New school curriculum engages Filipino-Canadian students with lessons on immigrant life and culture

April 22, 2018

By Nicholas Keung, Toronto Star |

Taking Grade 8 geography has become that much more interesting and engaging for Chanelle Cabrera and Vincent Austria, both students at St. Ursula Catholic School in Scarborough.

In their recent class, they watched a documentary by Filipino-Canadian filmmaker Alex Humilde entitled Balikbayans about the cardboard boxes that Filipino migrant workers use to ship non-perishable food, household items, electronics, toys and designer clothing they buy with their hard-earned money back to their loved ones in the Philippines.

They also learned about the significance of remittances sent from migrant workers to the developing world, and were shocked to find out that every year an estimated $2 billion (U.S.) is wired from Canada to the Philippines.

The new Filipino-centred curriculum, launched in March, is refreshing to Cabrera and Austria, who are both 13 and second-generation Filipino-Canadians. The content was familiar to them, and was the first time they saw their culture and community reflected in what’s being taught in school.

“I found the class very engaging because it connected with me. I could relate to it because I knew the things the teacher was talking about,” said Austria.

“It’s just so interesting,” added Cabrera. The lessons on remittances “reminded me of my family in the Philippines and how much they rely on us. Now I’m learning more about the back story behind it.”

The geography curriculum is one of three new educational programs developed by the PASSOC Project, a joint initiative by Toronto Catholic District School Board and York University staff, which also includes teaching materials for Grade 6 social sciences and Grade 6 to 8 dance courses. The 285,000-strong Filipino community in Greater Toronto is among the fastest growing immigrant communities here.

PASSOC stands for Philippine Arts and Social Studies in the Ontario Curriculum and is pronounced “pasok,” which means pathway, gate and entry in Tagalog.

The effort was prompted by research from York University geography professor Philip Kelly, who found children of Filipino immigrants often had lower education attainment and less upward mobility than their peers in Canada, especially other Asian students, even though their parents were among the most educated compared to other immigrant groups.

“This project grew out of our attempt to address the root causes behind these youths’ abnormally lower education achievements among immigrant youth,” said Kelly, adding that seeing the “deprofessionalization” of their parents into manual jobs in Canada is a big disincentive for Filipino youth.

“Kids in school are disengaged because they don’t have any role model and they don’t see themselves reflected in the curriculum. Because of the jobs their parents are in, they don’t have the networks to the labour market and education.”

However, instead of trying to make the learning just “a cultural celebration moment,” Kelly said, the goal is to turn the Filipino-centric experience into something that’s part of the mainstream curriculum, not only speaking to Filipino students but also resonating with students from other immigrant communities.

While increasing diversity among school staff can help provide role models for minority students, Marissa Largo, PASSOC’s co-ordinator and a teacher with the Catholic school board, said adopting “culturally responsive” content can inspire, engage and enrich the learning experience for all students.

“This is not an add-on to what teachers are already teaching. These are just alternative tools available,” said Largo, who was born in Canada to Filipino immigrant parents. “For the Filipino students, it helps with their pride and confidence that their experience, knowledge and culture are worthy to be studied.”

Merle Gonsalvez, Cabrera’s and Austria’s geography teacher and one of the authors of PASSOC’s dance curriculum, said her class found the new curriculum refreshing and used the Filipino experience as a path to share their family’s or community’s own migration experiences in class discussions.

Read more