Wednesday, 23 November 2016

How Can We Live Well Together

What is the nature of Social Studies?

I have found myself asking that question over and over again as a Social Studies teacher.

What is it we want students to KNOW?
Who is it we want them to BE?
How do we want them to LIVE?

If we could distill the key idea of what we want from a Social Studies education, is there one sentence that encapsulates it all?

What resonates for me? 
Social Studies is learning how we live well together.
If we could break that down further, would it cover everything the future citizens of our planet need to know? 

Who am "I"? 

  • "I" am an individual, with unique characteristics and identity and beliefs and values and skills. But "I" am not alone. "I" am also a part of "we".

Who are "we"? 
  • "We" are families and communities and cultural groups and ethnicities living on farms and in the country and in small towns and cities and nations and refugee camps. "We" are all citizens of this planet.

What does it mean to live well?

  • Living well is quality of life and physical health and mental health and spiritual health and standard of living and a sense of purpose and good relationships and stewardship for the land that sustains us.

What does it mean to live well together

  • The "social" part of Social Studies is the hard part. Over the course of history, people have come up with many different ways of living and organizing ourselves socially, politically, and economically. What have societies done in the past that allowed them to live well together?  What have they done that achieved the opposite? What can we learn from the stories of the past that can help us move forward, past egregious errors and injustices, into a brighter tomorrow? For our global society to evolve, it must be fueled by people with creativity, hopefulness, innovation, critical thought, open-mindedness and empathy.

How do we live well together?
Sadly, sometimes, we just don't.

Following Brexit and the election of Trump and the rise of Le Pen, it seems that the lesson some people have learned is simply that we cannot live well together.  

As a Canadian, I think that is wrong. 
We can live well together. 
We do live well together. 

Jason Kenney accuses teachers and the education system of "social engineering". But really, isn't that what our education system is supposed to do?  Engineer the world we want?  And that is the world we want. A world where we can ALL live well together. 

Friday, 18 November 2016

better left unsaid

My co-worker Jamie sent me a "Facebook Memory" dating back to when she started her current teaching job. We had a chuckle about what she wrote. And it reminded me of my diary from my first days of teaching-so embarrassing it's hard to read. "Let me guess," said Jamie.  "You were going to change the world." "Worse," says I. So I went back to the old diary. Still shame-inducing. But I wondered if others might be interested in reading about the dreams and ambitions of a teacher just starting her career. And I wondered if others beginning their teaching journey might share some of my feelings. And maybe if I typed out an edited version, it would look better in black and white instead of turquoise ink in a Hobbit's Travels journal. (Turns out, it doesn't) 

So at risk of my own intense humiliation, here are some excerpts.

Sept 2 1980

I hope this is going to be a good book, because it's going to be a book about teaching-a diary of my first year as Miss Hartford, Teacher-Librarian.

The weekend before I started my job, I drove down to the family cabin. As I looked into the sunset I found myself wanted to tell someone about my real objectives in teaching- not the things you say in a job interview, not the things you say to your closest friends- the things you scarcely even admit to yourself.

I want to open their eyes to sunsets, to have them see and feel fireworks, and hear a baby's first cry, and suffer the pain and joy of loving and losing; to have them weep over death and sorrow; to explode with outrage at injustice; to scream for fairness and become sick with man's own depravity and inhumanity.  

I want to be the one to make them reach inside themselves and rediscover their emotions, their beliefs, their morals and their senses.  I want to be the one who guides them into an awareness of their own incredible value and potential. I want them to read and write and explore the age old beauties and perfections and questions of existence.  I want them to fight for their beliefs; I want them to explain their hearts; to exclaim with wonder and recognition and awe with what they have found.  So many things I want for these nameless, faceless masses. And I wondered:

Can a person do all of these things?
Can a teacher do all these things?
Can an English teacher?
Can I?
And if not a person, a teacher-me-then who?

Because I believe with all my heart they need to be done.


Imagine my surprise on my first day of school when I came back after coffee break to find none other than THE Henry Petkau, superintendent of schools, in my library!  He was very nice and told me to contact him if I ever needed anything.  (I learned later that every year on the first day of school he tried to visit every school in the county and say hello to every teacher.)

Sept 4

Oh my. After re-evaluating my job I've decided I will need to be BIONIC. Yesterday G____ came in to tell me that in addition to being teacher librarian, I would be teaching a grade nine class and a grade 7 option and two junior high options in library science! I was definitely surprised!  Last class of the day we had the junior high kids fill out their option forms.  I had the 9Bs.  I guess I seemed slack or hilarious or something because they basically all signed up for library science.  But after school we sorted out the forms and the other teachers just weeded the jerks out of my class and put them all in Rocket Science!

Sept 12

I'm learning to hang on to the rewards that come few and far between, like the Bio 30 girl who thanked me for helping her find books on cancer or the excitement of the grade sevens when they learned they could keep books out for TWO WHOLE WEEKS! Mostly I am finding that it's going to take time to get this library into the kind of order and structure I crave. I hate waiting without a structure and a routine and an ordered pattern. And I'm being forced to learn that I can't do it all myself. I'm learning I have to delegate some of this stuff. And I'm nervous that I am going to offend the staff's precious memories of my superlative predecessor. She's a tough act to follow. 

Sept 15

So...I survived the two weeks. Now the going gets rough.

Today I wondered if really matters, what I teach, what I do.  Can I ever hope to reach them? Even one of them? Aren't there better paths of reaching them? Helping the ones that need help the most? Right now I would just be happy if I could just make them think! Today I felt like a jailer holding them back from their real world why shouldn't we make it real for them?  So I re-think my plans and objectives with the meager hope that I can relate the world of books to the mind of the adolescent! Somewhere there has to be a clue! Some trick, some hint.

And yet, can it ever be enough? Am I real to them? I feel helpless and hopeless, as if it's never enough.

I promise not to be a jailer of minds or spirits. I promise to try to change "schooling" for my kids at least, into an open door, a world of choice-instead of a prison, locked doors, a dead end street.

Oct 17

I feel like I'm not doing anything really important. I guess I'm not the kind of person to make a powerful impression on young minds.  But maybe, just maybe, I can instill a little trust, a little belief, a little humanity.

People say I'm a sucker:naive and such. But I think that won't change. I just wish I could do MORE. Some day, I tell myself, some day I'll reach someone.

November 16

The hardest lesson I'm learning is that I'll never really be their friend. No matter what, I'm always the teacher:they're always the kids. And its the moments when I realize this that are the hardest to take.  I wish we didn't have these barriers. I wish we could be equal and learn from each other.  I try so hard- and yet I have to keep telling myself not to look for friendships, for confidantes, for sympathy, empathy, anything. I have to remind myself I am not their sister, their mother, their friend.  My only relationship is teacher to student. Maybe some day I'll convince myself that I belong where I am-not in the class beside them as a fellow human being like I wish to be.

Jan 20

I started this entry wanting to bitch about the administration-how they laugh at what I want. How they won't fight for what I need. - how I feel like I am talking to a wall when I ask for new magazine boxes or new curtains or an actual classroom to teach in-stupid, simple, necessary things they can't or won't let me have. (I learned later from my superlative predecessor that she-in a fit of anger over a battle about replacing the above-mentioned ancient curtains- had torn them down, carried them into the principal's office and thrown them in a heap at his feet. After she moved to another school, he had them dry-cleaned and hung back up in the library. It took me another 5 years to get them replaced.)

I've got to hang on to what I believe, to keep on believing that my philosophy, my way is right and theirs is wrong. No matter what!  What I am doing is right, my opinion has value, and screw the rest of them!

I think I'm doing good things!

May 6

There are so many things I think they should know. And I have no right to intrude on their personal lives.  Do I have any business telling them what to hold onto? What to throw away?  They are living their lives and at times I see how maybe I could help them-advise them-but who am I? I am not of them. I am apart from them and I always will be.  Still I want to make a difference for them. Isn't that why I'm here? Aren't I supposed to be enabling them to know themselves, to know the world, helping them cope? Dammit, more than COPE.  Be happy!! Love life!  Know they are worth something! I want them to believe in themselves-to believe they matter and that they can go somewhere, be someone.

...who am I kidding? What can I do? But what would I do if I didn't try? Where would I be right now?

Me and my teaching friends, about to begin our careers!
SELAC, April 1980, Banff Springs Hotel.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Pro Patria Mori

I grew up in hopeful  times.

In the 60s and 70s, wars were mostly proxy wars, fought by other countries in lands far away for unjust reasons. Or civil wars based on tribalism, racism and religion.

Canadians were peacekeepers and proud of it.

My parents and grandparents grew up in different times. Canada was new and more closely tied to Europe. Hitler was a very real enemy, a danger to the way of life of millions on the planet. The Aryan Nation, the scapegoating of minorities, the extermination of the Jews and the planned military takeover of the world threatened everything my father and his generation believed in, and he and millions of others were eager to play their part in offering the ultimate sacrifice for their nation.  I was proud of my dad and my grandfather who fought in World War I. I was proud of the military medals for bravery that they themselves were ashamed of. I was proud that they had risked their lives for the world I grew up in.

When I started teaching, my friend Liz and I both taught thematic units in junior high about war. Beyond “In Flanders Fields”, we taught Mona Gould’s “This was my brother at Dieppe”  and  “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen.  I showed Helen Caldicott speaking about the nuclear threat in the NFB  film “ If You Love This Planet”. I went to teaching sessions on disarmament. My  library contained Dalton Trumbo’s 1938 anti-war novel  Johnny Got His Gun. We talked about the horrors of war and the bravery of our ancestors and how we recognized sacrifices they made.

They say the best way to understand something is to teach about it. But in all the time I have spent teaching about war, I don’t.

I don’t understand it. 

I respect the sacrifices of my ancestors. But war is horrific.  In today’s world, is war ever necessary?   Is it necessary to make the ultimate sacrifice “for your country”?  Millions upon millions dying and for what?   Nothing made my dad angrier than seeing a coffin draped in a flag. I know he agreed with Howard Zinn when he said “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”

Why war in modern times? Because one nation fears that another nation will control the ideology of another on the other side of the globe? Because one nation wants access to the resources of another?
How can it possibly be sweet and fitting to lay down your life for your fatherland?
But in the wake of the vitriol after the last provincial election, in the aftermath of Trump’s hate-filled campaign, in the misogyny revealed by the PCs, in the threats to the environment that will sustain my children and grandchildren, I’m beginning to see.  I’m beginning to see just what it is about my way of life I would lay my life down for.  Equal rights and global economic stability and respect for the grasses and rivers and air and land that sustain us and belief in diversity and social justice and compassion for the oppressed. How much do those things matter? Which of those would I offer up my life for?

I’m beginning to see what that means.

And it terrifies me.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

My Father's Sweater

My mom was prone to starting projects she never finished.

Especially sweaters.

She would get halfway through or nearly done and lose a knitting needle or run out of wool or misplace the pattern or start something else or just stop.  When we moved them out of their house I found bags of unfinished sweaters.  I took them all home, thinking one day I would pick up where she left off.  I never did.

But there was one sweater she finished for my dad that he wore everywhere. Made up of brightly coloured squares on a grey background. When he died I did not have the heart to throw it away. 

For 6 years it has sat in the back of my closet.  I thought to myself, "If I ever have a really bad day, I will wear Dad's sweater."   When I needed my dad's wisdom and kindness and faith and passion for justice, the sweater would wrap me in warmth, reminding me of who I was and where I came from and what I believe in.

I am wearing it today.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Send in the Clowns

Mr. Jean blames the NDP for something that hasn't happened
Not going to lie. Clowns aren't all that funny. At best they try to frighten you with loud noises or mock others for their stupidity. At worse, they are creepy and dangerous. Who likes clowns? 

Certainly not the superintendent of Fort McMurray schools who banned clown costumes from all schools this Hallowe'en.

Perhaps superintendent Doug Nicholls was thinking about the clowns Edmonton Journal cartoonist Malcolm Mayes portrayed in his recent cartoon. The clowns who are bringing "Modern Learning Ideology" (whatever that is) into our schools.

Could it be the "ideology" Mayes was mocking was inspired by Unite-the-Right hopeful Jason Kenney? Kenney, the man who spoke about "social engineering" which he claims the Alberta NDP government will implement because of their "ideology," oddly ignoring the fact that every political party has an ideology, including his own? His party that once suggested all educated Albertans should have an "entrepreneurial spirit"? 

Jumping into the fray of the misinformed, Wildrose opposition leader Brian Jean cleverly mixed his metaphors when he sent out a tweet suggesting Alberta's NDP government is irresponsibly experimenting with the children of this province, despite the fact no changes to curriculum or pedagogy have been implemented since the government took power in May of 2015.

Mr. Kenney seemed to enjoy the clown cartoon as well, tweeting the following:

"We need curriculum reform that focuses on numeracy, literacy, knowledge and skills; not on the NDP's ideological agenda & pedagogical fads."

All of this kerfuffle is based on the far right's made-up ideas about the future of our schools. IF any of these gentlemen had taken just a very few moments to review what is happening with curriculum redesign, they would know that foundational knowledge, numeracy, literacy, skills and competencies will still be taught in the future. They would also know that pedagogy will still be determined by teachers using their professional expertise.

Yes, there will be change. There must be change. Society has changed since Mr. Kenney and Mr. Jean attended school. Our demographics have changed. Jobs have changed. The way we communicate has changed. And some of the things we learned were just plain wrong. So the current government is working on curriculum change- change that has been long in the making. Some courses in Alberta's Programme of Study date back to the mid 1980s. Even the newer ones are close to ten years old.

While the PC government (the party Mr. Kenney wants to lead) was in power, there was a great deal of work done on redesigning the curriculum. Inspiring Education proposed an extensive transformation of the education system. Curriculum prototyping was designed to modernize the curriculum and streamline how we design it, based on a common language and framework and sound instructional design principles.
From "Inspiring Education" 2010
Under the current government, this work continues.  Far from being based on any experimental model or political ideology, the process uses extensive research from around the world to consider what foundational knowledge students should master, what skills they should possess and what competencies they should obtain in order to thrive today and in the future.  Hundreds of experts including university professors, teachers, and others are part of this process. A province wide survey is under way.  No politicians. No "ideological" goals. Just a plan to equip our students with the skills to thrive in an ever-changing world.

Maybe Jean, Kenney and co. are opposed to the development of students' critical thinking skills, essential in our increasingly complicated world. Skills that would help students analyze the messages they are bombarded with every day. Or maybe they believe there is no new knowledge in a world where, according to some researchers, human knowledge is doubling every 13 months. Maybe they thinking learning is sitting in a desk, reading a textbook and writing a test.

In the field of social studies, my colleagues and I describe the nature of our subject as "learning how to live well together". But perhaps Jean and Kenney have other ideas. Perhaps their version of the future does not include everyone. Maybe they all share the vision of old-stock former Social Studies teacher Wildrose MLA Mark Smith who recently boasted about how he and his neighbours successfully prevented a group home from being established on their street. 

The world today's children live in is complex. It is diverse. It is competitive.The jobs children will hold may not exist right now, whereas many of the jobs that exist now are disappearing. The future will require citizens who are flexible and hopeful and knowledgeable and empathetic. We live in a world where simple memorization of facts and figures is not enough- people will need to know how to learn, how to separate truth from fiction, and how to collaborate and communicate with others of different ethnicities, religions, orientations, political leanings and capabilities. A world where sexism and xenophobia and isolationism must not be encouraged

We cannot prepare our children for tomorrow by giving them yesterday's tools. 

The clowns who frighten us and mock us are not the forward-thinking educators of Alberta, who are helping students to thrive in an uncertain world. They are the politicians who deny change is needed.