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OPINION: Week of education in downtown Chilliwack an amazing experience for kids

Teacher Kelsey Ablitt creates a learning experience for her Grade 4/5 class they will never forget
A sheriff at the Chilliwack Law Courts shows a Rosedale Traditional Community School Grade 4/5 class the van used to transport accused people from Surrey Pretrial Centre to the courthouse on May 26, 2023. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)

“Don’t do drugs,” defence lawyer Alexis Falk told 22 Grade 4 and 5 kids in courtroom 204 at the Chilliwack Law Courts last Friday.

She was only half joking, using a 1980s slogan no longer used because of the failures of the war on drugs, a movement that criminalized addiction and poverty and suffering.

I say only half joking, because those who work in the criminal justice system also know it is simply true that making the choice to start engaging in mind-altering substances can end very badly for some people.

The vast majority of people facing criminal charges have addictions issues.

This was one lesson this Rosedale Traditional Community School class learned as part of a unique week of learning last week.

It was the brainchild of young teacher Kelsey Ablitt. She approached me with her idea a while ago to find a location downtown where her kids could assemble each morning, get out their journals, and go see the community. The real world. Real places in the city where they live.

I was intrigued but immediately recoiled at the thought of having that many kids in our office every morning. Eek!

I suggested the Chilliwack Cultural Centre as a home base, and Ablitt and I talked about places she and the kids should visit, and who to connect with. The cultural centre staff obliged, and Ablitt’s week kicked off.

On day one, they toured the cultural centre, the museum, and had what Ablitt tells me was an amazing tour of District 1881 with Phil Algra.

On day two, the kids saw the archives, visited the art gallery at the Chilliwack Cultural Centre, and had a ton of fun and learning at the Chilliwack Coliseum.

On day three, they had an art class, and spent a sunny day on a tour of the dozens of new and beautiful murals in the downtown area.

Then on day four, they came to The Progress. We talked about newspapers and journalism and what they were interested in. They asked remarkably incisive and thought-provoking questions for 10- and 11-year-olds.

I made a faux page one of The Progress ready with a “story” about Ablitt and her week, took a photo of the kids in the newsroom, inserted it in the page and printed it out so they could see how we put pages together.

They also got “Junior Reporter” pins from the depths of our storage room, pins that must be from the 1970s.

After the newsroom, we walked to the courthouse and had a great visit with two sheriffs in courtroom 204.

Lawyer Alexis Falk came in, not knowing we were there, and obliged us all by answering questions about her job.

One student asked her if it wasn’t true that defending “bad people makes you a bad person.”

Falk didn’t skip a beat, and explained to the kids that this is our our criminal justice system works, and that there are no “bad people,” only “people who do bad things.”

Then provincial court Judge Kristen Mundstock surprised us, coming in to sit on the bench and answer more questions. And boy did they have questions. They asked if anyone had ever tried to break out of the prisoner’s box in the courtroom. Short answer from the sheriffs, “yes.”

One kid asked what Judge Mundstock’s hardest case ever was. She paused thoughtfully, and said the hardest cases aren’t criminal, they are civil files involving parental disputes over children. Heartbreaking stuff.

They also heard about one time in another courtroom where a rookie sheriff allowed an offender to have a sandwich in the prisoner’s box, and after his conviction, he threw the sandwich at the judge. From that they learned that actions like that in a courtroom can lead to a further criminal charge. And that’s why the accused aren’t allowed to wear shoes.

After that, one of the sheriffs brought the kids to check out the “bus” that those facing criminal proceedings ride from Surrey Pre-trial to Chilliwack.

Boy, does it look uncomfortable.

“So much work and planning went into making Downtown School happen. Can’t believe it’s come to an end!”Ablitt Tweeted last Friday. “The learning our community provided was one of a kind! Can’t wait to plan more week long learning adventures in the future!”

It was 10 years ago that Ablitt herself was a student, older than these kids attending Chilliwack Secondary.

She was chosen as a “Leader of Tomorrow” by the Rotary Club, her story featured in The Progress.

“I like school, and I like the idea that you can influence someone with their learning,” Ablitt said in 2013.

She’s doing it.

Classroom learning for kids of all ages is essential and forms most of a child’s education. But field trips of any kind create memories. As do teachers like Ms. Ablitt who, last week, created an entire week of real-life learning. I’m not prone to hyperbole, but this was a week of learning that didn’t just influence the kids, it may literally change the lives of some of them.

At the very least, it’s definitely a week they will never forget.

READ MORE: Leaders of Tomorrow: Kelsey Ablitt

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