The future of education is chai lattes, soothing oils, and power poses. At least, those are a few of the must-have ingredients Vanessa Vakharia believes foster a healthy learning environment for high-school students, not the larger class sizes, reduced one-on-one time with teachers, and new math curriculum proposed by Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
So Vakharia, a math teacher turned entrepreneur, created XAM Study Lounge as a pop-up space for Toronto teens to cram for their upcoming tests with the help of tutors for $10 a day. She calls the program, the first of its kind, an “act of resistance” against the Ford government’s controversial education overhaul.
The space, an empty storefront in the Yonge and Eglinton area, looks more like Anthropologie than a classroom, with bright white walls, colourful accents, a latte station, and couches. There are Pinterest-worthy frames holding inspirational messages like “What Doesn’t Challenge You Doesn’t Change You” and a “failure wall” with the stories of successful people’s failures, like Oprah Winfrey and JK Rowling.
XAM Study Lounge mirrors an idyllic scene from a shiny teen rom-com, but perfection is the antithesis of Vakharia’s vision. She wants her students to embrace their disappointments and differences — something she says the current education framework does not.
“We only value certain types of students and certain types of learning,” says Vakharia. “I say this from personal experience of being basically bullied out of a system that valued a traditional style that didn’t jive with me.”
Now affectionately called “The Math Guru” by her students, Vakharia failed math in high school. Twice. Then, after switching to a liberal arts alternative school, she turned her grades around and went on to obtain a Masters in Mathematics Education. It’s a story that has made her somewhat of a legend to the students at XAM. Sixteen-year-old Ethan Shap, who Vakharia warmly chides for asking for “normal tea” instead of her fancy flavoured options (Birthday Cake and French Toast), goes to XAM to get everything from calculus help to relationship advice.
“Being here is almost like therapy,” says Shap. “Your tutor in the more conventional means they’re just a tutor, but here it’s more like they’re your friend, and they’re someone you can trust and be consistent with. I think that’s how we should be learning.”
This intimate style of tutoring is why Jordyn Lasko, 18, says the study lounge “built my confidence and helped me accomplish everything I’ve ever wanted to accomplish.” After feeling insecure because her ex-boyfriend was getting better grades than her while her own were slipping, Lasko says she turned to the tutors at XAM. She was “literally crying” into her textbooks last year and come next fall, she’ll be studying marketing and entrepreneurship at McGill University. “I’m so not a school person and the amazing part about this space is that they cater to kids who aren’t school people,” Lasko says. “Because the school system is a one-size-fits-all mould.”
Criticisms of the current school system flow as freely as caffeine at XAM. The teens here (ranging from Grades 7 to 12) fit the presumed qualities of their generation: They’re informed, socially engaged, and pissed off at the grownups making decisions that affect their future.
Rachel Ferguson-Wuls is “15 almost 16” and a regular at XAM. Her frustrations with the government’s education changes are personal. She has ADHD and goes through school with an individualized education program (IEP), meaning that she writes tests in a private room and is afforded other specialized modifications to suit her learning style.
“Because I do have an IEP I get accommodated so therefore I do well in school and do things to the best of my ability,” she says. “If [Doug Ford] cuts those programs, honestly, I don’t know what I would do.” While IEPs haven’t been specifically cited in Ford’s $25-million cuts to specialized school programs, teachers and students are worried they will be affected.
Ferguson-Wuls is one of the students across Ontario who participated in the April walkout protest the provincial government’s education changes. She and her friends at North Toronto High School “made signs and marched around the school, yelling.” It was her second walkout; the first was to protest the province’s proposed changes to the sex-ed curriculum that would push back when students learn about gender identity (Grade 8 instead of Grade 2) and scrap the 2015 curriculum that addressed consent, online bullying, sexting, and same-sex relationships. Sex education is a hot-button topic at XAM — reactions range from “I don’t like what he’s doing” to “I think Doug Ford is an idiot.”
Vakharia attempts to find common ground with Ford in their mutual dislike for conventional school. “He hated math himself, but he grew him in the exact curriculum he’s trying to switch back to,” she pauses thoughtfully. “I have these dreams that I’m going to be the one to change his mind.”
When I ask Vakharia what she would say to Ford if she had the chance, it’s the first time she seems unsure what to say. When she gets back to me over email 48 hours later, she writes, “I would invite Doug Ford to talk to the kids — not me. To actually hear what they have to say. I would love to know when the last time he or any educational policymakers have actually spoken to kids about what they want and NEED when it comes to education.”