I’m writing this blog on the eve of a very large undertaking on the part of my school district. In a few hours, more than 2800 secondary school teachers will descend upon the Toronto Congress Centre to listen to a robust roster of rather well known speakers, writers and public figures. Gathering under the banner, “All Are Welcome”, participants will have the opportunity to spend their day with the likes of, among others, writer, speaker and passionate arts advocate, Sir Ken Robinson; novelist, Lawrence Hill; adventurer and National Geographic contributor and Massey Lecturer, Wade Davis; Differentiated Instruction expert, Karen Hume and “drama queen”, Kathy Gould Lundy.
At first, I thought the theme, “All Are Welcome” was a little too light when you considered the major challenges faced by public education these days. But, when I was approached to help capture a video record of the day, I suddenly found myself trying to create a narrative frame for the event. As I sat with the speakers’ bios and tried to find the threads that connected their messages, using the overall theme for the day as a backdrop, I began to realize that the claim that “All Are Welcome” is really just the beginning.
After all, public schools have a legislative mandate to allow anyone, regardless of gender, socio-economic status, academic ability, or learning style, to take advantage of what is being offered. Physical exclusion is not an option. For me, however, the more powerful challenge is this: Once we allow everyone to enter through our doors, then what? What do we do with them? What is our moral obligation in terms of how we develop our educational programs and opportunities to meet the needs of those that we claim to serve?
Until very recently, we have approached the students in our systems as a type of monolith. We’ve talked about best practice, standard curriculum, rigorous teaching and learning environments as if all students would respond to and benefit from the same approach. In a sense, our focus in terms of educational practice has really been about what we will do TO our students. But tomorrow’s speakers promise to challenge that teacher-centric, “one-size-fits-all” approach in a large way.
Sir Ken, in his keynote address, will bring his now-familiar message: schools should be a place where the individual passions of our students are nurtured and supported. Lawrence Hill and others will, no doubt, remind us of the power of our diverse stories. Wade Davis will stir up the need for educators to develop a sense of curiosity and wonder in the natural world. Karen Hume will speak passionately about the need for differentiation in our classrooms and in our programs. Kathy Lundy will ask us to consider how well we really know the students that are placed before us each day. The challenge of “All Are Welcome” is really not about opening the doors of the schoolhouse to anyone who knocks. That vision has already been legislated into reality. No, the real challenge relates to how willing we are to see every student who crosses the threshold as a unique individual, with their own story, their own dream and a right to be educated in a place where the two might somehow connect.
We’re willing to spend the money to bring these rich and vibrant voices to the stage of the Toronto Congress Center tomorrow. I wonder whether we will be willing to spend the time and effort necessary to carry the messages that we hear back to our schools on Monday morning and beyond.