National Ribbon Skirt Day (January 4)

“A bill put forward by Senator Mary Jane McCallum to recognize National Ribbon Skirt Day has received Royal Assent and is now an act of parliament. McCallum was inspired to create the bill after a young Saskatchewan girl named Isabella Kulak was shamed for wearing a ribbon skirt during a formal school event” (Francis, 2022).

Bill S-219 was passed to create awareness and provide an opportunity for Canadians to learn more about the importance of Ribbon Skirts to many Indigenous cultures and heritage. “National Ribbon Skirt Day will provide an opportunity for everyone in Canada to recognize, learn about, and celebrate the importance of Indigenous traditions and expressions of culture. The Ribbon Skirt is one such tradition” (Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, 2022).

In Indigenous communities, “Ribbon skirts are traditionally worn in ceremonies and during special events by First Nations women and represent the person’s identity, unique diversity and strength.  Women, girls and gender diverse people also wear them to express pride and confidence in their Indigenous identity and heritage.” (Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, 2022).

According to the article by CBC News, A young Saskatchewan girl by the name of Isabella Kulak was targeted and shamed at a school function for wearing a ribbon skirt to the school’s formal event.  A teaching assistant told Isabella that her attire did not meet the requirements of ‘formal wear’ and that she should have worn a store-bought (mass-produced brand) to fit with the other students. Unfortunately, in Canada, this oppressive dialogue is not uncommon in the interactions of many racialized and marginalized people groups who choose to honour their culture or religion through their attire. According to Francis, 2022, while speaking at an interview On CBC Radio One, Isabella mentioned that on January 4, she would wear her ribbon skirt. She said, “It makes me really happy because lots of people can now wear their ribbon skirts proudly. I hope they are now proud of who they are” (Francis, 2022). Isabella’s father (Chris) mentioned that “No child should be treated like that regardless of where they come from or who they are” (Francis, 2022).

The passing of this bill is an opportunity for us as educators to gain deeper insight into the importance of traditions and practices in Indigenous culture. It is also a challenge for us to pause and think about what we deem ‘formal’, ‘proper’ or ‘acceptable’ as it has to do with how our students express themselves through their attire or nonconformity to what attires we think they should wear.

Louise Jocko of Birch Island near Manitoulin said, “Each person has their own story behind their skirts. Each person has their own colours that they bring with them when they make the skirt. I think it really does bring about the resiliency, and it shows the strength in our people that we’re reclaiming that culture and identity … wearing these skirts” (Gemmill, 2023).

There is still so much for us to learn, unlearn, and relearn. As we continue to work together to advocate for equitable learning practices and environments for all students, it is imperative that we all understand the importance of Bill S-19 in combating racism, discrimination, and oppression in all spheres, especially as it pertains to raising awareness of and celebrating Indigenous ways of knowing and being.

References

Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. (2022, December 21). Bill S-219, an Act respecting a national ribbon skirt day, receives Royal Assent. Canada.ca. Retrieved January 1, 2023, from https://www.canada.ca/en/crown-indigenous-relations-northern-affairs/news/2022/12/bill-s-219-an-act-respecting-a-national-ribbon-skirt-day-receives-royal-assent.html

Francis, J. (2022, December 23). National Ribbon Skirt Day bill passed, to be celebrated on Jan. 4. CBC News. Retrieved January 1, 2023, from https://www-cbc-ca.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/www.cbc.ca/amp/1.6694428

Gemmill, A. (2023, January 4). Marking 1st-ever National Ribbon Skirts Day in Northern Ontario | CBC News. CBCnews. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/sudbury/marking-ribbon-skirt-day-sudbury-1.6702580

Lambert, A. (2020, July 1). Crazy Hair Day. Crazy hair day. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from https://heartandart.ca/crazy-hair-day/

The Ten Principles [Anti-Racism Education: Theory & Practice].

An expression used colloquially in the English language says “______ wrote the book on that subject,” can be applied to George Dei’s research on Anti-Racism Education. Though written in 1996, it outlines so many fundamental principles of antiracism education that educators must grapple with in order to do this work well.

Race has been and is being used as an identifier, a marker that sets one apart from another, which is reinforced by the perceived dominant group through deliberate erasure and omission of narratives regarding who occupies particular spaces.  Action-oriented strategies and explicit identification and naming of race and social issues that strike at the heart of the power imbalance and inequities found in our education systems are what Dei explores in this resource, this call-to-action. The ten basic principles of Anti-racism Education are summarized in the chart below. “Anti-racism education may be defined as an action-oriented strategy for instructional, systemic change to address racism and the interlocking systems of social oppression… Anti-racism education seeks to build what has been termed “communities of differences.” This task can only be undertaken successfully if educators first learn how to deal with difference and the inherent conflictual interests and power imbalances in our societies.” (Dei, 1996).

As educators committed to teaching and learning centered on anti-racism and anti-oppression, it is pertinent to examine and reflect on these basic principles.

Ask yourself:

  • What areas in my teaching & learning styles foster anti-racist teaching?
  • What areas in my teaching & learning styles require change?
  • How can I integrate these ten principles in my learning environment (classroom) to foster equitable learning?

Taking the time to intentionally examine ourselves as educators, to think about our styles and reflect on our practice is essential to consistently cultivating meaningful learning for our students, particularly racialized students who are often not reflected at the forefront.

Examine, Reflect, Refine. This is one of the ways we continue to work towards ‘Building Better Schools.’

References:
Dei. G. J. S. (1996). Anti-racism education: Theory and practice. Basic Principles of Anti-Racism Education. Fernwood Publishing. Halifax & Winnipeg, Canada.

Schooling or Learning?

For many, when presented with both, schooling is the same as learning, and learning seems to be something that only occurs in schools. Is this the case, however?

At ETFO’s Public Symposium titled ‘Generation Black: You’re Next!’,  Dr. Carl James highlighted why educators must pause and reflect on the similarities and differences between these two concepts. 

What is schooling? According to Oxford Learner’s Dictionary (2022), schooling is defined as “the education you receive at school”. When cross-referenced with various dictionaries (Marriam-Webster, Collins, and Cambridge dictionaries), they all provide the same definition – education received at an institution, whether at a primary, secondary, or tertiary level. 

Learning, however, is not as straightforward in its definition. Going back to Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, learning is given different definitions within various contexts. According to all the dictionaries mentioned above, learning is a process that occurs in multi-settings in multiple ways, beginning when an individual is born. 

“For educators, the ability to teach is a privilege, but in a broader sense, it is a privilege that runs parallel to the responsibility of teaching relative to the complete history of ideas and events that have shaped and continue to shape human growth and development” (Dei, Karumanchery, & Karumanchery-Luikb, 2004). 

Since learning is a continuous process, and schooling is one of the environments in which learning occurs, how can we, as educators, ensure that learning is facilitated meaningfully within the school environment?

Planning Matters:

In 2020, the Ontario Black History Society examined a Grade 8 history textbook and ‘blacked out‘ any information that did not mention or acknowledge Black people in Canada. Of the 255 pages of information, only 13 pages remained. Indigenous sovereignty, economics, and culture are rarely explored in the K-12 curriculum. Thus, students absorb this information, effectively being erased within their learning, and are expected to repeat this narrative in everyday Canadian contexts as acceptable discourse within society. The impact and contributions of people within the 2SLGBTQ+ community and other cultural communities are erased from ‘settler’ rhetoric and in curriculum/resources used to direct learning. Thus, students absorb this information, effectively being erased within their learning, and are expected to repeat this narrative in everyday Canadian contexts as acceptable discourse within society.

Breaking the cycle of erasure and omission within the classroom is linked to the planning stage. Before planning, take the time to know your learners. Become familiar with the communities in which they live. Foster a classroom environment wherein their experiences inside and outside of the classroom are valued and can be welcomed in their learning space. Cultivate incorporating student input, perspectives, ideas, and resources into Unit and Lesson planning. Develop connections with community members and partners inside and outside the school that can broaden your familiarity with resources that reflect the society in which we live. Approach your planning intentionally, using an anti-racist, anti-oppressive lens, which creates a window for your students to engage with often omitted members of their society and a mirror whereby they see themselves reflected in their learning.

Representation Matters:

“Dialogue is the encounter between men, mediated by the world, in order to name the world. Hence, dialogue cannot occur between those who want to name the world and those who do not wish this naming—between those who deny others the right to speak their word and those whose right to speak has been denied them. Those who have been denied their primordial right to speak their word must first reclaim this right and prevent the continuation of this dehumanizing aggression” (Friere, 2005. p. 88).

In short, representation matters. Recentering multi-representation in learning is one of the vehicles for transformative change that can begin to shine a light on learning our whole in constructive ways.

  • Think about the resources you use and share with your class. Who is reflected? Who is erased? Who is tokenized? Who is omitted?
  • Reflect on your interactions with parents, guardians and members of your school community? Who is made to feel welcome? Who is kept at arm’s length? Whose experiences are valued? Whose experiences are often invalidated?
  • Conduct an inventory of your learning and resource plans. Are you ensuring that your plans reflect the learners in your classroom? How have you challenged yourself to plan and facilitate learning from a social justice, equity, and inclusive lens? Have you included your learners’ interests, backgrounds, and experiences as integral to planning and lesson facilitation?

Assessment Matters:

As stated in the Growing Success policy document put forth by the Ontario Ministry of Education regarding authentic assessment, “Our challenge is that every student is unique, and each must have opportunities to achieve success according to his or her own interests, abilities, and goals” (Ontario Ministry of Education Growing Success, 2010).

Assessment and Evaluation practices in Growing Success (2010) state that “the seven fundamental principles lay the foundation for rich and challenging practice. When these principles are accepted, implemented, utilized, and observed by all teachers, assessment becomes a tool for collecting meaningful information that will help inform instructional decisions, promote student engagement, foster meaningful demonstration of student understanding, and improve student learning overall.

 

References:

Dei, G. J. S., Karumanchery, L. L., & Karumanchery-Luikb, N. (2004). Chapter Seven: Weaving the Tapestry: Anti-Racism Theory and Practice. Counterpoints,244, 147–164. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42979563

Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Edition (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. (Original work published 1921).

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2010). Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools. Retrieved from https://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/policyfunding/growSuccess.pdf

Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries. (2022). Learning. Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries.
Retrieved from https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/.

Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries. (2022). Schooling. Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries.
Retrieved from https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/.

read a little bell before the bell

I love to read. It wasn’t always like that though. After taking a literature heavy course load through high school and university, I swore off the printed word for a spell.

It wasn’t absolute avoidance or aversion. I did read the paper from time to time, although selectively. When I took a job in broadcasting during the early 90s, my self imposed reading embargo was over as a boatload of reading came with my job as newsreader, DJ, and local reporter. Even though reading was a key part of those workdays, there was not much desire to do so outside of work.

Fast forward to 2007. 

I’m back in university trying to finish a degree that started in 1984. The interweb had become the main source for reams of digital texts and other content from online libraries and newly prescribed course materials. Once again reading became more like work rather than a daily getaway and reward. I struggled to read anything more than what was required. 

As such, it took some time to find a genuine motivation. About 2 months in, it began to change when by some bit of fortune, the text(s) started became so much more relevant to my life as a 40 something adult. I’d like to call this my mid-life renaissance, but fear it maybe considered a bit to melodramatic. Whether it was a personal essayist, scientist, or philosopher it was as if reading no longer felt like assigned work, but rather as tools  intended to strengthen my heart and mind as an educator. It’s 2022 and my reading game is still going strong. 

Teaching Community by bell hooksThis leads me to my most recent read Teaching CommunityA Pedagogy of Hope by iconic educator bell hooks.  Although it took me a bit of penny pinching to add to my collection, it is worth every dollar. I can’t wait to share this text with others who, like me, are on a journey to create inclusive communities in their classrooms.

Please note: I am not naive enough to think that one book could be the lever that moves all barriers and mountains, but I truly believe that the ideas in this text can be leveraged to make a difference when and where they are applied in our classrooms. Be advised that this book contains much “thought fuel” and plenty of feelings too. 

The greatest feelings I had throughout reading this text were this strange sense of acknowledgement and validation. I may have thought and felt many of the ideas shared, but hooks has organized and articulated them so perfectly and has gifted us with an opportunity to reflect, respond, and put community into action. 

I guess what spoke the loudest across the chapters was an emphasis on disrupting the status quo through compassion and community in education. Reading Teaching Community encapsulated my goals as an educator in a personal and professional manner. I love how hooks puts it,
“…the most powerful learning experience we can offer students…is the opportunity to be fully and compassionately engaged with learning.” Creating this space requires 3 things; commitment, courage, and compassion. None will work unless combined with the others. Notice how curriculum wasn’t mentioned? As @callmemrmorris often reminds us via Twitter. “We teach students not curriculum.”

hooks continues, “Refusing to make a place for emotional feelings in the classroom does not change the reality that their presence overdetermines the conditions where learning can occur.” We have to see our students where they are and not in the spaces we want them to fit within. We have to acknowledge that everyday comes with a raft of emotions that rise and fall. Teachers need to be prepared to accept the highs and lows that happen at the speed of learning. Whether a student is sad, anxious, joyful, angry or a combination they are showing us that they do not feel emotionally safe in that moment and will struggle to be truly present as a result. How we choose to respond to them in those moments will determine whether they feel seen and a part of the community or like an outsider looking in. 

hooks also shares, “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.” This is probably the hardest space to occupy as educators. We were conditioned through past experiences and pedagogy to be the centre of our classrooms in the past. However, what was thought to have worked back in the day, was really only a means of perpetuating dominant culture in order to maintain power over students rather than respecting and sharing power with them and empowering them as learners. 

Can you tell that I love this book? hooks also discusses the intersectionality of identity and identity in academia. She writes with clarity and candour that challenged my perspectives while affirming them at the same time. This is why I share that everyone should read a little bell before the bell and I know this will be one of those texts to read over and over as my career continues. 

Happy page turning.

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/