Growing in Ontario as a second generation Filipino largely involved learning someone else’s histories and stories – voyageurs, cowboys, settlers, fur traders, and a whole slew of white protagonists. I didn’t know that I was missing any perspectives, and happily read my way through Shakespeare, Salinger and Austen, dreaming of studying English literature in university.
When I started teaching, I dutifully used whatever resources were provided, excitedly poring over the details of England’s glorious wars and conquests. I genuinely believed I was sharing alternative perspectives through ‘multicultural’ or ‘social justice’ texts written by white authors. I firmly subscribed to the idea that creative works of fiction could be viewed separately from an author’s lived experience, and that a text did not need to be questioned if it contained all the elements of ‘good’ storytelling.
Despite my best efforts to serve my diverse group of students, I was ultimately serving up the same perspective and worldview I had been raised with: Euro-centric, Western, and woefully one-sided.
Like many other educators over the last 5-10 years, I felt the need to decolonize my work and critically reflect on my own perspective. And while I am still largely on a journey to understand my own complex relationship with Canada and my family’s cultural ancestry, I am certain that we have the capacity and resources to ensure that the students we teach don’t have to be instilled with a worldview that undermines their own sense of identity by ignoring and devaluing their cultural assets.
Use Culturally Responsive Resources
Representation matters. When you don’t see yourself represented in the media you consume or what you learn in school, you can feel alienated from your own community or surroundings. Seeing yourself and your culture in what you learn is engaging, empowering and exciting.
Teachers today likely have access to the most diverse range of authors and stories in the history of publishing. Black, Indigenous, East Asian, South Asian, Latinx, Southeast Asian and 2SLGBTQ+ authors are writing some incredible books for kids and young adults. And no, you don’t have to read every young adult novel or picture book that hits the shelves of your local bookstore: ask the library resource, support staff or consultant in your school or board to suggest some titles, and divide the reading up with your teaching team. Build literature circles or reading units with the titles that reflect the range of identities of the students in your classroom, co-planning and co-teaching as much as possible to save time and energy.
Beyond language arts, there are so many ways to make your programming more culturally responsive and representative of the students you teach. Incorporate the voices and histories of different communities in your social studies, history, or geography teaching. Make independent research and inquiry a regular practice, scaffolding learning by providing prompts or ideas that encourage learners to discover different perspectives and to consume historical and social discourses critically.
If the class or classes you teach is monocultural, students will still benefit from learning diverse perspectives and narratives. Such texts can dispel stereotypes, enable students to develop a more balanced perspective of society, or spark interest and engagement.
Change Isn’t Easy
Doing the work of disrupting the way you teach is not easy and will certainly not happen overnight. It is easy to get triggered by ideas and perspectives that don’t align with the worldview you have held for much of your life. And it can feel onerous to invest time and energy into changing your program. So start with small changes: a new text or approach to assessment, tweaking your discussion questions to provoke a more critical discussion, or connect with other teachers that are intentionally changing their programming to be anti-racist and anti-oppressive.
The effort you place into making today’s learning environment a more inclusive place will pay off when you see students feeling seen, engaged and connected to the place they learn.