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Teaching Equity Matters: How far will you go?

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Carol Schick, University of Regina
Guest Contributor

How do you teach anti-oppressive education? In this blog I want to share my experiences teaching in the justice-oriented Summer Institute. I want to elaborate on the processes and rationale of the project, and discuss some of the difficulties and ongoing weaknesses, with the aim of contributing to a broader discussion about the opportunities and challenges of teaching equity matters in the academy.

In my experience, the Institute is a dynamic time for exploring the tenets of critical education with teachers, community leaders, and all those interested in addressing issues of in/equality, especially through schooling. For some students, the attraction is that they will earn graduate credit. Others are attracted because they are intensely committed to educational equity for students and social justice generally. The course that all students attend is Anti-Oppressive Education and Teacher Activism: How Far Will You Go?

So ‘who’ attends? The Institute attracts full-time, early-to-mid career educators, public school leaders and community workers. Most students would identify as white; the highest enrolment of Aboriginal and racial minority students was 15 percent in 2008.

Students’ range of experience in equity matters varies, and some participants are not necessarily convinced that being a ‘good teacher’ means having an intention toward, and knowledge of, justice issues. Regardless of the motivation, all students take part in lectures, readings, a field trip, guest panel, practice sessions, social events, affiliations and affinity group meetings – all focused on education equity and teacher activism.

What is the aim of designing and delivering a course on anti-oppressive education and teacher activism?

Ann Berlak offers a succinct description of her diversity course that mirrors my own aims: “My primary goal for the diversity course is to encourage students to rethink their assumptions about race, class, gender, culture, language, and sexual orientation that predispose them to reproduce rather than challenge injustice. I want them to recognize forms of injustice, including those that are least visible, and to become aware that as teachers they will have many opportunities to choose between collaborating with or challenging individuals and institutions that encourage indifference to oppression.”

Because students may enroll for reasons other than a passion for justice, there can be no assumptions about teacher knowledge of inequality or commitment toward social change. Consequently, the course begins at a basic level, discussing the social and structural realities of poverty, sexism, racism, homophobia and other means of oppression that are endemic to social institutions including schooling. The course posits that all knowledge is ‘interested’ and that school knowledge can operate as a common sense norm that fails to support students and school personnel who bear the negative consequences of inequality. One effort to address this includes a guest lecturer who acquaints students with the notion of ‘queering’ our common sense understandings of school as a neutral space.

The course assumes that talking about equity matters in schools must be carefully planned. Change is not likely to happen through the simple passage of time. As David Gillborn cautions, “race inequity and racism are central features of the education system. These are not aberrant or accidental phenomena that will be ironed out in time; they are fundamental characteristics of the system. It is in this sense that education policy is an act of white supremacy.”

Listen to a podcast of Dr. Gillborn discuss education inequities.

Students are presented with compelling evidence to disabuse them of the notion that individual progress and achievement are consequences merely of a meritocratic system that rewards hard work and talent, and that students achieve school success proportionate to ability. They also come to see that the conditions of poverty experienced by some First Nations and Métis people, for example, are not ‘natural’ but a consequence of colonial legacies that are reproduced through ongoing social and discursive practices.

The course challenges discourses familiar to both pre- and in-service teachers, in which social change most often is understood as designing ameliorative and compensatory programs for addressing what ‘target populations’ are said to ‘lack.’ Discourses of ‘how we do school’ are supported by the a-historical notion: ‘that’s the way things are.’

The course goes against some students’ expectations that anticipate learning more about the particular characteristics of students under-served by education systems. We use critical whiteness studies, critical race theory and poststructural theories to deconstruct multicultural talk that emphasizes cultural practices as essential difference. Students come to recognize that they are located through socially constructed discourses that inform their assumptions regarding self and other.

Watch a videoclip example of “Introduction to Critical Race Theory.”

The course poses the question, ‘Who do you think you are?’ as a way to signal that bodies and their significance are not pre-determined and that identifications are contingent and constructed. For both students and their teachers, how particular bodies come to signify, and come to be recognized or not, is linked discursively to knowledge and power.

Students are encouraged to think through the answers to ‘Who do you think you are?’ and how they already have been made available for students and their teachers through dominant school discourses which circumscribe how we ‘think’ of and ‘do’ schools or even ‘bodies.’ Deborah Youdell makes the point that through disciplinary power of self-surveillance and the sedimented construction of norms, “activity is controlled and […] distributed across functional sites – the student acts the good student, the teacher acts the good teacher, the school acts the good school – as accountability mechanisms render all visible and open to assessment and correction.”

What students find helpful, however, is that while discourses of self-surveillance constitute and constrain identities, the discourses are not determinate of the identity of teachers and students. Therefore, the outcome to the question as posed is less important than the processes of responding to it in new and perhaps disruptive ways. Kevin Kumashiro suggests that we should avoid mirroring the already familiar stories that tell us who we “are” and, instead, attempt to write and resignify in ways that trouble the stories by making them unfamiliar and unnatural to both the student and teacher.

Learning how discourses of ‘race’ and all other forms of identification structure school processes is news for most students who do not imagine that, regardless of what they teach, they themselves are part of the curriculum as a performative act.

When we start talking about discourses of ‘white supremacy’ and other forms of dominance, a shift takes place. The word ‘supremacy’ foregrounds the very active work of white supremacists; white students and I start to associate taken-for-granted and unearned race privilege with something more than benign entitlement. After all, it is the common, everyday, racial liberalism often found in schooling – that purports colorblindness while turning a blind eye to racism – that makes it possible for outrageous acts of racial violence to take place.

One of my aims is to challenge and support students through difficult learning in which they come to see that as people of significant social privilege, they are not self-made. They come to realize that their achievements are not accomplished only through individual virtues, that historical, institutional and social factors also shape outcomes.

Students realize that knowledge is not neutral, is always partial and intimately linked to power, and that there are no simple answers. As teachers they already are implicated in systems of inequality even when they intend otherwise. It is equally disorienting to learn there are no prescriptions about what to do or be in spite of one’s ongoing efforts at self-regulation. For some participants, this lack of prescriptive direction marks the potential for teaching students in new and exciting ways.

The Institute is organized with particular supports, some of which amount simply to creature comforts, like an occasional lunch, regular coffee and refreshments, and a faculty member unconnected to the Institute hosting a social evening. To facilitate the intensive learning process all 50 students are organized into co-operative groups. Consistent with co-operative learning, the intended outcome is group cohesion and participation in regular discussions in which students work through what they are learning. Highly trained teaching assistants facilitate small group discussions and take up lectures and assigned readings. Student assignments are always returned the next day to provide regular feedback on the issues. As the course is evaluated on a pass/fail system, this feedback and dialogue are especially important.

The course connects by video-conferencing with the author of one of the texts, Dr. Kevin Kumashiro from University of Illinois at Chicago. Interviewing him in 2008 was a highlight for many students. One class is devoted to a panel of former students who are willing to talk about the activist work in which they have become involved since they participated in the Institute.

Listen to Dr. Kumashiro discuss “The Myth of the ‘Model Minority.”

These former students are most often teachers who work in the same systems as new students. In the past, students have regrouped off-campus for a designated field trip to two different sites: once to the RCMP museum located in Regina for a deconstructive examination of national mythologies; and the second and third times to the Mackenzie Art Gallery for provocative and challenging shows with Aboriginal artists and curators as guides.

One of the greatest challenges in taking up anti-oppressive education and teacher activism is the very short time available for students to understand a poststructuralist theory of identity construction and its implications for their personal and professional lives as educators.

Of the many pedagogical dilemmas the course poses for me, and encountered by anyone teaching a course that is intended to deal with issues of inequality, is this: There are never enough minority bodies, voices and faces to disrupt the white heteronormativity that pervades the discourses of the Institute. There is every chance, indeed a likelihood, that pedagogical processes will bear some resemblance to ‘how we do school,’ especially in a white dominated institution.

As well, I can be my best problem-posing self and I will still be reproducing a white system of ‘interested’ theory and quest for ‘right’ action. Even my  own interest in being the ‘good’ white teacher likely will produce a pedagogy that adheres more to the craft of teaching that resignifies the white teacher as leader and teller in spite of attempts to do otherwise.

The culmination of the Institute is a formal poster. Students are required to plan an activist project to conduct as part of the work they do, either for their own classrooms, with colleagues, or a project involving the wider community. When all the posters are displayed, students and invited faculty visit the projects to hear each other describe what they have in mind for their return to school. There are many inspiring plans. From follow-up research, we know that at least some of the plans are carried out. This public event is very successful for building connections and encouraging students to put their plans into practice.

Invariably students will learn many things beyond what I am teaching including things that may entrench as well as disrupt their pre-existing assumptions about justice and equality. In keeping with the title: we will see how far we can go.

Carol Schick is an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Social Justice and Aboriginal Education, and Assistant Director of the Saskatchewan Instructional Development and Research Unit at the University of Regina.

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Equity Matters