Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Destruction of Planet Zor

Today's launch of Sherry Ramey's mid-grade SF adventure, Planet Fleep, reminds me of my own attempt to launch Planet Zor. Enough time has passed that I can tell that story here without hurting anyone's feelings (and they can't fire me over it at this late date) so here goes:

Back in the 1980s, I was in charge of compiling (which usually meant actually writing most of it myself) the Grade 3 Social Studies provincial exam. The exam had significant issues, chief among them all the research available that said Grade 3 students couldn't write multiple-choice questions and that the concept of a Grade 3 examination was a stunningly stupid idea. I had read all that research, compiled it for my then boss, who agreed with me, but such decisions are not made by the technical experts but by politicians. We were, therefore, going to have a provincial Grade 3 examination one way or another, so up to me to make it the least ghastly possible. (To their credit, the team did come up with a number of innovations that did make things better, and for a while there we were able to resist political pressure to keep the results from affecting the students' grades, but all that is a story for another time...)

One of the key concepts for Grade 3 Social Studies was "culturally distinctive communities" and the understanding of why, in Canada's multicultural society, some people want to preserve the traditions of their homelands while living in Canda. This presented two problems to me.

First, being a province-wide test, I had to be fair to everybody, but the curriculum encouraged each community to take as their case study in the course their own culturally distinctive communities. So students in Southern Alberta studied the Hutterites, because that's where most Hutterite colonies are, but students in Calgary studied Chinatown because Calgary still has a vibrant Chinatown, and kids in Northern Alberta studentied the Old Believer colonies and so on. Which makes it impossible to take a case study on the test that everyone had studied, so I would necessarily be biasing the exam depending on whether I used one case study or another.

The second problem was, when I got teams of Grade 3 teachers together to write questions on "culturally distinctive communities" it quickly became painfully obvious that these white English middle-class ladies had absolutely no idea why anyone would want to retain their culturally distinctive community. They all tried valiantly to understand what was to them a mistaken desire of these communities to hold onto a dead past, but um, I couldn't use anything they wrote. It was terrifying that the teachers did not get the curriculum objective here themselves, let alone teach it to children. (I like to think the situation is better today as all the work on addressing First Nations content over the last couple of decades might have given the general population, including Grade 3 teachers, at least a glimmer of why multiculturalism is a better idea than assimilation. But then, I'm a hopeless optimist.)


As much as I tried to come up with generalizable questions on "culturally distinctive communities" that would apply to all cultures everywhere--that can't be done. Being an SF reader, however, I hit upon the idea of writing the test about human emigration to the Planet Zor and why some humans might wish to retain their human culture, even when living among the friendly Zorians. So my artist and I worked together on mocking up a unit on the Planet Zor and why some humans preferred to stick with their own holidays rather than celebrate Ko Day, and so on. Problem solved. I wasn't biasing the test by which case study the class happened to take in their community because Zor would be new to all of them; and putting the kids in the position of a human among Zorians was a pretty good way of getting them to think about why people want to retain their "culturally diverse" community.

The artist and I presented the mock-up to my boss. Who immediately got it, but said NO in no uncertain terms. "I can't put science fiction on a provincial exam! What were you thinking! Zor is not part of the curriculum, and I did not authorize this!"

I may have argued back a bit. Like a lot. Because it was the only possible solution to my problem, and the artist's illustrations were brilliant, and the two of us had already talked about doing the book that would be used in every grade 3 classroom in the province, because this was gold, right?

But my boss was adamant--in spite of conceding the logic of my argument--because he was convinced science fiction was simply a nonstarter with the public. When I argued that it was no longer a nonstarter in the age of Star Trek and Star Wars and so on, he retreated to his ultimate defense which was, "You could never get it past the Committee."

The Committee was actually one of several that oversaw our work, and had absolute veto power, as it should, since it consisted of representatives of all the relevant stakeholders (except parents and students, of course--another one of my suggestions that went nowhere) and the Committee was inclined to err on the side of caution.

So having had Zor shot down by my boss in anticipation of a 'no' from the committee, he set us to chose the culturally distinctive community of Old Believers because that represented the smallest population in the province, so probably new to most students. *sigh* All work on Zor stopped, and we struggled to put together a test on the Old Believers about which none of us knew very much, and very little of which would fit into the Grade 3 curriculum.

And my boss explicitly ordered my colleagues and I NOT to mention Zor to the Committee because we were a team, and the team had to present a common front to the Committee, so whatever arguments we were free to have among ourselves, we must toe the line when facing those outside the office, etc.

So his was the exam we wrote and took to the Committee which said, "you can't just take one community at random; that's not fair to everybody who studied a different one. And what are you going to do next year, and the year after that? If you always use Old Believers, then everybody will end up studying them to do well on the exam. And if you rotate communities through the test, then some students will be advantaged over others." And so on. Round and round we went with the impossibility of making any of this work. My frustration at not being allowed to even suggest the possibility of the obvious solution of Zor grew steadily throughout the day of the meeting, but my hands were tied, as were my colleagues' who knew about and thought the artist's illustrations for Zor were pretty awesome.

Near the end of the day, one of the Senior members of the committee looked up from the draft exam and said, "I don't know...why don't you have something like a Canadian going to an alien planet? Kids today love SciFi, and that way, it would put them in the shoes of someone trying to hang onto their own culture." And then he stopped talking because I and my colleagues were glaring at my boss.

"Did I say something wrong?" the Committee member asked, confused by our reaction.

There was a long pause as I continued to glare at my boss with the "I was right, you were wrong, and I'm probably going to find a way to kill you" look.

And then my boss turned to the Committee member and reassured him, "No, no, you said nothing wrong. It's just...that's a bit of a Zor point with my staff."

To the eternal confusion of the Committee members, I exploded into laughter, and my closest colleague fled the room to keep from doing the same. She returned, grinning, and announced, "I just needed a refill" holding up her coffee and trying not to weep with laughter. Because, of course, my boss' terrible pun was both acknowledgment and apology. After the meeting my boss shrugged and said, well it's too late to go back to Zor, so we'll have to move forward with this version for this year, but, we'll see for next time. But the Grade 3 Social Studies exam only happened every three years, so by next time both the artist and I had left for other careers, and Zor never happened.

I still wished we had written that textbook, though.

[I'm out of town at the moment, but will add some of the illustrations from Zor when I return home. I wanted to post this today, while the opening line was still true.]

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