How do I do it? What if I make a mistake? What if I pronounce something wrong or use the wrong terms? What if I offend someone? What aspects of the culture and history do I have the right to teach? Who can I reach out to for help? New and experienced teachers alike are trying to answer these questions as we navigate the much-needed new BC curriculum. Reflecting the past year of discussions with my colleagues, last month CBC’s Special Series: Beyond Beads and Bannock attempted to answer the question, “What are the challenges for a non-Indigenous [or Indigenous] teacher to incorporate culturally-accurate Indigenous curriculum in the classroom?” (2018, CBC). The questions that the show’s callers and my peers and I have are not all easily answered, but as one of the guests on the September 6th episode noted, the one question that is no longer being asked is, “Why should I teach this?” For this we are all grateful. I have asked myself the above questions many times over, but, in reflecting on my practice so far, my biggest regrets, my biggest mistakes, have come from avoiding difficult or unfamiliar content, not in attempting to teach it.
of race, politics, religion and mental health. Brian Mooney and many other teachers use this album and this genre as an entryway into difficult discussions about societal issues that need to be addressed in the classroom.
I enjoy all genres of music but have never imagined teaching through hip-hop and rap. I started looking into #HipHopEd this summer and became fascinated by the platform that this powerful genre has created. The more I learn about and understand spoken word and and its closely related cousin, rap, the more I appreciate and understand how these genres lend themselves so well to social justice education. This type of poetry is beautiful and real; a tell-it-as-it-is medium with more freedom than rules. As Bryonn Bain, a hip hop and spoken word professor at Harvard University states, “Shakespeare wrote to the verse of his time. Poets today are writing to the verse of their time, and its important to create a place to nurture those voices and give them a chance to talk about the issues that matter to them in a language that resonates with them” (2012, Harvard University).
It felt right to dance. It felt right to enjoy the beat. It felt good to hear the truth with the emotion and passion that it deserves. It felt right to respect the message in the genre in which it was being communicated. Seeing the Snotty Nose Rez Kids perform again at the Koksilah Music Festival in the Cowichan Valley this fall, I tried listening and observing through a different lens. Even more so than the first time I saw them, it felt so inspiring to see everyone enjoying this music – this political, cultural and personal statement – rapped with such pride and pleasure.
I met with a teacher today who has been teaching spoken word poetry throughout the harrowing years of BC’s 40% provincial exams. Longing for the day when English 12 is officially liberated from the BC provincial exam, she says she can not wait to give her students the time that they and the genre deserve to fully explore the liberating power of spoken word. She has observed that, when given the tools and the freedom, many of her students who are typically shy, disinterested or disconnected from English class, suddenly find their voices and become engaged when they can speak what they know through a medium with which they are familiar.
I know that I will make plenty of mistakes in teaching through the hip hop genre, just as I expect to make many mistakes as I learn how to incorporate Indigenous knowledge, culture, and ways of knowing and learning in to my practice. Though I still don't know exactly where to start, it is inspiring to hear that so many others, both in my community and around the world, have started from the same point and have found what works for both them and their students. I will continue to ask many questions, but the answers will get easier to find the more I reach out to others, and within myself, to find them.
I had just started a position as a curriculum and enrichment coordinator in a rural school in Guatemala when I was given the opportunity to join a tour with visitors from an organization in the U.S. This group of volunteers came down every two years to deliver school supplies and modest funding to some of the poorest schools in the district and I was eager to join them and learn more about my new community. I was working at a private international school in the district, which was absolutely beautiful, but accessible to a only to a small fraction of the population. The town was not an easy place to live – crime was very high, the heat and mosquitos were relentless, and there was little to do outside the safety of one’s own home – but my school campus was incredible. The large slated glass widows in each class opened to let the breeze and surrounding greenery pour through the rooms. The playgrounds sat in the shade of tall trees atop well-watered grass. The computer labs were pleasantly chilly with luxurious air-conditioning. All the classrooms were outfitted with technology. And the outdoor pool was simply grand. With several guards at each gate, this biophilic campus was a well-fortified paradise.
Though I had been mildly aware of the economic inequality in the country, my trip to the local schools opened my eyes wide to the extent of the economic divide and scope of poverty within the area. One school in particular made me want to abandon my new position at my prestigious school immediately and devote myself to the beautiful smiling children who clearly needed teachers so much more than my current school. Of course, the reality of my economic obligations at home would not let me do this, but the idea of finding a way to help this school stuck with me. The school was located on one of many municipal dumps in the country to where many Indigenous people from the highlands fled during the country’s civil war. The school originally consisted of two cinderblock classrooms with narrow windows on one side and were topped with well-weathered slate metal paneling that protected very little throughout the six month wet season.
Several months into my new position, I met with the high school principal to discuss some behaviour problems that were occurring in one of our high school English classes. The issue, I came to realize, was the diverse English level of this particular group. The advanced students in this class were simply bored and needed a greater challenge as their teacher worked with the students who needed more language support. With the encouragement of my administration, I decided to start a pilot project with this group of seven students, creating a self-directed project at the school at the municipal landfill. The students knew that they would be completing their senior community service project at this school the following year and were eager to meet the children and get to know the needs of the community.
In one of the first reflections they did, one student wrote, “I know this is a project, but I want to do it for the kids, not the points.” I knew at this point that we were on the right track.
Though the project did not evolve the way the students (or I) had envisioned at the beginning, they took their work at the barrio school very seriously and provided their students with an incredible field trip at the end of the year. They also worked hard on their documentary, formally interviewing the director and teachers at the school, as well as several parents and students to gain a better understanding of what life was like living at the landfill. They reflected weekly in various formats and supplemented their hands-on learning with additional research on our library days. Some of the students were quite upset with what they learned about the realities facing many Indigenous groups in their country, and in the end, the documentary was not published do to privacy concerns. However, the experience was more powerful than anything we could have done in the classroom and gave the students an opportunity to see the impact that they could make on their local community.
Though each day at the barrio school was extremely rewarding, one of the most surprising moments of this pilot project came towards the end of the year when a father of one of my students came to my office. He had not been terribly keen on allowing his daughter to join the project as the barrio we were visiting was not particularly safe. My Spanish was still quite poor at this point and I thought he was upset as he was speaking to the high school principal, who interpreted for me: “I don't understand exactly what you were doing with the students at the dump, and I still don't know how safe it was to take them there” he said, “but my daughter has completely changed in the past few months and I am grateful for her experience there.” He then described how at home, she had become kinder, calmer and had begun thanking her parents for the things she had. I could see this change in attitude throughout the group, especially when reading and listening to their individual reflections, but had not realized the full impact that this project had had.
We continued and improved the project the following year and expanded the idea to include some of the younger classes. We had to begin taking an armed guard with us on each visit, as my concerned father’s fears were unfortunately not misplaced, but the benefits that emerged from the collaboration between our school and the barrio school, were immeasurable. Upon first seeing this barrio school, my initial impulse was a great desire to leave my school and go volunteer at the barrio school. This project showed me that it is possible to work within the system to effect big changes as well as inspire future change by increasing understanding. The students at my school are likely those who will run businesses, vote in elections and possibly even join government. I believe that many of them will do this now with a better understanding of the needs, challenges and talents of a broader scope of the population of Guatemala.
I began reflecting on my teaching practice in 2012. As part of this process, of course, I began to reflect on my own experiences in the education system, and how these experiences worked to establish many of the beliefs, assumptions and biases that I hold. I admittedly started my master’s degree far too early in my career, but I am grateful now that I did. I feel that this experience of intense learning and deeply focused reflection allowed me to recognize and access background knowledge on both the discourse and myself. This insight inspired me to continue on in the profession.
Without silence, dialogue would have nothing from which to grow. Reflecting on my first few weeks studying education in 2012, I remember spending much of my class time in silence. Most classes were structured very much like a Socratic seminar, but feeling so unfamiliar with the material, I was far too intimidated to speak. Listening to the professors and many of my veteran-teacher peers going on about this pedagogical practice or that, I remember thinking to myself, “peda-what?” I did not doubt my ability to learn this new discourse, but I needed a chance to absorb the language and theory being used. I needed to observe how my peers were relating the theories and ideas to their background knowledge and experiences, so that I could understand, not just how, but that I could also relate it to mine. This time of silent observation enabled me to learn how to relate the discourse to my own lived experience in order to create understanding. The professors knew my background and likely knew that I had a lot to absorb. Through this process, though I was always encouraged to join the dialogue, there was no great pressure to do so before I was ready.
I have been wrestling with the idea of using Socratic seminars as not only formative, but also summative assessment. Included in the rubric I have begun designing are the criteria of, “appropriate contributions to dialogue,” and, “encourages peers to join the conversation.” These are important skills, but not the only signs of “measurable” engagement. I know through reflecting on my experience in an unfamiliar academic world, to respect a student’s choice not to join the conversation. Silent observation should be as valued a communication skill as contributing abundantly. I need to keep this in mind for my practice, as for many students, too much pressure to contribute to the dialogue could lead "to the classroom no longer being a safe environment for children to take risks or reflect in silence” (Chesters, 2010). This counters the aim of the Socratic Dialogue. It is highly likely that many of my future students will find themselves in the same situation I was in during my first few weeks studying education. But, the key to that last statement, is that “they might just find themselves” as I found myself.
Harro, B. (2010). The cycle of liberation. In M. Adams, W.J. Blumenfeld, C. Castaneda, H.W. Hackman, M.L. Peters, & X. Zuniga (Eds.). Readings for diversity and social justice (2nd Ed) (pp.52-58). New York: Routledge.
Not every day goes smoothly, but it can be mesmerizing nonetheless. Often times, our most difficult days, bring about revelations that may inform our future practice. It is important to find a way to unwind from difficult days, and pull the positive from any experience. Many of us have had days in a classroom that we would rather forget, but as we let go of the frustration, it is important to hold on to any new-found understandings that we can draw from the experience.
The new provincial curriculum gives me so much hope and happiness for the experiences that BC students will have in the foundational years of their lifelong learning adventures. It is my hope that all students graduating high school will leave their final year with many of the same attributes and skills they began discovering in kindergarten. They will have formed relationships with peers and teachers that make them feel safe to explore new ideas and express themselves freely and confidently. They will have learned how to learn, so that they can continue exploring the passions they have realized along the way and the new ones they are yet to discover. They will not feel fear when they meet a new challenge, but rather excitement at the opportunity to gain new skills and show the world their potential. They will know that their education is their own. No one can take it away or tell them what it should look like. They will know that singing, dancing, painting and laughing are as important as studying, working and making money. In adulthood, they will know how to take care of their whole selves because their teachers took care of them as a whole child. They will know what’s right and what’s wrong and when to use their own voice to speak up for others who cannot speak up for themselves. They will live their lives responsibly, understanding how their own actions can affect others, in their families, in their communities and throughout the world. They will know how to be kind and patient and that it is best to ask questions rather than make assumptions when they happen across something or someone they do not understand. They will be critical and compassionate thinkers. And, most importantly, they will know and respect themselves because their teachers took the time to get to know them and respect them for whom they are.