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Teaching Lessons From The Wire

16 Jul

The Wire may be the greatest TV show of all time. It’s included in most “top five”  lists and  was anointed number one by Entertainment Weekly when they published their list of  The Greatest TV Shows of All Time in June of 2013.

The irony of this popular acclaim isn’t lost on long-time fans of The Wire because for years it seemed that this amazing show was destined to be ignored by most TV viewers. When the show aired (2002-2008 on HBO) it had famously low ratings and despite being critically lauded never won an Emmy award. Creator and “show runner” David Simon attributed this to “…the complexity of the plot; a poor time slot; heavy use of esoteric slang, particularly among the gangster characters; and a predominantly black cast”.

The Wire differs from many TV shows by having a complex, multi-layered plot that makes comment on modern society.  TV critics compare it to the best works of Dickens or Dostoyevsky in the way it uses narrative to explore social problems, especially the problems of urban poor in North America. One of the issues explored at length (mostly in season 4) is the role of schools and the education system in perpetuating many of  these problems.

I’ve watched The Wire multiple times and feel it has a lot to say about education and teaching. Here are five lessons I’ve spotted:

  1. Juking The Stats: One of the themes through all 60 episodes is the how politicians and bureaucrats rely on statistics to justify policy decisions. The Baltimore police department is concerned not with solving crimes, but rather with making sure that crime statistics show they’re doing their job. The emphasis on statistics changes how they approach their job. In season 4 Roland Pryzbylewski, a detective who becomes a teacher (as The Wire co-creator Ed Burns did) discovers that things are much the same in public schools. I’m always a little surprised by how accurate a depiction this scene is of what happens in schools.

The Lesson: Test scores aren’t about learning, they’re about politics, and as such they make learning in our schools worse.

  1. The King Stay The King: Despite our efforts the hierarchy of societies doesn’t change much. Drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale teaches ‘corner boys’ Bodie and Wallace how to play chess. They want to know how a pawn can become a king and win. D’Angelo explains that no matter what, a pawn can never become a king, just like in real life.

The Lesson: We may see education as a path for students to move out of poverty, but the opportunities are few and the chances are slim. Often in society “…the king stay the king” no matter what we do or how hard we try.

  1. It’s All In The Game– The drug trade subculture, as depicted in The Wire, is referred to as “the game”. People do horrible, awful things to each other in pursuit of their goals but justify it as being ‘all in the game’. It makes sense within the rules and codes of the subculture. Similarly schools are subcultures, and there are many things in schools that don’t make sense outside that subculture.

The Lesson: Schools are separate places with separate rules. Sometimes there’s a disconnect for students between the world of their school and the world outside. They might be from different ethnic culture or economic circumstances. We need to recognize and allow for the fact that for many students schools don’t make sense and are disconnected from the ‘real world’ they and their families live in.

  1. Caring When It Isn’t Your Turn (paraphrased): Police detective and anti-hero Jimmy McNulty points out in the first episode of The Wire the dangers in taking on a challenge when you don’t have to. Detectives who try to ‘change the world’ end up feeling frustrated and ineffective. Addressing complex problems is difficult and requires a collective effort.

The Lesson: There’s a long list of outside factors that affect a child’s learning (poverty, family circumstances, previous learning, etc.). If we try to ‘fix’ all of them we end up spread too thin and unable to do focus on where we’re most effective. We need to accept students as they are and do our best to help them move them forward, and not get distracted by the multiplicity of things we can’t control. Care deeply about the things that really matter.

  1. “The game is rigged, but you cannot lose if you do not play”: Police lieutenant Cedric Daniels has been assigned to investigate a crime neither he nor his superiors want investigated. He feels he’s in a ‘no win’ situation when his wife points out to him that this is only true if he accepts success as others have defined it. If he thinks ‘outside the box’ and redefines the situation there’s a way forward.

The Lesson: Many outside the system try to define what success means in education. Politicians define it in terms of test scores and graduations rates. Some educators find themselves in difficult situations with inadequate resources to meet those external definitions of success. When faced with this educators should redefine what success in the classroom means to them. Perhaps it’s progress or maybe it’s making a difference to a student in a non-academic way. Whatever it is, it’s important to make sure that “success” is defined in ways that are personally meaningful.

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The Use of ADHD Drugs in Schools

11 Jul

An article in the Wall Street Journal has re-started public discussion on why so many students are taking medication to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s a thorny issue with implications for the kind of schools we have, the kind of schools we want and how we view students and their learning.

New research, conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research and published in June, studied how taking Ritalin, a medication commonly prescribed for ADHD, affected students in Quebec. According to the study, taking Ritalin caused “…increases in emotional problems among girls, and reductions in educational attainment among boys…”. This is disturbing news for students, parents and educators.

There has been an explosion in the use of medication to treat ADHD in children in recent years. In March, 2013 the Center for Disease Control reported “…a 16 percent increase since 2007 and a 41 percent rise in the past decade…” in the number of US children diagnosed with ADHD. Currently nearly one in five high school boys and 11% of all school age children are diagnosed with ADHD. In the wake of these revelations some critics are suggesting that prescribing ADHD medication (and the resultant side effects) to children, without gains in learning constitutes “malpractice”.

I can’t find Canadian stats, but my own classroom experience suggests a similar pattern of use. My class last year, which was typical, had 16% of students taking ADHD medication. All of these students were boys. In fact, the majority of students diagnosed with ADHD are boys. Boys are five to nine times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, leading some to suggest that this is evidence of a ‘war on boys’ in our schools.

The high rates of ADHD, and the resultant medication use, says a lot about the culture in schools. Students who don’t progress are pathologized, and schools only accept or allow for deviation if it’s supported by a label. There used to be an understanding that schools can’t meet every student’s needs, but no longer. We devote extensive resources to finding out why a student isn’t learning and ensuring they have every chance to be successful. This process, along with the need for labels, leads to higher rates of diagnosis.

Learning is a complex process and it’s difficult to determine whether it occurred.  Standardized tests are unreliable indicators of the many ways learning happens. Further, just because a student can sit still and pay attention doesn’t mean they have the skills to learn. Students struggle with ADHD for years causing a skills deficit and layers of coping strategies that interfere with learning. Prescribing and using medication is merely the first of several steps in helping a student with ADHD to learn.

The presence of a student with ADHD often impacts on the learning of the whole class. Students with ADHD can be disruptive, making learning more difficult for other students. Teachers devote time to managing and supporting students with ADHD, meaning less time and support is available for other students. It’s likely that the learning of the class improves when a student with ADHD is successfully treated with medication, even though their individual learning may not.

The value of ADHD medication is not exclusively in improving academic learning. Students with ADHD  struggle daily to meet basic expectations leading to lower self-esteem. Medication helps students with ADHD to improve their quality of life, with more friendships and a more positive attitude about school and life. That may, in the long run, be more important than a gain in academic learning.

I prefer using methods other than medication to support students with ADHD whenever possible. A classroom environment where students work in collaborative small groups and have the freedom to move around if needed can be helpful. A well constructed and implemented IEP (Individual Education Plan) with useful accommodations and strategies is also recommended.

The decision of whether or not to use medication to treat ADHD is a difficult one for parents. There are multiple factors to consider and every case is different. It is especially complicated for parents without the resources to provide the extensive support a child with ADHD may need. Constantly taking time off work to deal with problems at school isn’t a viable option for most parents. Sometimes it isn’t a matter of choosing the best solution, but rather finding the right option given the many constraints. And sometimes, that’s medication.

What Are Schools For?

8 Jul

In her “Education Memo” Simona Choise asks “Do Employers Belong in High School?“. Canada introduces students to vocational education much later than others and countries such as “Germany, Austria, Poland and Slovenia” have partnerships that allow students to begin vocational or apprenticeship training before leaving school.

It’s a pressing issue as the recent economic downturn has left millions of young people unemployed or underemployed and left politicians and policy makers scrambling for solutions. But it raises the bigger question of whether it’s schools’ role in our society to train students for employment?

Ask someone why we send kids to school and their answer will accurately predict their position on most other educational issues. Education and schooling are often seen as synonymous, but they are not the same. Education begins at birth (and maybe before) and persists until we die. Teachers may express frustration that students can’t or won’t learn, when what they mean is that students aren’t learning what they want them to. What they mean is that some students won’t or can’t “school”.

Schooling is different from education. It’s process of formal education designed to achieve a specific purpose. In “The End of Education” Neil Postman argues that the main purpose of schools is to create a cohesive society by communicating a shared narrative. He argues that  schools no longer do this and schools and society are poorer because of it.

Mortimer Adler suggests that there are three main objectives of modern schooling:

  1. Citizenship: To equip students with the skills and knowledge needed to participate fully as members of society. Since all citizens can participate in decisions we should try to equip them with what they need to make good decisions. Citizens should be able to think critically and effectively express their opinions. This is what Postman suggests was the original ‘narrative’ of schooling. 
  2. Self-Actualization: To equip students to follow their dreams and achieve their potential. Learning is a life long process and schools should give students the skills and opportunities they need to pursue their hopes and dreams.
  3. Preparation for Work: To prepare students for their economic future. Students should emerge from school with a clear career path and skills that allow them to support themselves and their family and contribute economically to society.

These objectives aren’t exclusive. A student can be educated to be a good citizen, self-actualized and ready for work. Conflict arises, however, when we must choose which objective is most important. If we have to choose which of them to emphasize, which one comes first? Teaching cursive writing may be useful, but if it isn’t required for employment should schools continue teaching it? Should schools take from developing language and math skills and instead devote it to civics or discussing current issues?

The gap between those who think schools’ main function is to prepare students for work and those who have other, “loftier” goals is the great divide in educational discourse. Many educators are attracted to the profession by the thought that they are making the world a better place. They see schools as places for students to better themselves, maximize their potential and go out to make the world better. Other are dumbfounded by this “wooly headed idealism”. What the point of being self-actualized if you can’t feed yourself?

The balance between these objectives shifts over time and responds to changing conditions. During times of economic prosperity we don’t worry about job preparation as much. As unemployment rises there are calls for schools to do a better job in preparing students for work by teaching the basics.

The focus of our school system is increasingly preparing students for work. In early July the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) met in Nunavut. Their statement after their meeting began:

The best way to address Canada’s growing need for an educated and skilled labour force and ensure a sustained economic recovery is to expand education opportunities and improve learning outcomes in early childhood learning and development, elementary and secondary education, postsecondary education, adult learning and skills development.

No mention about improving citizenship or self-actualization. Increasingly, non-essential “employment” skills are marginalized or removed from the curriculum. Less arts and physical education and more language and math. Students aren’t taught cursive writing because it’s not required by the curriculum.

Most of the discussion about education policies and practices for the last 20 years (and perhaps before that) has been about this central issue. What are schools for? Rather than discussing the relative merits of standardized testing or various instructional methods or the many other proxy debates let’s begin to address the real issue. It’s time to open up the debate and talk about what schools are for and why we have them. It’s a debate that should include everyone, because our views will have a huge impact on our collective future.

High School Facebook Confession Pages: Problem or Symptom?

18 Apr

FB Confessions Shot 1

Anonymous online confession pages for students are nothing new. Juicycampus launched in 2007 with the goal of enabling “online anonymous free speech on college campuses”. They were joined in 2008 by College ACB.com which peaked with over 900,000 views in a single day in 2010. Even then, these services were controversial as schools tried to ban them because many of the posted confessions hurt the school’s image while proponents promoted their positive benefits. What no one can deny is that the need to share anonymously is deep-seated.

Why Do Students Use Them?

FB Confessions 2

We’re willing to be more open and honest when we’re assured anonymity and that honesty helps uncover and solve difficult problems. Most adults have at some time read newspaper advice columns where readers anonymously submit problems and an “Agony Aunt” responds with advice so that others with similar problems benefit. Anonymity is an important and useful tool in many situations. Voting is usually done anonymously to allow freedom of expression and governments protect anonymous whistleblowers with legislation. Kids Help Phone encourages teens and children to phone in and share their problems anonymously because this helps teens and children to address problems they can’t in other ways. And police “Tips” phone services assure anonymity as a way of getting people to share others’ misdeeds.

College ACB closed down in October 2011 but anonymous online confession sites didn’t go away. Earlier that summer US college students began using a combination of Facebook pages and anonymous forms such as Google Forms or SurveyMonkey to create school based Facebook Confession Pages.

How Do They Work?

Facebook Confession Pages are simply pages that allow students to anonymously submit their deepest secrets. The moderator of the page posts the confessions on the Facebook page. Students who ‘like’ the page can see each confession and can ‘like’ each confession and comment. The moderators of the page are often unknown to the students, as are the contributors. Here’s a typical example from a school in Hawaii.

The Facebook Confession Page model has caught on and spread. Many US and Canadian Universities have confession pages associated with them and it’s been slowly filtering to high schools and spreading around the world. The pages are free, easy to set up and tap into this deep-seated need teens and young adults have to share what they’re really thinking and feeling without fear of adult sanctions.

What Are The Problems?

While the original intent of Facebook Confession Pages was to offer a forum for students to share problems, concerns and secrets FB Confessions 3that isn’t all students are sharing. The online disinhibition effect, a loosening of social restrictions and inhibitions that would normally be present in social interactions, means that many students want to also use the confessions pages to share stories of alcohol and drug use or sexual behaviour. In some cases the pages lead to cyberbullying or even slander.

These were the problems that schools in Thunder Bay, Ontario were dealing with this week. Facebook Confessions Pages had spread first to Lakehead University and Confederation College in Thunder Bay, and from there passed down into the high schools. Soon, school officials were fretting over stories of student drunkenness and drug use and negative comments about teaching staff. In one case the comments crossed into slander and the teacher concerned complained to Facebook, who took the page down.

Experience in other jurisdictions suggests that taking pages down won’t solve the problem. Pages are easy to set up, and often when one is taken down another pops up right away moderated by a different student. Students jealously guard their adult free space and it’s often only after the fact that educators and parents discover that students are posting in a Confession Page.

FB Confessions 5Schools and school boards that move to shut down pages may find their requests falling on deaf ears. Freedom of expression is an important principle for all citizens, students included. Student stories of drunken escapades may be unpleasant and tarnish a school’s image in the community, but they aren’t illegal. Facebook only seems to be willing to take the pages down when there is clearly something illegal being posted. In some cases they’ve asked that offensive posts be removed while the page stays up.

Facebook is in a difficult position. It has recently been losing relevance with young users, as many of them see Facebook as their parent’s social network, not theirs. Confession Pages, with their ability to make users anonymous, are making Facebook relevant again with the 13-25 year old demographic. They’re not anxious to alienate those users without good reason.

What can educators and parents to do?

One of the values of social media use by teens is it gives us a window into their lives previously unavailable. If what we see is unpleasant an appropriate response is to deal with the problem, not to insist that the widow be closed. Teens expressing depression, issues with body image or alcohol and drug use should concern us all and rather than preventing them from posting about it we should be looking at the behaviour and trying to address it.

Students clearly have a need to post anonymously about their problems, concerns and fears. Schools should embrace the opportunity FB Confessions 4and set up their own “Confessions Pages”, moderated by students but with guidelines. This would allow students to express their concerns and problems safely while giving schools an element of control and providing an important source of information to educators about potential problems in the school.

Confession Pages and their associated problems also highlight the need for greater education about digital citizenship for students. Students sending their deepest, darkest secrets to a public forum to be posted and discussed is alarming. They need to better understand the risks of posting and the permanent and public nature of digital spaces. This starts at an early age with parents talking to children about social media and modelling good online behaviour themselves.

What’s The Future Of Extracurriculars In Ontario Schools?

14 Apr

Ontario educators remain confused about extracurriculars. There are deals to be negotiated and votes to be taken, but those won’t resolve any of this. The role of extracurriculars in Ontario schools has been permanently altered. The toothpaste is out of the tube, and no matter how much we try it will not be going back in again.

In protest over Bill 115 Ontario educators withdrew from voluntary activities including extracurriculars. Shortly after, changes started happening. The old system for delivering extracurriculars began breaking up and all kinds of innovation began.

In some schools students took ownership over extracurriculars, organizing their own clubs and activities. What they discovered is that the activities were much more meaningful when they made all the decisions.

My son’s improv comedy club was one such group. Even now that extracurriculars have been reinstated the club is choosing to remain independent. Last Friday they held an independent, off-school show, that they planned, organized and presented without any direct educator support. What an amazing learning experience! In other schools community groups and private enterprise have stepped in to fill the void.

The most interesting shift in extracurriculars, however, is that educators are discussing what the role of extracurriculars is and what the reactions to the withdrawal of extracurriculars means about our education system.

Here are some of the questions I’m pondering about extracurriculars:

  1. Why do extracurriculars matter so much? When premier Kathleen Wynne became premier she said it was “absolutely imperative that students have extracurriculars”. Really? More important than the economy, poverty or restoring basic rights? Why are extracurriculars so essential? Common responses are that they develop critical skills students need for future success and allow educators to form important connections with students.
  2. Why aren’t these skills & connections part of the curriculum? If the developed skills and connections are so important, why do they benefit only the minority of students that participate in extracurriculars? Essential skills and connections between educators and students shouldn’t be left to voluntary after school activities. They should be an integral part of the curriculum so that all students can benefit. Teachers reported that during the withdrawal of voluntary activities they invested more time and effort into classroom activities, time and effort they’d previously used on extracurriculars. That’s an equitable system that benefits more students.
  3. Why don’t we pay for extracurriculars? Some education systems do. In the United States some high school coaches make more than teachers. I don’t endorse that model, but it show that US citizens highly value extracurriculars. It’s confusing and hypocritical to espouse that extracurriculars are vital while insisting that educators do them for no reward. Is it valuable or not? Why don’t we pay teachers who coach or lead other activities? Why not count extracurriculars as part of the teaching load and reward those who do them with time off?
  4. Are extracurriculars really voluntary? The Ontario Labour Relations Board says extracurriculars are voluntary activities but are they really? Can teachers really make a free choice when there’s so much pressure from the public and within the school to provide a service without compensation? Agreeing to actively participate in extracurriculars is a common part of getting a teaching job. If committing to do extracurriculars is necessary to get hired, how is that voluntary? What about skilled classroom educators who don’t have extracurriculars skills and so get passed over for someone who can coach a team or put on a show? Isn’t that unfair and an incredible waste of valuable educators?
  5. Where do we go from here? In spite of statements from various teacher’s federations to return to extracurriculars many Ontario teachers are refusing to return to the status quo. Some will eventually go back and others won’t, but the issues raised by the pause will be ongoing irritations in schools for many years.

We need to address these issues and decide where we stand. If we value the skills and connections developed in extracurriculars we should integrate them into our curriculum. They should not be voluntary afterthoughts. We need to support extracurriculars with the required resources to ensure they are available to as many students as possible.

If we simply return to making them optional extras we have a more difficult question to answer:

What was all the noise about extracurriculars really about?

Boyz II Men: Hiring Male Teachers Won’t Improve Boys’ Learning

23 Feb

It’s a common mistake. We understand that schools and education can be used to change society and try to solve a social problem through education. We ask educators to change the near future and blame them when they don’t.

What we forget is that schools don’t just remake society, they also reflect it. Schools aren’t islands, they’re microcosms, connected to their communities. We ask schools to solve childhood obesity, forgetting that families control most of a student’s diet and activity. We keep schools safe with bullet proof glass and armed guards but forget about the violent perpetrators sitting in the classrooms.

The Toronto District School Board has fallen into this fractured thinking. Their recently released memo indicated that the board will give preference to certain groups when recruiting new teachers, and among those preferred groups are males. This precipitated cries of outrage from women and led others to ponder whether the education system is too ‘feminized’.

The logic seems to be that since schools are dominated by women, male teachers are needed to ‘connect’ with the many struggling boys and raise achievement. Male teachers are familiar with this thinking. I wish I was paid for every struggling boy assigned to my class because they needed a ‘strong male role model’. I’d be a rich man. Why don’t the struggling boys ever need more mothering? Why don’t any of the kind, well-adjusted boys or girls need male role models? But I digress…

That the education system is dominated by women is beyond dispute. Over 80 % of elementary teachers and over 50% of secondary teachers are female. I don’t know why this disparity exists and it confuses and amazes me that it’s never been addressed. Male dominated professions are targeted and women recruited into them but teaching remains female dominated and has for decades (centuries?). My local federation (and I assume most others) have committees with budgets dedicated to supporting and elevating women in the profession but no similar program for men. Huh? The current situation is clearly inequitable, and if the goal of the TDSB hiring practice was merely to redress this inequity, I’d understand it.

The suggestion, however, that hiring male teachers will improve the achievement of boys or address the feminization of the educations system is clearly misguided.

Teachers provide opportunities for students to learn, and foster and support that process. Their ability to do that has very little to do with gender. Boys can and do learn very successfully from female teachers and girls from male teachers. The gender of a teacher is irrelevant for the vast majority of students. What most students need are good teachers of any gender.

The feminization of the education system is also, I think, beyond dispute, but this shift isn’t isolated to education. Traditionally “male” behavior is no longer socially acceptable, an increasing number of boys are raised without fathers (a third of all children now) and more women are taking leadership roles. This represents a significant shift in values and attitudes over the last few decades.

In many ways young boys are getting squeezed by the shift. They get in trouble for ‘rough play’ despite the fact that active play is normal for boys. Many boys have few or no male role models to guide them as many traditional avenues for boys to connect with non-parental male role models are declining or disappearing altogether (extended family, community, organized activities, etc.). There are fewer and fewer ways for boys to learn how to be male.

The feminization of the education system is simply a reflection of a wider societal shift. If we’re interested in improving the achievement of boys it will take a broader effort than just hiring more male teachers. We need greater understanding and acceptance of what it means to be male and a greater appreciation of the value of male role models in all areas of boys’ lives. Unless we restore some balance to our current attitudes towards gender the problems of boys will only get worse.

Tough Times For Teachers, But Also Some Hope

18 Dec

“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”
― Thich Nhat HanhPeace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

It’s a tough time to be a teacher.  It’s been a long year.

We’ve had major strikes by teachers all over the world: ChicagoVictoria (Australia) British ColumbiaOntarioZimbabweSouth AfricaUnited Kingdom, etc. Teachers have waged a battle against the encroachment of standardized testing and unfair teacher evaluations systems and public opinion of teaching as a professions seems very low. It’s led some to call this a “War on Teachers“.

Then last week we had the unspeakable horrors and incredible acts of heroism of Sandy Hook.

As I prepared to greet students on Monday morning I realized I’d not only need to reassure them that school was a safe place to be, but also confirm that school would be closed because of a strike. The real world was “shaking the snow globe” of our classroom and I didn’t like it.

Being an effective teacher is challenging, even at the best of times. When “the world” conspires to make it harder I question what we were doing and why. I’m good at looking for the light inside the darkness, but it seems we’ve arrived at a very bleak place.

Sometime today, as I walked with a picket sign, the clouds cleared and a path opened.

We need to make this world better. A place where people are respected and valued, get what they need and don’t live in fear. The most effective and honorable way I know to help make that happen is for me to be a teacher. To help my students to become the best they can so they can go out and create that world.

I’m rededicated to that. The hope that we can will sustain me.