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This past semester I was in the midst of teaching one of my favorite units that I’ve ever taught in my career thus far. My students read a play about characters who are a part of a First Nations community in British Columbia, Canada. The play, titled Where the Blood Mixes, deals with tragedy and trauma, sheds light on the effects of residential schools (where indigenous children were sent to be forcibly assimilated into the white colonial culture) on the indigenous populations in Canada. The main reason why this unit was so important was that not only does it address the painful experiences of a group of people who are often overlooked, the unit centered works by indigenous peoples and their voices were an integral part of the unit. My students listened to and reflected on real residential school survivor stories in conjunction with reading this play. While this assignment was meant to allow them to hear first-hand accounts of the abuse and negative effects of these residential schools on the First Nations community from survivors, a lot of my students complained about how long the stories were, or how ‘boring’ the accounts were. At first, I ignored these comments, because kids tend to complain about a lot of things in the classroom and if we expended energy to address every “I’m bored” comment, we’d be perpetually exhausted. However, the comments didn’t stop and the fact that I didn’t address them made me question whether I’m being complicit in the disregard of the voices, stories, and experiences of these indigenous peoples.
As we continued through the unit, I had my students analyze how indigenous peoples have been depicted in the media, historically. Therefore, I had my students watch the documentary Reel Injun by Neil Diamond, which explores how Native Americans have been portrayed through a century of cinema. The documentary presents troubling footage from real Hollywood films that demonstrate the blatant dehumanization of Native Americans on film, which reflects the violent and demeaning history of white colonial powers towards indigenous groups in North America. As we watched the documentary, I noticed that a few of the students were yawning, checking the time constantly, and one even fell asleep. Even more, I overheard a student talking about how boring the documentary was when they left my classroom.Even more, I overheard a student talking about how boring the documentary was when they left my classroom. Click To Tweet
This put me at a crossroads. On one hand, I respect students’ opinions as they are allowed to find things boring (as we all did when we were in school). On the other hand, I felt as if the students didn’t fully understand the purpose of the documentary and the deeper meaning of the unit in general. As such, it was frustrating and frankly insulting, that these behaviors and comments were spilling out of some of my students. As mentioned before, I had to assess my role in the situation. I walked into my classroom the next day, I asked them about their favorite TV shows to which they all replied. I then asked them whether they felt represented by these shows. A little confused at first about what that question meant, I explained further and almost all of them said that they are able to find main characters in their favorite shows, who looked like them.
We then discussed the inherent privilege that my almost all-white class had to be able to find numerous shows that had persons who were in major roles, in positive roles, as fully realized characters, that looked like them. This led to me pointing out how certain groups of people do not have this privilege and have to search to find media where they are properly represented (if any exist), one of which is the indigenous community in North America (and ultimately, all over the world). Furthermore, the experiences and trauma of marginalized groups are not meant as amusement for our consumption. We look at works like this in order to gain a deeper understanding of how the indigenous communities have faced violence, cultural genocide, and identity erasure at the hands of white colonial powers. As such, students need to be able to step back and look at the deeper meaning of the units we do in class, which was the main point of the class discussion that day. At the end of the class, one of my students apologized to me and explained how she now understood how her lackadaisical responses to the material reinforced a power dynamic; ever since then, I haven’t heard an “I’m bored” comment in my room.
So, this discussion with my students reinforced that there are certain topics and conversations that must be had in our classrooms, and as educators, we must be able to help students move past the flawed thinking that topics that are interesting are important, while topics that they believe are less interesting deserve less attention. It also held me accountable as an educator; I have to step in and address these “I’m boring” comments in certain situations like this, much quicker.
Waiting, as I did, sends a message to the students that it’s ok for them to disregard important information, as many people have done in general to groups such as indigenous populations. My unit on the First Nations community was meant to shine a light on a topic that most of us and my students have the privilege of not thinking about. This whole experience taught me when and how to address the “I’m bored” comment in moments such as these; sometimes students need to push past that superficial emotion to dig deeper into the meaning of topics in the classroom.