Let’s keep talking #SOL23 7/31

During Black History Month, I shared a nugget of information about Black History every day at the beginning of class. This month is Irish Heritage Month (Canada) and Bangladeshi History Month (Ontario), so I asked the students if they wanted more information nuggets. The 9th graders said no, but the 12th graders said “yes, some days” and I was happy to comply.

Yesterday, I shared the Minister’s statement about Irish Heritage. The students listened politely,  then one young person raised her hand and said, “Honestly, after Black History month, just… why? Why do we need to celebrate Irish heritage when they are a dominant culture?” (Ok, that’s a paraphrase. She was both more eloquent & more delicate.)

I looked around the room. Heads were nodding. Irish culture hardly seems under-represented to this group. I stood in front of them, Irish, and didn’t have an answer. “Well,” I started, “I guess I’ll think out loud. Are you all comfortable interrupting if you disagree or if you have questions? Because I don’t have a researched answer for you. This is just me.” They agreed.

And down the rabbit hole we went. Why and when did Irish people emigrate to Canada? Sure,  Irish people had been desperately poor and had experienced terrible discrimination, but how bad was it? Did they know that the Irish had not been considered white?

Wait. Hold up. The class was instantly interested. From there we found ourselves talking about race as a sociological construction and considering how we know who is and isn’t part of which race. “Are we still good?” I asked at one point, and a student replied immediately, “Oh yeah. Let’s keep talking.” So we did.

We looked at images of a biracial author and his biracial children, some of whom look more like one race or another. Who gets to decide who is which race? We talked about another author whom I had long perceived to be Black but who does not, in fact, identify as a person of color. Some students talked about their own race. We talked about a former student of mine who inherited genes from distant ancestors on both sides of her family and did not appear to be the same race as her parents. Our conclusion – or at least the one that I took away – was, “If you want to talk about how we define race, things get messy fast.”

Eventually we circled back to why we celebrate Irish Heritage Month. Maybe – maybe – we thought, if we can start to look at different parts of being white, if we can acknowledge different aspects of whiteness and stop pretending that white culture is a monolith, maybe we can make space for other races and cultures, too. Or maybe not, but it was the best we could come up with. There was a moment of quiet in the classroom, then we opened our books and read.

*Addendum – which comes from not having finished this slice last night. Today, I shared two different articles about the Irish and whiteness. One bluntly asserts that the idea that the Irish were ever considered not white is pure nonsense. The other disagrees. Officially, we looked at the use of quotation marks and how they affected the tone of each article, but our discussion ranged widely. So… we’re behind, but also kind of ahead. This is what comes of having interesting students.

The First Time #SOL23 2/31

One of the prompts I offer during our memoir unit is “The first time I…” (NB: when working with high school students it is best to *immediately* complete the sentence with a few mundane firsts, otherwise minds tend to wander in directions that are, ahem, not compatible with the classroom.) It’s a funny little prompt because first times are, I have learned, simultaneously memorable and hard to remember. This is one of those prompts that sees students’ pens hover above their notebooks before they drop, scribbling furiously; their writing stops and starts then stops again; sometimes the ideas don’t come until the next day or even many days later. 

Around the time I use this prompt, I often share a short memoir by Willy Conley which opens with a question about when he first realized he was deaf. This ‘first’ can perplex students. “How did he not know he was deaf?” they ask, and I have no ready answer. “How did you realize things about yourself?” I offer as a response, and we often physically look at ourselves. As I ask probing questions, students respond, “But I’ve *always* known I was a boy. I never realized it” or “I just *knew* I was Canadian; I didn’t have to think about it” and on we go, the discussion touching on aspects of their identity that they take for granted. Sometimes we are able to dig in; other times, I gently move the discussion back to riding bikes or ice skating. Physical firsts, it turns out, often stick in the memory.

Each semester, after the discussion, my mind inevitably turns to Zora Neale Hurston and the line in Their Eyes Were Watching God when, as a child, Janie sees a picture of herself and realizes she is Black: “Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!” she exclaims. The first time I read that line, I had to pause just like my students do now when confronted with Conley’s realization of deafness: How did she not know? And, of course, when I asked that question about Janie, I had to turn it on myself and ask “When did I first realize I was white?” 

The first time I realized I was white was in high school Spanish class. Even though my southern school was intentionally integrated (by bussing), almost no Black students were in any of the “Honors” classes I took. I had finished up all the French classes the school offered and switched to Spanish my junior year. There I met Kiki, who was Black. Spanish was easy for me as it was not for her, and our teacher asked if I would help with her. Ever a teacher, I was delighted. We got along famously, but things were the way they were and there was no moment when getting along well would have had a chance to veer into true friendship. One time, as we worked, she said something about me being a “white girl.” I was surprised. I had heard people talk about “the Black kids”, but never “the white kids”. I had never really thought of myself that way, but clearly she did. My mind lingered on that thought for a minute, then Kiki and I went back to the Spanish work in front of us, a white girl and a Black girl, trying to figure out new words in a world that saw our skin color before it saw us.

The privilege of support

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about kids and classroom behaviour. The same week that I wrote it, the same week that I laughingly remembered some of the things my friends and I got up to in 8th grade, the same week that I blithely assumed that my long-ago teachers “didn’t write Michelle off or worry that she would turn out to be a bad one” – implying, of course, that they didn’t write off any of us – that very same week, Matthew Morris wrote something very different in his post What My Teachers Were Saying About Me

Matthew, a Black male educator in an elementary school in Toronto, wonders what his teachers were saying about him and his friends back when they were in school, in part because he hears what other teachers are saying *right now* about the students in front of them. And the conversations he overhears – “(that boy) is gonna’ end up in jail. Kid just doesn’t know how to get out of his own way” or “(that girl)  is going to end up pregnant by 16, watch” – are not the ones that I was imagining in my post.

As I read his post, my heart sank: no matter how many times I encounter it, I am always shocked when I find another way I experience privilege. I never – never – wondered if my teachers said bad things about me. I mean, maybe they got annoyed with me or kids like me, but I don’t think a single one of my teachers ever sat in a staff room and  predicted a negative life outcome for me. Nor did they think that any of my friends – no matter how outrageous – were going to end up pregnant at 16 or in jail. Now, I should be clear that there were no Black students in our magnet program in suburban South Carolina. We were smart wealthy white kids. We were going places. 

Never mind the fact – the FACT – that a boy in the class above me, a nice smart rich white boy, actually *did* end up in jail while we were still in high school. Never mind the fact that I know of at least two girls who *did* end up pregnant while we were still in high school – and I’d bet there were more.

What does it mean to live in a world where you have every reason to suspect that the people who educate you, who are supposed to be helping you create pathways to your future, also think that you are likely to go nowhere? What does it mean to live, instead, in a world where even your bad behaviour is written off as youthful indiscretions? What does it mean that the colour of a child’s skin might be -no, is –  the difference between these two things?

A few years ago I attended a conference that brought together teachers, support workers, and school resource officers – a community of support. One of the keynote speakers that year was a police chief from the States who had transformed the way her department dealt with kids whose parents were involved with drugs, many of whom were Black children. She told a “before story about an officer at a drug bust handing a baby over to a social worker and saying, “Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you in about 16 years.” The social worker nodded in resignation. A baby. A BABY. The very people who were supposed to be protecting this child had already decided their life’s outcome. And statistically, they weren’t wrong.

I cried after her talk, but the future chief didn’t bother with crying. She got to work and changed the way the community handled these children. She made sure that children’s futures were not about their skin colour or their parents’ faults. She created a community of support, looked at the systemic problems and made changes.

I’ve been thinking about Matthew’s post for a week now, and I’ve been thinking about that police officer. I’ve been thinking about what my teachers said about me and what Matthew’s teachers said about him. I’ve been thinking an awful lot about what I hear other teachers saying as well as what I say or believe about the children in my classroom and in all the classrooms in the school.

I think it’s time for me to be 100% sure that my students know how much I believe in them. In twenty years when they look back at their schooling, I hope their memories are like mine – full of the certainty that the adults in the school buoyed them up, even behind closed doors – and not like Matthew’s. Every child should be lifted by the adults around them. That should not be a privilege but a given.

PS – You should follow Matthew. His voice is powerful. https://www.matthewrmorris.com/

Let’s talk about race


As I was walking towards the VP’s office today, I passed a student putting up a mural. I teach at an Arts magnet school, and every Spring sees another round of grade 12 students painting over wall space and creating a mural as part of their final Visual Arts project. It’s one of my favourite times of year, and I’ve been thinking about writing about it – I have loads of great pictures to share. But when I walked by Mankaasha Umba quietly hanging one gel print after another, mug shot after mug shot, my breath stopped in my chest.

Mankaasha was carefully displaying her critique of our racism in the hallway right by the VP’s office.

I don’t know her at all, but I stopped to say thanks. “This is just what we need. Can you tell me about it?” Oh yes, she could. These are pictures of her brother, a fourth year university student who plans to continue school and work in cancer research. This is not how she sees her brother, but it is how too many others perceive him.

She and I chatted for probably 10 minutes. We talked about racism in the school and in the world. We talked about perception: how when I talk about racism, I am “passionate” but if she brings it up she is “angry;” how her brother had been followed home by police officers who were “just making sure” he wasn’t loitering; how even in this day and age, she’s had English teachers in our school teach books with the “n-word” but  not even bother to discuss it. We talked about how she struggles more with the subtle racism of the every day than the overt racism of the special occasion. She said, “Go ahead and call me any name you want, I can handle that. But I don’t know how to fight what people never even say.”

She talked about how frustrated she gets because White teachers don’t want to talk about race for fear of making mistakes. She said, “other people have a voice, too. I don’t need to be the one calling this out all the time.” I admitted to being scared sometimes – even in our conversation – that I will say the wrong thing, but I’ve decided that the discussion is too important to avoid. She talked about how Black people have no choice but to talk about it whereas White people get to decide whether or not to engage. We talked about #BlackLivesMatter and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and Jason Reynolds and Miles Morales and so much more. Finally I asked her if I could write about this and she said yes.

While we talked, people passed by and stopped. And stopped. And stopped. “Yes,” they said. “Yes.”

“This is great,” they said. “Amazing.”

I think Mankaasha has just changed our school. I am so damn impressed I can hardly stand it. These kids, they are going to change the world. It gives me shivers to think about it. Mankaasha, thanks for starting the conversation.