Case Studies in Educational Foundations: Canadian Perspectives

This book is a wonderful resource for Canadian teachers and tackles many of the issues that have cropped up over the years in Canadian classrooms, ranging from bandwagons, moral panics, and general myths about education. The case studies are all adapted from real incidents and guide the reader with questions at the end of every case. I have studied many of these and will discuss them below.

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Case 1: This suit’s for wearing

This case involves a group of girls who are English language learners of various backgrounds who can’t seem to work well or integrate with others outside their group. It seems as though perfect social harmony is something that will be forever out of reach, but I would argue that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. These girls clearly gravitated toward each other based on shared past experience and culture, as students do in school. Part of your personal development is finding others like you. For example, if I form my group of friends based on our shared obsession with video games, are we being “exclusionary” for not accepting those into our group who don’t share our opinions or am I simply choosing who I associate with based on our shared interest and past experience? Anyways…

I think UDL and DI will become more commonplace as the myth of the “normal” student dies as it should have done long ago. I think any teacher who has worked in the past has realized that different students require different instruction, but were largely not given the resources or time to pursue individualized instruction. The other extreme of course, is when you have so many IEP’s it is impossible to devote enough time to all of them and in that case I think the solutions is to hire enough support staff or reduce class sizes to the point where it is manageable.

Just as a GM mechanic must update their knowledge when new models are released every year, or a doctor must become up to date on new medications, a teacher must constantly improve their knowledge and practice. The easiest way is to not give up on a student. Even if you’ve exhausted your current repertoire of teaching tricks, you should conduct further research to see if you have truly tried everything. Odds are you haven’t, and the tricky learners will help you grow as a person and a professional.

Case 2: Flipping burgers

This case involves a frustrated teacher who has trouble reaching some of her lower SES students and turns to their previous teacher for ideas on how to reach them. He states that some students will never succeed and will end up “flipping burgers” no matter how hard you try. Firstly, I can see that the teacher in this case study is clearly suffering from occupational burnout. Writing a low SES or underperforming student off as a lost cause is a defense mechanism of a disappointed idealist. Indeed, it can be very trying to pour your heart, soul, and effort into trying to a reach a student only to have them “fail”. Part of our teaching pedagogy is that the education should be tailored to the student, but in some cases the student really does have other issues or concerns that pull them away, especially in the case of low SES students. It is important to treat these stories as learning opportunities and as professional development opportunities, not as personal failures.

Low SES students can be suffering from chronic malnutrition and thus have less energy for school and homework, may face addiction and abuse, or may be too busy working or taking care of siblings / relatives. It is important as a teacher to encourage students even when they don’t believe in themselves. The danger here is one of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The student may be told every day that they are worthless and dumb and won’t amount to anything. As a teacher, if you believe their own rhetoric it lets the student write off their failure as a personal failure and not a lack of time and effort spent on the assignment. It is in the student’s and in society’s best interest to dissuade this kind of self destructive rhetoric and behaviour.

Personally, I believe that who you are is defined by your choices and actions, not where you came from. I feel like keeping this attitude in my practice will help me deal with these types of difficult students. It is important to always extend kindness, encouragement, and the benefit of doubt to your students – you may be the only one.

Case 3: Just in Time

This case concerns the integration of new technology into the lessons of classrooms largely taught by aging teachers who are resistant to the idea. Bringing in an expert is a good option for integrating new ideas into your school. The second part of this plan is having teachers who are open to change. Clearly in this case, the principal had the right idea but the older teachers appear to be intimidated by the volume of new ideas they are expected to learn. I feel like a group class or workshop for all teachers would have been a good way to introduce old teachers to new material without it being overwhelming. Part of being a good teacher is being open to new ideas and to not get stuck in your ways, as the “way” that works changes as the generations of students change.

Technology has changed radically in the past 10 years, with the newest addition being phones. Having an instant communication tool that also hooks up to the internet essentially makes simple knowledge questions obsolete, and most students born after 2000 are used to communicating in a way the older generations never have. When computers came out, they were thought of as old and clunky, but they didn’t stay that way. In a short time they revolutionized research and data collection and largely changed our society and economy for the better. We should find a way to work with the new technology instead of trying to resist it.

I feel like there is no problem in allowing the students to teach you but still retain control of the classroom. Even if you can’t control how they abuse technology, you can recognize it and still keep established classroom order. The students should know that even if a new tool or technology is used that the teacher is still in charge. I have seen a successful model used in Brocklehurst Middle School where phones are used to supplement the lesson and there are strict rules for phone use in class, but students have free reign of their technology on breaks.

Case Study 4: Who Pays?

This case concerns a teacher named Eli who sees that one of his students is pregnant and yet to graduate, but is considering dropping out due to the financial pressure of living on her own. Eli believes that paying students to learn will improve their life chances. It’s true that the financial pressure many students face causes school to fall by the wayside. This can be someone with a sick relative, a poor household, or a student living on their own. I don’t think he’s wrong, I just don’t know how it would be implemented in such a way that won’t take away from existing school resources.

I feel like extenuating circumstances should apply certain high school students with a certain allowance to assist their living, but be structured to push the student along to avoid abuses of the system. I can see the points of both sides of the issue. If students don’t work unless they’re paid, it undermines the values we try to teach by acknowledging that learning is just work. On the other hand, some students do have circumstances which I feel merit monetary relief.

Paying students to learn does run contrary to our pedagogy. Learning is the method by which we acquire knowledge, and knowledge is pursued as its own reward. This lifelong attitude towards learning stimulates lifelong growth and a self-efficacious approach to learning new ideas. However, I would say that in this case the student WANTS to learn for learning sake but cannot cope with the financial stress of her situation. In this case I would say that help isn’t just warranted but our duty to those students.

Students who are of lower SES are not likely to have the support system of other students, nor the spare time to complete homework or participate in extra-curricular activities. Additionally, many of these students also must cope with issues such as domestic violence and addiction as part of their daily lives and as such may view school as a secondary concern. Personally, I don’t see how helping a pregnant student graduate by monetary means is a bad thing.

Case Study 5: Dear Me!

After a schoolwide implementation of the Drop Everything And Read (DEAR) program at her school, the teacher Morgan notices that her class is unenthusiastic and bored. She asks her students why this is the case and thinks that the content of her class library may be responsible for the decreased motivation in her students to read. Morgan made the right decision in polling the class on their interests and updating her class library. I remember bringing my own books from home because the class books were just not that interesting. To a student that doesn’t have a collection of books at home, the lack of interesting material can lead the student to the false impression that people just don’t write about interesting topics.

I think that the increase in digital and electronic media has largely been the cause of the lack of reading. There is a false impression that reading text on a screen is not the same as reading text on a page. There are however, advantages to print media. They are designed to be easy on human eyes and can communicate much longer and more complex ideas by virtue of their media. I think that e-libraries and even modern libraries updated with search engines can really help students refine their interest and find their own personal collection of books they deem “interesting”.

School-wide initiatives are useful when there is a noticable benefit to students, and if that isn’t the case, teachers who are opposed and for should have a school-wide discussion and present their concerns to the administration. In this case, the only reason the initiative wasn’t having the intended effect is because of the limits of the individual teacher’s library.

Choice has been proven to increase student interest, which increases student work ethic and student confidence. Certainly children who have trouble choosing can be conferred with to narrow down the choice, but I do not see the addition of more choices as a negative in any situation other than the usual bemoaning that the standardized test results will be thrown off.

Case Study 6: A Test of Wills

This case examines the inherent flaws of standardized tests. 3 Grade 9 English Language Learners (ELL) are asked to take a standardized test with the rest of the class. As you would expect, the students have only been speaking English for about 6 months and score poorly on the test compared to their classmates. However, the high pressure to succeed on 2 of the students from their parents causes a nervous breakdown and they attempt suicide. This case brings up a good point as to why even Standardized tests are poor measures of student success. You are using a totally arbitrary measure of student success to define everything the person is about, including their future, when they’re not old enough to get a driver’s license. One of these reasons is that an ENGLISH standardized test will require near fluent use of ENGLISH by ALL students, something which we already know doesn’t happen in any classroom. The struggles of the ELL students in simply reading and interpreting the questions on the standardized test present a false view of their true ability.

In terms of moving forward, the situation has drastically improved for ELL’s than even 10 years ago. Teachers are trained on how to tailor assignments and activities such that the bottlenecks of speaking or reading English are minimized, such as verbally explaining instructions, writing key points on the board, and giving ELL’s time to come up with an answer. ELL’s have many resources available including support workers and supplementary materials to help them attain a grasp on the english language. Still, many slip through the cracks and must learn English by immersion and through their friends inside and outside of school.

It is not morally defensible to hold ELL’s to the same standard of testing for the same reason holding a student with a learning disability to that standard is. You are judging a fish on its ability to climb a tree. You haven’t demonstrated what they know, you’ve only demonstrated they aren’t fluent in English. Time, patience, encouragement, and a lot of work are required by ELL’s and their teachers to properly learn English. Experts in the field say that it takes the average ELL 9 years to become fluent in English.

Case Study 7: Teaching for Dummies

In this case, a group of teachers are discussing their practice. One teacher describes how because of the rigidity of the curriculum relating to the standardized test in his grade, he just buys a “Teaching (subject) for dummies” book and relies on his own teaching sensibilities. Two of the teachers get into an argument, saying that the “dummy” teacher is not authentic. The “dummy” teacher says that as long as his students do well on the standardized test and hit all of the learning outcomes outlined in the curriculum, he is equally successful in his practice.

The case for standardized testing is that it provides a “norm” for students of that generation. I feel that if your goal is to measure the growth of knowledge and skills over time or to assess your education system as a whole, standardized tests can be used as an effective tool. Because of the drastic differences in individual students, communities, and generations limits the scope of issues that can be judged by these results. Applying the results of standardized tests to individual schools or students is patently unfair, as there is NO SUCH THING AS A “NORMAL” STUDENT. Taking the standardized test results as a measure of the success of a school or faculty is unfair as there are a multitude of other variables which could have influenced the results. Personally, I see an overreliance on the United States and the aggressive need of our government to measure our education system’s dick on the international scale… for lack of a better expression.

An authentic teacher is apparently one who designs their own activities and custom tailors their activities to the class’s interest. Back in the days of the old curriculum, a teacher fluent in classroom management but not the curriculum could get by with a “curriculum for dummies” book, but as soon as any sort of ambiguity or creativity is involved the difference between these two teachers will shine through. Avoiding stangnation and alienation requires constantly improving yourself and communicating with younger teachers to gain new knowledge and ideas, and taking each student’s success in context for that individual student.

Finland, Norway, and Sweden have better education systems than any of us over here in the North America. 2/3 of those countries have no standardized tests to speak of. Clearly, they are not essential to a successful education system.

Case Study 8: Be The Change

This case study tackles the question of gender segregation and when, if ever, it is appropriate. Teacher Tammy witnesses a rather condescending exchange between a few male students and a female student. The student references the fact that the student isn’t taking any STEM courses and uses it to belittle her lack of sleep. The topic of gender segregated schools comes up often in our newly revitalized political debates. As I see it, the greatest way to reduce gender disparity is to increase empathy and understanding between the genders. The only way to do that is to make students of both genders peacefully coexist and tolerate each other, and the only way you do that is with a non-segregated school. Segregated schools only reinforce the cultural idea that boys and girls need to be separated.

That being said, I completely understand why gendered classrooms have a place. A woman who is used to being silenced by the men in her life or society may give the false impression that she is shy or incapable when surrounded by her male students but thrive in a female-only environment. I’ve even seen this done a different way at Brock Middle School. There, gym is separated into a “competitive” and “non-competitive” class, where anyone who wants full-contact, full-competition sports can join the one class regardless of gender, whereas those who just want to exercise in a directed and social environment can join the other.

I feel like when the need is demonstrated then we can cater our classes to our students’ needs. Otherwise, I feel like gender segregation has its roots in the heavily patriarchal, religious society of the past that feeds on the societal misconception that men and women must be separated to live together.

Case Study 9: A Place to Belong

This case study involves a problem with the diversity club at a High School, watched over by the teacher Dave and student leader Claire. Students are showing up to the diversity club meetings, but largely stick within their own social groups. I think the fact that the principal Dave asks Claire to “do something” about the problem displays one of the big problems of multiculturalism – just because they’re together doesn’t mean they’re interconnected. However, I don’t believe that separation and segregation ever solve anything. It’s one of those grey areas. You can put the students together but you can’t force them together. We have found in research that gender segregation simply reinforces the societal divide between the two genders and does little to increase empathy between men and women. Likewise, I think that racial and ethnic segregation don’t help different cultures get along. The only way we can stop othering a group of people is to see them as human, and the only tried and true way to do this is to make everyone peacefully coexist. It makes perfect sense that ethnic and cultural groups tend to flock together – they share the most common experience and will likely lose less of their ideas to translation. I don’t think students will start to intermingle until they see enough of themselves in the people they perceive as different.

While I ultimately see a multicultural society as a good thing, there are many laws made in the name of “tolerance” that I feel only reinforce the divide. As a Canadian, I see our society as a place of tolerance, freedom, and peace. Likewise, I don’t feel there is anything wrong with stopping or villifying groups that use violence or intolerance to achieve their goals. We are all people, and I feel that institutions that reinforce the racial and ethnic divides in society are only providing fuel to the societal belief that we are separate entities. The other question we have to ask ourselves is what does a tolerant society look like? Many people have the idea that all races and genders should be holding hands under a rainbow, but I don’t see that happening within our lifetime, to be honest. Many First Nations groups have made it perfectly clear that they don’t want to integrate into our society. To me, if people in a fair and just society want to associate primarily with those from their cultural group then that is their choice, and as long as we as groups can understand and peacefully coexist with one another, then we have achieved a “tolerant” society.

Case Study 10: Brave New World?

This case study tackles the issue of social media and the role it plays in student’s lives as well as the role it should play in our schools. I believe that the answer to whether social media should be used in class / schools depends on how its used. A class blog can be used to discuss class concepts outside of school hours. Social media can allow ideas to be shared to millions of people instantaneously, and anything that allows people to communicate better is good in my books. Of course, there is a but. I think there’s a time and place for everything, and that the classroom is a time for learning. I have seen a successful model employed at Brock Middle School where social media is allowed in the school but not during class. Most of the students seem to be on board with these rules and I feel they are necessary to maintain student attention in class. The largest problem I see is the bullying aspect and the spread of misinformation.

As students grow, they experiment with communication. Since some students appear to increase in social ranking by making fun of or putting down other students, it’s unfortunate but most students dabble in a small amount of bullying to see how it works. When this is done face to face, and you say, call your friend a “four eyed lard ass”, you get the empathic benefit of immediately seeing how your words made that person feel. For most people, they realize how much they hurt the person and apologize, realizing that bullying isn’t for them. In social media, you get none of that feedback. You type a mean and horrible message, hit send, and never have to see the pain your words caused the recipient. Even in “This is High School”, one girl had no idea the rumours and online messages she was sending was causing her friend so much distress she felt unsafe at school. This is why I feel like schools need to have lessons on social media and why you should never say or post anything online you wouldn’t want the general public to see or know. Likewise, the curriculum now more than ever needs to address misinformation, how to spot it, and how to combat it. When we teach students to critically evaluate their sources, we mitigate much of the damage caused by the bombardment of misinformation our students face.

Case Study 11: On-line or Off-base?

This case study deals with 2 newly hired teachers professionally protesting the schools’ new ban on cell-phones. They believe that banning cell phones is a step in the wrong direction, and that they should set up a series of rules for when and how they should be used, working with the new ubiquitous technology rather than trying to hold the door shut. Despite a well put together presentation discussing the pros of this new learning tool, the older teachers aren’t having any of it and one even insinuates that if they want to keep their jobs they shouldn’t “rock the boat.” Any time anyone tells you not to rock the boat as a new hire they are speaking from a place of ego. If an idea is poor it should be defeated with logic, not with threats. When someone threatens your job over an idea that is objectively better the only thing they have demonstrated is that they don’t have an argument. I think what the two teachers did to try and convince the others of their side was a great way to get their points across. However, in an older or heavily entrenched staff base, sometimes helpful new ideas get crushed in favor of staying the course. Unfortunately that’s how a professional environment works. Every rule we have in our schools and every idea we accept as a core pillar of our pedagogy started out as an argument from an impudent new hire.

Likewise, technology is a core facet of our lives today. Trying to ban a piece of technology that is almost ubiquitous is the equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and shouting “LALALALALALALA”. As far as the problems go, that students can use phones to cheat on tests is simple. Either design questions that can’t be answered simply or ban phones from tests. Cell phones can allow students to cheat on simple knowledge questions but not opinion, synthesis, or critical thinking questions. That students are constantly “on call” is something that I feel like can and should be touched on in class. Answering text messages while trying to maintain a verbal conversation is quite rude and yet I see it happening all the time. I’ve even been behind the counter at work and had people stop for 3 minutes to call and text (while there was still a line of people). This type of behaviour is rude and frankly should be dealt with. The third point, that film and photos can be taken, is just a reality of the modern world. Police, teachers, students, and everyone else needs to be able to conduct themselves with proper behaviour because of the ease of recording. Again, I feel the last two points are answered by a successful model I have seen in use at Brock Middle School. Phones are not allowed to be used in class unless the teacher allows it for research purposes, and they are allowed to use them to their heart’s content outside of class. I feel like we do need to teach time and place to our students, and especially to put the gosh darn phone down and just experience life.

Case Study 12: Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!

This case study deals with the influence of violent media, specifically violent video games. I remember having this debate back in High School. This topic is very personal to me, as I received many of the same accusations growing up. While its true that my art was often violent or horrific and I did play too many video games, this was because exploring my fears through art helped me deal with them and that I had social anxiety issues and video games helped me socialize. I think what a lot of adults, and particularly teachers, don’t understand is that video games are as ubiquitous as phones nowadays. As well, moral panics have always sprung up in the wake of violent explorations of a new artform. Violent video games, violent TV, violent movies, comic books, and horror stories like Penny Dreadfuls have been vilified as the new “societal plague” all the way back to the 1800’s. They serve as a convenient scapegoat for society’s problems but the truth is more multifaceted. While I think that violent video games and other violent or mature media should be withheld until the child is ready, I don’t think that this damages their worldview. The problem comes as one of the teacher’s says, that the child is neglected or unsupervised for substantial periods of time. Likewise, the overwhelming majority of the Canadian population under 30 has played a violent video game multiple times in their life without issue. People and children know the difference between real and pretend violence. I can’t believe we believe the students when they say “The video games did it” when that’s exactly what I would say if I was in trouble for smacking my friend across the face with my lunchbox. Even studies on developing children found increases in aggression with exposure to dramatically violent video games, but no increase in physical violence in students who did not have a history of violent behaviour.

Children and students who are physically violent have home lives that are physically violent. In fact I myself grew up playing violent video games regularly, and I found it to be a cathartic way to express negative emotions. I even met many of my closest friends through these games. That being said, I’m the type of person to lose multiple nights of sleep because I ran over a cat by accident. Modern studies show that a small amount (1-3 hrs a day) of video games can actually be beneficial from a developmental perspective, improving spatial ability and socialization in both genders. I think that when a student shows violent behaviour and aggression, it is a sign of what they are learning in their life outside of school and that violent media only validates their already violent tendencies. It’s one thing to decapitate a 3D model in a digital world you know is fantasy and quite another thing to see an ISIS execution video. One is artistic expression for catharsis and entertainment, one is a horrific display of hatred and violence.