Tag Archives: education system

Change from the Inside

empty classroom
http://www.imcreator.com/free/education/empty-classroom-2

(This blog is a complement to  Dear Students published in Huff Post) 

What do we teachers do while we wait for politicians to agree with us that 19th century school structures are obsolete in the 21st century, and that creativity, not competition, is what we should be nurturing in students?

We change the system from within.

First, we do the work inside ourselves when we gather up our courage to release our role of  content deliverer and accept that we need to be in constant role change in our classrooms: sometimes a facilitator, sometimes a mentor, sometimes a host creating a safe space for learning to happen.

Decentering our classrooms in this way is difficult work, and is never complete. It’s not a one-day Pro-D affair. It requires vulnerability to realize that we need not be  the fount of wisdom in the front of the room.We need to be  patient but persistent with this work.

We share our decentering ideas with our colleagues so that we put the magic of combinatorial creativity to work. We remix ideas from here and there to find what will fit with our students in our classrooms. There’s a lot of trial and error involved with this. Lots of reading too.

We know that this is a Sisyphean task; sometimes that rock will roll all the way down the hill. But we have to get up and do it again. And we will, with help from our friends and allies who know why we do what we do and why it’s worth the struggle.

I was “lucky” to have been both a student and a teacher in South Africa during Apartheid because there I developed my tendency to read between the lines of any curriculum and to constantly seek ways around stifling restrictions and impositions in schools.

You may think that there is a world of difference between the education system in South Africa and in Canada, until you remember that both Canada and South Africa are former British colonies and both countries imported the same industrial model of education. Much of what I do now in Canada is a further refinement of what I did in South Africa when I became a teacher by accident. But that’s another story.

There is nothing that a teacher can do about the way a school day is divided, but there is a lot that a teacher can do when shaping each day in her classroom.  I teach the humanities to teens  in a school that has “inner-city” characteristics. We have four teaching blocks a day: two in the morning and two after a 40 min lunch.  Each block is 77 mins.

My classroom activities are dependent on which block of the day it is. Sometimes there is a lecture, sometimes an experiential activity, sometimes a check-in to see where everyone is at, sometimes a nap or meditation before any work is done. My decision of what to do when is guided by neuroscience research about how teen brains work. They do not work at full capacity first thing in the morning or during the last block of the day, so I save us all the struggle by not lecturing at those times.

I use my classroom space like a Star Trek holodeck. Sometimes it’s a laboratory, sometimes a country, sometimes a court, sometimes a parliament and sometimes a lounge where conversation happens. It is of course sometimes just a classroom!

I encourage students to ask me questions either directly, through email or anonymously through the very popular Question Box. Questions from students provide me with  insights into their concerns and what I’m missing in my teaching. A colleague who teaches Math adopted and adapted this idea, but her box is called the Panic box – where students place “panic button” questions about course content.

I do very little lecturing and try as much as possible to convert the curriculum in a way that allows my students to engage in Problem-Based Learning and Experiential Learning. When I first started doing this, I didn’t know that that was what it was called! Often times I “make the road while walking”, trying to find ways to bring meaningful learning experiences to my students.

In my dreams, I see Problem-Based Learning and Experiential Learning as the foundation of what is done in public schools in the future.

And I do hope, despite the concerted campaign to defund public education, that we manage to hold on to public schools. They are still critically important, despite their many flaws.

Public schools are much more than places where accredited learning happens. They are a safe space for students whose home lives are difficult; they are the oasis in dangerous neighbourhoods; they are where many students eat their only meal each day and where they can speak to an adult about their fears and concerns.

Public schools are some of the few public spaces we have left that still function as a commons, a space for people, not for profit.

Where else but in a public school can a teen who gets a $30 000 car for his 16th birthday sit next to one who eats only three meals a week?

With so many of our common spaces being taken over by corporations, a public school is a vital social space for many students. It is still the great societal leveller where students from diverse backgrounds can meet on common ground.

The education system has to change, it’s true, but let’s work to repurpose it. Let’s not throw the cup out with the cold coffee.

Let’s change the system from the inside out.

Jugaad Education

This week it became clear which side is winning in the debate about the purpose of public education. As far as our current Minister of Education is concerned, the main purpose of the education system in British Columbia is to provide human capital for corporations. Until and unless that reality changes, what recourse is left for those of us who believe that a well-funded public education system, fundamental to a functioning democracy, should not only support pipefitters but poets too?

I suggest that our response be two-fold. We should continue to support any collective actions that defend and fight for a fair education system but we should also employ in our classrooms the spirit of jugaad, a Hindi colloquial expression that roughly translates into “invention motivated by scarcity”. In this TEDx talk, Gautam Ramdurai explains how it is possible to not only “make do” with what you have in the face of scarcity, but that learning how to “make do” makes other things possible.

 

When I came to Canada over 20 years ago, my teacher qualifications from South Africa were deemed insufficient to teach in schools in B.C. and I had to complete a few education courses in order to be approved for teaching in B.C. I have a vivid memory of my first class at SFU. I was late and had entered the room when there was a full-blown discussion about the Year 2000 project. Teachers were outraged by the demands made of them in the document. I remember wondering what the fuss was about. I had recently come from a place where we had to hold fundraisers in order to buy paper to use in our hand-cranked mimeograph machine and where our entire school library could be stored on a few shelves in a Canadian classroom.

At that point I had seen what was available in schools in Vancouver – rooms filled with unlimited supplies of photocopying paper, libraries filled with new books, laboratories stocked with equipment and classrooms of ‘only’ 28 students. To my eyes, teachers were teaching under circumstances that teachers in South Africa would give anything for.

With the increasing cuts to our education system, my current teaching experience in Canada is slowly becoming as familiar as my past teaching experience in South Africa but that is precisely why I believe it’s important to consider the concept of jugaad.

What can be done with limited resources in our classrooms? Instead of continuing to fund our classrooms out of our own pockets, what can we learn from cultures and practices around the world where scarcity is the norm?

And while we create a new response to scarcity, a message from someone who has been here before.  I can assure you that you will survive.

You will survive bureaucrats, who have no idea what happens in your classroom day by day, telling you what to teach.

You will survive administrators who have no idea who your students are, telling you how to teach.

You will survive people who have only a superficial understanding of who you are, telling you how you can and should and must develop your professional skills.

I know you will get used to this because those of us who have lived under oppressive and repressive political and social systems learned how to survive them.

You too will develop a double consciousness and a way of slipping easily between the face you put on for your ‘reviewers’ and the face you wear for your students. You too will have one way of being when your ‘performance’ is under ‘review’ and another when it is not, when you can just be the teacher you are.

You will learn to be subversive – to seek out ways to weasel between the cracks of a system designed to constrain and contain you and to form your students into  clones. You will learn to be like the root hairs of trees that raise pavements.

You will find allies amongst the administration – principals who do not agree with the way you are being treated and who will try in some ways to support you.

You will learn what words and phrases and activities are considered ‘good’ to use in your ‘performance reviews’ and ‘professional development plans’. You will adopt those as necessary.

And you will do this all the while you continue to grapple with the challenges facing you each day: hungry students, broken technology, lack of resources, and the absence of any support for those students who desperately need it in your filled-to-capacity classroom.

And you will keep doing this while you work to remove from power the people who see education as a business and not as a social good.