Category Archives: Social Justice

How educators understand poverty: One teacher’s perspective

More and more,  poverty awareness is coming up in my teacher education classes. Perhaps this is because I (Yiola) am gaining more confidence about how to frame, discuss, and process the issues associated with teaching poverty awareness.  Or perhaps it is because students are seeing issues of poverty play out in their placements and are comfortable to raise questions in our class.  Whatever the cause for the awareness I am glad this discourse has made its way into my classes.

Ultimately the questions lead to, what can teachers do? I teach two levels of teacher education courses this year: I teach at the Masters level and I am also teaching a first year undergraduate teacher education course.  I can safely say that most student teachers care about poverty awareness and I can also safely say most student teachers do not know what to do about it.

Then a student in my Masters level course shared this link with us:

The video is of one teacher beautifully expressing the trials and tribulations of one student in her class. It is a very sad story. It is depressing. But it is much more than that. The narrative presents a perspecitve that all teachers must have; an understanding that poverty makes life hard… BUT… this is not the fault of the child. The teacher’s acknowledgement that her student is smart and capable and kind is central to this discourse. Many scholars acknowledge that teachers must hold affirming views of their students. And, I sense that most students teachers shrug this concept off as “yah yah, of course. That is obvious. Of course I will like all my students.”  but to move beyond the circumstances and consequences of poverty to see that a child who is experiencing that plight IS capable, smart and kind is not so obvious.
When we viewed the video in class many of us were near tears.  I questioned whether this was a good thing or not. It is important to raise awareness but such awareness cannot  just hang out there in agony and leave students feeling despair. Awareness must move beyond understanding to the “what can I do? As a teacher what am I going to do?”.  Here the video stops short but our discussions continued.  Student teachers began to blend theory with their placement practice to try to make sense of how they could possible make “carrying the one” manageable so students living in poverty can make gains in their learning and their lives.  This is no easy feat. We set out some steps for our work as teachers: The first step is teacher awareness, the next step is having students know they are cared for and believed in, and the step after that to critically assess our own practices so our methods are accessible, manageable, and achievable so students feel success.  Each of these steps require intense reflection, listening, thinking, studying and experience.  I haven’t touched on levels of community or institutional activism and that is with intention. In my experience, student teachers need to understand that work for themselves first.
To have student teachers think and teach in these ways is activism.  Some student teachers are there in their understanding and are leaders… most are not. My goal is to support student teachers’ learning and further their understandings of the social determinants of educational success so they have the knowledge and skills to deal with issues in their classroom.
The video I share above is powerful. There are thoughtful, powerful descriptions in her narrative about her student(s), their families, and schooling that help illustrate just what it means to be a student living in poverty.

Dewey meets Delpit: Bringing theory to life in teacher education

Last week I (Yiola) tried something in my teacher education course that was less safe. I brought together divergent theorists,  multiple contexts and eras and encouraged practicum connections in ways that are not typical.  I was unsure of the outcome: would the student teachers understand? connect? appreciate? Just as I encourage our students teachers to take risk, I took a risk in hope new understandings, connections and realizations about teaching and learning would occur.  At the end of class students applauded… when does that ever happen? The comments and reactions at the end of class indicate that students appreciated the class content and left class with much to think about.

I have recently re-read Dewey’s Education and Experience (1938) and was inspired to share the ideas with my class, namely what is miseducative practice? And how do traditional and progressive models of education play out in classrooms today? We discussed how both models are quite transparent in today’s classrooms. We also explored Dewey’s recommendation of a theory of education that is based on a philosophy of experience. Student teachers felt that the notion of experience is now more commonly understood and a desired practice in teaching. We discussed how finding a coherent theory of education based on a philosophy of experience would require transcending the notion of “either/or” traditional or progressive models and moving into integrative reasoning. So this is all quite typical… and then I introduced Delpit.

In Delpit’s work Other People’s Children  (1988) Delpit described herself as “a product of skills-oriented approach to writing and a teacher of process oriented approaches”.  Her amazing chapter, The Silenced Dialogue,  illustrates Dewey’s request to have educators think deeply about the either/or debate between models of education and the implications of our practice on student learning. Delpit explains the following about her chapter, “My charge here is not to determine the best instructional methodology… Rather, I suggest that the differing perspectives on the debate over “skills” versus “process” approaches can lead to an understanding of the alienation and miscommunication, and thereby to an understanding of the “silenced dialogue”… this is precisely what Dewey asked of us fifty years prior, that as educators we must go deeper than thinking across methods; we must use a philosophy of experience to deepen our understanding of the best ways to teach children. For Delpit, the experiences are those of Children of colour and children who experience poverty.

Exploring Dewey’s concepts through the lens of power and Delpit’s context of literacy was remarkable. The process of grounding Dewey’s theories in Delpit’s work provided grounding for both scholars in ways that I wasn’t yet unprepared. Students were excited to talk about a philosophy of experience by looking as social context as a foreground for understanding models of education; for understanding why certain methods may work well and not well and how to move our practice forward so all students are not only learning but are successfully learning in ways that are empowering them.

The final layer of discussion in class was to connect the ideas to their own placements. To tell stories of methodological challenge and to explore how to address those challenges thinking about what Dewey suggests and what Delpit illustrates. Again, students were speaking in detail on the gaps and the glories in their classrooms and schools.  The result of this class: discussion sophisticated and practices validated.

We finished the discussion by reading aloud the last paragraphs of Delpit’s chapter; as a reminder of the enormous but yet delightful task we have as teachers if we truly wish to create learning for all:

We must keep the perspective that people are experts in their own lives. There are certainly aspects of of the outs tide world of which they may not be aware, but they can be the only authentic chroniclers of their own experience. We must not be too quick to deny their interpretations or accuse them of “false consciousness”…And finally, we must be vulnerable enough to allow our world to turn upside down in order to allow the realities of others to edge themselves into our consciousness…  

By doing what Delpit suggests and with keeping Dewey’s foundational perspectives in mind we as teachers can begin to understand how models work in classrooms.

“The Long Shadow”: The fortification of socio-economic class

A mere 4 percent of the first-graders Alexander and Entwisle had classified as the “urban disadvantaged” had by the end of the study completed the college degree that’s become more valuable than ever in the modern economy. A related reality: Just 33 of 314 had left the low-income socioeconomic status of their parents for the middle class by age 28.

A 25 year long study named The Beginning School Study out of John Hopkins University explores “disadvantaged” populations in Baltimore. The researchers observed and interviewed first graders into their adult lives over the course of twenty-five years. The evidence shows there is little upward mobility.

I am troubled by a comment made in the article: The families and neighborhoods these children were born into cast a heavy influence over the rest of their lives, from how they fared in the first grade to what they became as grownups. 

In my (Yiola) opinion, the perspective of family and community as the influence and determinant of health and success is short sighted. How a society and government collectively and resourcefully (or not) engage with families and neighbourhoods is by far the greater influence as is illustrated when the journalist explains:

The findings, meanwhile, accumulated in dozens of journal articles. Alexander and Entwisle helped establish that young children make valuable subjects, that their first-grade foundations predict their later success, that more privileged families are better able to leverage the promise of education. Also, disadvantaged children often fall even further back over the summer, without the aid of activities and summer camps.

These findings are not about the influence of family or neighbourhood; they seem more the result of the influence of quality of education, resources, opportunities that are available to populations, all of which surround socio-economic class. The structures and systemic values and institutions in place are not equal between those of high and low economic status: for example, inner city schools do not have the same resources as the schools in affluent areas – this is not the fault of the families nor the neighbourhoods nor the teachers.

We like to think that education is an equalizer — that through it, children may receive the tools to become entrepreneurs when their parents were unemployed, lawyers when their single moms had 10th-grade educations. But Alexander and Entwisle kept coming back to one data point: the 4 percent of disadvantaged children who earned college degrees by age 28.

“We hold that out to them as what they should work toward,” Alexander says. Yet in their data, education did not appear to provide a dependable path to stable jobs and good incomes for the worst off.  

My question then become  WHAT CAN BE DONE WITHIN EDUCATION and POLICY to allow education to be a dependable pathway?

It is not only a question of class but race certainly factors into the discussion as the researchers also discovered the following:

Alexander and Entwisle found one exception: Low-income white boys attained some of the lowest levels of education. But they earned the highest incomes among the urban disadvantaged.

They were able, Alexander and Entwisle realized, to tap into what remains of the good blue-collar jobs in Baltimore. These are the skilled crafts, the union gigs, jobs in trades traditionally passed from one generation to the next and historically withheld from blacks. These children did not inherit college expectations. But they inherited job networks. And these are the two paths to success in the Beginning School Study.

The findings confirm what we have known all along, that is classism and racism are an integral and embedded piece of our policies and existence. The idea that families and neighbourhoods are the influence is not accurate. Families and neighbourhoods are the circumstances caused because of the structures/policies/beliefs of society.

I cannot help but think of the book “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” a biography that Clare recommended some time ago here on the blog. Robert Peace grew up much like the urban youth in Baltimore. He was a genius and thrived in school so much so that he found himself a Yale graduate. However, he could not escape the drug-dealing life and was ultimately murdered in the neighbourhood where he grew up. Moving upward in socio-class is not only a matter of doing well in school or acquiring money (although these elements too are extremely difficult today). Education and money are not indicators of moving outside one’s class. There seems to be fortress like walls around different classes of our given society and only with extreme leaps and bounds and circumstances can one truly cross the borders.

The research methodology of this study is fascinating. 25 years of observation and interviews, of relationship building and reporting. The work of the researchers is exciting and so very interesting.

Visiting the Rishi Valley School…Part 2


While at the Rishi Valley School I had the opportunity of visiting the Rishi Valley Institute for Education Resources (RIVER), a teacher training and development wing of Rishi Valley Rural Education Centre. The school serves children from the surrounding rural communities, several of which are impoverished. At first glance the RIVER school appears to be like many rural schools in India; one large classroom, one teacher, twenty-five students spanning across 5 grades. However, after spending an afternoon in the classroom it became clear that this classroom was not like the others. First, there are no desks or chairs; rather, there are four large tables with students purposefully seated at them. Second, Kala, the classroom teacher, does not do any stand-up teaching. Instead, she moves from table to table working with small groups of kids or one-on-one with a child with laminated graded cards. Kala is using the multi-grade, multi-level methodology which the Rishi Valley School has spent years developing, and she has spent years perfecting. At the RIVER school a “community-based curriculum is taught…where the academic curriculum is graded for individual levels of learning, grounded in up-to-date information, and framed in the local idiom, and…where the curriculum is integrated with activities.” (


The classroom

I was most interested in the pride the students took in their graded cards they had completed, as well as their designated space on the wall to record their progress (pictures below). They were all very aware of what level they were at for each of their subject. The graded cards are part of an educational kit the RIVER school has created.

This is how the educational kit works:

The education kit, a series of carefully graded cards, replaces textbooks in the area of language, mathematics and environmental science. Each card in the graded series is marked with a logo (rabbit, elephant, dog) and mapped on to a subject-specific “Learning Ladder”, a progress guide which traces out the learning trajectory for students.

Spaces on the Ladder are sub-divided into a set of milestones. These milestones consist of  cards that explain a concept;  the applications of the concept;  evaluation of students’ understanding and, finally, provide means of testing, remediation or  enrichment. A student identifies her own place on the ladder, and creates, within the broad confines of the milestones,  her own path from grade one to grade five. 

Blank spaces on the ladder allow teachers to introduce independent content into the learning process. Indeed the Ladder can be designed in flexible ways to allow for multiple trajectories between which teachers and students are able to choose so long as the sequencing required by the academic disciplines is maintained.(Source:

 Although I only spent an afternoon in the classroom, it left a lasting impression on me. The MGML approach seemed to really have been working, and effectively addressing the prevalent issue of mutli-grade classroom across rural India. The MGML approach is being used in rural school across Andhra Pradesh, and has been adopted by many school in the state of Tamil Naidu. The creators are advocating for the approach in several other states in India. Take a look at some photos below!


Kala (the teacher) working with the students. 

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Students working on Math problems at their own individual levels. 

The Milestones Chart


Student progress for the week. 

The Power of Children’s Voices

My (Yiola) first blog post of the year. Happy new year friends and readers. Over the course of the holidays I developed a list of interesting topics and ideas that I am excited to share here on the site. Just as I was about to select one of my ideas to share, a student teacher sent this video my way today and it took precedence.  The messages may be imperfect yet the voices of children ~ of young adolescent women ~ make it so incredibly powerful for me. The energy and the passion and the inspiration rising from literacy make it a worthwhile share.  The rhythm alluring, the tone inspiring, the messages thought-provoking, the effort immense.  If literacy inspires young people to speak in such passionate ways about such timely issues, then I say BRING ON LITERACY TEACHING.


Responding Critically to Azalea’s ‘Bounce’

In class this week my (Cathy’s) teacher education students were exploring indirect  instruction through learning centers.  One of the centers featured Iggy Azalea’s music video, Bounce, and the instructions to discuss the work through a critical literacy lens.   (E.g. What message do you think the artist wants us to get from this video? Based on the artist’s thoughts and actions (expressed in the song), how would you say she is portraying herself to the world?)

Most of the students had heard of the video but never actually viewed it until arriving at the literacy center.  (Perhaps you haven’t either).  Without revealing the content, I will reiterate the general tone of the reactions.   Most students were annoyed by the video content.  One student said she was disgusted (and this is not sexual content).  One group, however,  tried to take a broader view.  They said they could not judge the work until they understood Azalea’s intent.  So they took it upon themselves to look up an interview in which Azalea discusses her purpose for portraying her song the way she did.  After viewing the interview, they were angry.  Azalea explained that she portrayed herself thusly so she would be seen as “flashy”.  No message, just glamour.  After this insight, some wonderful discussion ensued about cultural ethics and hegemony.

One student spoke to me at the conclusion of class and confessed that she was surprised by her own reaction.  In her words, “I have changed.    Studying literacy education has given me a different perspective.  I see the world differently, especially things like music videos.”

Below is the link so you can view this content for yourself and decide.  The second link is the video in which Azalea discusses her purpose for making the video.

Happy critical viewing!

Language and power: A well “articulated” analysis

It is  a rewarding feeling when a student teacher from years past emails a link to an article, a video, or an image that is reflective of the messages we discussed in our teacher education class. The message it sends me is this, “I remember you. I remember your teachings. I learned and am still thinking about what it means to be a teacher and what it means to teach literacy”.  Today I (Yiola) received a short email from a student of four years ago. She sent the following link:

The link takes us to a spoken word presentation entitled “3 Ways to Speak English” shared on TED during a theme based session called “Examining Prejudice”.  Her talk as part of the series is described as:

Educator Jamila Lyiscott delivered an incredible poem called “Broken English,” in which she showed that she is a “Trilingual orator” able to speak fluently at home, with Caribbean parents, at school in “proper English,” and with her friends in a language that is as formal and rules-based as the other two. The poem raised a big laugh when she pointed out, “You may think it is ignorant to speak Broken English, but even articulate Americans sound foolish to the British.”

My favourite part is when she says:

So I may not always come before you with excellency of speech

But do not judge me by my language and assume

That I’m too ignorant to teach

‘Cause I speak three tongues

One for each:

Home, school and friends

I’m a tri-lingual orator

What stands out for me about the poem and what I will share with my students in class this week:

1) The power of language and how we associate language with power

2) Language and how it informs our identities — how many languages do you speak?

3) Linguistic profiling: the racial identification and discrimination of an individual or group of people based on their speech  and how that plays out in society and in the classroom

4) History — and how it influences our use of language

I was moved by her words as Lsyiscott describes:

These words are spoken

By someone who is simply fed up with the Eurocentric ideals of this season

And the reason I speak a composite version of your language

Is because mines was raped away along with my history

I speak broken English so the profusing gashes can remind us

That our current state is not a mystery

I’m so tired of the negative images that are driving my people mad

So unless you’ve seen it rob a bank stop calling my hair bad

I’m so sick of this nonsensical racial disparity

5) Awareness, ourselves and teaching — what do we as educators do with this knowledge?

Here is a link to a prezi that Lysicott has used at presentations:

6) How to take our linguistic diversity and turn it into power:

This is a linguistic celebration

That’s why I put “tri-lingual” on my last job application

I can help to diversify your consumer market is all I wanted them to know

And when they call me for the interview I’ll be more than happy to show that

I can say:

“What’s good”


And of course …“Hello”

Because I’m “articulate”

I look forward to my class on Friday and to sharing thoughts, feelings and ideas about what all of this means to children, their families and the learning environment in our elementary school classrooms.



A is for Activist: Guest Blog by Gisela Wajskop

The school year began in Canada at the same time we experienced many human tragedies across the world. In this peace-less world, I’ve (Gisela) A is for Activistdiscovered, by chance, an interesting book for young children: A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara, From Activist to Zapatista, this “children’s book for the 99 percent” offers different rhymes and perspectives to small children.

The book is described as:

Activist is an ABC board book written and illustrated for the next generation of progressives: families who want their kids to grow up in a space that is unapologetic about activism, environmental justice, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and everything else that activists believe in and fight for. The alliteration, rhyming, and vibrant illustrations make the book exciting for children, while the issues it brings up resonate with their parents’ values of community, equality, and justice. This engaging little book carries huge messages as it inspires hope for the future, and calls children to action while teaching them a love for books. is for _1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1410614592&sr=8-1&keywords=Innosanto+Nagara

As Corey Hill wrote in 2012 ( power/in-review-it-is-for-activist-by-innosanto-nagara) “It’s pretty clear from page one that this is no Cat in the Hat. Billed as a book for the children of the 99%, A is for Activist is the radical vision of Innosanto (Inno) Nagara, a graphic designer and social justice activist from Oakland, California.

Although the book is said to suitable for children from birth to three years to age I wonder about the impact of reading it to such young children, and I wonder if it would be better suited for older children who have ideological knowledge and experience. The illustrations are gorgeous and the rhymes reveal ideas about the rights of all in the hope of a world more with fewer ills. It is a lovely text to start the school year in which conflicts and wars in the four corners of the world threaten children around the world! It can serve as introductory material to literacy and can serve as an inspiration to parents and educators about the social function of writing and literature for children.

Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada

I (Clare) was talking to Kim Turner who is a member of my book club. She told me about this upcoming book, Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada. I asked her to share some details with me about the book. Dana Wanger one of the authors wrote the following blog for us.
The refugee system in Canada has undergone big changes in recent years. It’s now harder for asylum seekers to be accepted in Canada, and more difficult for them to get on their feet when they arrive. Cuts to health care for refugees was part of the reform, now making headlines because a Federal Court judge called them “cruel and unusual treatment.”
Not surprisingly, serious policy changes like these are also complex. They’re hard to talk about. The issues are hard to engage with.
Maytree, a foundation in Toronto, wants to engage Canadians on this topic. How? By telling human stories. Authors Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner document the stories of 30 refugees who arrived in Canada after an extraordinary journey of flight, in Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada. These individuals, a mix of men and women from over 20 countries ranging in age from their early 20s to early 90s, give a detailed account of the events that caused them to flee their home countries, and the decisions that brought them to Canada. Forged passports, thousands of dollars, human smugglers, armed guards, drifting at sea, starvation, rape, death, survival – these are some of the pieces of escape, and a backdrop to a question posed at the end of the book: Would they get in today?
Peter Showler, lawyer and former chairperson of the federal Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), answers the hypothetical question by analyzing how the cases would be handled under Canada’s new refugee system. By telling stories first, the policy discussion turns tangible. The loss of appeal for certain categories of asylum claimants, for instance, is not a legal labyrinth of Convention rights and government responsibilities – it’s a simple wrong. It’s wrong that Sabreen would not have the right to appeal if she lost her asylum case today. But a few years ago, she did have that right, and she successfully appealed a negative decision to become a status refugee in Canada.
Storytelling simply works, on many levels. It’s a book you won’t want to close. The experiences of all 30 characters will break you down, their equanimity will pull you back together.The release date is set for 2015. Sign up for updates here:

Rich Hill: Documents Rural Poverty In America

“We’re not trash. We’re good people,” says Andrew, one of the adolescent boys featured in the documentary Rick Hill, a film about rural poverty in America. As directors Tracy Droz Trago and Andrew Droz Palermo chronicle the lives of three adolescent boys Andrew, Harley and Appachey, they challenge us to take an unflinching look at a cycle of poverty that often locks families into socio-economic hardship for generations. The intimate use of the camera, and a narrative that builds slowly, provides viewers with unfettered access to the intricate relationships that exist between the boys and their families and the complex hardships they face daily.