When veteran Alberta teacher Marliss Visser first saw a draft of the province’s K to 6 social studies curriculum last year, she cried.
“It was totally unexpected. I was so shocked,” she said.
Visser was one of the more than 100 teachers from across Alberta who made up the province’s curriculum working groups. They were given two days of virtual meetings last December to provide feedback on proposed edits to the kindergarten to Grade 6 draft curriculum before it was unveiled publicly in March.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was not made available for an interview, but in a statement from her office, the ministry said the role of the curriculum working group members was to provide advice and recommendations during the drafting step of the curriculum.
“We are thankful for every teacher that participated and provided their valuable feedback,” said press secretary Nicole Sparrow.
When Rachel Notley’s NDP government was in power in Alberta from 2015 to 2019, it started a major overhaul of public school curriculum, saying the existing curriculum was between eight and 30 years old. The revamp, building on a process started under previous conservative governments, was to encompass all grades and all subject areas, and take six years.
Alberta Education was field testing the first stage, a new kindergarten to Grade 4 curriculum, when the NDP lost the 2019 election to the United Conservative Party, which promptly put the K-4 field testing on pause.
It made its own sweeping rewrites while claiming the NDP changes were based in ideology. Critics, however, have lined up to pan the UCP changes, including accusations of plagiarism, inaccuracies and flaws in how it covers race, colonialism and Indigenous people.
Concerns raised immediately
Teachers involved in curriculum working groups were unable to share their experiences and thoughts on the process until now because they were made to sign a non-disclosure agreement that expired earlier this fall.
Visser, who has more than 20 years experience and works for the Palliser School Division, says she and other teachers were asked to share their thoughts on the social studies curriculum with a ministry employee, and the overall emotion from the group was sadness.
“I had this anxiety that, ‘oh my goodness, my name is now published … and now I have a responsibility to critique this curriculum, which just overwhelmingly needed to go back to the drawing board and be redone,'” she said.
“It wasn’t developmentally appropriate. It wasn’t age appropriate. It for sure didn’t include ways in which we could have inclusive learning, like differentiated learning and so on.”
‘We tried to find positives’
Annie Greeno, a teacher with the Holy Spirit Catholic School Division, was also part of the social studies working group.
“They gave us a pile of [excrement] and then told us to look through the [excrement] for corn that’s digestible. To look through garbage and find something salvageable,” she said.
“That’s how I felt looking at that social studies curriculum. It’s just nowhere near developmentally appropriate. It’s nowhere even near to racially appropriate, and I wouldn’t serve that to anyone, least of all these children I love and care about.”
Sam Livingstone, who no longer works in Alberta, was a teacher with the Fort McMurray School Division last year. She was part of the English language arts curriculum working group.
Livingstone brought up similar concerns in that meeting.
“We tried to find positives — we were asked to find positives — but I found it hard to find positives because I saw so many negatives,” she said.
Because she was teaching kindergarten at the time, Livingston said she zeroed in on some big issues in that draft, and pointed them out to the ministry.
“A big concern with that was that there were expectations for reading, but kindergarten isn’t required in Alberta,” she said.
“If you set up the expectation for reading in kindergarten, then if a student doesn’t go to kindergarten, they’re going to have an even bigger challenge.”
Livingston said that when the draft curriculum was released, she didn’t see meaningful changes.
“I didn’t see [the feedback] implemented,” she said.
“I had asked clarifying questions around specific things in the curriculum that remained in the curriculum, but I didn’t get answers to the clarifying questions when I asked them in the group, either.”
Sparrow said the draft curriculum released in March 2021 is “very different’ from the draft presented to the working group in December 2020.
“The draft curriculum will continue to be improved, based on the feedback we hear from Albertans during the year-long, open and transparent review process.”
Visser said what bothers her the most about the process is LaGrange’s repeated assertions that teachers “have and will continue to be involved in every step of the way.”
“We weren’t part of every step of the way. We were there to look at an already made curriculum that didn’t really change at all. It was a joke,” she said.
Greeno said that when the draft curriculum was released last spring, she felt an odd sense of comfort. And the responses from the community were exactly what she expected.
“[I felt] relief that maybe other people would see it and be as disgusted as we were. I knew they weren’t going to listen to us —I mean, there may have been a glimmer of hope that they would have,” she said.
“But when they asked me what my feedback was, I even said, ‘Write this down: My name is Annie Greeno and I do not support this draft curriculum in this form. It needs to be completely rewritten. Start fresh. Or else we need to go back to the current curriculum that we are currently teaching.'”