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Alberta Education and Community Engagement

Public education in Alberta does not work for ALL students.

There are many students, both current and former, who know how to play the "game" of school. If you do what your told, respect your teachers, put your hand up to speak and excel in the mindless memorization/regurgitation of test taking that happens in many classrooms then chances are you will most likely breeze through the academic side of public schools. 

But what about those students who question the motives behind a teachers lesson plan? What happens to students who have extreme test anxiety or difficulty memorizing facts? Unfortunately, for many of these students, they often find themselves in trouble very early on in their public school careers facing a multitude of detentions, suspensions or even eventually getting expelled or drop out. And for students who don't question the motives of their teachers and schools, is the type of education that they're receiving setting them up to be the type of citizens we need in our communities?

There are many students who are not able to find academic success within traditional public schools and often fall through the cracks. The students I currently work with have gone through the simplified experience highlighted above where they spent most of their formative years in education arguing with teachers, failing tests and just finding school absolutely pointless and frustrating. For many of my students, they felt that the majority of their experiences in schools made their lives more negative. On top of their academic frustrations, many of my students have had experience with racism, homophobia and other forms of bullying that isolated them from their peers and schools. 

So I will repeat: Public education in Alberta does not work for ALL students. 

Apart from the academic experience that our students are subject to in our public schools, how do they deal with the "hidden curriculum" of the classrooms they enter? Do LGBTQ students feel they have a safe and respected environment where they can be themselves? Do Indigenous students feel that their cultures and history are incorporated into the curriculum and schools they enter? Do students of low-socioeconomic status feel they can concentrate in class if they're hungry or tired from sleeping on the street the night before? Do students feel that they have a voice in their classrooms and are participating in a truly democratic educational process or are teachers and school administrators choosing to act in an authoritarian way over the student body by policing what students wear, what they say and how they act?

Unfortunately, many public schools in Alberta would have a difficult time positively answering one or any of the above questions. As great as some of our schools, teachers and educational communities are in our province (and there are so many of you doing great work in your classrooms and schools that are not the subject of this blog), Alberta Education still has a long way to go as an institution. Schools have historically been places where the dominant ideology has been reinforced by behavioural expectations of students as well as knowledge that is incorporated into the teachers pedagogy and curriculum. If we are to truly transform education in Alberta into a more just, equitable and democratic institution, then we need to get the entire Alberta community on board. 

Regardless if you are a student or have a child within the education system, what happens in our schools impacts our society. Part of that "hidden curriculum" I mentioned earlier socializes our students into expected behaviours that are "acceptable". Think about it, if we are constantly telling students to "line up, sit down, be quiet, listen to me, and don't speak until spoken to" then what messaging are we sending them? Are we teaching them the type of skills and attitudes that positive democratic citizens should have? Or are we conditioning them to obey authority figures and that their voices only matter when they are called upon? If students do not have a say in their environments, what motivation are we giving them to get involved in their communities and world as adults?

I've always seen schools as "mini-societies". The issues that impact our communities, country and world are present within our schools. Issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability and colonialism are all present within our classrooms and we are failing to properly deal with them. If the purpose of education is to create a more democratic society, then we need to start treating Alberta Education as a democratic institution that should be governed by the people. 

Over the past four years I have had my fair share of conversations with teachers, students, parents, community members and activists who all have varied opinions on the role of education in society. Each one of those groups have many critiques of the teaching profession and the direction public education is taking in our province. However, if we really want to see our schools become more democratic, just and equitable for our students then we have to work together as a community to see this happen. You can't criticize what teachers and schools are doing in one sentence and then wipe your hands clean of the situation in the next. Our education system impacts the type of society we have. If you want a better one, you can't look the other way just because you are no longer a student in that system. 

Fortunately, there are some great examples that we can learn from and work with in and out of our province to get inspired to make change. Alberta education is strife with issues from high-drop out rates for Indigenous students, government inaction on Gay-Straight Alliances, and corporate influence on Alberta's new curriculum. 

In Alberta, youth are doing a marvellous job to voice their opposition to the governments shameful stance on GSA's. The Edmonton Youth Council along with many students, parents, teachers and community members are doing great work to unite voices from youth to demonstrate their feelings on Bill 10 and show that many folks in our community are united to stand up for LGBTQ youth in our schools. 

Also, for teachers looking to bring the issue of Consent into their classrooms and schools as part of their curriculum and pedagogy, the organization ConsentEd is hosting a teacher work shop to work with teachers on building a culture of consent within our classrooms and schools. 

And speaking of consent, two high schools students from Ontario have used their voice and activism to successfully incorporate consent into the Ontario curriculum. Check out their organization, "We Give Consent". 

Also in Ontario, an organization called the "Miss G Project" has worked tirelessly over the past 7-8 years to lobby the Ontario government to include a gender studies course in the curriculum. I am happy to say that due to their great work, activism and community outreach, Ontario has successfully implemented a gender studies course into their curriculum along with an entire "Equity Studies" branch of learning that includes two other social justice courses. Check it out here (The real good stuff starts on pg. 57). 

These are only a few examples of community members, students, teachers, and parents getting together to create change within our education system. Alberta education sorely needs this type of democratic commitment from our community if we are going to create the type of schools and classrooms that will ensure all of our students are safe, cared for and given the best education possible. And don't get me wrong, the critique's that folks have of education are important and legitimate. But if all we're doing is yelling from the outside, then we're not going to make the changes we need for students who are just trying to survive on the inside. After all, our schools are training grounds for the type of society that we will have. If our schools are not transformed into institutions based on justice, equity and democracy then our society will have a harder and harder time trying to achieve these ideals in the "real world".