Alberta teachers, schools scrambling to prepare for launch of new curriculum

·6 min read
Grade 1 students reading at Thorsby Elementary School. Their teacher is using elements of Alberta's new English language arts curriculum, which becomes mandatory in all elementary schools in September. (Janet French/CBC - image credit)
Grade 1 students reading at Thorsby Elementary School. Their teacher is using elements of Alberta's new English language arts curriculum, which becomes mandatory in all elementary schools in September. (Janet French/CBC - image credit)

In Candice Conrad's Grade 1 classroom, learning to read looks much different than the lessons adults might remember.

On a recent morning, Conrad leads her Thorsby Elementary School students through a sequence of phonemic awareness exercises.

Their desks are clustered into three groups. Conrad sits at the front of the room, her finger on a word list in a thick guidebook.

"We're going to punch that last sound out. Ready?" Conrad says. "Shrink."

"Shrin-kuh," the 18 kids repeat, emphasizing the "kuh" sound and punching their teeny fists into the air.

The group of mostly six-year-olds also say syllables aloud, then blend them into words with a clap of their hands. They chop up word sounds in the air with their hands pressed together, then say the full word while sweeping their hands away.

Conrad is using multi-sensory techniques encouraged by Alberta's new English language arts and literature curriculum, which will be mandatory in all the province's kindergarten to Grade 3 classrooms starting this fall.

So will a new K-3 math curriculum, along with a revamped K-6 physical education and wellness curriculum.

Usually, teachers prepare for new curriculum without fanfare. But Alberta's journey to rewrite its K-12 curriculum in all subjects at once, in English and French, has been on a topsy-turvy path for more than a decade.

Under three governments — Progressive Conservative, NDP and finally the United Conservatives — rewriting the curriculum became a political football.

The schedule of which subjects and grades would be mandatory for the 2022-23 school year changed twice during the last six months.

Some educators, academics and parents pleaded with the government to "ditch the draft" of the proposed elementary school curriculum.

Most school divisions refused to pilot test those drafts, and less than one per cent of Alberta teachers formally participated.

As the deadline approaches for 25,000 Alberta elementary teachers to bring the new curriculum to life, CBC News spoke to 11 educators and school board leaders about preparation. Their message to Alberta politicians was clear: step out of the way, and let us make this work for kids.

How ready are teachers? Depends who you ask

Conrad, who loves teaching literacy, says she's excited about September. She will need to be ready for all three new subjects — a departure from the past, when Alberta introduced just one at a time.

Janet French/CBC
Janet French/CBC

Although Leduc-based Black Gold School Division, which includes Thorsby, didn't officially pilot any new curriculum, Conrad has been using some of the guides and resources this year.

In addition to regular meetings with colleagues, Conrad, who has two young kids, spent hours of her own time taking professional development sessions online.

She feels the least ready for physical education and wellness, which is the most different from the current curriculum.

She's far less enthusiastic about the new science, social studies and fine arts curriculum, which are slated to be required in 2023 and 2024.

Conrad says not all her colleagues feel as prepared for September as she does.

Although the first drafts of all elementary school subjects were publicly released in March 2021, K-6 math, English and phys ed and wellness curriculum wasn't finalized until mid-April, about 10 weeks before summer break.

Some school divisions had just one professional development day left on their calendars.

Others, like Ponoka-based Wolf Creek Public Schools, hustled to get three full days of professional development ready for all elementary teachers.

Although the government has promised to provide funding for substitutes so teachers can step away from class to go through the curriculum, Wolf Creek superintendent Tim De Ruyck says they can't rely on that approach while subs are scarce.

Edmonton Catholic Schools, meanwhile, is growing its contingent of curriculum consultants to 17 to get teachers ready for fall.

Nathan Gross/CBC
Nathan Gross/CBC

Trish Roffey, manager of elementary curriculum for Edmonton Catholic, says the consultants have laid out year-long plans suggesting the pace for the new material.

Her goal is to stay a month ahead, by assembling sample lesson plans, suggested resources — like videos, software, tests or games — and curriculum guides as the next school year progresses.

The division has five voluntary professional development "PD parties" planned for the summer, for teachers to learn some classroom-ready examples, she said.

Like many other divisions, Edmonton Catholic is relying on online training sessions organized internally, offered by the government and third parties like the Alberta Regional Professional Development Consortia.

Edmonton Public Schools is leaving decisions about how much professional development to take up to individual teachers.

Too much, too fast, too soon, some educators say

The pressure is compounding at the end of the school year while employees are still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Grading assignments. Writing report cards. Planning next year's class lists. Organizing field trips. Hosting year-end parties.

"It's very tight, it's very stressful, and our teachers are burned out," said Jennifer Lefebvre, director of instruction for the Rocky Mountain House-based Wild Rose school division.

Other hurdles will be cultural and psychological. Many educators and academics disagree with the content and philosophy of the curriculum, including math, English and wellness.

Government-run surveys found the concerns persisted even after Alberta Education released the final drafts of those three subjects.

Critics say some math concepts are introduced too early for children to understand, that language arts excludes critical thinking and isn't culturally inclusive enough, and that wellness mishandles issues of consent and body image.

The surveys also showed the public doesn't feel the government is acting to correct these problems.

The Alberta School Boards Association has lobbied, with partial success, for a delay of mandatory implementation of all subjects until 2024.

A spokesperson for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said the timeline was set based on recommendations from a curriculum implementation advisory group that included school board representatives.

Sandra Haltiner, president of Edmonton Catholic Teachers Local 54, says educators will have to balance their advocacy for change with making the curriculum work as best they can for the time being.

"Can we be ready for it? OK, sure, absolutely," she said. "Does that make it right? No."

Teachers feel pressured by employers to attend "voluntary" summer training when what they really need is a break, she says.

The government's rush baffles Maren Aukerman, a University of Calgary professor who specializes in literacy education. She says three subjects at once is too much.

"The biggest risk is for kids," Aukerman said. "I really worry about the children in the classroom who are going to be faced with a bunch of stuff that their teachers are not that prepared for."

More enthusiastic curriculum adopters worry critics are unnecessarily frightening parents, and undermining teachers' abilities.

Janet French/CBC
Janet French/CBC

Lynne Paradis, superintendent of Suzuki Charter School in Edmonton, said schools like hers were preparing for the shift long before the final versions of curriculum were made public.

"Teachers are not going to let children get harmed," she said.

What educators want is for politicians and parents to have faith in teachers' professionalism and judgment, said Terri Reid, a curriculum consultant with the Black Gold school division.

"We need everyone now to stop and take a breath and let our teachers do their job," Reid said. "Teachers do phenomenal work with children. And they need to have the time and the space to do that."

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