Like many Albertan parents, our new elementary curriculum has me up in arms

Apr 20, 2021

“What is happening in Alberta?”

My Ontario friends often ply me with questions like these, knowing I’ll give them the Coles Notes of my province’s current events.

But recently there was really only one thing they were asking about. The provincial government just dropped a draft of our new provincial elementary curriculum — and it’s a dumpster fire that man can't (or shouldn't) look away from.

Whenever the word "curriculum" comes up in the news cycle, I get a bit nerdy. This is my jam! I was a high school social studies and English teacher before my second kid was born, and I have a master’s degree in education. But I take no glee in analyzing the chaotic learning outcomes in this draft. To quote Dr. Carla Peck, a University of Alberta education professor specializing in social studies, “the fatal flaw is in the overall design and intent of the curriculum; it cannot be fixed by tweaking it.”

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Peck was speaking specifically to the social studies curriculum, which professors from all 10 of Alberta’s education faculties have condemned.

But the criticisms of other subjects are coming in hot and heavy.

A musical education expert has called parts of the music curriculum “simply wrong.” A religious studies doctoral student showed how the curriculum's religious components centre around Christianity and erase Metis, Inuit and Indigenous spiritual experiences. Curriculum and Muslim motherhood researcher Dr. Muna Saleh calls it “a curriculum that Others,” and says it’s not accessible for all students, particularly those with neurodiversities.

For myself, as a queer person involved in LGBTQ2 issues in my community and beyond, it stings to realize that there are precisely zero mentions of sexual orientation, gender identity or human rights.

Whichever subject I’m reading through, I keep coming back to my own kids. My daughter’s kindergarten class of 2022 would be the first to receive it in full. At age six, when she’s still learning what a neighbourhood is, she will be expected to identify the difference between surplus and subsistence societies. At eight, when she’s just wrapping her mind around the concept of money, she will be describing the seigneurial system of New France.

I’m not saying school shouldn’t be rigorous. Kids need challenges to thrive, and facts to inform their opinions. But the sheer volume of material, particularly in social studies, treats children like empty vessels waiting for dense information about Charlemagne and the Magna Carta. I can already see my children’s eyes growing large with worry as they try to memorize chronologies.

"Each learning outcome needs breathing room, to let kids dance with the subject matter — to explore, to connect."

In my education degrees, we learned that a good curriculum starts with a good understanding of kids’ brains (shocking, I know!). Most parents know what it feels like to ask our children to do something that they aren’t developmentally ready for yet. Ever ask a two-year-old to tie their shoes? Or a four-year-old to whistle Happy Birthday? When parents expect too much from our kids we get resistance, anxiety, anger.

As a teacher, I found the same.

Having over-full, underfunded classrooms makes that even tougher. Each learning outcome needs breathing room, to let kids dance with the subject matter — to explore, to connect.

Dr. Dwayne Donald, University of Alberta professor of education, expert in Indigenous inclusion in the curriculum, and descendant of the Papaschase Cree, said in an interview the other week that young people need to engage meaningfully with Truth and Reconciliation, but this draft falls well short of that mark. Curriculum, he went on to say, is “a sacred kind of work because it has to do with the stories that we want to tell our children.”

The curriculum also impacts the stories our children will tell about themselves. Will they see themselves as excellent memorizers of fact? Or will they become critical thinkers, armed with the knowledge of their own agency? Will they be taught to blindly participate in society, or will they be guided to take their place in a world that they themselves are capable of making better?

And can there be a middle ground?

These questions keep parents like me up at night. They’re why Albertans are fighting this draft. Ninety per cent of teachers who responded to a survey by the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) say they’d be uncomfortable teaching it, and 95 per cent of principals said they’d be uncomfortable implementing it.

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Concerned Albertans are calling MLAs and ministers; we’re also emailing them, and CCing popular radio personality Ryan Jesperson, who’s making sure our complaints aren’t minimized. We’re joining Facebook groups like Albertans Against the New Curriculum, which had a scant thousand or so members almost two weeks ago and now has more than 35,000.

We’re ordering lawn signs and supporting education advocacy groups like Support Our Students.

Recently, Justice Minister and Solicitor General Kaycee Madu called anti-curriculum Albertans “activists with special interests.” But I refuse to believe that wanting better for our kids is a special interest; holding our government to account doesn’t automatically make us

There are so many things for parents to worry about as we send our kids off to school — the curriculum shouldn’t be one of them.

Are you a parent? Are you a writer? Do you have a different opinion on this subject? Please reach out to us with a pitch here.

Article Author Brianna Sharpe
Brianna Sharpe

Read more from Brianna here.

Brianna Sharpe is an Alberta-based freelance writer who lives on a mini-acreage with a not-so-mini husky and three humans of varying sizes. A queer parent, font snob and ex-high school teacher, her work can be found in publications like Chatelaine, HuffPost Canada, Xtra, and The Toronto Star.

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