values

Modern Learning Environments – rearranging the desks and chairs on the Titanic?

There are some great teaching practices going on in schools and other learning institutions. There are resources being developed, pumped, and thrown into the mix. And there is new furniture to buy desks and chairs in all sorts of configurations to ‘zhuzh up’ learning spaces. I’ve just been trying to do some ‘zhuzhing’ (how on earth do you spell zhuzh?). I hate shopping at the best of times I can barely buy my own lunch. But as my neurons fired off in a panic around table shapes, ottomans and whiteboards I wondered how a Modern Learning Environment (MLE) is defined.

Now I don’t teach anymore, so I’m hardly in a position to be an expert, but I’ve seen some of the wonderful work my colleagues do. Indeed the NZ media has taken on the subject of MLE’s this weekend and others like Sally Hart have responded more eloquently than I will. I suppose my question is more a philosophical one than a pedagogical one. I’ll leave that one to others who are more qualified to talk about differentiated learning in the 21st century. My question has to do with the structural power imbalances that still exist and more obviously defined by uniforms and how teachers relate to students via the use of titles such as Miss and Mr. I suppose it’s a bit curious how we have not seen any real shift in curriculum content and structure in the last 100 years either. Of course there have been ‘upgrades’. Subjects are still divided into sciences, arts, languages…etc. We still sit students down to sit 3hr exams (and expect teachers to mark them yesterday) – whether this is done on computers or not makes no difference – it’s just rearranging the deck chairs.

Why? I think the larger question is where does the school system fit in the 21st century? I believe that question has to be framed in the larger socio-political and economic framework. The basic format and purpose of schools has not changed. The illusion of change is superficial and alluring especially the advances in technology – shiny things. Basically, schools are still training workers for jobs to contribute to economic growth. We are creating conscientious consumers – but still consumers. Schools train young people to fit society. The various rituals and protocols are about providing opportunities to know the expected success pathways of life – be heterosexual, but if you are gay (or any other variety of diversity) get married, reproduce, get into debt, spend the rest of your life paying it off, maybe save the world on the side and create a cure for cancer and world peace, and be happy.

Perhaps a little cynical. Perhaps uncomfortably accurate. Regardless I still hate shopping and we know what happened to the Titanic. Time to design a better ship to move through a different medium.

Flagging change

If I was an entrepreneur I would be thinking seriously about getting into the flag industry. From the passionate to the privileged, patriotic to political there is a growing movement toward marking territory along lines of separation in the present that flow into the past and future of which all happen now with real effects that can be felt in persecution, disavowal, and fear. There is a new flag on the block and it’s got nothing to do with NZ trying to decide how to resignify our place such that the rest of the world finally knows we are not the east island of Australia.

The Russians are all in a flap about family values and have decided they need to help people pick a side. This flag is meant to be a counter to the increasing profile of the rainbow one used as a visible representation of the invisibility of those falling outside heteronormativity. The idea of ‘straight pride’ being captured by a flag with a family on it reveals other invisibility. Clearly unless you have three ‘able bodied’ children of clear gender expression (based on clothing and marginal hair length differences) and two parents you are not a good model of heterosexuality. They might have gone with a simpler version that both mirrors and contrasts the rainbow. A simple black and white with no shades of grey, although they might want to refrain from using any symbols – been a bit of confusion with regard to black and white flags recently. Alternatively Russians themselves could fly all sorts of family flags without deviating from a man and woman being the parents. Mixed race couples, people with varying body shapes and functional uniqueness, and the obligatory alternative numbers of children that could make for a family unit – including 0.

South Carolina could consider adopting its state flag for public display, how many people know what it looks like? It’s one that might help cast off the shackles of mixed meaning because regardless of now the past lives and replays certain acts and scenes if given the chance under particular signs that have been etched in the fabric of time itself. We need to remember that rallying under a banner has been an effective propaganda technique for centuries and symbols can be turned from one meaning to another just ask any Hindu about the Svastika.

So to Russia with love – being heterosexual is not a crime in any country, you cannot be sent to jail, killed or denied basic human rights simply for being straight. Pride is only possible against a background of shame, the blood of those lost to hate crimes might make a good backdrop for your new flag – red…somehow I think that has other connotations.

Back to the drawing board.

inclusive exclusion

Throwing money at schools to provide more support for students with unique functioning says something about a profound discomfort in schools with any form of diversity beyond culture. When writing about the ‘cost’ of providing support for disabled students the needs of the majority of students who ‘might miss out on teachers time’ are privileged. The threat to the normative learning environment is what is represented when it comes to promoting increased funding and my concern is this moves schools further away from inclusive and more toward exclusive concepts of special needs. One of the reasons I think is a general dis-ease with any form of emotional, social, physical difference. The need to manage diversity by erasing undersirable outward expressions of uniqueness means schools have lost one of their most powerful functions, to provide young people with experiences with others who may ‘be’ un-like them to allow this unsettling to play an role in forging a genuine appreciation of the vast range of humanbeingness. Maybe this has something to do with the insanity behind assessment driven pedagogy, I’m not sure, but the dominant concerns indicate this might be part of the reason.

Another pressure point is the growing parental entitlement creeping into education. I don’t begrudge parents wanting the ‘best for their children’. However neoliberal forces seem to have condensed and concentrated this into a drive to demand that schools remove all barriers to their child achieving their best. It seems as though ‘accessibility’ has been hijacked as an idea to some degree. If litigation or media exposure is threatened, Principals can be backed into a corner to preserve their brand. These are some of the contextual influences skipped over by media in a bid to focus on economies of identity – financial bottom lines and the ever growing business management approach to education and pedagogy.

A concept I find increasingly needed but missing in schools is de-expertising. That is, you can actually ask young people themselves what they need! And be careful to allow for some space to just them to be teenagers, de-pathologising youth in general would be a good start. Getting frustrated, angry, emotional and struggling to communicate feelings is not uncommon for teachers…or young people. Let’s remember that and get back to basics – the 3 r’s – 1: Are assumptions disabling students more than their actual disabilities, 2: Are young people consulted when developing IEP’s? (especially year 11 and beyond but even before this), 3: Are the needs of the many really that different to the needs of the few?

Having said all this however I am acutely aware that parents are covering the costs of teacher aids and shouldn’t be. I’m also grateful for the work RTLB’s and TA’s do, an often invisible and underappreciated part of the fabric of teaching. To the Ministry Of Education, put your money where your mouth is but don’t let it suffocate a wider discussion of inclusion, belonging and feeling valued by everyday practices in schools.

More assessment? What the Hekia?

Moving through the corridors at work over the last week has had the air of a zombie apocalypse. The ashen faces, sunken red eyes with black rings, shuffling feet and monosyllabic answers from senior students indicative of a gradual trend of sucking the life out of young people and teachers with internal assessment. The level of burn out and fatigue for the middle of the year is a worrying trend. Rarely do I hear students talk about what they are learning, or finding interesting or inspiring – they simply don’t have time or space to wonder, think, challenge or explore knowledge. While countries such as Finland who we look to for models of best practice are moving toward less assessment and testing we are moving in the opposite direction thanks to a government determined to make the tail wag the dog. The political spin doctors will convince the public this is about raising achievement and being able to measure this consistently. The so called ‘gap’ at year 9-10 is not really a ‘gap’ it’s just that there is no national tracking at these years, but there are plenty of assessment tools schools use, otherwise we wouldn’t have had improving pass rates for NCEA.

Teaching to the assessment is already happening which is not education but robotic performance where the types of questions asked by students and sanctioned by teachers are centred on what has to be done to get there. Get ready for the Governments next big experiment that will drain more of the life blood out of schools. Hekia does like to go for the jugular after all.

It’s a good thing vampires and zombies are trendy right now as the piles of marking bury my colleagues and crush the spirits of youth.

chasing rainbows

The USA is awash in colours today. The orange, white and blue of the stars and bars put aside for a moment for some to fly the rainbow flag as the Supreme Court delivered marriage equality. Not everyone will be celebrating and I’m sure within hours or even minutes the moral panic theories will be unleashed with all sorts of dire warnings of the slippery slope into legalised paedophelia, the marrying of animals or that children will now grow up deeply confused about the meaning of life, and possibly the human race will die out from lack of procreation…think we’re ok for now on that front. I welcome this kind of hysteria as it allows for the irrationality of fear to be exposed.

Here is the curious thing. We see a very small fraction of the light spectrum and assume that what is seen represents the world and what is real and true. So while the rainbow flag symbolises diversity it also reminds us that colour can be both definitive and illusory, unifying and dividing. And some might be on the same wavelength in one spectrum of life a small shift in frequency sends understanding into an invisible realm of the unknown. In the absence of visibility the invisible becomes mysterious and prone to darker shadowy uncertainty.

When flags are no longer needed to declare or announce a separation of people then love will open its doors to unseen realms. Let there be light.

Gun control just flag it

Guns have one purpose to shoot bullets. Those bullets are intended to kill something living. I grew up with guns, Dad was a hunter and his collection of rifles and shot guns never had any other meaning to me as a kid. When I spent a year in North Carolina in my late teens I had a bit of a reality check around the relationship between guns and bullets and how they are used. My first week of high school a student was shot outside a football game and this small town Kiwi kid suddenly had to grapple with the idea that people intentionally shoot people outside of war. When I heard a loud bang in Thames I just assumed it was a car back firing as it wasn’t uncommon. But back in Charlotte NC, I remember being pulled away from the window at my friends place when I went to see what kind of ‘car’ was having such a hard time. My education for a year introduced me to US history and US literature and other unintended experiences and learnings, such as how segregation still existed as a form of internalised practice. When we went to class all the ‘white’ students sat on one side of the class and all the ‘black’ students sat on the other and two rows of desks were left in the middle. This empty space spoke volumes, more than the rushed and superficial attempt to teach the history of the USA from ice age to current in one year. There were no discussions, or conversations about those awkward things like slavery just a pure memorising of facts and standardised tests of true false or multiple choice. I got a taste of the fear and mistrust that is born out of a history of colonisation that has been ‘white washed’ – at least that was my lasting impression. It certainly helped me to reflect more on our own history and whose voices are privileged in the documenting and accounting for the meaning of particular events.

Walking into a church and shooting 9 people could easily be made into an argument about gun control but perhaps the conversations that need to be had are about what fuels fear, supports it and gets in the way of seeing others as more ‘like us’ than different from us. Notions of purity and contamination, threat and danger generate the conditions for justifying extreme actions and sanctions.

I wonder if those two rows still sit empty at Myers Park High School? I wonder how many other ways rows of separation happen to segregate communities, those indirect yet quietly divisive modes of power. Kiwis might resonate more with the debate around the use of the confederate flag as a symbol of identity given our current musing on changing our national flag. That while not lethal in itself serves as an icon signifying particular values and beliefs belonging in another time. That in taking down unites people in other ways and enable a new story to emerge to be blown in the wind rather than blown away.

Teaching no lessen

There are some interesting intersections brought about by my journey in education. Going from a teacher to a counsellor has seen my perspective and values shift and move and from time to time come together. But I generally only get to teach two kinds of lessons these days. I either teach juggling and unicycling to year 11 sport science classes or a one off health class on consent and negotiation for year 12’s. Never both at the same time although some of the themes of risk, fear, going one step at a time and moving at your own pace do line up.

So on Friday I will be in front of a class I have no relationship with about to launch into the realm of sex and the complexity of desire mixed with cultural and social norms, family values and gendered assumptions without any real sense of what these young people might have already experienced. Actually, that is not entirely true. Because in my privileged position as a counsellor I will know some of them, and they will know what I know. So there will be a level of extra vulnerability attached to this conversation. It is a juggling act of sensitivities to confidentiality, privacy and accepting that within the space all sorts of beliefs, values, experiences and needs will be present. I know I am there in my capacity as a counsellor but what does that actually mean to these 16-17 year old young women that a counsellor is coming in to talk with them? It really is the definition of ‘awkward’.

Talking about consent invites the polarity of coercion. Society in general still needs to grapple with gendered assumptions of power and consent. I recently stumbled on a great cartoon likening consent to having ‘a cup of tea’. There are some limits to this as an analogy but I kind of like it for its simplici-tea, it’s also gender neutral , stick figures are good for that. But it’ll be me in the hot seat Friday. So…what can I bring? I can bring a non-judgemental stance, but is that enough? I can bring an openness about the competing needs and feelings, physical, emotional responses that might all happen at once when it comes to sex. I can bring a level of ‘unshockability’ while ensuring questions and statements do not position people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. My hope is that I can use some of my performance skills from juggling that are about setting a safe tone for exploring, renaming or relocating a sense of failure or loss of worth into something more respectful and takes into account the realities of diverse sexual experiences.

Leaving the door open for conversations at another time for those who might have more to process will be an ideal outcome. I intend not to leave a trail of guilt, self-doubt and fear. I intend to acknowledge the range of tensions and embodied realities of desire, pleasure and the contexts that can enable and disable actions or decisions. I will be intentional not to assume these young women will all be having sexual experiences or indeed be heterosexual. That to me is one way all teachers can support the well-being of LGBTIQ young people.

But perhaps more than anything to give them and experience of an adult who will not reject or shame them because they are young women talking about being/becoming sexually active – not just passive. I think that is enough things in the air for one lesson.

Doing the (in)decent thing

Ok, I need to make a disclaimer. This blog contains sexual content, and some really bad puns. However it may or may not be indecent depending on where you are reading this. ‘Where’ doesn’t necessarily mean what country or location. ‘Where’ is your moral and ethical values base located? So what to make of a case in the United Kingdom where a couple have been changed with an ‘indecent act’ during a concert at Hyde Park. I nearly required the heimlich maneuver while reading and eating toast – was not a great time to be masticating.

Briefly: A couple in their late 40’s had imbibed a lot of alcohol and while they guy ‘slept it off’ unconscious his partner decided the music sucked, so took that theme and ran with it so to speak. Apparently when finally interrupted by being arrested there was surprise from the woman that the rules were different in England. I’m wondering how many Welsh folk right now are checking with their local council to see if the grass has been cut recently so they can make grass angels. But this isn’t really what shocked me. What caught my attention was the response from the lawyer defender her in court. He believes even if it did happen it was a bit funny and “did not outrage public decency”. His summation and I quote (unfortunately).

“Let’s think actually there was sucking the penis, nobody is condoning it,”
“Of course it must have upset the sensibilities of some there, it must have caused annoyance”.

I don’t know about you but since when does ‘finding it a laugh’ become the yardstick for whether or not something crosses the line of decency? Because that is pretty much his argument. Here are some of the questions I have:

  • Had they been in their teens, how might their behaviour been perceived?
  • Why didn’t bystanders have concern for the level of consent of the guy involved (assuming there was no indication of a relationship)?
  • Is evidence of ‘arousal’ assumed to be an indication of consent?
  • Would a guy performing the same act on a woman receive the same level of permissive dismissive humour in court?
    If someone of the same gender was performing the act would they have been treated differently by observers and the court?
  • Is filming someone doing something, when in a state of impairment and possibly a vulnerable situation decent? Who should be being charged here?
  • Why is performing a similar act on yourself in public (I’m guessing with the hands rather than the mouth – but hey I suppose there are some who could pull it off) considered indecent, if someone performing on someone else isn’t??

I’m not sure what the outcome of this case will be but it is certainly an interesting situation to explore the complexity of the performing of sexuality in public and how context might permit certain interpretations of pleasure, power, desire and consent. Perhaps a look at the new guidelines for sexuality education from little old Aotearoa could be helpful here, maybe this couple could benefit from being sentenced to a few night classes…maybe not…certainly wouldn’t want them taking too many bathroom breaks.

I just hope whatever the outcome that no-one in that courtroom mouths ‘you’re going down’.

(Many puns were sacrificed in this blog).

touchy subject

Hair we go again part2. Right so Mr Key says any ponytail is up for grabs – even a dudes. I find that hard to believe but can respect his belief that he’s an equal opportunity kind of guy. So long as we have no discrimination personal space violation is ok. Once served up on an equality platter it can go with a side of ‘overreaction’ and ‘woops I did it again’.

‘Wandering hands’ aren’t a new phenomenon. The names Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris represent the tip of the iceberg but we all know what is under the water that goes unnoticed and can do significant damage. But because these cases are so extreme our consciousness defaults to a pony tail pull as ‘harmless’ and I can see that in comparison, it seems trivial. But what is lost in all of this is the experience of the person on the receiving end – gender irrelevant. You don’t have to look too far to see the insidious way ‘just being friendly’ and a certain level of power enable people to go unquestioned and those who are upset, offended, become fodder for ridicule and shame. People stop coming forward to report incidents of harassment, abuse or bullying because of precisely what has happened hair.

My sense is we are moving more towards ‘blaming the victim’ culture, by ensuring context is overplayed and individual feelings count for nothing other than to direct them to ‘what they should have done’ instead. The onus is on those who are hurt to ‘get over it’ and this is a dangerous message. Taking responsibility is still watered down and diluted to the point where those on the receiving end are painted as asking for blood rather than a simple human to human acknowledgement that I hurt you and understand why you are hurt. Understanding this as strength rather than weakness is an under appreciated ethic.

Whenever I talk with people who have been abused one thing has always stood out. The person who did the abuse (I’m not about to debate what counts as ‘serious’) was always someone who had respect of others, was viewed as friendly, usually funny and outgoing (but not always), and often maintained a level of esteem in the community. Why? Because it creates a shield of trust.

I’m not saying Mr Key is one of these people, nor am I saying he couldn’t be. That is the point and it needs to pierce the shield.

counting for something

Here I am closing in on my 100th blog. I feel a bit like a cricket player nervously perched on the edge of my crease wondering if I should play conservatively or just cut loose, throw caution to the wind and smash it out of the park. But it’s just a number and part of me is also intrigued by our relationship with numbers, statistics and putting numerical values on things. The saturation of data available and our reliance on numbers to define the boundaries and boarders of what becomes significant value doesn’t add up. Data can be forgotten, omitted, discarded and interpreted more ways that you can shake a bit of willow at.

I suppose I have an aversion to the normal curve anyway so its probably no surprise I’d rather use it as a moustache, slide, or bow and arrow or something similar. People love to throw numbers around to get their point across or claim some for of truth status, especially if has been ‘scientifically proven’. Padded up and staring down someone charging into a conversation I sometimes wonder what on earth I should do – I don’t want to be caught on the back foot but learning to anticipate what might be coming down gets easier if you do your research. Sometimes the best way to play a shot is to take the momentum and simply redirect it.

I was always a pretty average batter but I wasn’t a bad wicket keeper, catching people out. Get to know what shots to play depending on the kind of data thrown down. Some will have more spin on it than others so you need to be quick on your feet. Being stumped isn’t the best feeling but it isn’t the end of the world.

Things aren’t always what they seam . Time to run that single – Howzat.