Plan now for return to school

(July 28, 2020)

You don’t have to be a parent of school-age children, or a teacher, to be worried about what will happen come September.

The summer months trickle away, and we have no more to go on than vague ideas about reduced classroom size, alternate school days, and expecting children — even teenagers — to embrace physical distancing instead of each other.

As caseloads soar in the United States, this educational paralysis needs to stop. We have to plan for the reality that either there will be no face-to-face teaching this fall, or whatever meagre attempts are begun in September, the wheels will quickly fall off and schools again will be closed.

Because it’s summer, we are keeping things under control, for now, so the push is on to return people to work — even if the government has to bribe them. In this political and economic climate, however, parents and teachers can expect no overt help from educational officials to prepare for the next school year. They need to make contingency plans of their own.

So, drawing upon my 30-plus years as a teacher and almost as many as a parent, here are some suggestions.

Sit down with your kids and make a list of what worked and what didn’t work in the spring. For both lists, figure out why, then ask what could be done to fix the problems. There may be answers that can be worked out over the summer (such as special study spaces, or new equipment, or better schedules), and other things that can’t be changed. Enlisting your kids’ help to analyze the situation will enable their co-operation, and may even offer solutions you hadn’t considered before.

Don’t assume distance education is automatically worse than face-to-face. It is different. In fact, it is really only missing two elements — touch (which we are not supposed to be doing anyway) and smell. Now, classroom odours might help students remember things better, but I’ll bet daily cookie-baking would be a better memory aid.

So, work with that difference. If you have the technological tools, there is much that can be done over the internet to engage students with more interactive learning (say, in math) than most would ever get in a physical classroom. Video tools can be used on tablets to have students interact with each other and with “teachers” (grandparents? Other relatives at a distance?) Reading out loud is easily supported that way — or if a telephone is required instead, a headset is a cheap addition.

If the kids have smartphones, they are an easy distraction, so boundaries of when to use them might be necessary — but they can also be used for making videos, researching assignments and lots of other (supervised) interactive activities.

Most importantly, don’t assume your kids will “fall behind” in this next year — whatever that means. Survey the curriculum with a critical eye, and you will find that, apart from basic math, reading and writing skills, the information they learn is hardly earth-shaking. In fact, even Grade 12 sciences are normally retaught “the right way” in first-year university courses… making Grade 4 science more fun to do than life-altering if it is missed.

If Manitoba Education started grappling with real-world pandemic issues, the department should announce right now that once the vaccine is available, students will be able to get credit for their missed grades by passing a challenge exam on the materials required for that level — and then circulate a study guide for parents to follow.

Even without that, focusing on the real 3R basics (reading, writing and ’rithmetic) would still be an important way of improving your kids’ educational outlook and opportunities. The pandemic may, in fact, offer a blessing in disguise — and, for once, make the digital divide irrelevant.

Over the years, I have seen a substantial decline in literacy — not just the inevitable complaints about students’ inability to write, but especially a decline in their ability to read. Parents are partly to blame — check around your house, and count the books there… and then count how many books your children have seen you read yourself, in the last year.

The inability to read quickly is disastrous in any field of study. So, can’t afford the new computer? Lousy internet? Get them to read books instead — any books will do. Simply words in a row.

A pandemic educational plan should include increasing your library. Perhaps we need a neighbourhood book swap every Sunday morning until fall, with books left at the curb. People whose kids are grown have lots of books; it is a matter of arranging safe local distribution, which could be organized over the summer through social media.

Make improved reading skills (and writing stories) the focus of home education this next year, and your kids will ace those exams in the fall of 2021, and beyond.

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We’re gambling on unlikely outcomes

(July 18, 2020)

PEOPLE have a weird relationship with numbers, especially probabilities. How we view those numbers depends on whether we are considering the probabilities of a good or a bad outcome.

If it is a bad outcome, it will never happen to me. If it is a good outcome, then it’s almost money in the bank!

Millions of Canadians every week demonstrate this kind of reasoning when they spend money they don’t have on lottery tickets and other forms of gambling. Tell them they have only one chance in a thousand to win the next draw, and some would sell their mothers to buy more tickets.

Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler had the opposite intention, however, when he said storms like the recent one that hit the Brandon area were a “one in 1,000 years flood event.” He meant, “No need to worry, folks” — couldn’t possibly happen again, right?

(No doubt he gave the same speech a couple of weeks earlier to communities in southeastern Manitoba, as they bailed out their basements from a similar storm.)

That same mathematical idiocy leads people to ignore public health warnings about masks and physical distancing, because the risks are so low for them to catch COVID-19. Couldn’t possibly happen to me, they say, on their way home from the crowded beach, lined up (shoulder to shoulder) to buy tickets for tonight’s draw, betting for a win against much worse odds.

People are just not getting the picture that, in our world today, all bets are off. Previous predictions about what is likely to happen are almost pointless. Using probabilities to decide on funding priorities for floods or pandemics is a waste of time, for example, because we don’t (and won’t) have the data sets we need to calculate them properly.

Who knows what it really means, when both the Arctic and Antarctic are warming at a rate several times that of the rest of the planet? When Siberia hits temperatures in July that are hotter than Houston? Those things alone are signs, when it comes to calculating outcomes, that systems beyond our control are also beyond our comprehension, if we rely on the tools of probability.

We need to approach our problems – and our potential problems – differently. If you want a fancy phrase, call it “qualitative analysis.” Otherwise, just call it systems thinking, or applied common sense.

Look at water issues from the perspective of watersheds and their management — and find the points of vulnerability (such as the Rivers dam). What would happen if the dam failed — and how could the system be rejigged to relieve pressure on that dam, not just now, but in the future, given that more extreme weather (drought and rain) will certainly lie ahead, thanks to climate change?

A stitch in time saves nine, we have been told for centuries, but we seem to have forgotten that wisdom. Our probability calculations and resulting economic assessments cost us more in the long run, because they too often fly in the face of common sense — a cheap and increasingly rare commodity in these Trumpian times.

In April, I got a call from a former student, who was watching the pandemic unfold and remembered my course on “Disease and History” at the University of Winnipeg 20 years ago. It was a troubling course that year; we toured the virology lab, and I had to devote an entire class afterward to reassuring students because of the security flaws we observed.

Then I offered an assignment to assess Manitoba’s emergency response to a potential Ebola epidemic — and had to take another class to calm them down because of what they found.

Briefly: Many of the phone numbers on the emergency list were dead; others went to people surprised to find they were on the list. Asked how the airport authority would screen incoming passengers from abroad, we were told not to worry, because there were no direct international flights “from those places to Winnipeg.”

Pressed further, the airport person said anyone who “looked sick” would be put in a separate room – no special precautions — and then admitted the only medical personnel available to do any screening was a veterinarian. At that point, there were no hospitals with HEPA-filter, negative-pressure environments in the city — only the new Canadian Blood Services building and the virology lab had them. And so on!

Of course, the odds were this kind of epidemic would never happen here, and for 20 years, it hasn’t. But whatever experts had been consulted along the way, my students could have easily set up a better system. I only hope some of them eventually did.

From pandemics to the climate crisis, we need more common sense and less preferential gambling on best possible outcomes. Ideology, whether political or economic, has to stop getting in the way of practical solutions.

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Justice is a three-sided coin

(July 3, 2020)

CIVILIZATIONS are based on a variety of structures that combine power and authority. Putting those two things together, however, can mean truth is a dangerous commodity.

When people object to the way they are being treated by authority, trouble starts. Power does not respond well to a challenge of any kind — especially if it reflects facts it doesn’t want to admit.

Lately, we have seen stark examples of how such structures react to the challenges that truth presents. #BlackLivesMatter put the spotlight on systemic racism, with global reactions to the death of George Floyd. Wearing a mask to slow the spread of pandemic disease has become a political act, especially in the U.S. Protesting ecological destruction, or even just protecting water and soil, will soon be a crime in Alberta (and perhaps, eventually, here). Economic recovery is placed ahead of the health and well-being of ordinary people, as environmental regulations are ignored or rescinded.

Resistance to these structures of power and authority doesn’t begin because of what journalists say, however. A free press just communicates the message, multiplying what a group of people, somewhere, has chosen to challenge. This is why speaking truth to power is a dangerous exercise, putting journalists in the crosshairs of angry authority — perhaps even risking injury or death — for doing their jobs.

Every year, more and more journalists are beaten or killed, making the work of journalists almost as dangerous that of environmental defenders, who die by the hundreds every year around the world, trying to protect the Earth and their homes.

This year, World Environment Day on June 5 passed almost without notice here in Manitoba. It was also the day thousands of Winnipeggers demonstrated peacefully against racism and in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, giving that day a different focus this year for environmentalists, as well.

There is a simple reason for the lack of conflict between these two causes: there will be no racial justice without ecological justice. They are two sides of the same coin. In fact, we should make it a three-sided coin, so you can add in social justice, as well. Each of them requires the other two, if we are going to change those structures, those systems, that combine power and authority in ways that threaten our global future together.

When leaders would rather listen to the ideological voices in their heads than the common sense of people in the streets, however, it is time for them to step aside — before they are simply set aside.

Fear of criticism is a sign of insecurity, not of conviction. It is fear the critics are right and you are wrong, so it is easier to ignore their voices, tune them out, shut them down, deny them the chance to speak — and, if that doesn’t stop them, then tear gas, truncheons and bullets should do the trick. You can always arrest and punish those who persist.

Yet few (if any) revolutions have resulted from some well-executed master plan. Instead, it is something small, a pebble rolling downhill, that provokes an avalanche of change.

The convenience store clerk in Minneapolis who called police because George Floyd had supposedly given them a fake $20 bill could never have imagined the global impact of such a minor decision.

It was a citizen’s cellphone, once again, that captured video of what happened and shared the news — not the journalists.

Yes, racism is systemic — because, otherwise, common sense and ordinary humanity would have eliminated it.

Social inequality is also systemic — because, otherwise, kindness and generosity would have made it disappear.

Ecological injustice is systemic, too, because if people respected the Earth around them and within them, there would be no other colour in our lives than green.

Yet if racial, social and ecological injustice are left unchallenged, accepted and embedded in the institutions of our society, then trouble is surely coming. Without warning, something small, whether local or global, will trigger a pent-up avalanche of change.

When that happens, everything familiar will be swept away — the good with the bad — and life will be forced to begin again amidst the rubble of what used to be. That “new normal” people talk about may be better than the old one, but not necessarily.

So, we need to speak truth to power — in the press, in the boardroom, in the law courts, and in the chambers of political authority.

That truth must be about racial justice, about social equality, about care for the Earth.

If these truths continue to be ignored, discounted or suppressed, then one day some small, otherwise insignificant event will be the spark that ignites a revolution whose outcome no one can predict.

Change doesn’t need to happen that way, but given the continued arrogance and privilege of those in authority today, it too easily could.

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