Important Conversations

Last year in March I thought about a project where my students could study what they were interested interested in. We called it #projectspeak. We looked at Prince Ea’s What is School for? We discussed their interests but my students in that moment struggled to identify something that they really felt passionate about. There was the odd student that came in ready to discuss a topic but for the most part they had to dig to find something that really motivated them to explore.

This year I decided that we would spend time each week looking at non-fiction texts. Issues in the news, working to look at the environment, topics around equity and helping my students see outside their bubble. See we live in a rural community. There are less than 3000 people that live in our little town. The other day my wife and I were discussing ways in which I can help my students to understand the issues of the world. A large one being equity. My students don’t, for the most part, understand what racism is. Numbers wise we have a student body K-12 that is 90%+ white. The remaining 10% is largely first nations students. When I talk books that do not reflect my students they have until very recently shown little interest. I am finding the journey at times hard to navigate. I don’t want to tell a single story, I want to break up the narratives that promote stereotypes and work to introduce stories that are new to my students and also build a better view of the world as a whole. I also want my students to see that the world does have issues that, to be prepared to live in it, we need to start learning about and addressing.

In a community a mere 30 minutes away there is an opioid drug crises that has poured gasoline on a fire of homelessness, crime, poverty and racist narratives around first nations people. This is 30 minutes away and we are generally isolated from it. This week we have had a few tough conversations around non-fiction text. The first looked at child poverty in our country. As students read the article I had them focus on a few skills. First we established the idea of “So What?” When something stands out to you, when you notice it and think it is important ponder why you feel that way. Then we practiced some TQE and discussion groups formed around the article.

Coming together students wrote their thinking on the board for a full class discussion. It was the first evidence that discussions we have been having around equity, race and privilege this year have been impacting them. Beyond just the books they have stated reading they are thinking with a more critical lens. Students focused much of their attention on the numbers and stats (thank you Notice and Note) and quickly expressed their concerns around the fact that the communities most impacted by poverty were First Nations (both those who live on reserves and off) and families who had recently arrived to Canada as immigrants and refugees. As some students expressed ideas that held their roots in racist narratives they had learned elsewhere other students corrected them and our conversations were not arguments but thoughtful exchanges. One student asked the question if racism was the cause of this poverty another asked about the connection to residential schools and the trauma that continues to reverberate through those communities. Another student simply wrote on the board “What can we do?” This topic will not be a one and done. Some students are already expressing a desire to further research and look at poverty in our country and specifically regarding children.

This week as we just finished looking in Social Studies at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and started looking at the rebellion of the 13 colonies against the British and events that played out after a student mentioned that “slaves came to Canada because it was better for them” on the same day as part of an online campaign for Black History month I saw an article on the Enslavement of Black people in Canada. I am embarrassed to admit that I held the same beliefs that my student did because of the history classes I had and what I was taught. Canada, as far as I understood, did not have a history of benefiting from the enslaved, there was definitely inequitable treatment mentioned in our text books but this was not emphasized much like Residential Schools are not. In reading the fantastic book This book is Antiracist by Tiffany Jewell I saw how important it was to recognize and know our history. We started looking at this article with that lens. Students were shocked, adults in the halls that I asked had not been taught this piece of our history. They only received the safe haven version. As we finish the the article next week the plan is to look at why the narrative of the safe haven has persisted over the years. The 50+ year old coworker and the 12 year old student held the same myth as fact. As we look at and discuss this new to us information my hope is we can apply it to the questions of our history and what it means that this fact is only briefly addressed in our text books and dialogue.

I momentarily hesitated, concerned that these topics might be too tough for my kids but it was only a moment. If we are going to help change the world we need to understand our histories and the current reality of the world. The world does not end at the border of our wonderful little town. Racism is a problem that we need to address even if we can not see its immediate human impact within the walls of our school or classroom. I am learning and growing as an educator as I consider things with an equity lens.

How can I help my students see the world around them?

How can I help them see the role they have in opposing inequality?

This work is not easy, and it is most certainly new territory for my kids to explore and me to address. But there are amazing educators around the world doing amazing equity work, the work of not only Antiracists but also advocates and allies for LGTBQ members of our communities, those working to draw attention to economic inequalities and the issues that are woven in with that.

My journey in this work and teaching started with a renewed clarity last May, I am so late to this work and I am learning and making mistakes along the way. But there are so many educators that are brilliantly leading and can be supported through amplifying their messages, pushing to ensure organizers of conferences and speaking opportunities know these folx are the ones that we want to learn from. Book publishers are looking to jump on these topics. We as educators wanting to learn need to make sure we are supporting those who have been doing the work, if books on these topics are to be published let those who have been advocating for it be the ones to write them. I have been blessed to learn from an amazing group on these topics.I try to amplify them whenever possible and honour their work. Some conversations can be tough to have, especially when the issues are not so clearly identified in our communities but that doesn’t mean that are any less important.

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