Teacher innovation

An Equitable Approach to Supporting Students in the Current Political Environment.1

Graphic of a person's blank head and shoulders with images of light bulbs inside

As we write this article for Education Forum, we are painfully and ironically aware of the current political moment. In June 2018, Doug Ford and the Conservatives won the Ontario provincial election. This story of our work to bring about positive change through a transdisciplinary approach to students in one school is undergirded by yet another conservative victory not so long ago, from which we still feel the reverberations today.

When Mike Harris and the Progressive Conservative Party defeated the NDP in 1995, the Ontario social safety net was dismantled through legislative reforms and deep budgetary cuts. With the introduction of Bill 34, the Education Amendment Act (1996) and its ugly sibling Bill 160, the Education Quality Improvement Act (1997), more than 70 per cent of Adult Education courses were cancelled overnight2. In the years since, school boards wanting to continue to offer adult education were in a quandary. At the same time, a hyper-vigilance continues to grow around credit accumulation and graduation rates. In its wake, a new program was birthed at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) capitalizing on an important population still eligible for full student funding—older adolescents not yet 21 years of age. Although fraught with complications and structural problems, this is a potentially creative alternative to giving up on adult education altogether. The EdVance program and its other iterations across the province are important because they make possible the funding required to keep school buildings that house adult programs operating.

As colleagues, our paths crossed for the first time when we were both teaching in an EdVance school. Both of us have moved on, however, and are no longer teaching there. This school is one of five EdVance programs. It offers secondary students (18–20) in years 5–7 an accelerated program to complete their OSSD where, theoretically, they can receive 12 credits per year (three 90 versus 110-hour credits per “quadmester”). Unfortunately, our experience was that very few students reached this goal.

Initially, EdVance provided an alternate secondary school setting where students who had not graduated but had aged out of the regular public school system could receive credits quickly. Currently, EdVance has evolved into a program which tries to accommodate both students who are newcomers requiring Canadian secondary accreditation and ESL support as well as students who need to finish or upgrade core curriculum credits for post-secondary. Although many of us don’t think about adult education within public schools, we should. Currently, many adult students and their schooled lives are an important piece of an equity puzzle that powerfully uncovers systemic injustice in elementary and secondary schools here in Ontario. Since age is an important social category in adult students, these systemic issues are imprinted upon adults for longer periods, creating deep wounds.

Our school receives a diversity of students, many with gaps in their learning and achievement levels. A significant challenge for EdVance programs is student disengagement. This is evident through inconsistent attendance and work completion, resulting in low credit accumulation and student retention. For each consecutive year, there is a “direct relationship of increasing years in school and increasing dropout rate”3. For us, this statistic is devastating and undermines the student’s ability to reach their full potential. There are obvious ethical considerations in bringing together an accelerated curriculum and a transient, constantly shifting student population. Full funding comes only with students taking two or more courses per quadmester. Consequently, some students may be pushed to take more credits than they can handle.

Our students, as young adults are expected to self-manage their time, personal and family responsibilities, and employment, as well as their education goals. Some have jobs, some are young parents, others are dealing with challenging family matters. Others have physical and mental health issues, or substance abuse and addiction issues. And while the EdVance program provides a second chance for students beyond year four to complete their high school education, the current structure can be a barrier for struggling students. The accelerated program leaves little time to accumulate knowledge in a meaningful way. An early start and long class periods, add additional stress. Each class is two hours long with no breaks. A brief 40-minute lunch is all that breaks up the day. Many arrive late, and others leave early for work and personal commitments, or because they are unable to maintain their focus for the entire day. Individual siloed subjects can add to the workload and limit the integration of knowledge. As a result of these cascading factors, students can become demotivated and disengaged.

Credit factory
Teachers everywhere, but particularly within EdVance settings where the majority of our students have not graduated by year four of secondary school, feel enormous pressure for students to earn credits and graduate. This is not in itself a bad thing. However, when it becomes the sole definition of student success and the actions to get there are by any means necessary, we believe that most importantly students—but also teachers—are harmed in the process.4

A nine-week credit delivery model allows little time for deep reflection for teachers as well as for students, but for those students who have learning difficulties, the pace becomes much too fast. The teachers’ efforts to cover the curriculum become “a mile wide and an inch deep,” only scratching the surface of difficult and complex issues. Collectively, these issues exacerbate student disengagement and absenteeism. Accelerated credit delivery at the expense of rich pedagogical approaches, with the sole objective of credit accumulation, has become known as a “credit factory” by almost all of our colleagues within our own school and across the other EdVance programs.

It is a misrepresentation to paint a picture of EdVance solely as a site of struggle for students. Many colleagues agree that victory lappers do extremely well. These students have finished all or most of their credits and come back for an extra year to upgrade or take specific courses for post-secondary studies. But, many of these victory lappers have experienced their own struggles—mental health issues, addiction, and poverty. In many cases, they too have found it necessary to take time from school to deal a wide variety of crises. Upon their return, some have crashed and burned in the mainstream system or in post-secondary.

Exploring a new approach
As classroom teachers, both of us experienced the negative impact of teaching students within the EdVance accelerated program. While the program has evolved to include more variety of courses as the shift in the demographic changes, the fundamental structure of the accelerated program has not changed to address student success or student needs in a meaningful way. This truncated program not only makes it impossible for teachers to cover the Ministry curriculum in its entirety, but also impedes the ability of students to process the curricular content in order to gain an authentic learning experience. Credit accumulation, graduation rates, absenteeism, and dropout rates continue to be challenging.

Now in existence for more than 10 years, EdVance is long overdue for a critical review. What began as an acknowledgment between the two of us, and many of our colleagues, that something was not working, turned into an action project based on what might be done to address some of the systemic issues within the program. We were quick to define the limitations of EdVance, but proposing an alternate solution would take some time to explore. To initiate this exploration, we had the opportunity to apply for and receive funding to run a classroom-based inquiry through a TDSB and Ministry partnership sponsoring the Teacher Leadership and Learning Program (TLLP). In our proposal, we outlined a pilot program to function within the EdVance structure. Our focus was to re-engage students at risk; those who had fallen through the cracks, who had passed through elementary and aged out of secondary without successfully graduating. We called our project: A Transdisciplinary Pilot Project: Re-engagement through Multimedia Arts and Social Justice Education.

One aspect we sought to change was the pace and schedule of the program within the subject areas we were teaching. Within the confines of the quadmester timetable, we extended the period of study over two periods of the day. This was to allow more processing time and provide opportunities for students and teachers to develop community within the classroom. The first hour of the day was dedicated to a ‘conversation cafe’ where we shared and exchanged ideas. This was followed by a lesson on specific concepts and related collaborative and individual activities. The latter part of the day was dedicated to skill development and projects. We co-created and team-taught curriculum and assessment strategies. For four hours each day, both of us shared space with each other, our students in the classroom and communities outside the school.

Course content followed an integrated curriculum. Subject integration is not new to education. Many pedagogical practices, in fact, embed interdisciplinary approaches. However, few models exist at the secondary level as subjects are typically siloed and taught independently. In the pilot, our approach was to breakdown the siloed subjects using curriculum from Social Sciences (with an equity and gender studies focus) and Visual Arts (with a media arts and technology focus). More than being interdisciplinary where the curriculum is organized around common learnings across disciplines, we sought to explore a transdisciplinary approach to restructure the curriculum to meet student concerns and questions within a project-based learning model. Its underlying purpose was to reduce the duplication of skills and concepts and increase relevance and motivation for the learner—to give students the opportunity to work smarter, not harder. This approach to knowledge integration is becoming increasingly relevant in today’s world of global competencies and echoed in other curricular approaches and programs elsewhere. British Columbia is rolling out an integrated curriculum across all grade levels. And at the post-secondary level, the University of Waterloo offers a degree in Knowledge Integration.5 Finland’s emphasis on phenomenon-based learning where subjects are more topic based speaks to this innovative approach as well.6

For a brief moment in time: MASHUP REmix
We initiated our pilot in the winter of 2016 and implemented through to June of that year. To align with our transdisciplinary approach, we retitled the project MASHUP REmix—a spin-off from the music industry that fuses two separate genres of music together. MASHUP REmix was established as an alternative program within the EdVance structure with the intent to mash subjects together to gain new insights into community, arts and culture. To pique the interest of students, we introduced a series of bundled courses designed to integrate perceptions of identity, equity and social justice with creative digital media art projects.7 It was a significant interruption in the regular programming, but too short lived to create the substantive changes we had hoped for. However, there were some transformative moments we can share—those of our own learnings, those of own students’ learnings and those of our perspectives and actions as we move forward in our own pedagogical journey. Most importantly, for a brief moment in time, there was a robust community of learners who became willing and able to work across difference in a safe and connected learning environment. Some of the students who joined the program were those who had not been successful in EdVance and were now achieving credits. Others who felt marginalized gained inner power and confidence. This shift in student engagement was due in part to the restructuring of the program that gave more time to scaffold concepts and explore ideas. The intertwined content of equity and the arts also provided a unique platform for students to see themselves and the world around them in different contexts and creatively express their perceptions and ideas.

Examining identity
Student engagement became evident through the projects they created. We developed one project entitled Duelling Identities. At its core, we wanted students to analyze some of the substantive themes related to identity that we had covered throughout the course. These themes included the overlapping and sometimes contradictory social identity categories of our own and others’ perceptions of us (race, social class, gender, sexuality, ability, power, privilege, stereotypes and oppression), both individual and systemic. The project involved students having to articulate how they see themselves (self-perception) and how the world sees them (society’s perception). Through image manipulation, students merged composite digital self-portraits to create a narrative of their paradoxical identities. The results were as unique as each student. One South-Asian female student, who was experiencing extreme anxiety and was self-conscious about her appearance, created a bold statement about herself. She chose a close-up of her face with her hands relaxed behind her head and the word Beautiful inscribed in the background. A Black male student who had multiple learning disabilities had not only faced severe racism and ableism at school, but one of his parents also had very low expectations of him. His final product depicted a composite of two images: the first is an image of himself sitting crossed legged on the ground looking down and the second, a close-up of his eye reflecting a mirror image of himself. He describes his hope, dreams and despair in his artist statement. A Black Muslim male student wrote an artist statement uncovering various stereotypes that equate Muslims with terrorism. His final product was a muted image of himself in prayer with the words peace and love in soft blue/grey colours. The dichotomy expressed in this photo was powerful. And finally, another student, a working class White male, began our program living under house arrest. He battled various addictions while at our school but became clean and sober during his time at MASHUP. His final product depicted the good boy/bad boy dichotomy—prison bars, a reversed baseball hat on the top of his head, running playfully down the school hallway. Although they did not find the project easy, they gave us very positive feedback about how they felt about what they had accomplished—and what they learned through the process.

Interrupting the status quo
Part of our expectations in developing and implementing this pilot was to have the opportunity to create transformation within the system, and in doing so, offer an alternative path for students at risk within an EdVance setting. However, we found this to be very challenging. Knowledge mobilization ground to a halt with lack of support from the system, and few opportunities to share our discoveries. The EdVance program today stands as it did initially, dealing with the same systemic challenges. As disappointing as this is, it speaks to the difficulty of innovating from within. There are too many competing interests at play—the funding formula, narrow definitions of student success, restrictive curriculum guidelines that reinforce siloed subjects, discursive school practices, and post-secondary admission policies—all of which play into maintaining the status quo. There appears to be no clear mandate or vision for Adult Education on the horizon. The work of Henri Giroux (1988)8 Teachers as Intellectuals resounds loudly in our ears when we think about the often shirked ethical responsibility of the schooling system to create opportunities for teacher innovation and leadership. It was in the precious space of our pilot project that we came to understand deeply the concept of transdisciplinary in an organic, kind of “aha” moment right smack dab in the middle of the classroom. It was a truly embodied experience. Over the course of working together, the arts and social sciences as fields of education were no longer separate for us. It was and still is impossible for one not to inform the other—not in our pedagogical approaches as teachers and not in the process of learning and the completion of final projects of our students.

Hope moving forward
We are extremely grateful for the opportunity we had to work together in the creation, implementation and evaluation of this pilot. It truly felt like a revolutionary act in the face of many barriers—some intentional and some accidental. Our hope is for more teachers to create similar avenues for themselves to experience team-teaching and the co-creation of integrated curriculum and assessment as a means to address students’ needs. Teaching, as we know, is a courageous act. We hope that more teachers make the decision to take on something different to explore new ideas and inquiries in pursuit of professional knowledge and personal fulfillment. We did not wait to be given permission to initiate our inquiry. We took the bull by the horns and did what was necessary to make it so. We followed in the footsteps of many teacher-activists who went before us. Our hope is that our colleagues will be inspired to do the same.


  1. For more details about our pilot project proposal and rationale please refer to the following reference: Russell, V. & Mootoo, C. (2017). Credit factory or alternative education for adults? Student re-engagement through multi-media arts and social justice education, a transdisciplinary pilot project. In N. Bascia, E. Fine, and M. Levin (Eds.) Alternative schooling: Canadian stories of democracy within bureaucracy (pp. 213-226). Toronto, ON, Palgrave.
  2. Questions and Answers on Adult Education. (n.d.). Retrieved September 30, 2016, from fcis.oise.utoronto.ca/~daniel_schugurensky/faqs/qa14.html
  3. Toronto District School Board Facts: Student Success Indicators Year 4 (Grade 12) Student Outcomes Issue 4, June 2013. www.tdsb.on.ca/Portals/0/AboutUs/Research/SSIYear4Outcomes201112.pdf
  4. Vanessa interviewed several teachers across three of the EdVance programs. She also facilitated a roundtable discussion with teaching colleagues in our school about student absenteeism as part of her Student Success portfolio in the Guidance Department (Spring, 2016).
  5. University of Waterloo Knowledge Integration program, uwaterloo.ca/knowledge-integration
  6. For more information on Phenomenal Based Learning, watch The Finland Phenomenon, by documentary filmmaker Robert A. Compton
  7. Descriptions of the pilot are taken from our MASHUP REmix program poster that was produced to inform students about the program.
  8. Giroux, H. A. (1988). Teachers as intellectuals: Toward a critical pedagogy of learning. Granby, Mass: Bergin & Garvey
About Vanessa Russell and Cheryl Mootoo
Vanessa Russell and Cheryl Mootoo are teachers in District 12, Toronto.

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