Sunday, March 30, 2014

On The Sixth Extinction

Look inside!
We're in the midst of a mass extinction, but Elizabeth Kolbert is actually somewhat hopeful about it all.  We are at a truly extraordinary moment of history in which we are cognizant of our own demise (except for those in denial) and, therefore, able to affect how it turns out if we can just get our act together!

This book has been on the NY Best Sellers list for four weeks for good reason.  It's full of scientific data, but it's written conversationally.  We get to know all the people involved in the research.  They're all pivotal to this engaging story.

Here are the facts in a nutshell:

There have been five mass extinctions so far.  An extinction is exponentially different from a "fall."  It's not just a civilization that's being destroyed leaving ashes for another to rise up in.  An extinction of a species means every single one is gone.  And a mass extinction means many species are lost in a relatively short period of time - when we lose more species than we gain (extinction > speciation).  Mass extinctions are "substantial biodiversity losses that occur rapidly and are global in extent" (16).
"Species are at a low risk of extinction most of the time.  But this condition of relative safety is punctuated at rare intervals by a vastly higher risk.  The history of life thus consists of long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic" (16).
There is no one cause of mass extinctions:  "As in Tolstoy, every extinction event appears to be unhappy - and fatally so - in its own way" (104).  Here are the big five (but she doesn't give much space to numbers 2 and 4):

1st:  Ending the Ordovician period - 444 million years ago.  Life was mainly in water, then 85% of marine species died off due to glaciation.  Carbon dioxide levels dropped possibly due to the development of plant matter (early mosses) which absorbed the CO2 and then the ocean became more oxygenated.  That chemical change in the ocean's gasses coupled with the colder weather made the place inhospitable (103).

2nd: During the Late Devonian period - 370 million years ago.  After this, reptiles started to gain ground.

3rd:  Ending the Permian period - 252 million years ago.  This was the most devastating - called "the great dying."  It was caused by an increase in carbon which acidified the oceans and, with the oxygen level dropping, most organisms probably suffocated.  Reefs collapsed.  It lasted maybe 100,000 years from start to finish, and eliminated 90% of all species on earth (104).  The best explanation for this increased carbon is a massive burst of vulcanism in Siberia.  "But this spectacular event probably released, on an annual basis, less carbon than our cars and factories and power plants" (123).  This one is most similar to what we're currently experiencing, but these days we like to do things much faster.

4th:  At the end of the Triassic period - 200 million years ago.  This ushered in the Jurassic period and the origin of birds and flowering plants.

5th:  At the end of the Cretaceous period - 66 million years ago.  This most recent one, the "K-T" extinction, wiped out the dinosaurs when an astroid hit the earth and incinerated everything nearby, then the dust created by the impact broiled anything left (86).  This was followed by the dawn of the first Primates (our ancestors).

There was also an extinction of megafauna about 11,700 years ago (woolly mammoths, sabre-tooth tigers and the other creature from Ice Age), but that doesn't rate as a mass extinction.

We're always dealing with extinctions of individual species.  During ordinary times, the millions of years between mass extinctions, we have "background extinctions."  It happens throughout history as species evolve and fight for resources.  For the strongest species to survive, others have to go.  As far as typical background extinction goes, we expect to lose about one species of mammals every 700 years and one amphibian species every 1000 years or so, worldwide (17).

Today, though, the amphibian extinction rate is about 45,000 times higher than the background rate.  A third of all reef-building corals, fresh-water mollusks, sharks and rays, and a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are close to extinction (18).

Something that I can't help notice is that one of humanity's strongest survival traits, adaptation, is one that is leading us towards destruction.  The extinction rate has been creeping up, and now we just accept that we're losing many species of life every day as if it's normal.  We're adjusted to this news to the extent that it doesn't shock us the way it should - the way it needs to!  A little too adaptable for our own good, I'd say!  
White-nose syndrome.

The losses are happening worldwide, and one culprit is human travel.  We unwittingly carry disease with us wherever we go that can destroy life in other parts of the world (like a fungus that doesn't bother one species of bat, but completely obliterated another - the North American brown bat which used to be out there eating mosquitoes by the thousands).

But, people have a hard time processing disruptive information.  This is a "paradigm shift discovery."  It's hard to accept that catastrophes like this happen - and to us - and because of us.  

We live in the newly-named Anthropocene Era - a "human-dominated geological epoch" in which we have transformed almost half the land surface of the planet, damned or diverted most of the world's major rivers, added more nitrogen to the soil than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems, removed more than a third of the fish, and used more than half the world's readily accessible fresh water runoff.
"Most significantly, people have altered the composition of the atmosphere.  Owing to a combination of fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air has risen by 40% over the last two centuries, while the concentration of methane, an even more potent green-house gas, has more than doubled" (108).  About a third of the CO2 that humans pump into the air is absorbed by the oceans.  "This year alone the oceans will absorb two and a half billion tons of carbon...Every day, every American in effect pumps seven pounds of carbon into the sea" (114). 
We're altering the chemistry of the air and water, and that type of rapid change is what kick-starts mass extinctions.  Most species manage within a small window of acceptable conditions, and we're taking them outside this acceptable range.
"By burning through coal and oil deposits, humans are putting carbon back into the air that has been sequestered for tens - in most cases hundreds - of millions of years.  In the process, we are running geologic history not only in reverse but at warp speed" (124).  
The prediction of one scientist interviewed:  "Under business as usual, by mid-century [35 years] things are looking rather grim" (132):
"It's quite possible that by the end of this century, CO2 levels could reach a level not seen since...some 50 million years ago. Whether species still possess the features that allowed their ancestors to thrive in that ancient, warmer world is, at this point, impossible to say" (172).   
All the coral reefs will dissolve, and they affect everything else in that delicate eco-system.  It's a chain-reaction that will affect us.  "Warming today is taking place at least ten time faster than it did at the end of the last glaciation, and at the end of all those glaciations that preceded it..  To keep up, organisms will have to migrate, or otherwise adapt, at least ten times more quickly" (162).  In one area of Peru, researchers have noticed the trees actually shifting location and dubbed it the "Birnam Wood scenario" (158).

Which species will go?  According to Jared Diamond, "the main predictor of local extinction was 'small population size'" (181).  Species that totally died off in the past were ones that had only one or two offspring at a time and with a long gestational period.  Kinda like us. "Which is why, with the exception of humans, all the great apes today are facing oblivion...By the time we're done, it's quite possible that there will be among the great apes not a single representative left, except, that is, for us." (254). Wishful thinking.  And the species that survive and flourish after we're through are the ones with a speedy reproductive rate.  They're not talking cockroaches, but rats - giant rats (104).

Another interim problem is that the "world is changing in ways that compel species to move," but it's also "changing in ways that create barriers - roads, clear-cuts, cities - that prevent them from doing so....human activity has created an obstacle course for the dispersal of biodiversity" (189).

We're creating a "new Pangea" that has more diversity in areas formerly bereft, but overall global diversity has dropped significantly (212).  What we're not destroying by altering the habitat - including the air and water - we are hunting to extinction.  "Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it's not clear that he ever really did" (235).

The first eleven chapters of the book all explain and compare what's happening now to causes and effects of prior extinctions, but the ending is far more interesting.  The last two chapters look at our psychology and potential for improvement.

We are the only primate that is driven to explore and take over new places, to venture "out on the ocean where you don't see land" (251).  Now that we've charted all of this planet, we have aims for another.  No other animal does that (but viruses do), and Kolbert refers to it as a madness or a "Faustian restlessness."

Faust signing his soul away.

But something else we do that no other primate does is collective problem-solving.  Apes are great at solving puzzles, often faster than a 5-year-old.  But they're no match for a group of 5-year-olds working together.  "When the children were given a hint about where to find a reward...they took it.  The apes either didn't understand that they were being offered help or couldn't follow the cue" (249).  And with "the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it" (258).  So things could really go either way at this point.

The final chapter chronicles the many projects people are currently undertaking to save species:  keeping cells alive in a Frozen Zoo, banning DDT, passing the Endangered Species Act, saving condors by helping with lead poisoning, banning poaching, and performing "ultrasounds on rhinos and handjobs on crows" (265).

But, like so many books about the future of our species, the final rallying cry is, "People have to have hope" (263).  Saying we need it isn't the same as giving it to us.  It's suggesting, maybe, that we should live a bit in denial of the tragedy we've caused.  Eleven chapters of bleak data followed by two chapters of hope might actually suffice for those who haven't managed the paradigm shift towards understanding our potential for catastrophe.  And I'm not convinced Kolbert doesn't have huge doubts of her own.  But I concur that it really doesn't get us anywhere to just give up and resign ourselves to the end of our kind.  If there's a possibility that we have the ability to slow this thing down, then we'll be remiss if we don't continue to try in every way imaginable.
"Life is extremely resilient but not infinitely so.  There have been very long uneventful stretches and very, very occasionally revolutions on the surface of the earth."  The causes of these events are varied incluing "one weedy species" (that's us!).  "The one feature these disparate events have in common is...rate of change.  When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out....What matters is that people change the world.....through: Our restlessness, our creativity, our ability to cooperate to solve problems and complete complicated tasks.....Having freed ourselves from the contraints of evolution, humans nevertheless remain dependent on the earth's biological and geochemical systems.  By disrupting these systems - cutting down tropical rainforests, altering the composition of the atmosphere, aciifying the oceans - we're putting our own survival in danger....In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.....Another that human ingenuity will outrun any disaster human ingenuity sets in motion."  

We'll see how it all play out then, shall we?

EQAO, Literacy and Ability

My 9-year-old says that EQAO stands for Evil Questions Attacking Ontario.  I think she's on to something.

We just administered the literacy test at our school this week.  I've always understood administering this standardized test as a means to ensure that nobody graduates high-school without demonstrating an ability to read and write at a specific level so that nobody ends up at a job unable to read the safety signs or the equipment manuals all by themselves.  And how embarrassing would it be to pass someone through the system who can't actually read?!

But many students with exceptionalities are allowed to have a scribe to read the test to them and record their answers verbatim in twice the time given other kids.  I'm baffled how a test measures literacy, the ability to read and write, if the taker is neither reading nor writing it.  This group of students are really just having one portion of their reading comprehension skills tested, not their level of literacy.  And the kids who clearly struggle with reading and writing, but who haven't been tested for an "exceptionality" are kinda getting ripped-off.  They have to do it all themselves within the time limit.  It's a conundrum how to offer a standardized test on any semblance of an even playing field.  I don't think it's possible.

Furthermore, one skill of the highly literate is being able to use a dictionary when encountering a foreign word.  But dictionaries aren't allowed during the lit test, and the vocabulary of this one was quite advanced.  Last year, many students were unable to write the essay portion because they got stuck on the word "compulsory" with respect to a question on mandatory courses in schools.  If they don't understand one word, looking it up isn't allowed; they have to guess or fail or both.  That doesn't measure their literacy but their I.Q. (or their luck).

The test costs a small fortune - over $30 million yearly.  That's only 2% of the cost of running full-day kindergarten, but still.  That's money that could be better spent on increasing special ed services in the primary grades to really attack literacy issues before they become permanent problems.

The great success of the test, that the scores have improved, is only because schools are teaching to the test - often taking time from novel studies, plays, poetry, formal essay writing, and grammar lessons to have students write myriad news articles and opinion essays. Part of the mandate of the EQAO is to "...contribute to the enhancement of the quality of education in Ontario," but education is compromised by the EQAO by creating a near obsessive concern with students focusing on the very few skills tested at the expense of a well-rounded curriculum.

But the worst problem, beyond the fact that they don't test literacy and that it's costly and time-consuming, is that it destroys the kids.  They get stressed out for a week beforehand, and they are terrified of failing because it means they're dumb.  The ones that fail have to write and fail again before they're given the option of taking a literacy course in order to get their OSSD.  It doesn't prevent students from graduating without being able to read and write, and it does clarify for them that their struggles with reading writing will define them.  

An essay in a 2007 CJEAP reported that,
"...low achieving students are 25% more likely to drop out of school in states that employ graduation tests versus non-tested states. Recent announcements by the Ontario government suggest that the province may be experiencing a similar trend. For example, the high school completion rate was steady in the mid 1990’s to 2001 at 78 per cent, but dropped sharply in 2001 to 71 per cent, and has remained relatively unchanged. The 2001 date is significant since the OSSLT was introduced as a graduation requirement during the 2000/2001 school year."
Why would anyone stay in an institution that makes it clear they're below par?  The reality is that, by high-school, some students might never be able to write a good new article or opinion essay.  They're employable and enjoyable, but they get screwed by this one disability in persuasive writing and journalism - skills they're unlikely to need in any job ever.

It's not being special or exceptional or differently-abled.  The inability to learn how to effectively read and write is a dis-ability.  Some kids who aren't literate are excellent with hands-on work, but many others have no saving talents.  They'll get jobs based on their ability to be polite and likeable and work well with others.  But they won't get a job without a high-school diploma.   There are many jobs that require minimal reading and no writing. Maybe being literate as measured by this test is too much to ask for this generation in which many graduate with a teacher scribing every test and assignment anyway.

I get on my students' case when I think they're being lazy, when they just don't feel like doing work.  I hound them daily to turn off the music during class and - new this year - during a film.  This is the first year I have people singing to their music while we're watching an entertaining but curriculum-driven movie in class.  They require endless stimulation to ward off boredom.  Parents are concerned, but not enough to take their devices away, and I'm not allowed to touch them.  And I can't send the whole class to the office.  This is a new set of problems being created that is so far beyond their inability to read and write.  They might get a job even without standard literacy skills, but they can't work with earbuds in during the day's instruction.  Erin Anderssen wrote a piece yesterday about digital overload and the quest for attention from corporations, suggesting, "the prize is our eyeballs." Absolutely.  Unfortunately, I don't have a whole team working on my marketing strategies.  

But, while I challenge them to work just above their perceived ability in order to stretch their skills, I accept that they have some intellectual limitations.  There's no pedagogical basis for giving them a test that's so far beyond the abilities of the students I teach, so I have a hard time believing that the testing is somehow for their benefit.

We need the political will to end this loss of time, money, and self-esteem.  And we need to address the very real challenges of this very different population.  Next time we define educational priorities, I believe extrapolating literacy rates from a test that doesn't prove literacy at all should be the first thing to go.   

Saturday, March 22, 2014

What We Know: We're Screwed

Addressing the issues of climate change is an issue for policymakers and leaders.  It's important they're informed by the most accurate data.
-  Katharine Hayhoe, Atmospheric Scientist, Professor, and director of the Climate Science Center

A group of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has put together a "What We Know" initiative to communicate the "three 'R's" of climate change:
* Reality - 97% of climate experts have concluded human-caused climate change is happening
* Risk - There will be impacts we can expect and some abrupt changes with massively disruptive impacts.
* Response - There are still measures we can take, and the sooner we act, the better.  
The full, 20-paged document full of facts gathered from around the planet is available to read, and/or watch the video below for a 5 minute question and answer session with a climate scientist.  There are more climate scientist videos here.

Katharine Hayhoe interview from What We Know on Vimeo.

They know that climate change is increasing extreme weather events, and we might be in store for a record-breaking heat wave this summer due to a "super" El Niño.  

It's not just extreme weather events that we have to worry about, of course.  Climate change is causing animals to migrate and spread diseases. Sea ice is melting releasing methane and no longer reflecting as much sunlight.  Oceans are heating up and rising.  Fracking is raising methane levels, and we will almost certainly kill off large numbers of species.

What I worry about at this point is, if we don't do anything to change the situation because, for some reason - likely our profound inability to measure long-term gains against short-term losses - we lack the will to save our grandchildren and great grandchildren, then things will get ugly.  It's hard to maintain a rational, level head when we start to run out of food, water, and oxygen.   (h/t Z Magazine)

Clara Hughes' Mental Health Tour

Our school had the honour of hosting a visit from Clara Hughes yesterday - six time Olympic winner for cycling and speed skating.  She's biking around Canada - ALL around Canada - talking about mental health.  She biked through a snow storm in Woodstock on her way to K-W.  Very hard core!

She had a rough childhood but then turned her energy from delinquency to sports in her late teens.  She didn't start speed skating until 27, and the kids were surprised to find out she's 41 - practically ancient!    Her dad was an alcoholic and had bi-polar, and her sister also has bi-polar, so she had a tough time telling her mom when she found herself in a pit of depression.  Her mantra is "stop the stigma," and she did a great job by sharing her story so frankly.  She was such a warm, open, and authentic speaker (with a great Canadian accent!) that she'd be an inspiration even without the medals.  

She spoke of the importance of access to sports and art for kids to use as an outlet for expression and emotional energy.  They're not extras in society but essentials.

The emcee made it very clear in the presentation that Bell is paying all the costs of her tour and that every penny donated goes straight to mental health initiatives - an important note for the more cynical among us!  Mental health phone lines and care and support is costly, and there's not enough money coming from the government to give access to all Canadians.  Bell has already donated $62 million to mental health institutions since 2010.  The more people that use the #BellLetsTalk hashtag, the more they'll donate in lieu of spending money on advertising.

ETA:  I also liked that Clara encouraged people to petition the government for real change.  Her 12,000 km ride ends on July 1st in Ottawa at Parliament Hill.  Getting donations from corporations is only a part of the solution.

I was a lucky recipient of a hug from Clara as she thanked a group of us who collaborated on a mural to honour her journey.  I was just one of many painters, but the real kudos go to the teacher who made it all happen and did the final details, Caz Bentley, and the designer, a student, Jacqueline Snyder, who spoke in a CTV video filmed at a talk Clara did the night before coming to KCI.

Here's the symbolism behind it all:  The number of bikes represents the number of medals she won.  The colours (black, blue, green, red, and gold) are the colours of the olympic rings.  But more importantly the bikes move from the black to the gold symbolic of the hilly process of emerging into the light with a mental illness.  Isn't that lovely!  (Apologies for the blurriness; t's the only photo I could find.)

And Clara got a kiss from KCI's goats before leaving:

h/t Matt Morris
Follow her ride on twitter, and don't forget to add #BellLetsTalk whenever you tweet!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

What Do Teachers Want?

I seem to have missed hitting "publish" on this one from a few days ago:

I've gleaned, from Steve Paikin's twitter feed, a version of teachers that don't fit the media stereotype of money-grubbing lazy bums.  The quotes are from his tweets, so here they're thrice removed.

Kathleen Wynne just spoke to OSSTF teachers at AMPA.  I wish I had gone, but I have too much schoolwork to do!  I broke the custodial barriers (waxed floors) to get to my desk yesterday and today because I've got two new preps and a total ministry-dictated re-haul of a course I've taught for years.  I've been scrambling towards the break to get on top of it all.  But back to Wynne and the teachers' questions:

In her speech she said her goal is,
"to continue to make the legislature work. But I'm going to challenge their ideas. Hudak's agenda is more radical than expected....They want a war with education and we can't let that happen again....The NDP focused on populism at the expense of long term planning and lack of economic growth."
So, basically nothing but a little political slamming.  The Liberals are best, but we're not going to tell you what our plan of action is.  Then to the four questions:

1.  The first question was about grassy narrows and clear cutting the forest.  Paikin didn't tweet Wynne's response.

2.  "In 2012 you voted to take away our bargaining rights and let the Ministry of Education impose a contract. What can you do to persuade people here that you believe in restoring collective bargaining rights?"  Wynne replied, "We've all admitted, even my predecessor, that things didn't go the way we wanted last time. Help me restore our relationship.

3. The third question was about "line 9" and reversing the gas flow from east to west.  The questioner wants a full environmental assessment.  Wynne promised to "keep an eye on environmental issues but is not committing to full EA."

4. "Things are worse in education funding under the Liberals than under Mike Harris. When will we see more sustainable funding?"  Wynne replied, "We are facing challenges....We're not out of the woods in our fiscal situation. We're not going to cut & slash."

Here's the biggest change to our funding formula as felt from the inside (I mean, as a teacher):  If a student misses 15 consecutive days, s/he's dropped from the roll and we lose funding.  Enough students skip enough classes, even just MSIPs, and we lose a teacher.  But if the student is under 18, then we have to take them back, even if the teachers have been transferred or let go.  The irony is, the kids that are not in class cause far more work than the ones that attend regularly.  We don't just mark them absent and teach a smaller group; we are required to intervene, to call home every three days to listen to parents and guardians who sometimes yell and sometimes cry, to discuss the student with admin, guidance, and resource teachers, and to create packages of materials that can be completed outside the classroom - anything to help them learn the material and get the credit.  We're still teaching the kids who aren't in the room.  

Changing the funding formula, isn't about getting a raise or even maintaining our salaries.  It's about keeping much needed teachers employed and in the building.

But, I have to say, the fact that half the questions asked were of an environmental nature, clarifies the kind of concerns teachers have.  It's not about their profession getting dinged, it's about us - all of us.  I've said before that this recent contract issue wasn't about salaries, but about an infringement of the democratic process.  I don't want to live in a country in which a leader can dictate the rules without discussion, but that's the direction we're headed.  OSSTF is working to put a stop to that.

Backing for My Views on Education

There's an article in The Spectator, and a new book out (at your left there), that says everything I've been saying about education for a couple years now.  It's actually to the point that, if I weren't such a D-list blogger, I might actually think she plagiarized from my blog posts!

The article points to two main issues:

* The new system isn't new, it's at least as old as Rousseau, and it's been tried before, over and over, and it always fails for the majority of students. (I said that here and a bit more here.)

* We keep doing it because it tells us what we want to hear - that we have untapped creativity and brilliance if only our school system didn't destroy our creativity.  (My version of the argument is here - near the end, and a bit here, .)

I'll have to read the book now to see if I can better back-up my claims that are still a minority view (unless it's a fearful majority). 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

What Do Women Want?

It can be a goofy question because it sets up an expectation that half the world, 3.5 billion people, can answer it the same way if it's asked in exasperation because a woman was maybe annoyed at a man for insisting on paying for dinner, or didn't want to go on a second date after all he did for her, or didn't want him moving in.  Something like that.  In that context, it suggests women should get it together and be more consistent in their collective behaviour so hetero men can understand the "rules" instead of having to make an effort to get to know each woman one at a time.  Curious.

But, in another context, it can be answered for everyone at once, including men:  Health and access to whatever will promote that, enough money to live with dignity - particularly when the kids are young, freedom from physical violence or the threat of violence, you know, generally to be treated with respect.  We know the deal.  People like to be treated as if they are valuable in their own right, as people with opinions and ideas to be discussed and debated civilly, not as commodities to be used as needed, to win over, to manipulate, to own.  Nothing earth-shattering.

My mom always told me to have one foot out the door whenever I'm talking to a mortgage broker, and, she added, whenever I'm on a date.  Always let them know you don't have to be there, and they will have to behave in a way that will make you choose to stay.  We need days like today because there are too many women who don't understand when they have a choice, and far too many more who really don't have one.  It's a frightening world out there.

Or little boys, either.  (h/t Globe Aware)