Building a Better Way: Teaching from a Social Justice Framework

taken from article Ontario Teachers Can Now Face Consequences For Racism November 2020

 

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.

Walking in a New Way – the Ottawa Indigenous Walk

Yesterday I walked through an Ottawa that is now new to me.

As part of our Urban Communities Cohort experience at the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa, our group of first-year teacher candidates took part in one of the Ottawa Indigenous walks that are available throughout the city.

Ours took place around City Hall, the Canadian Tribute to Human Rights Monument and Confederation Park. The tour was 90 minutes long and our group was led by Jennifer David (Chapleau Cree First Nation), a journalist and consultant who has an incredible depth of knowledge and a gift for story-telling.

It is amazing how a tour like this can take you through familiar places and at the same time open ones’ eyes to new perspectives.

Some snapshots – A memorial to the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812. Indigenous peoples fought in this war and made significant contributions to the British side. Their hope was that a separate homeland would be carved out for them after the war. Considering the important role they played in the war’s outcome, this was a reasonable expectation.

Instead, no land was granted and they only received what they already had before the war.

A Hundred Years Peace by artist Amedee Forestier, 1914 – although
First Nations played a key role in the War of 1812, they are missing from
this portrait of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent

Another stop – we finished our tour at the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument. Here a reading that we did by Cynthia Chambers entitled “Where do I belong?” Canadian Curriculum as Passport Home resonated. In this article, Chambers writes a personal story about her journey to figure out her own Canadian identity. Her story intersects with the struggle of Canadian Indigenous People to establish their own narrative.

As we looked at the monument, I recalled a passage where she quotes George Erasmus on enfranchisement and the Indian Act. Looking at the war memorial, I was struck by the fact that the act of joining the Canadian military once resulted in people losing their status under the Indian Act:

When the option of enfranchisement, trading
Indian status for voting rights, failed to attract
individuals, more coercive measures were enacted,
enfranchising Indians if they lived away from their
reserves, joined the military, obtained higher
education, or, in the case of women, if they married a
non-Indian.

“Where do I belong?”
Canadian Curriculum as Passport Home
JAAACS: Journal of American Association for Advancement of Curriculum Studies

“To Aboriginal War Veterans in Canada and to those that have Fallen
This monument is raised in sacred and everlasting honour of the contributions of all Aboriginal Canadians in war and peacekeeping operations.”
– inscription on National Aboriginal Veterans Monument

When you really start to think what it is like to teach in a Canadian school, experiences like the Indigenous Walk and the article by Chambers really are foundational. Chambers wrote this article in 2006 and already things have changed a great deal in this country. A walk of 90 minutes really does alter ones’ perspective on how we approach teaching in a Canadian context.

Walking, listening, reading, talking can change the way you look at the world. Learning can change behaviour, can begin to right wrongs that go back centuries. As we work with a new generation of teachers, it is so important that we take the necessary time to orient ourselves to an approach that focuses on justice and a new world view.

We walk and we learn. We begin to ask ourselves new questions. Where do I belong may take a lifetime to answer. For Chambers, this is a question that remains unresolved; it is a question that is a part of our character. It is a question that informs what we are doing as educators.

The Algonquin land claim
The largest land claim being negotiated in Ontario. If successful, it will be the province’s first modern-day constitutionally protected treaty.
The claim covers a territory of 36,000 square kilometres in eastern Ontario that is populated by more than 1.2 million people.
If successful, the negotiations will produce the province’s first modern-day constitutionally protected treaty.
The Algonquins of Ontario assert that they have Aboriginal rights and title that have never been extinguished, and have continuing ownership of the Ontario portions of the Ottawa and Mattawa River watersheds and their natural resources.

The Urban Communities Cohort – What is the Urban School?

the necessary changes in urban and suburban schools will have to appropriate adequate space for a re-examination of leadership that is collaborative,
transformative, socially just, and moves beyond the hierarchical construction of the individual leader role.

Beverly-Jean Daniel, Reimagining the Urban: A Canadian Perspective

What is the urban school? What does it look like in Canada? How is it studied and what should educators learn about before working in an urban school? This year, I am working with the Urban Communities Cohort at the University of Ottawa and I am asking myself these and many other questions.

As part of our learning, teacher candidates need to develop a digital hub or, in other words, some platform where they can reflect on what they are learning. I figure that if I am working this year with these students the least I can do is add this blog to the collection of reflective pieces that will accumulate as the year progresses.

St. Anthony School, where I learned most of what I know about urban schools

I have said this before but it certainly bears repeating. Reflection is an essential component of learning. We all need somewhere to record our thoughts and insights especially when we are on a steep learning curve. The students here at the University of Ottawa are on about as steep a curve as possible, so it is really encouraging to see them put out some of their ideas and wonderings on a blog or wiki or some other platform.

I think it would be really cool if some of these students decided they wanted to start a podcast about what they are experiencing as new teachers. VoicEd Radio would be a great platform for recording these experiences it has been done before, it makes for great radio!

Sarah Lalonde started her podcast while she was a student at the University of Ottawa

One of the foundational readings students have been asked to take a look at is an article by Beverly-Jean Daniel, Reimagining the Urban: A Canadian Perspective. There is a good deal to digest in this article and I am just starting this process.  What an urban school is? Is there really one definition of an urban school?

I am not an academic, but I had the privilege of working in one urban school and have had many experiences of working with poverty in schools. One idea that is really interesting has to do with the whole idea of an urban school. Is there really a precise divide between urban and suburban schools here in Ontario?

There are characteristics of have and have-not schools, but I don’t think they separate out along urban and suburban schools. It might be easier to look at what you might find in have-not schools:

  • a clear lack of resources outside what is granted by the school district or province
  • a higher percentage of children without resources at home to support learning
  • a higher percentage of parents who work several jobs to make ends meet, who have less energy and time for school
  • a higher percentage of health concerns, for example, dental health issues with many students
  • a more transient school population

There is, in my opinion, a real danger when I start to write down characteristics like this. Someone could easily read this and point out that this is stereotyping. One could also point out that my list is incomplete, that it focuses on the elementary panel (it does) and that it is missing so many things. Most of these criticisms would be correct, but I don’t think I am painted with a brush that is too broad. Yes, my list has more to do with elementary, but I am sure you could come up with a secondary list without too much trouble.

What would be much more useful and this is something I brought up in class this morning when I talked about the Daniel article is a careful look at the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study. The ONS is an incredible resource that really tells the story of the places we live in here in Ottawa. From their opening page, the ONS states that it is presenting this data to help people understand our current living spaces and plan for better futures:

Evidence is mounting that the neighbourhoods and communities in which we live affect not only our health but also the gap in health between rich and poor. The purpose of the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study (ONS) is twofold: to better understand the physical and social pathways by which neighbourhoods in Ottawa affect our health and well-being, and to provide citizens in Ottawa with facts that support evidence-based decision-making.

Ottawa Neighbourhood Study

As I rambled this morning, I did say something that might be helpful – I really think that all educators need to carefully read the ONS before they start teaching in a community that is new to them. We all need to realize that we do not teach in a bubble. We teach in a living community and if we teach in a hard to serve or low-income community, we need to know what services are there to help our families, then we need to see how we can best fit in and make a substantial difference for the students we work with.

There is a great deal here to examine and to think about. When we work in a low-income school, do we need to develop a different mindset? Do we need to think even more out of the box than other teachers need to do? Do we need to question our models of leadership and collaboration with the wider community? Does our role as the teacher change?

I started this reflection piece with one of the conclusions from the Daniel article. Yes, I think we do need to re-examine how we do leadership and we also need to re-examine how we teach in low-income neighbourhoods. No, there is not a definitive split between urban and suburban schools here in Ottawa. Yes, there is true poverty and inequality in this city.

So, how do we best prepare our new teachers to enter this world and make a true difference? Can we as educators level this playing field?