When your plan is no longer the plan

What are the dragons we need to address every day in our classes?

Sometimes the irritating thing about learning is that learning is tough and somewhat uncomfortable.

I am continuing my learning journey by teaching an Intermediate History course to second-year students at the Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa. It is a new experience for me. Although I have done lots of PD with adults, it is different when you are teaching a class at a faculty of education. It is a new challenge.

Life needs to be all about challenges. That is how we learn and grow. Just because I am now retired doesn’t mean I can’t grow! Not for a minute do I believe that!

On Friday I was looking forward to my third class with my second-year students. I had spent hours (many hours) of developing a lesson on Historical Significance, one of the six concepts of Historical Thinking. I am really excited about these concepts, it gives a framework for the study of history that didn’t exist when I taught the subject.

Historical Thinking concepts

After some presentations and a group work session, I was ready to launch into my slides, full of activities and material that I hoped would convey why this concept was important to the study and teaching of history.

This is where the plan moved in a direction I hadn’t expected.

One of the students in the class had a legitimate concern about something that had gone on in the previous class. It related to a much wider concern about how we are approaching the teaching of indigenous issues, the inherent racism that exists in Canada when it comes to First Nations peoples and how these issues are being addressed.

The student approached me during the break and asked if he could address the class. He did and what transpired was an incredibly powerful and at times challenging conversation that involved the entire class. It was pretty amazing and students brought up stuff that had been percolating for over a year. I have to say, I felt privileged and certainly humbled to be in on the conversation.

I hope they found it useful. You never really know. It is not like anyone is going to come up and say – ‘thanks for that really difficult conversation’. No one plans for these conversations. If one tries to, the conversation will be disingenuous and forced.

I am not a historian nor an academic.  The one thing I think I can contribute to a class like this is 31 years of teaching. Sometimes when something is bubbling just under the surface, a teacher has to know it is time to throw the lesson out the window and just let the learning happen.

That is what I tried to do on Friday. Everything I have learned about teaching and working with students led me to the conclusion that there was a more important lesson out there that had to be experienced by all of us. I know I learned lots, not just about the topic of the discussion, but, more importantly, I learned so much about the students I am working with.

I encouraged the class to write about their experiences in the class on Friday. I don’t know if any of them will – they are really busy people! But no matter, I had to and I hope my writing clarifies things for me at least.

Maybe next week I will get to my lesson on historical significance, but I think we have already gone much further down a different road.

In ancient times unknown areas on maps were labelled ‘Here be Dragons’
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The Urban Communities Cohort – What is the Urban School?

the necessary changes in urban and suburban schools will have to appropriate adequate space for a re-examination of leadership that is collaborative,
transformative, socially just, and moves beyond the hierarchical construction of the individual leader role.

Beverly-Jean Daniel, Reimagining the Urban: A Canadian Perspective

What is the urban school? What does it look like in Canada? How is it studied and what should educators learn about before working in an urban school? This year, I am working with the Urban Communities Cohort at the University of Ottawa and I am asking myself these and many other questions.

As part of our learning, teacher candidates need to develop a digital hub or, in other words, some platform where they can reflect on what they are learning. I figure that if I am working this year with these students the least I can do is add this blog to the collection of reflective pieces that will accumulate as the year progresses.

St. Anthony School, where I learned most of what I know about urban schools

I have said this before but it certainly bears repeating. Reflection is an essential component of learning. We all need somewhere to record our thoughts and insights especially when we are on a steep learning curve. The students here at the University of Ottawa are on about as steep a curve as possible, so it is really encouraging to see them put out some of their ideas and wonderings on a blog or wiki or some other platform.

I think it would be really cool if some of these students decided they wanted to start a podcast about what they are experiencing as new teachers. VoicEd Radio would be a great platform for recording these experiences it has been done before, it makes for great radio!

Sarah Lalonde started her podcast while she was a student at the University of Ottawa

One of the foundational readings students have been asked to take a look at is an article by Beverly-Jean Daniel, Reimagining the Urban: A Canadian Perspective. There is a good deal to digest in this article and I am just starting this process.  What an urban school is? Is there really one definition of an urban school?

I am not an academic, but I had the privilege of working in one urban school and have had many experiences of working with poverty in schools. One idea that is really interesting has to do with the whole idea of an urban school. Is there really a precise divide between urban and suburban schools here in Ontario?

There are characteristics of have and have-not schools, but I don’t think they separate out along urban and suburban schools. It might be easier to look at what you might find in have-not schools:

  • a clear lack of resources outside what is granted by the school district or province
  • a higher percentage of children without resources at home to support learning
  • a higher percentage of parents who work several jobs to make ends meet, who have less energy and time for school
  • a higher percentage of health concerns, for example, dental health issues with many students
  • a more transient school population

There is, in my opinion, a real danger when I start to write down characteristics like this. Someone could easily read this and point out that this is stereotyping. One could also point out that my list is incomplete, that it focuses on the elementary panel (it does) and that it is missing so many things. Most of these criticisms would be correct, but I don’t think I am painted with a brush that is too broad. Yes, my list has more to do with elementary, but I am sure you could come up with a secondary list without too much trouble.

What would be much more useful and this is something I brought up in class this morning when I talked about the Daniel article is a careful look at the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study. The ONS is an incredible resource that really tells the story of the places we live in here in Ottawa. From their opening page, the ONS states that it is presenting this data to help people understand our current living spaces and plan for better futures:

Evidence is mounting that the neighbourhoods and communities in which we live affect not only our health but also the gap in health between rich and poor. The purpose of the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study (ONS) is twofold: to better understand the physical and social pathways by which neighbourhoods in Ottawa affect our health and well-being, and to provide citizens in Ottawa with facts that support evidence-based decision-making.

Ottawa Neighbourhood Study

As I rambled this morning, I did say something that might be helpful – I really think that all educators need to carefully read the ONS before they start teaching in a community that is new to them. We all need to realize that we do not teach in a bubble. We teach in a living community and if we teach in a hard to serve or low-income community, we need to know what services are there to help our families, then we need to see how we can best fit in and make a substantial difference for the students we work with.

There is a great deal here to examine and to think about. When we work in a low-income school, do we need to develop a different mindset? Do we need to think even more out of the box than other teachers need to do? Do we need to question our models of leadership and collaboration with the wider community? Does our role as the teacher change?

I started this reflection piece with one of the conclusions from the Daniel article. Yes, I think we do need to re-examine how we do leadership and we also need to re-examine how we teach in low-income neighbourhoods. No, there is not a definitive split between urban and suburban schools here in Ottawa. Yes, there is true poverty and inequality in this city.

So, how do we best prepare our new teachers to enter this world and make a true difference? Can we as educators level this playing field?