Teaching Social Justice and Equity Through Mathematics

By the time students reach high school, they are already being streamed into different academic levels that often limit their full potentials for growth and development. This streaming pathway closes the door of opportunity for many underserved and racialized students. It is important that educators develop multiple entry points, honour different ways of knowing, and provide numerous opportunities for students to experience success in mathematics.  When mathematics is introduced as a tool for understanding the world, we are helping to liberate the minds of students and championing the educational goal of creating informed citizens who will contribute to, and participate in, an inclusive and democratic society. An inquiry-based approach to mathematics with a focus on teaching for social justice and equity (which values multiple perspectives, the social construction of knowledge, and interconnects student experience with mathematics) can empower students to develop both mathematical and social/political knowledge. 

 

As an intermediate classroom teacher, as well as a special education teacher, I have learned over the years how to embed culturally relevant and responsive equity and social justice issues into my numeracy program as a form of engaging students and empowering them to understand and confront inequities inside and outside of the classroom. This personal philosophy and teaching pedagogy did not happen overnight or within my first five years of teaching. It really required, from me, a personal philosophical understanding and belief in what it means to educate young minds and to effectively prepare them for the realities of life. Over time, through my experience of navigating the educational system for myself and for the students and families I service in my numerous roles, I began to develop an equity lens approach to my teaching practices. As an avid math enthusiast, I took numerous math AQ courses and got my math specialist. These AQ courses were instrumental in my discovery of the connection between numeracy and equity. I began to see beyond the numbers in teaching mathematics to a place where the numbers themselves took on deeper societal meaning in terms of what they represented, who they represented (or did not represent) and the impact of these numbers on various groups of people within our society. I’m telling you, it was a very enlightening experience for me to reach that level of understanding about mathematical justice. If you have never taken a math AQ course, I implore you to consider taking one for your own personal and professional growth and development. 

 

Where do you begin?

Dr. Bev Caswell who works at the University of Toronto, OISE, developed an inquiry-based Math and STEM social justice program for junior and intermediate students. The Robertson Program focuses on creating a space for student voice and authentic learning experiences in the classroom and out in the community. Furthermore, the lessons incorporate 21st century competencies, universal design of learning, differentiated instruction and culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy. They are also connected to the new Ontario math curriculum and have a cross curricular approach that infuses math, STEM, history and relevant global systemic issues. As a central staff, my role is to build teacher capacity in implementing effective teaching practices in the classroom. This program is something that I recommend to teachers as a supplemental resource to their numeracy program. 

Here are some lessons I would like to highlight: 

 

  1. Historical Figures in One Minute – a lesson for students in grades 4 to 7. This lesson makes convincing arguments and informed decisions regarding the data and graphs collected to discuss why some groups appear to be over-represented while others remain severely under-represented.
  2. Water Inquiry – a lesson for students in grades 4 to 8. This inquiry-based, water-focused lesson integrates mathematics, environmental science, geography, Indigenous rights, language arts and social justice issues.
  3. Price Check – a lesson for students in grades 4 to 8. This lesson explores socioeconomic reasons for the price difference in grocery store options in different locations in Canada.
  4. Milk Bag Project – This is a Google Docs presentation of the lesson for grades 4 to 8 students. This lesson focuses on the City of Toronto’s packaging-reduction bylaws passed in 2008. Students complete a collaborative inquiry on how many plastic bags (from a 4-litre milk plastic bag) it would take to make 10 mats (as described in the lesson).

 

So what?

Sometimes it can be scary to try something new or to teach in a way that can perhaps seem foreign and unconventional. However, this is exactly why we need to take a social justice and systemic approach to our teaching practices. A social justice approach to teaching mathematics should include equitable and inclusive teaching practices, high expectations for all students, access to rich, rigorous, and culturally relevant mathematics to promote a positive learning environment. To me, the results are more rewarding than the burden of planning, documenting and evaluating. We should feel honoured to be part of the process in which we are helping to build a better future for all by empowering students to understand how to navigate the world around them and how to confront systemic inequities in all aspects of their life. 

Can the Integration of Students’ Lived Experiences in your Teaching Practices Impact Student Success?

I believe that there is a profound connection between student learning and student lived experiences and the ability of educators to embed who students are with what they are learning. I can vividly recall, as a young learner, the teachers who were most impactful in my learning. They showed genuine care for my well-being and often went above and beyond academic support,  in unconventional ways, to understand my needs, including my personal challenges based on my lived  circumstances, and to support me in all aspects of life. I can  honestly say that the relationships those teachers established with me directly helped to shape me into the person I  am today. Knowing who your students are, their identities, their barriers, their abilities and their lived experiences allow educators to create the conditions for dynamic learning opportunities that are culturally relevant and impactful to student learning.

What do experts say? 

Scholars Gloria Ladson-Billings and Geneva Gay have spent decades at the forefront of researching Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogies. Their findings have been clear: “integrating a student’s  background knowledge and prior home and community experiences into the curriculum and the teaching and learning experiences that take place in the classroom are paramount to meeting the needs of all  students”.

Furthermore, research shows that learning needs of students from diverse backgrounds are not being met equitably in classrooms across the system. For example, in the current age of destreaming mathematics for grade nine students across the system, it is important that teachers are well versed and equipped with the necessary tools and strategies to support all learners in an academic classroom. When we acknowledge students’ cultural experiences and prior knowledge, we are better positioned to strengthen their ability to see themselves as doers of mathematics, language, science, history, art and so on. They are further empowered to interpret the world around them with a critical social justice lens.  

Activity

The “Where I’m From” poetry activity is a great strategy you can use to have students explore their cultural identities and values, to foster collaboration with their peers, to create a positive classroom environment and to learn about students’ lived experiences. This activity should be culturally relevant to the students in the classroom and  intentionally structured to engage all learners at multiple entry points. This will help to foster a sense of community in the classroom and help the teacher understand who the students are and how to embed their real-time lived experiences into the teaching and learning process.

My 2 Cents

I think teachers should spend the first week or two of each school year engaging students in conversations about their (the students) own identity and lived experiences and the intersectionality of their identity. This would allow students to feel comfortable and confident in sharing who they are, as well as their thoughts and opinions, with others in the classroom. Try to create a brave and nurturing space where students feel comfortable talking about their racial background, their gender identity, and their preferred name. You can use culturally relevant books, videos, posters etc. that can lead to those discussions where students are invited and encouraged to talk about their own racial, gender and cultural  identities. Teachers can then incorporate students’ identities and lived experiences into the instructional planning and teaching program. 

Whether it’s a math activity, collaborative inquiry in history or a STEM project, it is important that teachers provide opportunities for students to reflect on their interests, their passions and how they see themselves within the development of the task. Use culturally relevant and responsive resources that reflect student identities, interests and lived experiences. Providing opportunities for small group discussions and descriptive feedback will help students make meaningful connections to that task and to their real-time lived experiences. Educator’s willingness to share their own identity with students, their own experiences in school as a young learner and  how their experiences inform and influence their decision-making process are effective strategies in building strong relationships with students that engage them in embedding their own lived experiences into their learning. If we truly believe in developing young minds, creating strong leaders and critical thinkers then we must create the space for that to happen within the classroom. When we let go of the notion that we are the holder of knowledge in the classroom, we create opportunities for students to develop and demonstrate leadership, to become critical thinkers and to advocate for justice and social change.

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/ 

 

“Pink is a Girl Colour.”

If you teach young children, you may often hear their opinions about what is meant for ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ voiced on a daily basis:

 

“Pink is for girls” 

“Boys don’t wear pink”

 

Analyzing this through a feminist lens, this ideology and the socially constructed roles and responsibilities associated with gender are forced upon children from birth – and arguably even before birth. If you don’t believe me, think about the colour of blankets given to swaddle infants in hospitals. 

This is not just about pink. It’s about creating a learning space for students to be themselves, feel empowered and continuing to challenge injustices they encounter now and every day.

How can we challenge gender stereotypes in education?

  1. In a previous post, celebrating International Women’s Day – I stated that “You cannot have feminism without intersectionality”. In order for growth to occur, we must represent all people in our pedagogy -students who are part of the ​​2SLGBTQ+  community, students who are Black, FNMI students, students who belong to racialized and marginalized groups and students who have disabilities. Not only should students see themselves reflected, but their families, their friends, their neighbours, their community members, and other humans that walk this earth with them. We cannot dismantle one single stereotype without teaching from an ant-racist, anti-oppressive framework. 
  2. We can be mindful of the learning materials we use in our classrooms. From toys to textbooks, there are hidden messages about gender everywhere. One of my favourite (but really least favourite) examples to think about is kitchen centres for young children. Kitchen centres are wonderful learning spaces in Kindergarten classrooms and provide many opportunities for developing social and emotional skills, practicing math concepts and promoting oral language. Now, think about why many of these sets are pink? 
  3. We can include critical literacy and books that challenge social norms in our program on a regular basis.
  4. We can critically reflect on our own understandings of gender as a social construct, amplify the voices marginalized people and commit to continuous learning and growth by actively listening to our students needs. 

 

Pink is for everyone. 

 

 

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.

3 things

It’s  the start of week 3 in most public schools, and it feels like we are in for some long months ahead. I have 3 things to share to start the year:
1. Hybrid teaching sucks
2. Your students have something to tell you
3. Did I mention that hybrid still sucks?

1. Despite the social, emotional, and physical toll of teaching and learning during a pandemic, I can’t shake the optimism I have when spending time with my students. Bar none, they are the only source of inspiration strong enough to power me past some medieval level system decisions made by our current government and local school boards.

The hybrid learning option is a stunted and thoughtless response to the educational needs of students and their families. It is an institutional cop out that is replete with a debilitating amount of sadism to demean the well-being of educators charged with making magic with little more than cheap tech, a perfunctory kudo, and a “Your wellness matters” memo. Countless educators have shared how this method of education does little to serve student or teacher yet it was still chosen as the “viable option”. #hybridhurtskids #hybridharmseducators

2. Have you checked in with students to see how they’re doing yet? I know it has been a hella couple of weeks already, but have you asked this year’s class how they feel, how they like to learn or what challenges they are facing being back in the classroom? If you did, were there any surprises? If you didn’t, no worries, it’s never too late.

My experiences with dedicating class time to conversations, Google forms, or free writing tasks to asking these questions are very insightful. Students have voices. They are honest and opinionated. Best of all, students will speak their truths as long as they have a safe, judgement free place to do so.

I have found this beginning of the year check-in to be a powerful way to build relationships of caring and understanding from the start. This comes by establishing the conditions from which they are safe to do so. That usually happens by listening first, holding back the urge to solve or fix or give unsolicited advice or admonishment. Trust me. It’s worth it in order to build trust with learners from the earliest days. This year, more than ever before, students whether in class, EVS or in syncronous hybrid pergatory need to know their teachers are there listening to them, seeing them, and willing to support them.

Here are a few things shared over the past couple of weeks

“I am stressed about getting good marks by my family.”

“I feel anxious when we do math and I get called on.”

“I do not like presenting in front of others.”

“I am bad at; math, art, french, english, science” etc.

“I don’t have any friends who understand the way I feel.”

“My parents are fighting at home and it bothers me and my sister.”

“Someone close to me or my family died, and I am sad.”

“My pronouns are he/him, she/her, they/them,”

Hearing and reading such honesty from students can evoke strong emotions. Their words speak truth into the role we all have in the lives of not only the academic learner, but the whole child. In short, relationship, mental health, trust, and wellbeing need to happen first before any lessons are shared.

Thankfully, these beginning of year conversations and questionnaires also yield a lot of optimism and hope from students too. They are thrilled to be back with their peers, in their school, and with their teachers. Student voice is often the only fuel I need to fuel my emotional fire to teach somedays. We all need something to get us through tough times when the system is designed counter-intuitively to the needs of the community it is tasked to serve.

3. As you read through the 2nd thing, I hope you did not forget that #hybridhurtskids and #harmseducators. As I start my 3rd week with a mic on my head, a mask over my face, and webcam on, I fear for the disconnect that is happening with my OGs(online guys). Now instead of devoting both ears to 26 students in class, I have one ear for 24 and the other for 2 hybrid learners. As age continues to take away my ability to hear, this concerns me. It’s exhausting and many times I am only able to hear a fraction of what I could when not divided and encumbered by tech.

First, how is this fair to any one child when I can only devote half of my auditory function to a room filled with students? How can students be expected to hear me clearly when I articulate a particular pronunciation to practice in reading or vocabulary when I can barely hear myself with a headset on? And then there are the visual content issues?

Not everyone has a document camera to share texts or show how to share thinking spontaneously or good lighting for hybrid kids to see what is being shared on the board. How are students expected to see what I am sharing when the camera does not focus or adjust? Anything projected to the whole class becomes washed in the worst possible lighting fluorescent bulbs can provide.

Then there is the whole OT and prep teacher transition piece. Connecting is not easy, especially when the tech does not always come with the proper cords from class to class. I now have an HDMI, USB-C, and VGA adapter, but know many educators do not. There are significant gaps starting to happen already and coupled with the emotionally taxing work that is happening, something is going to give. Does this seem familiar?

And yet, this is what is going to happen next…

I am going to teach like I am on a reality show tomorrow. I am going to give the performance of the day. I am going to go home defeated, drained, and desperate to believe that the next time back in class will go without a hitch. I will continue to listen to my students first, honour their voices and fight against the derogation of education by people who have not been in a classroom in decades.

 

 

 

First Days of School Through a Wellness Lens

The long awaited return to the classroom has finally come! After being outside of the classroom since March 2020, I was able to go back to the physical classroom this September 8th. I was so happy to be able to set up my room and await the arrival of students. Teaching online was challenging and did not allow me to have the face-to-face connections that are much needed in a classroom. I am so happy that schools are open and that my position is no longer online. This year, I am teaching grades 7 & 8. I hope to still be teaching the same class come October, but with re-organization, things could change. 

Preparing for the first day was challenging as it had been 14 months since I had taught in person. Luckily, our school board prepared activities for us entitled “Reimagining Wellness”, where teachers are asked to teach 90 minutes a day from the wellness activity choice boards. The choice boards have a variety of activities within one of these three categories: Community and Team Building, Physical Activation and Social Emotional Skill Development. Teachers select one activity from each of these categories to introduce each day (thirty minutes per activity). My students seem to enjoy the activities and have enjoyed getting to know each other without feeling pressured to jump into all the curriculum activities. I am thankful for these resources as it has always been important to start a class off with these types of activities, especially after many students have been away for 14 months as well.

Additionally, it has been great to get to know students such as finding out their preferred pronouns and to try to get back into the swing of things. Our school board is looking to start voluntary extracurriculars soon and my class has already begun planning for the Terry Fox Assembly. Myself and my students are looking forward to these leadership opportunities as we have been without them for much longer than the COVID shutdown. As long as we can stay safe and get back to doing the things at school that we love, the extra things make the day that much better. 

As October draws closer, teachers in our board find out if any students are leaving to go online/returning from online. Our school could undergo a massive re-organization and we are all hoping things will stay the same as many students have now had the chance to bond due to these wellness activities. However, after teaching online last year, I have gotten better at dealing with change and learning how to overcome challenges. So if my assignment changes, I will be able to accept that with a positive attitude. 

I hope all teachers and students had a great first two weeks and that everyone is happy to be back. I know that all students are definitely glad to be back in the physical classroom where they can continue to make connections and learn in the way we were always meant to learn. 

Educational Perfection

As we end another school year and look forward to summer vacation, I think back to my first years in education and what summer “vacation” looked like for me. July was spent taking additional qualification courses and most of August was spent prepping and planning. It wasn’t really much of a vacation.  So why did I do it? Two reasons. I am passionate about learning and I am a (now recovering) perfectionist-especially as an educator.

I must have thought there was some kind of a prize for having the tidiest, prettiest and well organized classroom. I wanted my classroom to look like something out of the Scholar’s Choice catalogue. The custodians would be annoyed at having me in the school and I would wait anxiously for them to be finished waxing our hallway so that I could get in and set up my classroom. I needed everything to match. If I had baskets for items in the classroom they had to all be the same colour. It isn’t always easy to find 24 of the same basket at the Dollar Store.  Before the students started in September I felt the need to have labels on all of their notebooks, duo tangs and I even labelled their pencils. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to control the environment for my students. My classroom looked like a showroom on the first day of school and I would spend the next 194 days trying to maintain that standard. Our first printing practice lesson (because we still did that back then) was to practice writing “A place for everything and everything in it’s place.” When I think back now to all of the time and energy that I wasted not allowing learning to get messy I shake my head. It was exhausting.

After twenty plus years in education I’ve learned a few things about educational perfectionism and letting go of control in order to empower the learners in the classroom. When I was given a portable for a classroom that I wasn’t able to get into much before school started I panicked at first.  I didn’t have space or time to create a showroom. I decided to give the design over to the grade 4-5 students.  I still had labelled duo tangs and a place for each of them to put their things that was their space ready on the first day but the rest, we did together. It built community, it gave the students ownership and it gave me some of my summer back. If you’ve ever taught in a portable that has the coat racks inside, winter is a bit of a nightmare for an organizational freak but eventually I let it go. We still had a tidy classroom because their wasn’t enough space to be too messy but the organization of things didn’t stifle the learning. We learned how to paint in a portable without water using buckets and trips into the school. We brought lawn chairs to school at sat outside at reading time. I loved our little cabin in the woods.

As educators we have a lot of people that we are accountable to in our jobs. Students, families, administrators, our board and our communities are all stakeholders in what we do. The pressure to be perfect in our roles can be overwhelming and paralyzing. What educators do each day is literally driven by “overall and specific EXPECTATIONS”. It took time for me to realize that the expectations that I was putting on myself were much higher than those of anyone else. It took reflection to realize that perfectionism isn’t the badge of honour that I thought it once was and that it was making my life more difficult. I came to understand that it isn’t the room or the resources that make me a good educator.  It is about the connections and relationships with my students and their families that matter. It is about embracing the Ms. Frizzle moments and rolling with it.  If I’ve learned anything from COVID-19 it is that being flexible and letting go of what I cannot control are the keys to staying out of perfectionism. I plan on guarding my summer vacation as I would a medical specialist’s appointment but I’ll likely take a few professional resource books along to read in the waiting room.

 

Buiding an Inclusive Playground

I am having a lot of fun learning how to center issues of disability justice and equity throughout the curriculum.

Every week, during MSI (Math-Science Investigations) the Grade 2 students solve problems using a variety of building materials. As part of the Science curriculum, we are learning about Movement and Simple Machines. We started this inquiry when we were face-to-face and finished on-line.  We have integrated this learning with disability justice, equity and community activism. For example, we went on a walk and collected data about barriers and “bridges” in our local community. Then, the Grade 2 students designed inclusive playgrounds where everyone is welcome.

Here are some other examples of how we are deepening our understanding of Structures and Mechanisms, and making connections to the local and global community.

World Water Day:
We celebrated World Water Day on March 22, as part of our year-long inquiry about water. Throughout the year, we have explored a variety of texts, including resources from The Junior Water Walker website. After reading “The Water Princess” by Susan Verde and “Anna Carries Water” by Olive Senior, our class simulated the experience of carrying a bucket around the track for 1 km, to represent the journey taken by girls and young women every day.

 

Then, we used building materials to investigate: How might you move water from one place to another?

We learned about a simple machine that was invented to help families carry water in rural India. We watched a YouTube video about The Wello Water Wheel, and talked about the impact it might have.



Toy Day:
On Toy Day, the MSI challenge was: Design a structure that moves or helps your toy to move.

Freda made a wheelchair for her doll.  Svea made a sled.

After building, we watched this video:
Science Max: Simple Machines

Outdoor Learning:
One day, we collected materials to bring outside to investigate simple machines. We worked with partners to explore: How might you use ramps and different balls to investigate levers and inclined planes?

Before schools went back to on-line learning, we went on a Community Walk.  I invited students to think about: “How might we make our community more accessible?  What are some of the barriers and “bridges” in our community?”  Students worked together to draw, write and collect data on clipboards.  We found ramps made by StopGap Foundation, and followed up our walk by reading books about children with different abilities.



Inclusive Playgrounds:
The summative task was: Design and build a model of an inclusive playground that includes a simple machine. The equipment must move a person up and down, or round and round or back and forth.

Students used a variety of materials to build their inclusive playgrounds, including Lego, recycled materials, clay, and Minecraft. Before building, everyone was encouraged to make a plan and draw their designs. Everyone worked on their project off-line and came together to share their VIP: Very Important Projects at the end of the week.

Clem used a glue gun to spell “PARK” in Braille letters.  Avery included an elevator.



Oral presentations have been an effective way to connect, share ideas and feedback, and assess students’ understanding. Technology/Being on-line has created space to hear each other, share our screens and look at photos of our work up close, and invite others into creative Minecraft worlds.  These integrated learning activities were engaging, fun, creative, and provided meaningful opportunities to explore inclusive design and disability justice.