Exploring race & assumptions – initial work & reflections

I’ve spent the past 4 weeks immersed in a Grade 3 classroom, and while I would like to blog more generally about the experience, this post is about an isolated, introductory activity in anti-discriminatory education.

I began to plan some instruction and learning regarding Aboriginal Education and anti-discriminatory education.  The students, with the host teacher, had been immersed in a “Pioneers” unit for the past 2 months with brief mentions of the Aboriginals/Natives who lived in the land we now call Canada well before any of these early settlers.  In teaching the “Aboriginal” side to the unit (I have huge objections to the curricular and instructional divide in the first place, but that’s another discussion in and of itself!), I wanted the students to embark on an exploration and understanding of contemporary Aboriginal/First Nations/Native peoples.  I wanted to address our ideas about Aboriginal/First Nations/Native peoples within our own Canadian/Toronto context.

So I began by getting students to brainstorm, draw, and/or write about their ideas of Aboriginal/First Nations/Native peoples today. The verbal prompt was “When you hear the words ‘Native people(s) in Canada today’, what do you think of? What comes to mind?”

Here are 3 examples of students’ responses:

The students expressed a range of responses – everything from socially awkward encounters to notions of dark skin, hunting, living in teepees, using bows and arrows for tools, wearing animal loin cloths and red feathers.

Afterwards, I told the students that we were going to watch a video about a First Nations boy who lives in Toronto today.  The clip, roughly 20 or so minutes is entitled “Positively Native” from the Many Voices (1991) television series from TVOntario (a resource I strongly recommend for Ontario/Canadian educators for diversity/anti-discriminatory education). I didn’t do much questioning or prompting in terms of how to interpret or analyze the video, as I wanted to see what the students would get out of it.  We did a short whole class discussion, where students started to compare what they thought prior to and after the video regarding Aboriginal/First Nations/Native peoples today.  I wanted them to write down their thoughts right away without too much group analysis or instruction/guiding on my end.  The prompt was “After watching the video, have your ideas changed? Would you change on your brainstorm?”

Here are the same three students’ written responses after watching the video:

The students then went home for the day and I didn’t get around to looking at these responses until a few days later. I was both surprised in good ways and shocked in uncomfortable and unsettling ways with the range of responses.  The third example is that ideal – the student is able to compare previous, preconceived notions to one’s informed state.  The 2nd example shows some evidence of this thoughtful reflection, with some minor misconceptions remaining (tapping of mouth was not discussed as a “call” but rather a stereotype and derogatory action by others).  The first one was one of the shockers.  Despite learning about a young boy around their own age who was living in the same city, despite learning of his story of being bullied, despite seeing ignorant, misguided, and uninformed mass media portrayals & assumptions of his cultural heritage and practices… nothing has changed to alter this student’s perspective of who “Natives” are.  This specific example is most troubling to me – by getting to know one Native, the student has now made sweeping generalizations, that “I already knew about Natives because I knew someone who was Native… she was in my class.  She was very quiet but sometimes disturbing.”

Given the time restrictions of the course, I did not have the opportunity to revisit this particular lesson, but we did spend time Skyping with First Nations students from New Zealand and well as letter (with pictures) writing/sharing with a class on a fly-in reserve in Manitoba.  Here the students spoke directly to/saw these students – recognizing they act, talk, dress, and live very similar to us, that they are not as “foreign” or “different” as they imagine.

After all is said and done, what remains with me is an unsettling feeling.  As an educator, I must prioritize anti-discriminatory education.  The variance in the developments (or stagnation) of these students’ perspectives on another culture proves to me that this type of work needs to occur on a daily basis.  I wish I had more than 2 weeks to explore Aboriginal identities/cultures, let alone the students’ own exploration and construction of self-identities.

Thoughts or responses? Please share.

4 thoughts on “Exploring race & assumptions – initial work & reflections

  1. I really appreciate insight into the whole Aboriginal Education and anti-discriminatory education, I didn’t really know much about it from a teaching perspective. In New Zealand Maori is part of the curriculum, is one of the three official languages of New Zealand (other than English and Sign Language) and is taught in pretty much every class to some degree. We also have bi Lingual classrooms that teach Maori to a specific percentage and total immersion classrooms that are one hundred percent Maori. Our particular school is 45% Maori, but they are by far our biggest ethnic group. We’re always looking at ways to promote the students and their culture which is why we try and look to collaborating with other students, and yes our Girls loved talking to a class of students in Canada, so thanks for making your students available for the call.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Myles. It’s interesting to note the differences in “culture” education – whether it’s one’s own or another. The students were quite intrigued to hear that the girls were learning about their own cultural identity in school. Here in Ontario, there is also a range. By and large, many classrooms are culturally diverse. What cultures do we explore and learn about? I’d say many – even beyond the ones in the classroom.

  3. I found your entry very interesting Monica. Your comment about the concerns around the curriculum divide between pioneers and First Nations is very interesting, a divide that most teachers in my experience do not recognize. My boys (aged 8 and 9) spent their pre-school years living in First Nation communities in Northern Ontario. The differences between them and their playmates were not discussed as there was no need to do so. When we moved to London Ontario my son started to attend Grade 2. In the spring he came home and told me how Indians wear loincloths and hunt for their food using spears. I asked him why his friends from Northern Ontario didn’t dress like that and he said “They weren’t Indians dad.”

    • Thanks for the comment, Greg.
      Learning about First Nation communities, or any community for that matter, is not as clear cut as one would think. I think educators need to provide multifaceted opportunities for students to learn about and understanding individuals and communities.

      Thanks for sharing your story about your son. Did you respond to his statement?

      I’ve been thinking about the implications of choosing to discuss differences or to not address them at all. As well, what are the implications of only discussing superficial similarities? As adults, we are aware that one person is not representative of a culture, as much as we know a culture does not fully determine and dictate an individual. Are we exploring these dynamics with students – about others but also themselves? “Teaching a unit” on a particular culture can easily reinforce stereotypes – especially when it relates to the culture in the 21st century. I’d like to hope we develop a heightened sensitivity to the implications of instruction.

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