An Accidental Teacher

Me, as drawn by student, Elyse Heuval

(Paper written during M.Ed program in 2006)

A self is made, not given. It is a creative and active process of attending a life that must be heard, shaped, seen, said aloud into the world, finally enacted and woven into the lives of others. Then a life attended is not an act of narcissism or disregard for others; on the contrary, it is searching through the treasures and debris of ordinary existence for the clear points of intensity that do not erode, do not separate us, that are most intensely our own, yet other people’s too. The best lives and stories are made up of minute particulars that somehow are also universal and of use to others as well as oneself.  Barbara Myerhoff quoted in Writing for your Life 1

Whenever I lose my teaching heart, and feel like my “claim to be a teacher seems a transparent sham”, 2 I recall my daughter’s reaction to my announcement, at the end of a difficult day at work, that I would no longer be the person who urged colleagues to consider alternatives to the Eurocentric, individualistic, competitive structure in schools. At the time, I was so very tired of arguing for the place of media literacy in our English course outlines and absolutely bone-weary with negotiations for the inclusion of literature from living male and female authors of colour. I will always remember my daughter’s facial expression as she looked at me as though I had just stated that I would stop breathing and said, “What do you mean? That’s what you do! That’s who you are!” This was a shocking reflection of someone who, at the age of 21, became a teacher by accident.

Teaching was the last thing on my mind 24 years ago in South Africa when I was pre-occupied with the dramas of single parenthood and the demands of undergraduate studies. But there I was, just visiting a friend one day, when a local principal, desperate for a Grade three teacher, telephoned her and asked if she would teach at his school, and she said that she was not interested, but that her friend might be, and she passed the phone to me. I’m still not quite sure how, but the next day I found myself the centre of attention in a classroom of 35 extremely energetic eight-year olds, waiting for me to perform the act of ‘teaching’. The only guide I had at the time was what not to do, as I did not want to do anything that had been done to me when I was a student. So my first ‘identity’ as a teacher was to be the ‘anti-teacher’, the antithesis of all the models for teachers I had been exposed to as a student. This first position lasted for three months and then I moved on to other assignments at various secondary schools, sometimes teaching students just five years younger than I was. During this time I developed my ‘anti-teacher’ while I completed a Bachelor’s degree, part of my plan to become a psychologist.

Although I saw teaching as a temporary interlude, a gift that had come to me, a rare opportunity in Apartheid era South Africa when work was not easily available for non-whites, this ‘temporary interlude’ lasted for seven years and included the completion of a teaching diploma. All the while, I struggled with both a repulsion and attraction for the work. I was repulsed by the restrictions and control of students and the punishments they were subjected to, but I was also attracted to the magical moments in the classrooms, moments of awed discovery, moments of loving community, moments of connectedness. My ‘anti-teacher’ struggled to find the maps for the paths that led to these moments while I searched for ways to subvert the impositions of an education system deliberately designed to restrict the range of our learning journeys.

When I emigrated to Canada, teaching was once again my most viable option of employment and the temporary interlude became ‘temporary indefinite’ to use the initial description of my contract with the Surrey School District. I was pleased to discover that what I did in South Africa as an ‘anti-teacher’ was quite common in some schools, and I began to shed that role as I continued my search for those paths to the magical moments I knew were possible in classrooms. But it was not until I began teaching in a Humanities co-op program that I finally shed the last shreds of my ‘anti-teacher’ role and adopted a different role, as a facilitator of co-operation, collaboration and community, a cultural worker for social transformation. In this role, I am passionate about my work in the classroom and hopeful for the potential for cooperative learning to spread the seeds of social justice and peace. At a time of the existence of omnicidal weaponry and gross inequalities in resource distribution, I can see no higher purpose for public education than to teach our children how to live together in this global village.

Because everything in my life has prepared me for this role, I am grateful for being born brown-skinned in a country whose government had legalized racism. If it were not for that experience, I would not know at a very deep level how critically important it is to “learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or perish together as fools” as Martin Luther King, Jr. has described humanity’s ultimate choice. Because I have experienced the effects of malrecognition3, I realize the critical importance of recognition in schools; because I have lived under a system of multi-level segregation of people, I know the importance of connectedness and community in classrooms; because of my experiences in an education system whose hidden curriculum was to maintain a society based on a racial hierarchy, it is second nature in me to expose all hidden curricula to students; and because I was subjected to restrictions and restraints on my expression of my humanity, I encourage my students to develop what Bakhtin called an internally persuasive discourse. Long before I learned to read the maps, I walked the terrain of critical and relational pedagogy when I searched for models for my teaching practice in South Africa.

Historical Substratum

The Coloured people were descended largely from Cape slaves, the indigenous Khoisan population, and other black people who had been assimilated to Cape colonial society by the late nineteenth century. Since they are also partly descended from European settlers, Coloureds are popularly regarded as being of “mixed race” and have held an indeterminate status in the South African racial hierarchy, distinct from the historically dominant white minority and the numerically preponderant African population. Not White Enough, Not Black Enough 4

I was born in South Africa during the Apartheid era, where 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 our in-between position. Though racial segregation existed in various forms throughout the era of colonialism in South Africa, it was not until the National Party formed the government in 1948 that there began a systematic process to separate the population into ‘races’ that had different rights and varying degrees of access to national resources.

A few days after my birth in 1961, a ‘race classifier’5, having noted my parents’ ‘habits, education and speech, deportment and demeanour in general’6 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 19507. This meant that, as a product of ‘miscegenation’8, I was under the law, “a person who [was] not a white person or a native”, the latter two categories reserved for the “racially pure” aboriginal races of Africa and 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]”9.

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. 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, inconveniences 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, but not learning the languages or the culture of the majority aboriginal African population with whom I shared characteristic physical features.

Up until the first fully democratic elections in 1994, the South African Apartheid state had 19 racially defined education departments, each with its own set of rules and policies aimed at maintaining the Apartheid system. I was educated in a system designed for Coloureds by The Coloured Persons Education Act of 196310, but I began my teaching career at a time when the government began responding to the worldwide condemnation of Apartheid by making largely cosmetic changes to the basic architecture of Apartheid. Two years after I began teaching, in 1984, a new ‘constitution’

divided the national parliament into three chambers (the ‘tricameral’ parliament) one house for representatives of white voters (the House of Assembly), one for representatives of coloured voters (the House of Representatives) and one for representatives of Indian voters (the House of Delegates). No provision was made … for any representation of Africans in the RSA parliament.11

Although Coloureds and Indians could now ‘vote’ for these parliaments on matters ‘specific to the ‘cultural and value frameworks’12 of their communities and this included education, they could not ‘vote’ away the Apartheid system which formed the actual foundation of all “cultural and value frameworks” in South Africa. And so, although everything else remained the same, as a teacher I worked for the Coloured “parliament’s” Department of Education and Culture.

Racism in education at the time was also reflected in the Apartheid South African state’s per capita spending on the education of children in the four ‘population groups’. Throughout the Apartheid era, per capita spending on White children was “at least seven times that for Blacks and almost twice that for Coloureds and Asians.”13 Another indication of the unequal distribution of funding was the student-teacher ratios. Whereas White schools had student teacher ratios of 17:1, Coloured schools 32:1, and Indian/Asian schools 21:1, Black schools ratios varied from 40:1 in urban areas to 96:1 in some rural areas.14

A critical component of my identity is that I was educated in a system structured on the belief that “there is no place for [non-Whites] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour.” (Minister of Native Affairs, H.F. Verwoed, 1954)

Response to Apartheid

Even within grossly asymmetrical power relations, the powerful participants rarely control the weaker so completely that the latter’s ability to improvise resistance becomes irrelevant. 15

As is true in any system of oppression, those of us not deemed fully human by the government developed a variety of responses, none without some level of danger. The threat of solitary confinement, torture or death hung over the heads of everyone who dared to question the validity of Apartheid. Whilst I participated in the ‘crimes’ of reading banned literature, providing a ‘safe house’ for someone escaping the dreaded Special Branch police, and membership in a democratic teachers union, I think my most effective anti-apartheid work was in the classroom. It was there that I tried to build the bridges and connectivity that Apartheid was designed to destroy, as its application not only enforced separation between racially defined groups but also within those groups so separated.

It was a peculiarity of the Coloured community that we practiced a kind of Apartheid amongst ourselves. Because the implementation of the policy of racial classification was so arbitrary, some members of a family could be classified White, whilst others would be designated Black. These categories affected everything in a person’s life, from where they could live to whom they could marry, and many Coloureds disowned those family members who were designated “Black” so as not to endanger their own relative privilege. As Deborah Posel explains:

The hierarchies of privilege and reward attached to the racial classification exercise extended the anxieties of race …particularly within the Coloured communities. Many of the appeals [to the Racial Classification Appeal Board] from people who considered themselves Coloured but were classified as ‘native’ [Black] speak of the ‘deep sense of shame’ felt by those who found themselves officially downgraded a rung on the country’s racial ladder.16

In my classrooms in a Coloured school, therefore, I had students who saw each other through the veils of race classification and this affected whom they saw as intelligent and desirable to develop relationships with. In the school’s staffroom, teachers too held these attitudes along with those notions of individualism and competition characteristic of Eurocentric education systems.

In this toxic stew of separation, alienation and misrecognition, it was quite difficult to introduce the concepts of collaboration, connection and community. But, one of the blessings of youth is that it provides one with a fearlessness not yet diminished by age. And so I tried to build community in my classrooms through a variety of ways: communal meals, classroom democracy, and role reversal in the student-teacher relationship. These attempts were not welcomed by colleagues who accused me of ‘breeding rebels’ in my classroom, especially because I eschewed the accepted practice of corporal punishment and ignored rules about how students could wear their hair and uniforms.

Over the seven years I taught in South Africa, I struggled to find ways to build connections and community in my classroom in the absence of any theory or models. It was therefore with a warm sense of affirmation and confirmation that, while completing requirements for a Post Baccalaureate diploma, I first read the work of Freire, Noddings, hooks and Ladson-Billings, who advocate a pedagogy based on educational relationships and the acquisition of a critical consciousness. Reading their work gave me the language to name the discoveries I had made through trial and error in South Africa, and I was relieved to know that what I suspected about classroom community was based on a whole range of theories and practices. Over the past 10 years in Canadian classrooms, although I have continued to develop practices I first adopted in South Africa, it is only since I began teaching in a co-operative classroom seven years ago that I have had the opportunities to create the kind of classroom experiences that foster the antithesis of apartheid: understanding and appreciation of diversity in ethnicity, culture and sexual orientation.

The Co-operative Classroom

And that’s what the universe is – a vast system of co-operation. Though many contemporary social institutions teach us to see others as enemies or potential rivals for scarce resources, the truth is that we live in a world in which the basic principle is one of co-operation. Spirit Matters 17


The co-op classroom is a perfect setting for the marriage of critical and relational pedagogy as it allows both teachers and students freedoms not possible in a regular classroom, and this provides the ground for the creation of a caring community and for the practice of participatory democracy.

In a co-op model, Grade 11 or 12 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 on six weeks of work experience. In order to accommodate the work experience, students are in the classroom only for two-thirds of a normal 90-day semester.

The co-op model has advantages for students with a range of interests and abilities. For students intent on tertiary education, the extra credits they earn in their grade 11 year provides them with more flexibility in their grade 12 year as they have a ‘cushion’ of extra credits; for students who want to graduate early, the extra credits put them much closer to the graduation requirement of 52 credits; for students who do not find classrooms to be comfortable places, the freedom of the co-op classroom allows them to take as many breaks as they need and to bring to the classroom, comforts such as music and games.

Also, as our administrators will testify, students who have a history of ‘skipping’ become regular attendees when they are in co-op. It’s difficult to ‘skip’ when members from your group call you at home or on your cell phone if you’re not at your desk by 9am! Co-op classes have the highest retention, lowest absenteeism, and highest overall pass rate. There’s a mountain of evidence for this awaiting a doctoral thesis.

The model, ironically first designed as a pre-employment program consistent with the ‘education for human capital’ goal for education, is actually a powerful vehicle for social transformation, as it allows teachers to work outside of the normal restrictions in schools. Because no one else’s schedule in the school is affected by their activities, co-op teachers and students can organize their days outside of the normal bell schedule and take breaks when they choose within the framework of a regular school day.

This means that a lesson can last 20 minutes or two hours with breaks occurring as needed. This allows for a more humane rhythm for work as opposed to the regular school’s factory-based rhythm of piecemeal work periods. Students also enjoy ‘independent work days’ when they get to organize their entire day as they wish. I use these opportunities to teach time management and most students much work done. Those who prefer to do their schoolwork at home can choose to read or to do anything else they prefer in the school.

This is another irony in the model because, as originally designed, it was a ‘co-operation’ between the fields of education and business, and the model was supposed to prepare students for the world of work with its characteristic competitive, alienating and hierarchical structures. But, 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 day of a the week over most of five months in a semester. Because our student population is comprised of 44 ethnicities, our classrooms are like a microcosm of the global village with a range of cultures and beliefs.

Facilitating Co-operation and Collaboration      

Co-operative learning: more than a teaching strategy, more than an instructional technique. Co-operative learning is an entirely different way of viewing the educational process of schools, reshaping them into communities of caring in which individual students take responsibility for the learning of their classmates and respect and encourage each other’s diversity. Co-operative learning has the potential to completely transform all aspects of our classroom and of your school so as to promote the sharing of power, responsibility, and decision-making throughout. (Mock advertisement suggested by M. Sapon-Shevin & N. Schniedewind) 18

For the past seven years I have interpreted my role as teacher as meaning that I facilitate the development of cooperation and collaboration within a caring classroom community. While I also prepare students for the work experience placements, the main focus of my program is not the world of work but the work of social transformation. That it is possible to do this within a traditional school system is one of the best-kept secrets in education, but it shouldn’t be. If we really want to achieve all the goals advocated by critical and relational pedagogy in the absence of a complete upheaval of the traditional public school system, there is no simpler way to do this than through the co-op program.

 Stories from a Cooperative Classroom

At the end of each co-op I ask my students to write about their experiences as a means of evaluation of my teaching practice and also to encourage reflection on their learning process. The stories below are typical of the kinds of responses I have received over the years.

M’s story surprised me, as I was completely unaware of her conflict with N:

When I came to the co-op class and saw my enemy N I was so angry. We had been enemies since elementary school. I wanted to switch out of the class because I couldn’t stand looking at her miserable, lying face. But I got up the confidence to stay because I had been looking forward to Humanities co-op all summer and I didn’t want to blow it off over some girl who thought she was all that. So, H and I decided to sit at a different table from N. But my plan did not work because the teacher moved us all into our Myers-Briggs personality groups and guess who was in my group? N! I got so frustrated and mad. I wondered how she could possibly share the same personality traits as me. I was completely shocked. I talked to my other classmates in my group and ignored her. The second day N asked me a question about how to do an assignment. I was so close to just walking away but I answered her question and she thanked me! I was really surprised that after all the fights and arguments she had the nerve to ask me a question. After that day everything changed. The teacher assigned more and more group projects and we would not only get marked on the quality of our work but also we would get evaluated on how well the group worked together. So this meant that if I wanted to get a good mark, I would actually have to talk to N. At this point I wanted to ask the teacher to switch me or N into another group but again I decided to give it another try. Soon after this we all got together to prepare a skit and everybody got along fine including me and N. A month into the Humanities co-op course N and I were talking like we were best friends, I don’t know if I changed or if she changed but we never brought up the rumour or fights again. Co-op doesn’t only help you to work better in academic courses, but it also helps to give other people a chance to express themselves. The more group work the class did, the more I found out about the strengths and weaknesses of everybody along the way. If it wasn’t for co-op I would not have had the chance to know a lot of cool people that I didn’t know before.

A’s story also surprised me as she had resisted doing the ‘family interview’ assignment she attributes with creating closer connections in her family:

 In the Humanities co-op course I’ve not only learned more about myself but the world around me too. Before I was in co-op I wouldn’t pay attention to anyone else but myself. I only talked to people who I knew from elementary [school] and those who I became close with from other classes. I never realized what was happening in the world until I entered co-op. Co-op was not al that I expected it to be. I thought I would be just working and learning about the same things I did in regular semester courses [but] co-op taught us things I never ever knew about my life. What I really liked about the course was not only did it make me realize how the real world is but also it brought more out of me.

I talked to mostly everyone in the class, people who I would never think of talking to if I was in a regular semester class. I was more open with myself than I ever had been especially with my family. We would balance our class work with what was happening in our lives. We had assignments about family which I enjoyed doing because it allowed me to reach out to family members and I became closer to them. I thought I had everything figured out before this course but I gained more knowledge about the world and the way it really works.

I’ve learned not to judge people based on what they wear or how they look, that doesn’t make them who they are. Their personality and what they are inside is what counts. Also I learned those people I did not talk to before had the same interests as I did and some had interests which were interesting to talk about. I’m glad I had the chance to take this course because not only did it help me with myself, it made me realize other things are important in life.

J’s story really pleased me as our classroom community had been affected several times by her conflict with K:

 Before this class I thought that other cultures’ foods, such as sushi would taste gross, the thought of eating raw fish grossed me out, but after tasting it during our multicultural lunch, it wasn’t that bad. It was actually really good.

And I also want to say that at the beginning of this co op I hated K… I was planning on doing a lot of things to her after I graduated from grade 12 but through spending time with her in this course I realised that everyone is different but also the same. After being with her for so long I realised I don’t really hate her that much. I just can’t really get along easily with her but I can live with it!

Characteristics of my Humanities co-op program

Many aspects of my program are extensions of activities I stumbled upon in South Africa in my search for teaching strategies that would build connections between students. While teaching in South Africa, I did not know anything about the theories of co-operative learning nor any concepts now familiar to me from the fields of critical and relational pedagogy. My teacher education training focused on the philosophy of Christian National Education (CNE). This philosophy saw the culture of the white Afrikaaners as the foundation of education. As Michael Cross explains in A Historical Review of Education in South Africa, according to the architects of CNE,

[Education] must be adjusted to the life and world view of the Afrikaners [white South Africans of mainly Dutch descent]: all school activities must reveal the Christian philosophy of life, Calvinistic beliefs, and promote the principle of nationalism in education, i.e. the national ideal, traditions, religion, language and culture of each social group. From the 1920’s onwards, these ideas were associated with the need for Afrikaner pre-eminence in the sphere of the state and the restructuring of the relations between white and black people19

As is quite clear, this philosophy would certainly not accommodate ideas of equality or democracy. In a form of double consciousness, I, like many non-white student teachers in South Africa, abandoned this pernicious philosophy after I had successfully demonstrated that I had learned and understood the ‘merits’ of it. In fact, double consciousness was indispensable to my engagement with the education discourse in South Africa at the time.

In complete contrast to what I had learned in South Africa, my teaching practice now is based on the concepts of recognition as described by Charles Bingham in Schools of Recognition, 20 an ethic of care as advocated by Nel Noddings in A Challenge to Care21, and the development of a critical consciousness described by bell hooks in Teaching to Transgress.22 Though I discovered them somewhere along my floundering path, my teaching also includes the kinds of ‘culturally relevant’ practices advocated by Gloria Ladson-Billings in The Dreamkeepers.23

Each co-op has its own ‘identity’ as each teacher asserts their professional autonomy when they interpret the learning outcomes of the curricula that comprise their particular program (Science, Mechanics, Art, etc). For example, one of my colleagues has a semester-long simulation activity that is extremely competitive; another does not do any overnight field trips and still has students’ desks arranged in rows as in a regular classroom.   The introduction to my course outline reads:

The Humanities Co-op is a challenging but rewarding course that is designed to prepare students for active citizenship in their communities. During the semester, students will have the opportunity to earn academic credits in English 11, Social Studies 11, and Media Literacy 11; learn and practice life skills such as time management; receive job training for which they can earn 8 credits; and explore the requirements for various careers. Classroom activities are designed so that students can practice, on a daily basis, skills that will enable them to be responsible citizens.

Overall classroom atmosphere

When pre-service teachers enter my classroom it takes them quite some time to adjust their expectations of what a senior secondary classroom should be. My students are usually working independently on a variety of assignments while they eat and listen to music through headphones. There is a sign-out section on the board for students who need to leave the room for washroom breaks or food runs, which frees me from having to ‘grant permission’ so that students can satisfy basic human needs. Students are just as likely to be sitting on the couches doing their work or sitting in groups at tables arranged in pods, working collaboratively. There is a micro-kitchen in one corner with a coffee maker and microwave oven usually used for making popcorn.


Three-Day Field Trip

One of the ways Lewis builds community in her classroom is through her annual camping trip. Every fall semester she arranges a five-day camping trip for her students near the San Francisco Bay coastline. … The goals are to teach about the environment, encourage cross-cultural contact, and … to build a sense of togetherness and team spirit among her students. Gloria Ladson Billings, The Dreamkeepers 24

Like almost everything else in my teaching practice, I stumbled on the enormous benefits of an extended field trip based on experiential learning when I responded to a request from my students to go on a camping field trip because they had watched the Physical Education co-op across the hallway go on several overnight field trips. I had no idea how to arrange such a trip, or what we would do each day, and I was doubtful of its success since it was already November and characteristically cold and wet.

However, after 3 days at Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island, participating in activities arranged by the facilitators at Cowichan Lake Education Centre, I noticed the dramatic differences in the way students related to each other and how connections were made between students who did not speak to each other in class. I also discovered the effectiveness of experiential learning as the facilitators had hired an organization called Pinnacle Pursuits to program my requested ‘team-building’ activities. Three years after the first field trip, I experienced a kind of déjà vu when I read about Ann Lewis’s goals for her field trips in one of my Master’s programs courses. Now, five years after that first adventure, the field trip is a central component of the Humanities co-op program. It not only provides a common experience from which we draw many lessons, but it is the catalyst for the creation of connectedness and community in the classroom.

Teach us Something

In Peggy Valentine’s class …sometimes … she takes a seat at a student desk and prods one of her African American students up to the front to be the teacher. “Explain to me what you mean. Teach me how you do it.” The student begins to explain a process or a concept to Valentine. Throughout the explanation Valentine waves her hand in the air, asking the student-turned teacher to slow down or go over something againThe Dreamkeepers25

Ever since I had students managing classroom administrivia when I taught in South Africa, I have encouraged students to occasionally occupy my ‘role’ in the classroom. Quite often they enjoy aspects of it that I do not, which is quite a revelation to them. The ‘teach us something’ activity, however, is always met with resistance when I first introduce it.

By the time they get to Grade 11, students are firmly entrenched in the ‘you speak, I listen’ role and some have become quite comfortable in their passivity.   Sometimes this activity is part of the three-day field trip but sometimes it has also been conducted in the classroom when we set aside an entire day for lessons on a whole range of skills from weaving to skateboarding. While students teach groups of their peers (and me) they rotate in the roles of student and teacher throughout the activity. I am always student however! What is remarkable about this activity is the way it helps students to reveal aspects of themselves that are not normally visible in a regular classroom.

 Social Responsibility Projects

Each year students work collaboratively to complete a social responsibility project as a means of practicing global citizenship. In order to circumvent resistance from students who have never had to take a bus let alone return bottles for a fundraiser, I present the project as an assignment focused on selected learning outcomes from English 11, Social Studies 11 and Media Literacy 11 curricula, in full realization that the ‘ah ha’ moments will occur at some point during completion of the project.

Last year, our SR project on the South East Asian tsunami included an analysis of media articles, a research essay on the Canadian government’s response, fundraising and a personal journal for reflections on the project. This journal is really the most critical component as it moves students to engage more closely with the situation than would be possible if they just donated money to the tragedy. Over the years I’ve used a variety of questions to guide their reflections in these journals. Following are examples of these:

  • What did you do today for your project?
  • What did you think about while you were doing it?
  • How did you feel about what you were doing?
  • Who do you think is to blame for the existence of (poverty/ hunger/ environmental destruction/ racism/ homophobia/ etc)?
  • What have you done to try to stop these social injustices in the past?
  • What can you do in the future, after this project is over?

Self Work, Paradigm Shifting and Working in Community

Apart from the stand-alone projects mentioned above, all activities in my co-op are woven with at least one of these orientations: self work, which is focused on becoming aware of personal fears and attitudes as well as learning how to manage stress; paradigm shifting, focused on raising critical consciousness and working in community, which is focused on collaborative work.

Self work includes keeping a personal journal which I do not read but for which students receive credit. It also includes meditation practice and exercise which we integrate into our daily activities. Initially students complain that they are “not in phys ed so why do we have to do this?” but by the middle of the semester, they are requesting meditation and stretch breaks.   It was quite satisfying to hear that one of my students, on seeing the vice-principal looking quite stressed one day, suggested to her that she should meditate!

Paradigm Shifting is the goal of activities and discussions that challenge students’ view of the world. Some of what I do is quite simple – like writing the date on the board in six different calendars; other activities, like media literacy and research on sweatshops and factory farms are more complex. Sometimes the paradigm shift happens when students from different cultures interview each other and each has an opportunity to adjust stereotypical views. All have the effect of shifting what students view as normal and many have permanently changed habits and behaviours as a result of class assignments.

Working in community is sometimes the most difficult to achieve as students are so well trained in the ‘marks competition’ game that it takes a while for them to learn to work collaboratively. Students who have been high achievers in their courses before co-op have the most difficulty, as they resist working with others they deem ‘dumb’ or ‘lazy’. This is where the field trip is invaluable and why we go on it in within the first two weeks of the semester. I’ve found that students who are not academically inclined shine on the field trip but those whose ‘natural habitat’ is the classroom do not. And so when they return to the classroom, they each have a different perspective on each other, which helps to build the relationship between them.


Students should also be invited to contribute suggestions on classroom organization. Some student choices will lead to individual projects, some to group projects, some to supraclass forums. This kind of participation is not only conducive to intellectual development, but it is essential for the development of citizens who can participate intelligently in democratic processes. The Challenge to Care26

Each of my co-op classes votes for a team of co-facilitators who earn work experience credits by meeting with me weekly to discuss anything that their peers have brought to their attention about anything in the classroom. They take turns chairing the meetings and then report back to the classroom the next day. It takes a few meetings before students release their expectation that I should ‘tell’ them what to do when I am just a participant in the meeting. These meetings have been invaluable in providing me with insights into my teaching practice and have provided a platform for authentic criticism of my actions. Students are far gentler in their criticisms than one would expect, given the kinds of criticisms of their work they endure for years!

Integrating Curricula

Because we have less time to complete the same learning outcomes as a regular Grade 11 class, I integrate assignments and projects so that on completion of one assignment, a student can earn credits in all three of their academic courses: English 11, Social Studies 11 and Media Literacy 11. Sometimes they have assignments for which they earn credit for all their courses, including career education and work experience preparation. The theme of ‘conflict’, for example, lends itself to exploration in literature, history, television shows and the workplace.   At first, students do not quite grasp the concept of subject integration as they have had several years of compartmentalized knowledge and piecemeal activities, so this is another adjustment they have to make.

Curricula Through a Social Transformation Lens

I have found that all three of the academic courses in the Humanities co-op lend themselves quite readily to interpretations of learning outcomes through a social transformation lens and so peace education, multicultural literature and globalization feature prominently in our learning journeys.

Career Education in a Cooperative Classroom

Because there is no provincial curriculum for career education, it varies from school to school but our program is often cited as a source for any schools planning a career education program. It includes an exploration of personal values, attitudes, skills, aptitudes; an exploration of careers and employability skills; practice in resume writing, and interviews; and a study of workers’ rights, unions and safety, before students go out on two, 3-week work experiences. Ironically, the course content lends itself quite easily to an exploration of the effects of globalization and, in turn, to the rights and responsibilities of global citizenship.

My Space of Authoring

As can be seen above, my classroom in my space of authoring (following Bakhtin), the place where I improvise responses to the normative discourse in schooling and education. But I am also aware that, as a cultural worker, I am engaged in the transmission of a society’s norms and values and I occupy a pivotal position in the lives of students who are in the process of forming personal identities. Because of this, I work to ensure more “openings” and less “impositions” in my students’ identity formation process. 27 I want my students to have a sense of freedom to express themselves in my classroom that I wish I had had when I was a student in schools in South Africa. 

The Mirrors in my Classroom

[T]eaching holds a mirror to the soul. The Courage to Teach 28

Five years ago I asked friends and family to tell me how they saw me, what kind of person they thought I was. In essence I asked them to describe my identity as they saw it. When I received their responses I noticed not only the range of their perceptions but also the common elements in their comments. Apart from the curious experience of ‘seeing myself’ from the outside, I was also struck by the fact that the story I told myself about myself began to change when aspects of myself that I was blind to, were highlighted and thrown into relief against what I thought I knew about my self. The whole process was like entering a hall of mirrors having a mind’s eye picture of myself that was changed by the refractions and reflections others revealed to me. Far from being an act of narcissism, my request for other perspectives on my Self was an expression of a need to expand the horizons of my self-perspective so that I could see my identity more clearly.

Similarly, whenever I walk into a classroom, I enter a hall of mirrors in which my encounters with my students and the curriculum offer reflections on my teaching identity. It is because of being called ‘Black’ by a student that I was motivated to unpack the ambivalence I have about my ethnic identity; because of being called ‘scarysweet’ by another, that I became aware of the way I respond to resistance and apathy in students. But it is was a student’s comment, that I “made her feel ashamed to be White” that shocked me so much, I stopped talking about affirmative action in my classroom for a few years.   It was not until I read bell hooks’ admission that “the tension – and times even conflict – often meant that students did not enjoy [her] classes or love [her]”29 that I gave myself permission to return to discussions on affirmative action in my classroom. I realized that, I needed to “surrender my need for immediate affirmation … and accept that students may not appreciate the value of a certain standpoint or process straightaway”30 but I also knew that this ‘surrender’ required more than just a mental decision because fear and anger are not located in the mind but in the heart. And if I feel hurt about students’ reactions to discussions on racism, homophobia, and war, this affects the focus of my teaching practice and the way I see my students and my classroom. When this happens, I lose much of my effectiveness as a teacher, because I’ve lost my ‘teaching heart’.

But I have also realized that conflict in the classroom provides me with opportunities to become aware of what Parker Palmer calls “shadows and limits …wounds and fears”. 31 It is during classroom conflict that I have an opportunity to become “more real by acknowledging the whole of who I am”32 And so, because I wanted to learn more about conflict both in my classrooms and in my personal life, I have attended personal growth workshops33 where I have learned about conflict’s place in relationships. Realizing that the core of conflict lies in the characteristics of the communication between people involved in the conflict, I have taught students what I’ve learned about an effective communication strategy to use during conflicts. Many of them not only try it in their lives outside the classroom but also use it with me when I am angry for some reason or another.

Living in an intentional co-housing community 34 has also provided me with many lessons on conflict in communities. Living in co-housing is like living in a small village where everyone knows everyone else and where there is sharing of community resources and, as would be expected in any “village”, conflicts arise from time to time that affect the whole community. What is quite amazing however, is how our personal connections deepen after we have processed our conflicts. We seem to see each other more clearly after we have examined all our assumptions and judgements about each other. Participating in meetings where conflict has been resolved has been an invaluable education that I integrate into my teaching practice.

Recently I’ve been learning how to resolve conflicts within a group setting by observing the work of a Windsong neighbour who has developed a structure35 for conflict resolution in group settings. I would like to become skilled enough with the use of this structure so that I can   teach it to students. I believe that if students can witness and experience transformations of polarized viewpoints in the classroom, then perhaps classrooms can indeed be birthplaces for societal transformation, when students not only create a “connection-through-conflict” meme in their communities but also live in the spirit of ubuntu, the African philosophy that states ‘a person is a person through other persons’. At its core, it expresses our fundamental connections as human beings and is the anti-thesis of Apartheid’s lie.


Teaching Who I Am

There is in each of us an ongoing story. It contains our meaning and our destiny. And it goes on inevitably whether we pay attention to it or not. This is our “soul story’ … There is an ongoing drama that we do not control and into which we are drawn. And our deepest meaning is to stay with the story. Though we do not know its final outcome, not even what will come tomorrow, there is nevertheless a great joy and a peace in knowing we are with the story. This is our soul’s journey. This is what it means to “live one’s soul.” This is what life is all about. Writing for your Life 36

Since becoming a co-op teacher, I have found it increasingly difficult to teach in regular classrooms, often feeling like a quisling when I do. Each spring semester, when I teach regular classes, I incorporate much of the style and essence of my co-op classes. I have created an abbreviated version of the co-op field trip for English 12 students and always integrate ‘social issues’ both into our explorations of media’s codes and into our analysis of literature. Although students enjoy my disregard for the ‘official’ start of each English period, and quite like being able to eat in class and to listen to music, I get protests from a few students that they are not in P.E., as I lead them through some stretches or dancing when the energy is low in the room. Their protests are drowned out, however, by others who had become quite used to dancing to the Grease soundtrack during literary analysis in my co-op classes. I have never worn the ‘role’ of teacher comfortably, being much more comfortable in my ‘anti-teacher’ role. I cannot teach other than the way I do. I can be no one else.


  1. Deena Metzger, Writing for your Life: A Guide and Companion to the Inner Worlds (San Francisco: Harper, 1992) page 247
  2. Parker Palmer, The Courage To Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998) page 1
  3. Charles Bingham, Schools of Recognition: Identity Politics and Classroom Practices (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2001) page 3
  4. Mohammed Adhikari, Not White Enough, Not Black Enough: Racial Identity in the South African Coloured Community (Cape Town; Double Storey Books, 2005) page 2
  5. A race classifier was a government employee, more often than not, a member of the ruling National Party that had introduced Apartheid. The nature of their “job” is discussed in Posel (below) page 57
  6. Deborah Posel, What’s in a Name? Racial Categorizations under Apartheid and their Afterlife in Transformation #47 (Durban: University of Natal, 2001) page 56
  7. For a succinct summary of the political and legislative structure of the Apartheid era in South Africa, see
  8. Miscegenation was particularly horrifying to the white Afrikaaners who wanted to maintain the ‘purity’ of their ‘race’ and it was in an attempt to combat miscegenation that was the impetus for the Immorality Act which forbad sex between the races in South Africa and the Mixed Marriages Act which forbad marriage between people of different ‘races’
  9. Quoted in Posel, page 55
  10. The Coloured Persons Education Act 1963 created a separate and inferior education system for the Coloured community. Funding for the system was greater than that for aboriginal Africans but less than that for Whites.
  11. Ian Bunting, The Higher Education Landscape Under Apartheid, obtainable at, page 36
  12. Even though education and other ‘cultural activities’ for Coloureds, Whites and Indians in South Africa were considered ‘own affairs’ under the ‘new constitution’, education and everything else in lives of aboriginal Africans remained a ‘general affair’ still under the control of the white Parliament.
  13. W. Fedderke, R. De Kadt and J. Lutz, Uneducating South Africa: the failure to address the 1910–1993 legacy in International Review of Education, Vol.46, No.3/4, 2000
  14. Beverly Lindsay and Richard Zath, South African Education: a system in need of structural transformation in Journal of Black Studies, Vol.24, No.4 June 1994
  15. Dorothy Holland, William Lachicotte Jr, Debra Skinner, Carole Cain, Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998) page 277
  16. Posel, 66
  17. Michael Lerner, Spirit Matters (Charlottesville, VA; Hampton Roads,2000) page 45
  18. Sapon-Shevin and N. Schniedewind, If cooperative learning’s the answer what are the questions? in Journal of Education, Vol. 174, No.2, 1993
  19. Michael Cross, A Historical Review of Education in South Africa: towards an assessment in Comparative Education 22, No. 3, 1986
  20. Bingham, Schools of Recognition
  21. Nel Noddings, The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 1992)
  22. bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress (New York: Routledge, 1994)
  23. Gloria Ladson-Billings, The Dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American Children. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994)
  24. Ladson-Billings, page 41
  25. Ladson-Billings, page 61
  26. Noddings, The Challenge to Care, page 176
  27. Holland, Identity and Agency, page 270
  28. Palmer, The Courage to Teach, page 2
  29. hooks, Teaching to Transgress, page 42
  30. hooks, Teaching to Transgress, page 42
  31. Palmer, The Courage to Teach, page 13
  32. Palmer, The Courage to Teach, page 69
  33. For information on the kinds of workshops I attended see
  34. For information on Windsong Cohousing Community, see
  35. Michael Koo, Sustaining Intentional Community: Embracing Conflict as Connection, unpublished thesis for the degree in Masters of Arts in Counselling Psychology, (City University, Vancouver, June 2006) page 46
  36. Al Kreinheder, quoted in Writing for your Life, page 247

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Essays on Education and on Life


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