Education Action: Toronto

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How do we build an anti-racist curriculum and culture in Toronto schools?

Address to February 2009 meeting of Education Action: York West and Jane-Finch on the Move by Antoni Shelton Co-chair Education Action: York West

Let me start by following up a perspective I have heard from so many in my community of York West and in my travels across the city. An anti-racist curriculum and culture starts with the insistence that all our children be treated as full human beings – deserving our love and respect and the promise of a future with dignity and purpose. It is this perspective that has to be central to how we deal with the curriculum and how we evaluate it, how we fund and run our schools, and how we deal with the various social class and racial divisions our children face at school. It is our common humanity – the shared values of children and communities – that provides the core of an anti-racist curriculum and culture in our schools. Of course, different cultures, different histories, different languages have to be incorporated into such a curriculum and culture – and we’ll get to that in a short while – but it’s our common humanity in all its different expressions that counts most of all
In policy terms, this means the first thing we have to insist on is that our Toronto school boards stop dividing our children, largely on the basis of social class and race, and doing so in ways that result in poor children and children of colour (often from immigrant families) getting an inferior education. This means we have to stop bottom-streaming kids – placing children in programs where less is expected of them in school – in both academic and behavioural terms – and less is expected of them on the job, as citizens and as consumers. These bottom streams – in Special Education, in Individual Education Programs (IEPs), in gutted regular programs in poor schools, in high school Applied, Essentials, Mixed, College and Workplace programs – foreclose our children’s future. Increasingly, the children, who are placed in these bottom streams, come from poor, immigrant and racialized communites.
The second big thing is to stop the official profiling of so many of our students that serves to provide the rationale for bottom streaming. Such profiling labels children as abnormal, inferior academically, and socially maladjusted and, thus, can’t be expected to do well at school. Again, it’s children from poor, immigrant, and racialized communities who get most of these labels. It’s slander and it has to stop. This means we have to stop defining these students as “at risk,” which not only has come to mean “at risk” of doing badly in school but also not being able to do well at school. And it’s not just poor children or children of colour who are being put down by this category. Whole communities are defined as “at risk,” which in practice has meant writing them off as communities who can fully participate in the society. We have to stop defining so many of our children as having varying degrees of intellectual and social disability. Instead, we have to expect these children to do substantial intellectual and creative work in school, and if they seem to be resisting such work, we have to rethink what we are asking them to do. We have to engage all our children in genuinely exploring and understanding the world they experience. We have to encourage them to make their own judgments and to act on what they consider worth loving in life and to change what they know has to be changed. We have to let them know that they matter and that we expect them to grow up as adults committed to building a just and caring society. All of which means we don’t dump them into bottom streams and tell them they ought to be there.
What does this involve in direct policy proposals? For Education Action: North West this means one single stream for all students in the elementary schools. It means all students have a right to learn in good regular classrooms so long as they can do so without risks to their own health or the health of others. It means the provision of pedagogical training and classroom materials designed by active educators to make so-called “mixed ability” classrooms welcoming and successful – classrooms, I should add, that all the research shows are best for all the kids (those doing well in school and those who aren’t). In high school it means two equally strong programs (academic and technical), with a single academic core of subjects taken by all students. Each of these programs should provide access to higher education or highly-skilled employment. We don’t want vocational programs for dummies. We expect our technical students not only to have a solid craft background, but also to be prepared for engaged citizenship and an understanding of the arts and sciences that allows for a more fully realized life. This position is worked out in more detail in the Education Action: Toronto policy draft you picked up at the door. But it needs a lot more work and discussion, to which we hope you will contribute.
There are, of course, two other big policy areas that are essential to a serious anti-racist curriculum and culture in our schools. The schools in poor, immigrant, and racialized communities have to be funded decently. Increasingly, they are paying the price for provincial cutbacks in education (to pay for tax breaks for the rich and the corporations) and the growing division between rich and poor in our cities. More and more our communities are being asked to pay out of their own pockets to help fund our schools. Wealthy communities can afford to provide additional educational resources for their children inside and outside school, though they shouldn’t be asked to do so. Poor communities can’t afford it. Solid funding has to be restored for all, based on a fair taxation system. The micromanaging of local school governance by the Ministry of Education and local bureaucrats carrying out provincial policies also hurts poor, immigrant, racialized communities in ways that are especially harmful. Middle-class parent communities have long experience in organizing within the school system and in working to take hold of their local schools. These middle-class communities still face major hurdles in dealing with school administrators, but nothing compared to those who have long hours of tiring work, poor living conditions and few resources, and little knowledge of how the school system works. We have to build much stronger structures for local control of our schools (including a much stronger engagement of our teachers) and make certain we have community organizers placed in each school that answer to the community.
I want to turn now to the more immediate issue of facing up to racism in our schools. Race has no biological reality. It is an arbitrary social category that makes use of shallow observable differences between people to maintain an inequitable distribution of power and the subsequent abuse of power. Racism must be challenged in all its manifestations, from the individual to the systemic. Active intervention to challenge existing barriers to racist inequality in the education system is essential. These barriers exist in the curricula, the pedagogical practices and the educational environment. Racism has to be fought with all available allies, such as community members, parents, students, colleagues, administration, board policies. We have to critically examine all curriculum materials to ensure equity. For example, identification of people of colour who have contributed to the development of knowledge in all subject areas; use of people of colour to tell their own stories; balanced portrayal of all racial groups; continued questioning of assumptions behind the choice of materials. We hve to examine classroom practices – from the seating of students to the student voices heard – to insure there is racial equity.
What about culture? We don’t just want to stop racist practices, we want to incorporate into our schools the positive dimensions of Canada’s many cultures, including the strengths of what is often called mainstream Canada – the decency and caring of a large majority of Canadian citizens – and which are increasingly absent from government and corporate policies in education and in the society as a whole. We have to bring our local communities into the schools and in close relation to the teachers. As much as possible, community members should be integrated with the work of the school – in administration, in monitoring school spaces, in student activities in and out of the classroom, in bringing parents and community together with the teachers, and in the development of curriculum. We have to insure that school practices take in the cultural strengths of the communities around the school to bear on the school – skills in collective decision making; the experience of looking after each other in extended families and communities; traditions of emphasizing caring relationships (as opposed to treating students as human capital and parents and teachers as human capital producers); knowledge of languages and literatures; perspectives on human history and the current economic, political and social interrelations of the world’s peoples. We have to remember that the peoples who now come to this country from around the globe, bring with them practicing civilizations, not just the histories of kings and fine artisans that have been lost in the midst of time or Eurocentric history writing. Our newcomers – increasingly people of colour – need the opportunity to express the humanity in their civilizations, which, for centuries now, the imperialism of the West has worked to deny them and which so much Canadian policy and practice continues to deny them. Nowhere is the need for these civilizations greater than in our schools. Finally we have to provide opportunities in all subject areas to introduce issues, questions, assignments, independent study topics, reports, etc. in which students of colour and immigrant students can also be experts. This will include the experience of racism. It is essential that racism is on the table in our classrooms – with students analyzing all the ways it is experience and all the ways it can be resisted.

Please see EA:TO Anti-Racist Education Policy

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