Advice for families dealing with crammed curriculums


Dear Adele,

Our two teenagers are attending an Ottawa high school and find the new quadmester system just too much, too fast! Information is being presented in roughly half the normal time, switching between in- school and online learning. We are worried that our boys will not be prepared for the next grade level, especially our eldest who hopes to go to university in September 2021. What should we do?

Sincerely, Concerned about Cramming the Curriculum


Dear Concerned about Cramming the Curriculum,

The impact of COVID-19 has been felt in our area since the beginning of 2020. This week Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “urges vigilance on public health measures to contain the deadly spike in Covid-19 cases.” He beseeches the population to bear down, and follow the public health rules “to contain a daring spike and new projections that warn of a possible explosion in the caseload”. This report is not the kind of news we would all hope for, especially since it affects our children’s education.

Our Ministry of Education in Ontario, our school boards and our teachers are making superlative efforts to continue educating Ontario children, under most difficult circumstances. The children’s health and safety are paramount, and their education, while important, has to be delivered working around the health concerns and advice of the public health experts and decisions of the leaders.

The CBC recently did a study on teachers’ perceptions of the impact of Covid-19 on education. Ten thousand questionnaires were sent out in our region, and 1,000 were returned. It seems that the curriculum is being delivered differently, depending on the school board. The Ottawa Carleton District School Board is using the quadmester system in high school, with in-person classes held four hours per subject every other day. Two subjects are taught on alternating weeks, resulting in 11 or 12 in person classes per subject through the quadmester. This sounds like the delivery model your sons are experiencing.

An article by CBC's Jennifer Chevalier entitled ‘Teachers fear impact of crammed curriculum on students’, states that many teachers find that with the quadmester model, there is too much material to cover and that the pace is too fast. There is not enough time to present the full curriculum, little time for practice, no time for review and not enough study time during the accelerated course. The teachers and the children are mentally and emotionally affected. Some are feeling pressure and anxiety. Children’s grades are sometimes lower and there is not enough time for the children to improve their midterm grades, if necessary.

The requirement to cover the curriculum is a real challenge for the teachers with the time they have, and the content has to be trimmed back to the core. The teachers find it difficult to see so many students struggling with the fast pace and yet they have no control over changing it. There just seems to be not enough time for the students to absorb and process information meaningfully with the quadmester arrangement. Teachers are cramming and the kids are inundated with material which becomes overwhelming.

Erica Potter, an English teacher with the Ottawa Carleton District School Board told the CBC that some of the curriculum has had to be shortened. Projects and summative tests have been eliminated. Many of the fun activities have been scratched. The curriculum is basically watered down to a core. Erica mentioned that it is hard for a teacher to know struggling students and be on top of their issues because they are only seen every second day. The onus then, is on the student to contact the teacher if he/she is having difficulties, rather than the reverse, which is more normally the situation.

So, Concerned about Cramming the Curriculum, you are not alone. Your children are not alone either. The teachers are on the same page as you. They are concerned about cramming the curriculum. They are concerned about the stress on the children and on the staff. They are concerned about students who are disengaging from learning. They’re concerned about lowered marks. They are concerned about the reduction in knowledge learned.  They wonder how this will affect the adolescents’ mental health. They wonder how this will affect the long-term future of the students, as well.

You might want to come to accept that you have no control over this situation. You are unable to change the way the school system delivers the curriculum to your children during this extremely difficult global pandemic. The key for your children is for you to help them work around it, and do the best they can to cover what is on the curriculum for the year. If they cannot do this at school why not be creative and think of ways, they can do it at home?

Listed below are a few practical ideas which I think might be of use:

1: Call a “Family Meeting” when everyone is free and minus their cell phones and devices. Lead the family in a frank discussion about the crammed curriculum. Try to get everyone to identify the issues and concerns. Encourage each family member to express his/her feelings about the situation. This should help alleviate some stress and worry about school for your boys.

2: Reassure the adolescents that you are tough and that you will all hunker down together and survive the pandemic scholastically. Let your teenagers know you do not expect top grades, only top effort. This shows empathy and provides support.

3: Together develop a way to structure your teenager’s days to do school work a full 6 hours daily, as if life were normal. Add an additional 2 hours for homework time. Include weekend study time. A daybook with space for hourly entries might help. This sets a routine and helps your boys get organized.

4: Obtain a copy of the full regular curriculum for the courses, the regular textbook and supplementary textbooks. Decide what topics lend themselves to self-study. This provides resources and sets goals.

5: Ask the teachers for a list of essential topics to learn in preparation for the next grade, so the student will know what to focus on when learning at home on his own. This clarifies and narrows the goals.

6: Make a plan for your teenager to study the material on his own, as a self-directed learner. Use the day planner to organize each day. Check the teenager’s accomplishments each evening. Give praise generously.

7: Consider finding a “Buddy” for your teenager who also wants to do well in his schoolwork. They could devise ways to support or work together virtually online, on the phone or in person. This might support engaged learning and help with motivation.

8: Determine when your adolescent can approach the teacher and guide him in how to ask for and receive help if needed. This gives your teen tools to get help.

9: Work with your teenager every day no matter the subject. Provide guidance and learn along with him if the material is new to you as well. Involve the parents of his “Buddy’ if possible and/or needed. These strategies provide additional support.

10: Hire a tutor for a few sessions if the waters get rough. This is extra support too.

11: Be encouraging, positive and accepting of the results. Remind your offspring that he may have to repeat a subject or two, and that a repetition of the course is no problem to you, if more time is needed to master the contents. It is always better to know the required material well before moving to more difficult concepts or the next grade. Chances of success are far greater with that scenario.

Help your family accept that our leaders, parents, teachers, and kids can only deliver their best effort under these very adverse circumstances. We all need to realize that the previous goals set for grade levels are likely unrealistic given the delivery time currently available.  Learning is lifelong so fear not.

 Teach your children to be organized and to try hard. Teach them to lean in and apply themselves to the work their teachers are able to impart.  Let them know you love them no matter what, and that that love is not based upon the grades they get. In the end, this pandemic time period may help the boys mature more quickly and develop a strong independent work ethic which will stand them in good stead going forward with their education and future work life.

Sincerely, Adele

Photo: Annie Spratt, Unsplash