Change from the Inside

empty classroom

(This blog is a complement to  Dear Students published in Huff Post) 

What do we teachers do while we wait for politicians to agree with us that 19th century school structures are obsolete in the 21st century, and that creativity, not competition, is what we should be nurturing in students?

We change the system from within.

First, we do the work inside ourselves when we gather up our courage to release our role of  content deliverer and accept that we need to be in constant role change in our classrooms: sometimes a facilitator, sometimes a mentor, sometimes a host creating a safe space for learning to happen.

Decentering our classrooms in this way is difficult work, and is never complete. It’s not a one-day Pro-D affair. It requires vulnerability to realize that we need not be  the fount of wisdom in the front of the room.We need to be  patient but persistent with this work.

We share our decentering ideas with our colleagues so that we put the magic of combinatorial creativity to work. We remix ideas from here and there to find what will fit with our students in our classrooms. There’s a lot of trial and error involved with this. Lots of reading too.

We know that this is a Sisyphean task; sometimes that rock will roll all the way down the hill. But we have to get up and do it again. And we will, with help from our friends and allies who know why we do what we do and why it’s worth the struggle.

I was “lucky” to have been both a student and a teacher in South Africa during Apartheid because there I developed my tendency to read between the lines of any curriculum and to constantly seek ways around stifling restrictions and impositions in schools.

You may think that there is a world of difference between the education system in South Africa and in Canada, until you remember that both Canada and South Africa are former British colonies and both countries imported the same industrial model of education. Much of what I do now in Canada is a further refinement of what I did in South Africa when I became a teacher by accident. But that’s another story.

There is nothing that a teacher can do about the way a school day is divided, but there is a lot that a teacher can do when shaping each day in her classroom.  I teach the humanities to teens  in a school that has “inner-city” characteristics. We have four teaching blocks a day: two in the morning and two after a 40 min lunch.  Each block is 77 mins.

My classroom activities are dependent on which block of the day it is. Sometimes there is a lecture, sometimes an experiential activity, sometimes a check-in to see where everyone is at, sometimes a nap or meditation before any work is done. My decision of what to do when is guided by neuroscience research about how teen brains work. They do not work at full capacity first thing in the morning or during the last block of the day, so I save us all the struggle by not lecturing at those times.

I use my classroom space like a Star Trek holodeck. Sometimes it’s a laboratory, sometimes a country, sometimes a court, sometimes a parliament and sometimes a lounge where conversation happens. It is of course sometimes just a classroom!

I encourage students to ask me questions either directly, through email or anonymously through the very popular Question Box. Questions from students provide me with  insights into their concerns and what I’m missing in my teaching. A colleague who teaches Math adopted and adapted this idea, but her box is called the Panic box – where students place “panic button” questions about course content.

I do very little lecturing and try as much as possible to convert the curriculum in a way that allows my students to engage in Problem-Based Learning and Experiential Learning. When I first started doing this, I didn’t know that that was what it was called! Often times I “make the road while walking”, trying to find ways to bring meaningful learning experiences to my students.

In my dreams, I see Problem-Based Learning and Experiential Learning as the foundation of what is done in public schools in the future.

And I do hope, despite the concerted campaign to defund public education, that we manage to hold on to public schools. They are still critically important, despite their many flaws.

Public schools are much more than places where accredited learning happens. They are a safe space for students whose home lives are difficult; they are the oasis in dangerous neighbourhoods; they are where many students eat their only meal each day and where they can speak to an adult about their fears and concerns.

Public schools are some of the few public spaces we have left that still function as a commons, a space for people, not for profit.

Where else but in a public school can a teen who gets a $30 000 car for his 16th birthday sit next to one who eats only three meals a week?

With so many of our common spaces being taken over by corporations, a public school is a vital social space for many students. It is still the great societal leveller where students from diverse backgrounds can meet on common ground.

The education system has to change, it’s true, but let’s work to repurpose it. Let’s not throw the cup out with the cold coffee.

Let’s change the system from the inside out.

Widening Circles

Adrienne Clarkson and me

Dear Ms Clarkson,

The photo above was taken on 19th November 1999 during a conversation we had  in the library at Queen Elizabeth secondary in Surrey, B.C. That morning you had given a speech about the promise and possibilities of our multicultural society.

At this moment, we are talking about teaching. We are not talking about the reason you chose to visit our school.

A month before this picture was taken, in October 1999, we had heard that you wanted to come to our school after you had read about the racial tension amongst our student population being played out in frequent fights between our Indo-Canadian and Euro-Canadian students. This tension had been sparked by events during a court case that had resulted from the murder of Nirmal Singh Gill who had been a caretaker at a local gurdwara until he was killed by members of a White Supremacist group.  Our school had been mentioned in the legal defence of the accused who said that being teased for their Polish names and accents while attending our school was the reason for their actions.

As the Governor-General, you wanted to see for yourself if what you had read about our school in national and local newspaper articles was true.

Do you remember being greeted in 42 different languages by students who represented each of the ethnicities in our school population?

Your visit came three days after the accused were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced. But in this photo you and I are talking about students’ responses to  Shakespeare’s Macbeth which was what my students were studying then

I can’t remember all the details of our conversation beyond that, but I do remember that you did not ask me where I was from.

I have been told that I have an accent (I can’t hear it of course!) and so am frequently asked that question. But you didn’t ask. You just assumed I belonged here.

I thought about our encounter quite a bit while I listened to (and read) your Massey Lectures on Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship.


Over the many years since your visit I have replayed our encounter over and over again in my mind and each time have found another layer of significance.

Five years after our encounter, while I was working on a graduate paper about racialized identities, I realized the irony of this moment when you had  come to the school to find out  about the racial tension while I was in a state of complete denial of it all.

You had only recently become the Governor-General, I had only that September begun working in my first permanent teaching position in Canada.  As you can imagine, that was quite challenging and perhaps that is why I blocked out completely the images I had seen weeks before your visit.  Images of my Indo-Canadian student with blood streaming down his face after he had been hit by a Euro-Canadian student. Images of police officers opening a car trunk filled with baseball bats, not intended for a game, just meters from my classroom door.  Police wiretaps had revealed that an attack on a school had been planned. I only remembered all this in vivid detail, five years after your visit.

Perhaps the reason I had blocked out the images was because somehow my mind could not accept that the scenes I was witnessing were happening in Canada, so far away from my birthplace of South Africa, where racial violence had been legalized and was orchestrated by the Apartheid state.

Part of the reason the court case had garnered so much attention was because it was the first major case in which the Crown used subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) of the Criminal Code to argue that the accused should get life sentences because their crime was motivated by hate.

Laws against hate were the antithesis of what I had known growing up in South Africa. It was loving that was the crime.

Under a law called the Immorality Act, it was a criminal offence for people who were classified as White to make love to people who were otherwise racially classified.  The act of loving was seen as such a threat to the state that  special police resources were expended to catch people in the act. There were many news reports of people being caught making love by police who spied at them through holes in walls.

The government could not of course stop people making love, but they did ensure that children who resulted from unions between Whites and members of other ethnic groups were classified “Coloured”, a racial category on the second rung from the bottom on South Africa’s race ladder.

As a person officially classified “Coloured”  I was a member of a community rejected by the White community as inferior and resented by the Black community because of the relative privilege of my in-between position.

Though racial segregation existed in various forms throughout the era of colonialism in South Africa, when the National Party formed the government in 1948,  a systematic process began to separate the population into ‘races’ that had different rights and varying degrees of access to national resources.  It’s widely believed that this separation of parts of the population from others was inspired by Jan Smuts’ visit to Canada where he learned about the Aboriginal reserve system but some scholars dispute the connection. 

A few days after my birth, a ‘race classifier’, having noted my parents’ ‘habits, education and speech, deportment and demeanour in general’ and having also looked at the curl of my hair, shape of my nose and colour of my skin especially around my fingernails, designated me as ‘Coloured’, as required by the Population Registration Act of 1950.

This meant that under the law I was “a person who [was] not a white person or a native”, the latter category reserved for the “racially pure” aboriginal races of Africa and the former for those who “in appearance [were] generally accepted as a white person.” The language of the Act specifically stated that, though a person may appear to be White, they could not be so designated if they were “generally accepted as a coloured person”. This “general acceptance” depended, according to the Minister of the Interior, on the “judgement of society – conventions which had grown up during the hundreds of years [of occupation by the Dutch and English colonizers]”.

Having “Coloured” entered in the space for ‘race’ on my birth certificate meant a circumscription of my choices in life, but not as many as I would have experienced had I been classified ‘Native/Bantu,’ a term used to refer to aboriginal Africans.

Apartheid Durban Beach

Politically, it meant that I would not have any access to power structures within the government, since only White people could vote in parliamentary elections.

Economically, it meant that I could only consider work and careers designated for me under laws that controlled access to employment, but it also meant that I had more choices than those occupying a lower rung on the ‘race’ ladder. It also meant that I could own land, a privilege denied ‘Natives/Bantu.’

Socially, it meant that I could only visit certain beaches, attend certain cinemas, ride on certain buses, eat in certain restaurants, enter post offices at certain entrances and sit on certain park benches, restrictions shared by all non-Whites.

Living on the border between Whiteness and Blackness in South Africa meant that my enculturation was distinctly European, and I grew up learning the culture of the people who designated me as a second-class citizen. I did not learn the languages or the culture of the majority aboriginal African population with whom I shared characteristic physical features.

As a consequence of my early experiences in South Africa and my experiences as a new Canadian, the concepts of belonging and citizenship are ones I grapple with when I try to articulate what they mean to me. I’m not even sure I’m succeeding in expressing what they mean to me here. But please bear with me.

At the time this photo was taken, I had not yet begun teaching the Humanities Co-op, a program that continues to feed my soul in the face of the ongoing assault against public education by our BC Liberal government.

Strike photo

The Humanities Co-op provides a way for me to offer students experiences that I hope will lead them to a realization of the many ideas about belonging and citizenship that you mention in your Massey lectures, ideas that I wish I could express as well as you do.

In a Humanities Co-op, Grade 11 students have all their courses for one semester with the same teacher who is responsible for teaching the academic courses and for monitoring the students when they are out of school for six weeks of work experience.

The model was first designed in the 1970s as a pre-employment program consistent with the ‘education for human capital’ goal for education but I have interpreted the structure of the program to be a powerful vehicle for social transformation instead.

Originally intended as a ‘co-operation’ between the fields of education and business, the model was supposed to prepare students for the world of work with its characteristic competitive, alienating and hierarchical structures. Whether or not a teacher actively tries to create collaboration and connectedness in the classroom, a sense of community arises naturally from the day to day interactions between students who share the same space for six hours each school day.

Because QE’s student population is comprised of 46 ethnicities, our classrooms are like a microcosm of the global village with a range of cultures and beliefs. This is fertile ground for seeds of transformative ideas about belonging and citizenship.

For the past fifteen  years,  I have seen my teaching role as not only covering learning outcomes in academic courses, but also nurturing collaboration within a caring classroom community. While I prepare students for their work experience placements, the main focus of my program is not the world of work so much as the work of social transformation. In other words, my work is the exploration of what it means to belong and to be a citizen.

Students’ exploration of the concept of citizenship is facilitated by an online simulation (created by a brilliant friend and colleague) the Civic Mirror, which turns our classroom into a country with a government and an economy.

The Civic Mirror

Through online and face-to-face interactions, the simulation provides a space for students to grapple with political, economic and social issues.  Students “live” in a simulated country in which they elect a government, trade goods and services and perform many roles of citizens in the real world. 

The brilliance of the simulation’s structure is that unless citizens co-operate, their country will disintegrate into chaos with catastrophic consequences for everyone. They learn fairly quickly that citizenship is not something that is simply acquired like a badge but that it involves a careful balancing of individual and group needs.

But before students are ready for this exploration, they engage in activities aimed at breaking down the barriers between them, built up as a consequence of the structured separation and competition in schools.

From the moment they enter my classroom, students are in situations that provide opportunities for them to check and change what they think they know about themselves and about each other. They are challenged to learn something about themselves that may surprise them, to discover something about others that they did not know even though they have “known” that person since elementary school. Through experiences and discussions, they slowly learn to see each other quite differently.

This student’s year-end reflection is typical of the kinds of transformation in attitudes that I am always hoping for:

Before going into [this class] I saw people very differently. I never wanted to talk to people who were classified as the “freaks” or even the “geeks”. I always thought they were different than me and I didn’t want to interact with them. The first month of school was an introduction to a new perspective. Seeing how the “freaks” and “geeks” were didn’t bother me… Just because they didn’t do the girlie things that I do, I thought that they were different. On the field trip I got to interact with a lot of my peers that I most likely would have never talked to in such depth with when I was in school. I learnt a lot more about who they were and how they saw aspects differently from me, and to my surprise they weren’t any different than me. Some girls on the field trip couldn’t eat beef because their religion so I asked them questions on it and learnt a lot more about their religion. Before the field trip I would have thought that was stupid, but since I took the time out to ask and learnt how to listen to other people’s views, I learnt the respect that they have for themselves and their background.

Reading  these kinds of reflections each year feels like a healing to me. There is something about watching my students learning about each other (“bonding” in teenspeak) and working together in new ways that gives me hope for the future of our civilization.

I could share many other stories, stories that had not yet happened when we met all those years ago. I have a sense you would be interested in them, given your work during your tenure as Governor-General and since.

Next week I will greet my 2015 Humanities Co-op class. One of our activities for the first week of the semester, synchronistically the start of Black History Month,  will be to read and discuss your second lecture, the one you presented in Halifax, the one that references the destruction of Africville.

I should confess that I listened to your lectures out of sequence. I was first drawn to fourth one, on ubuntu, mesmerized by your images of Madiba’s memorial, comparing them with my own memories of the broadcast. As the lecture continued I was riveted by your argument about a kind of ubuntu existing in Canada.  I found myself agreeing with you until my mind recalled all that has happened in Canada during the Harper years.

I suspect that if we met today we’d have much to talk about beyond the violence in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  We could talk about my “two degrees of separation” from Madiba. We could talk about why I believe adopting an ubuntu philosophy is the only way we will have any hope of surviving climate change. Or we could talk about my amazing students who, every day, fill my heart with hope and love.

Yours sincerely,


Jugaad Education

This week it became clear which side is winning in the debate about the purpose of public education. As far as our current Minister of Education is concerned, the main purpose of the education system in British Columbia is to provide human capital for corporations. Until and unless that reality changes, what recourse is left for those of us who believe that a well-funded public education system, fundamental to a functioning democracy, should not only support pipefitters but poets too?

I suggest that our response be two-fold. We should continue to support any collective actions that defend and fight for a fair education system but we should also employ in our classrooms the spirit of jugaad, a Hindi colloquial expression that roughly translates into “invention motivated by scarcity”. In this TEDx talk, Gautam Ramdurai explains how it is possible to not only “make do” with what you have in the face of scarcity, but that learning how to “make do” makes other things possible.


When I came to Canada over 20 years ago, my teacher qualifications from South Africa were deemed insufficient to teach in schools in B.C. and I had to complete a few education courses in order to be approved for teaching in B.C. I have a vivid memory of my first class at SFU. I was late and had entered the room when there was a full-blown discussion about the Year 2000 project. Teachers were outraged by the demands made of them in the document. I remember wondering what the fuss was about. I had recently come from a place where we had to hold fundraisers in order to buy paper to use in our hand-cranked mimeograph machine and where our entire school library could be stored on a few shelves in a Canadian classroom.

At that point I had seen what was available in schools in Vancouver – rooms filled with unlimited supplies of photocopying paper, libraries filled with new books, laboratories stocked with equipment and classrooms of ‘only’ 28 students. To my eyes, teachers were teaching under circumstances that teachers in South Africa would give anything for.

With the increasing cuts to our education system, my current teaching experience in Canada is slowly becoming as familiar as my past teaching experience in South Africa but that is precisely why I believe it’s important to consider the concept of jugaad.

What can be done with limited resources in our classrooms? Instead of continuing to fund our classrooms out of our own pockets, what can we learn from cultures and practices around the world where scarcity is the norm?

And while we create a new response to scarcity, a message from someone who has been here before.  I can assure you that you will survive.

You will survive bureaucrats, who have no idea what happens in your classroom day by day, telling you what to teach.

You will survive administrators who have no idea who your students are, telling you how to teach.

You will survive people who have only a superficial understanding of who you are, telling you how you can and should and must develop your professional skills.

I know you will get used to this because those of us who have lived under oppressive and repressive political and social systems learned how to survive them.

You too will develop a double consciousness and a way of slipping easily between the face you put on for your ‘reviewers’ and the face you wear for your students. You too will have one way of being when your ‘performance’ is under ‘review’ and another when it is not, when you can just be the teacher you are.

You will learn to be subversive – to seek out ways to weasel between the cracks of a system designed to constrain and contain you and to form your students into  clones. You will learn to be like the root hairs of trees that raise pavements.

You will find allies amongst the administration – principals who do not agree with the way you are being treated and who will try in some ways to support you.

You will learn what words and phrases and activities are considered ‘good’ to use in your ‘performance reviews’ and ‘professional development plans’. You will adopt those as necessary.

And you will do this all the while you continue to grapple with the challenges facing you each day: hungry students, broken technology, lack of resources, and the absence of any support for those students who desperately need it in your filled-to-capacity classroom.

And you will keep doing this while you work to remove from power the people who see education as a business and not as a social good.