Tag Archives: being the change

Being the Change: A Cautionary Tale

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One of the challenges of writing a book (and teaching) about difficult topics like social comprehension is the content you need to use to demonstrate your ideas. Presumably, you want to include a breadth of examples so that a wide array of readers (learners) will connect with the ideas presented. I would argue that using a variety of examples provides us with the opportunity to illustrate varying ways of talking about the issues. This just makes sense. And there is no shortage of marginalized groups to access. Some of the more prominent groups include people from the following communities: LGBTQ, same-sex family, #metoo, Muslim, refugee, immigrant, People of Colour, working poor, and Indigenous peoples.

And yet, two of the 10 lessons in Being the Change are focused on Indigenous peoples. More importantly, not one other group is singled out in another lesson that demonstrates the negative way it’s treated in society.

Sure, Ahmed talks through her own lens (Muslim) when addressing students. In “Refusing to Let Others’ Biases Define Us”, Ahmed creates an ‘I am’ statement about being the daughter of Indian Muslim immigrants and she tells the students, “This one is not always easy for me to say because it is connected to negative stereotypes about Muslims, but I wanted to share one I feel proud of even though it is hard to share with total confidence” (63).  This makes sense, too. Because I am a white woman, I talk through my experiences fighting for equality. We do need to draw on who we are and what our experiences are to show our personal connection and commitment to the work of social comprehension.

Ahmed also includes student responses to the tough conversations that are the bedrock of social comprehension. “Listening with Love” opens with the story of Christine who painfully recalls ‘some of the labels she’s heard applied to herself and to her Mexican-American family: taco eaters, lazy spics, wet-backs, illegals’ (30). And in the forward, we see how student thinking has changed around the question “What makes a family?” to include same-sex families. Ahmed even includes an anecdote by someone beyond her classroom about a refugee family that depicts the ongoing work of social comprehension to open chapter 5 “Finding Humanity in Ourselves and n Others”.  Again, I think including these anecdotes and responses is appropriate. Ahmed needs to build in these stories to illustrate her ideas. We want to know how her students react to the lessons in the book. What does it really look like?

But no other group is made the centre of a lesson. Why not?

Let’s consider the two lessons in question. In “Understanding Microaggressions”, the content for the lesson is the poem “Sure You Can Ask Me A Personal Question” by Diane Burns.

Sure You Can Ask Me A Personal Question
How do you do?
No, I am not Chinese.
No, not Spanish.
No, I am American Indian, Native American.

No, not from India.
No, not Apache
No, not Navajo.
No, not Sioux.
No, we are not extinct.
Yes, Indian.

Oh?
So that’s where you got those high cheekbones.
Your great grandmother, huh?
An Indian Princess, huh?
Hair down to there?
Let me guess. Cherokee?

Oh, so you’ve had an Indian friend?
That close?

Oh, so you’ve had an Indian lover?
That tight?

Oh, so you’ve had an Indian servant?
That much?

Yeah, it was awful what you guys did to us.
It’s real decent of you to apologize.
No, I don’t know where you can get peyote.
No, I don’t know where you can get Navajo rugs real cheap.
No, I didn’t make this. I bought it at Bloomingdales.

Thank you. I like your hair too.
I don’t know if anyone knows whether or not Cher
is really Indian.
No, I didn’t make it rain tonight.

Yeah. Uh-huh. Spirituality.
Uh-huh. Yeah. Spirituality. Uh-huh. Mother
Earth. Yeah. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Spirituality.

No, I didn’t major in archery.
Yeah, a lot of us drink too much.
Some of us can’t drink enough.

This ain’t no stoic look.
This is my face.

I love the lesson. In my initial reading of this chapter, I didn’t question the content choice. Indigenous peoples are often still marginalized in our societies (yours and mine). They are on the receiving end of microaggressions (as well as explicit racism), and Burns captures many of them in her poem. I wouldn’t use this poem to introduce the concept of microaggression to my First Nations students, but I would use the poem later in the lesson as a way for them to personally reflect on their own experiences with similar microaggressions. Frankly, my students are likely to find much humour in this poem.

In “Understanding Others’ Perspectives”, Ahmed chose again to focus the lesson on Indigenous content: the Chief Wahoo logo of the Cleveland Indians. And again I have no issue with the activities of the lesson, although I wouldn’t use that content to teach the “Intent vs Impact” lesson. I typically use a PSA like the one below with similar activities that Ahmed describes in this chapter because we are after all attempting to understand others’ perspectives.

So what’s the problem?

When we design lessons that centre on one group and the challenges it faces in the world, we may be contributing to the creation of a single story about that group because we, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her famous TedTalk “The Danger of a Single Story” says, ‘show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become’.

What about Indigenous identities do students learn from these two lessons?

The problem is that Ahmed has provided her reader’s with two lessons that add to the story of Indigenous peoples as marginalized, misunderstood, and invisible. It’s the emphasis that troubles me. I wished she could have used a variety of communities to illustrate how we can learn about the identities of others so that our social comprehension (how we make meaning from and mediate our relationship with the world) could expand and in doing so, demonstrate to us the breadth and depth of the work of decentering “the dominant normative narratives in society” (xxix).

The other problem is with the lack of Indigenous texts offered in Being the Change. In the “Suggested Resource Stacks”, Ahmed offers up potential titles to support teachers in their work in teaching social comprehension. Only one title listed is written by a self-identified Indigenous author:  Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie. But it’s not just the lack of titles offered that’s disappointing; it’s also that this author and this title are particularly problematic.

Because Indigenous peoples have for so long been misrepresented in literature, and because as educators we don’t want to perpetuate the misrepresentation (microaggressions), it behooves us to ensure that the texts we choose to use in our teaching are free of any misrepresentations. An excellent source to learn about potential Indigenous titles is American Indians in Children’s Literature created by Debbie Reese. “Established in 2006, American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) provides critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children’s and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society.”

Reese reviewed Thunder Boy Jr. when it was first published in 2016. Overall, she gave it a mixed review because the book, in its own way, contributes to the single story. The review is worth a read because her analysis is rich (you’ll learn a lot from her), but here is one of her key points:

By not being tribally specific, [Alexie’s] story obscures the diversity that Native writers, scholars, activists, parents, teachers, librarians, lawyers… have been bringing forth forever. We aren’t monolithic. We’re very different in our histories, religions, material cultures, and yes, the ways that we give names. Moving into that name play collapses significant distinctions across our nations.

Maybe the book is fine to use as an introduction to a unit on Indigenous peoples because it’s not specific and could lead the class into a discussion about the diversity of Indigenous peoples. But when we are actually teaching for diversity, away from the single story, towards the messiness of social comprehension, Thunder Boy Jr. might not be such a good choice.

A second reason that this book is not a good choice centres on ethical decision-making. Reese re-visited this book, and all of Sherman Alexie’s work, in February 2018 after news broke about the sexual harassment allegations made against Alexie. In an “Open Letter about Sherman Alexie” on February 25, 2018, Reese wrote:

Based on private conversations I have had, I can no longer let [Sherman Alexie’s] work sit on AICL without noting that he has hurt other Native writers in overt and subtle ways, including abuse, threats, and humiliation.

This then is the cautionary tale.

Let us work really hard to ensure that we are not promoting a single story –for anyone. Diversify your lessons to include lots of voices and identities.

And let us work really hard to ensure that the texts we use with students are the best that there are. Don’t take shortcuts. Investigate.

Finally, I would like to introduce you to a few Anishinabe people from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory whose stories will help layer at least one Indigenous story. They are artists, designers, activists, researchers, and knowledge keepers.

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Being the Change: Making Connections

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In 2012, I joined #Cyberpd and the book we studied was Opening Minds by Peter Johnston. I’ve been thinking about this book as I work my way through Being the Change (no surprise that Opening Minds is listed in Ahmed’s References). Johnston taught me about the power of language as not only a force to build relationships with students and to support students in developing a dynamic learning stance, but also one that can build worlds. And isn’t this the end game for building social comprehension?

[Being the Change] is based on the idea that we can build skills and habits to help us comprehend social issues and participate in relevant, transparent conversations. Social comprehension, like academic comprehension, is how we make meaning from and mediate our relationship to the world. (xxv)

Teaching students to be able to have and manage candid conversations by confronting their biases and identifying the biases of others is about grappling with the power of words. And this takes time. Time to model what bias looks like and sounds like; time to locate the microaggressions in our lives; time to challenge labels and develop the confidence to assert ourselves.

While teaching is vital work, it is also complex work. The diversity that exists in each classroom stretches our capacity to see and hear each student, to have the right words at the right time to not only support the student in developing a ‘dynamic learning frame of mind’ but to connect the student to the larger community.

You can read my final post for the #Cyberpd 2012 Opening Minds here. Below is an excerpt from that post that connects the two texts.

on Opening Minds, first read 

Listen.
Create space and time for dialogue.
This means
—slow down.
No rushing in with the answer,
allow uncertainty to feed wonder and discovery.
Make room for confusion in conversation.
Give it permission to spur dialogue,

to build collaborative thinking
to create knowledge
together.

Remember that teaching changes worlds.

How will I know?
Listen to the students. What are they talking about?

There is the answer.

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Being the Change: Context and Consideration

Sara Ahmed’s book Being the Change is a book I could’ve written.

But no author wants to hear that.

Actually, no one wants to hear that. It’s like looking at an abstract painting and declaring, “I could have painted that!”

Or my sister-in-law telling my mother years and years and years ago that Holly Cole, a Canadian jazz singer who was all the rage then, wasn’t a big deal. That she could do what Holly Cole was doing. The thing is, my mom said, Holly Cole is doing it; you’re not.

Sometimes artists’ work—visual art, dance, music, writing — explores and articulates ideas that resonate so deeply with our own that we think to ourselves, “Ya, I could paint that painting, dance that dance, sing that song, and yes, write that book”.

I love reading books like this one because I am not writing a book. But I am teaching my heart out, every day in my classroom. And books like Sara Ahmed’s can both affirm that work and challenge me to re-examine it.

So let me dive right in.

In the opening section of Being the Change, Ahmed sets the stage for teachers who want to build social comprehension with their students. Social comprehension is “how we make meaning from and mediate our relationship with the world” (xxv). What happens if our relationship with the world is damaged? How do we approach the world then?

I teach First Nations students and their relationship with the world is as varied as it is with all people, but First Nations people have had (and continue to have) a particularly difficult time generally and with education specifically. The history of cultural genocide in Canada is now well documented through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that produced a report with 94 calls to action. These calls are meant to spur Canadians-from the national government to the individual citizen-into a  journey towards reconciling the past and building a more just and equitable future for all.

I cannot here go into the range of responses from the Indigenous communities some of which have created opportunities for non-Native Canadians to personally engage with Indigenous people, art, books, music, and knowledge like #Next150

and some of which are focused on developing opportunities for Native and non-Native youth to come together because “youth are at the heart of redefining relationships between Indigenous & non-Indigenous people’s on this land” (CanadianRoots).

But there are other voices that articulate the depth of the work and ask the tough questions that are in no way rhetorical. Billy-Ray Belcourt, writer and academic from the Driftpile Cree Nation, articulates a response to the TRC report in 2015 that demands a response:

What of the deeply stubborn traces of a governmental enterprise that lawfully desired our elimination, that corralled and still corals Indigenous peoples in prisons and cemeteries in order to disappear us and the ancient legal and political orders hidden in our breathing?

Reconciliation is an absolutely historiographic project, one that forces us to ask: in what way will we — the nation — relate to the past, and how will it give way to a future that might better contain our feelings in the good? Indeed, how might it re-distribute the good life to those for whom that fantasy has hitherto been outside arm’s reach?

Reconciliation is a contradictory object: it emerges out of bad feelings but, at the same time, stalls in the face of them in the present. It only wants to collect the good public emotions it needs to keep going, to push itself outside of History, to narrate a present bereft of legislated pain. But ours are bodies that still shake, that traffic in the bad because we know that a world reconciled is not necessarily a world decolonized.

In a world that wants you to constantly accumulate things — ideas, objects, capital, apologies — at the expense of literally everything else, not wanting emerges as a sore point, slowing things down and getting in the way, so to speak. It’s heartbreaking: knowing that this world didn’t want you in the first place, but that it nonetheless doubles as your condition of possibility, your everything, the only thing you have.

*italics my emphasis

This excerpt illustrates the troubled relationship that my students may have with the world. Trusting the world to hear them and see them for who they are is a huge leap, and it’s made wider because, through the act of disappearing a people, cultural knowledge and identity is stripped away, and re-discovering that lost knowledge is heartbreaking work.

What then is the role of the teacher?

What I decided many years ago was to get close to the stories of the students I teach (129): stories of their lives, their families, their history, and their culture. We explored our own identities by creating digital stories, word snapshots,  “I am” poems, Our Image stories, and blackout poems. We explored other perspectives and cultures through the texts we read, in particular, using events like the Global Read Aloud. And we built knowledge of our identities through collaborative projects with other schools. But since the work of social comprehension is as Ahmed reminds us “a constant recalibration of one’s relation with the self and with others” (xxx), it is important for me to now get close to the work itself and reflect on its current relevance and authenticity. Is the question “What does it mean to be Anishinabe in the 21st century?” that I have posed to students over the years, still relevant, meaningful, fair?

Being the Change has come to me at the right time, not because I am unfamiliar with social comprehension, but rather because I have been so immersed in this work. Reading this book now reminds me that now is the time to reflect, reassess, and renew.

I hope the #cyberpd community will confront and provoke my thinking, work, and pedagogical approach throughout this book study.

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#Cyberpd 2018

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This is my 5th year participating in #cyberpd. I teach First Nations students and the focus of the work is helping students find their voices, so that they can stand up to the effects of colonialism that they encounter in their lives. It’s not easy work. Sometimes the message is perceived negatively. Sometimes the students are indifferent. But sometimes students connect deeply with the ideas and weave them into their lives. I am always on the lookout for new approaches to support the tough conversations that oppression, reconciliation, and self-actualization generate. I am sure Being the Change and this community will offer me valuable learning.

 

If you are interested in participating in #CyberPD check out the community hashtag in Twitter and the G+ site.  And in this post, you can get the “nuts & bolts” for this professional learning event.

 

 

 

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