The end of October finds me at an intriguing intellectual crossroad this year, and I wonder if anyone else has come to it too? You see, I have noticed that there seems to be a lot more hype around certain, let’s call them superficial things, than others this month. This got me thinking about why it is this way, and what I could do about preventing more of the same for the rest of the year and beyond?
To be clear, respect and equity are at the heart of all this. Other than the Mike Harris years, teachers at all points in their careers are overcoming challenges unlike any time in our history. So I know this post might cause a few jocular utterances and for some retrospection to occur, but it is solely written to strengthen the spirit of education and the heart and art of teaching.
Inclusion and equity.
Two incredibly important words that we hear at the start of the school year and then only infrequently afterwards. After all there is so much curriculum to teach and damn you if you miss a single specific expectation for some reason even though the meaningful and culturally relevant lessons you’re sharing mean a world of difference to students marginalized by systems of oppression such as poverty and racism. So how are you prioritizing Inclusion and equity in your classroom? I am thinking through this question too and to be completely transparent, it has its difficult moments. So I work towards what works in my practice – relationship building.
For me it starts with knowing the students beyond their assignments and test scores. This means listening, and it is harder than it seems. Especially, when educators are falsely tricked into believing that their voices are the ones to be heard the most. I have learned that the more listening that I lead in the classroom, the deeper we are able to go in our level of care towards one another, the stronger our classroom community grows, and the more committed that each student becomes towards their learning.
In order to ensure that each student is comfortable and feels included; here are a few things to consider for now and the future that have helped me when it comes to special days in my classroom.
Start at the beginning
Discuss the history behind the special days with your students. Sharing origin stories, values, and beliefs can be really engaging. It is a wonderful way to remove assumptions and to create an interactive and open space. When it comes to special days it is good to know whether learners observe these days or not. This can vary from community to community too. October is a month filled with many opportunities to build bridges in your classroom each time students are able to share. By and large though, the most prevalent are Thanksgiving, Islamic Heritage(month), Purple Shirt Day(s), and Hallowe’en.
For all the right reasons I may have intentionally bypassed Thanksgiving. Not out of ingratitude, but more out of a deeper need to remain focused on continuing our deeper inquiry into Residential Schools as an extension of Orange Shirt Day. Remember that conversations around Truth and Reconciliation do not need to be confined to a single day. In fact, my grade 4/5s extended their learning into thoughtful conversations around the injustice and racist behaviour of settlers towards the Mi’kmaq First Nation in Nova Scotia. This was a direct extension of the critical thinking work students developed as a result of not celebrating Orange Shirt Day, and will serve as a lens for future work we interleave this year.
What I found very powerful from our collective learning was how students were willing to call it like they saw it. In some ways, teachers have to be prepared for the blunt and brutal honestly of students in a way that does not lead to a perception that they are being disrespectful. It then becomes our job to refine these moments, but not censure them as behavioural or compliance issues. Students are entitled to be angry when they learn of injustices and inequities in the world around them.
Imagine how mad they were when they began to read about Black Lives Matter and the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other victims at the hands of racist oppressors. Here’s what mine said:
Why would anyone be racist?
Racism is stupid!
Racists are stupid! What is wrong with these people?
It took courage to say this. It took a safe place to make it happen. Grade 4 and 5 students speaking truth with clarity and wisdom that excedes many. Watching all of this unfold told me that students are more than able to process and respond to issues around systemic racism as evidenced in our discussions and responses around Residential Schools, the Mi’kmaq First Nation, and Black Lives Matter. Is it possible that we as educators have placed an invisible age barrier between our students and the world around them when we do not include them in our classrooms?
I’ll leave this part with one more question to ponder.
Is it easier to share a seasonally themed non-confrontational worksheet instead?
In About those special days at school Pt 2, I will continue sharing some of my approaches to teaching tough subject material to students and how to approach calender cliches with caution. Please click on.