Centering Joy

Many teachers I work with recognize the importance of representation. The difference it can make for students to see their cultures and identities reflected in curriculum and educational spaces they occupy each day is undeniable. They feel welcome and they recognize school as a space they belong. A student’s relationship with education can be positively influenced once they know that this is a place where they are seen and celebrated.

Lately, however, I am consciously reflecting a little more intentionally about the types of representation I am including in the classroom. What guides your decision making? What are some of the considerations you have when choosing a text to analyze or share with the class?

Many typical titles I see in classes are books like The Breadwinner (Deborah Ellis, 2000) or Thirst (Varsha Bajaj, 2022). These types of books always centre identities from “far away places” that often face hardships and oppression. When we only share texts that centre stories of oppression, poverty, or underprivileged experiences, we run the risk of confirming stereotypes and biases students may already have about others. Chimamanda Adiche reminds us, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story” (Adiche,Ted Talk, 2009).

For me, I’ve decided to start with centering joy. Finding texts that celebrate the joy of identity is necessary. Intentionally using texts in the classroom that centre around people and communities that are living their lives proudly and joyfully can help to debunk certain stereotypes. As a person with Filipino heritage, oftentimes my childhood classmates only knew the stories that came from the media; a country that is poverty stricken, no running water, oppressive or corrupted government systems, etc. As an adult, I imagine what I would have wanted them to know; the smells and flavours of our food, big extended family parties and get-togethers, traditional dances, wardrobes, and ways of being. Yes, parts of the Philippines may not have access to running water and electricity and some people there do live in poverty, but that is not all there is to my identity and that is not all there is to my culture.

Of course, it is important to recognize that there are societal structures and systems of oppression that are in place and strongly affect many different identities. I’m not suggesting that we ignore or gloss over injustices, but I am considering how to humanize stories so that students will be able to respectfully appreciate cultures and identities of their own and others. I don’t want any child to think that the only time their identities will be explored in school is when it is centered in oppression. Instead, let the message be that their culture and communities are valued, that I respect and recognize that there is no one single way of being and no single ‘right’ way to experience joy.

Looking for some ideas of texts that centre joy? Preview a few of these titles that might be used to frame the joy in identity:

Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho
In My Mosque by M.O. Yuksel
Ana on the Edge by A.J. Sass
Black Boy Joy by Kwame Mbalia
Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian

International Pronouns Day

International Pronouns Day is celebrated on the third Wednesday of October. This year it will be recognized on October 19th. According to the website pronounsday.org, “International Pronouns Day seeks to make respecting, sharing, and educating about personal pronouns commonplace.” The use of pronouns represents a deeply felt sense of identity for people and using the pronouns people choose is a demonstration of respect and human dignity. Transgender and non-binary people can be especially affected by misgendering or misuse of pronouns which can be detrimental to their comfort and safety. Normalizing the sharing and educating about personal pronouns takes away any assumptions one may have about others’ identities and helps support their right to human dignity.

Most people are familiar with the pronouns he/him, she/her, they/them However, there are over 76 pronouns in usage today. You may hear of other neopronouns, such as zie/zim/zir and vi/ver/vers. The use of neopronouns or gender neutral pronouns allow for greater selection of words that people feel comfortable using to refer to themselves. Typically, you would not refer to someone with neopronouns or gender neutral pronouns unless they request you use them. However, it is acceptable to use they/them as singular gender neutral pronouns for someone who has not yet shared their pronouns with you. Good practice, in the name of allyship, is to introduce yourself and your pronouns when meeting someone for the first time. Asking in a respectful manner, such as, “If you’re comfortable sharing, I would like to be able to use your personal pronouns” would be an invitation that lets others know you are striving to create a safe and inclusive space. However, everyone needs to be aware that pronouns may change as a person learns more about their own identity or feels comfortable giving you consent to call them by pronouns that best match their lived identity.

As an educator our positionality can truly set the tone of the learning space. Egale’s Report “Every Class in Every School” found that “When all identity-related grounds for feeling unsafe are taken into account, including ethnicity and religion, more than three quarters (78%) of trans students indicated feeling unsafe in some way at school.” Those numbers are reflective of schools in Canada; the very environments in which we work. There is a lot of learning and understanding needed to make schools safer, and surely only sharing and using correct pronouns is not enough, but it is a small step toward building equity and understanding.

This year, when contemplating my own allyship in anti-Transphobia and anti-Trans Violence I am choosing to be intentional in being a visible ally. A Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) that I support is choosing to make pronoun buttons that the students choose to best represent their identities. They are also planning to invite teachers to create and wear pronoun buttons at school and emphasizing that International Pronoun Day is only the start of wearing pronoun buttons all year long. I am conscious about not making assumptions about people’s pronouns and am offering my own when I first meet new people. I am also reminding myself that it is my obligation to demonstrate respect by using everyone’s correct pronouns and it is my own responsibility to monitor my own behaviour and speech.

Understanding and accepting that people have the ability and right to choose the words that best reflect their identities is an integral part of anti-transphobic work. This October, I am encouraging you to consider how you will show up to support International Pronouns Day and how you will carry that work forward throughout the rest of the year.

Professional Learning

Educators are such a hard working and dedicated lot. We spend time preparing for work and often seek opportunities to improve our learning and thinking outside of the school day. In my work as a local executive member, I am commonly asked to recommend some great professional learning that is both practical and reflective. If this is what you are looking for, then look no further than ETFO professional learning programs.

ETFO offers a variety of Additional Qualifications (AQ) courses online and even a few onsite. Throughout the year you will find that there are many opportunities to enroll in each session and the courses are taught by teachers for teachers. I have taken many AQ courses with ETFO and have always been impressed by the instructors’ knowledge and dedication to enriching the program experience. In fact, when I took Inclusive Classrooms online our instructor also had drop in Zoom meetings scheduled for us to connect with one another virtually and to help build the learning community. The instructors always connected theoretical course content to the practicality of the classroom. I had the opportunity to engage with teachers across the province and share ideas, strategies, and learning together.

If you aren’t looking for the time commitment of an Additional Qualification course, keep your eyes peeled for Professional Learning and Events run at ETFO’s Provincial Office. You will find a number of different events open for registration through the portal from single day conferences to multi-session programs. These wonderful learning spaces provide opportunities to meet in person with other like-minded individuals to learn and discuss important issues happening in education. There are specific programs for women, Indigenous Peoples, anti-Black racism, and so much more that are intentional about amplifying voices and providing safe spaces. The annual …And Still We Rise conference is a fabulous women’s conference connecting women across the province in a variety of workshops with inspirational guest speakers and opportunities to reflect and empower one another.

At times, there may be limited enrollment for provincial events, so connecting with your ETFO Local can also give you access to many opportunities right in your own geographical area. Your ETFO Local can offer a wide variety of PL workshops to service the members’ interests. Some of those workshops are provided by ETFO Provincial to locals, including Women in Action, Presenters on the Road, Summer Academy and more. In our own local, we have had local members sharing resources or engaging in conversations with members. At times, we have even had guest speakers from the community speaking to the membership about health, politics, or other pertinent topics. Getting involved and being connected with your local’s activities will give you the opportunity to lend your voice to your local team.

If you are looking to really get involved with your local executive, try volunteering for a committee, such as Professional Learning, Equity, or Status of Women. While you will be likely helping out with some events, you will also have the opportunity to attend learning sessions and have conversations together. When I first started with my ETFO Local, I was a volunteer for the PL committee. Each session was amazing, but the experience of learning how to provide an inclusive environment and the considerations that go into running an event was also invaluable. On that committee, we really got a chance to hear the topics members wanted to learn more about and it really helped me to frame some of my thinking about what was important to teachers. I learned so much from how municipal politics could directly affect education to hands-on activities to use when teaching dramatic arts. A lot of learning can come from being part of a local executive team, just from being present and involved.

As you move through this year of education and whatever it may bring, I hope that you consider participating in some of the great learning ETFO has to offer. You won’t be disappointed!

Building Community

The beginning of each school year is so exciting! Happy, excited faces of students and teachers and the feeling of something truly special about to begin. While teachers always feel the pressure of time passing quickly, assessments that need to be documented, and looming deadlines, it is important to remember to centre the student experience in the midst of it all. Spending the time to build a safe space and connect with one another sets the tone for the school year and helps students to feel safe and cared for at school.

Building A Safe Space

Set your classroom agreements together. While there are several different strategies that teachers use to set their classroom agreements, they all have something in common: co-creating the norms and rules that everyone needs to have a safe and brave learning space. It’s always important to allow students to share their opinions on what they need to feel safe, but also to allow for the flexibility to add or modify those agreements. Remember that agreements aren’t something to just put on the wall and forget about, those criteria are a working document that fits the needs of the students and the teacher to be successful together.

Connecting Together

Icebreakers can be fun, but also intimidating for some students. Remember to start with low risk activities that everyone can enjoy. Opportunities to create space for safe and respectful conversations through games such as “Would You Rather?” or “Mingling to Music” are easy entry icebreakers that help all students participate at their comfort level and allow for educators to observe how students interact with one another as well as participate in the fun. This can also be time to model how respectful conversation and the classroom agreements can look in real time.

Getting to know you activities are great for the beginning of the year, but that might not be the only time they are used. Reflective activities, such as creating soundtracks that represent their lives or even word collages of who or what is important to them, may change as the year goes on and students learn more about themselves. Remember that as students feel safer at school, they may feel more comfortable sharing more about their lives. A great reason to revisit these types of activities throughout the year!

As routines settle and the class feels more comfortable, introducing deeper connection activities is a great way to continue building the classroom community together. Opportunities to explore and share more about our identities gives students the chance to really think about who they are. I love name story activities, identity maps, and even sharing goals and dreams together. Whenever I am involved in these activities with children, I always participate, model, and share my own stories. It changes the tone from an assignment from the teacher to building our classroom community. It also gives me some perspective of how some students might feel more vulnerable than others and how difficult it is to think about one’s own self.

The beginning of September is filled with joy and anticipation, but also can be busy with reorganization and disruptions. No matter when your ‘start’ date, it’s never too late to think about building the classroom community. Remember that building community and safe spaces takes time and intention – and it continues throughout the school year.