Monday, July 4, 2016

A New Challenge

I haven't blogged as much this year as I have in the past. It wasn't intentional, I love writing, reflecting and sharing my thoughts with those of you who read this blog from time to time. This year just turned into one project after another with students and I wanted to solely focus on each moment and each day in the classroom.

This year was big for me in a lot of ways. I was able to work with students on our #OnePositiveMoment Instagram account, co-organize the Indigenous Youth Leadership Conference , and even piloted a few social justice classes using the outcomes from Alberta Ed's social science curriculum. On top of this, I had the privilege of working with another wonderful group of students who never ceased to amaze me with their intellect, positivity and ambition. Like every year, the large majority of my students have either been expelled, dropped out or have not attended school in quite some time. It has become routine for me to watch these students not only meet expectation, but succeed anything I could have imagined for them. In the last five years at Inner City High I have had the opportunity to watch students organize conferences, attend community events, organize school campaigns, challenge authority, and grow into positive young people.

My teaching is based around a social justice framework and I have long argued that all students within Alberta can benefit from this type of education. Teaching for social justice has allowed me to explore new pedagogical models like using hip hop in the classroom, creating dialogical circles, and most importantly allowing students real lived experiences be a part of the learning journey, which allows students to not only take ownership of their learning, but also in how the classroom is run.

Over my five years at Inner City the one thing that sticks out to me more than anything else is when I talk with students about their experiences with education. When I ask students what their largest barrier to succeeding in schools is, I often expected students to respond with answers like poverty, addictions, racism etc. However, EVERY SINGLE STUDENT I HAVE TAUGHT has said that the relationship with the teacher can be the largest barrier to success. The students who come through my door say that beyond the social, economic, and political barriers they face, their relationship with the teacher is the most important part of finding success in the classroom. A teacher's attitude and the amount of respect they show students trumps everything else. I know this isn't easy for a lot of teachers to hear, in fact I've received my fair share of criticism for mentioning this to teaching folks in the past, but if we believe in student voice then we must start to listen, even if the answers make us uncomfortable.

I will never forget what my students have taught me at Inner City. I can't even fully express the gratitude I have for them. If I didn't have this opportunity to work with them, I wouldn't be the same person and teacher I am today. They will forever be a part of me.

I apologize if this has read like a bit of a stream of consciousness, but I wanted to share with those of you who read this that I won't be returning to Inner City High in the fall. I've accepted a two year position with Alberta Education to be the Social Studies Curriculum Manager. This wasn't an easy decision to make but it seems it could be an opportunity where I can continue to advocate for the principles and ideals that my students have taught me over the last five years. Curriculum can be a major tool in the classroom to make the world a better place, I hope I can contribute to this ongoing work for the next two years.

I get to come back to Inner City High in September of 2018. Until then, I'll carry a piece of Inner City and the students I've taught with me into the curricular work I'm embarking on and hope that I can positively contribute to the work that lies ahead of me. It will be a new challenge, a very different one than I'm used to, but for a guy who struggled in high school and was told to quit teaching numerous times early in my career, I've been fortunate enough to have an impact on the education community I'm a part of, and it's all due to my students at Inner City High who gave me the strength, confidence and belief that their story and social justice education is worth advocating for.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A Sense of Place

The longer I teacher, the more I know that the most important part of my job is to build positive relationships with my students and to help students build those relationships with each other. My ability to connect, appreciate and love my students is more important than any rule, expectation or even the curriculum. I could be the smartest person on the planet and it wouldn't matter to my students if they felt that I didn't care about them and their well-being.

A large part of building relationships with students is letting them know who you are as a person. Students genuinely want to know about what kind of person their teacher is. From time to time I tell students different stories of my past struggles in school or how I used to "admirably" defy the hat rule when I was a student. This makes for good laughter in the class and my biggest connector to students has always been when I share about my struggles in school.

But what teaching has really done for me is to push me to reflect on how I became the person I am today. There is no other place I feel authentically like myself then when I am teaching. I get to be the exact person I want to be. Working with youth is just a place of comfort for me to be in and I love getting students excited about learning. It's what I'm meant to do.

As I look at myself as a teacher and person, I naturally look back at the loving and supportive family I came from, the awesome group of friends I grew up with, and the loving and supportive partner I've had for over a decade. These were obviously important people who shaped me into the person and teacher that I am today. But one element of who I am that I didn't realize is a large part of me is my home town of Windsor, Ontario.

I recently took a trip back to Windsor over March break to visit my family. During my trip I had the opportunity to revisit some of my favourite spots and old haunts that used to define my time in Windsor. I spent the large majority of my teenage years and early twenties just wanting to escape Windsor. It wasn't that I hated the town but I just wanted to see the rest of the world. I wanted to go on an adventure and meet new people and discover new things. I always felt that Windsor was holding me back as it was viewed as a dead end. As I grew up it seemed Windsor was hit with tougher and tougher economic times with the decline of the auto industry. For someone who was looking for new opportunities, I didn't see a future in Windsor.

But as I revisited Windsor and walked down Wyandotte street near the University or spent some time at a park on the Detroit River, I realized that Windsor had shaped who I was much more than I had ever imagined. I spent a great deal of my University career at Windsor looking into local history. I was always amazed of the strong working tradition of Windsor whether it was workers at Hiram Walkers or the famous Ford City blockade where thousands of workers protested in order to be able to form a union.

These stories as well as Windsor's rich history in bootlegging during prohibition, its magical pizza (seriously, Windsor has the best pizza), as well as its often hidden history of the Indigenous peoples who called this area home at various times all make up the history of this place and how it shapes the people there. Learning about the history of the Huron, Potawatomie, Ojibwa, Ottawa and Wyandot people's has been an eye-opening experience. It does not surprise me that the land that Windsor now sits on has been a meeting place for many nations for thousands of years before Windsor ever came into existence. It's essential that Windsorites, and all Canadians, learn about these stories and how they contribute to the cities, towns and villages that we live in.

My great grandparents on my mother's side came to Windsor at the start of the Great Depression. They lived a tough life, as many did at that time, but rallied to provide a life for their family. They would go on to mainly work at Fords and in the automotive industry, connecting my family to that Windsor tradition. On my father's side, I have an ancestor named Leonard Kratz who was a Hessien soldier who fought in the American Revolution on the side of England. After the war, he was eventually captured, along with his wife, by a group of Indigenous peoples and taken to Detroit to exchange with the English. The English took him in and granted him land across the river in the town of Kingsville in Essex county (About a 30 minute drive outside Windsor today). This history is a part of who I am. Windsor and Essex county have shaped my family for almost 250 years. It has played an enormous role in who I am as a person and as a teacher.

Understanding how the place I grew up shaped me allows me to understand how, as a teacher, I can play a role in understanding Canada and how I as a settler on Indigenous land can be an ally to decolonizing our schools and working with Indigenous communities to create a better education system that will benefit all students.

I spent many years just wishing to leave Windsor behind. As I grow older and live far away from my home town I've learned to not only appreciate it but love it as well. Windsor is often looked at as an undesirable place in Canada. I would argue that Windsor is not only a beautiful city with amazing people, but it's history and sense of place is always looming over us and shaping our lives. Windsor people are some of the best people I know!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

White Privilege, Teaching and Music

Have you heard Macklemore's new song yet? If you haven't, you should probably check it out. Yesterday he dropped his latest song (downloadable for free) entitled, "White Privilege II". It's the follow up to his 2005 song, "White Privilege". The song is almost nine minutes in length and has Macklemore reflecting and analyzing his white privilege within hip hop and the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the last day or so the song has received a ton of feedback, both positive and negative. Folks on both the left and right have taken their jabs at Macklemore but I can't help but listen to this song on repeat. I've probably listened to it over 20 times in the last day.

I feel compelled to write about this song because there is so much in it that, as a white-straight-man of privilege, hits me hard. Let's get one thing straight, what Macklemore is saying in this song has been said by many hip hop artists over the last 30 years. But I think this particular song, with Macklemore's particular pop culture platform, is aimed at white people. I see it as a hope that the dialogue Macklemore is having with himself in the song will push white folks to critically reflect on their privilege and challenge them to use that privilege in a way that can create a more just and equitable world.

But the main reason I can't stop listening to this song is that as a white teacher who works with mainly Indigenous youth, I can't help but feel so much of what he's saying in this song. Since the moment I've been teaching I've tried to constantly reflect on how my privilege and values impact how I teach youth and what the role of a teacher truly is for the youth and community I work in. I know that beyond a doubt that as a teacher who works with marginalized youth in Edmonton's Inner City, I've been treated as someone who "does amazing things" and people tell me all the time how my students are "so lucky to have me". I appreciate those sentiments but I can't help but think if those things are just being said because it makes sense in our cultural psyche to see a white man "helping" or "saving" oppressed youth. I can't help but feel that I'm the one who has benefited from from teaching my students rather than my students benefiting from having me as their teacher.

I can say that I do my best to be a good teacher, but I am not saving anyone. I try not to waste time feeling guilty or bad, nor do I want anyone feeling sorry for me. I can't even begin to tell you the happiness I have in my life that I get to spend (and get paid) my days doing the thing I love the most. However, with my position as a teacher with privilege, I do feel a responsibility to support the youth I teach in helping them and their community seek the justice and peace they deserve.

As a teaching profession, we have to ask why most teachers are white and middle-class and how does that impact how we view teaching and education? What are the reasons why Indigenous youth in our province are twice as likely to drop out of high school than their non-Indigenous peers?

These are difficult questions to grapple with but we can't deny that the most harmful elements of our society such as racism, homophobia and other forms of oppression exists within our schools and classrooms. We have to ask as a profession what can we do to combat these systemic experiences that many of our students face in schools across the province. We also can't deny that there are great teachers doing great things, but as an institution there is much work that we need to take on.

I constantly wonder if I am the teacher my students need and deserve. My life growing up was sheltered within the suburbs of south-western Ontario. I have no lived experience knowing what it's like to face poverty, racism, homophobia, sexism and many other forms of oppression. Since many of my students have dealt with these realities I can't understand fully how that impacts their lives and their ability to learn. I can, however, have compassion, empathy and love for them and do my best to stand in solidarity to give them an education that they're deserving of.

Earlier this year I started a project at my school called, "One Positive Moment". The idea behind the project was to take one photo a day to highlight some of the great things my students do on a day to day basis. As the project got off the ground I got an overwhelming amount of media attention. It all happened so fast that I failed to reflect on how I may have been portrayed as a teacher who is professionally benefiting from working with marginalized youth. The media stories were more about me and my thoughts of my students rather than the students themselves. I don't blame the reporters I spoke to about our project at all, but reflecting back on that experience I can't help but question if my intentions were to truly showcase my youth or was I caught up in all the good attention I was getting from the media? It's a lesson that everything that I do for the youth I teach must come from a place of love. My interests and needs are not what is important. As a teacher, the needs of my students are what should always come first.

I feel it's important for me to be critically reflective of how I conduct myself both as a person and teacher. Although my privilege has definitely given me benefits both professionally and personally, I also have to ask myself what am I going to do with the privilege I have? As a teacher with privilege, I have a platform (albeit not anywhere close to the platform of Macklemore!) to not only influence the youth I teach but also the community and profession I work in. For those of us who have this privilege, we have an opportunity to use it in a way that can bring about positive change. Whether we use it to educate, raise awareness, organize or just offer solidarity to those groups who are seeking peace and justice, we have the opportunity to play a supportive role. It is undoubtedly easier for me, both personally and professionally, to not speak out at all about social justice issues. But if I want to be a role model for my youth and work with other teachers to tackle social justice in their classrooms we have to speak out to at least engage in a dialogue about what we can do.

And this is why Macklemore's song is important. It's important because it's a great teaching tool that teachers can bring into their classrooms to learn with and critically engage with their students. I've always felt that a student can learn more from a song than they will from any textbook. I've been a big advocate of using hip hop in the classroom for a number of years now as I've seen how transformative it can be. To be clear though, using hip hop in the classroom was not an idea that was original to myself. I recognized that hip hop culture was a major part of my students lives and then did my research to see how I could use it. As I researched different hip hop teaching ideas I came across amazing hip hop educators on twitter like Chris Emdin, Timothy Jones, Arash Daneshzadeh and many many others who have been doing this work for a long time. I was so lucky to come across their work and tweak it for the unique hip hop culture that is specific to Edmonton, Alberta.

So please teachers, engage with Macklemore's song in your classrooms. Ask students to ask critical questions about his intentions with the song and how they can reflect upon their own privilege. Engaging students in examining both their privilege and oppression is a powerful tool that allows students to see the world in a critical way. You just can't forget to let them know that the world can be changed for the better if that's what they want.

And remember to not end your exploration of hip hop, music and social issues with just Macklemore. Do yourself a favour and also bring KRS-One, Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Jamila Woods, Janelle Monae & Wondaland, Frank Waln, A Tribe Called Red  and many others to offer various perspectives of the realities that many face. Hip hop has always been political and the voice of the oppressed. It's time these voices fill the air of our classrooms to challenge us on our privilege and uplift us to create a better world for all.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

This One's For Joe

Earlier today, I learned about the sudden passing of one of my teacher heroes, Joe Bower. It was utterly devastating to learn this news. It was only a few months ago that I got to meet Joe for the first time at a conference in Red Deer. We only had the opportunity to chat for about five minutes at the end of the day but we discussed the challenges of "rocking the boat" in our schools and how speaking out in public can bring you both praise and difficulties within the educational system. At the end of our conversation he invited me to grab a beer with some other educators but I had to decline as I needed to leave to Canmore. I promised him that beers will be on me next time he's in Edmonton as we said our goodbyes.

Joe was an extraordinary teacher and advocate for a more progressive education system that would benefit all students. Even though I was only able to meet Joe briefly in person once, his impact started long before then. When I first arrived on twitter a few years ago Joe was one of the first Albertan educators I started following. From there I immediately picked up his blog and was inspired by what he was writing and doing in his classrooms. Through his blog, Joe was a fierce advocate for the students he taught. He constantly reminded us that a student centred classroom should be our aim with putting an end to grades, standardized assessments, and begin focusing on the love of learning that each child naturally has. 

For me, one of the most impactful blogs Joe wrote was the one about teacher blogging. In it, Joe pushed his readers to take up their own blog and just start writing and reflecting about what you're doing in the classroom. His challenge was to write one blog for each week of the year (52 in total). I took on the blogging challenge with a lot of enthusiasm but did not meet Joe's request. It took me a second year to get to 52 blogs but nonetheless it was Joe who motivated me to start writing about my experiences and sharing them with the larger educational community. 

Joe and I messaged back and forth over the last few years every once in a while. It was great to get encouraging words from him over e-mail or twitter and was thrilled when he showcased one of my own blogs on his website. What I admired most about Joe though was not only his advocacy for students in his classroom, but also his determination to use his role as a teacher to create a more just and equitable world for all. Joe constantly pointed out how the issues outside of our schools permeate the lives of students within them. As teachers, role models and community members we have a role in understanding how these impact students and how we can inspire our students to change the world. 

At this time, my thoughts and prayers go out to his family, friends and students. I can't even begin to understand how those closest to him are feeling at this moment. As a fellow Albertan teacher, I vow to continue Joe's work in transforming Alberta Education into a more equitable place for all students and teachers. 

I never got to have that beer with Joe, but I can make sure that his work, advocacy and love of learning will not be forgotten in Alberta.

You can do the same by learning and then sharing his work here ->

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Progress for Stolen Sisters

Today was an historic day in Canada. After decades of neglect, the Canadian Government is finally launching an inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The announcement was not only historic in itself but also in the fact that the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs made reference to the issues of colonialism, racism and sexism that are interconnected within this issue. Establishing an inquiry is not the end of the issue but really only the start of the next stage of what we must do to bring justice to the missing and murdered.

Over the last 30 plus years over 1200 Indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered with many not having any closure to their case. That means that the families who lose loved ones have had years and even decades without knowing what happened to their family member. For years, Indigenous activists have been bringing this issue to the forefront of Canadian consciousness and thanks to their hard work we now have an inquiry that can hopefully begin the process of how to find understanding, healing and justice for the missing and murdered.

For me as a teacher who works with a majority of Indigenous youth, the issue hits close to home. Every year I work with my students to understand how and why this issue happens and what we can do about it. I've had students emotionally break down in my classroom while telling their stories, I've brought students to rallies and protests to demand that governments take this issue seriously, and I've done my best to uplift, support and empower the voices of my students to let them know that they can and should continue to fight for this issue.

Often times in our classrooms we study social issues that we can be disconnected from or that happened at a time that is not ours. However, for my classroom in this time in history, we did our best to create community within our school and classrooms to let students know that they aren't alone, that their families and communities are not alone and that there are people all over this country who want to do the right thing.

Thanks to the actions of my students, and the Indigenous activists who have been working on this issue for years and decades, we are starting to make progress at the governmental level. I am so thankful to live in a community where activists trying to change the world have come into my classroom to inspire students to do the same. I have learned so much from my students, their families and the larger Inner City community in Edmonton. No matter where my teaching career takes me I vow to always ensure that what I'm teaching deals with the realities of the world we live in and encourage students to make it a more just and equitable place for all.

Below are pictures I've taken throughout the years of students at the Stolen Sisters Awareness Movement and Rally as well as a few shots at other events and in the classroom. Inner City students have taken a leadership role within their school on this issue and I'm happy to tell them that they played a role in creating positive change for the missing and murdered.

Inner City High student reads his letter to Stephen Harper at the Stolen Sisters Awareness Movement and Rally in 2013

Inner City High Student marches at the Stolen Sisters Awareness Movement and Rally in 2013

Inner City High students gather to join the Stolen Sister Awareness March and Rally in 2014

The Inner City High Youth Leadership group makes a pledge to join the Moosehide campaign to end violence against women and children. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Teaching in Troubled Times

Like many of you, I've spent the better portion of this weekend following the news on the attacks in Paris. I've read article after article that provides any semblance of analysis as to the how and why attacks like these happen. I've also ensured to broaden my view to understand that the attacks that happened in Paris on Friday evening have taken place in other parts of the world with little to no media coverage. As I sift through this information and reflect on the state of our world I can't help to think about my students and what, as their social studies teacher, will I say to them tomorrow.

I can barely make sense of the state of our world myself, yet I know that it is my job to help the students I teach make sense of not only what happened in Paris, but to let them know that the innocent people of Paris are not the only civilians who face this type of violence on an all to frequent basis. Unfortunately, this is not the first time I've had to have this conversation with students, but it is only one of many. Every year before I teach I know that a horrific event will happen across our world that will leave students feeling upset, angry, saddened or just confused. It's absolutely terrible to think that these events are seemingly inevitable and must be "planned" for in our curriculum. It absolutely angers me to even type this but I can't escape the reality of it.

Tomorrow morning I'll go into my classroom, sit in a circle with my students, and begin to talk about what happened in Paris and across the world. I want to create an environment where students can freely express how they are feeling and say what they need to say. It's important that students be given a space to express their feelings when these tragic events take place. However, when I engage my students in this type of dialogue I'll make a point to challenge how they see these issues. I'll ask them how we, as a society, should respond to these issues and I'll challenge them to take a deeper look at the root causes of these issues. I'll ask them to think about how an individual could engage in violent acts. What would that person have to go through in order to become a violent individual? I'll ask them these types of questions because I want them to have a thoughtful approach to these issues and that all human beings are precious and should be valued regardless of their race, class, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability or religion. I want my students to understand the history behind these issues and what we can do as individuals and as a society can do to create a more peaceful world.

However, the biggest challenge I'll have tomorrow is to provide some measure of hope for students. Too often I am guilty of focusing on the violence and devastation that has wreaked havoc over our world for so long. I take pride in teaching outside the textbook to give students a strong understanding of "where we are today". Unfortunately, that usually brings up difficult subjects that can leave students feeling depressed about the state of the world. As important as it is to learn about these issues it may be even more important to empower students to know that not only can the world be better, but that they can have an active hand in creating it.

Perhaps the best thing I can do tomorrow would be to bring a little bit of happiness and fun to the classroom. After all, many students come to my class having to deal with issues of poverty, racism, homophobia (amongst many more) and will now be asked to learn about violence and oppression around the world. No matter where our conversation goes tomorrow I want to ensure that students don't leave feeling overwhelmed and helpless. At the least I want them to know that there is good in this world, and all they have to do is to look around their classroom to find it.

And as for me as their teacher, I want to set an example as a role model of things we can do to support those who are suffering across the world. So tomorrow, as I talk with my students, I'll explain to them why I stand in solidarity with the people of Paris, Beirut, Iraq and Syria and I'll explain why I support refugees fleeing violence. I'll explain why we shouldn't respond to these acts with more violence and that dropping more bombs rarely solves the issue. Lastly, I'll explain that as their teacher, I'll do my part to create a more fair, just and peaceful world.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

How Could We Let This Happen

As a social studies teacher here in Alberta, I have the opportunity to revisit Canada's past every semester that I teach. I studied Canadian and American history when I was in university and loved that each time I looked in the past I could find new narratives and perspectives that I hadn't considered before.

Unfortunately, what compelled me to find these new narratives was uncovering parts of Canada's past that I was never taught in my high school history classes. As I learned about residential schools, the Indian Act, the Chinese "Head Tax" and treatment of Japanese Canadians, among other events, I came to the realization that the picture of Canada as a tolerant and multicultural nation didn't fit with the facts of history. Rather, it is through the study of these events that it became clear to me that Canada is a country founded upon the attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples, exploiting immigrant labour and the creation of governments and institutions that uphold oppressive societal structures.

I know that this is a grim picture and that as a society we have made strides in improving who we are. I'm proud to live in a country that fought for universal health care for all. I'm proud of a document like the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a guideline for our society and I'm proud of the struggles that working people, immigrants, women, LGBTQ and Indigenous folks have engaged in throughout our past to expand who has access to rights and freedoms that every human deserves. The reality is, without these folks fighting for their rights in engaging in broader social movements, most of the progress that we look back on as uniquely Canadian would have never had happened. It's clear to me that government's rarely lead on creating progress within our society, it's up to individuals within society to push the government in a better direction.

Throughout the course of the current Canadian election campaign I've heard many folks use the phrase, "I want my Canada back". I know when folks use this phrase they are referencing the fact that our country has taken a turn for the worse under Harper and hope to bring it back to a country that believes in multiculturalism, tolerance and peacekeeping, amongst other values. And although I do see some merit in this phrasing, you can't look back on our history in a revisionist way. After all, many of the issues of Canada's past are within our contemporary history as well. Indigenous people did not have the right to vote in federal elections until the 1960s, the last residential school did not close until 1996 and same-sex marriage was not legalized until 2003. Personally, I don't want my Canada back, I want to create a better Canada where we celebrate our collective good, acknowledge and reconcile our past wrongs and work with all members of the larger community to move together collectively.

When we look at our government's heinous actions of the past (both Conservative and Liberal governments) it is hard not to think about how we could of let this happen. How were our government officials so blinded by racism to enact residential schools? How did we believe that women were incapable of voting? We can say that these were just the prevailing thoughts of the time, but I think we have to hold our collective history to account a bit more than brushing it off. After all, at some point in the future we will look back on our era and the generations that come after us will be asking, "How come they did not act on climate change?" or "How did they not do anything about the 1200 missing and murdered Indigenous women?".

Our generation should be held accountable to these questions and many more. Next week, on election day, we have an opportunity to have our voices heard. Elections are anything but foolproof ways to create change in our world, but we can make a collective statement. As you head to the ballot box think about the values of a society that you would like to live in. How do you want your government to treat it's most vulnerable? How should we treat our climate change responsibilities? If you're like me, you'll be hoping that Canadians vote with an eye towards a more democratic, equitable and just Canada. No matter what our federal government will look like next Tuesday, we have to remember that democracy is not a "spectator sport". We can't wipe our hands clean after an election and say we've done our part. Democracy is work, and if we want to create a better Canada for all, then we'll have to push our government in that direction so the only choice they have is to do what is best for all of us.