On Age Segregation

I had never thought of this before: that we, as educators, segregate learners based on their age and grade level. Grade 5 is when they are supposed to learn about weather. Grade 6 is when they are supposed to learn about contemporary Canada. This is so because the curriculum says it is so. Yet, upon discovering an article by Seymour Papert at today’s ITLL session, the way that learning, and in particular content knowledge, is segregated based on grade level seems counter to the student-centred approach that I identify with as an educator.

Papert argues that in the learning environment of the future, “[k]ids will work in communities of common interest on rich projects that will connect with powerful ideas.” To create this kind of environment, he continues, the first thing we have to do is “give up the idea of curriculum.” By curriculum he means the rigidity of having to teach to the grade level and its prescribed concepts and skills. Instead, he advocates a system where kids learn what they need and are put in positions where they can use the knowledge and skills they are being taught. In other words, project-based learning.

What Papert speaks of resonates with me, and actually validates, to a degree, what I have planned for this year. In the Spring I am planning a project for my learners in which they will build and then use their own cameras. The impetus for this project came from the curriculum: I thought I could nicely meld the Social Studies and Science and Art curricula for my grade levels (Grades 5/6) by learning about Confederation by way of photographs, the photographic process and the science of light. But I got confused in my planning. Light is a Grade 4 Science cluster. I teach Grades 5/6. I realized this mistake a few weeks ago and have been panicking since as I’ve already declared to parents and my learners that we will be doing this. What will the parents say when they realize I’m teaching a Grade 4 topic to their kids who are in Grades 5/6?

Well, I’m not too worried about this anymore. Who cares if light is a Grade 4 topic or a Grade 12 topic? By segregating learning like this we send a message to our students that learning is not a life-long endeavour, but based on your “grade level.” Project-based learning, on the other hand, is about engagement and practical and authentic uses for what we learn. It is enduring.

Phil Fontaine at MTS PD Day 2016

On the morning of October 20th I was fortunate to be in attendance at the CAEM PD at Glenlawn Collegiate for Phil Fontaine’s keynote speech. He spoke of history, both Canada’s and his own, and of reconciliation. His thoughts on the latter really struck me. He is troubled by what seems a flippant use of the term “reconciliation” by politicians and the mass media–that reconciliation has become a buzzword, of sorts, often devoid of meaning and, more importantly, action.

Education is a field rife with buzzwords, but how do we, as educators, strip away all the fluff surrounding such a word and get to the heart of it in some meaningful way? Reconciliation, to me, is perhaps the single most crucial issue facing our country, and it is our students to whom the mantle will be passed. But how do we pass this mantle? How do we teach reconciliation in a meaningful way, without reducing it to just another buzzword?

Mr. Fontaine described reconciliation as “the meeting of minds over time.” For me, this implies empathy and understanding: listening to all of our stories, asking questions, and finding a way forward together. But still the question remains: how? Furthermore, as one of my students recently asked, how will we know when reconciliation is done? There’s no easy answer. There shouldn’t be. But Mr. Fontaine did offer more clarity. He sees two necessary conditions that must be met before true reconciliation is achieved. One: that Indigenous poverty be “eradicated;” and two: that the Indigenous peoples of Canada be formally and officially recognized as founders of Canada, along with the English and French. From this last point he issued all the educators in the room a challenge: write to your local MP advocating for this official recognition. This is a challenge I will pass on to my students. But first it’s important they learn about what happened here in Canada, and Canada’s upcoming 150th anniversary of confederation is a perfect entry point for our inquiry. A burning question in my mind is: why weren’t the Indigenous peoples offered a seat at the “confederation table?” I can’t wait to hear what kinds of questions my students have….

Anyways, what I took from Mr. Fontaine’s speech is that reconciliation is about a commitment to the process. This process is about taking risks, stepping outside our comfort zones, shining a light on our prejudices and our privileges, making mistakes and learning from them, listening to and learning from the perspectives of others, respecting each other and having compassion for each other. It’s about thinking critically about our place in the world, our way of life, our History. It’s about so much more that I’m yet aware of. It’s a process. If we can’t commit to this process, Canada, I fear, is at risk of becoming a buzzword itself, devoid of meaning. To ensure this doesn’t happen, I posit the following: we define “Canada” the same way Mr. Fontaine defines “reconciliation”: as “the meeting of minds over time.”

The Apology or: Who’s the Teacher?

As part of our learning in Room 207 about the Truth and Reconciliation movement, we watched the apology delivered by Stephen Harper in 2008 on behalf of the Canadian Government to the Indigenous peoples of Canada for the suffering and abuses experienced at the Residential Schools. Our subsequent conversation was insightful. Actually, it was the students’ conversation–I had essentially nothing to do with it. So I thought I would share it.

One student commented that the apology would have been far more sincere had it not been read from a sheet of paper, but spoken “from the heart.” Another commented that Stephen Harper’s reading fluency, more specifically his lack of expression, made the apology unsatisfactory–that it didn’t sound sincere. To this a different student responded that Stephen Harper was, in fact, using the appropriate “voice,” which was somber and serious in tone, and that this made the apology effective. From here the conversation shifted to the students’ personal experiences of both delivering and receiving apologies, what made the apologies either sincere or insincere, and what happened afterwards. The students’ thoughts on this last point were especially revealing. One student, referring to two other students who have a history of not getting along, commented that they have apologized to each other “a million times” over the past year, and that they can keep apologizing to each other all they want but their relationship will never heal “until they start to try to understand each other.” I was amazed at how an eleven-year-old can be so wise. This is what true and meaningful reconciliation is, after all. The apology is only the beginning–an important beginning, but useless if not followed up by action by all parties involved.

Anyways, this was not where I had anticipated our learning journey to take us, but what a perfect way to frame the Truth and Reconciliation movement. So, as a follow up, the students have been working on their own apology stories–a time when they had to apologize to someone and what happened afterwards–which they will share with their fellow learners next week. They can share their stories in whatever fashion they choose: writing, visual art, music, drama…whatever. I can’t wait to see what they will teach me and each other….