Back to the Future

In Quebec, Canada, the Marois government just announced there will be a mandatory history class for all CEGEP, a form of post-secondary school, students starting this September. This new course would very likely be focusing on “contemporary Quebec history” from the 1970s to today, a period often neglected by high school teachers in order to prepare students for the ministry exam that contains basically 80% of “prehistory” knowledge, including details about Iroquoian traditions and hundreds of French-against-English battles. On top of mandatory classes in the areas of French, English, Philosophy, and Physical Education, Marois wishes to add another 2 units of history class, replacing one of the only two complementary courses outside of the students’ study field. Voices of dissent coming from students are being drowned out by the more favourable opinions from mostly baby-boomers: the question is, what may be behind this seemingly simple request of “better understanding a nation’s past”?

Considering the majority of CEGEP students have a part time job of at least 16 hours per week and the tight schedule already imposed by their ongoing programs, it’s very demanding to add another new course to the grid. But with youth disengaged from politics and social issues, the “Anglo-Saxon cultural invasion” from the last decade’s immigration wave, and the age of Facebook-Twitter-Instagram domination, what remains fifty years after the ambitious Quiet Revolution (révolution tranquille)? What future awaits Quebec’s younger generations? Can we completely get rid of the odor of centuries of religious domination and ethnic inequalities? The answer seems to be negative, as the presence of Bouchard-Taylor’s Commission on cultural and religious reasonable accommodation practices still lingers around us, as the most recent Quebec Charter of Values unites and separates Quebecois of all origins. The issues are still the same, only addressed differently, formulated with different words. The reality is that living together has never been so challenging: sometimes disoriented, sometimes unpredictable, the society inherited by our generation certainly requires much more taming and training to actually make it work. But does a simple study of past actions and events really provide the solutions?

If we want today’s students to first stay in school longer and, moreover, get inspired, we may start with a study of how humans have changed recent history: The Beatles’ ascension, first walk on the Moon, the Berlin Wall, disintegration of Ukraine’s political regime, the Rwanda genocide… Those landmarks are what truly interest young adults, giving them the motivation to push their curiosity and understand at a deepened level how the “real world” works. There are so many more interesting subjects to discuss, many more adapted to the modern context. On the other hand, some suggest the possibility of a political purpose hiding behind the Parti Québécois’s mandatory course. How can we ensure that the content taught will not be a biased version of history? A teacher even called the future course “a propagandist flavoured brainwashing” aimed to give the students a victimized vision of the French identity in front of Anglo-Saxon oppressors; therefore naturally guiding them to turn towards the precept of sovereignty as the only answer to the problems of our society. As you may find out, Marois’s PQ (Parti Québécois) government is separatist.

In a broader perspective, growing up surrounded by massive quantities of information flooding in from all directions, and the more or less apparent influences that tell us how we should think and act, critical thinking is getting harder. After all, history often leaves room for interpretation. “There’s the education given by others, and the other one, given by yourself, to yourself”, is something Plato wants us to understand with his “Allegory of the Cave”. Can we really retain and transform what we learned from the past and build a brighter future from there? It all starts with ourselves, rather than with history.

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When I first began teaching, I modeled the same sort of education I received as a student. My classroom was, admittedly, run from the top-down. I lectured, making little time for true dialogue with my students, and carried a red pen in my pocket. I could sense my students’ lack of engagement and distinctly remember feeling as though my classes were characterized by memorization, not genuine learning.

Sound familiar? A lot of today’s educators grew up and were trained in an academic environment that values numbers over results. Too often, tests are a measure of a student’s ability to recite facts and figures, rather than her ability to demonstrate critical thinking. Between our tendency to practice what is familiar and the pressure to comply with legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act and the more recent Common Core initiative, it becomes a challenge for teachers to break away from what are generally outdated and relatively ineffective modes of teaching.

A few years into my teaching career, I began to look for innovative approaches to classroom management. I wanted to build an environment that captured my students’ attention and fostered meaningful conversations that mattered. In my research, I came upon the idea of a horizontal classroom. Unlike the traditional concept of a learning environment in which the teacher directs the entire trajectory of a course, horizontal environments place the teacher and his students side by side, actively creating curriculum together.

As I transitioned to this new style of classroom, I watched my students take a more active role in their learning. They came to class with questions—many of which I could not answer—and we sought out those answers collaboratively. There was thoughtful debate nearly every day. Eventually I tossed out my red pen and started to focus less on giving out numeric grades and more on providing interactive narrative feedback on my students’ work.

If you, as a student, find yourself itching for a learning environment in which your voice matters, there are things you can do to encourage your teachers in the right direction. You might be surprised at how receptive and relieved they are to trade their podium for a spot beside their students.

Do Your Homework. Not that homework—though I do recommend completing assignments if you’d like your teachers to take you seriously. I’m talking about research. Find out what other students are doing in their classrooms. Search the web for examples of alternative education styles and, based on the personalities of your teacher and peers as well as the learning objectives of the course, share them. The idea is to present something actionable. You want your teacher to understand that you’re not just talking about theory and that the alternative classroom approach you’re interested in is already being implemented elsewhere. Be prepared to answer the how and why of your proposal. Create a list of specific actions tailored to your classroom that would move you in the right direction. Explain how adjusting the learning environment will benefit you, your peers, and your teacher.

Know How to Ask. Coming across too strong is a surefire way to close the door of opportunity before it even opens. Ask your teacher for a moment of their time after class. Explain that you’re interested in speaking with them about creating a more interactive learning environment and ask when they might have time to discuss this. Make sure to operate on your teacher’s schedule—you’ll get a better response if she doesn’t feel pressed for time. After your discussion, give her time to think things over and be sure to thank her for hearing you out.

Pitch In. Think about what you can do to help your teacher create the sort of environment you’d like to move towards. Come to class with innovative questions about the material you’re working on. Pose these questions not only to your teacher, but your peers. Without being overbearing, try to steer the conversation to a place that requires creative, critical thinking. This is a great way to stir up discussion that wouldn’t take place in a more traditional classroom.

Introduce Outside Resources. Bridge classroom material with information in fields that interest you. Look for unlikely connections between what you’re studying and current affairs that affect you, your peers, and your community. Locate and share ideas, readings, and activities that will bring a fresh perspective to course material. Ask your teacher if you may email them a list of these ideas ahead of time so they can consider which ones will invigorate their lesson plans without driving them too far off course.

Prepare to Compromise. When broaching the subject of alternative classroom models, it is important to have realistic expectations. While you teachers may have a good amount of agency when it comes to individual activities and assignments, the fact of the matter is that they must satisfy certain requirements laid out by federal and state legislation, as well as institutional bylaws. Enter into the conversation with a basic understanding of these circumstances and acknowledge the very real challenges teachers face when trying to strike a balance between constraints and change.

photo credit: cybrarian77 via photopin cc

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Youth in Public Policy: My Goal, My Story, Our United Mission

Dear Student Voice Readers,

My name is David Pettersen and I am a current resident of the great State of Wisconsin. On December 27th of last year, I officially declared my candidacy for a school board seat in my community. December 27, 2013 was my 18th birthday and I feel extremely humbled and honored to be partaking in such a great endeavor.

Being a high school student and candidate for school board is one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had, and on April 1st, my community will come together and decide who will represent them on the board. I’ll tell you one thing—I would be completely honored if they chose me. I know, like many others, that having youth in active public policy-making is one of the most important aspects of our government.

Therefore, I call upon all students—from anywhere in the United States—to step forward and consider running for public office in their community. Together, we can work past politics and improve the lives of others all across America. One of my goals is to provide the safest, most-secure learning environment for all district students. Another goal is to provide some of the most extensive academic achievement programs. In addition to this, I want to work to develop stronger economic infrastructure through the expansion of education, the ability to listen to all district parents, teachers, taxpayers, and students, and by seeking the cooperation of state legislatures.

None of these tasks are ever easy, but when students stand united, there isn’t a single thing that can’t be accomplished when we work together. Looking back to when I first launched my campaign, I have received emails from hundreds of people all around Wisconsin who have hope in educational development and prioritization. Whether it was the teacher from Cumberland, Wisconsin or the citizen from Seymour, Wisconsin, I read each and every email.

It’s up to us, the youth of this country, to show our communities and states all across America that, while some adults are picking fights amongst each other, we remain committed to solving complex problems. Young people deserve a seat at the table. Therefore, let us put our critical-thinking skills to work and surpass these problems—TOGETHER.


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