This is my second year teaching at the University of Ottawa. We work with students both in the first and second year program. In a year that is fraught with troubles due to the pandemic, there are, I think, some great opportunities to really focus on what we are teaching our students in the Faculty of Education.
Here we work in cohorts and we are the Urban Communities Cohort (UCC). There are fewer distractions this year as everything we do is online. I really believe that what we are focusing on this year is truly essential to the formation of new educators here in Ontario.
This is an essential pause at the beginning of a career, a chance to reflect and ponder before actually diving in.
In both years, we are focusing our work on anti-racism, diversity, and inclusion. In the first year program, we are studying Is Everyone Really Equal by Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo. In second year we continue to work on How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.
Along with this, we have had a series of excellent panel discussions from leading urban educators here in Ottawa. The panels and the books are challenging our thinking about what it means to teach in an urban school.
This year we are doing something very special, something that we were not able to do last year. It is a bit like starting our own school of urban education. By starting with Sensoy & DiAngelo and Kendi and the panel of education leaders, we are truly grounding our students in a social justice framework – something that I have not seen before.
People like to talk about social justice, but it is not very often that it is practiced in our schools. The discussions with local leaders really brought this home – as urban educators, we need to ground our teaching in social justice first, everything flows from this. It is one thing to say that social justice is important to your teaching, it is a very different thing to make this the basis of your practice.
And what will this look like in your school? What will this look like in your classroom? How will you be challenged if you put social justice first?
Teaching from a social justice perspective means that you need to challenge societal norms and practices that are invested in protecting the status quo. A school board by its very nature is designed to protect itself from any radical change. In many ways seeing the world from a social justice perspective calls into question the very existence of large institutions like our school boards. How well do our schools cater to Indigenous students or students from different ethnic minorities?
Through the work in this program, we have been introduced to the works of Dr. Bettina A. Love and the Abolitionists in the United States. Her work is compelling and we focused one of our online discussions on what she teaches and how it can apply in the Canadian context. Dr. Love and others advocate for a system of education that breaks down barriers for children and where social justice is the guiding principle.
The education survival complex mirrors the prison industrial complex. Both industries are making money off these narratives about Black and Brown children—that we’re defiant, violent, thugs—and it’s just not true. This is about racism and how it plays out on Black and Brown bodies. The complex doesn’t want to remove any barriers, it’s just going to try to measure how well you can jump over them.Abolitionist Teaching in Action: Q&A with Bettina L. Love ASCD December 2019
We watched a long interview with Dr. Love and other Abolitionists educators and I have included an excerpt below. The original is 90 minutes long and is really worth watching. Even this short segment is liberating and talks about how the impossible became possible at the beginning of the pandemic.
It is a bit crazy to think about now. We had computers, but kids couldn’t bring them home. We had testing, then EQAO stopped. Teachers became the center of everything. We need compassion over compliance!! Why did it take a pandemic to see what really is possible?
These ideas are new and liberating to me. How appropriate for new educators to be exposed to these ideas at the beginning of their career. Education should be about liberation, educators need to lead and not comply with what the conventional practices of the school board dictate. New teachers really need to question who our schools are really for. They need to critique the public school system and look for ways to change that system when it does not serve their students.
By giving our students this framework, they will be able to question more and push the limits of a system that really needs to be pushed. Teaching from a social justice framework is the opposite of supporting the status quo. This is certainly what our schools and our students need right now.
Some of these ideas are making it into our own school systems. Just last week, the Peel Board announced changes to entry requirements for Black and Indigenous students into specialized programs:
Faced with continuing criticism of its failures to address issues of equity and systemic anti-Black racism in its schools, Peel’s interim education director told trustees on Tuesday evening that giving access to groups that are underrepresented in programs, such as arts and technology, strings music and the International Baccalaureate, is a “necessary action.”
“They have a right to be there. If our random selection process was working well and we were encouraging students from these identities to apply, we wouldn’t need this step,” Colleen Russell-Rawlins said in an interview earlier on Tuesday.
Maybe this is why the abolitionist approach is so interesting – the only way to actually provide BIPOC students with a safe and caring environment is to create new structures that do not rely on a school model designed for Industrial Age Great Britain. The Peel approach is a good one and one that should resonate with our students.
At a time where the education of our children is so important when we need to question how we serve all of our students, these questions and discussions are essential to the development of the next generation of teachers. As they learn to challenge the way things have been done in the past I am confident we will build a better way forward.