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

 

Notable Black People in Canada – A Breakout

Last summer I had the privilege of working with a school around meaningful uses of technology to spark creativity with students. It was an incredible half-day session where participants had the opportunity to play and get creative themselves, all while considering how the use of tech tools could further support students in learning and creativity. 

As you probably already know, I’m an avid user of G Suite For Education Tools. For years I’ve been using Slides, Forms and Sites to create breakout rooms for students as an interesting way to deliver content and to help further develop the skills of communication and collaboration. For our session, I created a Breakout on Notable Black people in Canada. As this is Black History Month, I thought I would take the opportunity to share it here with readers. 

This Breakout is a series of puzzles designed to help people to learn about the history, experiences, and contributions of a few notable Black people in Canada: The Maroons, William Hall, Hattie Melton, Molly Johnson, and Michaëlle Jean. I had a blast building this Breakout because it gave me an excuse – if you will – to learn more about the contributions of Black people, using tools that I was already familiar with. 

While I’m not sharing the answers to the breakout here, I encourage you to take some time to learn and answer the questions prior to sharing this breakout with your students, if you so choose. You know your students best and I think that it’s always great to have rich conversations both before and after deciding to jump into any new learning. Slide #2 has some great instructions to help guide you if you are not already familiar with breakouts. Do you have what it takes to breakout?

New Book: Art of Protest

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge fan of Design Thinking. Designers inspire me by their inherent optimism to create effective solutions for people. This year, in my role as a teacher for Media Literacy through STEM, I’ve been really thinking about the power of graphic design and how Graphic Designers tell stories through their work. Graphic Designers have a specific message for a specific audience and use what they know of their audience to design specifically for them. I recently happened upon the book, Art of Protest by De Nichols. I was so amazed by this book and my personal learning of how art is used in social movements. In this post, I share some of my learning from this book. In order to respect the author and the content outlined, I’ve merely shared a small portion. 

Why Art Matters in Social Movements

One of the goals of art created in protest is challenging the status quo. Throughout this book, there are so many symbols that are representative of social movements and their desire to challenge current societal rules, norms or what is perceived as acceptable. In reading this section, there was mention of artists repurposing materials to bring awareness of societal flaws. One artist that I took the time to learn about was Elizabeth Vega. On New Year’s Eve in 2019, a group of organizers constructed an altar with a Christmas tree made out of water bottles. This was done in honour of Jakelin Caal who was a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died on December 1st, 2018. Beyond the Christmas tree, they also created a blockade at the entrance to the facility, made out of water bottles that were lit with Christmas lights. In this art installation, the use of the water bottles was symbolic of the issues related to various water crises in America. This section got me thinking about how we investigate and explore messages within current art pieces created in protest and how we might support students in understanding the idea of symbolism. 

What Exactly Is Protest Art

This was by far the most robust section that got me thinking about various art forms that are used to object to an idea or concept. From street art to poetry, photography to music, the history of protest art outlined in this book, blew my mind. In this section, there are prompts that invite you to think about what you see in different art. After taking some time to consider what you see,  you have the opportunity to learn about the use and history of different symbols within. One symbol that I had no idea of was the umbrella. “During protests for democracy in Hong Kong in 2014, activists used umbrellas to shield themselves from tear gas and other aggressions by police. Since then, the umbrella has become a symbol of the protests and gave the movement its name” (page 32). In Visual Arts periods, I’ve often taught students to reflect on the different emotions evoked from different colours. There’s a great graphic within this book that explains some of the symbolism of colours and movements associated with them. This was incredible learning for me and something that I have definitely been looking out for as I explore art and learn more about social movements. 

Youth Leadership and Protest Art Around the World

Earlier this week I had the chance to connect with a former student and was asked why I wanted to become a teacher. While my explanation spoke to my long journey to this point, the one thing that I know for sure is that working with students is honestly the best part of the job. I often say that children are the best humans on earth. From their ability to empathize with others to their desire to call out the wrong they see in the world, children are candid and when passionate about an issue, are eager to bring about change. One thing that I loved in this chapter was the Try This prompt – Wear your cause: Paint a t-shirt with a protest message that shares your vision for positive change. Anyone who knows me well, also knows that I have a variety of t-shirts with powerful statements that resonate with me and who I am as a Black woman. I choose carefully which spaces I wear my shirts. While reading this, I envisioned students feeling safe enough to create their own messages for ways in which they would like to see a more just world, and wearing them. What conversations would be sparked by their shirts? What changes would be made within our schools?

Protest Art Beyond Today

People are getting more and more creative in their use of technology in art forms. The quote on page 74 is filled with the inherent optimism I mentioned at the start of this post: “Our world right now is ripe for change, for progress, and for new ideas of what tomorrow can bring”.  One of the many questions I am left with is how might we meaningfully engage students in Art, using technology, to bring about social change for which they are passionate?

To say this book had an impact on me would be an understatement. I think every teacher wanting to support students in social change should take a read, for their own learning and for some of the great ideas within. As for my next steps, I’ll continue to take some time to learn.  I’m also thinking of ways to use this book with students to support them in using elements of design to bring awareness around social issues that are of importance to them. 

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.

#16Days

November 25-December 10 is internationally known as the 16 days of activism to stand against and commit to ending gender-based violence. Black women and girls, FNMI women and girls, racialized women and girls, women and girls with disabilities and members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community are at high risk of gender-based violence. November 25 is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and December 10 is World Human Rights Day. Let’s amplify the voices of those who are subject to gender-based violence, listen, learn, and demand safety, inclusion and acceptance for all. Let’s begin these conversations in our classrooms. ETFO has provided some ideas here about how to get yourself and your students involved in the #16days of activism. 

The significance of the activism this year is greater than ever before due to the increasing amount of gender-based violence reported over the course of the pandemic. 

Gender-based violence facts 

Gender-based violence both directly and indirectly affects everyone. Victims of gender-based violence experience trauma that can be intergenerational in nature. To eradicate gender-based violence we must acknowledge it exists and victimizes people of all genders, races, abilities, sexualities, ages and classes in all geographic locations. We cannot advocate for feminism without intersectionality. 

What can we do?

  • Educate our students and community about gender-based violence from a trauma informed approach 
  • Educate even our youngest learners about the importance of consent and advocating for their own mental health and well-being
  • Listen and learn from experts, community organizations and survivors
  • Support local and global initiatives that commit to advocating for people of all genders and putting an end to gender based-violence 
  • Use our privilege as educators to advocate for change
  • Continue to model acceptance, inclusion and teach using an anti-oppressive framework

Pushing the Wet’suwet’en conversation forward

I am inspired by students’ reflections and discussions about current events around the world, and especially last week as we learned about the arrests of land defenders and journalists on Wet’suwet’en territory. We talked about what it means for land to be unceded, and we learned that the Supreme Court confirmed through the Delgamuukw case in 1997 that the Wet’suwet’en had not given up title to their land in Northern British Columbia. Here is what we captured during our learning:

Image

During discussion, one of my students asked an incredible question that caught me off guard: “I thought the Supreme Court was the most important place where decisions are made, and that no one can change their decisions. Why is all of this still happening even after the case in 1997?” 

Despite thinking that I had done enough research on the issue of the Coastal GasLink pipeline passing through Wet’suwet’en land, I did not have an answer for her at that moment. I asked myself: What are the gaps in my understanding of this issue that would leave me without an answer to this question?

I spent some time finding the answer:

  • While the Supreme Court did confirm the hereditary chiefs’ right to the land and sole authority to sanction development on Wet’suwet’en territory based on pre-colonial law, there were unresolved issues regarding the divisions of power between hereditary chiefs and band councils. The band council system is imposed under the Indian Act (which falls under Canadian law) to facilitate nation-to-nation relationships, but is not recognized under pre-colonial laws and structures used by the nation’s hereditary chiefs.
  • Coastal GasLink claims that all necessary permits were acquired in order to build the pipeline, but the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation argue that they never gave express consent to build on the territory. There seems to be a loophole through which Coastal GasLink got approval for the pipeline because they negotiated an agreement with the Wet’suwet’en elected band council. This is all fine and good if we’re talking about Canadian laws and structures but Wet’suwet’en First Nation is unceded land, meaning that the land is meant to be self-governed under pre-colonial law by the hereditary chiefs (which is also recognized in Section 35 of the Constitution).

I’m happy I spent the time to find an answer to my student’s question; I learned so much and feel much better equipped to continue the conversation. Even still, I have some thoughts about how else I can move forward through the rest of this year and grow as an educator in this area. How can I constantly push myself to find the answers? How can I continue teaching about Indigenous right to self-government and sovereignty, especially on unceded land?

I teach Grade 6, so I try my best to bring these issues back to the heart of what is most important to those most affected. In this case, a commonality in what I read is that the water on Wet’suwet’en land is of utmost importance. “You could swim in that lake and just open your mouth and drink the water, it’s so pristine, and the river is so clear that you can see these very deep spawning beds that the salmon have been returning to for thousands of years,” Sleydo’ says. Whether or not a student understands the legal or historical significance of a conflict like Wet’suwet’en, they will understand the importance of clean water and a thriving ecosystem. Perhaps this fundamental understanding of what is most important could be something that brings groups together to move towards reconciliation.

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. 

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/