When TDChristian High School student Mark Hanna enrolled in a mandatory grade 10 civics course two years ago, he didn’t know he’d end up on a plane to Ottawa, or that he’d be invited to deliver a presentation to the late Jim Flaherty, Canada’s former Finance Minister.
Today, he looks back on the experience with a spirit of gratitude, noting that it will probably “end up on every resume I write for the rest of my life”.
Evidently, that experience is still shaping Mark’s academic journey at TDChristian, particularly the role he plays in E-Block, a hands-on environmental science program for grade 10 students.
Over the last few months Mark (now a student in grade 12) has been mentoring a group of four students in E-Block. His goal: help them become experts in issues related to government affairs, expenses and revenues—so that they can turn around, take to the podium and teach one another.
It’s a dynamic model of learning that TDChristian teacher Ben Freeman has been deliberate about implementing in E-Block. Opportunities for small group, student driven leadership are key. They set the civics component of his course apart from other traditional civics classes and they’ve helped his students gain a more robust understanding of the federal budget.
For Freeman, this form of student empowerment sets the tone. It’s not simply a matter of covering good curriculum—most of which comes for a charitable organization called Civix—it’s about helping his students form well researched opinions, so that they can enter into a complex, national dialogue. It’s about making them feel well equipped to engage in issues of public policy, be intentional in their voting choices later, and gain clarity on budget issues.
The approach has opened doors and created a dynamic environment for students to actively explore different spheres of civics. It’s one of the reasons Mark was flown to the Parliament buildings two years ago, and why he was able to articulate his thoughts with confidence to interviewers from CBC News.
And, in many respects, it’s primed Mark for the ‘teacher’ role he plays today in E-Block. As a grade 12 leader Mark is using the things he’s learned to help students facilitate events like a Municipal Student Vote, present to their classmates about the priorities of Canada’s political parties and lead small group discussions.
This way of “going through the curriculum” is unique, he says, “unlike your cliché ‘teacher is always up’ teaching style”.
“The uncommon way of teaching in our class coupled with the unique building design our school boasts made us the perfect candidates for Civix to come film what we were doing,” he adds.
Indeed, when camera crews from the organization visited Freeman’s E-block class last December, they were able to capture some dynamic student driven learning on film.
In one of the documented group discussion a student shares that she would want to pay down the country’s debt. “Because, when I get into my career, then that’s gonna be put on me as a burden,” she explains. “And paying down that before it becomes too out of control would be great for my future.”
Other students speak thoughtfully about the multiplicity of perspectives they’ve been invited to consider.
“I think the most interesting thing I learned was how many different opinions you can have on the expenditures,” says one member of the class. “I didn’t know that there were so many different perspectives that people had.”
Kamrin Ward, another student, speaks candidly about how the class might impact her as a future voter.
“… We are growing up, and we are going to be in the voting process, and we are going to have to learn more about it,” she says to the camera. “And, the earlier we learn, the better.” Later, Kamrin adds that she feels “more a part of the adult conversation” than she was two years ago.
As a blogger, Kamrin also has good things to say about her experience in civics class.
“I have learned so much about voting, political positions, looking at the different levels of government, what’s going on in our country, and so much more,” she writes.
In the same entry she explains why she liked organizing the Student Vote at her school.
“I was the deputy returning office and supervised a poll clerk and the scrutineer. The Ontario Municipal Student Vote was a great experience for me because I got to test and work on my organizational skills. I have always wanted to know about how people accomplished the voting process. I thought that being in charge of this project would be the perfect way to gain my knowledge in this topic, so, I took on the challenge.”
Therein lies a crucial aspect of Freeman’s class: Students are invited to acquire knowledge by stepping into leadership roles, and to take on challenges that will not only deepen learning, but open doors beyond the school.