Equity and the Secondary English Language Arts Classroom

Equity in the Secondary Classroom

Equity in the Secondary Classroom: why schools are considered colonial institutions, and how to improve your practice to promote equity in curriculum.

The recent revival of the Black Lives Matter movement has many of us revisiting our professional practices, personal experiences, and cultural views. This blog post will examine the role of educational institutions in perpetuating inequity and offer some reflection on how we can improve our practice.

But before I dive into this blog post, I’d like to take a moment to communicate my intention with sharing this information with you:

I am not here to judge your pedagogical practices, or to suggest that I know what is best for your classroom or your school.

I am not here to say that you are not doing enough, or that you need to do more.

Rather, I am sharing this information today in response to my own prior practices.

I have always regarded myself as an empathetic teacher and as a liberal-minded person. I have always valued the emotional environment and sense of community within a classroom. I was never shy to start class conversations, to teach controversial topics, or to engage my students with the political realities of our world. It took some time to identify my errors, and recognize that I, too, have perpetuated inequity through my teachings.

The hardest part has been sitting with the fact that my role as a teacher perpetuates inequity in and of itself – that my participation in a colonial institution is inherently oppressive, regardless of my good intentions.

Why are Schools Considered to be a Colonial Institution?

To state that public education in North America is colonial is simply to state that it is modeled, funded, and administrated by a governing body that is not indigenous to the land. I will use my school board in Toronto, Ontario as an example: we are funded by the Ministry of Education, which is an organization within the Government of Ontario. The Ministry of Education also implements policies and provides curriculum for all grade levels, providing teachers and administrators with guidelines, resources, and expectations for how schools should operate. There are no implications to these statements, but rather offer a neutral illustration of how our educational institutions are constructed.

Discussing Inequity in Education and Oppression in Middle School and High School

Our school system is modeled after the European school system, and schools as we know them began in the Colonial Era of North America. Not all cultures approach education in the same way; for example, formal education is not mandatory in all cultures like it is in North America. Instead of science, math, and literacy, some cultures focus on skills like horticulture and farming. From the division of primary and secondary school, to the use of a grading system – public education in North America shares a lot with the European model. Fun fact: we even borrow the term “kindergarten” from Germany.

Colonialism is further entrenched in our school system through the curriculum. Our history textbooks are told from the colonizer’s perspective, and stories often begin in Europe. While education has recently strived to incorporate indigenous teachings, we are not founded on them, nor are we funded by indigenous groups or influenced by their policies. With these statements in mind, we enter into a dialogue on the oppressive nature of colonial education.

Why is Colonial Education Oppressive?

In a recent workshop titled Does Your Content Perpetuate Inequity? Cheyenne E. Batista shared “The Four Is of Oppression.” This description indicates that oppression is Ideological, Institutional, Interpersonal, and Internalized. On an institutional level, oppression “uses the law, legal systems, policies, and other tools to maintain the ideology.”

The Four Is of Oppression.  Oppression is ideological, institutional, interpersonal, and internal.

Institutional oppression will look different for every student in every school; as a single perspective, I cannot speak to all of them, and as a white person of privilege, my experience is limited. But my own story of school can still offer some insight as to how oppression functions within the Canadian education system:

I remember celebrating Christmas and Easter, but not Ramadan or Eid ul-Adha. In history class, I remember watching “Canada: A People’s History” – a recollection of Canada’s history told entirely from the European perspective, with very little focus on Indigenous history or culture. I didn’t learn about residential schools. I didn’t read novels written by people of colour, or see them represented in the books I read. Diverse sexualities were not represented by my staff, and particular occupations were legitimized and prioritized during our post-secondary education, while others were not.

When education is colonial, it inadvertently prioritizes a dominant culture through representation in history, cultural teachings, and societal norms. Often times, when oppressed groups do learn their history, they either learn the incomplete version, the version isolated in the past, or the version told from the oppressor’s perspective. As Stephanie P. Jones recounts in her article “Ending Curriculum Violence,” African-American history taught in many schools within the United States “[promotes] a sanitized version of slavery that isolates the system and its legacy within a bracket of time with only a select few perpetrators and beneficiaries.” This lends to the conclusion that students are often learning the history of their culture “in ways that are ideologically violent.”

How can we work within the colonial institution to establish an anti-racist classroom?

If you are like me, you may have accepted your good intentions as a reason to exclude yourself from the category of the oppressor. But many of us have recently learned that anti-racist pedagogy involves more than just our intentions.

When we hear about incidents of inequity in our society, they are often major incidents that we would not associate with our school’s environment. Unfortunately, such incidents are not unheard of for our students; because of this, we must recognize the ways in which the smaller incidents in our very own classrooms contribute to the student’s larger traumatic experience of school. Microaggressions, whether committed deliberately or unintentionally, have the power to perpetuate the traumatic experience of our students. In sum: the small things matter.

Inequity in Schools: Strategies for an Anti-Racist Classroom

Abolishing inequity in educational institutions is not going to happen overnight; however, there are some features of the English Language Arts classroom that we can take into consideration to make immediate changes:

Cultural Holidays and Celebrations

Consider the holidays that are celebrated, recognized and acknowledged in your classroom. This goes beyond merely teaching the history of celebrations and encompasses granting time and space within the classroom to observe these holidays. Speak to your students about their cultural holidays and celebrations and ask them how you can best support them during these times.

Family Engagement Plans

Not all of our students’ parents speak English, work day jobs, or are accustomed to being part of a school community. Honor diversity in your school community by accommodating for your students’ families. Offer opportunities to connect with them through translation services, classroom visits, and alternative options for keeping in touch – a classroom blog or monthly newsletter are both great options.

Diverse Literature and Texts

The Great Gatsby was a favorite of mine, but I probably won’t be teaching it again.  How many of my students could see themselves in a novel like Gatsby?   I would rather take pride in how many of my students could connect with a novel like Beloved or The Summer I Wasn’t Me. Questions we can ask ourselves when planning our next novel study include whether or not diverse voices and histories are shared, and most importantly, how they are shared.  Are they glossed over, do they focus only on tragedy, or are they told from a singular perspective?  Students of diverse backgrounds deserve to celebrate their history.  They deserve role models. They deserve to feel proud.

Approaches to Historical Teachings

Difficult histories can be harmful to teach, and as a result, an educator’s approach must be trauma-informed. Students should never be asked to reenact oppressive histories, or imitate the oppressor and oppressed. While these activities may seem explicitly insensitive, there are several offensive elements of a lesson that could still remain overlooked. If you’re unsure if your lesson is appropriate, try to reach out to a trusted colleague before scrapping your approach altogether – evidently, silence can have a negative impact too.

Diversity in Education Regardless of Student Population

Embarrassing confession: when I was in teachers’ college, and I was learning about equity and social justice in the classroom, I kind of put it on the back burner. I thought, “well, I’m teaching in a rural school, and my classes are entirely white.” I realize now that was a terrible mistake – it should go without saying that diversity exists within white populations and that all students need exposure to diversity, regardless of their identity. The world is a diverse place, even if your classroom doesn’t seem like it – prepare your students to be able to participate appropriately in their community, their workforce, and their global community.

Educational Values and Academic Goals

Within schools, values are communicated interpersonally, as well as on a larger, school-wide scale. Consider your school’s training, policies, and behaviour plans; speak to other professionals at your school, and collectively challenge the inequity you see in your school’s framework. In addition to this, take a step back to consider your own values and goals for your students – do they align with their cultural beliefs, their family’s history, and their own independent values? Do they allow your students to see authentic reflections of themselves within them?

Seek Student Voices

All of this advice is made easier through genuine communication with your students. Offer opportunities for them to share their opinions, and don’t be apprehensive about receiving feedback, too – constructive criticism will inevitably benefit future curricular choices. Construct your classroom as a collaborative space, and allow students to share their experiences and learn from one another. Mondays Made Easy offers a free set of tools for teachers and students to prepare for discussions surrounding inequality in your classroom.

Looking for more information on this subject? Check out Teaching Tolerance for classroom resources, professional development, and more.

To learn more about Cheyenne E. Batista and her work, visit FireFly Worldwide Inc.

If you have any suggestions to add to the list of strategies listed above, I’d love to hear from you: