School Politics

Participation Inequality 90 9 1

Image courtesy of Christopher Allen on Flickr.

It is a common sentiment that schools ought be apolitical spaces, despite the fact that in policy, curriculum, and objectives they cannot help but exist in political reality. In the resultant power dynamic that confronts us as professionals, even reluctant teachers engage in a struggle for agency and voice in working for what we believe are the best interests of our students. As union members and public employees, our contract negotiations, and evolving role in society is regularly part of the broader political dialogue that surrounds schools, whether in our neighbourhoods, newspapers, broadcast media or holiday dinners.

Our efforts to work alongside our colleagues and cultivate the spaces of public education take on political dimensions in other ways beyond the classroom, as well. As the Canadian Multicultural Act puts forth, our pluralist democracy is only realized through “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society.”

However, even while we are each ensured this right as citizens of Canada (a right reinforced by the collective bargaining power to resist provided with our union membership), the structural inequalities present in society manifest themselves in our classrooms, and are similarly recreated among school and district staffs.  Intersectional privileges and marginalization lead to working environments which have largely been established (and continue to be maintained and administrated) by those who have been the beneficiaries of the system as it exists.

Administrators and trustees, board office employees and superintendents, department heads, increasingly essential Parent Advisory Council leadership, union representatives and other decision-making committees in a school or district tend to skew toward those who share a collection of unearned privileges: they are disproportionally male, often white, and possess a particular confidence and conversational / social capital. Among those who are not male, or caucasian, there is often a shared economic class (even among teachers, who share a pay scale but emerge from relatively diverse economic backgrounds), or level of education. Recent immigrants are at a disadvantage in acquiring these attributes (which can be acquired), and can be delayed in attaining positions of influence or power; as in all aspects of social life, those who are not comfortable or confident vocal participants in larger groups are underrepresented in the collected culture.

At this disempowered end of this spectrum of influence we generally see an over-representation of the young, new Canadians, visible minorities, members of the LGBTQ community, people with more challenging social-economic backgrounds, and women.

And yet, the Multicultural Act promises not only a national aspiration toward “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society,” but demands that Canada “assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.” We are not merely assured this right as citizens and educators in Canada, but also challenged to continually strive to expand the circle of participants in our emergent national narrative.

It may be easy to see that this ought be our intention as teachers orienting our schools and classrooms toward citizenship, and providing a democratic education; however it is important to consider the role we each play in cultivating the public school space as one which seeks to eradicate the inequalities which prevent “all participants” from contributing to “all aspects” of community life and identity.

Fortunately, there are many avenues and opportunities for these inclusive dialogues to take place, and which ought be embraced by those looking to work toward social justice in our schools, for our colleagues as much as our students: professional development, collaborative decision making, departmental, committees, union volunteerism, and social planning groups offer official channels for discussion and dialogue that includes the possibility of all voices. Beyond these our hallways and staff rooms, intramural pitches of competition and picket lines offer an informal space of interaction that can foster collegiality and consensus that enables our capacity to collaborate as professionals.

Across these settings there are inevitably those whose voices are heard above the rest, and we needn’t take anything away from those possessing the ability to influence; but we are not practicing democracy if we do not work to correct a system of interaction in which many are disproportionally voiceless.

On Parity

When asked why he had made gender parity in his cabinet a priority, new Prime Minister Trudeau shrugged and said simply: “Because it’s 2015.”

With Prime Minister designate Justin Trudeau preparing to announce a cabinet that is 50% women, researchers have discovered a sharp 5000% increase in the number of men who suddenly have strong opinions about how cabinet appointments should be a “meritocracy.”

Across the nation statisticians are at a loss to explain a recent and drastic jump in the number of men who have spontaneously developed hard opinions about the qualifications of Federal Cabinet Ministers.

“This is affirmative action, and even though it has been statistically shown to improve working conditions over time, I don’t like it,” said longtime man Thomas Fielding. 

The Beaverton

The argument for meritocracy espouses the belief that we should make decisions about hiring upon completing a thorough search for “the best person for the job.” This despite the tacit societal acknowledgement (“It’s not what you know…”) that the person in the job only has it because of a web of networked advantages: of friends and family connections, personal gifts or turns of good fortune in sport, wealth, opportunity or talent.

I’ve often remarked that “I’ve never gotten a job by blindly submitting my resume”; I won an athletic scholarship to a university in the American South, earned an academic fellowship along the way, and got work as an alumni teaching back at my old high school.

I may be “the best person for the job” that I have. But in gaining the qualifications to have found myself in the position, I can’t deny that I have enjoyed the easiest, least impeded path here by way of my various privileges, whether in gender, class, race or physical abilities. While I don’t often lack for self-confidence, I don’t think for a moment that a surplus of merit has earned me my job ahead of others who might similarly apply.

There are more than twice as many female teachers in British Columbia as men; yet it wasn’t until 2011 that there were as many female principals as there were men. Even in 2013 the province’s superintendents were 2 to 1 men.

Is the fact that so many men find themselves in the top spot a condition of their disproportionate merit? (Given their underrepresentation in the larger teaching force, this density of male talent and experience must be considerable for them to enjoy such heights of leadership, earnings, and power.)

Or…. there’s something else happening: gender inequality.

And if we can acknowledge that gender inequality unfairly advantages a distinct group (50%) of us toward positions of power and influence, we must also acknowledge that we aren’t committed to finding “the best person for the job.”

It means we don’t find them. We hire our friends, our sons, our connections through sports or other social networks that hold half of us (women) back.

And if we are to admit that this is the case, then establishing a quota for hiring or appointing leaders hardly seems the worst way to proceed. Even if there are arguments to be made against quotas, merit isn’t one which warrants consideration.

“All of those fifteen women,” a conservative friend of mine said today, “have a question mark above them, because we don’t know if they got the job because they deserve it, or because of the quota.”

Which is true, but no more true than it is of every man appointed today – or ever – to a government’s cabinet: we don’t know if they got the job because they deserve it, or because of a host of advantages that have nothing to do with merit, or earning the position. Karen Ho opens an eloquent salvo on how Meritocracy is a Lie by stating:

it’s important to acknowledge that notions of merit have never stopped previous governments from determining the make-up of their cabinets based on a variety of criteria. As Vice Canada parliamentary reporter Justin Ling has pointed out, “regionalism, parliamentary experience, who they endorsed for leader, [and] which MP they beat” are all considered valid reasons for the job, and gender is not. In effect, quotas meant to be fair representations of a variety of different Canadian constituencies have been around for almost fifty years.”

In the meantime, what these quotas ensure is that while societal inequality grooms men for roles of leadership and power, our government will at least endeavour to represent diversity of gender in its institutional leadership.

When asked why he had made gender parity in his cabinet a priority, new Prime Minister Trudeau shrugged and said simply: “It’s 2015.”

The young ladies in my philosophy class variously gasped, clapped, and cheered as we watched live on our class projector.

However, as Ms. Ho observes (by way of Denise Balkissoon writing in the Globe and Mail), this “is only the first step to recognizing the country’s diversity.”

The large shift in the number of visible minorities and residents of First Nations groups who were elected as MPs is a positive, encouraging change and their significant presence in Trudeau’s cabinet is nothing less than extraordinary. But real representation of this country also includes people with disabilities and members of the LGBT community.

If I can interpret the sentiments of many the young people I spend time with, and spoke to today, there is much hope that this symbolic first day of a new government is only that first step of many toward a more inclusive and just country.

Teaching in the Patriarchy

PATRIARCHAL EDUCATION 2014

Image courtesy of Christopher Dombres

Even as we might strive to discuss Herstory and the silencing of minority voices in our curriculum, it is startlingly easy to perpetuate and recreate the same inequalities we strive to combat in our work as educators. While we may have the best of intentions in our explicit messages about the nature of equality and justice in our classrooms, each of us brings myriad complexities of unconscious privilege and inequality into our work with young people just by way of inhabiting a culture which is composed of them.

For instance, I am a thirty three year old, caucasian, Canadian male, living in an affluent suburb of one of the world’s most livable cities. I work with gifted youngsters in a program that gets them out of doors and into the curriculum in ways that are intended to engage their voice and agency in a responsive and authentic learning community. And I was even in a similar program back in my own highschool days before riding an athletic scholarship to the states, where I competed in the NCAA.

All of which is to say that I can acknowledge that nearly everything about my life presents a near perfect model of white male privilege.

My whole life has offered a continual reassurance that my voice and contributions were worthwhile and valued by others; that my opinion and interpretation of events can be offered with authority and will be respectfully received has been reinforced at nearly every juncture in my life, which doesn’t necessarily make me a self-centered egomaniac, but  does remind me to be aware that not everyone has been on the receiving end of a lifetime of attaboys for a range of choices and behaviours that have vacillated between the stellar and foolhardy as much as anyone.

Such an acknowledgement is a first step in addressing the myriad inequalities from which I have (and continue to) benefit, but then only begins an exploration of the ways in which I reproduce and witness the perpetuation of these inequalities in my countless daily interactions with students, teachers, and the culture beyond my school.In my travels

As when the hands that invariably leap up to offer opinions in class discussions are those that are white / upper-class / extroverted / etc…

As when a colleague asks an administrator why they haven’t hired any young goodlookin’ contract teachers this year or last…

As when an established teacher monopolizes the agenda at a union or staff meeting with their interpretation of “What’s in our interest” without seeking to represent the views of younger teachers or colleagues from minority populations…

That we are swimming in layers of unrecognized privilege and yet exist as the stewards of a system which organizes itself around meritocratic principles presents a contradiction our public schools ought confront in an effort to prepare young people to better realize the values of multicultural democracy that truly

“promote[s] the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and assist[s] them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.”

Moving beyond the acknowledgement of this contradiction, however, is where such affluent experiences and classrooms such as mine struggle to create more equal and democratic experiences. Observing and reacting to overt manifestations of discrimination is something that comforts us, as do signs of solidarity such as awareness campaigns like the Anti-Bullying Day or Me to We Fundraising initiatives.

But these efforts are largely organized by privileged kids in privileged schools: do they really bring us any closer to creating a truly inclusive society?

Or do they further alienate and separate the haves from the have nots (whatever those possessions may be)?

Leveraging our collective privilege to ‘rescue’ those who are disadvantaged by systemic oppression is a hollow aim unless our gaze is fixed upon a critical view of the sources of our own advantages, and we seek and strive to make these advantages visible to others who would unknowingly perpetuate them to the detriment of others.

What this means is difficult for many of us who enjoy various privilege to envision; but what it does not mean is retreating into silence.

It doesn’t mean that the kids whose hands shoot up at the beginning of a class discussion need to sit on them.

It doesn’t mean the principal isn’t allowed to share a joke with a colleague.

And it doesn’t mean that those of us who don’t mind speaking our minds at staff or union meetings ought not take those opportunities to cultivate dialogue with our peers.

But it does mean recognizing that some of these activities and modes of participation – by which success and membership in our communities are judged – are easier for some of us than others, and that this ease has little or nothing to do with any of our respective effort or merit. By extension this means that the ability to include marginalized voices in our collective discussions demands that we employ these privileges in the greater inclusion of others in them, and toward the elimination of barriers that keep others from that “full and equitable participation.”

Which in the very first place involves listening, rather than speaking. Hearing what life is like, and how the existence of our privileges effects others.

But we need not take what we hear as personal idictments: after all, if we did nothing to earn the privileges that have led to our successes and power, we likely are not conscious participants in the oppression of others.

However, we become agents of injustice if in gaining an awareness of our own privilege and good fortune, we do nothing to increase the justice and opportunity afforded others.

Talons’ Showcase of Learning: American Revolution

declaration-of-independence

It seemed a natural extension of the type of learning we put to use in class every day: research and communication, collaboration and presentation.

 

In encountering the context of the American Revolution, and interpreting not only the Founding Fathers’ possible intentions in creating the Declaration of Independance as a political document, but also a living document, and record of human progress, the class wrote a series of their own Declarations of Independent Learning.

A common theme that arose in these statements of purpose was the opportunity for TALONS learners to document, record, and showcase their learning for posterity, their peers, and the extended audiences of their blogs. In assessing the amount of the course content absorbed, and creating an opportunity for an individual synthesis project on a finite timeline, we set out to redefine the history test: an open-computer, Google-able, tes- errr… Showcase of Learning.

At nine in the morning last Thursday, with a blanket of wet snow covering the Lower Mainland – leaving one student to ‘telecommute,’ and complete the test from home – I shared a Google document with the criteria supplied below. They were able to communicate via the chat feature on the document, and in other ways that could be shared publically (Etherpad, or otherwise – no Facebook chat); talking to group mates, and other people in the class was permitted, so long as it didn’t interfere with anyone else’s ability to work productively (another common theme in many Declarations of Learning).

On laptops, with textbooks, and pre-prepared notes, the class had seventy-five minutes to make use of any resource they could muster in responding to one of the quotes, cartoons, or critiques below.

Talons Learners have the right to showcase their learning

TALONS Constitution, written into law November 2010

Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western World, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest through which the events of current history are presented to us.

Noam Chomsky – The Responsibility of Intellectuals (1966)

Respond to one of the statements below to demonstrate an understanding of the colonial context of the period (conditions leading up to the revolution), an introduction to the source of the quotation, and connection to our present understanding of history, and current events.

Your response may be in the form of a blog post, Prezi, Slideshow, or other animation that must be linked or posted on your blog, and must include the following:

  • Title: a statement of purpose, or thesis
  • Links to at least two of your classmates’ blog posts about the American Revolution, or the nature of Learning Rights
  • Links to three outside sources
  • Two quotations (from either of the above)
  • An image (to ensure Nick will read the results)

Select one of the following artifacts, reflections, representations or quotations on the American Revolution for discussion and presentation.

Examples of Talons’ responses can be viewed on the exemplar page of the class’ Socials Wiki.

The rubric below was also attached for reference.

  • Boston Massacre

(originally by Paul Revere)

  • “History affords us many instances of the ruin of states, by the prosecution of measures ill suited to the temper and genius of their people. The ordaining of laws in favor of one part of the nation, to the prejudice and oppression of another, is certainly.”

Benjamin Franklin

  • “We have here a forecast of the long history of American politics, the mobilization of lower-class energy by upper-class politicians, for their own purposes. This was not purely deception; it involved, in part, a genuine recognition of lower-class grievances, which helps to account for its effectiveness as a tactic over the centuries.”

Howard Zinn

  • Benjamin Franklin at the Court of St. James

Benjamin Franklin at St. James Court

  • “They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Ben Franklin

  • “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.”

John Adams

  • “The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.”

James Madison

  • The able doctor, or America swallowing the bitter draught

The able doctor, America, swallowing the bitter draught

  • “If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.”

James Madison

  • “No more, America, in mournful strain, Of wrongs and grievance unredressed complain; No longer shall thou dread the iron chain Which wanton Tyranny, with lawless hand, Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land.”

Phyllis Wheatley

  • “It does not require a majority to prevail but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set bush fires in people’s minds.”

Samuel Adams

Exceeds Expectations

Meets Expectations

Barely Meets Expectations

Colonial Context

Response provides engaging and well-supported context to relate significance of historical figures and events. Response provides adequate context to relate significance of historical figures and events, but may lack specific detail and authoritative support. Response attempts to provide context and relate the significance of historical figures and events, but may contain flaws in logic, or  lack supporting detail.

Source of the Quotation

Response introduces author or source and is able to compellingly relation their bias and perspective to revolutionary and modern events. Response introduces author or source and is is able to relate their bias and perspective to revolutionary and modern events. Response may attempt to introduce author or source, but does not clearly relate bias or perspective to revolutionary or modern events.

Connection to Modern Politics or Current Events

Response draws multi-faceted connections to modern history and/or politics, and demonstrates a unique correlation between past and present. Response draws connections to modern history and/or politics, but may not demonstrate a unique correlation between past and present. Response attempts to draw connections to modern history andor politics, but may not demonstrate a unique correlation between past and present.

WikiBooks Publishing Project

Ksan, British Columbia
Ksan, British Columbia

One of the surprises of last year’s socials units was the TALONS class‘ foray into publishing with Wikibooks. After more than a year spent within the confines of our district’s SharePoint Wikis and discussion boards, Wikibooks offered our first opportunity to publish and participate in a global dialogue of meaning, history, and identity.

This collective Wisdom of the Crowd is the appeal and power of crowd-sourcing; but the rabid tenor of many Wikipedia debates and discussions – not to mention the oftentimes thoroughly vetted and polished nature of Wiki articles concerning subjects covered in high school – makes venturing into that community a difficult proving ground for young students. Unless students are to be contributing coverage or information on an as-yet-undocumented subject or event – unlikely given the topics covered during the Socials 9 or 10 curriculum – participation in Wikipedia can be a difficult place to start.

Fortunately, the range and reach of Wikimedia Foundation‘s projects extend to include Wikibooks, a subject-by-subject collection of textbooks open to user-editing. Where similar articles – concerning Louis Riel, and the Red River Rebellion, as well as information about Canada’s various First Peoples – on Wikipedia were (more or less) “complete,” I was able to find – to my great surprise – this time last year, that many entries corresponding to our mandated curriculum under the Canadian History text were blank. The class broke up into research groups and “adopted” pages on different groups of First Nations, geographic regions, or notable events and issues in Canadian history.

When we set out on the project many students were surprised that they were “allowed” to use Wikipedia at school, as in so many classrooms even touching down on the “world’s most-cited web page” is forbidden as a blanket policy to combat fears that students can too easily directly plagiarize Wikipedia’s answer to many questions asked as homework. And it is not that this never happens; students make use of Wikipedia and Sparknotes by default to answer traditional questions based around extinct modes of obtaining information.

But what if classroom projects and student research could ask “bigger” questions than when did it happen? or who was there? What if our assignments could facilitate students justifying their interpretations of history’s influence on the present moment and culture? And help them engage in this discussion with the world outside the classroom? To even begin such an endeavour, when faced with the prospect of setting out to research and discuss topics quickly glossed over in the narrow perspective of the classroom text, where would one find a better compendium of source material than Wikipedia?

Sgang Gwaay
SGaang Gwaay, British Columbia

What emerged in the course of publishing, far from an exercise in redundancy (merely copying text from the original Wikipedia articles to the empty Wikibooks pages), was a learning experience encapsulating literacy skills emerging as essentials in the evolving information landscape. Students tracked source material ranging from interviews  to academic papers, and collectively authored a first perspective in knowledge on their subjects. Students were forced to consider multiple sources in developing their own perspective on the complex questions of the Canadian Identity: the purpose of our history curriculum beyond what is written in the course’s prescribed learning outcomes.

During the project, students were not able to cite Wikipedia as a direct source, but encouraged to use it as a starting point toward authors of work on subjects referenced in the articles as a means of providing their published work with the strongest support possible. Students asked questions of experts from all over North America, read widely and were introduced to a variety of issues on the recommendation of public servants, non-profit organizers, academics, and politicians. In the end each group published theirs as a first perspective (in terms of the Wikibooks project) on the information of the day concerning a range of topics on the Canadian Identity. The work had to be cited and written in accordance with Wikibooks’ authorship guidelines, and opened the class’ work to the response and criticism, but also the benefit, of global study on the unit’s subject. From a pedagogical standpoint, the rigour and validity of the class’ use of Wikipedia (and reaching beyond the textbook in general) provided an experience richer in critical analysis and personal investment than many read-and-test units covering the same material.SGaang Gwaay

One student-solicited interview resulted in University of British Columbia Aboriginal Education professor Mark Aquash offering to spend an afternoon discussing the many tough questions surrounding Canada’s First Peoples that our texts (and oftentimes our teachers) are not well-enough prepared to confront. At the conclusion of the nearly two-hour dialogue – which covered the misunderstood labels of native, Métis, Indian, First Nations, Inuit, as well as contemporary conceptions of aboriginal land claims, reservations, education and welfare in the first person – a grade nine offered the following realization that I believe our texts are seldom equipped to facilitate:

All of [most] people’s anger and discomfort about Canada’s First Nations issues boils down to difficulties understanding the different ways our cultures view being human.

Of course, the statement is much bigger than a Canadian issue, and speaks to the extrinsic purpose of our education to teach empathy and understanding across the diverse cultures of our increasingly connected human experience. Thus the underlying purpose I hope the publishing project enables is to broaden the scope of the class’ discussion of our upcoming unit. I have been seeking classes or groups of aboriginal youth (wherever in the world they might reside, Canada or otherwise) to collaborate throughout the past year with the hope of working together to establish a dialogue or publication of student research and study of our local, yet universal history. I am excited to see the TALONS’ blogging network extend and to begin to see other examples of classes sharing their learning through social networks and blogging.

With respect to our First Nations unit specifically, I have only established a few “leads” in connecting our classroom to another in order to discuss this aspect of colonial history, something I think speaks to the pervasive lack of interaction and understanding between First Peoples the world over and European (or other) colonialist nations in the Americas, Africa, Polynesia, and Australia. Delving into the history as we are taught it with the intention of authoring a contemporary narrative of Canada’s struggle to implement a truly multicultural society seems a good place to start though, whether we have company in this endeavour or not.

Many of the TALONS students are participating in the international Student Blogging Challenge this spring, and there is a momentum building around the shared experience that modern communication can offer. With this call to action, the class’ study of its upcoming history chapters is an opportunity to produce a collaborative effort to start a global dialogue of our relationship with this place in Canada, and the world, in this moment in time.