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Educator Jan Howlett was a ‘Picasso of curriculum’

Jan Howlett marking at her desk in the early days of the Howlett Academy. She was was revered and feared by her students in equal measure.

Adina Balint-Babos

Jan Howlett often said that Jill Ker Conway's memoir The Road from Coorain told the story of her own life, from the dusty Australian outback where she lived with her family on a Merino sheep farm to the community of elite private schools in Toronto.

As founder and principal of the Howlett Academy, a junior kindergarten to Grade 8 school with 60 students, Ms. Howlett's strict pedagogical style and determination inspired controversy among educators.

Take a stroll along Madison Avenue in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood during school hours and you might hear a chorus of young voices reciting the times tables, or enunciating the capitals of Europe, Asia, Africa and North America, coming from inside a tiny, red-brick building.

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An enemy of mediocrity and champion of rote learning, Ms. Howlett was revered and feared by her students in equal measure. As graduate Dakota Leopold says, "Jan gave tough love. Which is sometimes the best love a person can give, especially to a student who is eager to learn."

Her former teacher could also display flexibility and tenderness, Ms. Leopold says. "Because of my fear of presenting projects in front of the other students, Jan let me present it to her in a separate room."

Ms. Howlett basted her students in core literacy and numeracy skills, demanding each pupil fully grasp each subject before moving on – at their own pace and with lots of extra help. She loathed the word "covered," preferring instead to teach children mastery, and wanted students to compete with themselves, not with each other.

"Strict, yes, but not a 'tiger mom' environment," said educational consultant Claudia Hepburn, who has three children at the school. "Jan says she has never met a child who couldn't learn but she has met too many who are NBT – Never Been Taught."

Ms. Howlett died in Toronto of a brain tumour on July 14. She leaves her husband, David Ben, and sons Courtney and Harrison Howlett-Ben.

Ms. Howlett's teaching career in both the public and private systems spanned three decades in Canada, Britain and Australia.

Before opening the Howlett Academy a decade ago, she headed public programming and education at the Royal Ontario Museum, initiating community-based programs such as Friday Nights at the ROM. She was also the inaugural executive director of the Children's Own Museum in Toronto.

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Born to Audrey and Leslie Howlett in Coleraine, Australia, some 350 kilometres west of Melbourne, Jan was the eldest daughter in a family of nine children. In a town of 50 inhabitants, her family made up more than one fifth of the population.

Both her parents dropped out of school at age 12 and lived in the outback. Her mother gave birth to her children in a brief span of years and Jan tended to all, as well as to the housework and some of the farm chores. The family had no electricity or running water; doing laundry meant heating a copper pot over an outdoor fire, scrubbing clothes by hand and hanging them on a line to dry.

In middle school, it was an hour-long commute by bus then a five-kilometre walk to the farm. Typically, Jan and her siblings would be attacked by magpies protecting their nests set high in the eucalyptus trees. "They would swoop seemingly from nowhere and it was quite terrifying as the birds would land on the shoulders and peck the head of their victims," said her sister Linda Howlett, a lawyer in Melbourne.

Jan's creative solution was to carry thin fallen branches above her head, which the confused birds took to perching upon. Instead of swooshing them away, she could calmly escort the birds – and the other children – through the bush.

Her learning was hard learning. Ms. Howlett felt she never had a childhood and struggled to acquire an education. These early experiences were reflected in her later pedagogical philosophy.

There was caring for her younger siblings, particularly her sisters, whom she encouraged to study hard so they could carve out independent lives. There was the one-room schoolhouse she attended, where the big kids coached the little kids, strict discipline was meted out and drills were mandatory. There was the strict punishment of the nuns she was educated by in her adolescence, including harsh straps to the backs of the legs.

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Influenced by this environment, Ms. Howlett believed grades were an administrative rather than an intellectual concept. Children learn at their own speed and in their own time, she argued, and sometimes learning hurts.

Being educated by the Catholic nuns, affectionately referred to by their students as "the penguins," was a shaping influence on Ms. Howlett. "Jan was always so grateful to the nuns," said Linda Howlett. "She saw them as strong women who recognized the power of education and advanced girls, in particular, at a time when there were few opportunities for them."

Recognizing Ms. Howlett's intellect, the nuns arranged a scholarship for her to board at St Martin's in the Pines in the city of Ballarat for her final two years of schooling.

After receiving her teaching diploma from Geelong Teachers' College, her bachelor of arts from La Trobe University and a graduate diploma in education from Deakin University, Ms. Howlett worked as a teacher and principal in Melbourne.

In 1987, she received a full scholarship to a master's degree in science from the University of London. While there, she met David Ben, a Canadian lawyer turned magician. He was at the London School of Economics at the time but doffed it all for the art of magic.

After a brief courtship, the two were married in 1988 in Toronto and set about making the Annex their home. Ms. Howlett took various teaching jobs in the city, both in public and private schools. She also taught ESL classes to immigrants.

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Once her two sons started school, Ms. Howlett quickly grew intolerant of what she perceived to be an acceptance of mediocrity in the educational system. "Jan was full driven for achievement," Mr. Ben said. "She wasn't so worried about hurting children's feelings but believed they derived self-esteem from accomplishing."

No touchy-feely, warm-and-fuzzy approach would do. Children were shuffled off too easily, she said, or loaded down with psychological labels such as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or being gifted. She believed it was almost criminal that the system failed to teach students the basic three Rs.

Not wanting the same for her sons, she quit her job at the ROM and opted to home-school them instead. After a few years of open books spread out on the dining room table, and teaching the children of other dissatisfied parents, she bought the building at 15 Madison Ave. and hammered in the Howlett Academy sign.

"Jan was a great believer in exposing children to different great things," Ms. Hepburn said. "While there was repetition, it's always done with interest and with love and not just for the goal of jamming information into your brain."

Creativity was key – Ms. Howlett was once given the moniker "Picasso of curriculum." One year while teaching at a public elementary school in Toronto, she based the entire Grade 6 curriculum around the BOC Challenge, a single-handed yacht race where a group of sailors circumnavigated the globe.

Their journey coincided with the school year so her students studied oceanography, world geography and local literature. Each child was paired with a sailor who kept in touch via e-mail.

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One sailor capsized off Australia and was rescued after a three-day search and rescue operation. The students waited with trepidation, keen to read the latest updates.

Another sailor died off Cape Horn. Students held a memorial for him in the classroom. "People always say, 'Oh, you can't learn about death, it's too heavy for kids,'" said Mr. Ben.

When the boats finally docked in South Africa, Ms. Howlett had the South African consulate talk to the children about the country. They also had videotaped exchanges with kids in classrooms in South Africa.

"Jan would just figure out these ways of integrating the world, making it relevant and making it fun and making it exciting," Mr. Ben said.

Each Jan. 26, on Australia Day, Ms. Howlett treated the students to gobs of Vegemite on crackers and renditions of Waltzing Matilda. An education not easily forgotten.

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