Who Am I?

If I have learned anything from the last year and a half is that the only thing that matters is NOW. Now is the time to laugh louder, now is the time to reach a bit higher and now is the time to hold on to loved ones just a little bit longer. For me that means taking control of my life, overcoming painful obstacles and pursuing goals that I no longer wish to ignore. I have always been shy to speak my truth and to believe that my voice matters. I feel that this platform will help me to develop a meaningful voice that can inspire other educators to make a difference in the lives of the students they teach, unapologetically. 

 

As a new blogger, I want to share some of my lived experiences and to connect with you in a meaningful way. First, I must tell you that writing has never been an easy task for me to do. It took me two hours of writing, and revising my writing, just to get this far in the blog, really. Why am I doing this then, you might ask? It’s because of what I wrote in my first paragraph above. Writing has always been a huge block for me, and I have chosen to embrace writing/blogging as a form of self-empowerment, liberation and inspiration. Now is the time!

 

I have been a teacher with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) since 1999. I have taught grade 3, a split grade 4/5 class, grade 7 and grade 8 in three different elementary schools in diverse communities around the city. I have spent most of my teaching years in the intermediate grades teaching core subjects as well as a grade 7/8 special education Homeschool Program (HSP) and a grade 7/8 Intensive Support Program (ISP) which I thoroughly enjoyed. For the past five years, I have been working in a central role (except for 2020/2021 when I was redeployed as a grade 8 virtual school teacher) as a guidance counsellor, supporting the social and emotional development of grade 7 and 8 students, as well as supporting their transition into high school. 

 

This year, the role has been reformed to better support the academic needs of intermediate students, especially those whose academic successes have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. This role might look differently in different spaces, as the needs vary greatly in different communities. I am looking forward to supporting teachers, working with students and building capacity with the entire school community so that all students can succeed. 

 

I have volunteered my time and leadership to the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and my local union, Elementary Teachers of Toronto (ETT) on numerous committees, workshops and projects. Volunteering with my local and provincial union has afforded me the opportunity to network, to find my passion and to advocate for the rights of teachers and students. One of the most rewarding experiences for me was volunteering my time and leadership with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), as a sponsored ETFO member, to participate in their Project Overseas summer in-service program. I have been a team member and team leader in a summer co-training in-service program in Sierra Leone and Uganda. Let me just say it was an experience of a lifetime that I will never forget. There is so much I could say about that right now, but I will leave the details for another blog. There are so many ways to get involved in your union, if interested just ask your local union rep and they will be more than happy to provide you with support and leadership.

 

My teaching and leadership style is through an equity and anti-oppressive lens. I am passionate about advocating for equitable treatment and access for our most marginalized, black, indigenous, special education and LGBTQ2+ students, just to name a few. I am committed to building capacity for all teachers, so that they can be equipped with the necessary knowledge, tools and resources required to teach and support the needs of all students in diverse communities. In particular, I support teachers in embedding students’ lived experiences in bringing the curriculum to life in the classroom. I support using differentiated instructions (DI), culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy (CRRP) and universal design for learning (UDL) to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all students, especially the most underserved students in our school system. I am also a strong believer that it takes a community to raise a child, and we cannot fully support students without the engagement and input from families/parents and community partners. I will share more in future posts. When we work together in a safe, nurturing and inclusive learning environment that puts students first, the possibilities for their success are endless. 

 

To our new teachers, I encourage you to take the necessary time to find your voice, and when you find it, use it to advocate for yourself and for the rights of our most vulnerable students. As a vulnerable student myself growing up in the system, I know what it means to have even ONE teacher that believes in you and accepts who you are without judgement. It was two teachers in particular who saved me from going down a very dark path in life. They may not know it, but they gave me hope and showed me that my life matters. Today, my hope is to pay that gift forward to you and to all with whom I come in contact. 

 

I hope this helps you understand a bit more about me and what I bring to the platform. Please feel free to share your thoughts and questions with me. As a new blogger and writer, I welcome your feedback and suggestions. Looking forward to learning together. Blessed!

 

Mentoring Moments: Importance of Our Names

I always wanted to write why the name each of us are given is important to consider. Each year we have the privilege as an educator to touch and impact families as we teach their children. I emphasize as a teacher we teach children that belong to many cultures and backgrounds…As a teacher we have so many opportunities to reflect on pronunciation of names, spelling of names and the chance to talk about each individual story behind the name that we are given. As we celebrate World Teacher Day this month reflect on the privilege we hold as teachers to embrace diversity, be inclusive and bring about change in the education system that we work for towards a better future for all.

This blog starts with you getting to know me a bit better as an Educator in Ontario. Nilmini is my middle name- it was given to me by my parents because “Nil” in Sinhala means the colour Blue. “Mini” in Sinhala translates into “Gem”…Nilmini means a Blue Gem a precious stone, and important name that I was given. I love it…I never really thought about how when I was born the white part of my eyes had grey and blue tones….Moreover, now as an educator I reflect on why my name holds a special place in my heart since it is also apart of my heritage the beautiful country I was born in Sri Lanka before I immigrated to Canada with my family as a child.

“Each year we have the privilege as an educator to touch and impact families as we teach their children.” @NRatwatte

Ask your students about their Name Stories

As an educator there is no better way to build a trusting relationship than to ask students about who they are so you can connect it to the curriculum that is being taught each year.

  • Build in lessons through out the year to get to know your students names
  • Their heritage
  • Their traditions
  • Call students by their names – real names
  • Don’t change them since they are long
  • Do give them pride and ownership in using their own name

Some Books that can help you start the conversation about Names

Name Jar

I love using this book to discuss the importance of keeping our language cultural name and customs. The book helps us talk about inclusion practises in a school setting and importance of feeling belonging.

Chrysanthemum

No better book for me as a teacher since my name is very long and I go by my middle name Nilmini that is a family tradition.

They call me Number One

A book I start the conversation with about the importance of making students feel welcome when learning about the First Nations Peoples of Canada and the Residential School System.

Growth Mindset to Teaching

I encourage you as an educator to embrace the differences and not shorten names but call students by their real names to give them respect for their identity. Names are apart of each individual identity since they are interconnected to who we are, our cultural heritage or our customs.

  • Ask Questions
  • Encourage sharing
  • Embrace the Learning

In my culture we have a “letter sound” that is given to us when we are born according to our horoscope and that is the sound that we use to name each child according to be prosperous in our lives. These traditions carry with us over the generations because they are meaningful and they encourage customs that hold our heritage over the centuries close to our hearts.

Reflection Question: Think about why your name is important; write down your name story that you can share with your student during a lesson and courageous conversation.

Yours in Education,

Nilmini

Before you summer, take time to D.E.A.L

Drop Everything and Learn

This week, I hit the stop button on my life inside of the classroom for another school year. To quote the Grateful Dead. “What a long strange trip it’s been.” Yet, before shutting down, I need to D.E.A.L. more about how to deepen my understanding and leverage my white settler privilege in support of FNMI communities.

Heart wrenching discoveries of unmarked graves at residential schools across Canada have me fighting to make sense of many things right now in this country. How and why could so much hatred and overt evil be inflicted on generations of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people for more than a century? How can a democratically empowered system built on commandments of love thy neighbour, be so obviously racist and genocidal to the very people who shared this land in the first place? And how did it come with the criminal complicity of faith based institutions to boot? These questions have me hearing some very strong internal voices telling me to stay in teacher/learner mode a little longer.

Maybe it’s time we give Canada Day a timeout for a while so we can move forward in a good way?

Can you recall reading or hearing of any treaties that included one group being subjugated to tyranny and relegated to systemic abuse and racism by the other? I can’t. Everyone in education must take time to ensure that the truth about the traumatic truth of Canada’s past no longer remains on the outside of the history books. It’s can be as simple as shifting from outdated text books and colonizer curricula, by for profit publishers, when we plan our lessons. It can be in seeking your closest FNMI partners in education. Numerous school boards are already doing this and ETFO as well. It’s time to seek out resources that include all sides of the story, and not those that fit the nauseatingly one sided Disney endings written for and by settlers.

In my mind it stands at the heart of our humanity as educators and treaty people. We must do more than acknowledging the trauma caused in the past, but to genuinely reconcile our relationships in order to build a just and inclusive future. There is work to be done and despite my momentary fatigue. This learning is a personal call to action that serves as the energy to keep going instead of heading straight for the chaise lounge on my patio. It needs to start now.

Things I can do (you can too)

I need to turn my attention to learning more about the truth that has been so strategically whitewashed out of our conversations and history books as a nation. A nation that is supposed to be the beacon of kindness and inclusion to the rest of the world. The truth, about Canada that world has been shown by our gleaming generosity and polished politeness, may not be seen the same reality as seen through the eyes and experiences of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. It’s time to demand better from those in leadership to stop standing in the way of the truth as shared in the TRC Commission Report shared in 2015.

I need to come to terms with the dissonace from what I have been taught about Canada as a student, and ensure that it’s mistreatment of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit does not continue. As such, I am committing more time to listening to voices that have been silenced for far too long, reading books from authors who share stories from first hand experiences or who speak for elders who have been silenced, and by seeking out ways to bring this into my future classrooms.

I need to reflect in order to move forward.

Throughout this year, my grade 4/5 classroom was a space for conversations and lessons on Residential Schools, Orange Shirt Day, the Mik Maw fishery, BLM, Anti-Asian hate, and systemic racism in general. What is abundantly clear despite many meaningful moments of cleared understanding, the fires that have been lit in my students will need to be refuelled. I hope you all take some time to recharge your bodies and minds over the break, but encourage everyone, at some time over the summer, to drop everything and learn in preparation of re-igniting the fires of truth and reconciliation in the minds of students when we gather again to D.E.A.L in September.

Need a place to start?

Digital Resources:

Education – NCTR – Reconciliation through Education
ETFO First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Education Resources 
First Nations Education Steering Committee – Indian Residential Schools and Reconciliation Resources
FNMI Learning Grid curated by Richard Erdmann

Important reads to deepen your understanding:

21 Things you may not know about the Indian Act – Bob Joseph
All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward – Tanya Talaga
Seven Fallen Feathers – Tanya Talaga
Braiding Sweetgrass – Robin Hall Kemperer

Wisdom always found here on Twitter:

Bob Joseph @wewap
Colinda Clyne @clclyne
Pamala Agawa @agawap
Bryson the Gaytive @ArnallLabrador 
Jody Kohoko @NishVPKwe

 

 

Break open…and rise up!

Spring is a good time to reflect and pay attention to growth, change and transformation. After a long year of isolation and stillness, everyone is hopeful about the promise of movement and possibility. Planting seeds is a wonderful metaphor of the learning that we are doing together in our school communities.

Planting Seeds:
Jenny Davis is one of the parents at The Grove Community School who has supported the growth of the Rainbow Garden, by working in consultation with First Nations and Indigenous families and community members. In the fall, Jenny harvested seeds from some of the edible plants, including sunflowers, cornflowers, and marigolds. This Spring, families worked together to deliver a paper bag of soil, seeds and a pot to every student.

Jenny facilitated on-line planting with our classes, and shared what she is learning about important Indigenous protocols, such as the practice of gratitude and reciprocity. We were encouraged to sort and describe our seeds and learn their names before planting, to draw pictures on our popsicle sticks to welcome them, to “pay attention” and give them what they need to grow. During our Land Acknowledgment, I have been honouring our plant relatives, and inviting students to share what they notice about their seeds as they break open and rise up.

Me and White Supremacy:
This winter, as part of my ongoing commitment to the practice of anti-racism, I participated in a community Book Club with a small group of parents and staff. Together, we read “Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor” by Layla F. Saad. I highly recommend this resource to White educators. This is a powerful book that includes journal prompts at the end of every chapter to support deep reflection and action. Layla Saad first wrote the book as a 30 day Instagram challenge, with daily prompts to support readers who have White privilege to recognize and disrupt White supremacy in their lives. Our Book Club met on-line every month, and we discussed one week at a time.

Layla Saad offers a process for engaging in the work called “The Circle Way”, which was developed by Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea. The Circle Way includes guidelines and a structure for readers to follow, including rotating facilitators and a shared intention and responsibility to stay focused on the work. It was very helpful, and can easily be used to facilitate critical and courageous conversations in other contexts. I recently facilitated a discussion about the final chapters, and I invited everyone to think about their own growth, change and transformation, and how we might invite others into this work.

Root into darkness:
This work is not supposed to be easy. Layla Saad explains that feelings of devastation, anger, and confusion are important parts of the work. She writes, “Without those feelings, nothing changes, because there is no reason to heal what does not feel broken.” (page 199) As White educators who are committed to racial justice, we must recognize how we are complicit in a system that is causing harm to Indigenous, Black and racialized people, and allow the pain “to break your heart open” and work towards creating change.

Maya Angelou wrote: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” After discussing what holds us back from “doing better”, such as fear, loss of privilege, confusion, or insecurity, the Book Club members made commitments to take action and disrupt White supremacy in our different communities. Each member shared “I will….” statements, and we agreed to continue the Book Club next year, and support new families to join the discussion.

Me and My Commitments:
I want to share my own commitments to anti-racism and publish them in this blog, so I can be held accountable. I will also include concrete actions that I will take towards these goals.

*I will….continue with my own on-going learning and professional development.

(I recently started the ETFO MentorCoaching program, and I am learning about intersectional feminism, anti-oppression frameworks, and transforming power. I will continue to use the reflective journaling prompts in the book to challenge my own White silence and fragility.)

*I will….share my learning with others.

(As an ETFO workshop facilitator, I meet with members from all over the province and always position myself as a co-learner. I will always join committees at school and/or in my local, that are doing racial justice and equity work.)

*I will….use my privilege to disrupt White supremacy in my classroom and school community.

(I will meet with my principal to discuss Equity goals for next year, and share recommendations at our last Parent Council meeting, including an on-going process of discussion and reflection to determine how well we are meeting our collective goals.)

*I will….center and celebrate voices of Indigenous, Black and racialized voices in the classroom.

(I have more learning to do about anti-Asian racism, and integrating curriculum to support East/South Asian students. I will dig deeper into the new ETFO resources, and implement Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy. I will teach love and pride always.)

*I will…listen and learn when I am called out and called in. I will allow myself to make mistakes, especially as I break open and rise up!!

Thank you for reading this blog. Writing and learning in community continues to be a transformative practice for me. I am deeply grateful for all of the support and nourishment I have received to keep growing.

Point of View

This month, we are exploring different points of view through reading and writing a variety of texts. This “big idea” has many possibilities for critical thinking and cross-curricular integration with Media Literacy, Social Studies, Science, Visual Arts, Music and Drama.

In my Grade 2 class, we have used point of view to explore issues of accessibility, anti-Black racism, Indigenous sovereignty and homophobia. Here are some of the texts that Kindergarten-Grade 8 educators can use when learning on-line and in class:

William’s Doll
During Gender Splendour Week, we read “William’s Doll” by Charlotte Zolotov, to explore gender stereotypes and homophobia. We also watched a video from the movie, “Free to Be You and Me” that sings the story as a song. “William’s Doll” is about a boy who wants a doll to play with, but he is told that he cannot have a doll because he is a boy.

Young children receive powerful messages from family, media, clothing and toy stores about what is expected of “boys” and “girls.” These binaries reinforce heterosexism, and often cause harm and exclude students who do not fit into these boxes. It is important to give children the opportunity to name, question, and challenge these gender binaries, and create space for more possibilities.

Before reading “William’s Doll”, I asked students to share their ideas about what it means to be a “boy” and a “girl.” We talked about what a “stereotype” is and how these ideas might not include everyone. Students easily made connections to their own personal experiences of shopping, and described how different products are sorted and sold, (e.g., pink Kinder Eggs for girls). After reading, we used a graphic organizer to support our ideas with evidence from the text.  Then, students wrote about different points of view expressed in the text.  

Of Course They Do!
On the International Day of Pink, we continued to have courageous and critical conversations about how schools can be more inclusive, and how we can take action as allies. After reading texts such as, “Of Course They Do! Boys and Girls Can Do Anything” by Marie-Sabine Roger and Anne Sol, and “10,00 Dresses” by Marcus Ewert, students talked about their experiences of being told they couldn’t do something because of their perceived gender. For example, boys with long hair shared their experiences of being challenged in the washroom. We focussed our discussion on how we might respond to questions and/or suggestions that we don’t belong. We used Drama and role-play to practice naming and responding to behaviour.

Hey, Little Ant!
“Hey, Little Ant” by Hannah Hoose and Phillip Hoose, is a story about a kid who is about to squish an ant. The story is told from two different points of view. On each page, we hear the voice of the kid and a response from the ant. The story ends with a question, which is a great prompt for discussion and writing, “What do you think that kid should do?”

This story is a great opportunity to explore empathy and compassion, and students’ relationships with animals. “Hey, Little Ant” also includes a song, which can enrich the text. After reading, students wrote about the different points of view in the story, and then wrote about their own point of view.

The Tree
“The Tree” written by Dana Lyons is written from the point of view of a tree in the Pacific Rainforest. After writing and sharing the story, the author learned from elders of the Lummi Nation, the original inhabitants of San Juan islands, that he has written the tree’s song. Every tree has a song.

We listened to “The Tree,” drew pictures and shared stories about trees that are important to us. Then, students wrote their own poem or song from the point of view of a tree. We used sentence prompts, such as: “I live….” “I hear….” “I have seen….” “My favourite season is…..” “I wonder….” “I hope…” I found a video of Dana Lyons singing the text as a birthday present for Jane Goodall. I hope we will be able to turn our text into songs!

The Council of All Beings
I am always inspired by my teacher friends! Maria Vamvalis is currently working on her PhD, and shares her learning about climate justice with Natural Curiosity as a mentor coach. We took a course together at OISE, and Maria shared how she has used “The Council of All Beings” to allow students to connect with land and speak in-role from the point of view of other life forms, including animal, plant or natural feature, (desert, forest, etc). This article written by Joanna Macy describes the process.

I am learning that the purpose of the Council is to listen and give voice to land, which includes animals, plants, air, water, soil, etc. The process honours our shared responsibilities and relationships with more-than-humans, and helps us to remember and reconnect with land. It requires guidance and thoughtful facilitation. It sounds like a powerful teaching and learning experience.

Joanna Macy explains: “The Council unfolds in three consecutive stages. First, the beings address each other, telling of the changes and hardships they have experienced.” The second stage creates space for humans to hear from the more-than human beings directly. A few students remove their mask and are invited into the centre of the Circle to listen. The third stage of the council involves the other beings offering gifts to the humans. “As ritual guide I might cue this stage by saying, “Many humans now realize the destruction they are causing; they feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of the forces they have unleashed. Yet our fate is in their hands. O fellow-beings, what strengths of ours can we share with them, what powers can we lend them?” With this invitation, the beings in the Council begin spontaneously to offer their own particular qualities and capacities. After speaking, each leaves their mask and steps in the centre as humans to receive gratitude and gifts. There is opportunity for singing, dancing and release, as well as reflection and stillness.

I think “The Council of All Beings” would enrich any Earth Day celebrations, and/or National Indigenous Peoples Day. I believe it could be adapted for on-line learning, and would be a powerful collaborative and creative experience for all members of the school community, including families.

People’s Tribunal on the Coronavirus Pandemic
I have a new subscription to “Rethinking Schools”, which is an excellent magazine about social justice education. In the Winter 2020-2021 issue, Caneisha Mills describes how she organized a tribunal with her Intermediate students to explore responsibility for the COVID-19 crisis in the United States. Some of those on trial include: Mother Nature, Racism, the HealthCare industry, Capitalism, and the U.S. government. You can read the article, “Who’s to Blame?” here.

Caneisha Mills honours student voice and engages students in a collaborative and critical process of exploring the global pandemic from different points of view.  She honours student voice, and creates a brave space for students to “grapple with profound social injustice” and imagine different possibilities. Mills explains that the “most important part of this lesson involves students writing a 10-point program — inspired by the Black Panthers’ 10-point program, adopted in 1966 — on how to prevent crises like this in the future.”

The article includes a clear teaching plan and provides information for educators who might want to implement the People’s Tribunal on the Coronavirus, on or off-line. “This people’s tribunal begins with the premise that a heinous crime is being committed as tens of millions of people’s lives are in danger due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus — COVID-19. But who — and/or what — was responsible for this crime? Who should be held accountable for the spread of the virus and its devastating impact?”

The teacher plays the role of the prosecutor. Students are assigned different roles, and the “defendants” are supported to work in small groups to develop a defense against the charges outlined in the indictments. A jury is selected, and each group shares their arguments at the trial. There is only one rule: They may plead guilty, but they must accuse at least one other defendant of being responsible. After the jury deliberates and explains their verdict, all students are invited to reflect on the experience. Then, they use their voice to demand and create change.

The tribunal sounds like a meaningful learning opportunity for older students to explore different points of view. I am curious to think about how this might be adapted for younger students.

In your point of view, what are some powerful texts and/or dramatic conventions that you have used in the classroom and on-line?  Please add them to the Comments below.



Gender Splendour!

This year, our school community will celebrate Gender Splendour from April 6-9, 2021.  It will be our 11th year implementing arts-based curriculum that explores gender identity and equity, 2SLGBTQ+ communities, inclusive families, and disrupts homophobia and transphobia. 

Over the years, the Kindergarten-Grade 6 students have participated in several inclusive and intersectional workshops, including: Love Makes a Family, “The F-Word” (feminism), Kiki Ballroom and the History of Voguing, Toys Will Be Toys, LGBTQ+ Rights Around the World, Pronouns and Possibilities, and more! 

When I was in elementary school, my mother came out as a lesbian.  This was in the 1980’s and she told us not to tell anyone because she was afraid of losing her job.  I learned about the painful impact of fear, silence, and homophobia outside of the home.  I also learned about the power and strength of community and love, as we marched in the streets at parades and protests.  My young life as an activist and an ally has developed into a strong, on-going commitment to social justice.  When I became an educator, I was determined to break the silence and celebrate the pride and resistance of 2SLGBTQ+ communities.

All You Need is LOVE….and an ALLY:

When Shannon Greene joined the staff, I found an ally and an accomplice.  We were both creative and committed to transforming our pedagogy.  Together, we brainstormed ideas about how we might support students, families, and staff to explore and express their intersectional identities.  We gathered resources, including picture books and media texts to support these critical conversations.  We reached out to families and community members, and generated guiding questions to investigate.  We wanted to empower students to stand up to injustice and take action.  And we wanted to have fun!!   

Boas and Bowties:

We celebrate Gender Splendour during the second week of April, which includes the International Day of Pink.  This year, COVID-19 has pushed our celebration a week earlier.  In addition to wearing pink, we encourage everyone to dress-up in different ways.  These Dress-Up Days are always optional.  They are meant to be playful and fun, and create brave spaces for community members to express themselves without fear.  In the past, we have worn: Rainbow Colours, Wings and Capes, Boas and Bowties, Clothing Inside-Out, Spots and Stripes, Glitter and Glam, and Pink! 

Free to Be:

Every social movement needs a soundtrack.  Throughout the years, we have discovered several songs that make us think, and make us dance.  “True Colours” by Cyndi Lauper, is an anthem that honours how it feels to be seen.  “Same Love” by Macklemore, explores issues of homophobia and same-sex marriage.  “Stereotype” by Samsaya, invites us to stand up to injustice.  Recently, we collaborated with Freedom School Toronto, and learned about how dance can be a form of resistance.  Everyone enjoyed learning about Kiki Ballroom, and the five elements of voguing, before strutting our stuff on the runway. 

As we prepare to smash gender stereotypes and critically examine gender binary roles in our society, I am feeling reflective, grateful, and proud.  I am also looking forward to practicing my “death drop!”

International Women’s Day

Happy International Women’s Day!

 

What does this mean to you?
What does this mean to your teaching practice?

 

Feminism is for everyone

“Eighty-one percent of the members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) are women and, in many ways, the history of women teachers reflects the struggles of all Canadian women” (ETFO voice, 2016 https://etfovoice.ca/feature/looking-back-womens-history-ontario-teacher-federations). 

The world needs women. Feminism can be practiced daily by elementary educators in Ontario. Not because we are a group largely composed of women, but because a society that values women is one that promotes equity, opportunity, and growth. Feminism is not exclusively for women. Feminism in the classroom generates a culture founded on inclusivity. This environment creates a safe space for critical thinkers, status-quo challengers and allows students to grow into adults who advocate for positive change. 

You cannot have feminism without intersectionality 

You cannot support women without supporting Black women. Women who belong to racialized groups. Women with disabilities and special needs. Women who are part of the 2SLGBTQ+ community. FNMI women. Women who are marginalized by society. Elderly women. Young women. 

We must support all women, teach about all women, listen to all women and respect all women. To not value the experiences of all women is to misrepresent the harsh reality women have lived and continue to face. Inaccurate or nonexistent representation of women places student learning and well-being at a disadvantage.

Women deserve equitable opportunities and to see themselves reflected in curriculum 

Women merit the encouragement to become involved in science, math, engineering, technology and sports. Our students have the right to equitable opportunities in all aspects of curriculum and school activities. In order to promote these experiences in the classroom, students must see themselves reflected in past and current literature, stories, videos, guest speakers and so on. Let us get rid of those history books that exclude or depreciate women’s accomplishments and rather promote the positive impacts women have made, and continue to make in the world. 

Let’s continue to celebrate women today and every day

Cheers!

About next month

Do not go gently into that next month. Do not close the book on the last one, and not open it up until the same time next year. Do not look at your checklist and think it is complete. There are still boxes to tick and more are being added each day. There is work to be done on behalf of equity, justice, identity and intersectionality. Do not go gently into that next month.

This past February has revealed so much to me as an educator. It has shown me that you cannot put a time frame around unlearning centuries of racism in the form of micro and macro aggressions against Black, Indigenous, Asian, and all People of Colour. February has shown me that the narratives of history have been whitewashed and buried in textbooks in the hopes that the bones of truth would not be exhumed.

February has taught me that even our collective best efforts to seed conversations, nurture thoughts, and harvest actions face unnatural forces of hatred and bigotry in the gardens of the communities we sow. There are weeds to pull that must be dug out from far below the surface hit by the light. We must dig down to uproot what is hidden in the dirt below.

March must be about continuing conversations around race and racism while celebrating black excellence beyond Rosa, Harriet, Nelson, and Martin. March needs to come in like a lion roaring the names who have fought against injustice and oppression who have yet to be mentioned in the history books. It is not just about athletes and performers, there are teachers, business owners, activists, and civic leaders who have all fought against systemic racism, injustice, and oppression with rarely a mention in our classrooms beyond the month of February: Afua, Dudley, Clotilda, and Denham.

The names above and so many more have been part of the fabric of our communities, but seem to get lost the other 11 months of the year. Please do not go gently in next month without digging deeper into the undershared stories of black excellence that exist around us beyond the worlds of sports and entertainment.

Do not go gently into that next month. It is our collective call to action to learn how to become anti-racist educators. It cannot be compartmentalized into a fraction of our instructional year. Anti-racism education cannot be reduced to a brief item at a staff meeting or a PD session either. 1 month out of 12 will never be enough when racism is working all year long. This work cannot be hefted onto someone else’s shoulders. We must all carry our share of the load.

Do not go gently into that next month. Now more than ever it is time to rage against what has caused so much harm from generation to generation. Embrace what discomforts you, be okay with the dissonance from not having all of the answers to students’ questions. Seek out others who are learning too. Walk alongside them as you learn and grow together and continue planting the seeds of equity and justice in your classrooms.

“Do not go gently into that…” and ‘rage against” phrasing borrowed from Dylan Thomas’ poem Do not go gentle into that good night

Suggested reading:

The skin we’re in – Desmond Cole

We want to do more than survive – Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom by Bettina Love

Caste – Isabel Wilkerson

G.L.O.W.

GLOW (Gay, Lesbian or Whatever) is an extracurricular club for Grades 6-8 students to explore issues related to the 2SLGBTQ+ community and their allies. We have been meeting on-line every week since April 2020. Before COVID-19, we would meet during lunch at school. GLOW is a proud and positive space for students and educators to share their own stories, ask questions, make art, and take action. It is always the highlight of my week.

There is extensive data to hold schools accountable and support students who may identify as 2SLGTBQ+. Many of these students continue to be bullied or harassed by their peers, and pushed out of school. It is critical that educators respond to homophobic or transphobic comments and actions that are harmful, and to teach diverse stories of 2SLGBTQ+ communities with pride.  There are several resources provided at the end of this blog.

WHERE DO I BEGIN?
You don’t need permission to start a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance). In fact, if a student requests a GSA, many schools are required to provide one. The first thing I did was reach out to my Grade 7/8 teacher friend, Tia Chambers. I asked her to share the role with me because everyone needs an ally. It didn’t take long before other staff wanted to join GLOW. This year, we are sharing the role of co-host with Kindergarten teacher, Nikki Kovac.

We start every meeting with an introduction, which includes our pronouns, and we answer a question. This helps us to build relationships and honour who we are. If there is a new member, we will review our GLOW Agreements. These agreements were generated together in our first meeting and describe what we hope for and what we need in order to feel comfortable.

After making our agreements, we invited students to share music that they like and we created a playlist. Some of these songs are performed by 2SLGBTQ+ performers, and other songs just make us feel good. We asked everyone for ideas about what they wanted to discuss, and the type of activities they might want to do. It is important for educators to amplify student voice, listen and respond with respect. Inspired and informed by the students’ ideas and questions, we prepare activities and questions to guide our discussion every week.

WHAT HAPPENS AT GLOW?
Here is an example of what we discussed at our GLOW meetings in February. As Valentine’s Day was approaching, I wanted to challenge the heteronormative narrative about love and romantic relationships that are reinforced by the media, and create space for more possibilities. I thought that we might discuss these issues and create our own Valentine’s Day cards with inclusive messages.

Our check-in question was about love. I asked: “What or Who do you love?” Then, I used these guiding questions: “What are the messages about love and relationships that you notice on television or in movies?” “Who do they include or exclude?” “How do these messages reinforce a “norm” about relationships that is heterosexual?” “How might we make Valentine’s Day more inclusive?” We also talked about self-love and different ways we might care for ourselves.

I shared a few examples of Valentine’s Day cards that provide a counternarrative, and I invited everyone to design their own inclusive Valentines. We talked about word play, and how Valentines often include puns and rhyme. As we drew, we listened to songs on our playlist. The following week, one of the students shared a poem that they had written about love that was inspired by our discussion. It filled my heart with pride.

RESOURCES
ETFO has created many resources to support educators who want to create brave and inclusive spaces in our schools.

My teacher friend, Melissa Major, has written two excellent articles in VOICE magazine, which can spark meaningful discussions with your students:

How to Become a Super Rad Gender Warrior reminds us that all members of a school community have the right:

To be free from discrimination and harassment.
To have a safe and inclusive learning environment.
To use the bathroom or change room they feel is the most appropriate.
To dress in a way that feels right and safe for them.
To be spoken to with their chosen name and gender pronoun.
To be treated with dignity and respect and the recognition that all gender expressions and identities are a normal and healthy part of a spectrum.
To present their gender in different ways at different times

Gender Neutral Language: An Activity for Day of Pink or Any Day explains how educators can use inclusive language to disrupt the gender binary.

Last Spring, I attended an ETFO webinar called “How to start a GSA and support 2SLGBTQ+ during Remote Learning” presented by Toronto teacher, Jordan Applebaum. It was intersectional and inspiring. You can watch the webinar in four parts here:

Be Proactive to Support Trans and LGBTQIA2S POC – Part 1
Be Proactive to Support Trans and LGBTQIA2S POC – ​Part 2​
Be Proactive: How to Start a GSA During Remote Learning – Part 3​​
Be Proactive: How to Start A GSA During Remote Learning – ​Part 4

I have also joined a few Facebook groups to support this work. Recently, I discovered that the Durham District School Board has created Pink Shirt Day and Beyond, a slide deck which is filled with lesson plans to use in the classroom or at your next GLOW meeting.

Shine on!!

 

Student-Led Conferences

Writing report cards and IEPs during COVID-19 was frustrating and stressful. COVID-19 has exposed deep inequities that affect families disproportionately, and it has impacted teaching, learning and assessment in significant ways. There are so many challenges to assessing and evaluating students on-line, and there are many strengths/skills that cannot be measured on a report card.

Needs Improvement
The current assessment, evaluation and reporting practices and procedures needs improvement. Ontario schools reflect a colonial, Eurocentric approach to curriculum and assessment that privileges some students over others. Report cards and IEPs measure students against standardized levels of achievement, which fail to recognize multiple and different ways of knowing. There is extensive research about the impacts of systemic racism and educator bias, which construct certain students as “failures”.

Most of our professional development is focussed on how we can meet the diverse needs of students and make the curriculum more inclusive; however, we also need to think critically about how assessment and evaluation practices reinforce racial inequity, and privilege student “success” and belonging. How might we transform our assessment and evaluation so that all students feel empowered to achieve excellence, and feel successful?

Collaborative Assessment
Student-Led Conferences are one example of how educators might disrupt traditional forms of evaluation, and facilitate a more collaborative approach to assessment. In a previous blog, I wrote about how collaborative assessment actively engages families, educators and students as co-learners, and helps to build trusting relationships that are reciprocal.

Student-Led Conferences, goal-setting and self-evaluation are powerful examples of how collaborative assessment can center student voice, support meta-cognition, and develop critical thinking and self-reflective skills. Collaborative assessment can increase student engagement and motivation, and has been shown to impact student achievement and behaviour.

What is a Student-Led Conference?
Every year, I prepare my students to facilitate a Student-Led Conference with their family in February and June. This is an alternative to the Parent-Teacher Conference, and often tells a counter narrative to the report card. Usually, there are 4-5 conferences happening in the classroom at one time, and I will rotate between families to listen and add to the discussion. These conferences can last anywhere between 15-45 minutes.

It is my hope that Student-Led Conferences support all students to feel successful, because they create meaningful opportunities for students to identify their strengths, and share evidence of how well they are meeting their learning goals. They also invite families and educators to share responsibility in the teaching and learning process.

What happens BEFORE a Student-Led Conference?
At the beginning of the year, most schools invite families to visit the classroom and meet their child’s teacher to learn about the curriculum expectations and classroom routines. During this discussion when I introduce our learning goals, I also share information about collaborative assessment and Student-Led Conferences. I explain the benefits, provide resources, and invite families to ask questions.

As we begin to build relationships and honour all of our “multiple intelligences” and different ways of knowing, I encourage students to set individual short-term goals that are “just right” for them. We talk about our strengths and struggles as we learn about different folks who have worked hard to overcome barriers and achieve excellence. Older students might engage in diagnostic surveys to find out how they feel about different subjects.

Portfolios
Every student will develop a portfolio, which will hold samples of work that demonstrate growth and learning in concrete ways. Some of these work samples will be chosen by the student and others will be chosen by educators. For example, I always include goal-setting and self-evaluation, as well as our monthly unedited, unassisted writing samples in their portfolio.

In January and June, in preparation for a Student-Led Conference, students will look through completed work, and choose samples of work that they are proud of. In my class, students staple a piece of paper to this work and write about why they are proud of it. Students also have the opportunity to look back at work samples, and identify how they know they are growing. This process can take several days, and it is a great opportunity to reflect and set new goals for Term #2 in January and/or for the summer in June.



Student Voice:
Before writing the report card, I always ask students to reflect on their Learning Skills and Work Habits and complete a self-evaluation. As a class, we might discuss each skill and generate “success criteria” and specific examples that relate to our learning together. I often try to include student voices in the report card, and quote their writing and self-reflection. It is critical that students understand the criteria by which they are being evaluated, and that they have opportunities to share their thinking about themselves as learners. It is invaluable formative feedback for educators and families.

During COVID-19, our Student-Led Conferences have continued on-line. I created a Google Form, and asked families to help their child answer questions about their learning. The form included opportunities for students to identify their strengths and areas for improvement in different subject areas, as well as the Learning Skills and Work Habits. These “stars” and “wishes”, or “GLOW” and “GROW” comments helped to guide our discussion during our virtual Student-Led Conference. I shared the screen and asked the students to read their ideas aloud, and invited families to share feedback. I was only able to support one conference at a time, but I believe it was worth the extra time.

What happens DURING a Student-Led Conference?
Student-Led Conferences will look different depending on the age of the student. In the early primary years, I provide families with a checklist and sentence prompts to help support the discussion. Older students can follow a script to lead the discussion. During a Student-Led Conference, students will share their portfolio with their family. Families are encouraged to listen, ask questions and share what they notice about their child’s growth and progress. My role is to circulate around the room, listen, and contribute observations and reflections to the discussion.

What happens AFTER a Student-Led Conference?
After a Student-Led Conference, I provide a template and ask families to write a letter to their child. This letter describes what they are proud of, and how they will help their child to achieve their learning goals. In my experience, families have found the Student-Led Conference to be meaningful and informative.

One Kindergarten parent wrote:

It really opened up space for dialogue about what types of learning matter to our child, some of which were a pleasant surprise to us that we can carry forward at home now as well. Also, being able to experience his learning environment at school from his perspective was deeply gratifying for us and self-esteem building for him. He was so proud to show us around the space and really demonstrate the independence he’s building there. Grateful for the entire process and so heartened to know that he is in a classroom and school environment that really values the agency and intelligence of children!
(Parent comment, 2018)

Student-Led Conferences are a powerful tool that educators can use to honour the multiple and diverse ways that students learn and share knowledge. They provide a counter-narrative to the report card, and engage families, educators and students in a collaborative learning relationship that celebrates student achievement with pride and possibilities.

Video Resources:
Grade 3, Grade 6, Grade 7/8 Student-Led Conferences
The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat Webcast Professional Learning Series, Ontario Ministry of Education

Preparing for a Student-Led Conference, New Zealand

Student-Led Conferences: Empowerment and Ownership, Chicago