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Learning Is About So Much More than Academics

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I’m inspired by the students in my Grade Seven class who log in to their Google classroom and throw themselves at the work assigned to them by the eighth teacher they’ve had in this very strange year.

They aren’t falling behind in learning. They’re learning what is required of them to make it through this strange COVID-changed world and educational experience.

No. Like countless people before them who found themselves in such troubling, complicated times, they are not falling behind in anything.

Every time someone suggests that the students are falling behind—whether they be “experts,” “educators,” “parents,” or anyone else—it shows me that they’ve bought into the notion that only academics matter, that there is value in standardized testing, that there is such a thing as “grade level performance,” and that schools can somehow address the reality of the students’ socioeconomic circumstances and adjust everyone’s academic outcomes to fit into the same box.

For years I had colleagues who told me that unless students read Shakespeare, they wouldn’t turn out to be good citizens, because for some reason certain pieces of literature are supposedly life-giving, or at least life-changing, for all who read it.

When I was teaching at the University of Iowa, I was told that I was part of the best educational institute in the United States, and that the education system of Iowa was second to none.

I then taught at a high school in Manitoba that was called “the divisional flagship,” the so-called “best school” in the division, the ones at which all students in the division should register for their best chance at enlightenment and success.

The politicians placed in charge of education for each province have instituted standardized exams to measure student performance, and they’ve done it against the advice of Colleges of Education and grade-school teachers. And yet think tanks have suggested that memorizing details and ramping up standardized tests for students in primary, middle, and high schools might somehow prepare them to be more complete, contributing citizens when they graduate.

This is not the case.

To keep up with all this provincial pressure, well-meaning teachers have looked for and implemented assessments that purport to reveal what grade level students are performing at. This requires a belief that corporations, not educators, can produce materials that reflect learning theory and subject area expertise.

What kind of corporations am I talking about? Printing companies, for example, produce school materials for marketing purposes. In the end, it’s about selling resources. Corporations also offer business models for education, and for the sake of business it’s highly desirable to fit all students into the same box, even if that doesn’t work for real-life classrooms.

After more than 35 years of teaching students all the way from Grade Four through those earning their Masters of Education in three countries, and spending almost ten years learning about teaching, another handful of years teaching canoeing, 25 years of teaching young people to play volleyball, and spending ten years running a project in Ecuador with close to two hundred volunteers, none of those ideas work for me.

I know dozens of people in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador who have never heard of Shakespeare, much less read anything he wrote—even though, yes, his work has been translated into Spanish. They have written no provincial exams, and in fact they have a very different system of education than those found in Iowa or Manitoba.

And yet they find a way to be valuable contributors to society. A 21-year-old I worked with became a key organizer in a massive COVID-19 relief effort that provided food hampers to 1,500 families on three occasions over a four-month period last year when no one could work, and therefore they couldn’t buy food.

Another young person, a 20-year-old, has adopted a village full of elderly people living with disabilities and is making sure they have enough food and clothing to survive the pandemic.

When I taught in Niverville, I had a student for three years who found school extremely difficult, but he learned how to study, and he worked so hard that when he graduated—with an average barely above 50 percent—many people in the community knew he was the employee they wanted because he knew how to work hard in the face of challenges. He’s been a very successful businessperson for many years, not to mention a caring, generous, and compassionate community member who has improved the lives of countless people over the past few decades.

Another one of my former students, despite having never written a provincial exam, is a published author as well as an owner and editor of a community newspaper.

This year, I worked with a student who didn’t know the alphabet or how to read in any of the four languages he speaks. But he did know how to operate almost every piece of farm machinery and knew exactly what to do during seeding and harvest time from the age of six.

There is no question that students who are allowed to attend classes only every other day, or those who are working with their eighth teacher of the year, or those who live in homes that don’t believe that COVID is a serious trauma or that vaccines work are having a difficult time placing value on their academics. The constant state of change has entirely destroyed the continuity of their learning and their ability to focus on academics.

But learning is about so much more than academics.

I’ve committed decades to teaching, and learning to teach, and have come to understand that there are indeed many beautiful, amazing, inspiring, creative lessons being taught in schools. And in students’ homes. And on job sites. And on the beach. In Canada, the United States, and Ecuador.

I’ve come to understand that the change in teaching English Language Arts as a literature course to a literacy course opens the door to multi-literacies that allow students who have difficulty decoding letters on a page to demonstrate in many and varied ways that they know and understand so much about themselves, their neighbours, and life around them.

It’s become clear that provincial and standardized exams are tools for politicians, not for educators. It’s clear that comments about “grade level” performance are hand-in-glove with political pressures that are used to bully and shame students—and their parents—into a box.

I’m grateful every time I read that some people are sharing stories about surviving war zones for years without schooling, that mental health matters more than test scores in any given year, that learning isn’t restricted to classrooms, that people can rise above immediate circumstances when they aren’t shamed, and that when we support each other, we can succeed.

We don’t need to be in the same box when it comes to what we’ve learned, or will learn. We only need to be in the same box when it comes to loving our neighbours, caring for those around us, and offering every support we can to the people with whom we cross paths.

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