Trump isn’t funny anymore. So why are we still silent?

Flickr photo shared by cool revolution under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

Flickr photo shared by cool revolution under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

Google “Trump isn’t funny anymore” and you’ll come up with pages of news stories with variations on that title, some dating back all the way to last summer. It’s sinking in, slowly, and yet Donald Trump remains the Republican frontrunner. Every day I wake up to another dozen troubling articles and videos detailing Trump’s seemingly unstoppable march to power.

So let me just summarize some of the more terrifying recent highlights (lowlights?):

So as this situation progresses in increasingly scary directions, I’ve decided to say something myself. And even as I’m writing, I’ve asked myself more than once: What good will my voice do? Given the plentiful media coverage, I’ve skipped blogging about this up until now, choosing instead to share existing articles on Twitter and Facebook. But isn’t that the psychology behind the bystander effect? Someone else will speak out, so I don’t have to.

And then this morning, I was watching Rachel Maddow’s report on the recent protests at Trump rallies, which clearly documents the escalation of Trump’s promotion of violence:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuTe_sAI-UQ

Whether you agree with Maddow’s politics or not, this video is chilling. Listen to Trump’s words:

“These people are ruining our country.”

“These are not good people.”

“These people are so bad for our country.”

“These people are hurting this country.”

These are not soundbites taken out of context. This is hateful, racist rhetoric, pure and simple. And as I watched the video, I got really, really scared.

And I was reminded, as I am far too often these days, of this text from a 1946 speech by Martin Niemöller, criticizing the failure of German intellectuals to speak out again the rise of Nazism:  

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Perhaps this sounds overly alarmist, and perhaps I am projecting too much onto the current rise of Trump-ism. I hope that’s the case. But listening to Trump, and watching his more radical supporters, I am not convinced. So whether you believe that Trump is our generation’s Hitler or not, I am asking – imploring – all of you to take seriously Niemöller’s critique of those who stayed silent because the crisis hadn’t quite reached a point that affected them directly. To quote Homeland Security (Ironic? Maybe.): “If you see something, say something.”

And let’s be clear: As my amazing friend Maggie reminds me, “they” have “come for” many groups in America (and in Canada, and in so many other places around the world) already. Trump’s rise to prominence is built upon a society where Black lives do not, on the whole, seem to matter, where immigrants (legal or otherwise) are the targets of racist laws and rhetoric, where being a person of colour (or a woman, or LGBTQ, or poor – privilege is always marked by intersectionality) is often considered a crime in itself. We should have said something long ago. But while we can’t change the past, we can ensure that Trump’s rise catalyzes us into action.

And that’s why I’m blogging about this: because now is the time to speak, before we are in a position to look back and repeat Niemöller’s words, to ask ourselves why we stayed silent in the midst of a growing horror.

And I’m asking you to do something, too.

  • Vote: Exercise your political voice.
  • Talk about it: Blog or tweet or Facebook or….whatever… about it. But talk about it.
  • Educate yourself: Read and watch and read some more.
  • Educate others, including youth: I’ve used this animation of Maurice Ogden’s poem, “The Hangman,” to talk about the Holocaust with my grade nine students. It fits here, too.
  • Protest: In person, online, in any way you can.

But whatever you choose, do not stay silent.

#PrivilegeGate, or, How I Unwittingly Provoked a Troll Army

Yesterday, I tweeted this study about white privilege:

The tweet got a few likes and a few retweets, mostly from other professors in my faculty. I moved on. The study’s findings aren’t unexpected: they are in line with my own experiences working with pre-service teachers on topics of race and privilege, and they line up with other research about typical responses to learning about white privilege.

Today, I opened Twitter to find that I had 65 notifications, all from people responding to my tweet in various troll-like ways (most of which, ironically, included denial of white privilege and endorsements of meritocracy).

The responses ranged from cryptic comments to derogatory personal attacks, most apparently stemming from my tweet being retweeted by Twitter user @Nero to his 116K followers. Some of the worst include these gems: Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.47.44 PM Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.47.28 PMScreen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.46.58 PM Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.45.26 PM

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 6.32.41 PM Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.46.29 PM

And my personal favourite: Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.49.21 PM @Nero didn’t actually comment on my tweet, but judging from his other tweets, it seems likely that he wasn’t retweeting me to signal his approval; scrolling through his recent feed, I found this tweet, which suggests that I’m not the only one who has experienced this:

This isn’t my first encounter with Twitter trolls, and I have a fairly thick skin; as well, a little digging also told me that most of the accounts in the troll army have few followers, and some are likely fake or paid accounts set up specifically for the purpose of trolling. Nevertheless, I found the situation a bit unsettling. At the very least, it paints a pretty depressing picture of the state of society. Also, it’s hard not to wonder if the reaction would have been the same had I been a white male tweeting the same article – I’m inclined to think that the answer is a resounding “no,” given the female-targeted responses to the Gamergate controversy.

But what’s more unsettling to me is that the trolls’ responses are likely an effective intimidation technique for most people. It makes it a whole lot less appealing to discuss social justice issues online when you know you’re setting yourself up for this type of hateful personal attack. As an educator, I am a huge proponent of speaking out about these types of controversial issues on social media, and I encourage my pre-service teachers to do the same, but this encouragement now needs to come with a warning about the potential ramifications.

Luckily, the Internet isn’t all bad. I received several messages of support:


I think that last one sums it up nicely. We still have a long way to go, but we’re on the right track.

Against willful ignorance: Why we should not be shocked by the “dire conditions” in urban schools

On Facebook this morning, I came across an article titled “Maryland Senator demanding answers after dire conditions found inside city school.” I had to check it twice, because I first thought it was an Onion article. Dire conditions? Baltimore Schools? Yeah, no kidding. You don’t say.

Ratholes along the wall of a portable...way back in 2007.

Ratholes along the wall of a portable…way back in 2007.

Conditions in Baltimore City schools are deplorable. The majority of the schools have similar “dire conditions.” I taught in both West and East Baltimore, in an elementary/middle school and in a high school. I could tell you stories for days about the dire conditions I witnessed. I’ve blogged about it, I’ve talked about it with the pre-service educators that I teach, I’ve tweeted about it … But that’s not the point here.

What angers me is not this story itself, which tells some truth. What angers me is that Bill Ferguson, the Maryland state senator who is “demanding answers,” is a Teach for America alum. A quick Google search reveals that he taught at the Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy from 2005-2007. Vivien T. Thomas is located in the Francis M. Woods building, which received a rating of “poor” in the 2012 Jacobs facilities report. That school belongs to the Baltimore City Public School System, a school system with conditions that the ACLU declared to be unconstitutional in 2010. The conditions in these schools are not news to Senator Ferguson, and they are not news to anyone who has set foot in a Baltimore City school.

The floor was peeling up, and I didn't want kids to trip. I made my own repairs  rather than waiting the weeks or months for an official solution.

The metal dividing strip had come loose, and I didn’t want kids to trip or cut themselves on the sharp metal edges. I made my own repairs rather than waiting the weeks or months for an official solution.

I have no doubt that Senator Ferguson’s intentions are good. The school conditions are dire, and the community, the state, the country, and those of us who taught there should be demanding answers.

But the real story here isn’t about the conditions in Baltimore City schools. The real story is about the entrenched culture of denial surrounding the school conditions for Black children. It is about the willful ignorance surrounding the issue – until it can be leveraged politically. And it is about the refusal to acknowledge the bigger picture of systemic racism that has led to these dire conditions.

So let’s talk about that bigger picture. Let’s acknowledge that the unconscionable conditions in city schools are not isolated incidents, finally noticed by a state senator and only realized in July of this summer, but are instead part of the much bigger issues of the underfunding of American public schools and the school to prison pipeline. Let’s stop pretending to be shocked by stories of dead Baltimore City youth. Let’s acknowledge the police brutality and other systemic violence that people of colour have come to see as commonplace, the need for hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName, and the senseless killing of countless people of colour that occurs every day.

And let’s confront this bigger picture, instead of just replacing some windows and repainting some walls.

 

In online spaces, silence speaks as loudly as words

Last week, as I taught my final #ECMP355 class for the semester, the topic of discussion came back to social justice (as it often seems to in my class, a tendency for which I am not at all apologetic). Because I work with pre-service teachers, we often discuss concerns around online identity; many of my students are worried about maintaining a “neutral” online persona because they fear that being controversial will make them unhireable in the future or could come back on them negatively in some other way.

Silence.001

Here’s my take on this, and what I said to my students: Silence speaks just as loudly as words. If we are online, as educators, and we remain silent about issues of social justice, if we tweet only about educational resources and not about the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in Canada, or about the burning of Black churches in the southern United States, we are sending a clear message: These issues are not important.  

Edtech, at its very core, is about privilege.

When I said this to my class, one of my generally quieter students commented in the chat, “This conversation makes me happy. Because I contemplate this EVERY DAY.” Such a simple comment, but one that I have been thinking about ever since. Technology in education is about so much more than gadgets and tools or about the latest backchannel app. Edtech, at its very core, is about privilege. We preach the virtues of universal access to knowledge, but who really gets to be involved in edtech? Those with access to technology and good quality Internet, those who have the educational background to comprehend the material, those with the time to devote to studying. That I am able to sit down and write this post, that I have the time to tweet, that I have access to the tools that make these things possible: these are markers of privilege.

So here’s my argument: I have a responsibility to use my privilege to speak out and use my network for more than just my own benefit or self-promotion; not doing so is a selfish act. Being a good digital citizen is about so much more than being safe and responsible online. It’s about participating in meaningful ways to promote equity in networked spaces. This is especially true for those with significant online audiences: we cannot let silence speak for us, and we can no longer cling to cliches or educational buzzwords as safe topics of conversation.

As I was finishing up this post, I saw this tweet from Alec Couros:

For me, the answer is simple:

We have a responsibility to risk our privilege to give voice to social inequities and injustices. We have a responsibility to risk our privilege to give voice to those who have no privilege to risk.

Still waiting for Superman: White saviors and systemic racism in Baltimore City Schools

This post was jointly written with Maggie Elwell and also appears on Maggie’s blog.

“No nation can enslave a race of people for hundreds of years, set them free bedraggled and penniless, pit them, without assistance in a hostile environment, against privileged victimizers, and then reasonably expect the gap between the heirs of the two groups to narrow. Lines, begun parallel and left alone, can never touch.”

– Randall Robinson

“If she was a racist, would she be teaching our kids?” As if that were the most obvious thing in the world.

Maggie: A student’s mother called the school office with the accusation that I was racist. My only thought was, This is insane! Everybody who knew me would’ve defended me. Racists hate, and I didn’t hate anyone; racists use the n-word, and I would never; racists are killers, and I was a teacher. The mother, the principal, the student, and I met in my classroom. After the mother spoke about my behavior towards her son, the principal asked, “If she was a racist, would she be teaching our kids?” As if that were the most obvious thing in the world. 

Katia: I applied to Teach for America in my last year of university. I made it to the second round, a phone interview: a TFA alum drilled me on my beliefs about education and the achievement gap. And then she asked what I would do if, even after meeting with parents and creating student contracts and doing home visits, I had a student who still did not show up regularly at school. I said I’d do what I could, but in some cases even my best efforts might not be enough to get the student back on track. Silence. I knew, at that moment, that I wouldn’t get into the program, although at that point I didn’t know why.

Maggie: At least three courses I took to get a Masters degree in teaching required viewing and writing reflections about Freedom Writers, a film in which a pearl-wearing, pony-tailed Hilary Swank succeeds in changing the lives of her underprivileged, tattooed, angry but lovable students through her dedication to their education. None of my professors promoted this film as anything other than inspirational; no deconstruction of the movie took place. On the third or fourth viewing, after some extracurricular reading and conversation, I asked one of my professors about the problems of perpetuating the white savior myth, and she responded that I should reconsider my educational approach in more uplifting terms.

Katia: I spent two years in a Masters program designed specifically for teachers working in Baltimore City Schools. Two years. And I didn’t hear the term “systemic racism” once. I wasn’t given the works of Joe Kincheloe, or Gloria Ladson-Billings, or Paulo Freire to read. Lisa Delpit was mentioned once in passing, and at some point we were told to read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities so that (I can only assume) we could be shocked and outraged by the horrible treatment of black children in American public schools – as if we weren’t witnesses to this story every single day. We didn’t even have drinking water some of the time, because the pipes were lead, and the water coolers were only sometimes filled. But systemic racism? Unheard of.

Maggie: I tried hard to believe the white savior myth, before I knew enough to call it that. Even while I recognized that I wasn’t going to be a teacher who never resented the amount of time and mental energy it took, I did think that I should. But I wasn’t close to being a decent educator until I allowed doubt and questions to mess up that kind of thinking. The idea that everything would be fine as long as you worked hard fell away; a lot of my students were not fine, and neither I nor “hard work” could help them. That I had a racial and gendered identity that impacted my approach to the classroom, and that in fact that identity made me part of the problems I wanted to solve, became known to me. Thoughts of myself as removed from or above the city’s situation left me as a result.

We believed, we were taught to believe, that we could make a difference.

Katia: On the last day of our summer training, we presented inspirational skits. One group performed Taylor Mali’s spoken word piece. That was how we felt – like real teachers, like people who could do the things that Mali did, save and inspire our students like Mali had. But who were we, at the age of 22, to walk into classrooms that September with six weeks of training and some experience in a summer school classroom under our belts? We believed, we were taught to believe, that we could make a difference. The motto of the program at that time was: “The need is real. The time is now. Teach.” I still have the t-shirt with those words on the front; the back is signed by the members of our cohort.

* * * * *

Last week, we received an email from the Baltimore-based alternative certification program through which we’d both earned our teaching certificates. We hadn’t received a single email from the program since we finished our coursework six years ago (not to mention the fact that they rarely contacted us while we were in the program), but when the Freddie Gray protests turned violent and began to garner media attention, the head of the program sent a message to all alumni.

Taken at face value, the email called for teachers to give students the space to voice their concerns about the protests and about the injustice in their communities. In fact, many people would call the email well-intentioned. But there’s a forgiveness in that word that is part of the problem – it is easy to excuse small acts that serve to perpetuate systemic racism, because this allows us to distance ourselves: “They didn’t mean it in a bad way,” “they’re not bad people.”  But the language of the email tells a more complex story.

That conversations about race and inequity and injustice do not occur on a daily basis, and are not encouraged to occur on a daily basis, is at the root of the problem.

We were told, “These are conversations you may never have expected.” Seriously? Yes, seriously: further evidence of the lack of critical engagement with racism and economic injustice that plagued our certification program and our own thinking as young white educators. In a school system like Baltimore’s, systemic racism is writ large on the broken furnaces and cockroach-infested rooms and leaking ceilings of the school buildings, where student data is posted in the hallways and pep rallies are held to build excitement for upcoming standardized tests: the American Civil Liberties Union actually declared the poor condition of school buildings in Baltimore to be unconstitutional. That conversations about race and inequity and injustice do not occur on a daily basis, and are not encouraged to occur on a daily basis, is at the root of the problem.

And we were told to help students to “use nonviolence to demand justice in their community.” It was hard to ignore the underlying message: “It’s fine for your students to be angry, but please make sure they express their anger in the ‘appropriate way.’” To be clear, we are not in support of violence, but there are many articles circulating at the moment that present a more nuanced perspective on the call for peaceful protest (see, for instance, this comic, this video, and this article).

And then the kicker. Attached to the email were resources to help us with these difficult conversations: resources for how to talk about Ferguson. Ferguson? Now? The events of months ago? Should we not have been talking about Ferguson when it was happening? Why were we being sent these resources only now, when the situation had hit too close to home, when our schools had been directly impacted? Why were we only asked to have these uncomfortable conversations when it was no longer possible to avoid them?

Underlying the email and our reflections is the prevailing story of racism, the one that says that we should not normally talk about race, that we should be colourblind, that the idea of meritocracy works for everyone, that the answer to injustice is to protest according to the rules of those in power. And there is the story that pits the good (white) teacher and her students against the world, or the story that teachers should be superheroes like Taylor Mali, teachers whose dedication to the “underprivileged” youth of America knows no bounds. These stories insist that the most important factor in a child’s success is the teacher. But these stories are red herrings: they allow us to pretend that systemic racism does not exist by pinning the responsibility for the “achievement gap” (in itself a problematic term) on the shoulders of the individual teachers and their students. Yes, teachers can play an important role in the lives of their students. But putting all hope on individuals means that we, as a society, do not have to face up to the systemic inequality in our educational system and our society.

We need to accept that racism is pervasive in society and see our own complicity in the structures of privilege and marginalization. We do not need to accept “well-intentioned” oppressive language and actions, or to excuse acts of racism based on a person’s “good character.” We need to discuss these issues long before they explode in the media and become impossible to ignore. We need to speak out alongside, and not for, those whose voices our privilege often seeks to suppress.

And we need to do so now.

Developing Teacher Candidates in a Networked World

This post, co-authored with Alec Couros, originally appeared on the Canadian Education Association Blog.

Recently, pre-service teachers in two of our classes at the Faculty of Education,University Regina, participated in #saskedchat, a weekly Twitter chat hosted by and for Saskatchewan educators. Although the chat typically runs on Thursday nights, organizers scheduled a “special edition” of the chat on the topic of supporting new teachers. Almost instantly, our students were immersed in a global discussion about education – and what’s more, they were instantly connected to a large network of practicing teachers who were able to provide them with advice and tips for success. But while the Twitter chat was an enriching experience for our students, participation in events like these is only a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to preparing new teachers to learn and flourish in a digital world.

As the field of education changes rapidly, it’s no longer enough for faculties of education to deliver static, technical courses on the methods of teaching. Instead, we need to help pre-service teachers develop the skills and understandings that will allow them to navigate and succeed in today’s global classrooms. And perhaps even more importantly, we need to help future teachers build the personal learning networks that will provide both the support system and continuous professional development opportunities needed to become and remain successful educators.

As instructors tasked to take on these challenges, we have focused on a number of key areas that support students’ successful entry into these new digital spaces. We’ve shared and described a few of these considerations below.

1. BUILD AN UNDERSTANDING OF OUR DIGITAL WORLD

Today’s young people are growing up in a media-rich and connected culture that is fundamentally different than it was even a decade ago. Thanks to the growing trend of posting ultrasound pictures and pregnancy selfies, astaggering 30% of children have a digital footprint before they are even born, and the average digital birth of children is at six months of age. Technology has altered every stage of life: it shapes the way we meet, how we communicate, our intimate relationships, the way we mourn, even our deaths.

If technology has shaped and altered every aspect of society, then learning is no different. Unfortunately, much of what we do in schools hasn’t changed to respond to these shifts in culture – many educators continue to teach the way they were taught and try to keep the digital world out of the classroom. But for today’s students, online and offline life is inseparable. Teachers need to understand the reality of students’ digital lives in order to make education relevant and engaging for today’s young people by bringing the digital into the classroom.

2. MODEL APPROPRIATE INTERACTIONS IN DIGITAL SPACES

If we want teachers to open their classrooms to the world, we need to model effective and appropriate uses of connected spaces: both new and experienced teachers should have opportunities to see how lead learners interact in networks for professional learning. For instructors working with pre-service teachers, this means demonstrating appropriate interactions in spaces such as Twitter (as in our introductory #saskedchat example) or modeling the curation of a professional digital identity through an About.Me page or an academic blog. In the field, principals can model appropriate digital presence through the creation and maintenance of a professional social media presence, like Chris Lehmann’s Twitter account or Tony Sinanis’ weekly video updates.

Even those in the upper levels of educational leadership should be modeling what it looks like to learn and lead online; for example, Chris Kennedy, Superintendent of West Vancouver School District, uses blogging to model transparency, open leadership, and lifelong learning.

Of course, in order to demonstrate high levels of connected learning, instructors (and other lead learners) must be able to leverage their own existing online networks. For example, in order to support our students and practicing teachers, we were able to tap into Alec’s considerable personal learning network to create a collaborative document of writing prompts for pre- and in-service educators. This means that lead learners must actively work to build their own networks so that they can be effective role models and collaborators.

3. DEMONSTRATE THE PEDAGOGICAL VALUE OF NETWORKS AND TOOLS

Just as instructors and other lead learners must demonstrate appropriate online interactions, they must also help new and experienced teachers understand the pedagogical value of networks and tools. In our classes, pre-service teachers research, create resource sites for, and present on various apps and programs, being sure to tie them into the curriculum (for instance, this site that discusses several apps to support language arts and this one that explores the use of iPads for inclusive education). These future teachers also have the chance to experience what it’s like to learn in a connected environment through our own use of various social media platforms and other tools in our post-secondary courses. For instance, we model the use of open learning and connected teaching throughcourse blog hubs and class Twitter hashtags, through the use of Google Plus communities and course sites for communication, and through the incorporation of Google Docs for professional collaboration.

Pre-service teachers must also be provided with rich exemplars from the field, showing practicing teachers’ innovative uses of technology to create connected classrooms that support 21st century learning. For instance, we introduce our students to the Global Read Aloud, Quadblogging, and Mystery Skype. We also discuss thepedagogical possibilities of Twitter and point to hashtags like #comments4kids (where teachers can post student blogs and ask for feedback from their online networks) or teacher-created resources that support the use of technology in the classroom (like this tweet about how to comment on blogs, shared by one of our graduate students).

4. DEVELOP PRE-SERVICE TEACHERS’ DIGITAL LITERACIES AND NETWORKED LITERACIES AND GUIDE THE DEVELOPMENT OF THEIR ONLINE IDENTITIES

Along with these examples of great digital pedagogy and online interaction, we need to prepare pre-service teachers to be great connected leaders themselves by helping them learn and create using different elements of digital literacies and pedagogies. In our classes, students explore what it means to take part in “anytime, anywhere” digital-age education by undertaking a Learning Project where they choose a skill to learn entirely online. They also create summaries of learning that highlight the skills and networked literacies they have learned throughout the semester. Additionally, since we want these new teachers to model appropriate online presence in their future classrooms, we ask our students to build professional e-portfolios in order to take control of their digital identities (some students even choose to buy their own domains) as they work to become digital residents rather than simply digital visitors.

5. UNPACK ISSUES OF POWER AND PRIVILEGE IN ONLINE SPACES

As we encourage pre-service and practicing teachers to bring the digital world into their classrooms, we must be sure to address oppression and inequity as they play out in online spaces. On a technical level, we need to help educators understand the legal aspects of terms of service agreements and the implications of big data when asking students to enter online worlds in their school work. Additionally, pre-service teachers are often hesitant to speak out about “touchy” subjects online, fearing that it might affect their future careers, but this type of silence on the part of educators creates a dangerous hidden curriculum that announces that these topics are unimportant. We need to have frank and open discussions about how gender or racial inequity can be both reinscribed and deconstructed online (for example, interrogating the GamerGate hashtag, discussing the events in Ferguson and the subsequent Black Twitter movements like #BlackLivesMatter, or examining the rise of #IdleNoMore). We also need to provide opportunities for students to reflect on these topics in digital spaces both through course assignments and by providing support for student initiatives (such as the StarsRegina site set up by pre-service teachers to create a hub for information about anti-oppressive education). And as lead learners, we need to model the importance of having these discussions out in the open.

Clearly, there’s a lot of work to be done if we want to prepare both new and existing educators to teach in ways that take up the incredible affordances of our global community and digital spaces. But there are also so many inspiring examples of teachers, principals, and other lead learners doing great things online – we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s already being done around the world. What amazing things have you seen in your own learning community, and how are you helping the next generation of educators to be connected future leaders in our field?

Connect with Alec and Katia on Twitter to continue the conversation.

The 3 Minute Thesis

This weekend, I participated in the 3 Minute Thesis competition at the University of Regina. Although I didn’t win, the experience of putting together a three-minute version of my dissertation was a surprisingly helpful experience, because it forced me to really consolidate my thinking.

As part of the competition, we were allowed a single slide:

3MTslideHildebrandt

Below, you can find the text of my 3 minute speech, or check out the video (minus the very first line):

In higher education, more and more courses are taught entirely or partly online. But this can be problematic, because while online spaces can promote social justice, they can also perpetuate hate.

So take, for instance, a space like Twitter. Ugly, hateful hashtags are common, from #ThatsWhatSlutsSay to #NoMoreIslam.

On the other hand, when Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, the issue only made it onto the national news once it started trending on Twitter.

So the question is, how do we ensure that online spaces in courses work to disrupt oppressive ideas rather than reinforcing them?

I teach future teachers in the Faculty of Education. One required course deals with anti-oppressive curriculum, or teaching for social justice. As part of the course, students participate in two online spaces: an individual blog, where students reflect publicly on course content, and a course hashtag, where students discuss class topics on Twitter. However, students express a lot of discomfort around discussing the “controversial” course content online, so they construct “neutral,” digital identities, which do nothing to challenge oppressive ideas.

And this is troubling, because if our students are online and not talking about social justice issues, the message conveyed is that the issues aren’t important.

So my research explores how we might help students to recognize how they unintentionally contribute to oppressive narratives in order to shift their online behaviour. Seven students participated in a series of conversations about digital identity and anti-oppressive education, and we worked together to unpack the underlying perceptions of teaching that shaped their understandings of both.

Some key themes emerged:

First, students described what psychologists would call cognitive dissonance: that is, holding two opposing ideas that cannot be reconciled. In this case, students wanted to be social justice advocates, but they also wanted to live up to stories of the good teacher as neutral. In order to reconcile this dissonance, students had to downplay the importance of social justice. Students also believed that speaking out for social justice would make them unhireable, because they would be perceived as biased or politically radical.

But not everything was discouraging:

While students felt that, individually, they did not have the power to speak out about social justice online, several noted that they did feel able to do so as part of the collective class group – one student described it as a “community of discomfort” that added a layer of safety. Also, students noted that the act of performing the role of anti-oppressive educator online as part of course requirements allowed them to try on that self until it eventually became a part of their identity.

Ultimately, my research suggests that there are indeed structures and supports that educators might use to transform online spaces into places of equity and societal betterment.

“Being nice doesn’t cut it anymore:” Conversations with pre-service teachers

Last week, I finally finished my research interviews. Yay…I think?

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 5.55.37 PM

Qualitative research is a funny thing. After spending 4 or 5 hours with each of these students, I feel that I’ve gotten to know them pretty well. Over the past few months, I have been constantly overwhelmed by my research participants’ incredible insights and the amazing generosity they have shown with their time, meeting with me in the midst of their busy semesters. And now that it’s over, I feel a little lost and wish I could keep having these conversations (and I do have them, sometimes, but there’s something about that sacred time designated to nothing but the interviews).

Now that I’ve finished my interviews, I’ve started listening to the recordings, making notes, and going over the writing I did throughout the process. And I have just one word: “Data.” Here’s some of what I’ve thought about based on just a few of the first round of interviews.

This first round of conversations was geared towards developing biographical profiles of my participants, but already I am overwhelmed by the richness of the data that I have gathered. Because my research is about the ways that anti-oppressive education intersects with digital identity and digital spaces, these conversations delved into what Kevin Kumashiro terms “troubling knowledge” in his book Against Common Sense. We explored students’ childhoods, experiences with racism, feelings about the social justice-oriented curriculum in our Faculty of Education, and thoughts about teaching as a profession.

As I got to know each of the students better, their descriptions of their formative years were punctuated by moments of tension, discomfort, and realization. One student, describing her rural-Saskatchewan upbringing, told about how her mother would tell her and her siblings to go into a back bedroom and lock the door because an aboriginal person was at the door. Another thanked me for the difficult questions, noting that she had never thought about her earliest experiences of racism. A third student, attempting to describe what she felt she needed to be a successful teacher, went through a series of answers, each time unpacking and revising her responses as she questioned how her thinking might be oppressive or problematic, and finally settling on the idea that there was no perfect answer and that searching for one was a product of her own conditioning.

To be a good teacher, “being nice doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Several things became clear in just these initial conversations. First, I was struck by the degree to which these students have embraced and committed to the idea of anti-oppressive education. One student noted that she has learned, in the past 2 years, that to be a good teacher, “being nice doesn’t cut it anymore.” Even when students’ initial reactions to a question were clearly influenced by dominant narratives of race, the students were able to identify these patterns in their own thinking when I pressed for clarification. For instance, one student, when asked whether she still saw racism in the program, immediately drew on the discourse of reverse-racism/sexism and noted that Aboriginal students and men were more likely to be accepted into the faculty; however, when I asked her a follow up question on this, she began to unpack her motivations for saying this. Clearly, we are doing something right in this program. Of course, I need to keep in mind the type of student who is actually willing to volunteer for research about anti-oppressive education, and I need to consider the degree to which my participants (many of whom are self-described teacher-pleasers) are taking up the role of good student and giving the “correct” answer.

I also noticed the significant amount of tension around teaching anti-oppressively and fears around job-loss or negative repercussions due to creating too much of a stir. Much of this stems, I believe, from what Deborah Britzman would describe as the common-sense discourse of the “good teacher” as neutral and objective – this ingrained understanding bumps up violently against public displays of advocacy for social justice ideals. This is the very same tension that inspired this research in the first place, and it is one that I struggle with myself each time I post to my Twitter account or write on my blog. Just writing this post is uncomfortable for me – it makes me vulnerable and opens me to attack or criticism. But I am reminded of a conversation about blogging on controversial topics that I had – on Twitter – with Alec Couros, a professor of educational technology and media and one of my committee members. After encountering some resistance from my students about posting online, I put the question out to my PLN: Why should pre-service teachers be blogging? Many answers flowed in, and at some point the discussion turned to what content should be made public and what should be kept private:

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Alec’s last tweet sums it up nicely, I think. What is considered controversial is always relative to the position of the individual – a person’s power and privilege determines the degree to which s/he can speak out against dominant narratives without negative fallout. 

What we do not say speaks just as loudly as what we do

When I struggle to post online, I need to be mindful of my own privilege, which is perhaps limited in academia but is quite significant relative to that of many other people. For students, however, I wonder how the balance of power and vulnerability plays out with respect to anti-oppressive education, and I expect that this tension will increase and shift as we move into discussions of enacting social justice in open, online spaces.

And amidst all these other realizations, I found that after only one round of interviews, I have already had to think a great deal about the tension between what is public vs. publicized when it comes Twitter and other social media. These is certainly a precedent for PhD bloggers and for discussions of research on social media sites, but I still need to be cautious in respecting the rights of my participants by ensuring that I’ve shared my writing with them and that their own online writing cannot be traced back to them (unless they’ve opted not to be anonymous), while at the same time trying to enact my belief in the need to ensure that social justice does not go ignored in online spaces – for what we do not say speaks just as loudly as what we do.