Saturday, 18 February 2017

The Presence of the Past

Lessons for Kenney Part 2


Photos of my ancestors look down from my walls.  My paternal great grandfather, Samuel Hartford, who came from Vermont to open a general store in Neepawa. My maternal great grandparents Charles and Eliza McNaught who moved from Brantford to pioneer in the Beaverlodge area. My paternal grandmother Muriel Fryer, a nurse of possibly uncertain parentage. My maternal grandfather who was sent to Canada as an orphan. My parents who chose to start a new life in a brand new town. 

Their faces look down on me every day.

The impact of my ancestors of my life is immeasurable. I carry their DNA and their actions and their life stories and the secrets they never told. I carry their sense of adventure. Their curiosity and openness and willingness to make changes in their lives. I'm influenced by the sacrifices they made when they left their own land to find a better lives with more opportunities and religious freedoms. Their quests to find and make communities where they belonged and where their descendants could thrive.

I carry my own past wherever I go. Who I am is the sum of all my life's experiences as well as the experiences of those who went before. My aching ankle, the voices of my children, the man I married, the job I have, the place I live. Voices I listened to. Voices I ignored. Choices I made, for good or for ill.  I am 58 years old. My past looms large behind me as my future shrinks.


I also carry my mistakes and the mistakes of those who went before and the indignities we have suffered as well as the indignities we inflicted, knowingly or unknowingly, on others. Financial risks that didn't pay off. Options not available due to class and gender and world events. Misunderstandings of culture. Misappropriation of lands. Part of my heritage. A legacy I carry forward. 

The past is all around me.

It cloaks me and protects me.

It gives me hope for tomorrow.

It is a burden I bear.

Just as my past led me to my present, so has our shared Canadian history led us to the nation we celebrate today. Knowing that history illuminates a way forward.  Hiding it blinds us. For generations we as a country suppressed the ugly parts of our past as we focused on the present. A present that was only fully open to some of us. Understanding our story and knowing our truths is important. Otherwise how do we navigate our way into the future? 

The Germans have a word. "Vergangenheitsbew√§ltigung". The attempt to come to terms with the actions of the past. Acknowledging the truth and its attending shame and guilt. Here in Canada, coming to an understanding of our own history is something we are just beginning. Here, we call it reconciliation. How do we, as Canadians, work towards reconciling the actions of our respected ancestors with the indignities offered to our first peoples?  How do we come to terms with that?  

History is not only what happened in the past. It's not just a list of dates and events. It's with us in our institutions and our laws and ideologies. It's with us in the faces of the homeless and the silence of the marginalized. As I understand the impact of my past on my future, so too do I hope my students understand that their histories and the history of this land matter. All of their histories. The good history and the bad history. The history of privilege and the history of oppression. All of their stories make up the story of Canada. We need to know these stories and know how they shape us in order to move forward together.

The past is with us always. 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Agents of Change

Social Studies Lessons for Kenney Part 1

Whether it's teaching 5 year olds to be kind to one another or encouraging junior high kids to raise funds for charity or reminding 18 year olds to vote according to their principles, for decades Alberta’s teachers have encouraged kids to be actively involved as citizens in a democratic society. Any education system in a democratic nation promotes the idea that we need informed, thoughtful, active and contributing members in our society. 

If you don't want to take my word for it, take a look at the evidence which is found in Alberta’s Social Studies curriculum over the past 6 decades.

In 1947, the Department of Education in Alberta wrote “Society wants and needs good citizens.  It is the business of the Social Studies courses to help produce these good citizens, well-adjusted socially and well equipped mentally, citizens capable of thinking intelligently and determined to do their part in bringing about social progress.”

Following on the heels of World War II, Albertans knew firsthand what dictatorships and propaganda looked like, fully aware that “This is an age of propaganda fraught with pitfalls for the unwary, the ignorant, the unthinking and the mentally unawakened.” The Department of Education in a province governed by Social Credit Premier Ernest Manning was determined that schools would train critical thinkers who were equipped to separate fact from fiction and make decisions based on evidence, not emotions. Students who were committed to “social betterment”. Students who had “an appreciation of the worth and dignity of the individual and a desire to preserve the rights of minority groups and maintain justice for all.”

In 1970, under soon-to-be-defeated Social Credit leader Harry Strom, a new curriculum was unveiled “…with optimism about the nature of man and the efficacy of democratic ideals, the new social studies involves free and open inquiry into individual and social values that will serve the humanistic goals of education by offering students experience in living and not just preparation for living…students will deal not only with the “what is” but also with the “what ought to be” and will have the opportunity to make this world a more desirable place in which to live.”

By 1978, with Progressive Conservative Peter Lougheed as premier, the curriculum called for the development of students who are “sensitive to their human and natural environment, with intellectual independence, moral maturity, effective participants in community affairs” which by 1985 evolved to preparing “students for responsible participation in a changing world.” By 1990, under Progressive Conservative Premier Don Getty  the ultimate aim of education was “to develop the ability of the individual so that he might fulfill personal aspirations while making a positive contribution to society…including justice, fair play and fundamental rights, responsibilities and freedoms.”

Our current program of studies, implemented in 2005 under Progressive Conservative premier Ralph Klein reads “Social Studies develops the key values and attitudes, knowledge and understanding, and skills and processes necessary for students to become active and responsible citizens, engaged in the democratic process and aware of their capacity to affect change in their communities, societies and world.”

Yet today members of the opposition deride the current NDP government for suggesting that students should be "agents of change." Why? For the last 60 years, no matter what the ideology of the day, our education system has tried to teach kids to seek a better way forward-not just for themselves but also for society. Whether we call it “social betterment”, “progress”, ”the opportunity to make the world more desirable,” “making a positive contribution”, or “the capacity to affect change”, successive generations of educators in our province have advocated for students to work towards creating a better world for all. Recognizing that the status quo isn't good enough, and understanding that "To know and not to act is not to know," they encourage their students to play a part in making a better, fairer and more just world.

Education should give children knowledge about the world. It should help them think critically and creatively. It should give them confidence to follow their dreams. It should help break the cycle of poverty. It should show them the world for what it is, including the marvels that are worth preserving and the injustices they need to do something about while providing them with the abilities and skills to act.

I think of the hundreds of kids I have worked with over the years. Kids who are compassionate, decent human beings - great parents and active community volunteers. Scientists and sales people. Professionals and artists and journalists. Conservatives and Liberals and New Democrats and those with no political affiliation. Kids who are now adults who are making changes every day in their families, their communities, their workplaces and on the global stage.

As a parent and a teacher, I want my children to be empowered in their own lives and as global citizens, with the skills, attitudes and knowledge that will help them create a positive future for themselves and the planet. I want them to keep reaching and striving to make changes in their world. What that change looks like is up to them.



Wednesday, 8 February 2017

How not to say goodbye

Here's a tip.

If someone in your organization is leaving after decades of loyal service, perhaps you can think of a better way to say "farewell" than stuffing some money and an unsigned generic greeting card into an envelope and tossing it on the staff room counter.

You know who you are.

Do better.