A Picasso of curriculum

Jan Howlett marking at her desk in the early days of the Howlett Academy. She was revered and feared by her students in equal measure. (PHOTO: Adina Balint-Babos)

Jan Howlett marking at her desk in the early days of the Howlett Academy. She was revered and feared by her students in equal measure. (PHOTO: Adina Balint-Babos)

Hard lessons growing up in the Australian outback led to a pedagogical style that embraced rote learning but also creativity

Special to The Globe and Mail
August 22, 2013

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 homeschool 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.

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.

Originally posted: August 22, 2013
Globe & Mail: http://v1.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20130822.OBJANHOWLETT0821ATL/BDAStory/BDA/deaths


Obituary – Globe & Mail

The Globe & Mail | July 17, 2013
Birth & Death Notices

Renowned educator Jan Howlett, christened Lesley Janette Howlett, was born in the 1950s in Coleraine, Australia, in the state of Victoria, 350 kilometers from Melbourne to Audrey and Leslie Howlett, sheep farmers of Merino wool. She was the second eldest of nine children, six brothers and three sisters, but as the oldest girl, she spent much of her early childhood helping her mother manage the household.

Although she received her Diploma of Teaching from Geelong Teachers College, her Bachelor of Arts from La Trobe University, a Graduate Diploma of Educational Administration from Deakin University, and a Masters of Science from the University of London, she traced much of her pedagogy to the one room school house she experienced growing up on a farm in the country, and also to the nuns that taught her in her formative years.

In 1987, after having served as a teacher and then principal at inner city schools in Melbourne, she received a full scholarship to obtain a Masters degree from the University of London. It was there that she met a student at the London School of Economics, David Ben, a magician from Canada who was then masquerading as a lawyer. He persuaded her that Canada had a warm climate, and the two were married in Toronto in 1988. Toronto became their home. He left the practice of law to perform magic; she continued to transform the lives of children and inspire people, particularly women, to take charge of their lives, become educated, achieve success and contribute to the community. Together, they had two boys – Courtney and Harrison Howlett-Ben.

For Jan, there was no separation between education and community. Feeling very much an immigrant in this country, she was particularly concerned about children and the plight of new Canadians. Initially, she taught for the Toronto District School Board in Regent Park and then, in Moore Park. When she attempted to enroll her own children at the Mabin School, Geraldine (Gerry) Mabin offered her a placement instead, and Jan joined the staff of that the school. Two years later, when Gerry became involved with the founding of the Children’s Own Museum (COM) in the Planetarium, she recruited Jan to become its inaugural Executive Director. Two years later, however, Jan was lured away by Dr. Lindsay Sharp, the Executive Director of the Royal Ontario Museum, to become its Director of Education and Public Programming, where she would initiate many innovative community-based programs including “Friday Nights at the ROM”. Within another two years, she made another transition, and founded her own school, the Howlett Academy.

It started small; the first student was her son, Courtney. (She had been dissatisfied with the quality of education he had been receiving.) It soon grew to three students, with classes conducted at the dinning room table at her home on Madison Avenue. When others heard that she was back teaching and asked if she would homeschool their children, she decided to move shop, and acquire the building at 15 Madison Avenue. Now, ten years later, the Howlett Academy has over 60 students (JK-8), and a staff of 12, all molded in the Howlett manner.

On April 16, 2013, after complaining about the loss of her peripheral vision, Jan was diagnosed with Glioblastoma multiforme. Sadly, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation could not arrest the disease. She passed away peacefully at 6:35 pm on July 14, 2013 at Princess Margaret Hospital, her family and friends being pillars of support. A private service is scheduled.

Described by a colleague as a Picasso with curriculum, Jan inspired thousands of boys and girls, men and women, to improve their lives, and those of others, through education and community service. Fortunately, her legacy will continue through her students, former and future, and the families that pass through the Howlett Academy.

The family has posted a Facebook page detailing the party planned for August 10, 2013 to celebrate Jan’s life. See facebook.com/L.Jan.Howlett for more information.

In lieu of flowers, the family would appreciate donations in Memory of Jan Howlett be sent to the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation.


Toronto Star

By:  News reporter, Published on Tue Jul 16 2013


Jan Howlett founded popular Toronto private school Howlett Academy after being frustrated by the public school system's "acceptance of mediocrity."Toronto private school crusader Jan Howlett dies

Founder of Howlett Academy in Toronto’s Annex started school for her sons after frustration with public school system’s “acceptance of mediocrity.”

Jan Howlett once told a student: “To learn and to do better, it has to hurt.”

It was something the founder of Howlett Academy, a popular private school in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, truly believed — that any student could learn, no matter how much they struggled.

Now, her students, colleagues and family are grieving after she died of a brain tumour Sunday. Many former students have written to express how Howlett changed their lives, said her husband, David Ben.

“She used to say she taught kids who suffer from NBT — never been taught,” he said. “All these kids that are quick to be labelled, they just haven’t been taught. A great teacher can teach any kid.”

A lifelong educator, Howlett was born in Australia and taught there and in London, England, before settling in Toronto in 1988. She taught at several public schools and one private school in the city.

But about 11 years ago, Howlett’s frustration with the public school system boiled over. At one point, a teacher suggested one of their sons seek counselling because his high achievements could cause anxiety, said Ben.

“We thought, ‘We’re not too interested in a school that’s afraid of achievement,’” he said.

“The acceptance of mediocrity in this country used to drive her nuts. You can’t say anyone was wrong, or there’s a better way, because you’re going to hurt their feelings.”

Howlett decided to pull her sons, Harrison and Court, in Grades 4 and 6 at the time, out of public school and home school them instead. Parents began calling to see if she could home school their kids, too.

Soon after, she bought a building on Madison Ave., near Bloor St. W. and Spadina Ave. The small school grew quickly through word-of-mouth. Howlett Academy now teaches 60 kids from junior kindergarten to Grade 8.

The school’s philosophy is to teach children to master every subject, using methods such as repetition, moving at one’s own pace and receiving lots of extra attention, said teacher Madeleine Zaarour.

“Jan loathed the word ‘covered.’ It’s not enough to ‘cover’ a subject. We teach the child to mastery,” she said.

Howlett was known for her tough love approach. She didn’t give easy As and she marked wrong answers in red ink. But the teacher boosted students’ confidence, rather than discouraging them, said Zaarour.

“The red pen is not to put anybody down. The red pen is to teach somebody to be perfect,” she said.

Zaarour began to volunteer at the school eight years ago after her son Elias enrolled in Grade 1. Howlett encouraged her to go to teachers’ college because it was important to her to see other women succeed, said Zaarour.

As for Elias, now 13, he recalled in a graduation speech last month how he had struggled with reading and writing when he first came to the school. Every time he sat down to write creatively, he would start to cry.

But Howlett told him that learning “has to hurt,” and that it takes 10,000 repetitions to master a subject. She never doubted his ability to succeed, he said.

“Yes, it has to hurt, but it made me an excellent writer, all because Jan never gave up on me,” he said. “I hope that one day I’ll give to others what Jan has given me . . . the gift of writing among many other things.”

Jan Howlett

It is with great sadness that I report the passing of Jan Howlett at 6:35 this evening, July 14 2013, at Princess Margaret Hospital.

Jan had completed the chemo and radiation in mid-June but, unfortunately, it became clear after a couple of weeks that the treatment had little impact.

We just wanted to give you, the parents, this information as you and your children meant a great deal to her. For now, please know that she died peacefully, constantly surrounded by family members from here and Australia.

She donated her eyes to the Eye Bank so that someone else could benefit from sight, and enjoy the written word – and the world – as much as she did.

We are going to organize a small, private service for the family, but a large Jan-like Aussie party in August. The date will be August 10, from 2pm to 7 pm , and it will be at the school. (That is the day after her birthday!) All are invited to have a drink and trade their favourite Jan stories.

In lieu of flowers, please instead consider donations in memory of Jan Howlett to The Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation.

We will be setting up a Facebook page for her. (I know that the concept drove her crazy, but we really believe it is the best way for friends and family from around the world to celebrate her life.)

Finally, we would like to thank you for all of the love and support you have given to Jan, and to our family.


David Ben

A radical alternative: real teaching – Globe and Mail


Last updated Thursday, Sep. 06 2012, 3:46 PM EDT

Paul Ballard liked the public school he used to go to in Toronto. The teachers were nice and he had a lot of friends there. But by Grade 6, he was behind in a lot of subjects and his handwriting was an illegible scrawl. He was told that because of his learning disability, he would never learn to write, and would always have to rely on a computer.

“There were many meetings,” he told me. “They told my parents there were many things I would never learn to do.”

Jan Howlett has seen this scene before. By the time Paul (not his real name) arrived at her little private school last spring, his file was an inch thick. She has another diagnosis for kids like these. NBT: Never Been Taught. “They spend all their time talking about the kid instead of teaching the kid,” she said tartly.

The Howlett Academy, housed inside a plain red building in Toronto’s Annex, offers a radical alternative to the public-school approach. Its teaching methods are heavily discouraged in today’s public schools. It stresses penmanship and spelling, accuracy and focus. Every mistake in every essay is corrected – in red ink. The school’s three Rs are resilience, rigour and repetition.

Not all the kids here are like Paul. Some arrive with straight As. “My daughter was getting great grades,” one mother told me, “but she wasn’t learning anything.” When she expressed concern about her daughter’s growing indifference to school, she was told not to worry.

I watched as a teacher took her students through a quick vocabulary and spelling drill. “Threadbare,” they spelled aloud in unison. “This would be a no-no with the board of education,” said Ms. Howlett. “It’s called direct instruction.” In the age of “child-centred” education, direct instruction is thought to stifle children’s inherent creativity. They’re supposed to discover math and spelling, not memorize the times tables.

Ms. Howlett’s school has only 52 kids, from kindergarten through Grade 8. She started it by accident nine years ago, when she realized that her younger son wasn’t learning much in public school. One morning she looked at him and said, “You might as well stay home.” With a long track record as a teacher in Australia and Toronto, she figured she could just do the job herself. Then other parents begged her to teach their children too. The Howlett Academy’s annual tuition is $13,500. Many parents must dig deep to pay it.

According to the prevailing pedagogy, these kids are oppressed. They don’t seem oppressed to me. They seem attentive and engaged. When a teacher asks a question, almost every hand shoots up. It’s impossible to pick out the “behaviour” cases, because all the kids are well behaved.

“So much of public school is about making it fun,” said Ms. Howlett, a fierce advocate for her students. “But the fun is when you’ve gone from not knowing something to grasping it. That’s when you feel good inside.”

The parents here have enormous sympathy for the strained public-school system, which, they were quick to say, has many excellent and dedicated teachers. It’s the system that’s broken. They talked about the chaos, the bullying, the lack of feedback and the failure to teach students who, like Paul, are actually quite bright. They know the public system can’t offer the small classes and the individual attention their children get here. But they also think that it’s letting too many kids down.

Last week, Paul showed me a story he wrote. It was full of crackling dialogue and the handwriting was exemplary. “I learned in three months what I was told I could never learn to do in my life,” he said. “The school board just didn’t want to deal with me.”

The public system pays lip service to educational diversity. It has schools that focus on sports or arts, schools for gay and lesbian students, schools for students who want to protest against global capitalism. What it doesn’t have is any schools like the Howlett Academy. That would be too radical.

Originally published in The Globe & Mail: