Creating A SAFE Space for All Students

“I don’t know where this journey will take me, but I know where it starts.” – Michael Cappello

On Friday, I was mandated to attend the Social Justice & Anti-Racist Anti-Oppressive Forum on Education (SAFE), which was being held for the first time at the University of Regina as part of my program. If I could, I would relive this day over and over again, going to each and every session and listening to the keynote speakers, Michael Cappello and Shauneen Pete, share their wisdom and conversations with me each and every time.

During the keynote, I was so mesmerized by the conversation and the learning taking place that I completely forgot to take notes, but luckily I have connected with a great group of classmates, who I will mention later on in this post, that reminded me through conversation about the most memorable moments. Michael and Shauneen started the keynote talking about March 2014, when the University of Regina cheerleaders made headlines for dressing up as Cowboys and Indians for their last practice and posted the pictures to Twitter. The result of this media attention was a mandatory ‘sensitivity training’ for the cheer team with Dr. Pete. She spoke of this training during the keynote, talking about how the cheerleaders adamantly stated that they were “good girls” in the session. They were “good girls” who volunteered, kept their grades up, and never meant to hurt anybody. But who is allowed to be good girls? Who is allowed to infantilize themselves in order to shirk responsibility for their actions? By simply saying that they were “good girls” they were displaying an unconscious dominance over Indigenous women who are often sexualized and treated as women throughout their childhood. Who gets the privilege to dress up as ‘Indians’ and play fantasy, and who has to wear the scars that come with that term every day?

After they had asked these critical questions, Mike and Shauneen started to talk about the impact that this anti-racism education, or as the university called it ‘sensitivity training’ affected them. Mike started by saying something that I connected deeply to: “This work does not cost me enough.” As a white woman, if I don’t fight for anti-racist and anti-oppressive education, nobody will really notice, but the moment that I do, I am given an “ally cookie”, as Mike called it. This cookie hails me as some sort of hero, fighting for the rights of others when I could choose to ignore inequality, but this is not a cookie I want. Since when has it become a job worthy of hero status to believe in equality? What kind of society do we live in when fighting to raise others up and let their voices, their stories, and their perspectives be heard is worthy of reward? This should be normative, but it’s not. This doesn’t mean that I will stop fighting for anti-racism and anti-oppression within schools and the broader society, it just means that I now realize that these rewards are a form of dominance in themselves. Shauneen, however, brought it home to all of the people that I spoke with during the day. She talked about the reaction of the cheerleaders to the training, how they discredited her as too emotional and too angry. She brought Mike with her to meet the cheerleaders so that he could offer his perspective on the events as well, and this led the cheerleaders to think that she was ill prepared and they were not the only ones. Shauneen was also made out to be a villain by the media, with one interviewer continually trying to reinforce that the cheerleaders were “good girls”, and why were they being forced to pay for a simple mistake?

The conversation continued to a response to the situation from one of Mike’s friends, who asked him “So if six-year-olds play Cowboys & Indians, is that racist?” The answer was a resounding “Yes!” Racism is often not the result of individual behavior; it is systematic. The fact that six-year-olds know these stereotypes is proof that racism exists within society. Six-year-olds playing Cowboys & Indians should be used as proof that racism and the stereotypes that come with it run rampant within society, not a way to try to fight this thinking. Throughout the day, I kept thoughts of this keynote and the many lessons that it taught me at the forefront of my mind.

For my first session of the day, I attended Teaching Students with Significant Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities: How to Make a Choice presented by Dr. Scott Thompson. Teaching students with special needs is something that is close to my heart because of my past experience with Campus for All students and the Big Sky Center for Learning and Being Astonished, so I wanted to attend a lecture on this subject to become more knowledgeable about how this relates to social justice. Two main lessons came out of this lecture. First, Dr. Thompson spoke about the assumptions that people hold about students with disabilities. He noted that often the expectations for these students are either over or under estimated simply because of the disability that they have. We need to give our students the best educational experience possible, regardless of disability. The way that we can do this is getting to know where each student is at and scaffolding the experiences that we give them to ensure that they feel confident in their learning. The second lesson that Dr. Thompson taught us was to make sure not to talk about students with special needs in front of them as if they cannot hear or understand what we are saying. All that this does is promote aggression and learned helplessness. Every person has the ability to make choices and to learn, but if they are continuously treated like they do not have this ability, they will no longer try.

The second session that I attended was Place-Conscious Teaching for Social and Ecological Justice presented by Karen McIvor. I was interested in this session because place-conscious teaching is something that I see as very valuable and I wanted to know how I could relate this to social justice. Place-conscious education brings together critical pedagogy, which focuses on deconstructing dominant narratives and ways of living, with place-based education, which brings the environment into learning experiences. One important lesson that I learned from Karen in this session is that it is not enough to simply take students to a space; we must deconstruct the places that we take students in some of these experiences. Deconstruction takes place by asking questions like: what has happened here, what is happening here, and what could happen here? Place-conscious teaching doesn’t have to involve big adventures to gain knowledge, it can happen in our own backyards or in our school grounds, but it is important to provide students with these experiences to enhance their school experiences. This work is very important to connecting youth to the community around them, as evidenced in Heartwood’s Circle of Awesomeness, and is used by Karen to help students at risk within her school gain credits for any number of classes while learning through experiences that are meaningful to them.

For my third and last session of the day, I attended Unsettling Treaty Education and Anti-Oppressive Education: Theory into Practice presented by Chauntel Baudu and Tamara Smith. This was one of the sessions that I was looking forward to the most, since treaty education and anti-oppressive education are two aspects of my education that I am very passionate about, but I haven’t gotten much instruction on how they actually work in a classroom. Chauntel started this session off by talking about anti-oppressive education, which she describes as creating togetherness rather than separation in school environments. She started on her path to anti-oppressive education in much the same way that I have. She was taking classes at the university and imagined having the same deep conversations about anti-oppressive education that were occurring in her class with her students and she made it a reality. One key lesson that I learned from Chauntel is that if I want to talk about anti-oppression within my classroom, I need to give students the tools to unpack their ‘invisible knapsacks’ effectively. If students are to talk about oppression, they need to know the forms of oppression that affect them, whether it is a positive or negative affect. It is important to teach critical literacy and have students identify whose voice is heard and whose voice is silenced within texts so that they can identify the oppression that exists. Another key aspect of anti-oppressive teaching is reflection, not only for teachers but for students as well. We need to reflect to figure out where we come from, what we know, why we know it, and what has changed over time to figure out what students need from us as anti-oppressive educators. Chauntel stated that anti-oppressive education doesn’t have to be overwhelming; you don’t have to make dramatic leaps and bounds to make a difference within your classroom. Anti-oppressive education is simply about increasing your knowledge of oppression and working to fight it in ways that you feel you can because when we know better, we can do better.

After Chauntel’s presentation, Tamara took the floor to talk about treaty education. Tamara spoke about the importance of teacher initiative in treaty education. Even though it is mandated in Saskatchewan, many teachers we will meet in schools choose to remain ignorant of treaty education in an attempt to retain innocence when thinking about the past of colonialization in Saskatchewan, but at what point does this ignorance become unacceptable? Often in social studies and history classes, the focus is on the ‘strength of the homesteaders’ while the strength and benevolence of the Indigenous people is ignored. We claim ignorance to avoid the trauma of admitting uncomfortable truths, but we need to ask ourselves who benefits from this ignorance and who is oppressed by it. If you are going to begin teaching treaty education, you must first be open to growth and learning and you must accept that you may feel alone on this journey, but you must not give up. If the support does not exist in the school that you find yourself working in, and even if it does exist, there are supports to help such as the Office of the Treaty Commission, elders, and leaders within the area of treaty education. Many teachers fear treaty education because they do not want to make mistakes, but this is where your own initiative in discovering knowledge and your humility becomes essential. We must learn to admit that we are not perfect, that we are humans that make mistakes, because this is what makes any subject that we teach real to our students.

To close the day, I had a discussion with some of my classmates about what we took away from the many sessions that we sat in during the conference. We took the opportunity to introduce a group that five of my classmates and I have started on campus with the support of Michael Cappello, called STARS Regina, which is dedicated to blogging resources for future and practicing teachers as well as providing professional development sessions revolving around social justice education. Our group met up for supper after these conversations with our classmates and some of the presenters and talked about our main takeaways from the conference and where we will move forward as a group. Throughout our discussion, our main focus was our passion for anti-racism and anti-oppression within our teaching. In one of the sessions that I attended, the presenter continually told us to teach with our passion and even if you feel alone at first, those people that think similar to you will find you and those conversations will be available for support. During the times when the work seems to hard to go on, we need to keep in mind the ripple effect that our efforts have on our students and the community surrounding us.

As we moved forward from the keynote at the beginning of the day, we were asked to consider what we were going to do to start accepting the gifts of knowledge and culture that First Nations and Metis people have been offering for years. By the end of the day, I was asking myself what had held me back from going to ceremonies and having conversations that led me to learn more about First Nations and Metis culture, I realized that more often than not, it was fear of being the only white person at these events and disrespecting their traditions and culture simply because I do not know enough. When I catch myself in these thoughts in the future, I hope that I will have the voice of Sheena Koops, a new friend that I met two weeks ago with my classmates in STARS Regina, in my head telling me “Go forth and be awkward”. Embrace the situations that you feel uncomfortable with, because that is where you find new knowledge that transforms your thinking. More often than not, your willingness to learn about the knowledge and the culture of First Nation and Metis people will not be seen as a sign of respect, and if you do blunder, there will be someone there to teach you how to do better at the next event that you attend. Make those important connections, go to the ceremonies and events around your community, get involved; even if you stumble, there will be someone there to catch you and you will become a better teacher for it.

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