Teaching in rural and largely white communities I have always worried that I was not doing enough to prepare my students for the world that will be waiting for them. I would try to have the discussions around different issues in the world. We would look at poverty in Canada, even among youth but it was hard for them to really connect with the articles because they never could see themselves. We would try to look at racism in Canada but the questions always came, “Mr.Gilson we don’t see this so why are we talking about it?” The connections to the racism around them were not seen because what was directly in front of them was white, like them. They could ignore the issues of the world and safely just talk about the Basketball game from the night before or some movie they watched. I wanted my students to see that as members of the global community there was more to see than just the happenings of our small town. More going on that they should want to push back against, they should want to address, explore and become part of the solution.
I see so often the idea presented that students need inclusive literature. Getting them to care about that literature though is difficult, especially when “their world” is not reflected in that literature. Last year however we started to have some breakthroughs and like folks say once the snowball starts rolling it keeps growing.
Last year the most read book in my Grade 7 and 8 classroom was Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, likely a close second were any and all books by Kwame Alexander or Jason Reynolds. The students in my classes were reading books that did not reflect their communities or largely their lives but they were dialled in. The waitlist was deep and so I was buying more copies. We were starting to have conversations. They were not shaking the foundations of racism by any means but they were opening their eyes to the world beyond our Welcome to our town sign.
This yeah I moved up with the kids I have been with since Grade 7 we are in Grade 10 now and something powerful is happening. Students are choosing bookclubs like All American Boys, The Sun is Also a Star, Children of Blood and Bone and they are not only seeing the racism on display in the themes and ideas of these stories but they are reacting to them. They are reflecting and writing about it. They are making connections to the world outside of our little town and talking about the change that is needed. A year ago the term white privilege outraged some in our community. It likely still will but last week I read an essay where a student discussed characters stepping out from behind their shield of white privilege to do what is right. I talked to parent who thanked me for providing a text that not only helped their child learn but also to grow. Her mom stated, “I could see the change in her because of that book”. The book was All American Boys by Jason Reynolds, a book I have been book talking for years and my kids tried it and put it aside. The events of the world and the access to that powerful story was the door my students needed to step in and really reflect.
I am going to continue to walk this path with my kids. We are going to look at the injustices facing indigenous communities all over the world and more specifically in Canada. We are going to look at the impacts of isolation on identity. We are going to use The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline as a way to open the door to these conversations as All American Boys has been the door for other conversations.
Stories have the power to teach us, to change us but we have to access to the stories. I am grateful my students are finding that access.