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Worries about octoblocks grow as students, teachers deal with relentless pace

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Despite the mostly positive reports coming from senior Trillium Lakelands District School Board staff regarding octoblocks, a different narrative is emerging powered by student and teacher experiences.

Octoblocks, according to a school trustee, a union representative, and three teachers are affecting students and staff in a number of negative ways.

For readers unfamiliar with an octoblock, the board decided as a public health measure to limit student contacts to one class and have students take one subject only for five hours a day for 22 straight days.

Student trustee Kaylee Kelly, a Grade 12 student from Huntsville Secondary School, shared her student experience of the first octoblock for local high school students at a school board meeting in October.

“The feedback I am getting from other students is that they are falling behind and struggling with mental health issues,” Kelly stated.

“There is too much to do in just 22 days.”

“Teachers are cramming too much into an octoblock and some students are looking at four to five tests a week in their class,” Kelly said.

“Stress is very high. One of my friends told me that if you have senior English and you are trying to work a part-time job to save for school there are not enough hours in the day to get all your work done,” Kelly added.

Kelly also told trustees and senior staff that she is concerned for her teachers and the stress they are experiencing.

Colin Matthew, president of the local high school teacher’s federation, echoed and expanded on Kelly’s concerns in a recent email interview with The Advocate.

“Octoblocks were no one’s first choice,” Matthew said, “and are an unhappy attempt to support the narrative of cohorting.”

Cohorting, says Matthew, which by definition in a school context is meant to keep the same group of students together, does not meaningfully exist due to the challenges of busing, which mixes dozens of kids often attending different schools and even in different boards. Then there’s also the decision to release students at lunch time, which often results in masks not being worn.

“The Ministry of Education has created a false sense of security in cohorts that simply do not exist,” Matthew added.

For teachers, Matthew states that the pace of octoblocks is “relentless,” leaving little time for anything but lesson preparation. Opportunities for student feedback are severely limited, and this concerns Matthew.

“The crux of learning is practice, feedback and refinement,” Matthew said. “In a normal semester, students would be given multiple opportunities to develop a skill, receive feedback and refine until mastery. The nature of feedback is that much occurs after hours or on unassigned time…and 22 days are nowhere near enough unassigned periods or evenings to do this work to the level those students deserve.”

Matthew says when this is compounded by the need to report progress to the school board and to parents (multiple times in fact) then time is further diverted from student improvement.

From a student perspective he knows octoblocks are “incredibly challenging.”

“This may be especially true for those studying topics that are not their favourite, but it is true for all students who need feedback from teachers to improve. Further, students are negatively impacted by the breakneck pace of material,” Matthew said.

“There is a lot of research,” Matthew added, “exploring the role of sleep and memory. Students would typically be exposed to a limited concept, be given time to practice it, receive feedback and sleep on it before moving on. This cycle of learning that is research-based and reinforced in our habits can’t happen in the current system.”

Three experienced secondary school teachers who all requested anonymity for fear of consequences at their job site expressed further frustrations with the octoblock system, and how its realities are being “oversold” by board administrators.

“Our school-based administrators know staff are struggling,” one teacher shared, “yet they choose not to report that to the director and superintendents. It is very frustrating that the real story is not being told. I have never been this exhausted this early in a school year.”

Another teacher says they are “finishing a book a week in English right now.”

“And when the assignments come in there is simply not time to mark them and get them back where the feedback can be used on the next assignment to allow the student to improve and grow. I am afraid to be sick because of the amount of work that needs to be left for an occasional teacher who may or may not be able to deliver it all.”

A third teacher says they were not surprised the first octoblock was well received by students, since kids were just happy to be back to school.

Kids’ energy is really starting to flag in this second octoblock, though, “and in all but the most extreme cases a student not achieving the credit is not accepted by those keeping track of the numbers. It is all about credit accumulation, not learning.”

Kirk is a retired high school history teacher and coach who has had a lifelong interest in politics at all levels. Since retiring, Kirk has spent the last three years doing freelance writing of all kinds for various platforms. Kirk can often be found sitting in the press gallery at City Hall observing and reporting on the vagaries of local government.

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