Changing the narrative

Marie Battiste’s Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit is so profound. I can’t read more than a few page before I’m sitting their stewing in my own wondering and ignorance. Today’s quote comes from Chapter 5 “Animating Ethical Trans-Systemic Education Systems” in which Battiste is uncovering the layers and layers of work that need to be done to bring the indigenous knowledge system to a meeting place with the eurocentric education system. Battiste says:

What is apparent to Indigenous education is the need for a serious and far-reaching examination of the assumptions inherent in Eurocentric curricula currently divided into two main elements of disciplinary traditions, one the humanities, the other science. Modern educational theory and practice draw from these curricula foundations, and to envisage inclusivitiy, one must consider what is excluded.

Marie Battiste, Decolonizing Education, p. 105

So that sat with me for awhile. And, as I often do, I turned to my partner and interrupted his flow and asked out loud: “Tim, who decided that humanities and science should be taught separately from each other?” And without letting him take a breath, I said a little more assertively: “When did we cover the foundations of how our education system is formed and why it is a hierarchy instead of a circle? Was it the Greeks?” Now if anyone else knows someone who has a fine arts/philosophy/tech background, then you will know that his answer was: “Well I suppose it comes from the original setup of universities in Europe.” And I said: ….but how did that conversation come about……


University of Bologna, 1088

Franz: Look I need to put my lab equipment somewhere, but your oil paints are in my way.

Gilbert: (in a state of flow) Hm, sorry? What were you saying?

Franz: In fact they’re everywhere. Why don’t I get a bunch of my engineering buddies together and we’ll build you a wing?

Gilbert: Oh that sounds nice.

Franz: Yes, yes. It will have light and really high ceilings, and each artist can have their own easel and cubby and running water.

Gilbert: Oh but I’ll miss seeing you each day.

Franz: Never mind that. We’ll make a space that joins the sciences and the humanities and we’ll have refreshments there.

Gilbert: So we’ll see each other at tea each day?

Franz: Actually, that won’t work. We’ll just make one lounge in your wing and one lounge in ours.

….and that is how science and the humanities became siloed and never talked to each other again.

So like any avid reader with ADHD, I’m reading 6 books at once and another of those is: Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad as part of an anti-racism school board strategy book club. It’s a good book….it’s not Marie Batiste….but it’s good. In fact, if you’re diving deeper into your own Colonial/Settler past like me, and you’re examining how you’re going to try to open your teaching practice to be more inclusive, you should read Batiste’s book before Saad’s book. But I’m going to see that advice, and ignore it and try to draw the parallels as I’m not finished either book. Saad’s book, in contrast, is really digestible….maybe TOO palatable….it’s written for you to have a clear understanding…you can’t avoid the understanding you need to receive.

…color blindness is an act of gaslighting. It is a cruel way of making BIPOC [Black Indigenous People of Colour] believe that they are just imagining they are being treated the way the way they are being treated because of their skin color, thus keeping them in a position of destabilization and inferiority. …When you refuse to look at color, you refuse to look at yourself as a person with white privilege.”

Layla F. Saad, Me and White Supremacy, p. 82

Here’s my realization of the day: we can’t make room for BIPOC voices in education, in our classrooms, unless we have a really critical look at how the education system forces imbalanced power structures from top to bottom.

When I took grade 10 history in 1986, I hated it. I loved my teacher, but I rejected ‘History’ as an unlearnable subject after that. I hear all the time from colleagues that they can never get past the ’80s in Canadian History because they just run out of time. Now granted, these are history nerds, and I get how hard it is to put a limit on a topic that you love, but as their only mandatory course, it has to be redesigned fundamentally to attract those same students into their senior years. As a parent, my son just took grade 10 history, and guess what? He hated it. But you know what he loved learning about? The FLQ – Front de libération du Québec — in other words, he loved learning that there was a radical terrorist group in our recent past that ground the country to a halt. THAT is a great way to teach the course….why not rename it from Canadian history and unpack all of the injustices and acts of terrorism in Canada? One unit for each of Canada’s most heinous acts: Residential Schools, 200 years of perpetuating slavery, the expulsion of Japanese-Canadians, Chinese construction of the CPR and subsequent Head Tax, the Somalia Affair, …what am I forgetting? If that course doesn’t make each student feel a little bit different about Canada Day, then I don’t think we’re doing our job properly.

I participated in a webinar on the weekend by a small group of concerned parents in Ottawa called Parents for Diversity, and it was about addressing texts specifically in the English classroom. This is a passion topic of mine…close to my heart and certainly a hot button that I can go off on a rant on at a moment’s notice. So even though the poll function wasn’t working, we were asked which of many Canadian events we were taught in school…and of that list above (and others), I was taught none. Here is the shock of it all: I have been duped by the same system that perpetuates this Colonial/Settler skew in all of its work. I have…[doing math in head]…24 years of education in our system and I never heard of any of those events.

I’m teaching creative writing this quadmester and I asked my extremely keen grade 12s to bring something to share that was written by a writer that they would like to someday emulate. Instead of being the ice breaker I had hoped it would be, it some of them scurrying to find ‘impressive’ texts: what is she going to want for the level 4+ I need? Far too many of these students don’t a) value what they read or b) value their own voices and worse: c) think that they only way to survive academically is to code-switch to what they think I want to see….that’s right, my diverse class of students, want to appeal to my middle-aged, cisgendered, heteronormative, settler, Eurocentric point of view. Who taught them that? We did. So when I look at this generation, the ones I’m teaching who are also about the same age as my son, I get really really sad. Because these students are about to perpetuate the same problems by codeswitching into the world of haves and have nots that are defined by the historical norm and not by who they are as a generation.

Next week I want to teach narrative structure and so I embedded a bunch of images about exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.

But I’m rethinking this….this is one way of telling a story but it isn’t the only way. If you haven’t read Eden Robinson, Andre Alexis yet or Yann Martel, then you might want to read these extraordinary authors and see if you can see what I mean….their narratives don’t fit the Eurocentric narrative structure that we’ve relied on. I think I’ll start the class with Plato’s Cave, and then see if we can find a way to use a visual text as a starting point for two settings: the past and the future.

My call to action: stop teaching chronologically. Rip down all of your assumptions and ask yourself why:

  • do we teach phonetically
  • do we teach chronologically
  • do we pit humanties against sciences
  • why do we play in the silos of our departments
  • why do we learn history from own pursuit of truth but not in school
  • why do we have a director of education, superintendents, trustees, principals, department heads…..when nothing ever changes?

I think it’s because of the safety of what we know. But being in a pandemic, the inequities in our system, in our communities and in our society, are at the forefront for once. I personally think we need to put a whole heck of a lot of money and time into the Research and Redesign of our system, right now. It can’t wait any longer. Anything else is tokenism and is perpetuating the dance of smoke and mirrors that has kept us/me in the dark for far too long.


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