Which side are you on?

 

I was not here in 1884 to protest our government’s banning of the Aboriginal potlatch ceremony which made criminals of people who were practicing an ancient culture.

I was not here in 1885 to protest the extortionate Chinese head tax aimed at reducing Chinese immigration to Canada.

I was not here in 1914 to protest when the ship, the Komagatu Maru, carrying 376 Asian immigrants was refused permission to dock in Vancouver because the exclusion laws of this land were “violated”.

I was not here to work alongside all the non-white women  who fought for decades, until the late 1940’s, for the right to vote after white women won that right in 1921.

I was not here in 1942 when Canadians of Japanese descent, had their homes and businesses expropriated and were interned in the country of their birth.

I was not part of many fights for civil and human rights here in Canada.

When teachers here first began to fight for more funding for public education in B.C.  in the 1980’s, I was living in South Africa. At the time the struggle against Apartheid had been ongoing for almost three decades.  People of my skin colour were born into the fight for democracy, for full citizenship.

At birth we were all “classified” into races. I was classified “coloured”. This meant that there was a limitation of my choices in life, but not as many as I would have experienced had I been classified ‘Native/Bantu’, a term used to refer to aboriginal Africans.

Politically, it meant that I could not vote, since only White people could vote in parliamentary elections.

Economically, it meant that I could only consider work and careers designated for me under laws that controlled access to employment for all ‘races’.

Socially, it meant that I could only visit certain beaches, attend certain cinemas, ride on certain buses, eat in certain restaurants, enter post offices at certain entrances and sit on certain park benches, inconveniences shared by all non-Whites.

Being born brown-skinned in a country whose government used the legislature to pass heinous laws that robbed people of basic human rights gave me a profound education in the use and abuse of political power.  My experiences in South Africa provided me with a particular political lens through which I view the actions of the B.C. Liberal government. So much of what is done in the legislature in Victoria seems familiar.   Politics here may not be as black and white as they were in South Africa but sometimes the laws that the BC Liberals pass  seem like just a different shade of grey  when compared to the laws passed in South Africa during Apartheid.

And so, at a time when all South Africans enjoy the rights of  full democratic citizenship, I find myself here, on the opposite side of the world, where democracy and civil rights are under attack.

I find myself here at a time when workers’ rights, won over many struggles over a century ago, are in danger.  I am here now, when the very concept of a free, equitable, public education system is being threatened.  I am here now, one of thousands, making history for the textbooks of tomorrow.

Students in the future will learn that a government in a democracy not only  attempted to disregard two Supreme Court rulings but also the highest law in the land, the Charter of Rights and Freedom. They will learn that over several decades, teachers in British Columbia fought to ensure there was a fully funded public education system. They will also learn of the particularly difficult fight that began in 2002 when the  government  attempted to eradicate the rights of teachers to negotiate the learning conditions of students and the working conditions of teachers.

In South Africa I did not have a choice about which side I would be on in the struggle for justice. That was determined at birth. But here,  in Canada, where all citizens in this province have a choice,  I will one day be proud to say that I was on the side that fought to save public education from attempts to gut it financially. I was on the side that fought to save one of the most important  pillars of democracy: an education system that provides for the needs of all citizens, not just those born into affluence.

Yes, when I look back on my life someday, I will be able to say,  I was also there then.

What is public education worth to you?

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It’s easy to watch progress being made when a road is being built. You can look at the whole process as it unfolds through all stages. You can take a photo of what the land looked like before the road was built and what it looks like after the building is complete.

You can drive on a road as soon as it’s completed. Its use is immediately obvious. It’s plain to see where the money went, why it was spent.

It’s unfortunate that you can’t do the same with students. There are no before and after photos of the transformation in their thinking, in their knowledge, in their awareness of themselves, of the world around them.

There is no ticker tape unravelling as their minds shift to accommodate new information, a different way of being. There are no stock market type  numbers to announce each day.

Which is too bad.

We live in an age where the highest value attributed to any accomplishment is measured in dollars.  This makes it problematic to see  and to show the value of what happens in classrooms.

Perhaps an extract from a  Grade 11 student’s self-evaluation would help you to see what I see in classrooms?  She wrote this at the end of a semester in my class:

When I came to the  class and saw my enemy N I was so angry. We had been enemies since elementary school. I wanted to switch out of the class because I couldn’t stand looking at her miserable, lying face.

But I got up the confidence to stay because I had been looking forward to this class all summer and I didn’t want to blow it off over some girl who thought she was all that.

So, H and I decided to sit at a different table from N. But my plan did not work because the teacher moved us all into our Myers-Briggs personality groups and guess who was in my group? N! I got so frustrated and mad. I wondered how she could possibly share the same personality traits as me. I was completely shocked. I talked to my other classmates in my group and ignored her.

The second day N asked me a question about how to do an assignment. I was so close to just walking away but I answered her question and she thanked me! I was really surprised that after all the fights and arguments she had the nerve to ask me a question.

After that day everything changed. The teacher assigned more and more group projects and we would not only get marked on the quality of our work but also we would get evaluated on how well the group worked together. So this meant that if I wanted to get a good mark, I would actually have to talk to N.

At one point I wanted to ask the teacher to switch me or N into another group but again I decided to give it another try. Soon after this we all got together to prepare a skit and everybody got along fine including me and N.

A month into the course N and I were talking like we were best friends, I don’t know if I changed or if she changed but we never brought up the rumour or fights again.

This class doesn’t only help you to work better in academic courses, but it also helps to give other people a chance to express themselves. The more group work the class did, the more I found out about the strengths and weaknesses of everybody along the way.

If it wasn’t for this class I would not have had the chance to know a lot of cool people that I didn’t know before.

What is is worth to society when a teen can learn how to see her “enemies” as humans just like herself and learn to work with them? What worth is it to society when children learn empathy and learn to work collaboratively?

Whenever there is some crisis in the nation, and answers are sought, education is always in the spotlight.

High rates of divorce? Schools should teach relationship  and communication skills.

High rates of debt and bankruptcy? Schools should teach financial literacy.

Huge demand for skilled trades? Schools should provide opportunities for apprenticeships.

Low voter turnout during elections? Schools should spend more time teaching the responsibilities of citizenship.

You task us with the preparation of our young for their roles and responsibilities as adult citizens who will take over the reins of society. We are to prepare them to fix what is broken; to sustain what needs to continue.

But you want us to do this with outdated resources and overcrowded classrooms. You want us to perform miracles when there is no support for students who have difficulty learning  or  who have mental health issues. You want us to somehow teach children who have not had anything to eat in days.

And you want us to do this  for an hourly wage that is less than what you pay your babysitter.

Is that really what public education is worth to you?

If only students were made of concrete and steel that could be moulded into things like roads, bridges, pipelines or sports arenas for Olympic events. Things that would be seen to be worth it, a good investment of  taxpayer money.

The Winter Olympics cost $7billion.

How much is public education worth?

An Unfair Fight for a Fair Deal

Love and Peas Mama

I don’t normally write particularly political posts, but oh, would you just indulge me for a moment? I am feeling incredibly dejected today about this fight for a fair deal for our B.C. students and teachers.

I am sad that my mom, who has seen a 0% wage increase for the last 2 years, may not ever see one before retirement.

I’m feeling sickened that my “little” cousin Wes, who just proudly graduated, has spent his entire schooling in a system abused by our government.

I fear that my daughter will face the same.

I will be grateful if Isla doesn’t need extra resources in school. But, I worry that she will be overlooked, because I know – I know – that right now those kids who can make it don’t get enough attention, because teachers have to focus on those who can’t. There are too many kids in each classroom, not…

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Names not numbers …

 

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It’s common practice during political debates like the one we are currently engaged in over the future of public education in BC, to present numbers, facts and figures.  But, as Maya Angelou so eloquently said, facts can obscure truths. Truths that are far more disturbing.  Our human minds have a much harder time weighing abstract numbers than we do understanding the human stories behind the numbers.

I have been deeply moved by the stories that have emerged in the comments on my Casualty of Christy Clark’s Cuts post.  I am stunned that, as of this writing,  the post has 16 000 views ( and counting) over 3 days. What that tells me is that there are many people out there who can put names to the numbers of students who have fallen through the cracks caused by the gutting of public education funding in the province of BC.

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I think their stories, the stories of the students behind the numbers, need to be told.  Any casualty of Christy Clark’s cuts to education funding over the past 12 years has a story that needs to be told.

Teachers know lots of these stories. It’s what we think about when we’re out on the picket line. It’s what we think about when we spend an average of $1000 a year on classroom supplies.

Parents of the children who have fallen through the cracks know these stories too.

There is the story of a student who is both gifted and has a learning disability and who managed to get all the way to Grade 10 because his giftedness hid his disability.

There is the story of a student for whom English was a third language and whose learning disability went undiagnosed for years because it was assumed he was not successful due to a language barrier.

Then there’s the story of a profoundly gifted student whose development was stunted because of a lack of adequate nutrition in his home.   This story is the most heartbreaking of all because students with this story have one preventable deficit.

Teachers who work in some areas of the province see too many students each day who simply cannot focus on learning because they have not eaten in days.

I continue to be perplexed by why there is no hue and cry about the fact that school breakfast programs are funded by a newspaper’s Adopt-A-School campaign.  Why is such a campaign necessary at all? Why does it exist in a province that found enough money to fund a Winter Olympics but does not have enough money to fully fund breakfast programs in schools?

BC has the highest child poverty rate in Canada.  And yes, this is another set of numbers but behind those numbers are names of students and those names have stories.  Heartbreaking stories. Last year I did not know that a teen girl’s periods could stop due to a lack of adequate nutrition. I do now.

It is unconscionable that one of the richest provinces in Canada, one of the richest countries in the world, has such high rates of childhood poverty.

It is unconscionable that B.C. students are funded $1000 less each year than students in every other province in Canada except P.E.I.

It is beyond unconscionable that this government spends more time and energy on LNG than on the true vital resource of this province, its children.

Perhaps what will penetrate the conscience of politicians who hide the truth behind figures, is to tell the stories behind the numbers.

We need to name the numbers. Let’s tell the stories of the casualties that have fallen through the gaping holes in the public eduction system left by huge funding cuts.

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If you are a parent of a child who did not get the help that was needed due to a lack of learning specialists or a long waiting list to see a school psychologist, please tell your story.

Reveal the stories that the numbers obscure.

You can do this by leaving a comment here or you could send your story to a local newspaper or you could send it to your MLA.

Our children are not just numbers.

Our children should be  seen and their stories should be heard.

Casualty of Christy Clark’s Cuts

specialist teachers

You should have been walking across the stage this week at commencement, along with all your peers who started school with you in 2001.  You should have been with them,  celebrating the end of 13 years of schooling.

You had been with them at the start, all excited to finally be going to school.  You couldn’t wait to learn how to read, how to write,  how to add and to subtract.

But by the end of your Grade 1 year, it  became apparent that learning was not going to be easy for you.  Your teacher noticed that you seemed to have difficulty writing what you knew.  You were one of many students in her class who needed help.

She did not have any support for any of you.

Your teacher referred you to a counsellor who put you on a list to be tested by a school psychologist.  She told your teacher it would be a few years before you would be seen as there were many other students awaiting assessments.

By the time your name came to the top of the list, your family had moved to another school and somewhere in the shuffle, your file was lost.  It would be another 3 years before another teacher tried to get help for you and 6 other students in your class who she could see needed extra help. By this time, there were even fewer school psychologists and the list was 2 years long.

By 2006 the school district’s funding for special needs was not what it had been in 2001 when you started school.  It had been gutted to make up for the reduced funding your school district received from the Ministry of Education. Reductions to the number of learning specialists and school psychologists meant that waits became longer and longer.

Soon you were in Grade 8, still without support for your learning difficulties.  With all the usual pressures of being in a secondary school,  your struggles in the classroom and your struggles to fit in outside the classroom became overwhelming and you began to vent your frustrations by acting out in various ways.

You began to have regular visits to the vice-principal’s office. Your behaviour in class was seen to be more of a problem than your inability to read a short story…

In order to get support you needed to have a Ministry designation. In order to get a Ministry designation, you needed to be assessed. In order to be assessed you needed to see a psychologist. And the waiting list kept getting longer and longer.

But with the help of your teachers, you plodded along . They tried to do for you what they could. You were often one of many students in a class who had difficulties learning. All different kinds of difficulties. In fact in some of your classes, there were only 2 students without any difficulties of one kind or another.

You managed to move through your grades because you could explain orally what you were learning. When a teacher asked, you could explain a concept but when it came to writing it down, you had trouble.

Your teachers knew that what you needed was both a special education teacher and  an education assistant.   But in order to get that help, you needed to get a designation.

By the time you got to Grade 10, you were so tired of trying so hard to do what was asked of you.  It seemed that no matter how many hours you spent on an assignment, you could only just barely pass it. You became increasingly frustrated because you understood the questions, you could just not write down the answers that you knew. .

You began skipping school and hanging out at the mall.

You got into quite  bit of trouble for doing that which got you into the vice-principal’s office but not into a school psychologist’s office.

By the time you were finally designated, at the end of Grade 10, there had been such severe funding cuts made that you could not get the help you were finally entitled to.  And since you were now over 16 years old, you did not have to be in school.

And so you left.

But no one wanted to hire anyone who had not graduated high school.

You eventually got a job stacking shelves for minimum wage in a dollar store.

When you were in kindergarten, you had wanted to be a policeman or a fireman or a doctor. You had lots of options back then.

What you wanted most of all was to be a hero to people, to help them, to make a difference. You wanted to fix things,  to make things better.

On the day your peers were at their commencement, you were working a 12 hour shift, stacking shelves at the local dollar store.

They tweeted their pictures to you. You wished you were with them.

Your teachers wished that too.

They have been in a 12-year battle to get more support for students like you.

Thank you Minister Fassbender!

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Dear Minister Fassbender,

Thank you so much for freeing up my weekends! I woke up this morning feeling so relieved that I won’t have to spend hours marking essays and projects thanks to the lockout!  I will now have the time I don’t usually have to visit friends and to complete  all my errands!

My friends are so pleased that they’ll be able to spend time with me because they usually don’t see me at all except during holidays because I’m always too exhausted from a stressful work week or because I’ve got hundreds of essays and assignments to mark on weekends.

I’m also relieved that I won’t be expected to contribute my thoughts about the new BC Education plan. I had been so excited to read about the new “learning environment” concept and had been spending time on weekends researching ways I could transform my classroom into a learning environment. But now I can free up my reading time for the many novels I have been meaning to read.

I’m so looking forward to getting home early next week! Usually I’m still at work until 7pm. I’ve had many dinners in my classroom when I’ve had to plan lessons and prepare for the next day. But now that my afternoons are going to be free, I can use up that gym membership I’ve neglected. I’m going to be so much fitter by the end of the school year!

Oh! About that! Thank you so much for starting my summer holiday early! My sister will be visiting from South Africa around the time you have set to lock me out of my workplace and so it’s just perfect! We’ll have more time to talk about the differences between the education system there and the one here. She never could understand why, 24 years ago, I gave up 13 paycheques a year, 100% medical coverage and a housing subsidy provided to all teachers by the apartheid government.

Sometimes I wonder that too when I try to stretch 10 paycheques over 12 months…

Between taking a mortgage holiday and using discount coupons provided by friends, I’m sure I’ll be able to show my sister many tourist spots in beautiful British Columbia, one of the richest provinces in Canada. I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain to her why it’s also the province with the highest child poverty rates, why a newspaper has an Adopt-a-School campaign or why our public education system is so poorly funded compared to other provinces. But I’ll try.

I’m a teacher. I’m used to trying to make sense of nonsense…

Anger

“Emotions are the primary gatekeeper to learning. Emotion and cognition operate seamlessly in the brain to guide learning. Positive emotions encourage, for instance, long-term recall while negative emotions disrupt the learning process in the brain – at times leaving the student with little or no recall after the event.” http://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/50300814.pdf

Now that the debate about the connection between emotion and learning is over, what does a 21st century teacher need to be able to do to ensure that her classroom is an emotionally safe space? A place where there is lots more laughter than there are angry outbursts?

Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Understand what anger is.
  2. Notice how you do anger. What triggers you? Under what circumstances?
  3. Notice how your body signals that an angry outburst is about to occur.
  4. Channel anger in ways that do not damage, do not destroy relationships.
  5. Apologize when step 4 above fails..

Anger is an important emotion. It has had critically important functions through our human evolution. Its main purpose is to infuse us with energy so that we can fight for our survival. But the evolutionary development of anger was not without a few flaws.  One of them is that the part of the brain that is engaged when we become angry works far more rapidly compared to the part of our brain that weighs and measures and considers alternatives: our pre-frontal cortex.

Have you ever done something in anger you have deeply regretted later? An action that leads to regret is one that is done when you were in the middle of an amygdala hijack. The regret comes after the pre-frontal lobe has considered other options and realized that you had misinterpreted the situation and over-reacted.

Although anger is an important survival emotion, it’s also a secondary emotion. It is always a cover for one or more of these other emotions: fear, hurt, sadness, loss.  Feeling those emotions exposes the deepest core of our being, leaving us vulnerable, so we are not likely to do that as easily as we are to allow ourselves to become angry instead. Anger is a nice comfy blanket that hides our fear or hurt or sadness.

No one can make you feel angry. You alone have access to the switch that triggers the cascade of chemicals that result in the experience of anger.

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So, no, that student did not make you angry when they did what they did. When you saw what they did, you interpreted their behaviour to mean something. That interpretation of their behaviour then led to the pulling of the anger trigger and when you yelled, you were in full amygdala hijack.

But, there are ways to circumvent another hijack.

When you know what kinds of things trigger you, when you know how your body signals that you’re about to be hijacked, you can take a deep breath or two.  When you are first learning how to do this, it helps to walk away, out of the room for a bit.

It helps too if you have a regular meditation and exercise routine. You are less likely to be easily triggered if you do.

It also helps if you regularly release the energy that fuels your anger in healthy ways. ( You could learn how to do this at a course, Anger, Boundaries and Safety at The Haven Institute)

Even though you  may learn all about anger, and what to do about it, changing the way you have been angry in the past is quite difficult to do.  For a while, you’ll forget what to do far more frequently than you’ll remember.

But you need to keep practicing because the only way out is through.

You have to go through the learning curve. The golden prize at the other end is that, when you know how to control your own anger, you will be able to help your students do that too.

You will also understand that when a student is being aggressive or angry it has nothing at all to do with you. They may have had a really bad evening at home and the very last thing they can handle is to produce an error-free paragraph or listen to you explain a poem.

When you learn about your own anger, you will know just how really scared or worried or upset that student is underneath their anger. You will feel empathy.

And when you model empathy in your classroom, you will be well on your way to creating a learning environment that is emotionally safe for your students.

19th century classrooms were ruled by fear and coercion. Students in a 21st century learning environment feel safe to express and experience a range of emotions because their teacher is attuned to students’ emotions and knows, both cognitively and experientially,  how to respond accordingly.