Keep Going for Equity and Justice

Creating a space where each member of a community not only feels welcome but valued and respected is a gargantuan challenge.  I have been welcomed into spaces where there are is an unwritten code, or set of expectations, that you must identify and comply with if you do not want to fall into disfavour and subsequently have the welcome withdrawn.  All too often the rules are apparent after the fact.  Or perhaps, they are never are discerned.  Job places, schools, places of worship, and community gathering spots face the same challenge of how to create spaces where people with diverse cultures, belief systems, family structures and appearance can come together in a context where everyone feels valued and in the words of Marlo Thomas – free to be. 

I have lost heart that any set of rules will provide all the answers. The Declaration of Human Right and Freedoms was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948 and enshrined the rights and freedoms of all human beings. Subsequent human and civil rights law have codified many of these basic rights. We have had time for full implementation. And yet, in wealthy countries the #MeToo #BlackLivesMatter #IndigenousLivesMatter echo the cries of people waiting for even basic rights to be extended to them. The citing or rules, finger pointing, and defining the work that others need to do, breeds anger and resentment rather than a collective, coordinated effort to do better.

If we are going to make a difference in the quest to create respectful spaces, we are going to need to capture the imaginations of the people within organizations whether it’s a workplace, school, club or social organization.  Co-existing in a space does not generate a welcoming or generous climate.  We need curiosity and empathy.  The kind of curiosity that inspires us to want to get to know each other, the patience to listen to someone’s story and the development of empathy.

The best place to start teaching this process is in schools, where we already have students brimming with curiosity, not afraid to ask questions, and ready to dive into the learning.  I have been inspired by Patrick Stewart’s reading Shakespeare’s sonnets and Michelle Obama’s story time online.  As part of the process of building community in our school, I decided to put a weekly story on YouTube for my school.  For my first book, I chose Fauja Singh Keeps on Going to dovetail with our recent learning about Diwali. 

I gathered the book, my tripod, my iPhone, and headed off to read the book to a Grade 5 class.  After I discovered there was too much noise and the student response to the book, I headed off to read to the Grade 3 class I was covering.   It is a newly published book by Simran Singh with illustrations by Baljinder Kaur that bring additional insight into Sikh culture.  Fauja Singh is 108 years old and will live on in my heart.  He experiences physical adversity, racism, loss, and becomes the first 100-year-old person to finish a marathon.  Fauja demonstrates resilience, perseverance and grace in moving forward to become an inspiration for all of us.  Before I went off to read with students, I called one of the parents in my school community to make sure I was pronouncing Fauja’s name correctly.  Turns out Bindy interviewed Fauja when she was doing the research for her doctoral degree and was able to provide a great personal story to bring additional insight to our students.    

My 15-minute YouTube time limit for Ms. Froese Reads, didn’t allow for me to include the fascinating conversation with students.  All of us immediately made the connections with Terry Fox, the Canadian hero who demonstrated the same kind of perseverance and integrity as Fauja.  The image of Canadians running beside Fauja was reminiscent of people running beside Terry to encourage him along his route and it made us proud as Canadians.  The racist treatment of Fauja in New York post 9/11 was a focus of both conversations.  A Grade 5 girl with white skin spoke of her embarrassment about people being racist, even though she wasn’t there.  A Grade 3 boy with brown skin gave an impassioned and well-informed speech about how Donald Trump and how his racist beliefs are taking the United States in the wrong direction.  These kids heard Fauja’s story.  They understand fairness.  They empathize.  They were inspired by Fauja’s mother ‘s message that “Today is a chance to do your best.”  How do we inspired everyone to take a step back and proceed with kindness on a path to equity and justice?

We are at another junction in history where people are pausing to consider our direction.   Certainly, it will take a willingness to listen more and to broaden our perspectives if that is to be a path towards equity and justice.  The route of how to get to a more social just society is widely disputed.  I still hold tight to the  principles laid out in the United Nations Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  I believe the process of continuing to articulate those principles in a Children’s Charter, an Indigenous Charter, and a Canadian Charter were important to further strengthen these basic rights and freedoms.  I will continue to live them and to teach them.  I believe in laws and their fair application to provide justice.  I also believe in mandatory training to outline expectations in the workplace and in public institutions.  Yet, they are not enough. 

How do we inspire curiosity and a desire to do better?  How do we break down the hierarchical and social structures that inhibit people from sharing their stories with the people in their schools, jobs, places of worship, and the cities we live in?  And how do we inspire people to want to empathize?  How do we encourage people to give each other the benefit of the doubt and not immediately assume the worst intention?  Any environment that creates a fear of making mistakes, is destined to become entrenched in camps.  Silence follows fear.  Growth requires a collaborative effort to understand. Authors like Margaret Atwood, Wab Kinew and Yaa Gyasi have the ability to shift perspectives within a few hundred pages.  Children are responsive to well written books with diverse perspectives, particularly when followed with engaging discussion.  Sitting face to face in a room and learning about someone’s journey is magic.  As a member, then community fieldworker for Amnesty International, I had the opportunity to listen to the stories or many people who had been imprisoned and tortured for their religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, political belief or relationship to someone else being persecuted and intimidated.  They were stories or hope, survival and gratitude.  They were inspirational and strengthened my resolve to work for social justice.   During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, hearts were broken listening to traumatic stories of residential school survivors  and family breakdown of our Indigenous people.  It brought a part of Canadian history, omitted in textbooks, to the forefront of our collective consciousness as a country.  Anyone involved in the process has a greater level of empathy and understanding of the complexity and importance of the path to reconciliation with our Indigenous people. Like Fauja Singh, we need to keep going until basic rights and freedoms are part of the lived experience of all people and we don’t even have to ask – Do you feel valued?  It will be a given.

Building a Community of Literacy Educators

The BC Literacy Council of the International Reading Association (BCLCIRA), commonly known as ReadingBC, has long been committed to improving student engagement in books and proficiency in literacy.  Members read journals such as The Reading Teacher, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, attend conferences and get together to discuss things they have tried in their classrooms and communities and the things they’d like to try.  Coming together with people with like minds is an energizing experience and lends itself to reflecting on practices that are tried and true and substantiated with research in the field.  Members have readily embraced  The International Literacy Association’s quest to start a worldwide Literacy Movement.

image For the 2015-2016 year, Reading BC (BCLCIRA) is trying to broaden participation and the diversity of ways that literacy leaders in British Columbia can engage with other literacy educators both in person and online.

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While it is increasingly difficult to organize and facilitate larger scale meetings due to high costs and increasing demands on our time, the ReadingBC executive committee has come up with some exciting opportunities to develop a variety of possibilities to engage in professional development and engage in community focused projects to advocate for literacy.

  • Join a ReadingBC Book Club.  Choose one of the books selected by members.  Form a book club with peers.
  • Participate in the discussion about a Book Club selection with colleagues via a TWITTERCHAT.
  • Read Spirals of Inquiry (Judy Halbert & Linda Kaser) and decide on an inquiry question to pursue with a group of colleagues.
  • Form a ReadingBC Community action focus to encourage children to engage in literacy activities or educate parents.
  • Form a Literacy Committee if you have a well established group wanting to commit to regular professional development and advocacy in your area.

Check out the link below for ideas BCLCILA Projects.final (3) copy and opportunities to join the International Literacy Association .  If you are a member of the International Literacy Association and live in British Columbia, you currently have a free membership to the provincial chapter, BCLCIRA / ReadingBC.  We have designated funding to help members get started from a grant from the Lower Mainland Council of The International Association (LOMCIRA), a local chapter before it went into dormancy.  Please check out the opportunities and send applications for funding or questions to the provincial coordinator at carriefroese@gmail.com or any of the other contacts on the website.

Hopefully this will forge some of the connections to continue building a community of literacy learners in British Columbia, and perhaps beyond.

The Power of The Talking Stick

Last weekend I came across a great tweet by Dr. Allen Mendler.  He did a nice job of articulating the need for educators to directly teach students how to have a conversation.  The last item on his list was recommending using a talking stick.  Last week I had one of many experiences, that have underlined the power of the talking stick. In the Vancouver Board of Education, there are several Aboriginal School Support workers.  We are fortunate to have Dena Galay assigned to our school to support our Aboriginal students and work with teachers to create a better understanding of past and present Aboriginal culture.  She has been working in my classroom of Grade 3/4 students and helping us to learn about Aboriginal people in our study of Canada.  She has shared her Metis heritage from Dene (Chippewayan) and French Canadian roots in northern Saskatchewan.  Last Tuesday, we did our first talking circle. Dena has a very special talking stick that was gifted to her by the first female carver in British Columbia, Nan Williams, from the Nu Chul Nuth ( Nootka) band.

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She introduced each of the symbols on the talking stick and its significance in Aboriginal Culture, especially to Indigenous people on the Northwest Coast of North America.   She did an amazing job of setting up a respectful context for the person holding the talking stick to speak and to be heard.  She encouraged the class to share their culture and the places their parents were born.  Many of the students in my class speak one or more languages other than English at home.   Some students are not familiar with participating in conversations at home or at school with adults.  A lot of encouragement is placed on joining conversations and participating in lessons at school to develop proficiency in English language skills.  This is very hard for some students.  I noticed two particularly interesting things during the circle:

1.  The students comfortable talking in a large group, looked up and talked to the group.

2.  Students that were more reluctant to speak, looked at the talking stick while they shared.

Dena posed one topic at the beginning of the circle for each student to respond to.  All of the students were able to participate without prompting, even the 3rd grader who arrived from China at the end of August and is just starting to speak English.  Once we finished the question about culture, students were anxious to go around the circle again.  The talking stick allowed all of the students to be successful in speaking during the circle.

Laurie Ebenal, principal of Suwa”lkh School in Coquitlam, presented at the Mental Health Symposium, sponsored by BCPVPA recently.    To introduce the circle, she handed out cards with symbols that are important in Aboriginal culture.  The task was to find the person with the same card and ask some questions to introduce your partner during the circle.  It was a very non-threatening mixer activity to get to know one another and to introduce the circle.  She had a pile of artifacts in the center of the circle such as an eagle feather, an abalone shell and a stone.  She is the principal in an alternate school named Suw’lkh which means “First Beginnings.”  This school supports Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students who are struggling to succeed.  When students arrive at the school, they are frequently reluctant to share their experiences and feelings.  She explained that the artifacts are a way to draw attention away from the speaker and establish a greater comfort zone for sharing.   It’s easier for some students to express their thoughts while looking at the artifacts.  It’s easier for some students to receive the information without making eye contact.  It provides another path into the circle.

When I was teaching Middle School in Coquitlam, I worked with Latash (Maurice) Nahanee who was an Aboriginal Support worker at the time.  We worked with a group of Aboriginal students from SD#43 and a group of Aboriginal students from Ottawa on a Youth Exchange initiative sponsored by the YMCA.  The talking circle was a regular part of our work with our students.  There was an expectation that honesty and respect would be part of the experience.  It was the vehicle for communication within the group, whether it was getting to know the group, processing experiences, or problem solving.  This was also a good space to build community and prepare for the more formal, ceremonial circles which we participated in during our visit to Ottawa.

I have experienced the talking circle as being a good addition to any educational context to build a sense of belonging.   The talking stick is an instrument of Aboriginal democracy that has spanned thousands of years.  It has a lot to teach us about past and present day Aboriginal culture.  At best, the talking stick is introduced by a person within the Aboriginal culture who communicates the knowledge, the pride, the respect and the honour that comes when we are gifted with this ancient tradition.   The development of oral language skills evolves as students grapple with the task of  communicating their thoughts and feelings to their peers.  It also helps students to develop active listening skills by tuning into the body language and words of the speaker in an undistracted context.  As my Grade 3 and 4 students got ready for recess, the most prevalent question was “When can we do that again?”

 

 

 

http://www.edutopia.org/blog/teaching-your-students-conversation-allen-mendler