Students as Teachers: a Culture of Inquiry and Learning

“I am just going to check in on everyone and see how they’re doing” – one of my Kindergarten students said as she led her peers through a step-by-step challenge where they created a DIY ‘marble run’ out of paper tubes and tape. 

My DECE partner and I were blown away by her kindness, patience and commitment to the success of her classmates during this process. 

We have been trying to keep an open invite for all students in our class to have the opportunity to be the “teacher” or the expert on a topic of their choice. Through online learning, fewer natural moments of teaching happen from student to student like they would in a physical classroom. Hands on collaboration between students virtually can be tricky, as they lack the opportunity to share space and materials. We decided it would be more equitable to schedule these student-led activities ahead of time, in order to allow all students time to prepare the proper materials. As I move to in person learning in the fall, it is my goal to continue this practice as a means of supporting students belonging and contributing in respect to the Kindergarten program. It is my hope to further explore the benefits of fostering students confidence as teachers in the classroom as I continue to learn from my competent and capable young learners. Here are my initial thoughts:

The classroom community

  • Inviting students as teachers creates a culture of learning, respect and curiosity
  • Students teaching their peers builds community and invites students to be vulnerable and make mistakes

Through the lens of a child

  • When our students stepped into the role of educators, it provided my DECE partner and I a unique opportunity: to see the world through their eyes. Through their ideas, descriptions and step-by-step processes we were able to develop a deep understanding of the way they view the world, the way they solve problems and the way they persevere through challenges. 
  • Many children enrolled in Kindergarten programs are immersed in their first experiences of formal schooling. For some of my students, my DECE partner and I are their very first examples of educators. The way that children go about giving instructions, gaining the attention of others and providing words of encouragement can be reflective of what they see. It can be very powerful to listen to a student recite an encouraging phrase verbatim, such as “You are a problem solver!”.

Benefits for students

  • Teaching their peers provides students with the space to take risks while gaining confidence in their own ideas and abilities 
  • For the students involved in this practice as the learner, it allows them to explore new ideas or approach learned concepts from a different perspective than my own or that of my DECE partner. 

Inviting students to perform a new role as a teacher is inclusionary, culturally responsive, relevant and meaningful – which is the basis of everything I hope to cultivate in Kindergarten. 

The Power of “Thank You”

“Thank you”

2 simple words that mean so much. Especially when they are followed by a reason for giving thanks. 

As an educator of young children, I don’t teach for the “thank you”. I teach for the students, their progress, their laughs, their smiles, and that feeling of sharing a joy for learning. 

However, when I do get those genuine, ‘from the bottom of my heart’ “thank you” ’s, they often bring me to tears. Thank you can feel so reassuring, so comforting and can be a springboard that launches deep and powerful connections. 

An amazing colleague of mine, who is many years into their career, suggested I keep a journal of these kind words of thanks from parents and families. Initially, I thought this seemed silly. Why would I keep these notes and emails? What purpose would this serve me? But, I tried it anyways. Why not? If I didn’t find this practice helpful I could stop at any point and not tell a single soul I had ever done it. 

Fast forward to the present moment, where various letters, cards and printed emails from families live in the binder I stash at the back of my filing cabinet. I spread the word of this practice, as not a way to brag or boast but to share with you the feelings it has brought me.  

First of all, it brings me joy. What better reason to do anything? Why not document these joyful moments in celebration of student success.

Secondly, I find comfort revisiting these “thank you” ‘s when I feel tired, overwhelmed or broken down. It is easy for me to fixate on a lesson that didn’t go well, or the things that I could be doing differently; therefore doing them better. Flipping through this binder of positive thoughts allows me to reframe my mindset and reflect critically on my practice while being kind to myself.

Lastly, the powerful feelings that these “thank you” ‘s bring me are inspiring. I want to pass this feeling on to my colleagues, my students and their families who show up and work hard every day. I am mindful each day to share my genuine “thank you” ‘s out loud.

What is the most powerful “thank you” that you’ve ever received?

What is the most powerful “thank you” that you’ve ever given?

Questions that Matter

My 7/8 students have been learning about data and how it connects to the world around them. Data is more important than ever as it relates to the way our province will go forward during these challenging times. Students were able to comment on how important data is when making decisions that impact our world. As always, I am grateful when math concepts are so easy to relate to the world around them.

I usually end the data unit each year with a survey project that would directly impact their learning. Students come up with some questions that they can ask their classmates and then we use the collected data to start something in the school. Times are challenging right now and it seemed like there was no question to pose to the student body. So, I let my students come up with some questions that matter. Here is what they came up with:

  1. What low contact sports would you like to play? (Options: dodgeball, soccer skills, badminton and volleyball)
  2. What time of day would you prefer to play? (Options: first break, second break or after school)
  3. What days of the week would you like to play? (Options: Monday to Friday)
  4. Who would you like to play with? (Options: mixed classes or class vs. class)
  5. What would you like to eat at graduation?
  6. What trips would you like to go on this year?

Of the six questions, students determined that four of them related to something we could start immediately while the other two were not necessarily good questions for this point in the school year. We started this planning period before the government announced that there could be a return to high contact sports should they be offered in schools. Provision of extra curricular activities is voluntary and a number are offered in my school.

Students got to work with this survey project. They were excited to ask their classmates sport related questions and predicted that volleyball, which has always been the favourite, would still be the favourite. A grade eight made a comment that even though they assume it will be volleyball, it would still make sense to complete the survey to see if their classmates were interested in more than one sport. Although the students in my class know that not everyone enjoys playing sports, they could not think of any survey questions relating to other topics. They noted that since these activities would be played “for fun”, that many students may come out.

Here is how the rest of the project played out:

  • Three students created an online survey differentiating between check boxes and multiple choice questions. They came to the conclusion that students should be allowed to select more than one sport and more than one day of the week but should have to chose between the time of day they preferred the most and the style of play they would most prefer.
  • My class helped me write an email to the six classes we would survey as they acknowledged you cannot just walk into a class without first planning a good time to survey.
  • Students came up with a contact-free way to survey where they had a sanitizer bottle near both devices and had students get called up row by row by their teacher to come complete the survey. They made sure that students who did not intend on participating in these activities should not complete the survey as it would skew the results.
  • We read the results and drew some conclusions.Here were our results:
    87 students completed the survey

Sports:

  • 58 students want to play volleyball
  • 24 students want to play badminton
  • 33 students want to try some soccer skills
  • 32 students want to play dodgeball.

Time of Day:

  • 38 students prefer to play after school
  • 33 students prefer to play at first break
  • 16 prefer to play at second break.

Style of Play:

  • 60 students want to play with mixed classes
  • 25 students want to play class vs. class.

Day of the Week:

  • 32 students would play Monday
  • 24 students would play Tuesday
  • 32 students would play Wednesday
  • 26 students would play Thursday
  • 30 students would play Friday
  • 37 students said it wouldn’t matter to them

Conclusions we drew about the data:

My students were not surprised that volleyball came out on top. They did however share that they did not know that many students would be interested in dodgeball and badminton as they had never been offered before. My students knew that after school would be popular but were shocked it was so close to the first break results. They knew second break would not be popular as most students go home for lunch during that time. They thought class vs. class would be the most popular as we had done a trial survey in our class and it was the most popular vote by far. The last question shocked them the most as they thought nobody would pick Monday. They were confused about the low numbers for Tuesday as it was a random day to have the lowest number of votes.

We then discussed next steps regarding our results. My students thought we would need to:

  1. Meet in their groups to discuss the results of each questions
  2. Write a small paragraph explaining the results of their question
  3. Have a meeting with the principal and vice principal to share the results
  4. Ask permission to run mixed intramurals as previously cohorts could not mix

After completing steps 1-4, the five students who shared the results with admin mentioned that at this time, we cannot mix cohorts. So we will have to run with the less popular result and explain that it could change in the future (class vs. class). Since basketball is running right now as the announcement of changing COVID guidelines allowed high contact sports, we will only have a few time slots to run these sports. As long as students see that their voice matters and their selections inspired programs in our school, then that is what counts!

Something that I did not expect to happen occurred during this survey project. One of my students made a realization that 87 students are interested in these intramurals but only 30- 40 students tried out of the team sports offered at our school. We discussed why this could be and my students came up with many great reasons. To summarize, the pressure of being on a school team may be too much for some and they prefer the smaller commitment of a fun intramural. My students assume that the time commitment of being on a team could have been too large or the pressure of a whole team depending on you being too much. I love competitive sports and I think they are great for students as it teaches them so much when being part of a team. However, I see how beneficial it is to have options for students that may not enjoy that competitive setting.

Our project has come to an end and we are excited to see how students enjoy these new activities at our school. My students will hopefully see that their questions mattered and that they will enrich the lives of students in the school. I think we will even be able to find ways to run most of these programs during DPA time (during the regular day’s schedule).

Provision of extra curricular activities is a voluntary part the work we do. It is important that they remain voluntary. Additionally, it is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic that if they are offered, they are only provided if all health and safety protocols can be observed to protect students and staff.  

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

 

Supporting Student Transition from Elementary to Secondary

If you have ever taught grade eight, you are currently a grade eight teacher or you have a child (or had a child) in grade eight then you might appreciate how exciting and stressful this time of the year can be for so many grade eight students as they prepare to transition from elementary to secondary school. As a former intermediate classroom teacher and a guidance counsellor who has worked with many grade eight students, I can certainly say that the process of choosing a high school, applying for a specialized program of study and/or completing course selections for grade nine can be a bag of mixed emotions for students, depending on the level of knowledge and support students have at school and at home. Regardless of the grade students are in, teachers can create opportunities for students to develop strategies and skills that can support them in their transition process. Even though students might feel overwhelmed and isolated at times, they are never alone in the process. They also need to know that our support is non-judgmental, though intentional at times especially for the most vulnerable students, and that our intention is to empower students to make choices about their own life and their own future pathways. 

 

Stress and Anxiety

There is no doubt that the transition from elementary to secondary school can be stressful for many students, especially during the current pandemic when more students are isolated and social support for their transition may not be readily available. Adults and students alike are all experiencing an increased level of stress and anxiety in these uncertain times. For the most part, adults have developed strategies to manage their anxiety, however young children are, more so than ever, depending on the adults in their lives to support them throughout this journey. So, how do we as educators monitor their emotional wellbeing and offer sustainable support?

Here are some suggestions that might be of value to you, regardless of your work circumstances or guidance model in your area:

  1. Get to know your students, whether they are in kindergarten or up to grade eight, and understand their emotional strengths and needs. Pinpoint which parts of the situation students are experiencing that you as an educator have the power to change or influence for the better, and then offer your support accordingly.
  2. Communicate regularly with families/caregivers about their role in supporting student achievement and well-being, as they are the ultimate decision maker in this process
  3. Chances are, you cannot do this alone, so get support to support students. Talk to colleagues, your admin and other school-based support personnel. Keep in mind the best interest of the individual student, the nature of the situation for the student and your Board’s policies around confidentiality. 
  4. Be socially and culturally sensitive to each student’s situation and lived experiences. Above all, be intentional in supporting (without dictating or pigeonhole) vulnerable students, marginalized students and racialized students and ensure they have equitable access to programs and services
  5. Support students in a specialized program or with an Individual Education Plan in having a successful transition
  6. Show care and empathy, and offer assistance to students who might need social/emotional support that best meets their needs

 

Your support to students is crucial now more than ever. Students of all ages and abilities continue to navigate through the pandemic, as well as managing other social and family challenges, and intermediate students also have to adjust to a new destreaming program in grade nine. Some students may find this time of year overwhelming and might need to develop strategies to self-advocate for themselves to ensure all their needs are met. There are many ways to embed self-advocacy in your assessment Of learning and assessment As learning to support student achievement and well-being. With a strong sense of self, students are more likely to see themselves as owners of their own destiny and can independently advocate for themselves. I see this as a gradual release of responsibility and an opportunity to empower students to take charge of their learning and their own future. 

 

Here is a Self-Advocacy Toolkit that was shared with me that could be of some support to you in your classroom (regardless of the grade you teach). This Self-Advocacy Toolkit is intended to be completed by each student. Teachers may wish to facilitate this as part of their instructional day. 

Self-Advocacy Toolkit: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1yCD8KViE7-B_NfB1fEkb2Uvsj74H0qcZ_6oka-b3WwE/edit?usp=sharing

 

Ultimately, when it comes to transition and course selections, students and families/caregivers make the final decision about their destination and pathways. We will offer support and guidance to ensure success and a seamless transition from elementary into secondary, and this support can begin as early as kindergarten. When we work together, support each other and respect each other’s choices, even when our perspectives are different, we enable individuals to self-actualize and reach their full potential.

Everything I need to know, I learn in Kindergarten

In our virtual Kindergarten class, my DECE partner and I value each teachable moment. We recognize that our students are constantly making meaningful observations and connections to the world around them. Something I always expected to gain from these 4 and 5 year olds was knowledge. One thing I did not expect was how profound this knowledge would be, or that it could so deeply resonate with me and my pedagogy. 

Here is what my students teach me every day in Kindergarten:

Unconditional Acceptance

One of our students showed up to class one day and announced to the large group that from now on he would like to be called by his new nick name. “What’s your name now?” one of the other students asked. “Willy” he replied, “W-I-L-L-Y” *. 

From that moment on his classmates called him nothing but Willy. 

He requested to be called something different from what we’d all been calling him since the moment we met him in September and they immediately took action. They listened to him, understood him and respected his wishes. They didn’t ask questions, raise concerns or challenge him.

They just did it.

All of them.

The more I think about this, the more amazing it feels. I imagine a world where everyone can be respected like Willy and is addressed by their preferred names and pronouns. This demonstration of kindness and acceptance from children is exemplary.

Patience

It is not me that has learned patience from being their teacher, but me that has learned how to practice patience from them. My students are incredibly patient and kind to each other, to me, my teaching partner and all visitors that enter our class.

I have had entire conversations with my virtual class while my microphone is, in fact, off (cue face palm). They continue to smile at me and remind me to turn it on before I try again. 

They remind me to approach each day with a smile and that it’s okay to make mistakes.

Finding the “Why” 

“Why?”

A question our students ask often as they continue throughout their day as investigators, explorers and engineers. Each time they ask this simple but important question, it challenges me to think about my “why”. 

Why have I chosen to teach a lesson in this way? Why have I chosen to implement specific rules, boundaries or routines?

My students’ innocent question of “why” drives me to critically reflect on my practice. This ongoing reflection forces me to live outside of my comfort zone, try new things and make mistakes. Responding to the unique needs of of my students, allows me to demolish the ‘this is the way I’ve always done it’ mindset in order to celebrate individuality and strengthen inclusion in a world that is ever-changing. 

I’m lucky to be a small part of their journey, as my students continue through this school year and beyond. But, I don’t know if they’ll ever truly understand how much I learn from them.

 

* Students name was changed to protect confidentiality

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

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

Selecting Culturally Relevant and Responsive Resources

Culturally relevant and responsive resources come from a pedagogy that empowers the educator to think differently by addressing dominant ideologies as well as existing and historical oppressions in actionable ways that engages our learners in critical consciousness thinking that inspire change. Gone (or should be gone) are the days when we, as teachers, solely rely on teacher’s guides to develop our lesson plans and units. Don’t get me wrong, teacher’s guides can be very beneficial when planning out a unit, but we must embed the identities and learning needs of all our students ahead of printed resources. Taking time to get to know your students and embedding their lived experiences, using culturally relevant and responsive resources, will create a much more engaging learning environment and thereby improve student success. 

 

Culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy also looks at how race, gender, class, sexual orientation and ability intersect to create lived experiences for our students and how those experiences play out in the classroom and in society. The concept of intersectionality is part of an inclusive approach to teaching and can be incorporated into all aspects of the curriculum. Regardless of the subject, the identities and needs of students must drive the teaching practices and strategies in the learning environment. Students get to see their whole self being represented in their learning and are thereby empowered to challenge inequities and demand change. 

 

In order for this kind of change to be imagined, educators must first create brave spaces, rather than safe spaces, for learners to openly and freely speak their truth and pose critical questions. One that doesn’t create judgments based on identity or experience, but rather one that builds courage, individually and collectively, to address challenging and controversial issues. Brave spaces take time, collaboration, commitment and willingness to be open and vulnerable in front of others, something that is hard for most people to do, teachers and students alike.

 

Another important factor to consider is the idea of intent vs impact. As we plan our lessons/activities, lead discussions and interact with others, we need to be conscious and mindful of the impact of our actions on others. Sometimes, perhaps without knowing,  the intention of our actions have a negative impact on the person(s) receiving/absorbing the information or actions. Why does this keep happening in our society? Why are individuals not mindful or aware of the impact of their actions? In my opinion, embedded in the intent is the oppression and isms that are systemic in nature and play out in our society’s norms and practices. Therefore, we often see our actions as “normal” instead of something that can be hurtful, uncomfortable or oppressive to someone else. I am reminded of one of my favourite words of wisdom (not sure of the original author):

“Be mindful of your thoughts, as they become your words;

Be mindful of your words, as they become your actions;

Be mindful of your actions, as they become your habits;

Be mindful of your habits, as they become your character;

Be mindful of your character, as it becomes your destiny.”  

 

Some things to consider when choosing culturally relevant and responsive resources:

– who are the students in your classroom and how are their identities and lived experiences reflected in the learning environment and in your teaching practices?

– students can be co-collaborator (part of the decision-making process) of the resources selected for the classroom

– choose books/resources that best represent the different aspects of student identity and lived experiences

– encourage students to challenge stereotypes, prejudices, biases, barriers and oppression

– provide opportunities for students to take action to address critical issues that impact their daily lives

As you learn about your students’ identities, intersectionality, goals and real-time experiences, consider how all that information can be used to inform your curriculum planning, your teaching practices and the resources/topics you share/address with students.

 

When selecting books and other resources, consider asking yourself the following questions:

–  Whose perspective is this text written from?

– Whose ideologies are at the center of discussion in this resource?

– Are the perspectives, beliefs and identities of the author or developer aligned with the big ideas shared in the resource?

– Does the resource actually reflect student’s abilities, social identities and lived experiences?

– Does the resource reinforce, perpetuate or highlight stereotypes or misrepresentations of specific groups and identities?

– If so, in what ways might you address these inequities? 

 

Once you have chosen your books/resources, create rich, culturally relevant and intentional questions that invoke critical thinking in students and empowers them to take action to command change. 

There are many resources you can access to support your planning. Most Boards have (or should have) a list of culturally relevant and responsive teaching resources. Your local newspapers (you might be able to subscribe to get electronic copies) often write articles on relevant issues and current events. You can subscribe to magazines, such as What In The World, that focus on current events and global issues. And of course, ETFO has a list of culturally relevant and responsive resources at your fingertip. There is a Social Justice page with resources that address Anti-Oppression, Anti-Racism, Anti-Asian Racism, Anti-Black Racism, Antisemitism, Islamophobia, Women’s issues, 2SLGBTQ+, First Nation, Metis and Inuit, Climate Change and Disability Programs. I also have a small list of digital books and resources that might be of interest to you. Just a few things to get you started. Remember, your planning pedagogy begins and ends with the hearts and minds of the students in your classroom.

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.

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/ 

 

Who Am I?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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