As two Toronto Catholic District School Board trustees push to get rid of gay-straight alliances in schools, it reminds me of the work we still need to do to get our public institutions to be safe places for everyone. After all, there is no better way to marginalize and oppress a group than by raising barriers to discourse around people’s deepest thoughts, feelings, and questions. In our systems, we spend a disproportinate amount of time wringing our hands over people’s language because we feel comfortable when everyone is using the acceptable terminology. We don’t spend a fraction of the time on people’s hearts and minds, sparking or encouraging real, human conversation which delves into the root causes and structures which support the othering of people that don’t fit our templates. No one can deny that language plays a powerful role in maintaining oppression, but sometimes we forget that talking itself, not just the correction of words may be the key.
Stuart Hall, in his seminal article “Teaching Race”, always reminds us, for instance, that we do not combat racism in schools by shunning ‘explosive’ discussions around it. Rather, it is by lifting the proverbial veil on an issue, facilitated by a teacher attentive to ideological power structures in the room, that we can even hope to effect real change.
I want to use an immediate example from my own class that I hope will help me unpack some of these ideas.
We’ve been learning about persuasion in our room. It’s always one of my favourite areas of literacy because it is inherently engaging and easy to observe students making rapid improvement in their skills and thinking. Moreover, it encourages integration of every brand of literacy you can imagine, because persuasion inundates us from the moment we wake in the morning until, well, the moment we awake the next morning. Don’t forget that my students are adolescents; they find it immensely motivating to learn how to be more convincing.
One activity I engaged students in was a focused viewing of current events roundtable discussions on television. They were especially intrigued by this after seeing me appear on TVO’s (Ontario’s PBS) The Agenda, a publicly funded current events show hosted by Steve Paikin. We watched these shows in order to deconstruct and brainstorm behaviours and actions speakers exhibited which we saw as benefitting and/or harming their arguments (our collaborative anchor chart can be seen here).
One question I asked students was:
What personal biases keep getting in the way when you’re trying to judge a speaker’s trustworthiness?
Many students were very honest in response to my prompt, particularly because I reminded them that their statements would be exempt from judgement. There were two responses that struck me the most.
The first occurred after watching a sports roundtable discussion, and centred around one panelist in particular, Cathal Kelly of The Toronto Star.
Quite a few students admitted that Kelly’s atypical appearance was a distraction to hearing his arguments. It was difficult to listen to him, they said, because he had such a divergent aesthetic to the other speakers. “I couldn’t take my eyes off his glasses!” they kept saying.
The second, most heavy conversation was sparked during an episode centred around a political topic. Several girls in my class mentioned that the only female panelist (of five) on the episode seemed less professional because of her attire. I was so happy when they brought this up, because it was the best kind of teachable moment.
Me: What is it about the way she is dressed that seems unprofessional?
Student: I’m not sure, it’s hard to say. It’s like, everyone else is dressed in nice suits and ties and she’s just dressed in a casual looking blouse. It doesn’t look right.
Me: How should she be dressed?
Student: I’m not sure. A little more professionally somehow.
I feel as though one option I could have taken in this conversation would have been to immediately stop the class, alert them to the prejudice espoused in the statement about the woman’s (completely appropriate) clothing, and remind them that it was an incorrect thing to say.
Instead, what ensued was the best kind of critical discussion. We talked about cultural hegemony without ever using the term. I stood back, threw in the occasional prompt, and witnessed my students have quite the heady conversation about language, gender, stereotypes, and dynamics of power. None of us could deny the extent to which our various conditioned biases effected our ability to both literally and figuratively hear someone. I’m proud but not surprised that my class came to this realization in an organic, discursive, non-judgemental manner. Why do we so rarely trust our young people with this?
As though it were written for some kind of Dead Poet’s Society moment, one of my students had the last word.
I don’t care about all that stuff because I’m just trying to listen to what she is saying. I think it’s more important to listen to their arguments than judge the way they look.
Two TDCSB trustees say they are speaking for many when they ironically demand the silencing of people they don’t understand; we should be just as loud when defending these voices.