This was a hard post to write. I wrote and re-wrote it many times in my head before ever committing anything to paper. And then I re-wrote it another 100 times.
Why? Because I'm scared I'm going to screw it up. That I will, with the best of intentions, say something that offends and in doing so I will not be the ally I believe myself to be. I have seen this sentiment over and over again from many white people trying to do and say the right thing. We're terrified we're going to say the wrong thing. But that, in itself, is privilege; I can choose whether or not to say something. I can choose whether to stay silent or stand up. Not everyone has that privilege and so I write and I beg forgiveness and ask you to gently tell me if I get it wrong and how I can get it right.
I struggle with how to tell my daughters about the atrocities committed against the BIPOC community. They are young and curious and sensitive. They live in a Mr. Roger's world where, when things go horribly wrong, we say "look for the helpers" and they look for the paramedics and the firefighters and, yeah, the police. They have been taught to look for someone in uniform if they need help, so how do I explain to them that not everyone in uniform always does the right thing? That some people in uniform believe that there is hierarchy amongst people, a hierarchy predicated on colour and gender? That these people may not even really know that they hold these beliefs? That these beliefs are embedded in the very systems that support our communities? How do I tell them that some people are not safe, even when, - especially when - the police are there?
"How do I tell them" is my privilege. I can choose if I tell my girls about the hate and racism and violence in the world. I can choose how much or how little to tell them. And I can continue to tell them that the police will help them if they are lost or hurt or scared, because they will. It is a privilege that I have but that many mothers do not. It is a privilege that breaks my heart just thinking about it. It is because of this privilege that I have to say something, that I have to actively educate myself and my children on being anti-racist.
I have been actively educating myself about being an anti-racist for a while now, although I just learned the term not long ago while listening to Stamped by Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi. But I haven't been actively educating my kids. Why? Honestly, because I haven't had to. We, as a family, have not been forced to confront racism head on and therefore we haven't. It's a difficult, complex problem with many unanswerable questions. It unearths some of the ugliest parts of humanity that I'm not sure I want my kids to know about yet. I don't have a clue how to explain any of it to my children and so I don't, kind of like some parents shying away from conversations about sex and body parts. It makes me uncomfortable to talk about, so I don't. That, I realize, is a problem. I am not a racist but I'm not an anti-racist either. It's hard to be an anti-racist and yet never say anything to your children. Once again, my privilege rears it's ugly head.
I don't think that my situation is unique. I think there are many moms and dads out there just like me - white, in a predominantly white town. Wanting to do the right thing, to be an ally, to be an anti-racist, but not knowing how. Sure, we've talked about residential schools around the dinner table when my daughter began learning about them in school. We expressly value diversity in the way we talk about others. We encourage our kids to examine their own biases and the biases of others. But nothing has forced us into a conversation about being an anti-racist; at no point have we ever been confronted with overt racism that forced us to talk about it with our kids. Privilege.
How in the hell do you broach the subject of systemic racism with kids who have almost zero context for it? Yet again, privilege.
We work hard to raise our kids to appreciate that human diversity- in skin tone, in sexuality, in beliefs, in interests, in life choices - is beautiful as long as it doesn't hurt yourself, other people or the planet. The absence of overt racism in their young lives, my friends, is my children's privilege. Racism isn't a thing in their world (yet) because it doesn't have to be (yet). I wish it wouldn't ever have to be but I know now that in order to be an ally, to be an anti-racist, it isn't enough to just teach my kids to be good, kind, people with wide-open minds and hearts. I must actively point out where the systems are flawed, where people fall through the cracks nobody even knew were there, where society holds up mirrors and doors for some and walls for others.
It's hard to figure out how to broach this difficult conversation in an age-appropriate way (not nearly as hard, though, as having to explain to your black son what he needs to do to not get killed today. Not.Even.Close.). I started this morning, by sharing this video of a young black man singing with my 8 year old daughter. "Why is he singing that mom?" she asked, opening the door to the conversation. I gratefully stepped through that open door and began explaining; as she has little context for this kind of racism her attention span quickly waned but the conversation was started. And so, I share that video here, in case it helps you too start the conversation in your house. We can all be allies, sometimes we just need to know where to start.
I continued that conversation this evening, with my 10 year old, with a slightly different entry point. She overheard my husband and I talking about the riots and wanted to know more. She had a lot of difficulty wrapping her brain around why a man, any person really, would kneel on someone's neck for any reason whatsoever. She could not fathom how someone could cause another person deliberate pain and suffering, could not make sense of such a horrific act. She could not understand why people would stand by and film and not step in. And while I cannot help her make sense of this act (because it doesn't make sense), I can help her understand how people can be led to believe certain things about certain people or groups of people, often with even realizing it. I can help her understand that we must be actively aware of what we are being told and check it against our own beliefs. For this, I used something that Trevor Mackenzie, an author and educator, posted on Instagram. I googled "five white teens" and showed it to my daughter, asking her to describe what she saw and the emotions that the images portrayed. Then I googled "five black teens" and repeated the process. Try it yourself and see just how thought provoking it is. (For the record, I have also googled "five indigenous teens" just to see what came up. Again, food for thought.)
As teachers, we can have thought-provoking conversations using structures like Trevor Mackenzie's provocations. We can actively teach about truth and reconciliation. We can avoid the crafts and activities that unintentionally uphold the status quo. We can fill our classrooms with books that actively center BIPOC characters, even if our classrooms are filled with white faces. We can learn and unlearn, question our own beliefs, closely examine what we're teaching to be sure that it reflects the truth of history, not just our history. We can teach kids to be kind, caring and empathetic, to value diversity, to be allies, to spot injustice and do something about it. We can find colleagues who are also doing the work and support each other.
I plan to continue this conversation with, not surprisingly, books. There is a saying amongst educators that books can be mirrors to reflect yourself, windows to peek through to the lives of others and doors to step through into other worlds entirely. We need more books in our classrooms that allow all children to see their own lives and experiences reflected back at them while also allowing the opportunity for windows and doors in to lives that are different from their own. Imagine never having a read a book with a main character who had the same colour skin or was the same gender as you; imagine what you would internalize about your worth if you thought that no one had bothered to center your life and your experiences in literature, despite there being thousands of books on the shelf. We need to actively promote, at home and at school, books that center diverse experiences so that everyone feels seen and everyone gets a chance to see.
While the conversation about anti-racism may seem hard, the steps that you can take to begin the conversation are there. Take them. For the sake of the mothers and fathers and grandparents and friends who don't have the privilege of not taking them, take them. For the kids who need us to make the world a better place, take them. Own your privilege and then do something with it. It's not enough to say I am not a racist. We must become an anti-racist.
A ton of book lists have popped up on the internet over the last few days. A few are pictured above. I have linked a few more here:
EmbraceRace.org has a list of primarily non-fiction or historical fiction for kids. It includes many books about race issues in Canada as well as the U.S.
This list of teen books about social justice from the Seattle Public Library is a comprehensive look at not just racism but many other social justice issues as well.
These lists, from Kids Books in Vancouver, help you start and continue conversations about racism.
Check out these tips on how white parents can open the door to conversations about racism from CommonSenseMedia.org (easily one of my favourite sites on the internet).
Finally, follow BIPOC authors on social media. Buy their books. Read their books. Give their books to everyone you know, especially to kids. Follow the hashtags #ownvoices and #weneeddiversebooks and you will quickly find a community that centers and highlights stories that need to be told.
If you read my last post, you know that I tried out provocations last week with great success. With a gentle nudge from a colleague, I realized that this was actually not the first time I had tried out provocations (is a provocation by any other name still a provocation?) so, with a little reflection, I've come up with a few tips and tricks to make provocations go well in your classroom.
Provocations do not need to be complicated or grand. They are not "the big show". They are the nudge that sets your students on the path to wondering, thinking, learning. They are as simple as a great book, an interesting picture, an object out of place, a piece of art, a stick brought in from outside. Anything that sparks your students in to wondering, discussing or acting is a provocation.
Keep it simple.
If you've been cruising Pinterest or Instagram you've seen provocations that are, well, Pinterest-worthy. If you're in to spending several weekends sourcing items and creating elaborate scenes, by all means, be my guest. Want to know a secret though? The prettiest table was the last one my students were drawn to and they actually spent very little time there. I think they instinctively shied away from it because they didn't want to wreck it; they wanted to get messy and creative and that wasn't the place to do it. Keep your tables accessible and kid-friendly and save yourself some time in the process.
One of the greatest things about provocations are what you hear from the kids. The wonder, the awe, the questions, the aha moments - those are what you really want to capture. On your own, this is incredibly difficult. Even with an iPad or phone to record the action, you will have trouble getting to everyone. So enlist some help. Another teacher, your principal, support staff, parents; whomever you can find to help you record what the students are thinking as they experience the provocations. Not only is it fascinating to see what they think, these thoughts will guide your planning for the rest of the unit or allow you to see what your students have learned.
Be open to the experience.
I am pretty open to mess, noise and chaos in my classroom. Many teachers are not. During the provocations I sometimes found it difficult to check my instincts and allow things to continue despite the mess and chaos. Shaving cream and food colouring on the couch? Sure. In your hair? Why not? Dripping across the floor from one end of the classroom to the other? Ummmm....Often it didn't feel like my students were headed in the learning direction I had intended (or any learning direction at all for that matter) but their direction is the the direction that really matters when it comes to provocations. You plan the provocation but you don't get to decide where they take it. If you feel like kiboshing something, step back, wait for a moment and decide if you really need to step in or if you're just trying to control the situation.
Resist the urge to control.
Directly related to the last tip, resist the urge to control. As teachers we spend a lot of time controlling people and situations; this is not the place for that. Let things flow the way that they flow. It might not go the way that you think it will go but you can still learn a lot from it. Appreciate the learning for what it is, not what you wanted it to be.
Check your language.
Language is so very powerful; unintentionally, we can use it to control and guide a situation. A great idea is to ask questions instead of commenting on what is going on; "Tell me about what you're doing/what you see here", "What are you wondering about that?", "Are you curious about anything at this table?", "What made you try that?", "What are you going to do next?"
Start small, grow big.
I was lucky; I had lots of support in the form of people and already created provocation tables. If you don't find yourself in this auspicious situation, consider introducing provocations a little at a time. Start with a book, add in a picture (consider trying this technique from Making Thinking Visible), then move to one table in the back of your room. Allow kids to explore and move through each experience, loop back to one that worked well, then try the next one on for size. When you`re ready, go big (with help, see above).
In the end, the most important thing to remember is that provocations are designed to elicit a response from your students; you can structure the provocation to guide their thinking but you cannot control where they take it. There is beauty in that. There is freedom in that. There is so much to be learned and explored by following your students where they lead. Provocations are a reciprocal learning opportunity between teacher and student; be open to the opportunities and you and your students will reap the rewards.
If you are trying to figure out where to go after introducing a provocation to your classroom, consider having your students record their wonders. This will make their thinking visible to you and allow you to figure out which way to go next. To help you out, I created this simple freebie for them to record their learning on. Click on the picture to download (also available in French - click on the pic and then follow the link in the description).
Good luck, be patient, have fun and enjoy! Let me know how it goes...
It is no secret that I love collaborative teaching and learning (it's in my bio, over there ---->) and this week was one of so much fantastic collaboration with some pretty incredible people. I am incredibly lucky to have such amazing people around me.
What, you ask, was all of this fantastic collaboration about? Provocations. Water provocations, specifically. And man oh man were they amazing! Seeing my class exploring, experimenting, wondering and learning in a self-directed way was inspiring, to say the least.
This all started because I wanted to break out of the literacy centres, math centres mold and really try teaching in a much more holistic way. It's something I have been struggling with in Grade 2 and Grade 2 French Immersion specifically and will continue to struggle with for awhile, I'm sure - how to teach fundamental concepts like learning to read, write and do basic math without relegating social studies and science to cute little experiments and projects that are completely out of context. And before you give the standard "well, you just weave reading and writing and math in to your social studies unit" - which seems to be the pat answer from people who are either a) not primary teachers or b) not in the classroom day-to-day (and I freely admit that this has been me so no offense intended) - please take a moment to consider the resources necessary to do this effectively (lots of leveled readers on topic, in French, in my case; thoughtful, well-planned math assignments that are more than just decorated with pictures that fit the theme; mentor texts that lead to fantastic writing that fits the theme, and so on and so forth. And time. So much time.). Doable? Absolutely. Alone? Not without losing your mind. The amount of time, brain power and resources it takes to create a unit of study that effectively melds curriculum with student-interest and dynamic teaching is crazy high. Definitely worth the effort in the end, though.
Anyways. As they sometimes do, the stars aligned to allow me to bring together a group of incredibly knowledgeable educators who were willing to help me plan a unit that aligns with multiple areas of the curriculum, is responsive to my students' needs and interests and allows multiple subjects to be woven together in to some really rich learning opportunities.
Provocations are a Reggio-Emilia approach that are most easily conceptualized as anything that stimulates a child to wonder about, act upon or otherwise engage with a topic. While these often take the form of provocation tables, they can be as simple as books, photos, items from nature, a single object or an event that grabs a child's interest. So, in all likelihood, you are probably already using provocations in your day-to-day teaching practice and you just don't know it. Go you!
By the definition above, my unit is filled with provocations (go me!) but we specifically brought in some provocation tables to stimulate wonders (aka questions) that would guide the direction of the rest of the unit. Lucky for me, water provocations are apparently a hot topic this year (who knew I was so on trend?) so our district Instructional Leadership Team had a number of provocation tables prepared; I added a couple of my own that I thought would respond to the needs of my class and we were off.
So much excitement. So much curiousity. So much wonder. Although we cut them off after 45mins to allow another class to check the provocations out I think my kiddos could have kept going for at least an hour. They thrive on this stuff. I'm stoked to see where this takes us!
I'm Bryn, teacher, mom, book lover, athlete. I am passionate about living life with my family, teaching and learning something new all the time. I hope you find something that speaks to you here on my blog and would love to hear from you too!