Eight founding members created OPERI (pronounced “O-per-e”) a little over a year ago. During the ensuing months considerable effort was spent fine tuning our message and determining how to most effectively advance our cause. The OPERI website will be revised over the summer to reflect what was learned. Currently it contains a compelling list of short videos by notable people speaking about the state of education and how it can be different.
Creating a groundswell that leads to fundamental change is a challenging task, and a document titled Organizing: People, Power, Change provides a valuable guide. Every communication, and every conversation, can be counted as one step closer to our goal, and we have initiated thousands of these since the inception of OPERI.
- In August 2015, OPERI sent individually addressed emails to all of the Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) principals and vice-principals. The purpose was to urge them to cultivate robust dialogues in their schools and communities about self-directed learning and how innovative educators were reaping its benefits. While the general public is needed to provide the impetus to make change happen, it depends on the professionals who run our schools to be fully cognizant of how children learn best, and to provide the learning environments that have the capacity to meet, with equity, the needs of every child in his or her community. Needed changes will not occur without educators being up to speed on the common thinking behind the views on learning communities, democratic learning environments, unschooling, self-directed learning, 21st century learning skills, creativity, appropriate change management practices and the like. Before the new school year begins, emails will again be sent to OCDSB principals and vice-principals to advise them that our website has been revised and to encourage them to undertake projects that help people imagine the potential in “putting children first”.
- OPERI – Public is a Facebook group created to serve as a powerful awareness building tool with postings about how children learn best and the kinds of support they need to flourish. It already contains many valuable items. Anyone may join the group and all are welcome to post related items and/or comments. The group currently has over five hundred members.
- Homeschoolers Supporting the Public Education Remake Initiative is a closed Facebook group of Ottawa homeschoolers and unschoolers. They want school systems that invite parents to play major roles in their children’s learning. They also want to see school boards putting far greater emphasis on building healthy communities for children.
- Beyond Measure: In January 2016, OPERI hosted an Ottawa screening of the film Beyond Measure. It points out where public education is going wrong, but it focuses on the creative work of students and educators who are turning things around. This full-length documentary is a sequel to the highly acclaimed film Race to Nowhere. Well over a hundred people attended the screening and OPERI will be looking to help provide another screening of the film in Ottawa.
- OPERI held a World Café to follow-up on the screening of Beyond Measure. People shared their views and discussed how the Ottawa community could encourage the kinds of innovations presented in the film.
- Parenting Times Magazine runs a 2-day spring Expo in Ottawa that attracts thousands of parents and children. OPERI had a booth at the event this year and actively worked to engage parents in discussions about their children’s education. Common views expressed, particularly by fathers, were: “I hated school”, “I was bored”, “It was a waste of time”, and “I didn’t realize I was smart until I got out of school and got into the real world”. The need to move beyond perpetuating the same disservice to today’s children was a common sentiment.
- In January, the OCDSB held a one-day conference for parents titled Bridging Home & School. It involved approximately 300 participants. OPERI was present to engage in conversations and it shared its literature with almost all in attendance. The conference revealed that the board has many thoughtful educators who are interested in the big issues and who desire real change, but lacking was a clear, long term vision of a superior public education system and how to accomplish systemic change. On another note, an encouraging document published by the OCDSB titled Unleashing Potential, Harnessing Possibilities indicates that the Board is aware of the latest thinking on education, but its actions suggest it is only giving it lip service or that it is confused about how to apply it. The pilot programs proposed by OPERI are designed to spark the imagination needed to transform our schools and we will continue to promote the opportunities they offer.
- The Ottawa Carleton Assembly of School Councils (OCASC) is an umbrella group representing the common concerns of the school councils of well over a hundred OCDSB schools. We have attended its meetings, communicated with numerous members, and had a face-to-face conversation with one of its co-chairs. We also attended a number of individual school council meetings and attempted to enlist their support in helping parents to imagine the full range of possibilities for children. The impression to date is that the parents who participate in school councils are not game changers. They tend to subscribe to the traditional school model and measure success with test scores. With few exceptions, they appear to be “successful” products of the old system who want to perpetuate what they think worked for them. It is our view that people who assume positions of responsibility in these organizations have a duty to consider the big picture. We need them to contemplate that trying to make the old system right doesn’t work and that we must pursue new directions. We will encourage people with diverse views to join school councils to make them more representative of their communities, and consequently more relevant.
- Social services: Considerable effort was put into informing child and youth services workers of the views OPERI is promoting. These people experience firsthand the children who are most suffering, and we need them to speak out about the ways schools compound the difficulties of young people. There are endless stories like Lynda Weinman’s, founder of Lynda.com, in the preface to the book Beyond Measure. School was not a problem for her until her family experienced a crisis. Her example shows the tenuousness of a traditional education that puts curriculum ahead of the best interests of the child. Kids born into families in crisis hardly have a chance. Schools don’t have to be this way. They can be solid homes-away-from-home that naturally provide safety nets for kids. Schools can provide children with stability and robust relationships with professionals who make great role models. We will continue to encourage people working with children and youth to advocate for the kinds of learning environments that put children ahead of curriculum.
- Community associations, environmental and human rights advocacies: Considerable effort was also put into building awareness of how the success of these groups is dependent upon public education. A citizenry that feels responsible and that actively participates in creating a better world is needed for them to succeed in meaningful and lasting ways. A healthy, participatory democracy is not cultivated with boss-managed school systems that make people compliant and reliant on others to make their decisions for them. Dorothy Nolte’s poem titled, Children Learn What They Live needs to be heeded. To avoid forever pounding the drums to awaken sound sleepers who could already be awake, these organizations need to be advocates for learning environments that treat the young as full-fledged members of society with voices that matter. We will continue to make the case that any group fighting for a better world advances its cause by being advocates for the rights of children, and that this can be done with very little drain on its resources.
- We made valuable connections with the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa and will seek to build on these relationships. Dr. Joel Westheimer’s work on democratic learning and the Imagination, Creativity, and Innovation Cohorts program are two of the Faculty’s efforts that we are following with interest.
- Delegation to OCDSB: Numerous face-to-face, phone, and email exchanges with OCDSB trustees and administrators culminated with an OPERI presentation to the Committee of the Whole on June 7th, 2016. The required written statement, along with the Board’s response, and a subsequent response can be found on the OPERI blog. We will continue our efforts to have the Board develop a vision of effective learning communities where the bells have been eliminated and students have far greater control over their learning.
In addition to the above are the constantly generated emails, phone calls and meetings with parents and others who have an expressed interest in children, and who might see the need to actively pursue the ideas we are sharing. With the groundwork that has been laid in OPERI’s short existence, we are looking forward to a productive year ahead.