Curtis Carmichael- an inspiring teacher and activist

On March 4th, my school staff was lucky enough to listen to one of the most passionate guest speakers I have ever heard. His name is Curtis Carmichael and a talented author, teacher, speaker and activist. He is best known for his bike ride across Canada, striving for change in his Toronto community. He is also known for writing Butterflies in the Trenches, the first augmented reality book of its kind. I will include his website here in case you wish to learn more about his story and specifics.

Carmichael discussed many powerful topics with us, the first one being our job as educators. Here are the things he highlighted:

  • Unwrap each child’s gift
    • Carmichael is a firm believer that every single child has a gift and its our job to “unwrap it” and see for ourselves what makes them so special.
  • Prepare them for the real world
    • Carmichael mentions the importance of not running away from the community where they grew up but looking for ways to make it better. The real world will introduce new challenges for them after their educational journey and we need to prepare them for those

As for his book Butterflies in the Trenches, Carmichael encourages educators to read it with their class and to use the teacher guide it comes with. As he puts it,

    Butterflies in the Trenches is the candid story of Curtis’ life in the public housing projects in Scarborough, Ontario, where he grew up surrounded by trap houses, attending underfunded schools, and avoiding drive-by shootings. He shares raw and intimate stories from his childhood as a drug dealer and hustler and explores the effects of poverty, systemic racism, and police brutality on Black and low-income communities.

His story is so important for other children to hear as they grow up in similar surroundings. Hearing what he did was a meaningful story that all in the room were beyond inspired by. The opportunities he is presenting for young Black Canadians is outstanding and I shared his story with my class the Monday following this presentation. They had many questions about his journey across Canada and all that he has gone through.

Other ideas he speaks about are co-creating classroom activities with your class. Asking them what works and what doesn’t and going from there. I know the year is quickly wrapping up but there is still time to get everyone on the same page. He also mentions “Gamification” which is turning educational premises into games. This will encourage participation from the students in your class and will get them more engaged in their learning.

After Carmichael’s Zoom call ended, I thought about how to continue inspiring community in my classroom. I did an activity with them on the Monday where I asked them about their definition of community. These were their answers:

  • big group of people
  • BLM
  • a large amount of people in a group that agree on a specific topic
  • civilization
  • a place where people work, live and get along

I was saddened to see that “our class” or “a school” didn’t quite make it on the list. I will work harder to create community in my classroom and continue to look at activities that will engage all. The more initiatives that we take on as a class, I find it brings us closer together. We look forward to perhaps celebrating another spirit day as a class or creating a “Pink Day” for the entire school with the other 7/8 students. I was grateful for Carmichael as he reminded me of the importance of community and how co-creation is such a great way to start.

I look forward to sharing about how my students react to his book after we receive our copy next week.

Carmichael on Twitter: @CurtisCarmicc
Instagram: curtiscarmicc

 

Understanding Gender Neutral Pronouns

There is no doubt that I am very passionate about addressing issues related to equity and social justice, especially any work related to anti-oppression, anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-homophobia. For me to fully understand and advocate for social justice and equity, it is important that I am aware of current challenges, barriers and inclusionary practices. However, I would be the first to admit that my knowledge of gender neutral pronouns requires further learning and understanding to ensure I am respectfully honouring the identities of staff and students (in fact, all people) in my community. So, I did some research for my own professional growth and I found out some interesting facts that I would like to share with you. 

It is understood that people who identify outside of a gender binary most often use nonbinary pronouns that are not gender specific. These include: they/them/their use in the singular form. However, I learned that there are other pronouns that are used, such as: ze (pronounced “zee”) in place of she/he and hir (pronounced “here”) in place of his/him/her. This was new learning for me that opened my eyes to the ways in which I address individuals and the assumptions I often make about their identities.

Assuming one’s identity and choice of pronouns based on how they look and/or how they dress can be false and disrespectful to one’s gender identity and gender expression. I learned that pronouns may or may not match one’s gender expression, such as how the person dresses, looks, behaves or what their name is.

In recognition and commitment to equity and inclusionary practices, as well as the Human Rights policies in Canada, it is encouraging to see more people, including workplaces and organizations, supporting individual’s use of self-identified pronouns, in place of assumed pronouns based one’s sex assigned at birth or other’s perceptions of physical appearance. It might seem a simple gesture to some, but it’s an important recognition for others. It’s about letting someone know that you accept their identity as they are. 

The response to the following questions might help you better understand gender pronouns and how you can affirm someone’s gender identity:

What’s the right way to find out a person’s pronouns?

If I was introducing myself to someone new, I would say, “Hi. My name is Gary. I use he/him pronouns. What about you?” However, do keep in mind that for many people who don’t identify as cisgender, it could be more difficult for them to share their pronouns, especially in spaces where they don’t know people and/or they don’t feel comfortable or accepted.

How is “they/them” used as a singular pronoun?

“They” is already commonly used as a singular pronoun when you are talking about someone and you don’t know who they are. Using they/them pronouns for someone you do know simply represents a slightly different way of thinking. In this case, you’re asking someone to not act as if they don’t know you, but to use non-binary vocabulary when they’re communicating with/about you.

What if I make a mistake and ‘misgender’ someone, or use the wrong words?

I would simply apologize for my error. It’s perfectly natural to not know the right words to use, especially when meeting someone for the first time. Consider addressing groups of people as “everyone”, “colleagues”, “friends”, “class” or “students” instead of “boys and girls.” The important thing is making that non-assuming connection with the person and being open to learning new things and new ways of understanding one’s identity. 

What does it mean if a person uses the pronouns “he/they” or “she/they”?

That means that the person uses both pronouns, and you can alternate between those when referring to them. So, either pronoun would be fine. However, be mindful that some people don’t mind those pronouns being interchanged for them, but for others, they might use one specific pronoun in one context and another set of pronouns in another context/space, dependent on maybe safety or comfortability in the space they occupy. The best approach is to listen to how people refer to themselves.

ETFO has a wealth of resources to support your teaching and learning of gender neutral pronouns. I found their Social Justice website very helpful in my research and understanding of gender neutral pronouns. In fact, ETFO has plenty of ETFO 2SLGBTQ+ Resources for students of all ages.

Why a Black History Month?

I have often wondered why February was chosen to celebrate Black History, so I did some research and found out some interesting facts. 

It so happens that Black History Month evolved from the work of Carter G. Woodson, a Black American historian and scholar in the 1920s. He actually first established Black History Week in the 1920s as a week of celebration to follow the year’s study of Black history. The week he chose contained the birth dates of two significant people to the abolition of slavery in the United States: February 12th for President Abraham Lincoln who brought emancipation into law and February 14th for Frederick Douglas who advocated for the freedom of Black people. Toronto first celebrated Black History in the 1950s when the Canadian Women’s Negro Association brought the celebration to the city. In 1978 the Ontario Black History Society successfully petitioned the City of Toronto to have the now monthly celebration formally recognized. Black History Month is now celebrated across Canada to honour the legacy of Black Canadians and their communities. 

 

But Why a Black History Month?

I think that all Canadians should be made aware of the historical contributions made by Black Canadians. It’s important to understand the social forces which have shaped and influenced the Black community and their identities as a means of feeling connected to the educational experience and their life experience in Canada. Canadian history should include all people’s history, and Black history should be no exception.

As a school community, I look forward to the day when all people are recognized, included and valued for who they are in our education system and in the broader society. Most importantly, I look forward to when everyday is a celebration of all our histories and all our contributions, and the topic of why a Black History Month would no longer be up for debate.

 

Move Away from Enslavement to Empowerment

In talking about and teaching about Black History, I find it more meaningful to focus on empowering students to become agents of change rather than victims of circumstances. One of the activities I have used is an Art/History lesson on understanding the social justice impact of Black Artists on our society. Below is an outline of my lesson that I hope might be of some use to you. The Google Doc was shared with me from another colleague, but I modified parts of it to make it culturally relevant to my school community.

 

Why are we learning about this anyway?

  1. To highlight the successes and accomplishments of Black visual artists
  2. To learn how Black visual artists use their work to address real-life, complex problems relating to anti-oppression, equity and social justice

Task: Using Google Slides – Research, analyse and recreate a piece of art from one of the Black artists discussed in class: Ernie Barnes, Varnette Honeywood, Romare Bearden, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Annie Lee

  • Describe, highlight and and explain the artist’s creative style and abilities
  • Explain how the artist’s work can be seen from an anti-oppressive, equity and social justice lens
  • Recreate the selected piece of art as a platform to represent your own interpretation and understanding of the message the art represents in the original piece

Impact: Students were able to use digital tools to make discoveries through inquiry and research. They were also able to make connections to what they are learning to current issues and their lived experiences.

Black History Artists – Assignment

 

Restorative Circle Activities

Students come to school with many issues on their minds and in their hearts. As educators, we can help them process their thoughts and feelings so they can better handle their situations and be more present in class. Restorative circles are a useful practice to do just that. While frequently used to replace punitive forms of discipline, restorative circles are equally important in proactively building the relationships and skills students need to support one another and collectively address the challenges they face, especially during these unsettling and uncertain times for many of our students. Restorative circles are most effective when they’re an integral part of school culture and are embedded in your daily classroom routines. After all, you can’t “restore” a community that you haven’t built or sustained.

Below are some steps and questions I have researched and used that can support you in initiating a Restorative Circles program in your classroom.

7 STEPS FOR FACILITATING MEANINGFUL CIRCLES

  1. Co-create a safe and supportive space: Circles work best if teachers invest time up front to build relationships, develop skills and design a bank of tools to draw upon throughout the school year.

Early in the process teachers and students together explore values—like empathy, patience, kindness, courage and open-mindedness—that are essential to understand and agree upon when sharing openly and honestly in a circle. These include honoring the talking piece, which goes around the circle as an invitation to share while everyone else listens (participants may pass if they don’t wish to talk). Participants are encouraged to speak and listen from the heart with an equitable and inclusive lens. It is important that educators inform participants at the outset that we are mandated by law to report when a student threatens to harm themselves or others, or when students divulge abuse.

  1. Be prepared: Make sure that you, the facilitator, are well rested, calm and focused.

To hold the circle space effectively, it’s important to be fully present and able to manage other people’s stories and feelings as well as your own. If you’re exploring sensitive issues that may require follow up, consider alerting support staff.

  1. Plan ahead: Decide together on a topic or theme that sustains students’ interest.

Find a relevant activity to open the circle space such as a poem, quote or piece of music. A mindfulness activity can also be used to bring students into the space after a particularly stressful event. Look for information to ground the conversation and develop questions and prompts to invite student perspectives into the circle. Keep in mind that the larger the circle the more time you’ll need for the talking piece to go around. Think about how things might unfold and be ready to adapt and adjust accordingly. Make sure to leave time for a closing activity, giving students a chance to transition into spaces that may be less conducive to being vulnerable. A closing activity can be a commitment to safeguarding the stories shared in a circle or a breathing exercise in which we provide students with prompts and time to put themselves back together again.

  1. Invite student experiences into the space: Encourage students to connect with the circle content by sharing stories from their own lived experiences.

Include storytelling rounds by asking students to talk about “a person in your life who…” or “a time when….” Share authentically with yourself. This gives others permission to do the same. Model good listening skills as the talking piece goes around the circle. Be fully present as others speak. True active listening can create the kind of welcoming space that encourages even the quietest voices to speak.

  1. Acknowledge, paraphrase, summarize and practice empathy: Listen closely to what students share so that you can build on their experiences.

When the talking piece comes back to you, touch on what you felt, noticed or heard. If you sense that there was limited substance in the first round, send the talking piece around a second or third time, asking students for deeper, more meaningful connections, reflections, or additions. If challenging or painful issues come up, model agreed-upon circle practices for students to follow. Listening mindfully and being present with other people’s ordeals and lived experiences can create supportive, healing experiences that strengthen community connections and build empathy. If needed, let students know you’re available to check in with them later in the day or week. You might also have them consider speaking with other supportive adults or students to find solace if they’re in need.

  1. Explore what it means to be an effective ally: Beyond creating a supportive listening environment, ask what else, if anything, students need from you and from each other.

Explore how to be better allies in a circle so that students know they don’t need to face their challenges alone. Invite them to talk about a person in their lives who is a good friend or ally, or a person they’d like to have as a better friend or ally. Discuss the qualities these people have (or lack) and how they make us feel. Invite students to talk about a time they’ve been a good friend or ally themselves, and what gets in the way of being our best with one another.

  1. Zoom out to promote understanding on the systems level: Explore whether there are larger systemic forces that underlie the challenges students have touched on (such as racism, sexism, homophobia or lack of access to resources). 

Introduce information, resources and voices that might shed light on how these systems operate. Look for examples of people who took action to interrupt these and other oppressive systems. Invite students to connect to this information by sharing their thoughts, feelings and related experiences. Studying larger, systemic forces in society can help students better understand their situation and can be a useful starting point for students to become more active themselves. Action and activism can inspire hope, connection and healing.

Video example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjVI-1XDX_Y

Circle time questions – Exemplars

Getting Acquainted

– What is your favourite…?

– If you had $1000 what would you do with it and why?

– How would your friend describe you, or how would you describe yourself to someone new?

– What do you like (or dislike) most about yourself?

 

Values

– Give me an example of when someone has been kind to you in your life (or when you have been kind to someone)? How did that feel?

– What do you want to contribute to the world; How do you want to be remembered?

– Share an example of when you did the right thing when others were doing the wrong thing, or when no one else was watching

 

Story Telling

– A time when you were scared to do something good/important, but you did it anyway

– A time when you laughed a lot

– What (silly/funny/crazy/weird) thing did you used to do when you were little?

 

Achievement

– One thing I couldn’t do a year ago… 

– One of my goals this year is…

– Something I can’t do but want to be able to do by the end of the year is…

 

Behaviour / Conflict

– Share one thing that makes you annoyed.

– Share a time when you were upset but then someone made you feel better.

– How can you show respect to others?

Tone Policing

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed more and more that it has become easier to vilify the messenger and the way in which the message was delivered, rather than to listen to and reflect on the message. While tone policing has been around forever, the experience of having my words discredited because of “how they were delivered” is something that is relatively new for me. Perhaps this is because I have been speaking up more or simply because others are tired of hearing about their discrimination. 

I remember being in a meeting and after having asked a question about an issue of equity, being yelled at by the meeting organizer because that wasn’t the place or the time for that type of question. Believe me, it’s never the time for a Black woman to ask for equality. I remember another person in the meeting coming up to me after to ask me to share my vision with her, so she could go and deliver my vision to the meeting organizer. They mentioned that I seemed angry when asking the question and that I should have been calmer when speaking. This was highly insulting because, at that moment, I realized that it wasn’t really about the message, it was about who delivered the message. My question, no matter how nicely or calmly asked, would not have been well-received because it highlighted a “problem” in the group. The other person saw my question as being valid in the meeting and rather than in that moment speaking up, they chose to capitalize on my “vision” and consider how they might better be able to communicate my simple question. To this day, years later, this question still has not been answered. To my knowledge, no steps have been taken to implement the much-needed action related to my question. The deflection worked. 

This is just one example of the way in which tone policing works to keep the status quo. It happens in many environments and also happens in schools when issues around changes in practice or policy are brought up. Often those choosing to bring up an issue are racialized and/or marginalized, and it is through our lived experiences that we try to shed light on what is problematic. In these moments we are often perceived as angry, enraged, or upset – which we have every right to be – without actually considering that we already know: that being angry, enraged or upset at work is not permissible for us. We school our words and manage our temperament to ensure we are not perceived negatively and still, any challenge to the status quo, can easily give us these labels. The focus shifts to our perceived behaviour rather than the “problem” at hand. 

In a profession that calls itself a practice, shouldn’t there be room to grow? If we are all on a “learning journey”, why are some so offended at the thought of having something to work on? If ever you find yourself getting defensive by the words of a colleague, someone you work with, or a student, might I suggest you try the following? 

Sit With the Discomfort

Take some time to sit with what you are feeling and consider that perhaps what you are feeling in this moment, might just be a fraction of what the other person might be experiencing on a more frequent basis. If ever I have highlighted a racist or discriminatory practice, know that I have probably experienced this practice many times before – both as a child and an educator. Having to experience it again is uncomfortable for me. No longer can I sit through this discomfort nor will I silently allow for students to sit through the discomfort so that others will be comfortable in their “fun”.

Understand that in education, once we become teachers or administrators, the learning doesn’t stop there. There are always new things to learn and ways to reflect on practices that are harmful and exclusionary. The discomfort that you might be feeling can lead to action and change, if you decide to do something about what was discussed. 

Consider the Message

What is it that the other person wants you to hear? Why or how might this information be valid to your practice and/or growth as an educator? What steps do you need to take in order to bring about change? Consider thinking about where you might be able to do your own learning about this issue. Remember, it’s not up to the person who brought the situation to your attention to relive the experience and teach you how to change. Change comes from doing your own work. 

Act

I can’t tell you how many people have said that they are reading and learning, with little or no action. This reminds me of the James Baldwin quote, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” It’s through action that real change occurs. If there’s all this reading and learning, shouldn’t action accompany it? Shouldn’t there be a shift in practice that is evident? It’s through your actions, that racialized and/or marginalized people will know that you have truly heard the conversations we have been trying to have. 

I do want it to be said that I am not condoning disrespectful dialogue. In no way do I believe that people should be disrespectfully spoken to by others. As someone on the receiving end of some pretty disrespectful and harassing comments, I understand this all too well.  Rather, I’m speaking to the intense need that some have to immediately discredit the words of another when they are called on their discriminatory language and/or actions. It’s easy to say that the person didn’t say what they had to say in a manner that was “nice”. For example, I’m really not sure how you tell someone “nicely” that their words or actions were racist or xenophobic. 

Sadly, tone policing is also often the precursor to campaigns of intense gaslighting in order to make the messenger consider the way in which they delivered their message and to detract from much-needed work to improve workplace conditions for all. When a conversation is one that is uncomfortable, please consider the message, rather than focusing on the messenger. Sit with the discomfort. Do your own learning and act. 

Positioning students as co-conspirators (and the fall of WE)

Since I began my teaching career six years ago, my practices of student engagement in activism and advocacy have evolved and shifted based on the community of learners I am working with. At the same time, my attitude towards this work has shifted consistently and drastically. The most notable change? My feelings toward social enterprises whose work in schools may appear charitable, but are steeped in controversy and insincerity.

In my first year of teaching, a student in my Grade Three class gave me a “Rafiki Bracelet” sold to them by the WE Charity. It was later that school year that I was sitting in a school-wide assembly, watching a promotional video for the same organization in which a group of women in Kenya were profiled as they beaded the bracelets themselves. Students were being sold the notion that they themselves would be contributing to the livelihood of these women and their communities by simply purchasing a bracelet. Colleagues and I asked ourselves: Why can’t we see the long-term impacts of these temporary solutions to a deeply systemic problem?

Many who criticize WE’s business model, through which students became a vehicle for sales and profit, point out how students were roped into the fantasy of “saving” impoverished communities with their efforts. What started with a Rafiki bracelet not only became thousands of dollars in spending on WE’s “voluntourism” programs, but also the excitement of post-graduation employment at WE without realizing that the organization overworked and underpaid its employees to a severe extreme.

As educators we can ask why students would have fallen victim to a model like WE’s, but what we should do is critically examine the ways that celebrity, fame, and ego were at the centre of WE’s initiatives, particularly WE Day, in order to convince students to join their cause. WE Day harnessed an unbelievable amount of power in numbers, but it fostered an almost cult-like manipulation and exploitation of our students who would have needed a trusted adult to help them understand more appropriate avenues for activism and advocacy work in school.

It’s been one year since WE announced it would be ceasing its Canadian programs after having been embroiled in scandal. My hope is that we use this turn of events to deepen our consciousness around what it means to be an activist in school and work hard to de-centre the ego from the work our students do to help others. Instead of portraying the student as the saviour, how might we portray the student as a co-conspirator? How might we foster a sense of humility in classroom activism? In what ways does our teaching perpetuate narratives in which non-western countries are “poor” instead of examining the systems of power that cause disparity?

These questions simply scratch the surface of the impact that WE’s programs, values, and corruption have had in our schools and on our students, here in Canada and across the world. As we reflect, we must also continue to name and unpack these problems in order to push past the fault in our practice and move forward in a good way. 

For an in-depth look into the WE scandal, listen to “The White Saviors” series by Canadaland: https://www.canadaland.com/shows/the-white-saviors/ 

 

Why I Teach Through an Equity and Anti-Oppressive Lens

Lately, it seems that all I hear throughout the education system is about equity and anti-oppression. These seem to be the latest buzzwords in our profession and they permeate throughout everything we do. Teachers are encouraged to develop a belief statement about equity and anti-oppression work and to embed it into their philosophy, pedagogy and teaching practices. However, have you ever stopped to seriously ask yourself, what does it really mean to teach through an equity and anti-oppressive lens? I have, and the answer was quite revealing. 

 

First, I had to reflect upon my own understanding of equity and anti-oppression in order to truly recognize my role and position as an educator. To me, equity is liberation of the mind, body and soul. It is a human right to have the freedom to think, act and feel in your true authentic self, without fear and discrimination. Equity is a sense of being included, valued and respected in all spaces and in all communities. Inequality and discriminations occur when certain spaces and communities deny you of your rights as a human being. Equity and Anti-oppression is a framework used to address and dismantle these inequities and discriminatory practices, which are often systemic in nature and deeply embedded into our habits and norms. Honestly, that took years for me to understand and to define through my own lens. I had to reflect upon how, and acknowledge that, my own (limited as they are) power and privilege (as a middle-class male educator) contributed to the systemic inequalities that exist in our society and throughout the education system. I also had to think about what role I could play to be an agent of change. I think my understanding of equity and anti-oppression align strongly with ETFO’s Equity Statement

 

Now, do I feel included, valued and respected in all spaces and in all communities in which I engage? Unfortunately the answer is more often no than yes. My race, ethnicity and sexual identity often impact how I think, act and feel in certain spaces and how others interact with me in those spaces. I find myself negotiating and navigating spaces on a daily basis. It can be quite exhausting and disempowering. So, why do I endure this disheartening experience time after time? For the same reason I became an educator. I strongly believe that all people, all students in particular, should be included, valued, and respected in all aspects of life, including their school community. Unfortunately that does not happen in all spaces and for all people/students. I know this because it happened to me as a student and it continues to happen to me as an adult educator. I see the inequities in our education policies and practices, in our classroom management practices and in our assessment and evaluation practices. Most notably, as a guidance counsellor, I am constantly advocating for the rights of Black and Indigenous students, and students in the Special Education system, to receive equitable treatment and access to resources and programs during the high school transition process. Everything that I am, through my lived experiences, and everything that I do for myself and others is embedded in an equity and anti-oppressive framework. 

 

I use ETFO’s Anti-Oppressive Framework to align my thinking and practice. Here is an excerpt from ETFO’s definition and statement: 

 

An anti-oppressive framework is the method and process in which we understand how systems of oppression such as colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism and ableism can result in individual discriminatory actions and structural/systemic inequalities for certain groups in society. Anti-oppressive practices and goals seek to recognize and dismantle such discriminatory actions and power imbalances. Anti-oppressive practices and this framework should seek to guide the Federation’s work with an aim to identify strategies and solutions to deconstruct power and privilege in order to mitigate and address the systemic inequalities that often operate simultaneously and unconsciously at the individual, group and institutional or union level. (ETFO’s Equity Statement)

 

Here is another quote that I would like to highlight on ETFO’s Action on Anti-Black Racism, ETFO’s Anti-Black Racism Strategy is focused on creating systemic changes to confront anti-Black racism and provide a more welcoming and inclusive union environment for Black members at provincial and local levels. Given the legacy and current prevalence of anti-Black racism in colonial systems, institutions and society, ETFO Action on Anti-Black Racism –  Building an Inclusive School Workplace and Union brochure provides information on what anti-Black racism is, ETFO’s anti-Black racism strategy and how to be an ally. You can find out more about ETFO’s Action on Anti-Black Racism here

 

Also of importance to share is ETFO’s Human Rights Statement: The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario’s is committed to providing an environment for members that is free from harassment and discrimination at all provincial and local Federation sponsored activities. Harassment and discrimination on the basis of a prohibited ground are violations of the Ontario Human Rights Code and are illegal.

 

I included these quotes and the Human Rights statement because I am proud to be a part of a union that has in place policies and practices that value and protect the rights of all its members. However, it is up to us, as members and as educators, to ensure that ETFO indeed practices what it preaches, so that we too can feel protected in our commitment to ensuring student equity and developing student excellence. 

 

I say all that to say this, know thyself, know your worth and know your passion. Use all of who you are and what you believe to challenge, support and inspire students. You don’t have to be Black to advocate for Black students, you don’t have to be Indigenous to address Indigenous rights, just like how you don’t have to identify as a woman or a member of the 2SLGBTQ+ community to support those who are impacted by gender inequities and homophobia. You really just have to show students, through your actions, how much you care about them and that they do matter, regardless of their circumstances and lived experiences. In fact, I encourage you to empower students to see/use their circumstances and lived experiences as a catalyst for self-empowerment and universal change. Show them that what matters to them also matters to you.  

 

To support you in supporting students and showing them that they do matter, here are some literacy resources from ETFO’s Social Justice Begins With Me Book List that might be of great help to you.

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!

 

One Year Wiser

What a year it has been! At the beginning of last summer, there were black squares and new policies in place in organizations around the world calling for critical thought and change in the area of anti-Black racism. Some chose to read books, others chose to act with their students, some never moved beyond the black squares. For me, this has been a year of reflection and connection with those in and out of education spaces who are seeking to bring about change. 

My Blackness isn’t something that I can remove in order to fit into spaces that weren’t made for me. As such, this year has been a personal journey in learning how to better navigate. In this post, I share some of the experiences that helped me along and I hope that other Black women in education can find them of benefit in both their personal and professional lives.

Connections Online

Let’s face it, connecting online has been fraught with challenges.  We each have our own stories that we can share about miscommunications or experiences that were less than ideal either while learning or teaching online this past year. The last thing that I felt like doing was more of it! And yet, I signed up for more professional learning this year. Through ETFO, I noticed a number of programs for my own learning and committed to using these opportunities to make some great connections online with other like-minded educators. 

One ETFO program that I joined was Code Black. The program started in January and concluded in May. During this time there were sessions and online learning that prompted us to explore our leadership skills while developing new skills. One particular session that has stayed with me beyond the day was our second session. This session resonated with me because I had the opportunity to hear from incredible speakers who shared their experiences and I saw similarities within my own experience. Far too often, as Black women, we gaslight ourselves when we face experiences that are unbelievable. We talk ourselves out of believing what is actually happening and what we are experiencing because many of them are unfathomable.  It was in this program that I had the opportunity to truly get to know an incredible educator, Tracy Halliday.  

With any learning, I feel there must come action. As a part of this program, we had to come up with an action plan for an area in education where we would like to see change. Of course being Black women, Tracy and I wanted to work on creating an Affinity Space for Black educators who identify as women. We spent time together dreaming and visioning and I have to say that it was such a pleasure connecting with her to do this work. Although we have yet to meet in person, it was through this online connection that our idea came to life. 

While the pandemic has brought barriers to the way in which we connect, I’m so grateful for the technology that allowed the two of us to come up with this much-needed space. 

Affinity Spaces

Many Black women have found that minimal effort is made to wholly include and/or value our voices and experiences. Often isolated and required to be silent about the injustices that we see and experience – for fear of reprisal – many internalize the daily struggle that it is to be a Black woman. As a result, our overall health and well-being have been impacted in a variety of negative ways. Knowing this, Tracy and I wondered: 

“What if there was a space where we as Black women could voice our experiences and ideas for change within education and actually be heard? What would change for Black women? What would change for education as a whole?”

While we know that affinity spaces aren’t new, we hope that this space can help to support change based on the commonalities in our experiences and the needs of those within the group. Excited about the idea and knowing the power of connections that can be had online, we crossed panels and reached out to another incredible educator – judy mckeown – who we both admire and have learned so much from. She joined us for our first Affinity Space and it was JOY! Space to: speak, be heard, laugh, dream, challenge each other, and grow. That hour alone fueled me with so much energy and was a clear demonstration to me that as Black women, we need these safe spaces to just be. 

It’s summer and once again, which for me, is a time to reflect on what the next year will bring. This summer, I’m taking the time to dream big about the changes and impact that I will have inside and outside of the world of education. As I dream, I’m making sure that I take care of myself and fuel my days with things that bring me joy. I hope that you have a safe and restful summer. Please take care!

Note:

ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students.

ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.

What’s Your Superpower?

 

“What’s My Superpower” is a sweet and powerful book written by Aviaq Johnston and illustrated by Tim Mack. This is the story of Nalvana, an Inuit child who lives in a northern community, and her journey to find her own “superpower”. This book was gifted to me by my educator friend, Ellie Clin. She thought I might be able to relate to Nalvana, and she was right!

As we prepare for the end of year, some of us might be hoping to include student voice in our Report Cards and/or facilitate Student-Led Conferences. This story could inspire Writing, Drama, and Visual Arts, as well as meaningful opportunities for self-reflection and celebration of all of our “superpowers.”

Here is how I am planning to use this book:

1. Listen to the story, “What’s My Superpower?” by Aviaq Johnston, read aloud on-line.

2. Reflect: What is your superpower?
For example: What makes you a good friend? What activities feel easy for you? What are your gifts or talents?

3. Write about your superpower. Give examples.

4. Draw a picture of yourself using your superpower.

5. Optional: Dress up as a superhero and share your superpower with the class.


I shared this idea with other teachers in the school, and invited them to co-create the template and “success criteria”. We have been talking about creating a shared writing task that can be implemented across the grades to help us build a skills continuum or exemplars of student work from Kindergarten-Grade 6. This writing sample could be considered both a self-reflection for Learning Skills and an introduction to next year’s teacher. It could be included in every students’ portfolio, and/or used for moderated marking.

Transforming Power:
I recently participated in professional learning as part of ETFO’s MentorCoaching program. One of the workshops was called “Transforming Power,” and it was facilitated by Indy Bathh and Louise Pitre. The first activity we did together was to share our superpowers in the Chat. This was a wonderful way to introduce ourselves to each other, and to practice naming our strengths.

It is always interesting to reflect on qualities of leadership with a group of educators who identify as women. As you might expect, the impact of patriarchy and misogyny, capitalism and racism reinforce the oppressive belief that women have less value. In a group of union leaders, it was still difficult for some of the women to identify their own superpowers. This reminded me of how important it is for all of our students to know their power, and to feel powerful, and to use their power to make change.


I want to encourage everyone who is reading this blog to pause and reflect. What are your superpowers? Make a list or draw them. Can you think of a time when you used your superpower to support and empower others? HINT: You do it every day with your students!

CommUNITY:
As I reflect on my own superpowers, I think about how I have been successful at creating community this year: in the classroom, in the school, and in professional learning communities.  During this time of isolation, building relationships and making connections has been the most meaningful work I have done.

In the classroom, I support everyone to feel like a VIP every day. We play together, and celebrate our strengths by giving and receiving Heartprints. In GLOW Club, I actively teach about love, pride and resistance. I organize whole-school events, like the WTF embodied Land Acknowledgment, Gender Splendour Week, sing and dance like a Mummer, and strut my stuff on the runway during our Kiki Ball. I listen and share picture books with staff, and acknowledge the powerful work they are doing with their students.

In the school, I facilitate brave conversations with families through Book Club and Community Core Values discussions, and I share resources with families about Settler Allyship and how to talk to children about anti-Black racism. As the Union Steward, I use our BBSAT (Building Better Schools Action Team) distribution list to share information about ETFO campaigns and actions by Ontario Education Workers United and Ontario Parent Action Network. 

As part of my own professional learning, I will continue to share ETFO’s Women’s Equality Project with locals, and collaborate with members in Ottawa to build relationships of equity and justice. I will continue to attend ETFO webinars and access resources.  I hope to finish my Masters of Education next year.  It has been an honour and a privilege to learn with educators in community.

Gratitude:
After 12 years, I will be leaving The Grove Community School. As one of the founding teachers, I am extremely proud of the learning we have done together to create the first public alternative elementary school with an explicit focus on environmental justice, equity and community activism. I am deeply grateful for all of the students, families, educators, and community members I have worked with at The Grove, ETT and ETFO.  Thank you!

Thank you to “The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning” for the opportunity to document this unusual year with my Grade 2 students. This summer, my partner and I are moving to Peterborough.  I will be teaching in Kawartha Pine Ridge as an Occasional Teacher next year, which will be a humbling experience.  I will be looking for new allies and educator friends, and re-reading posts from this blog for support and inspiration.