Olympics 101

Vancouver students will study everything from geography to history to prepare for the Winter Games

Vancouver students may be taking a class in Olympics 101 during the two years leading up to the 2010 Winter Games. Olympic organizers have launched an education site with lesson plans for school teachers concerning everything from geography to history, and a program for university students is also in the works.

From lesson plans about specific countries coming to the Olympics to visits with athletes, school boards say they want to take advantage of all the teachable moments the Games have to offer beyond the traditional focus on sports.

“We’re concerned about the whole issue of the ethics of the Olympics, of having the Olympics, all these matters that may be quite controversial but they provide very good learning opportunities and development of critical skills in students,” said Ken Denike, a trustee with the Vancouver School Board. “What we’re trying not to do is have the kids just be cheerleaders.”

Being a giant fan club for the Games isn’t what the school system is about, Denike said. “Some of the other Olympics had a high component of kids as cheerleaders, trading pins, kind of icon-oriented, and we’re hoping not to do that.”

Vancouver Olympic organizers make no secret of the fact that some of the marketing of the Games is explicitly aimed at children – the launch of the three mascots, plus a fourth online sidekick, is one example. But despite that, they too want the Olympics and Paralympics to be a well-rounded learning experience, said Don Black, the director of education programs for the organizing committee known as VANOC.

He points to the fact that the section of the 2010 website geared towards teachers for the Games is devoid of the corporate sponsorship that touches every other element of the Olympics. “I think that for teachers, it’s really about the teaching,” he said. “It isn’t about the subject itself per se. It’s about developing critical thinking skills or developing leadership skills or understanding mathematics or whatever it might be. I think that’s really the focus and the question is to what extent can teachers – or should teachers – use the Olympic and Paralympic Games as a teaching moment around those things. It really comes down to a decision of the individual teacher.”

Paralympic school days have already begun, with Paralympic athletes visiting classes to talk about their road to the Olympics and issues faced by people with disabilities. Olympic athlete visits may also be part of the mix, especially in Whistler, B.C., where many will live and train in the months leading up to the Games.

Unlike Olympics and Paralympics of yore when a set curriculum was developed around the Games and offered up to teachers, Black said the organizing committee’s plan this time around is to provide resources and let schools figure out for themselves how to incorporate the Games. The initial launch of the 2010 education website was met with approval, Black said, but a revamp is planned for this fall to allow teachers betters access to lesson plans and sharing information.

VANOC is also working on putting together a program for university-level students.

Many Vancouver-area schools are having their spring break during a portion of the 2010 Games, though a decision has not been made yet on whether Vancouver schools themselves will close. Among the plans in place in the Vancouver-area for curriculum include 100 different lesson plans, a course for Grade 11 students specifically about the Olympics and field trips to test venues and sporting events.

For teachers in Howe Sound district, which encompasses Whistler, B.C., the home to Nordic Olympic events, a website is being built to act as a directory of all the useful information on the Internet about the Olympics itself and a binder is being developed that will suggest lessons plans on everything from geography to the environment.

Schools may each “adopt” a country that will be represented at the 2010 Games and use it to learn about history, politics and sport. They’re also all looking for ongoing projects that will eventually stand as a historical record of their work during the Games.

Though controversial issues will be addressed, the key is to try and keep a positive outlook, said Magy Odorfer, the district principal for Howe Sound. “There’s very difficult realities that are built into the Olympics and let’s face them as realities but not as negatives and see what we can do about them,” she said. “That’s the learning experience we hopefully move our kids along as they become these future global citizens.”

-with a report from CP