Monday, May 15, 2017

You can't say that!

Last week, in between all the special events happening at school, I had my media students undertake a relatively simple task. We talked a little bit about fashion shows, because we plan on holding one in June to share selected outfits that the students created as part of their major term project. We discussed what models are and what they do at fashion shows. Then, I showed them a few of the images I found when I Googled "fashion show". (I embedded it in the IWB file I used to help with the lesson flow - some of those Google image results were a bit risque for my primary and junior division students.) We described the people we saw in these images and talked about implied messages - that these pictures suggest that only certain types of people are models. We listed these characteristics and talked about whether these implied messages were true. I was excited about this lesson because it provided a great opportunity to talk in age-appropriate ways about equity issues.

I discovered that for some classes, talking about equity issues and implied messages was easier said than done for one, big reason. The students had no problem sharing that most of the models were female, tall, and thin. When I asked what was the colour of their skin, or if a student mentioned that most of the models were white, several students would gasp as if someone said a "bad word".

"You can't say that! That's racist!", many students told me.

I found myself giving the same explanation to almost every class - it is not racist to talk about the colour of someone's skin. In fact, if we don't allow ourselves to bring it up in conversation, then how can we deal with it when truly racist things (like being unfair to someone because they are black or Asian/Chinese) happen?

Many of the students were still uncomfortable. On the short question and answer sheet I used to check for understanding, I asked "Who is often a model?". Students had the list we created together to refer to for ideas and spelling, yet lots of students were more likely to write the word "attractive" than "white".

There was a class that didn't seem as hesitant to discuss race, gender, or even sexual orientation. I suspect that a lot of this comfort and awareness has to do with their teacher. Siobhan Alexander is the Grade 5 teacher and the staff lead for Student Council. She has a real passion for social justice and does not shy away from controversial or uncomfortable topics. For instance, she and her class have spent a lot of time examining the horrors of the Canadian residential school system, and Siobhan encourages her class to find their voices and become passionate about issues that impact our global community. In fact, one of those special events I alluded to at the beginning of my post was our "We Walk for Water" Student Council fund raiser. The members of the Student Council visited each class to make a presentation explaining about the water crisis in Haiti. They sold rafiki bracelets made by Kenyan women to support their entrepreneurship as well as the Haiti water initiative. On Friday, each class was given a ten pound jug of water (which is just a quarter of the weight that Haitian women carry) and students took turns carrying it around on a neighbourhood walk. Students gained some empathy about others' situations as they mirrored a small portion of the daily duties of Haitian women collecting water.

Mrs. Alexander addresses the student body prior to our walk
I think that the students' reaction of "you can't say that" would be met as a challenge by Siobhan. Why not? We need more Siobhans - teachers courageous enough to deal with sensitive issues head-on and in creative ways that students will understand. There's more I'd like to say, but I can't. Thanks Mrs. Alexander for organizing this event and leading the Student Council. They raised over $2000 in a school with just 300 students to help Haiti, and this doesn't even include the other charity work the student council has undertaken this 2016-17 school year. Even better than the money is the compassion the students have developed - and that can make the world a better place.


  1. Making me cry... thanks :)

  2. Thanks, Diana, for doing what you do so well. You continue to tell the stories of the everyday heroes we all work with. They are stories we too often let get lost, and devalued. This is a beautiful piece, and I am proud to say that many of the students in the intermediate division at my school this year are learning to have some of these important conversations, getting past the initial discomfort.