It’s November 9, and we are driving to Calgary to visit our two kids. We are in the middle-of-nowhere section past Hanna and a long way from the next turnoff. There’s not a lot to do. I’ve read one book and accidentally packed my marking in the back of the vehicle.
And for once, social media is pretty quiet. Maybe it’s the long weekend or something, but for a virtual place like Twitter that’s all about stirring the pot, there’s not much stirring out there.
*Note: I jinxed it! I’m finishing this on our way home, and thanks to Don Cherry, my timeline is now an angry mess.*
So I did what every person who has ever been stuck in a car, desperate and bored, would do: I looked out the window.
A lot of pasture. A few pumpjacks pumping. A cool herd of buffalo by the Drumheller turnoff. But that’s about it. Then I saw them in the distance - birds. Hundreds of them.
I was struck immediately by three thoughts. One, Alfred Hitchcock and “The Birds.” Traumatizing movie and probably why birds freak me out a bit. Two, what the heck are they still doing here? Shouldn’t they have headed south like all the non-procrastinating birds did a month ago? And three, how do they self-organize from a black mass of bird bodies into sleek straight lines?
It was nothing short of mesmerizing.
I remember in my first years of teaching, that a principal talked about geese. How they lift one another up as they fly. How they take turns at the front. How they don’t leave each other behind. It’s the most amazing example of collaboration and teamwork.
So then I think about people. Not just little people at school, although the grade 7s do walk to the library like a noisy mass of bodies too, but also adults. How often do we get on the same page, totally going the same direction with the same impetus? At work? At home? Over a post on the internet?
Yah. Not very often. Again, Don Cherry.
It also makes me think of the senior ELA class that I have right now, as we learn through a social justice lens. As we have discussed the ideas of privilege, oppression, and just about every social issue that you can think of, there has never been a day where we were like the birds. Maybe it’s naivete, but I really thought there would be at least one or two areas that we could all settle on. Things that, to me, are simply cut-and-dried-one-hundred-percent-not-up-for-negotiation issues.
I read a book recently called Against Common Sense: Teaching and Learning Toward Social Justice. Here’s a few of my takeaways:
- Generally, students have already learned to make sense of the world through particular lenses, and they, often unconsciously, feel comfortable learning only things that map onto this worldview. That is, students often use lenses that reinforce the status quo. That makes sense. We stick with what is familiar and comfortable, and tend to reinforce the ideas that we want to be true. Adults are still debating politics on my Facebook timeline like the election is still on. It isn’t.
- “If students are not experiencing crisis, they likely are not learning things that challenge the knowledge they have already learned that supports the status quo, which means that they likely are not learning to recognize and challenge the oppression that plays out daily in their lives.” Trying to develop empathy and putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, whether through a character in a novel or a clip from the news, is sometimes the closest we will get in our relatively homogeneous community to recognize that oppression. Whether I like it or not, those messy conversations are where learning takes place.
- “In fact, ‘good’ teaching often means that crisis is averted, that lessons are doable and comfortable, that problems are solved, that learning results in feeling better, that knowledge is a good thing.” In this case, ‘the more you know’ doesn’t mean much if what we are learning is keeping with the status quo. We have to start somewhere, and that means including diverse voices and perspectives. It also means modelling, modelling, modelling. I wish I could remember where I heard this: but we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
- “So, the task for teachers is not merely to add to the curriculum more information about different groups in society. The task is to ask questions about the political implications of the underlying story being told by whatever is included.” It’s not just checking a box. It’s checking the privilege in each situation. I can’t remember where they came from either (sorry!) but I have these questions on a bulletin board in my room: What message is being said? What message is not being said? Whose voice is being heard? Whose voice is not?
One of the biggest hurdles for me does involve language. When we have disagreements, often it’s a semantic issue. And someone may say that it’s just words…that it doesn’t really matter. To me, it does. When we say people should be equal, the assumption is that by giving everyone the same thing, everyone will get the same out of it. Of course that doesn’t work, because we all have differing individual needs and are coming to the table with differing circumstances.
So then we say there should be equity, which is a great idea. Give everyone what they need to succeed, and if that looks differently for people, that’s okay. Except that this is still not a long-term solution, as we aren’t taking into consideration how each of us got there in the first place.
What we really need to be working toward is systemic equity. We need to look at the root causes for why some people are advantaged or disadvantaged. And it’s totally doable! Because even the biggest systems, like education, are still just made up of people. What dozens of decisions are made every hour that raise people up or keep people down?
To me, it’s the things that we choose to do everyday in our classrooms that shapes the system. It’s choosing to hang inclusive signage on our room walls. It’s choosing to seat kids in table groups and with people outside their direct peer group. It’s choosing to focus on what we are learning, and not just on what we are doing. It’s talking about graduation rates in class and recognizing that 1 in 4 Saskatchewan students live in poverty. It’s breaking that number down to realize that potentially 50 kids in our own school of 200 students are coming to class hungry, or with financial instability at home. It’s that lightbulb moment and resulting silence, when we realize that this happens in real time to real people.
One more thing: we visited with my great-uncle and aunt in Calgary too. He is 94 and was in the Canadian Air Force in WWII. He told my mom this story: Their plane had been hit and they had to parachute out but for some unknown reason, one parachute was filled with socks. Socks! The guy wanted to just jump and hang on with another jumper, but he was a heavyset man so they said no. As a group they decided to crash-land and take their chances. And that’s what happened. They didn’t jump and leave him behind. They crashed, everyone survived, and the French underground hid them in a cellar. They were smuggled back into England and a week later, were up flying again.
In a world that is becoming more split and more partisan about almost every issue, I still hope that we can be like birds. Or those soldiers. That despite the problems that are placed in front of us, that we can come together and work towards solutions.
That we lift each other up, acknowledge the privilege we simply have, and to use it to help shoulder the load with others.
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