This past summer I had the pleasure of reading Damian Hughes' "The Five Steps of a Winning Mindset". In the book he wrote about Van Halen's legendary rider, and the clause that stated: "M&M's (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES)"(Hughes 140). Of course, many of us have heard of this, and thought of the stereotypical egotistical rock star. But, the truth is far more compelling and something we might be able to utilize in education.
The story goes that in the early 1980's Van Halen were one of the biggest bands in world. Their stage set up was huge, and they often toured smaller cities who often did not have the experience with booking such large shows. David Lee Roth (a savvy business-man in his own rights) would arrive backstage and immediately go to the M&M bowl. Hughes writes that "if he saw a brown M&M he'd demand a line check of the entire production". The sign of a brown M&M was a sign that "they didn't read the contract"(Hughes 141).
So, what does this have to do with student writing?
Well, Hughes goes onto write that the brown M&M was a "tripwire". A small means of showing that the stagehands had "read every single word of the contract and taken it seriously"(Hughes 143). Let's imagine using a similar means of assessing whether or not a piece of writing was "ready" to be read. Let's be David Lee Roth (not sure I could pull off the pants and certainly couldn't pull off the stage moves) and think of ways we could leave tripwires in our assignments to ensure that students have "read every single word" and "taken it seriously".
I introduced my Grade 10 students to the M&M test today and asked them what should be the brown M&M's I look for as soon as I open their formal writing assignment.
As a class we came up with four.
1. MLA Format & Works Cited
2. First few sentences properly use capitals.
3. Plagiarism - I use Turnitin, so I can see a percentage on the assignment, and this is already an automatic sign.
4. Proper font choice
They came up with a few additional Brown M&M's that I thought would be worth visiting in a senior level class. For example we have talked throughout the semester about an although thesis statement, and, because we have also discussed breaking out of the 5 paragraph essay, they said I could merely count the number of paragraphs.
Ultimately, the idea has got me thinking about how well, or how poorly our students read assignments (even when we read it over with them). Do these tripwires act a means of ensuring students understand the minimal expectations of the assignment? If we tell them that their assignments will not even be looked at without these requirements does this force students to better understand the assignment and thus allow our students to focus on good writing.
The answer: I am not quite sure yet. I'll let you know.
Hughes, Damian. The Five STEPS to a Winning Mindset: What Sport Can Teach Us about Great Leadership. Macmillan, 2016.
But, these journeys were made easy because in a world of 21 channels, I had cultural flashpoints on which I could build. Let’s take Casablanca for example. I hadn’t seen it while in high school, but I knew basically what it was about, and I could rhyme off several lines from the film in a desperately-bad Bogart impression. And, it wasn’t just me. We all knew it. Just as we all knew Gone with the Wind, A Rebel without a Cause, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. We hadn’t seen them, but we knew enough about the touchstone moments of culture, so that when I “Iearned” about media, it was accessible. I could allow my eyes to be opened, because I would finally understand my these canonical works were just that.
And that is the problem with media today.
Instead of 21 channels, today’s youth have over 300 hours of video being uploaded every minute. My pop culture landscape was a small patch of land with rolling hills. Sure, I knew that off beyond the horizon there were strange guys making strange music with their "Arkestras", but like pre-colonial Europe, I didn’t know anything about those other cultural landscapes. Today’s youth - as they have been with information - are oversaturated. Just as the internet offers them endless hours of information, Youtube offers them perpetual culture. If I lived in a village, today’s youth live in a multicultural-pluralistic universe.
Case in point. Try to find a cultural touchstone in your secondary classes. When I first started teaching, it was the Simpsons. You could rely on everyone knowing the Simpsons. Now, that is not the case. The memeification of culture means that there is no longer pure pop culture. If culture is merely about small phenomena passed from a few people to a few others, then it is no longer a popular movement, and no longer what Stuart Hall famously called culture “experience lived, experience interpreted, experience defined”(Hua). With the likes of Youtube and Spotify no one is living the same experience.
Media is everything. Marshall McLuhan’s idea of the world as a global village is upon us. And, therein lies the problem with teaching media in 2017. Cooper Smith Koch once wrote that “things that would have never been considered ‘media’ in the past are at the forefront of how we consume information today”(Koch).
If we accept that media is everything and is everywhere then how do we teach everything in our English classes? If Hall’s cultural experience can be customized to every consumer, then to whom do I teach media?
Donchev, Danny. “37 Mind Blowing YouTube Facts, Figures and Statistics – 2018.”Fortune Lords, fortunelords.com/youtube-statistics/.
Hsu, Hua. “Stuart Hall and the Rise of Cultural Studies.” The New Yorker, 17 July 2017, www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/stuart-hall-and-the-rise-of-cultural-studies.
Koch, Cooper Smith. “What Is Media? It's Everything, That's What.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 14 Aug. 2013, www.huffingtonpost.com/cooper-smith-koch/what-is-media-its-everyth_b_3750807.html.
In a few keystrokes our students can find any number of rich cultural moments from Le Voyage Dans la Lune to Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. But, that is not their culture. Like immigrants to a new land - or me in 1989 - teens find themselves looking for easily digestible culture. So, instead of using the likes of Youtube, Netflix and Spotify to discover Foucault, The Usual Suspects or Sonic Youth they are using those tools to consume celebrity gossip, Friends or whichever musician is cool for the next month. Luckily for all of us, this piece is not a rant against their viewing habits; instead slide through the collection of trending videos on Youtube and one thing becomes perfectly clear to anyone who has taught media: How do I teach this?
Without key cultural footholds, and with media so diverse, how can we teach the fundamentals?
One could argue that as the media turns in its own codes and conventions, to teach codes of conventions of traditional media is a waste. Of course, the other argument is that we need to understand these codes & conventions if we are to break them. And, if we have learned anything from news over the past year, the codes and conventions of the news industry, advertising, marketing and design are being turned on their head. With that said, we don’t want to teach media so that we glamorize the past. I am not sure what I will do if I hear another generation tell me how great Stairway to Heaven is. An ouroboric media makes the explicit teaching of media all the more complicated.
It seems ironic that as English Departments support voice and choice in reading, the plethora of voice and choice available today make the teaching of media so incredibly difficult. Yet, as it becomes more difficult it becomes increasingly more important.
Over the past seven years I have met some wonderful young people.
Sometimes they were tardy.
Sometimes they were lazy.
But, more often they were exciting.
They were creative.
They were inspiring.
Although I leave EDSS with a heavy heart, I look forward to seeing what the students of this grand building do with the world that they create.
Thank you Elmira.
Education was not my forte. Now given that I am a teacher, that sounds odd.
I remember in Teachers’ College I was asked to think back on a teacher that changed my life. Students around the room had stories of joyful teachers with animated birds floating around them that would bestow straight A’s and praise at the blink of an eye. I did not. As hard as I pondered, I kept coming up blank. Sure, I enjoyed the antics of my zany history teachers. And, of course, I recall the English teacher who read Leonard Cohen lyrics and whose class I didn’t skip. But, in all honesty, I didn’t skip because I had a crush on her. The reality is that I don’t recall high school classes bringing any sense of happiness or joy to my life.
The answer to this question always came back to Kevin Gildea. My university professor in Canadian Literature. I was not excited about the course. In fact, if it was not a required course at Carleton, I would never have taken it. Canadian Literature? Why would I want to read a bunch of books about pioneers trapped in a snowstorm? But, Gildea pushed me to think. He introduced me to the world of critical theory. Yes, I remember reading Ondaatje, Birney and Moodie, but more importantly I realized how thinkers like Marx, Heidegger, Rousseau and Bakunin could influence how I read. The Can-Lit canon was merely a means of understanding the bigger ideas at play. Canadian literature wasn’t about a pioneer roughing it in the bush; it was about the individual attempting to understand their sense of self in an unforgiving land that is unloving and crushing. Woah.
Of course, there was no course for this at Teacher’s college. There was no course that told us to teach ideas that were bigger than the curriculum. There was no course that told us to make students feel awkward, uncomfortable and out of their depth.
I often share with students the feelings I would have in Gildea’s (and subsequent others) classes. In those classes, I would feel lost. The term I find myself using is drowning. I was drowning in a sea of ideas that I didn’t think I was smart enough to comprehend. Week after week I would flail around, my arms swinging to grab onto something stable, something that would save me. Yet, there was nothing. I was drowning. So, I kicked. I would sit in the library (this was before the internet existed in everyone’s pocket) and wrestle with secondary texts. I would flail. Searching through stacks of sources, each one more confusing than the previous one. And I would gasp for breath. Finding occasional bits of knowledge that would help me to put together the puzzle. And then, as if by magic, I would be lucky enough to grasp the idea. I could suddenly swim.
My job - as a teacher - it would seem, was to arm my students, not with the curriculum, but with a sense of fearlessness when it comes to learning. In short, my job is to teach them to swim when the waves feel like they are going to pull them under.
The question is am I willing to push them into the water? And, perhaps more importantly, are they willing to swim?
Yes, it is true. I am the teacher who asks you to read “through a lens” and, whether it be feminism, marxism or post-colonialism, there had better be an “ism” in your analysis somewhere. These ideas come from my post-secondary education at Carleton, and my deeply held opinion that without a strong idea, one’s writing lacks power. Of course, these ideas are hard for people to grasp, or at least that is what people think. Throughout this semester, I have had several students who have written on the topic of a hero in texts like Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Fahrenheit 451 and Ender’s Game. During our initial conversations, the students found themselves trying to force dynamic multi-dimensional characters into a small concrete, and limited definition of a hero. You know the one I mean; the hero is a good person who does the right thing. Then I would introduce them to two other ideas. Joseph Campbell’s idea of the archetype hero, was a good fit for something like Ender, or even 451’s Guy Montag. However, to try and fit a character like V or Rorschach into Campbell’s definition is akin to fitting a 747 into a pop bottle. So, I did the unthinkable. I let grade ten students - those innocent young minds - loose on Friedrich Nietzsche’s existential hero. Were there questions? Of course, there were. Was there confusion? Of course. Was there fear (and trembling)? Absolutely. But, more importantly, there was a shred of understanding and a degree of thinking that those students didn’t know they could do in an English class. When I discussed their choice of essays with the students later in the semester they used words like “scary”, but afterwards, one student said, “I am really proud of myself”. Isn’t this the answer we always want from our students? It should be, but instead, we have created a system that rewards good work, but not always challenging work.
Did these students feel like they were drowning? Sure they did. It certainly would have been easier to write a paper or a more simple topic. They could have done that. They could have gotten a 70% and went home content. Instead, they took a risk. They read a copious amount of writing that was not mandated by the course outline. And, instead of feeling content, they felt “proud”.
But, what about those who don’t want to swim? What about those who want to stay at the shallow end of the beach. Fine. Stay there. But, be comfortable with your average, or even below-average mark. If you are like I was in high school you will be fine. But, if you are like I was in University you will hurl yourself into the deep-dark seas and rage against the waves of challenge.
The truth is that by focusing on student comfort, we are forcing kids to think about their marks instead of thinking about the creative and critical ways of dealing with a question. So, instead of challenging themselves and facing a fear they instead play it safe. And safe, as they say, is boring. Besides, boring isn’t going to create the leaders of the future, and God knows, we need that.
From behind the wheel a 2 tonne weapon
gruelingly tears down the road.
The wheel shakes at the turn and the heart revs.
Although he does not wear a helmet he feels the adrenaline.
A squeal pierces the rural air.
And as the back end losses any semblance of control,
The soundtrack to his own film blares from the stereo.
The bass and drum rumble through the speakers.
The guitar holds onto the rhythm for dear life.
The voice screams in unforeseen agony.
The shine of the moon highlights the road.
His right wheels bounce off the new paving as he prepares for the 180.
A van comes around the bend.
The sleeping child never saw a thing.
The mother was on the passenger's side.
She never heard her child's last cry.
The father at least had four hours to remember them as they were.
I feel for the driver in the aftermath
of a crashed car on a rural road somewhere west of the city.
I feel for the driver
who has been raised on speed, power and the belief that he cannot die.
Regret is a powerful tool. It is a tool that can bury you, or a tool that can help us escape. How you choose to use this tool is up to you. Recently, I watched Larry Smith’s Ted Talk Why you will fail to have a great career. The talk appears pessimistic but at its root is a promise of greatness. A promise fuelled by passion. Of course, what we often don’t relate with passion is hard work and risk. Just because you are passionate about something it doesn’t mean that it comes easy. It should mean that you should want to work hard to achieve success in that given field. But, what about risk?
We seem to avert ourselves from risk. We are scared to take risks. Why? Risks can – and usually do – bring about great insight. As a 40 year old I can look back on my life, those points where I did not take risks are clear and evident. However, I think as I reflect on my life thus far I see that I was someone who took big risks. I mean, when my fellow twenty-something friends were completing University and taking on “the real world” I crossed the country in an old brown van playing bad rock n‘ roll in star-studded locals like Sudbury, Saskatoon, Moncton and Vancouver’s Pigeon Park. Beyond that I hit the road with other bands, tried my hand at stand-up comedy, and – in general – led a life seemingly devoid of much purpose at all. In retrospect, as a “mature” adult, this seems risky. But, still, there are moments when I can look back and think, “If only I had…”.
When I was about 19 or 20 I was out of work. Now, this was a time when you found jobs through both want ads in the local newspaper and through friends or family. I interviewed for two jobs. The one was a banal factory job. It was close to home, probably with a clear schedule, shift work no doubt, and probably pretty thin on skill. But, for a 19 year-old it was perfect. I would learn what I needed to learn quickly, show up, do it, leave, and collect a meager pay cheque, which I would spend on music and filling up my vehicle to get my band to whatever venue in Southern Ontario we were playing that weekend.
The other job however was as a horse trainer. The potential employer needed someone to come in during the week to walk and groom the horses, do some training and then join him when the horses did events.
I remember being honest with the gentlemen at the interview.
“I’m sorry, but I have no experience with horses.”
However, being desperate for work, I no doubt also announced in some trite uber-positive tone that “I was a quick learner” or “ready for a challenge”. It turns out the second point was probably a lie, because two days later, when I was offered the job, I turned it down. Actually, I asked him if I could have a few hours to think about it. In those hours I waited by the phone hoping for a call from the factory. At points over those few hours I talked myself into the challenge. Sure, I’m not great at getting up early and the job will be cold and dirty, but this could be fun. You like animals. You’d have complete control over the training of a horse. That’s pretty cool. Yet, despite my best attempt to convince myself, when the factory called I said yes and called back the “horse guy” to decline his offer.
Now, go on and ask me the name of that factory.
The thing is I can’t remember.
Ask me what I learned there about the industry.
I can’t recall.
Ask me what I learned about myself at that job.
It didn’t take long for me to wonder what would have become of me if I had taken that job. Now, by no means do I believe that I would have been a professional horse trainer, or had a horse in the Queen’s Plate, but I do believe that if I had only taken that challenge I would have learned a lot about what I was capable of doing. Although I took risks, they were calculated. Sure, I did stand-up comedy. But, as a front man for a tongue-in-cheek rock band that was not such a leap. It was in my “wheelhouse” or my comfort zone. I was good being on a stage and liked being the centre of attention (this might explain why teaching was my future career choice), so the risks I took generally involved me doing just that.
A horse trainer. What did I know about training horses? But, isn’t that the point of life? I took the easy way out, even when someone was willing to take a risk on me and help me learn a new skill. I turned him down. It’s a regret I try to no longer make. When someone offers me the opportunity to try something different in my career I take the opportunity. Because I never know how the experience will shape me.
I am not sure what happened to “horse guy”. Not sure who got the job. All I know is that he didn’t lose out, I did.
Yet again, it seems the Fraser Institute has shown us just how foolish they are.
In a recent publication the "right-wing think tank" (who just a few weeks ago told Canadians it was possible to raise a child for $3000 a year) came up with a plan that would see teacher pay tied to student achievement. The report entitled Obtaining Better Teachers for Canadian Public Schools was authored by Rodney Clifton, whose resume shows a lot of writing, but does not mention anything about time spent in an actual class. And this disconnect between theory and practice is evident throughout Mr. Clifton's report. Ultimately, the entire idea of merit pay is built on several false illusions, and as such to connect teacher pay to such illusions is ineffective and foolish.
In a recent interview with CBC's Here & Now Clifton argued that teachers should be subject to merit pay. In such a system teacher pay (for the most part) would be allocated based on incremental scores at the beginning and the end of the year. One can only assume that such assessment would be done through a standardized format, much like the literacy tests the Fraser Institute is so keen on.
In the interview and the corresponding report Clifton notes (albeit briefly) some of the challenges behind the system. He seems to see unions as the most problematic risk. How odd that their members would not support a system that puts them at odds with their fellow employees. But, he also notes that standardizing tests as means of assessing whether the student has received an effective teacher is a means by which education can circumnavigate the dangerous territory of socioeconomics. Socioeconomics has never been the Fraser Institute's forte. We see little-to-no analysis of the socioeconomics of schools in their annual Report Card, so we shouldn't be surprised that they seem to believe that a standardized test can over ride years of economic hardship.
I teach at a school with a house-hold income far greater than other regional schools. We - not surprisingly - have the highest literacy scores in our board. As we should. It goes without saying that parents with access to educational resources will more than likely be able to raise relatively strong students. Prior to my current posting I taught at a school on the other end of the socioeconomic scale. Annually, this school ranks near the bottom of the Institute's list. The truth is that socioeconomics are key to not only student engagement, but accessibility.
The Neo-Conservative Fraser Institute slithers through our media perpetuating a myth that our teachers are shamelessly inadequate. But, what they seem to forget is that the problems they see within our school are systematic problems that stem from the very thinking that they endorse. Instead of properly investing in schools, education and ensuring that our students are socially secure so as to be educated, they have chosen to merely focus on the issue of pay. Perhaps, instead of focusing on a right-wing American style merit system that is in all estimations is a disaster perhaps Mr. Clifton should consider looking at the countries nearer the top of the list, like that of Norway. Instead of the merit system, Norway has chosen a differentiated model that "provides a place for everyone, for all children and adults, with their various talents and ability levels".
In the aforementioned CBC interview Clifton stated that standardized testing would be key in assessing the "effectiveness" of a given teacher. However, others - most specifically Pasi Sahlbeg, Alfie Kohn & Sir Ken Robinson - have more than efficiently explained why these tests don't work. Most recently Thomas S. Poetter wrote: "Classrooms should be rich places for intellectual activity, creativity, imagination, and wonder. Furthermore, choice, a critical aspect of a democratic life, has been almost completely removed from the classroom for both students and teachers. In many cases, teachers can’t help but do what they’re told to do, and often regress in their work, taking the path of least resistance to satisfy the boss and other powers that be. If test scores are going to be the one and only judge of educational worth, why jeopardize any stake you have in the enterprise? Teach to the test; students might score better, and all will be well. Right?". The truth is obvious Mr. Clifton. Using standardized tests as a means of assessing a teacher's effectiveness is, well, ineffective. Teachers will no doubt teach to the test, because if that is what the governing body of the institution would deem important, then it is what we would do.
Furthermore, Clifton seems to celebrate the idea that "schools that demonstrate that their students are progressing at acceptable, or better, rates should receive block grants from their districts that would be awarded by principals in cooperation with superintendents to teachers and other personnel on the basis of their contribution to the students’ academic progress". Oh, that does sound lovely. Gifts given to schools for not creating imagination and wonder, but for merely "teaching to a test". But, what Clifton has ignored (because again, it is a socioeconomic issue) is that such incentives would marginalize inner-city schools, where socioeconomic barriers often keep students from achieving success.
Of course, to do away with standardized testing you must first hold teachers in high regard, something I would argue many in our society don't. But, the reason I would argue that they don't is often based on the assumptions put out their by scholars like Clifton. If we accept, that teachers are not professional and lack credibility, then we can justify standardized testing. But, the case is that for the most part this just isn't true. This style of testing is, according to Sahlberg a "virus that must be eliminated to enhance standards of learning". But, instead of it being a virus Clifton seems to see it as a means of rewarding the well off at the expense of others.
I would however like to commend Mr. Clifton on two points. Firstly, he notes the "characteristics of effective teachers". Upon reading this section I was proud to see that our staff, our principals and board have not only encouraged these practices but moreover embedded them into our daily rituals. Secondly, I would like to commend Mr. Clifton for finally admitting that standardized testing is not about students, but as he articulates clearly in his report, is about teachers. Something proponents of standardized tests have always told us was not the case.
Teachers, Mr. Clifton are professionals. We are not going to fight one another in a pedagogical Hunger Games tearing off the last rations of whatever your think tank believes should be allotted to us. We are professionals, who deserve to be treated as such. So, instead of hinging an entire theoretical argument on a word like "effective" I would ask you to walk into a class and teach that student who does not want to spend a minute in school. Come and meet the student who can't read because his parent(s) was too busy working 12 hour shifts to even know where he was, yet alone what he was reading. Sit down and try to explain to a kid who thinks the system is broken that a test is really about what is best for him. All your books and reports might tell you one thing. But, to truly understand what we get paid for, I recommend you leave the Ivory tower and join us in the classrooms, where we work to encourage, to create and to inspire. In other words, we are already effective Mr. Clifton, now we just need a system that can help us be more effective.
When I first started teaching in Ottawa talk started to spread about a new Assessment and Evaluation policy. Teachers went ballistic. However, over the next two years we went to implementation meetings (both at the board level and within our schools) and special talks with Damian Cooper and anyone else they could find to promote these new ideas. Teachers in Ottawa reacted, some reacted with a fervor for change, while others reacted in anger. Now, I am teaching in the Waterloo Region District School Board and once again the board is traipsing out Damian Cooper to sell us on Assessment and Evaluation techniques.
The problems are various. First off, I have yet to see (or even hear) of a school board implementing a policy change well. For months I have voiced my concern that parents seem to know nothing of this new policy. Sure, the obligatory newsletter will go out, but ultimately it we be the teachers who, during awkward parent-teacher interviews, will be left to explain the changes. Instead of being upfront with our "clients" we are appear to be sneaking this policy change in through the back door.
Secondly, they have tried to sell it teachers by means of presenting us with Damian Cooper. Now, I should point out that I agree with many of the ideas that Damian Cooper puts forward. I believe wholeheartedly that we should do far more assessment. I also believe that assessment should be fair, transparent and equitable. However, there are few educators whom I react to as negatively as Mr. Cooper. I, and several of my colleagues, have found him to be condescending. Whether referring to teachers as "babies" to this new world of assessment or continuously saying things like "you don't understand" Cooper does little gain our support.
With that said, Cooper's ideas are essentially right.
However, what Cooper fails to acknowledge is that teachers in Ontario have been following these practices for several years. Our assessment practices are fair and balanced, our practices do support students, our practices do relate to the curriculum, and by embracing differentiated learning we are relating more and more to the interests, learning styles and preferences, of our students.
Sure there are points that we need to improve upon. For example, we do need to improve on providing ongoing descriptive feedback that is clear, specific, meaningful, and timely to support. And, this assessment will most definitely improve on student learning and ultimately our students' success.
The implementation of the new Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting policy in the Waterloo Region has done a lot to divide the Board, administration, and teachers. However, we teachers must now take this new policy and implement it. The arguments have been "made", our disagreements "acknowledged" and concerns "heard". It is now time for us to stop lamenting our pre-AER life. It is time for us to figure out how we as teachers are going to implement the new policy with the spirit with which it is intended. If we do not then we will create a divide between us and our most important shareholders: our students.
Take off your shirt. Go ahead, take it off and look at the label. Where was it made? Odds are you are not wearing a shirt made in Canada, the United States or really, just about about anywhere in the European Union. Of course, this is and should not be news to anyone. We surely don't think that the cheap clothing we wear each and everyday is socially neutral? Or, perhaps the bigger question is do we care?
On April 24th in the town of Dhaka, Bangladesh an eight-storey factory building collapsed. Within a day the dead numbered 152. This week the death toll has surpassed 1000. The building was being used to produce cheap clothing for "westerners". Perhaps most shocking for Canadians was the inclusion of Joe fresh (a subsiduary of Loblaws was using the facility). Here is the thing, I am not quite sure why we're so shocked. It appears that we in North America are incredibly disconnected from the brand names that we wear each and everyday. However, this has been a issue with clothing since Nike first took its manufacturing out of the United States in the 1970s. In fact, one could argue that this has always been a problem throughout history. The Egyptian pyramids were crafted by non-Egyptian slaves and the cotton of the southern states was not picked by white people. Modern sweatshops are an extension of historical slavery (shame on those professional basketball players selling Nike and Adidas), however now, we don't have it in our own backyards, so it becomes all the easier to ignore.
The Joe Fresh website lists a Women's classic tank at $5. Think about what $5 can purchase. This shirt, a piece of clothing, is worth less than a meal at McDonalds. Does this seem reasonable? How much would be too much? Of course we can find similar deals at Target, Walmart and just about any other discount retailer, which only creates more justification for the incredibly low prices. But, what about the social cost of buying clothing? By comparison, companies like American Apparel and Canadian-owned Red Canoe show tank tops in excess of $20. These prices obviously note a difference in how these products were made. In the example of Red Canoe you have products made in Canada by Canadian workers. Just to note the differences in wages a Bangladeshi worker gets an average income of $38 a month. In comparison, a Canadian textile worker makes approximately $1200 a month. Thus the price of a shirt made here, employing Canadians is - of course - going to be more expensive.
Obviously, in light of the Bangladeshi collapse, we have begun to focus on clothing. However, in doing so we ignore the other products being built outside of Canada in nations that treat workers' rights - and indeed civil rights - objectionably. In fact just 12 days prior to the Bangladeshi collapse Dollarama released its earnings for the 2013 financial year. The discount giant "reported a profit of just under $221 million". This figure was up almost 50 million from the 2012 figures. The fact is that Canadians love discounted merchandise and apparently we do not care about the social cost associated with them. Walmart Canada is the fourth richest private company (behind two insurance companies and an oil company) in Canada. They are a virtual juggernaut of discounted materials that are - like dollarama - mostly made in sweatshops or using cheap third-world labour. One needs not look any further than the anticipated arrival of Target in Canada to see that Canadian shoppers are prone to say that our freedoms and human rights are important, but get far more excited about cheap ironic T-Shirts than we do about workers' rights. The list goes on and on: Starbucks, Burberry, Disney, Reitmans, Adidas. No matter what the industry, the truth is that as we flock to discount retailers and seem willing to put our "belief" in rights on hold in favour of "low, low prices".
Of course, the argument that allows us to sleep at night is a simple one: people in third-world countries need jobs and we provide those jobs in the form of cheap labour. Some economists rather dishonestly argue that the alternatives to sweatshops are much worse. Yes, the truth is that working in the apparel industry does pay more than just about anything else in a third-world country. But, what we often forget is that the apparel industry is established by major players and built off of our consumer fetishism. The fact is that those employed by other means in these countries are not paid by multi-national corporations. In other words, multi-billion-dollar companies are choosing to pay workers slightly more than those living is complete poverty. Phil Krugman, in a piece in Slate magazine noted that these workers are "inevitably, paid very little and expected to endure terrible working conditions...because their employers are not in business for their (or their workers') health; they pay as little as possible, and that minimum is determined by the other opportunities available to workers". Therefore, if a multi-national corporation sets up in a third-world country they do so only because there are little opportunities and by extension it is far cheaper to create products. A living wage in Bangladesh is a mere $22 a month more than the average apparel workers in Bangladesh. Ultimately, if those wages are even minimally raised the positive outcomes to the economy would be monumental, whereas the impact on the corporations' "bottom line" would be minimal. So, in truth the argument that we are somehow helping the poor workers of the world instead only shows how the multi-national corporations that we abide to don't care at all. Perhaps more importantly, if we are trusting in and buying into those companies, we by extension are complicit in their objectification of the poor. And, perhaps that is the biggest issue.
Over the past two weeks we have looked at the pictures of Dhaka and (hopefully) felt sympathy for those who have been left without family members. But, in actuality, have we given it a second thought as we have bought products since? I think the answer is a resounding "no". Sure, Galen Weston Jr. "vowed to be a force of good", but at the end of the day this is meaningless when we acknowledge that it is coming from the 2nd richest family in Canada and a company that sells Tees for $5 a piece. The cynic in me sees a Canadian company ready to do battle with Walmart and Target, and a Canadian population looking for the cheapest price. As the press of the world allow Mr. Weston and others like him to slip quietly into the rubble of Dhanka, it is up to us - not the industry - to make change.
Of course people will argue that they don't know if their clothing is made "ethically" and therefore, are unable to do much. But, in reality I think we do know, or at least have an inkling. We are instead choosing not to care. Sarah Morris, business development director of Trajectory Partnership, has said that the Bangladeshi building collapse will "have scant long term impact on a cash strapped" or "utterly disengaged" consumer. We know the nations of the world that are living in abject poverty and we know, that if we take the time to read the labels we would still - even knowing the conditions that the clothing was made in - probably decide to buy the shirt.
When we search out the lowest of low prices, we trade our souls, our morals and our selves.
I hope I am wrong. But sadly, I don't think I am.
Besides, it's okay if I get a really good deal right?
First they came for the Canada Post,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a postal worker.
Then they came for the Air Canada,
and I didn't speak out because I had tickets for Cuba.
Then they came for the teachers
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a teacher (besides they get the summer off).
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
I in no way wrote this to undermine the real issues that Martin Niemöller was talking about in his poem. Nor am I connecting the Ontario Liberal Party, or the Federal Conservative Party to Hitler's Germany. But, when the Canada Post workers were ordered back to work, and then the Air Canada workers were sent back to work I couldn't help but think of the layout of this poem. Over the last few months I have heard from nurses and prison guards who have said "we're next". As I see it the Governments of North America are coming after unions, and by extension, workers.
You might not be a teacher. But, "if you work in Ontario this is your fight".
I write about education, music, politics and my own philosophical conundrums. If I have left you thinking about something let me know. Sometimes I think this world needs more thinking.