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I keep having this discussion, and I am fascinated by other people’s answers, so I’m putting it out again:

Should we be teaching Shakespeare’s plays in high school in Canada? Why? What is the value to our students and our communities? Does their value rely on specific cultural membership or is it truly universal?

What of it should we teach? Word for word, line for line, just the movie, just the ideas?

One part of this discussion that I just heard was that King Lear was recently added to the recommended list in Saskatchewan’s grade 12 curriculum at the request of First Nations shareholders. They believe it is valuable as a text that deals with the consequences of dishonouring and losing sight of the value of elders.

Have at. This is what comment sections are made for.

 

zombie shakespeare

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This comic strip sums up a discussion I regularly have about life with cameras. It’s awesome. Proper credit for it is in the lower right corner of the image.

http://i.imgur.com/N9atqNa.jpg

I’ve¬† been fortunate to spend much of the last two years in La Loche – a Dene community in northern Saskatchewan. One result of being here is that I have become more exposed to issues that face First Nations and Metis communities in Canada. This post is not about Idle No More. That post will come. That movement addresses legislation and attitudes which affect us all. This is about the atrocious and stomach churning comments that have shown up on the comment boards of articles about the movement. To be generous, they are ignorant. To be honest, they are hateful and sometimes looking to incite hatred in others.

My community is fortunate to have youth who take pride in who they are and where they come from. This is their response to those comments, please share widely.

She put her hand on mine

to confirm, to check, to show.

My glance

sad and overjoyed

confirms for me too;

worst case scenario?

I can go.

I love SMBC. Here is one reason why. It is also up in my classroom.

TL;DR – Student voices hatred in front of a classroom, curriculum is used to help her leave hate behind.

I’ve been promissing a number of people for quite a while that I would post this story. It happened in November of 2009. Bad month for me: it marked the beginning of the end of a decade-long relationship; a dear family friend passed away; and I was finding myself without much help in my first teaching practicum in a school in Rexdale, Toronto. A school where wearing a blue Kansas City Royals cap had nothing to do with baseball.

Although the Ontario curriculum for grade 10 history should start post-WWI, I found myself there in November, tasked with taking the students from 1919 to 1938 in 3 weeks. I like teaching culture as part of history class – I think it’s a very useful and important tool for understanding a time period. So I selected some curriculum approved material, “The Sheik” (with Rudolph Valentino), to show the class what was popular in cinema in the early 20s. We had a great discussion about how women and arabs specifically were portrayed in this film, and in hollywood, prior to watching a 10 minute clip. The students then considered those representations as they experienced them first hand in the film, and we had small group discussions about it. Almost all of the students. Some seemed to busy to bother, and seeing as it was my first day teaching I decided to let them ignore¬† the cultural history part. Big mistake. I went home thinking that it was a great class, and I was looking forward to the next day.

When I walked in the next morning I got the news about my family friend. Before I processed it, I was hauled into the principal’s office. Apparently, I was the first teacher in over a year to get a parent to call in. Apparently that wasn’t good. Apparently one of the students who wasn’t paying any attention to the lesson part of the class, only to the movie, went home and complained that I was showing Islam in a negative context, and therefore insulting it. Wow. I defended my lesson, showed my lesson plan and some discussion notes, and got no support from my principal. Why did I have to show it? Because cultural history is part of the curriculum. The film is in the textbook. “Well,” says my principal, “you wouldn’t go using a textbook from the 20s, would you? You can’t just use these insensitive materials in a modern class.” Huh. So much for curriculum. “Actually,” I reply, “if I were teaching a lesson about the history of education I might very well use a textbook from the 20s. It makes perfect sense. It’s called primary source experience. It’s part of our requirements.” We are not becoming friends. I got a warning, and sent to my class which was 5 minutes in already.

I arrive to see the student who complained arguing with my supervising teacher at the front of the room.

Student: “Well, this always happens here. Everyone is always bad-mouthing Muslims and Islam. It’s racist.”

Teacher: “It happens everywhere!” (well that doesn’t really back me up, does it?) “Especially where you’re from” (ooh, this is going well)

Student: “No, it doesn’t.” (She had recently arrived from the middle east)

Teacher: “Yes it does. When I was in Libya teaching, every evening the news ended with a ‘minute of hate’ where they reminded us that the Jews are evil and need to be driven into the sea and killed.”

Student: “Well that’s different, it’s not racist. The Jews are evil, and that’s true.” (Uh, woah. And why are other students standing around seemingly agreeing?)

Teacher: “Did you know that Mr. Weisman is Jewish?” (WHAT?!? so helpful, thank you. That will quickly diffuse the situation and change her mind about both my teaching style and the Jewish people. Well done.)

The girl turned pale with alarming speed and I didn’t know what to say. The teacher was standing with a grin as if he had just check-mated Bobby Fischer. This poor girl looked at me and asked if I wasn’t taught to hate muslims and arabs my whole life. “No. I’ve never been taught that.” And with that she sat down, and we finished that class with a discussion on prejudice, its vocabulary and applications.

I didn’t know what to do with that class. I was so uncomfortable that day for so many reasons, and honestly had no idea how to come back to them in a useful way. I had the next day off to go to a funeral, and thought of how I could change my planning accordingly for the rest of the month. After doing a bit of research online about anti-racist education I came up with what I think was a pretty good plan for the unit. History makes this approach pretty easy, especially with the time period I had been given to teach. The rest of my month was spent highlighting prejudice and injustice as applied to as many groups as I could apply it to in that period of Canadian history. That’s a lot, by the way. Immigration policies still banned or had quotas for non English/northern European people. It was the time of the chinese exclusion act, and racist rioting. It was the period of residential schooling for First Nations children, and the rise of fascist clubs in Canada. The SS St. Louis and “None is Too Many.”

I taught the curriculum, trying to show how nearly everyone in our country was affected by prejudice and hatred. The culmination of our study was with a look at the 30s, fascism, and isolationism. I saw this as an opportunity to expand the discussion not only into modern policy, but also into the daily life of the students. Stand by, and be prepared to watch attrocities happen. Stand up, and you can hope to stop them.

That student in particular took a very long route to coming back to my class mentally. She didn’t participate very much, but she was attentive. Sometimes I felt that this was out of fear. Sometimes it wasn’t. The last two classes were genuine attentiveness. My final class of the month we talked about the Canadian and US approach to isolationist policy, and what it would do. For student activity, I prepared a booklet with 2 political cartoons by Dr. Seuss, and a poem. Students were to analyze them in small groups, and apply them first to the historical context, and then to their own lives. Here they are:

By Dr. Seuss

And the poem, by Martin Niemuller (German Lutheran pastor and camp survivor):

First they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

The kids really got it. They could apply it in both contexts, and I was very happy for them. At the end of this class, that girl was in tears. I asked her if she was ok and she nodded and left.

I got back to my office at the end of the day to find the girl standing outside waiting for me. She stuck out her hand to shake mine (odd, she was fairly orthodox I was told, and did not touch men). She looked at me and said “I wanted to say I’m sorry. I don’t know why I thought and said the things I did, but I don’t think it’s right. Thank you. I hope you don’t think I’m a bad person.” Of course I don’t, I said. She was 14, the product of her environment, and entirely innocent. I wished her luck with the year, thanked her for her hard work in class, and said goodbye. My first thought was that she was the victim of child abuse. Not physical, or sexual, but that parents and a culture could teach a child hatred as a way of thinking, as a worldview, is abuse. She had no choice. And now, possibly worse, she must live within that worldview with a new understanding and a new way of thinking. Her family and friends will not necessarily be open to her change. I hope she can make some though. I think about her often. I remember thinking that if I never taught again, I was lucky enough to have had an amazing breakthrough moment with one student, and that was my goal from the beginning. I’m lucky that it wasn’t my last.

Here’s what this means to me now: students come to class, come to life, with all kinds of worldviews and prejudices, the vast majority of which are not originally theirs. “You’ve got to be carefully taught” said Rodgers and Hammerstein. Yelling, telling them they’re wrong, arguing with them, backs them into a corner and does not foster change or learning. Teach them. Show them how hatred of others is in itself hatred of the self. That’s possibly how it starts, but it’s definitely how it ends. By allowing yourself or others to hate another, you allow anyone to hate you. You make it acceptable. We need to teach our students to be upstanders (Facing History and Ourselves). We need to teach them to be gamechangers (Teri Huntley). They are young, and there is potential for growth when it is encouraged, not threatened.

Vertigo

I’m getting ready to take off on the road back to La Loche on Tuesday. Just to spice things up I decided to see what vertigo was like this week – turns out it’s not so much fun, but won’t stop the drive. Apropos of both, the talented Sarah Slean once wrote this:

The beauty of the cars, electric light
The speed with which their destinies glow

If you’ve never heard her before, check her stuff out. Her lyrics are great, and the string compositions she’s done recently have moments where they’re Brahmsesque. Fun stuff.