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Estée Preda

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

This week, both teachers and students share their back to school stories in First Person.

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My son has zero concept of the future. I remember when I was a kid thinking that the future would happen on a specific day, like a birthday or an anniversary. I tried to envision what the years 1999, 2010 and 2029 would look like. To me, the future was Battlestar Galactica and the Millennium Falcon. I remember seeing the CN Tower and thinking “That’s what the future looks like.” My son doesn’t think about his future much. Six-year-olds shouldn’t have to. I’m thinking about his future because, in a short while, my son will be entering Grade 1.

While thinking about Milo’s future, I invariably started to think about my past. I was recently reminded of my grade-school years while playing with him on the same grounds he now runs around on during recess.

“Daddy, you be goalie. I’ll be Cristiano Ronaldo.”

I was reminded of playing kickball with Andre, Alden, Felix and Kevin. I remembered five-rocks and marbles and sliding down the hill on a plastic bag in winter. I remembered listening to mix tapes when rap was fresh, boom boxes were big and breakdancing was all the rage. There was my first dance, first kiss, first fight and then one day being too cool to play silly games at recess.

After a water break, Milo asked me to hold him up to the window.

“Daddy, is that where I’m going to learn?”

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In class, he’ll learn that the Earth orbits the sun; he’ll memorize the times tables, go long on short division, come up short on long division and review the fire emergency plan four times a year. He’ll learn to spell BOOBS on a calculator and how to write an acrostic poem. He’ll learn that book reports are due on Friday and that spelling, reading comprehension and problem-solving skills will be tested biweekly.

The combined ages of a father and son add up to 66. The father’s age is the son’s aged reversed. How old are they?

He’ll learn about winning and losing, how to get ahead, how not to fall behind, about teamwork and community. He’ll learn that to be a part of the group, he must act and think like the group. He’ll no longer be allowed to improvise. He’ll be expected to focus, participate and share; daydreaming will not be tolerated. “Daddy, is the moon made of out cheese?” He’ll be conscious of all the watching, laughing, whispering and scheming. He will be part of a spectacle. His stage will be much bigger than our living room floor. He’ll come to see history as a timeline and that a sentence must always have a subject and a predicate and that every good story has a beginning, middle and end.

He will start Grade 1 as a young boy; He will leave Grade 8 a young man. He’ll have plenty of questions. He’ll be confused; I was. What 14-year-old isn’t? The parent in me will respond: You’ll learn the answer to some of those questions in high school. The teacher in me will have his doubts.

From first-day jitters to prom and grad, high school is over in a flash. In four years, he’ll learn that learning is important, but grades more so. He’ll learn that social miscues can leave a mark. He’ll be bombarded with terms such as knowledge and understanding, application, communication and thinking and inquiry. He’ll write multiple-choice quizzes and be required to write a five-paragraph essay on why Macbeth is a tragic hero. Twenty-five years after I graduated from high school, my son will graduate with the same set of skills, read the same books and answer the same types of questions that I did. I know this because I’ve been teaching for 15 years and little has changed since I skipped my first class and got my first detention.

As an educator, I’m frustrated. As a parent, I’m terrified.

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Whenever I read about another suicide attack, another climate disaster, another refugee drowned, I ask: What can we do to make the world more peaceful and equitable? I always come back to the same answer: We have to graduate a different type of student.

The problem is that schools are slow to change. Students still sit behind desks organized in rows; teachers still stand at the front of the class. New terms polish up old practices, the latest apps and tech tools will be downloaded and purchased, consultants will be extolled and TED Talk videos will be played ad nauseum at staff meetings everywhere.

The focus of the education system has shifted toward a standardized curriculum – where teachers teach from the same curriculum, mark to the same standards, use the same texts and share tests and quizzes. A one-size-fits-all approach to learning in the 21st century! As it stands, the system is more focused on conformity than it is encouraging diversity, more focused on test scores than encouraging critical-thinking skills. At a time where the old definitions of gender, sexual identity, work, marriage, ethnicity and family makeup have disintegrated, schools are struggling to keep up. In July, the Ontario government rolled back the sex-ed curriculum by 20 years, despite protests from educators, social workers, health experts and parents.

To top it off, graduation rates are at an all-time high. In many ways, it has become easier for kids to graduate than ever before. I’m more concerned with the quality of a graduate then the overall number of graduates. I heard one administrator admit: “Our job is to get them out of here. They’ll figure out the rest once they’re gone.”

My son doesn’t need to learn what I learned. The world doesn’t need another me. The world he will graduate into looks nothing like the one I did. We need a new set of thinking skills for a new world.

I should be excited for my son. I am.

I shouldn’t be anxious for my son. I am.

I’m halfway through my tenure as a teacher and I’m beginning to ask: Am I doing enough? Are we doing enough? If the graduating classes of 1973, 1984, 2001 and 2004 haven’t quite figured things out, what makes me think the class of 2029 will? Perhaps my son’s cohort will prove me wrong. Our future depends on it.

“Daddy, when I grow up I want to be just like you! Can you put me down now?”

Anthony Carnovale lives in Orangeville, Ont.