Souffles, Neighbours, and Bystanders

I was out this evening picking up some souffle pans from a local dollar store, since I decided that we are going to be cooking souffles in math class for our unit in measurement conversion. However, that’s not really the point of the story. The very sweet cashier scanned all six of my glass dishes, and asked if I wanted them wrapped. Since there is a 25 kilometer journey in the morning, I thought I better have them wrapped up. The dishes are kind of awkward, so it was taking a fair bit of time. Fortunately, there was no one in line behind me. Just beside me, in the balloon section, a mother and her son, who was having a bit of a hissy fit, started walking toward our till. The mother then angrily glares at the cashier and me and says, “Can you just scan this for me?”

Preaching anti-bullying, but not standing up to bullying when the time comes is like making a souffle that comes out deflated. Flickr Photo Credit to PupCraze. All Rights Reserved.

Preaching anti-bullying, but not standing up to bullying when the time comes is like making a souffle that comes out deflated.
Flickr Photo Credit to PupCraze. All Rights Reserved.

Unfortunately, the cashier was in the middle of my transaction, so she politely replied that she couldn’t. The woman stormed out of the store, after throwing the balloon on the floor, then called over her shoulder, “You should have just taken the money. Sheesh.” (That may have been paraphrased for moral integrity of this blog).

As I was heading out, I profusely thanked the cashier, who was quite rattled by the experience. I apologized for the woman’s behaviour and for my unusual order. However, I’m still feeling quite uneasy about how openly rude and disrespectful this woman was.

I hate to say it, but this was the second verbal thrashing I have witnessed in the last few days. On Saturday evening, I was upstairs changing into my pajamas after supper. I heard some commotion outside my window, so I peered out. I saw two young-ish (maybe 25 year-olds) hollering at my neighbour to quite being creepy and to stop staring at them (again, paraphrased for that whole moral integrity thing).

Disclaimer: I have THE BEST neighbour I could ask for. He is the kindest gentleman I know. He loves to peer out his window and watch the world go by. Who doesn’t? He’s the guy who I go to when I don’t have a tool for something. He’s the guy I ask about all the Condo Association questions I have. He’s the guy who bolted my timer to my car power-post-thing (what ever it is called where you plug your car in during the winter) when I was at school, without even telling me. He is the guy that offered to/gave me a ride to my car that was parked at Tim Hortons because I got stuck on our street. He is 100% fantastic.

I couldn’t get downstairs in time to poke my nose out the door and tell those ladies to get over themselves. I did stand guard waiting for them to pass by again, but I was unsuccessful.

I wish I could say that I let these things go easily, but I can’t. I can’t stand by while people bully and harass others. What I’m taking from these experiences is that I need to be vigilant in my classroom to overtly promote kindness to one another, but also to help teach my students to how be respectful. This goes beyond “just being nice.” I need to continue to build positive relationships with my students and be a role model for them. I don’t want to see them grow up to think that this kind of behaviour is acceptable.

In both of these cases, the bullies got away with their harassment without so much as a dirty look from any bystander. This should not have been the case. I was a bystander at the dollar store, and I didn’t do anything during the episode. There were probably 10 other bystanders, including the store manager. They didn’t do anything either. That needs to change.

And So It Ends… But Not Really.

I think the stars aligned. Why, you ask? Somehow in the chaos of my final semester, three of my classes all required (well, two required and one was optional) a personal project that was rather open ended. Between my Math Education, Moral Education, and Technology in the Classroom classes, I found a common niche. This niche was in a flipped classroom. Anyone who’s been reading my blog knows that lately, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with them. That is partly due to how awesome I think they are, and partly due to the fact that I’ve had a monster project involving them for the last two months. I elected to do a unit within the Math 9 Curriculum on Polynomials. For more information and a better run down of the project, click here.

So how does this project tie into a critical project for Moral Education? Well, the way I see it, there are two ways to interpret the phrase “moral education:” (1) The act of educating students about morality, or (2) education that is inherently moral. I chose to focus more on the second definition, since we covered the first definition a lot more in class. For my Math Ed class, I created the flipped unit, but at the end of it, I was left asking questions about the equity of using a regular assessment model. How fair was it to assess my students the way that I’d grown up being tested, the way they’ve probably always been tested, and the way that most teachers still test? This, in fact, is less of an assessment and more of an evaluation. How could I build authentic and informative assessment into this unit? I looked at two different ways, comparing and contrasting them with each other as well as with current Quiz-Quiz-Test Model. I came up with a learning contract that uses standards-based grading and an assessment through learning that uses the material covered in the unit to bridge the gap between grade nine and grade ten math, all while enabling me to assess each skill that the student needs to demonstrate in order to fully understand polynomials for the grade nine requirements.

However, I’m not about the ignore the first definition of moral education. Within this classroom, there will need to be a lot of discussion about equity, fairness, and ethics in math education. These conversations need to take place in order to justify why I would even consider challenging the status quo. These conversations could be overtly teaching morals and ethics. Implicitly, I am morally educating my students by treating each student with great respect — so much respect that I want to customize their learning for each of them and give them the opportunity to shine come assessment time, however that may manifest itself. More importantly, I want to provide them with a desire to learn, not just  force them to memorize, material. Showing this kind of respect for their intelligence, effort, and learning is modeling good citizenship for my students.

As for the critical side of my project, I have to say it was really intriguing and fun to start to dig into challenging the typical math classroom. I started off by flipping a classroom — a big change to begin with — then I challenged how the videos were made by pushing for a more inquiry-based approach. Then I got to challenge the assessment of such a classroom. This project has really helped me rethink how I want my classroom to look, and it has certainly made me more conscious of justifying why I would do something in a classroom. Is it just because that’s the way I was taught and it worked for me, or is it because it is truly best practice?

So I sat down in front of a video camera one afternoon/evening and I spoke. I gave myself a list of questions, many of which made the final cut, while some did not. I will apologize for a few things: firstly, I didn’t realize how daunting talking to a tiny lens would be, so I had several prolonged “ums” that I edited out, but not as smoothly as I would’ve liked; secondly, toward the end of filming, I started to get a scratchy throat, so my voice gets a bit raspy; and thirdly, it’s quite lengthy–as in it is over an hour–so you may want to grab a coffee and a comfortable chair. Other than that, I am quite proud of how this turned out. I’m glad I took the chance to sit down and reflect out loud. Even the editing process was quite reflective for me. Listening and having an internal dialogue with myself was a really cool feeling, and it has certainly pushed my thinking further and inspired me to keep thinking about these tensions.

If the video doesn’t play, you can view it on Vimeo here. Special thanks to the Vimeo staff for helping me through my uploading difficulties. They have a fantastic staff that helped me troubleshoot through their well-kept help forum. Much appreciated!

It seems like it is time to say that this project has finally come together, from the practical math education side of the polynomials unit, to the moral side of assessment, to the technological side of making this whole thing (the unit as well as how the project is assembled, researched, and presented). While I can officially say, “I’m done,” I need to add in a “… for now.” This project will never be done. It will always be a work-in-progress. It will always be evolving, and I never want to stop learning about it.

Political Education: No Need for a Class. It’s Everywhere.

Today, Mike asked us to critique Dr. Shor’s classroom as if we were an administrator who got a complaint that his classroom was too political. The anecdote was an excerpt from “First Day of Class: Passing the Test.” I would post a link, but it is only available to me in hard copy.

Time to put my administrator hat on.


Dr. Shor’s class is very political. I don’t deny that. However, education is political—that is the nature of it. Everyone comes into the classroom with their own set of beliefs. It is impossible to dodge that. Regardless of whether you are teaching a math class, a drama class, or an English class, your beliefs are going to seep into your teaching. The same goes for your students; their opinions and beliefs are going to seep into whatever they do too.

Dr. Shor is very wise to not suppress these beliefs. It is impossible to hide from them, so why not engage these beliefs as a platform for teaching the course. By doing so, he can engage all learners—after all, everyone has an opinion—and dig deeper into the curriculum.

Interestingly, Dr. Shor was using the discussion in class to teach the curriculum. Part of being a good writer is an ability to analyze, see different points of views, make a succinct argument, and justify your thoughts. I don’t see any other way to teach such skills other than by raising political issues that clearly have many available views to discuss as a class.

Many of the topics Dr. Shor discussed were controversial, such as abortion, teen pregnancy, etc. I can understand why some students might find this sort of discussion uncomfortable or inappropriate. Some might even find them offensive. A lot of these issues have the potential to be very personal to each student. It is impossible to find a topic with two sides to it that couldn’t possibly have any links or ties to students’ personal lives. However, Dr. Shor never forced any students into a discussion. Yes, he encouraged them, but he never forced them. Part of what makes a good class discussion and debate is that people tend to be emotionally invested in the topics. Having that personal frame of reference enables students to really connect with the topic, rather than doing some superficial research that they don’t care about only to present it one day and forget it the next. I commend Dr. Shor on beginning the class talking about the standardized test–it enabled his students to open up and share in a safe environment. They were sharing about something that they were passionate about and had a personal connection to. Doing so set the stage for his class to be a safe place for sharing.

Being political in class is inherent. Being outwardly political in class has its time and its place. Dr. Shor found that time and place. He created a safe learning environment, and he saw his students succeed. I see nothing wrong with his approaches and I will continue to support him.

What do you think?

Cultural Tolerance: It’s All Relative… Or Is It?

This week for my Moral Ed class, we were asked to read “Confessions of a Former Cultural Relativist” by Mr. Henry H. Bagish. It’s a good, quick, and easy read. It even has pictures! Beware: it may cause you to rethink your understanding of the world.

I really related to Bagish’s article because this issue is a very prevalent in society. The tensions of cultural relativity are inherent in society. How we interpret and process the world defines our views, opinions, and assumptions about other cultures.

Bagish takes many liberties in his article with regard to assumptions. Firstly, I believe that he assumes that his audience is a middle- to upper-class white Americans. Considering that he wrote this article in the 1980s, he is probably right. He does not consider that someone who may have a cultural heritage similar to that of the Dani or someone from a religious minority that has customs perceived as “strange” could be reading this. He never explicitly defines who his target audience is, but based on his examples and his biases, the inherent “normal” perspective of his article and students represents a common, but narrow, American view of the world.

I found it interesting that Bagish uses the tension between the Dani killings and the Nazi killings to highlight the flaws of cultural relativity. In my opinion, it highlights his own view of what really is “relative” or tolerable, and what is not. I have a feeling that if you took this to a different cultural group, such as a tribe in Southern Africa, they would have a very different perspective and tolerance for the different rituals. The understanding of right and wrong is stemmed within familiarity of the situation and each individual’s understanding of the logic. Because the Nazi regime has had so much publicity and education, readers are familiar with the faults in their thinking. It is culturally acceptable—and encouraged—to believe that the Nazis were wrong. However, the Dani culture has had next to no publicity or education. Readers have no frame of reference when trying to interpret the Dani rituals. The logic is not explained thoroughly, so readers are left with very little understanding. Perhaps when we talk about cultural relativity we are really stating that we do not understand, just as most of us do not understand Newton’s theory of relativity.

Part of his argument is also in how he portrays each case. When he describes how the Dani placate ghosts by administering one “sharp blow from a stone” resulting in young girls having “two fingers chopped off” (Bagish, 1981), he uses dramatic language and presents no theory as to why they see this as an important ritual. This brings to mind the article “The Body Rituals of Nacirema,” which describes in great detail how this particular group of people live their daily lives, and the rituals they encounter. After reading the article, some of the cultural activities seem cruel, unusual, and remain unexplained. The article makes sense once the reader realizes that Nacirema is “American” spelled backward. Once the reader has that frame of reference for understanding, the “rituals” seem normal and logical.

On the topic of logic, I found Bagish’s approach of “if… then” statements to be productive in objectively evaluating personal beliefs. However, because the “if…then” logic system is very simple and only accounts for one factor, it can at times be superficial. Bagish give an example in his conclusion that “If you value your [child’s] life, and don’t want them to die of smallpox, then vaccination is better than goat sacrifice.” Yes. This is true for most people; however, making the claim that “if you value your [child’s] life” is a blanket statement. How do you define “value”? I imagine that “valuing a life” has a very different meaning to me than it does to someone else. For example, for me, valuing a life means that every effort must be made to ensure the safety of that person. To someone else who has a different culture and understanding, valuing a life might mean that they are a prime candidate for a sacrifice—they are so valued here on earth that the god(s) would really appreciate the gesture.

At the end of his article, Bagish summarizes that he is advocating for tolerance by presenting these tensions. I agree with Bagish we need to promote cultural tolerance. However, that is the first step. In order to live in a peaceful world, we cannot promote “just tolerance.” We need to promote understanding, compassion, education, and curiosity. It is very hard to tolerate something you don’t understand (i.e. “Mr. Smith, why can’t I text in class? That is a dumb rule.”), but living in harmony is much easier to do when an understanding and cultural framework is present and logical.