A Reminder That Life is Good: the QEP, Professional Autonomy and Paulo Freire

7075566659_b2d828bbeb_oIt was the spring of 1999.  Heading out the door of the inner city elementary school where both my husband and I were working, I bombarded him (as I always did) with a series of mini episodes of what had gone on in my grade 5/6 classroom that day; snippets of exchanges with the students, jokes and fun mixed with a smattering of “a-ha!” moments that were always to be celebrated.   He smiled, half listening; clearly deep in thoughts of his own. Earlier that year, Christopher had developed curriculum that integrated, among other subject areas, literacy, technology and sports in a way that was not only improving the students’ reading and writing abilities but was so engaging that it inspired a targeted group of at-risk kids; it built their self esteem and commitment to continue along the path of learning.

News of this dynamic teaching and learning curriculum had reached the ears of the ministry and he was now going to be the focus of a documentary that would clearly demonstrate for the rest of the province the QEP (our new Quebec Education Program) in action, lived out with an at-risk population. Our principal was delighted.  I was thrilled and Christopher was overwhelmed to be recognized in this way. I continued bubbling with what all this meant.  He was going to be the face of the QEP.  How wonderful!!

As we buckled up our seat belts, Christopher turned to me and spoke for the first time since we had walked out the school door, “Mel.  What the hell is the QEP?”

I remember laughing out loud.  As we had just recently returned from living in the Cree community of Mistissini for over a year and a half, we had missed all the commotion and build up of the soon to be implemented Quebec Education Program.  This didn’t seem to matter though because as it turned out, the philosophy and ideology behind this “Reform” was based on what was occurring in our classrooms already.  It emphasized the importance of knowledge acquisition, critical thinking, inquiry-based learning, collaboration, cross-curricular learning, and democratic living.

As I read more deeply the numerous documents produced by The Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport (MELS), it quickly became obvious to me, that there were many elements of the QEP being implemented that would profoundly alter the teaching and learning in Québec schools in my opinion for the better.  For one thing, it accorded greater recognition to the professional, teaching methods, and choice of methods of evaluation of students’ learning (MELS, 2005, p. 8).  As well, it allowed teachers to choose their pedagogical approaches according to the situation, the nature of the learning to be accomplished or the students’ characteristics.  This could be managed by lecturing, explicit instruction, project-based teaching, inductive teaching, strategic instruction, cooperative learning or any other method the teacher deemed appropriate. (MELS, 2005).

For the first time in my career, this progressive ideological shift was putting the teachers in control of their own classrooms.  It was affording them the opportunity to be autonomous professionals.  Who knew better than the teacher him/herself what was best for their students?

The role of teachers became one of supporting students in their learning process, helping them structure and build on their knowledge, rather than being the expert who transmits information.  Students were encouraged to participate in constructing their knowledge. “Instead of mostly listening, they are actively engaged in processing the information so as to transform it into knowledge and competencies.” They may even act as experts in cases where they have specific knowledge. (MELS, 2001, p. 2)  In this “innovative” way of looking at teaching and learning, of primary concern is that students transform information into viable and transferable knowledge “The elements of knowledge students develop are tools that should help them understand and take action in the world,”(MELS, 2001, p.1).  Learning does not simply take place in the classroom.  It does not begin and end with the ringing of the bells, “…the reform aims for learning that takes place in school to be transferable, i.e. to serve a purpose other than just school.” (MELS, 2001, p. 2).

It goes without saying that having teachers take into consideration a program that implies a major adaptation on the pedagogic level has been anything but easy. We must be patient and keep in mind that changes of such magnitude cannot be implemented into a machine as vast as the educational network over a short period of time or without experiencing some difficulties.  Many have questioned whether or not the disruption and disorder brought about by this shift has been worth it.  I am reminded of Margaret Meek, who in referring to Freire writes “and He wants us to consider the worth of an idea by asking what difference it would make” (Freire & Macedo, 1987, p. xxvii). When looking at the pedagogic basis and the potential outcomes for students being educated in this way, I think it will make an enormous difference in the way that teachers and students come together to share in the learning process, to dialogue and to empower each other and themselves.  So my answer to the question “Is it worth it?” rings out loud and clear “Yes, it is most definitely worth it!”

Fast forward almost ten years.

In the fall of 2008, I had the privilege of taking a graduate course with a critical pedagogue who had come to McGill.  It was a time in my life that I will never forget.  He would sit at the head of the semi-circle, clad in black jeans and a black t-shirt and he would talk to us…no, tell us stories is probably more accurate.  One thing was clear, he was not impressed with the manner in which schools operated and the overtly discriminatory practices that occurred throughout our North American system.  He spoke of the issues of a standardized curriculum where so many students were simply left out of the equation due to their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, orientation or social status and of teachers who were forced by the government to push a curriculum that they knew would fail so many of their students. 

One evening, half way through the semester, a number of my peers, who were not from Québec, joined in on the conversation, angrily claiming that they understood exactly what this critical pedagogue was talking about.  They ranted openly about the problems we had here in Québec as our curriculum was without question as standardized as others throughout the rest of Canada and the United States.  I was shocked by their statements.  How could anyone who had read this document claim that it was standardized when the very underlying philosophy promoted teacher professionalism and autonomy by advocating self-selection of pedagogy, resources, methods and evaluation?  It became clear to me that they hadn’t read the document.  And when I asked this question outright, the answer that echoed around the room was that indeed they hadn’t.

Months later, I was sitting in his home, when his son, who was a high school ELA teacher, walked into the room holding onto his laptop.  His eyes were wide in disbelief as he scanned the screen.  Looking up from his reading of The Québec Education Program he exclaimed in disbelief “Hey, did you know that Freire is quoted in here?”  I chuckled out loud.  Here was the son of two of the most prevalent minds in critical pedagogy, not to mention a successful English Secondary School teacher, and he was just now realizing that the curriculum he was teaching was based on the theories and ideology of Paulo Freire.

What struck home at this point was that here was a curriculum document that was almost ten years into implementation and it was still being referred to as “The Reform” or even “New” and added to that was the reality that so many in the field of education, from classroom teachers to critical pedagogues, had never taken the time to sit down and read it through in order to understand the freedom it offered along with the respect of viewing teachers as professionals.

In an era of “No Child Left Behind” standardized curriculum throughout the United States and a thrust for “back to the basics” in most of North America, we in Québec have been given the opportunity through the Québec Education Program (QEP) to teach a completely unstandardized curriculum.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Freireian based model of critical pedagogy underlying the English Language Arts literacy program. It was designed to promote the development of literacy as both an individual achievement and a social skill as well as “the development of a confident learner who finds in language, discourse and genre a means of coming to terms with ideas and experiences, and a medium for communicating with others and learning across the curriculum” (MELS, 2008,  p.6)

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of presenting our Quebec curriculum at a gathering of academics and teachers at The International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, held at the University of Illinois.  The dialogue that followed my presentation was a mix of shock and confusion.  There was an overwhelming buzz of excitement and genuine interest in the curriculum that is found here in Quebec.  No one could believe that our teachers were awarded such autonomy and self-determination in deciding the best suited pedagogy, resources and teaching strategies to ensure their particular group of students be able to meet the outcomes at the end of a cycle.  They cringed as they compared this to the system under which they were forced to work; teach to the test, no time for the rest.  There simply wasn’t a mechanism put in place that would permit them to look at their students as individuals, to allow for a variety of perspectives or opinions, or for that matter to even ask the students what they wanted or cared to learn. They were envious of what we had in place and I truly began to understand once again how lucky we were.

So as the end of year stress begins to build.  I think it is important to remember that we have been given a very precious gift…the acknowledgment that we are capable and competent to accomplish great learning alongside our students.  And to think that we have a government document that supports this, reassures me time and again.  When the pressure starts to become too much, I simply have to open up the QEP and read “More than ever, teaching requires autonomy, creativity and professional expertise.” (MELS, 2001, p.5) If you ask me, that’s not a bad thing at all to have to work towards!


For further reading:

Freire, P. & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. London: Routledge.

Québec. Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. The Education Reform: The Changes Under Way. Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, 2005. Retrieved from http://www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/lancement/Renouveau_ped/452771.pdf

Québec. Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. (2007). Provincewide panorama – Literacy in Québec in 2003. Info Adult-Ed. Vol. 4, Issue 1, January 2001.  Retrieved from http://www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/_information_continue/info/index_en.asp?page=article6

Québec. Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. Québec Education Program, Preschool Education, Elementary Education. Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, 2001. Retrieved from http://www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/dfgj/dp/programme_de_formation/primaire/pdf/educprg2001/educprg2001.pdf

Québec. Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. Québec Education Program, Secondary School Education, Cycle Two. Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, 2008. Retrieved from http://www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/sections/programmeformation/secondaire2/medias/en/5b_QEP_SELA.pdf

Online PD: Tasters and Takeaways


F2F Robotics Workshop with Christiane Dufour

In early October, I blogged wistfully about my experiences as an online grad student and highlighted a spanking new teacher PD project that we were initiating at LEARN: Web Events.  Each month, an educational topic, tool or approach was presented via ZenLive (our online platform), to intimate groups of interested folk from Quebec and beyond. Following each live event, an archive of the session, as well as many supplementary resources were made available to all. We did indeed have some very thoughtful presentations and engaging discussions around a wide variety of topics: from blogging in the literacy classroom, to the creation of visual journals, to the use of some really cool online tools in the social sciences, to flipping the class, to the impact of la féminisation in the teaching of FLS. These “tasters” allowed for teachers to get…well a taste…of each of the highlighted themes, as well as suggestions of avenues for further investigation, potential implementation and possible community building.

Screen shot 2013-05-22 at 11.48.37 AM
Online Robotics Workshop – Using ZenLive

One very interesting (and promising) offshoot of our monthly web events, was the creation of the web series. This emerging PD model currently involves taking a hands-on workshop, which would traditionally occur f2f over much of one entire day, and breaking it down into more manageable chunks (1 to 1.5 hr), which are then delivered at a distance using widely available online technology. Needless to say, I wanted to be a part of our inaugural sessions and signed myself up as both a behind the scenes supporter and a participant for We Can, WeDO & We Will! Robotics in the Kindergarten Class with Christiane Dufour. Christiane is a veteran educator, who has been providing teacher training and professional development in the integration of technology for learning since 1985. For the past few years, with her LEARN consultant hat on (just one of her many!), she has been giving f2f workshops to kindergarten teachers on how to implement a robotics program in the classroom.

In my previous blog post, I suggested that in order for PD (of any permutation or combination) to be effective it had to meet the generally accepted benchmarks of quality. I interviewed Christiane last week and asked her how she felt her kindergarten robotics web series had done just that. Have a listen to what she has to say…some genuine nuggets about the planning, implementation, successes and challenges of providing good online PD.

How were your sessions content or subject-matter focused with an understanding of student learning needs?

How were you able to provide opportunities for active learning around authentic tasks?

How was collaboration encouraged?

Tell us how you organized the sessions over time?

How did you allow for feedback and follow-up?

What about continued support?

As evidenced by Christiane, the delivery of this type of PD should not be undertaken by the faint of heart. For the animator, it clearly involves a great deal of planning, preparation, persistence & follow-through. But what of the participant…did these sessions meet the needs of the individual, positively impact on practice and improve student outcomes? I am happy to report that we have the anecdotal traces to answer yes to the first two of these important questions, and I look forward to hearing more from you in response to the third and as part of a continuing conversation. Please feel free to leave your feedback or suggestions below.

Twitter Chats – Making Connections

Photo by: Amodiovalerio Verde under a CC license
Photo by: Amodiovalerio Verde under a CC license

I know many people think of twitter as a place where people post the inanities of their lives “Having coffee at…” “I’m at the corner of…” Twitter has much more to offer than that. By judiciously following some incredible educators, I have a network of people from whom I learn (and I hope they learn a bit from me). I have been on Twitter since 2007; my initial participation was tentative. I read tweets. It was only as I slowly built up my network that I started to really use twitter as a source of professional development. You can follow some of the leaders in education. Don’t be shy; they may not follow you back, but they won’t block you from seeing what they share.

Now I take part in tweet chats. What is a tweet chat, you ask? It is a conversation on twitter. A time is set aside for discussion on a particular topic. All participating use a hashtag that identifies that the tweet is part of the chat e.g. #cdnedchat. Tanya Avrith, from Lester B. Pearson School Board, is one of the founders of the Canadian EdChat (the other being Michael Quinn from SWLSB). I participated in the inaugural chat on April 29 and there were educators taking part from across the country. I had the opportunity to speak with Tanya about cdnedchat. Here is what she had to say.

tweetdeckChats are usually moderated, with the moderator posing a question to start off the conversation. The pace may be very fast, but there are tools to help slow down the tweets. One tool is tweetchat. You simply enter a hashtag and let tweetchat do the work. You can pause, set the refresh rate and change the size of the tweets. This site is strictly for viewing the conversation. When you are ready to start contributing, a tool that can help you  is Tweetdeck (I use it and Tanya mentioned it as well). You can create a column to follow a particular hashtag. This article can help get you started.

In a chat the moderator will post a question usually starting with Q1. Participants may answer the question A1 or contribute a tweet on the topic. During the hour the moderator will add questions to keep the conversation going.

A sample column from my tweetdeck can be seen on the left. You can reply to a tweet add or find out more; you can retweet  to share something you thought was interesting, with or without adding your own comment  and you can favourite a tweet to easily find it later. When there is someone whose tweets speak to you, you can follow them to see what they are tweeting when not part of a tweet chat. It’s a great way to build up your PLN. Tweetdeck makes it easy to follow the thread of a conversation.

Here are a few Twitter acronyms which will help you decipher some tweets

@username – the @ addresses a specific user
DM – direct message (you can only tweet directly to someone who follows you)
RT – Retweet
MT – modified tweet (when you retweet but edit the retweet)

There are many tweet chats run by educators. The #cdnedchat is a great place to start as the ideas and links you get are posted by fellow Canadian educators. It takes place every Monday at 8:00pm Eastern Time. Find out more on the web site and be sure to watch Tanya’s video on why these chats are important. There are also tweet chats that target specific kinds of teachers (Kindergarten, Science, Flipping…) For an extensive list, have a look at what Cybraryman has curated. Remember, if you can’t be there at the specified time, you can always go back to read what transpired by searching the hashtag.

Q1 Have you taken part in a tweetchat? What did you gain from it?

Q2 Are there tweetchats that you would recommend for your colleagues and why?

Q3 What do you think about having a tweetchat around each week of LEARN’s blog?

I’m looking forward to your answers.


3 a.m. blogging, and why social sciences (/school) should be social, and public!

Father as Multitasker by Stephen Poff
Father as Multitasker by Stephen Poff

First I will partially explain the title, as NOT being because my new baby boy woke me up earlier at 2 a.m.  It’s about what kept ringing in my head afterwards, and the fact that it continued to ring at all. In part it was because I knew I was going to be writing this blog entry for others, for public consumption.  That’s what made it important enough to keep me awake, to drag me out of bed, again, to seek out tea and cookies and finally a keyboard. And likewise, it certainly was not because I was being marked on it, or because my job depended on it.  It was instead because I had an idea I thought was worth sharing. And also, it was because something of me was about to end up “shared” on the web, and I wanted that something to be made up of my ideas, or at least in this case my slant on a lot of other people’s ideas.  I wanted to represent myself.

These two profound ideas resurfaced for me recently during a highly inspiring workshop I attended by Tanya Avrith, a Digital Citizenship Teacher for the Lester B. Pearson School Board, and a pioneer of their Digital Citizenship Program. On the one hand, she helped me reflect on why my other (teenage) son’s school assignments always ended up in the garbage. They were for marks, nothing more.  And as to the other idea, she alerted me to something very important that I hadn’t ever considered, to the fact that my older son already had an extensive digital/internet footprint, mostly made up things he wouldn’t be proud of, and more often than not of things others wrote about him, pictures he didn’t take, etc.  Not an ideal situation for someone searching for schools and jobs, whose college registrars and future employers would be Googling my older son’s unfortunately uncommon name.

For a Better Online Reputation, from LifeHacker
Better Online Reputation @ LifeHacker

The question is, why does this happen to him and so many others, this accumulation of embarrassing memories? It’s not for lack of information, not because he hadn’t been warned about the risks and told about the complexities of  life online. It was because, and I agreed with Tanya on this, that no knowledgeable adults regularly followed him there, to guide him and set examples.  And also… it was because none of his good work, his school work let’s say, followed him there either, to offset all the questionable traces left by others.

Already 5 a.m. and my work day about to begin, so that brings me back to thinking about my main dossier at LEARN, and if and how ideas like this might apply to the Social Sciences (History, Geography, Economics, Ethics in some programs, etc.). These subjects are “academic disciplines concerned with society and human nature” and as such they do serve to engage past and present events and issues, but usually from within the school walls. Obviously you can see from what I presented above I don’t think avoiding the internet during student activities is fair to our students on a personal and on a career-related level, but more than that, I think it is especially ineffective and inappropriate in the Social Sciences.

The Social Sciences Perspective

Bansky via Flickr user Ruben LC
Bansky via Flickr user Ruben LC

Let’s start with what I mean by ineffective. In the social science competencies we examine, establish and balance the facts, we interpret realities then we learn ways to voice our opinions. For me these basic skills read like a list of things one cannot do effectively, not in this day and age, by avoiding the digital, social and public space that is the Internet.

Examining what? Balancing exactly what facts? When it comes to subjects like history and geography, are we really talking about facts in textbooks alone? Are we meant to avoid current sources and interpretations, meant to ignore the news and the myriad opinions of the non-experts, the young and the old, and the stories from those who “were actually there”?  Sure, the number of sources in our digital world is vast, and many are even unreliable, but is that a reason to filter them out or avoid them altogether? Shouldn’t we be teaching students how to sift through them, how to use search engines effectively, how to compare online sources?

Interpreting, but how?  Voicing our opinions, but how, where, and for whom?  When we talk of creating good citizens, do we really mean to create citizens who avoid interpreting events, past and present, based on current representations of those events? Do we want to form students who can only write their opinions in a laboratory, for their teacher’s eyes only? In the real world, modern historians … Okay, I will get to that one a bit later, for now let’s say…people. In the real world people balance and reflect on all kinds of sources. They might read the Gazette, catch a clip from CNN, then watch a feature documentary on CBC. They might actually look it up in a library. In Quebec even Anglophones check out La Presse occasionally, or watch half of  Tout le monde en parle on Sunday nights.

From flickr user cliff1066™
Fleeing Kosovo. Flickr user cliff1066™

The world has opened up, and mobile devices help.  BBC and Al Jazeera now offer great English-language news services on devices like the iPad, and following a link from any of the above sources can now lead you to unexpected places, to bloggers and tweeters on the ground in Israel, Africa, China or Iran, to powerful and personal images shared via Flickr that scatter a thousand words worth of information across your screen in an instant.

Okay, not all people balance and reflect. In the real world, people also read short articles recommended by friends on Facebook. Are those documents the best sources of information too? Maybe, and maybe not. But either way this is one way people, probably even academics, get information, by sifting through even these social sources, through all sources.

So, given all that, then where do people, or let us now say citizens, effectively voice opinions?  Perhaps not on Facebook, which doesn’t lend itself to “reasoning historically” and doesn’t encourage one to really develop an articulate argument. But maybe, maybe even on Facebook, and that possibility is key here to what I am trying to say. What guides educators should be this:  any forum that allows and inspires students to articulate their opinion, and encourages and allows them to examine, establish facts, compare, accept and understand difference, any forum that does that is good.

For whom?

Okay, now it is a few days later and I am in the café across from my local, public library, and I am thinking about a conference I went to mid-April, which had also been what had inspired me to stay up all hours blogging this all down. To write, for whom?  That was the question.  For you, of course, is the answer! But also and in general terms for the larger public domain, to scratch out thoughts that inevitably become a small part of a larger history, that might take part in a dialogue, or that might completely disappear (but that’s okay, really) like the slow fire of so many old books printed on acid paper. Now, I am indeed talking about a kind of historian, and the conference that inspired me was the National Council on Publish History’s annual meeting in Ottawa, and in particular a workshop series I attended entitled “Connecting Communities: Social Media and Public History Practice.”

What is public history? Okay, I am going to swipe this one from the NCPH site directly:

“Public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world. In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world issues. […] Public historians come in all shapes and sizes. They call themselves historical consultants, museum professionals, government historians, archivists, oral historians, cultural resource managers, curators, film and media producers, historical interpreters, historic preservationists, policy advisers, local historians, and community activists, among many, many other job descriptions. All share an interest and commitment to making history relevant and useful in the public sphere.”

Relevant, useful, local.  Archivists, curators, and jobs!  I really like those words.  In my eyes, this conference was about social science students (albeit life-long students) actively being citizens by “doing” history, and actually making a difference in the real world.

Here are a few quick examples I caught at the conference:  University students develop content for a mobile application that maps the history of Cleveland, process repeats for Spokane and other cities, regular users of the application can submit their stories and history becomes on-going and active. Facebook is used to disseminate unidentified photos of a ghost-mining town, so as to identify the places, people and experiences in them.  Twitter is used to present the diary entries of an individual farmer and soldier during the War of 1812, in daily entries that coincide with the same dates in 2012, in order to better represent the timing and sequence of events that occur in actual economies of war today.  Tumblr is used to reflect on historical ideas themselves, and on how social media techniques and popular culture are used to disseminate information in public life.


Public life=my students’ social world,  the community, their small tribe as connected to other small tribes, along paths I absolutely need to dare to cross.

And that’s it.  These are some of the many reasons why in the middle of the night I woke up thinking that school really should be more social, and that social sciences (and maybe all subjects) should be more public, and why now, finishing up this blog entry over a cold coffee across from the library, I might just walk across the street to see what that cryptic exhibit poster in the window really means to me, and what treasures I might find there to take home and read, contemplate, pass on.