Engaging Students Through The Arts

I love The Arts! The arts nourish the imagination and develop a sense of creativity and appreciation of the natural beauty of the world around us. Music was that for me. I played tenor saxophone in elementary and secondary school, and I still do today. I first fell in love with music when I was a young boy growing up in rural Jamaica. Every Sunday morning we would hear the musicians from our church band, particularly the bass guitar and drums, playing with such energy and joy. That was our call to get ready for Sunday morning service. The entire community would be humming and moving to the beat of the music, as we gathered and walked to church. For me, seeing all the musicians playing with such pleasure and delight brought joy to my soul. Today, I play the tenor saxophone in a concert band and I am practising playing bass guitar. Music has turned into a beautiful part of my adult life and has opened many doors to new experiences throughout the years.

Through music, I discovered my own creativity, learned about my own identity and musical culture, and I developed a strong sense of well-being. In fact, music (and sports) kept me in school. The arts worked well with my learning styles and offered me the type of self-motivation and incentive I needed to keep me focused on my academics and to get me through elementary and secondary school. Having an appreciation for the arts has also helped me in my teaching career. I have been able to draw upon my knowledge and creativity acquired through the arts to use in my teaching practices and counselling skills. The arts have empowered me to take risks, to think critically, to be opened to many possibilities and to be resourceful. So why are the arts the first things/subjects on the chopping block when addressing budget shortfalls or when schools have to go through reorganization?

Every year, millions of dollars are cut from school budgets due to education funding cuts by the provincial government. The school boards say the cuts are necessary as a result of decreased provincial funding. However, these cuts are affecting the growth and development, as well as the  learning environment, for many students and even teachers. Funding cuts have created unequal access to arts programs across Ontario for many of our students. In some cases, the arts programs continue to thrive due to parent/community efforts and financial support. While, in other cases, the arts programs suffer due to lack of space in schools, fewer specialist teachers and school boards prioritizing their budget to meet other needs. Students in small and rural schools, schools with higher levels of poverty, and schools with lower levels of parental engagement, might be less likely to have access to equitable arts programs in the classroom.

How do we make sure that all students, no matter the income of their parents/families, are able to have equitable access to quality arts programs, have the opportunity to play in a band or even go see a performance?

We need to put all students first by putting money back into education. We need to address staffing shortages, so that we can get more specialized teachers back into the arts. We need to do better at engaging all students, especially those who are often underserved and those with special educational needs. Not only will an investment in the arts demonstrate a commitment to an investment in students, it will also help close the learning gap, the poverty gap and keep students from dropping out of school prematurely.  

ETFO has launched a new professional learning resource for teachers designed to support the arts as a core part of the curriculum in Ontario primary classrooms. According to ETFO, “Primary ETFO Arts has been created for classroom teachers to counter-balance the lack of arts funding in schools, and the over-emphasis on literacy and math being driven by standardized EQAO testing. It recognizes that the arts are critical in fostering student engagement in learning, along with unique and critical thinking.”

Check out the following ETFO websites for additional information:

First Nations, Métis and Inuit Growth Chart

The Primary ETFO Arts book offers engaging, integrated arts activities with literacy links.

Primary ETFO Arts book

The Arts

Art is powerful. Whether through music, dance, drama, or visual arts, it has the ability to take us to other worlds, giving us a glimpse into the experiences of others. It also allows us to explore how we might share our experiences creatively through movement, sound and visuals. In this post, I’ll share a couple of upcoming virtual field trips you might be interested in participating in with students. 

The AGO Virtual School Programs

Students from kindergarten through grade 12 can experience the Art Gallery of Ontario’s collection through their virtual school programs. I’ve shared in the past that this was a hit for my students and this year, they’ve added something I haven’t seen before. On Fridays, there’s Artmaking 101! This is an opportunity for students – and yes, teachers – to try simple drawing techniques – inspired by the elements of design. It’s a practical way for students to engage with a work of art, discuss a particular element, and then have the chance to play around and/or practice. I love this idea! April is all about one of my favourite elements, colour.  Give it a try!

YOU Dance

Every year, The National Ballet of Canada provides students with the opportunity to learn with and from Apprentices and Ballet Teaching Artists. Prior to Covid, schools could register to have a Ballet Teaching Artist visit but now, with a virtual demonstration, more classrooms can have the opportunity to participate. Last year, I had students get up and move around, trying out some of the dance movements and it was a great opportunity for them to learn a new art form and to think about dance in a different way. The before and after questions certainly helped to create meaningful conversations around what the students would see and experience. This year’s performance is on Friday, May 20th, from 12:15 to 1:15 pm ET. There’s still time to sign up.

I know that Art has played an important part in my life. Music can bring about strong feelings of nostalgia and visual art is one tool that I use to help support my mental health and well-being. In what ways do the Arts impact your life? How might we consider this in our daily work with students? In what ways might we infuse more Art and in turn creativity? These are some questions that I am pondering.

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

 

Process Over Product

Have you ever used cars to make works of art?

No matter how old you are – it’s awesome.

In our Virtual Kindergarten class this year, my DECE partner and I have been trying to incorporate as many creative, open-ended and hands on experiences as possible.

One of our favourite ways to offer these experiences is through process art. 

Process art, by definition, emphasizes and appreciates the process of creating art or manipulating art materials rather than placing value on the final or finished product.

Process art invites students to get messy, get creative and make mistakes. The experience of engaging with materials like paint, is sensory and exploratory. There is so much learning taking place while students are creating an understanding of cause and effect relationships, engaging multiple senses and applying their problem solving and critical thinking skills.

Process art provides students with the opportunity to be successful. There are no examples, there are no rigid expectations of the final product and there are no limits. The learning that begins with process art activities has the potential to grow and blossom into the experimentation of other theories, ideas and challenges. Process art is personalized, developmentally appropriate and inclusive. It’s a provocation that students can enter at their unique stage of development and can be transformed to meet individual needs. In regard to The Kindergarten Program (2016), process art aligns with a wholistic pedagogy in the Early Years. As students explore concepts of math, test theories of science, respond to literacy experiences, practice patience, persevere and gain confidence in their own abilities – they are playing, collaborating and falling in love with learning.

Upside down drawing? Absolutely!

The invaluable learning that occurs when students feel free to express themselves has inspired us to integrate the “process over product” approach into experiences outside of the arts. 

Our most recent attempt was the exploration of composing and decomposing numbers through a game of cup bowling. Students brought 6 cups to their screen and placed them upside down in a triangle formation. Then, they rolled a ball to bowl for their cups. We had many conversations of how much/how many, using words like less and more to describe our game play. Some of the students even discovered that the cups were 3D shapes, and put a ball on top of their cup to create “ice cream cones”. We continue to look for ways to imbed this process focused and play-based learning into our daily routine.

Do you invite older students to explore “process over product” activities?

In what ways does emphasizing “process over product” influence your students and their learning and understanding?

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.

Skills that the Dramatic Arts Teach Us

Whether I am teaching Music as a rotary teacher, Drama as a homeroom teacher, or integrated Arts, I strive to make the curriculum content meaningful to students’ learning. It is no secret that Language and Math are seen as the most important subjects by parents and boards of education.  However, I feel that if we focus on skills children learn from the arts, we can show the value of these programs in addition to providing a safe space to students with divergent needs and intelligences.

When I look back at my elementary school years, I regret not being involved in the drama department.  Due to coming ‘out of my shell’ I feel proud that I had the courage to get involved in amateur acting later in life. There were a lot of things I learned that I took back to my teaching in the classroom.  The acting teachers who also taught school age classes reiterated that focusing on these skills was how they got more reluctant students to open up.

Acting teaches students teamwork, listening skills, and focusing while multi-tasking. At one of the first classes I took as an adult, we spent the first hour just observing each other and commenting on what we noticed about the verbal and non-verbal communication of the group. Whether following a script or improv, students need to be able to think on their feet to move a dramatic situation forward or to get out of the common forgotten line lead-in or prop mishap. Working together for a common goal is something that occupations require in most fields.

Acting encourages risk-taking and patience. Sometimes it feels that everyday students and adults play roles in their lives, and it is important to recognize feelings in ourselves and others. I remember how transformative it was to finally see the audience reaction after two months of working on a play. I also acted with children in these plays and was excited at their confidence growth over the weeks of rehearsal.

A lot of education based early years programs focus on play-based learning, something that acting has at its core.  When acting, we awaken the imagination and learn how to recognize emotions in others, sometimes from just a look or body language.  Whether we encourage students to take drama to complete an elective requirement or pursue it as a career, we are giving them many tools that will help them to succeed across a wide variety of careers and social interactions for the remainder of their lives.

Dance Anxiety

Although I consider myself a creative music and drama teacher, I don’t feel the same when it comes to dance.  With the other performative arts, I feel that I am able to use my experience as a high school band member and amateur acting hobbyist to present interesting lessons and assist students. Dance was not something I have ever gravitated to since I was young.  Although largely fitted under the same umbrella, someone may have rhythmic talent but not able to convey it through movement.  I have also met colleagues that can choreograph Bollywood routines, but balk at the idea of trying to teach those notes on a scale.

The same can often be said of students.  While they are busy scrolling through TikTok, I wonder what percentage ‘like’ videos but just use the platform for viewing vs. creating their own content.  Or, how many will diligently practise a dance from a viral challenge in a bedroom but freeze at the idea of performing in person in front of their peers.

When Music and Dance were separated into different parts of the report card halfway through my career, I knew I was going to have to challenge myself with teaching content that I was not as familiar with.  Also, picturing myself back in my school days, there were predominantly going to be students that were not confident dancing even for non-‘romantic’ purposes, even in the pre-teen years.  Here are some of the strategies I have adopted from introverted French speakers or oral presenters:

-if the dance is in a group and some students are more confident, see if you can get students to agree to perform one version live and record a different one with all of the group and sometimes this is less anxiety-inducing.

-if you are teaching online, have students send a video in where only you have to see a solo dance and challenge them to see if they have other talents that can be used such as backdrop design or video editing.

-If you have students that straight up decline to participate, do a bit more information gathering from them. Find out how you might be able to engage those students and help them participate in a way that still meets curriculum expectations; even if their learning task is different (e.g. complete a written reflection on the style of dance).

As you can see, these ideas work for both in person and online learning while following the curriculum expectations.

It has been interesting to see how examining a variety of music and dance styles can give students leadership opportunities in the arts, so if all else fails, sometimes performing a favourite song or latest artist hit can have students want to be in on the fun.

I will be getting married in July and I cannot remember ever dancing with everyone watching.  Here’s hoping I can practise what I preach in honour of my students.

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. 

What’s Your Superpower?

 

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

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

Here is how I am planning to use this book:

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

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

3. Write about your superpower. Give examples.

4. Draw a picture of yourself using your superpower.

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Show Must Go On…..

I was very disappointed to learn that we would not be returning to school in June. I am missing the students and their families. I feel isolated from my co-workers, and I am longing for the times when we would connect in the hallway and out in the yard. I do not love teaching on-line, but I am finding new ways to engage with my students, collaborate and play.

Reader’s Theatre:
Reader’s Theatre and/or writing and performing original plays works really well on-line. With younger students, you can share the screen and read a poem or a play together as a shared reading activity. Older students can work in Break-Out rooms (ZOOM) or in their own meetings to write and/or read together.  To support the creative process, there are several Drama games and conventions that work on-line, such as speaking in-role, Mirror, exploring different feelings through movement and facial expressions, charades, and more!

It’s Show Time!
As we have all discovered, there is something extra performative about staring at yourself while you are teaching. There are times when I feel like a Children’s Television Host, trying to be as animated and entertaining as possible, which can be exhausting. My students need a body break every 30 minutes, so I always join them to jump and dance to various fitness videos. I have seen educators on social media upload photos of themselves in costumes, sharing ideas about themes such as Beach Day and Star Wars Day. We are all working so hard to be creative and keep our students happy. We deserve a standing ovation every day!!

In preparation for Earth Day, we listened to the story “The Great Kapok Tree” by Lynne Cherry. When a Kapok tree in the Amazon rainforest is threatened, different animals who depend on the tree speak out.  All year, we have been learning about relationships, and the ways in which humans and more-than-humans are all related and connected. This book also supports the Science learning in Grade 2 for Growth and Changes in Animals, as well as environmental justice. I found a Reader’s Theatre script on-line shared by another educator, which I was able to revise for my own students.

Puppets!
Puppets can be used very effectively to tell stories on-line. After choosing their parts, everyone was encouraged to think about how they might develop their character using voice and movement. One of the students’ in the class has two parents who are actors. Krystal Meadows and Eli Ham joined us on-line as special guests. They shared ideas about how we could use the “box” that we are in to move in different ways. We imagined how our character might be feeling, and how that might impact the way the character moves and speaks. We learned about pitch (how high and how low), tempo (how fast and how slow), and timbre (the quality of sound).  During this rehearsal time, everyone was working at home to make a puppet. Some students used a paper bag, or glued a drawing to a stick. Others used toilet paper rolls or socks. They were all very creative!

“Keep Calm and Break a Leg”
After two weeks, we were ready to share our play. In preparation for our performance, some students created their own art to use as backgrounds, which was lovely. We discovered that virtual backgrounds don’t work because the puppet (and the actor) sometimes disappear. During the performance, students were amazing at muting and unmuting themselves. I encouraged everyone to have their own copy of the script so that we did not have to share the screen. We also used “Speaker View” to focus on who was speaking.

The first time we performed, I recorded the meeting and shared it with families to enjoy. We also watched the recording together as a class. We practiced giving and receiving feedback, and thinking about how we might improve our performance. At the next Staff Meeting, I invited other classes to join us for a second performance. I shared our ZOOM link and we had another chance to share our hard work with a new audience.

One of the advantages of performing on-line is that the audience was able to hear the actors clearly. Without a microphone, it can be challenging in-person, (especially when wearing masks) to be heard on stage. If you have an on-line opportunity to write a play with your students or use Reader’s Theatre to perform poetry or a script, I highly recommend it. Drama is so playful and filled with possibilities. Play on!!

Point of View

This month, we are exploring different points of view through reading and writing a variety of texts. This “big idea” has many possibilities for critical thinking and cross-curricular integration with Media Literacy, Social Studies, Science, Visual Arts, Music and Drama.

In my Grade 2 class, we have used point of view to explore issues of accessibility, anti-Black racism, Indigenous sovereignty and homophobia. Here are some of the texts that Kindergarten-Grade 8 educators can use when learning on-line and in class:

William’s Doll
During Gender Splendour Week, we read “William’s Doll” by Charlotte Zolotov, to explore gender stereotypes and homophobia. We also watched a video from the movie, “Free to Be You and Me” that sings the story as a song. “William’s Doll” is about a boy who wants a doll to play with, but he is told that he cannot have a doll because he is a boy.

Young children receive powerful messages from family, media, clothing and toy stores about what is expected of “boys” and “girls.” These binaries reinforce heterosexism, and often cause harm and exclude students who do not fit into these boxes. It is important to give children the opportunity to name, question, and challenge these gender binaries, and create space for more possibilities.

Before reading “William’s Doll”, I asked students to share their ideas about what it means to be a “boy” and a “girl.” We talked about what a “stereotype” is and how these ideas might not include everyone. Students easily made connections to their own personal experiences of shopping, and described how different products are sorted and sold, (e.g., pink Kinder Eggs for girls). After reading, we used a graphic organizer to support our ideas with evidence from the text.  Then, students wrote about different points of view expressed in the text.  

Of Course They Do!
On the International Day of Pink, we continued to have courageous and critical conversations about how schools can be more inclusive, and how we can take action as allies. After reading texts such as, “Of Course They Do! Boys and Girls Can Do Anything” by Marie-Sabine Roger and Anne Sol, and “10,00 Dresses” by Marcus Ewert, students talked about their experiences of being told they couldn’t do something because of their perceived gender. For example, boys with long hair shared their experiences of being challenged in the washroom. We focussed our discussion on how we might respond to questions and/or suggestions that we don’t belong. We used Drama and role-play to practice naming and responding to behaviour.

Hey, Little Ant!
“Hey, Little Ant” by Hannah Hoose and Phillip Hoose, is a story about a kid who is about to squish an ant. The story is told from two different points of view. On each page, we hear the voice of the kid and a response from the ant. The story ends with a question, which is a great prompt for discussion and writing, “What do you think that kid should do?”

This story is a great opportunity to explore empathy and compassion, and students’ relationships with animals. “Hey, Little Ant” also includes a song, which can enrich the text. After reading, students wrote about the different points of view in the story, and then wrote about their own point of view.

The Tree
“The Tree” written by Dana Lyons is written from the point of view of a tree in the Pacific Rainforest. After writing and sharing the story, the author learned from elders of the Lummi Nation, the original inhabitants of San Juan islands, that he has written the tree’s song. Every tree has a song.

We listened to “The Tree,” drew pictures and shared stories about trees that are important to us. Then, students wrote their own poem or song from the point of view of a tree. We used sentence prompts, such as: “I live….” “I hear….” “I have seen….” “My favourite season is…..” “I wonder….” “I hope…” I found a video of Dana Lyons singing the text as a birthday present for Jane Goodall. I hope we will be able to turn our text into songs!

The Council of All Beings
I am always inspired by my teacher friends! Maria Vamvalis is currently working on her PhD, and shares her learning about climate justice with Natural Curiosity as a mentor coach. We took a course together at OISE, and Maria shared how she has used “The Council of All Beings” to allow students to connect with land and speak in-role from the point of view of other life forms, including animal, plant or natural feature, (desert, forest, etc). This article written by Joanna Macy describes the process.

I am learning that the purpose of the Council is to listen and give voice to land, which includes animals, plants, air, water, soil, etc. The process honours our shared responsibilities and relationships with more-than-humans, and helps us to remember and reconnect with land. It requires guidance and thoughtful facilitation. It sounds like a powerful teaching and learning experience.

Joanna Macy explains: “The Council unfolds in three consecutive stages. First, the beings address each other, telling of the changes and hardships they have experienced.” The second stage creates space for humans to hear from the more-than human beings directly. A few students remove their mask and are invited into the centre of the Circle to listen. The third stage of the council involves the other beings offering gifts to the humans. “As ritual guide I might cue this stage by saying, “Many humans now realize the destruction they are causing; they feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of the forces they have unleashed. Yet our fate is in their hands. O fellow-beings, what strengths of ours can we share with them, what powers can we lend them?” With this invitation, the beings in the Council begin spontaneously to offer their own particular qualities and capacities. After speaking, each leaves their mask and steps in the centre as humans to receive gratitude and gifts. There is opportunity for singing, dancing and release, as well as reflection and stillness.

I think “The Council of All Beings” would enrich any Earth Day celebrations, and/or National Indigenous Peoples Day. I believe it could be adapted for on-line learning, and would be a powerful collaborative and creative experience for all members of the school community, including families.

People’s Tribunal on the Coronavirus Pandemic
I have a new subscription to “Rethinking Schools”, which is an excellent magazine about social justice education. In the Winter 2020-2021 issue, Caneisha Mills describes how she organized a tribunal with her Intermediate students to explore responsibility for the COVID-19 crisis in the United States. Some of those on trial include: Mother Nature, Racism, the HealthCare industry, Capitalism, and the U.S. government. You can read the article, “Who’s to Blame?” here.

Caneisha Mills honours student voice and engages students in a collaborative and critical process of exploring the global pandemic from different points of view.  She honours student voice, and creates a brave space for students to “grapple with profound social injustice” and imagine different possibilities. Mills explains that the “most important part of this lesson involves students writing a 10-point program — inspired by the Black Panthers’ 10-point program, adopted in 1966 — on how to prevent crises like this in the future.”

The article includes a clear teaching plan and provides information for educators who might want to implement the People’s Tribunal on the Coronavirus, on or off-line. “This people’s tribunal begins with the premise that a heinous crime is being committed as tens of millions of people’s lives are in danger due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus — COVID-19. But who — and/or what — was responsible for this crime? Who should be held accountable for the spread of the virus and its devastating impact?”

The teacher plays the role of the prosecutor. Students are assigned different roles, and the “defendants” are supported to work in small groups to develop a defense against the charges outlined in the indictments. A jury is selected, and each group shares their arguments at the trial. There is only one rule: They may plead guilty, but they must accuse at least one other defendant of being responsible. After the jury deliberates and explains their verdict, all students are invited to reflect on the experience. Then, they use their voice to demand and create change.

The tribunal sounds like a meaningful learning opportunity for older students to explore different points of view. I am curious to think about how this might be adapted for younger students.

In your point of view, what are some powerful texts and/or dramatic conventions that you have used in the classroom and on-line?  Please add them to the Comments below.