions but I am desperately trying to understand the rationality of your actions as a leader.

You have so many opportunities to leave an amazing legacy since you are Premier at a turning point in history.

Right now we are at a climate change crossroads.  We are either going to choose to ignore the growing evidence that climate change is affecting the very foundations of our way of life or we can choose to make the necessary changes to mitigate the effects.

In other words, we can choose to leave a world that our children will find habitable or we can choose to continue to increase the amount of greenhouse gases we spew into the atmosphere and watch as extreme droughts and devastating floods and wildfires render any economic predictions precarious.

There are no jobs on a dead planet.

There is no economy without a healthy environment.

You have the opportunity to provide both a healthy environment and a healthy economy if you would simply “green” your BC Jobs Blueprint so that instead of a focus on LNG, on fracking and increasing the pollution of our waterways, the  focus would be  on careers in the green technology sector.

Why not invest in education and training in careers in clean energy technology like solar power, wind and wave energy?

Why not  provide scholarships for environmental courses like the brand new course at SFU: Bachelor of Environment?

Why not provide lots more seats  at BCIT for Environmental Technology?

Why not follow the lead of countries like Germany that have dramatically increased the use of renewable energy?

Instead of getting rid of environmental education in schools as is the plan in your BC Jobs Blueprint, why not  increase the focus on environmental issues since students today are the citizens of tomorrow who will have to deal with the consequences of climate change in a world of extreme heat, frequent droughts and widespread floods?

Why not do this? Why not leave a province for our children that has water uncontaminated by the undisclosed chemicals from fracking?

Why not leave a province for our children where they do not have to make a choice between protecting the environment and earning a living?

In the 1980’s the musician Sting had a song that suggested that a mutually destructive  nuclear war between the two super powers would be impossible   “if the Russians loved their children too“.

Do you love the children of this province Christy?

I desperately hope you do.

Families First?

father carrying boy

Jill and Joe Public live in Abbotsford. They have two children, Charlie (11)  and Cindy (3).  Jill’s parents live on Saltspring and Joe’s parents live in Kelowna.

Charlie attends a local elementary school where he has been on a list for the past two years waiting  to be diagnosed for a suspected learning disability.  Jill and Joe talk frequently about what they would need to cut out of their household budget to find the $3000 it would cost to get him diagnosed privately. They worry that he’s falling too far behind in school without the help he clearly needs. His teacher does what she can but in a class of 30 students, she’s overwhelmed. She too would like to know how to help Charlie and hopes he’ll be diagnosed so that he can be designated soon.

Each year the family is involved in several fundraising campaigns to raise money for various needs at the school.  The school’s PAC raises about $10 000 per year with all the money going to purchase items for the library or for classrooms.  The family spends about $200 buying the fundraising items from chocolates to plants and magazine subscriptions, coupon books, etc.  They also spend about $60 on school supplies each year for Charlie.

Joe’s brother who lives in Saskatchewan doesn’t understand why the PAC has to spend so much time fundraising instead of time discussing other education issues in schools as happens where he lives.  He brings up this point whenever Charlie asks him to buy one fundraising item or another.

Cindy is in daycare at a cost of $1600 per month.  (Jill’s sister, who lives in Montreal pays $7 per day ( $140/month) for her son’s daycare.) This is often a point of discussion during the sisters’  phone calls.

Joe works in the Information Technology industry in Vancouver and commutes daily to his non-union job. He spends about $200 per month on bridge tolls which takes a chunk out of this pre-tax income of $65 000.

Jill is a student of the University of the Fraser Valley working on a Bachelors degree in Child and Youth Care. She is grateful for the extended health benefits she can access as a student ( since Joe’s work does not provide this)  but is worried about the $30 000 loan she will have to start to repay soon after she graduates.

Jill’s parents, Martha and Mark, are in good health and live active lives on Saltspring Island. Jill would like to take the children to see them more often but the $220 round trip cost of the ferry has meant that they only visit on special occasions. 

Joe’s parents, George and Grace, are both in poor health and rely on medications to get through each day.  Recently the provincial government announced that George’s  brand name medication would no longer be covered under Pharmacare and that he would have to purchase the generic version instead. George wonders if the generic version is as powerful as the brand name medication even though he has friends who have had good experiences with generic versions.  Grace has had to switch back to the brand name medication for her asthma as she was not able to sleep when she took the generic version. The extra expense of the brand name medication for Grace meant less money for things like trips with the senior’s club.

Joe has heard rumours at his workplace that the company will soon be bringing in Temporary Foreign Workers. He wonders if he too will be replaced by someone from another country who will do the work for a lower salary.  He remembers that news story about the people who had to train the very people who would be taking over their jobs.

Jill and Joe often talk (and sometimes argue)  about their household budget.  Jill has noticed that lately the amount she spends at the supermarket keeps climbing and she can’t figure out what more she can cut from the shopping list. The family hardly ever eats out and if they do, it’s at a place that has a special deal for children. The Hydro bill keeps going up and they wonder why they don’t get a refund from ICBC given the huge surplus that the crown corporation has.  A refund would certainly put a dent in the  Port Mann Bridge tolls that Joe has to pay each month.

Their plans for a family holiday to Disneyland have been shelved for now but they keep buying lottery tickets in the hope that one day …

This is  a composite portrait of a typical middle class family in BC and was created from characteristics of many families trying to make it  since the BC Liberal Party formed government in 2001.