Tag Archives: social justice

Language of Hope

A few days ago while scrolling through a social media site, I noticed that a student I teach had posted a photo with, what I consider to be, an offensive word. It is not uncommon for me to connect with students on some social networking sites. I am as selective about who I connect with as I hope and try to instil students to be. What made me pause when viewing the post was the word ‘retarded.’

My finger hovered over the unfollow button. I fumed.

I have known the student, Mack, for many years. We have navigated many, many difficult conversations. We have navigated many moments of crisis. We trust each other.

Maybe that’s why Mack’s comment, public or not, stung. I could not understand his cruelty. Or what I assumed to be his cruelty. 
It’s not that I simply don’t allow the word in our classroom, I explain its meanings and interpretations, and I have explained, why there is almost never a place, situation, event, or time suitable to use the word. And I share many stories of experience about how this language is harmful. 

That day, in my pause, I sat on the edge of the bathtub, paintbrush in hand, having taken a break, having checked the site, my finger continuing to hover over the unfollow tab.

But I genuinely care about this young person. And what, other than fuelling my own privileged sense of justice, does stepping away silently, and yes, fuming too, serve?

I continued painting, cutting-in around the ceiling, taking time, climbing up and down the step stool.


After a while I sent the student a private message and asked for clarification of the wording of his post. He replied simply, after offering a definition of the word, sharing that it means, “a bad person.”

I replied “No it does not.”


I set my phone down again and sat on the edge of the tub again.

And so far, all of this journey was too simple. I understood I was telling, not attending to his stories of experience. Too, I was not attending to my own stories of experience.

I sighed.


Last week I lunched with a colleague. We shared many stories of experience. Our sharing often returned to the mad-dash made by those within educational landscapes towards a singular social justice way of knowing. During lunch, my friend & I spoke of the importance of attending to all stories of experience. 

Yet, there I was. Sitting and fuming, tapping directives into my device. I had no desire to carry forward a singular way of knowing that would silence others, nor did I wish to lead in this space, when I had not entered through the opener of story, through trust.

I sighed again and reached again for my phone.

Years ago I was married. Those who stood up for me where an eclectic group of women I referred to as my sister people, each family in some lovely way. One sister person, a cognitively challenged woman, only a few years younger than I, was often mistaken for quite youthful. I have known her almost my entire life. Her mom is near to a second mom to me. Only once did her mom speak of the cruelty of living in a world where people are deliberately harmful with their words and more so lackadaisical with them too.

My beautiful sister people.

Truth: I was six months into my first teaching position before I truly allowed the depth and breath of being a language educator to resonate.

I began to ask myself the question I was posing to students. Does language always matter? I began to wonder, was the language fight my fight to fight, like it is and was, and in the same way, and remains to be for my sister person’s mom? Honestly, in the beginning I was foggy on the ownership of this life/issue.

I have lived alongside hundreds of young people. I have shared family stories with those I teach. Students have shared their experiences with me too. My Dad and daughter have often met the students I’ve known. We have journeyed together: cheering at ball tounaments, smiling at open mics, helping to paint classrooms, and hauling boxes into schools. 

I am no different with Dad & my daughter, than I am teaching a mini-lesson, or alone hiking a prairie hillside. In all landscapes of my life, I am fierce and I am kind. I am always me/mom/teacher. And I am reflective.

To all who have walked alongside me, they know that for me, others telling stories of me is a painful space.

I am thinking deeply about how others have told stories of me. I am thinking about my elementry and high school experiences, others telling stories of me through perceptions of my behaviours and my learning disabilities. 

I have spent a life reliving and retelling the stories others tell. 

~ Not stupid. Not busy. Not wrong. Not obstanant. Not rude. Not mean. Not loud. Not silent. Not. Not. Not. Not.

I returned to think deeply with the stories of Mack’s experience. I recalled when we had journeyed the Native Studies 10 course a few years ago, his worldview shifting as we inquired together. He would often send texts and screenshots of moments when he would address oppressive language/statememts made by his peers, even his family, as his own understandings grew.

I sighed. Tap. Tap. Tap….

“Mack, let’s talk about how, for you and others, that word might be understood and used.”


Honestly. I wanted to block Mack. I wanted to avoid a tough talk where I had no script. I had hoped Mack would simply learn that language is the most powerful force for change on the globe simply    by    reading       my    mind.

Language changes the world through our continuing reflection and discussion of its complex meanings and uses.

From those moments I came to teach English Language Arts courses all those years ago, I understood I must come as a Language educator.

During our dissucussion Mack remembered that the ‘r’ word is a word that I don’t allow in our learning space. I am thinking deeply too with the unfolding of that July day. I was painting my bathroom and dripping sweat. I am as fiercely blunt out of school as I am with students every day of our ten month year. My Mom says kids always know when teachers are fake. I think there’s a teaching there. This work is living work. Deeply meaningful, unscripted, and in the moment. Julys’s work too.

Maybe this is why I messaged. Because I trust my student. Because I know he trusts me. Because I already knew he was in a tractor somewhere and he already knew I was eyeball deep in blue paint, tackling a bathroom renovation. Because, we two, we trust the space between us.

Maybe that pause, is the trust that is the rootedness of our language of hope.



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Last night, I attended an open mic at a local coffee house in the rather large small town where I live. Many of my students performed. I was beaming with pride. But for much of the night, I was upset.

A man joined our public event. He was intoxicated. He muttered to himself. After intermission his muttering became a bit louder. Keep in mind, this was a public event. Anyone could perform. Anyone could get up and perform anything they wanted to share. People sang about their views on religion, kids used profanity. All of that was cheered on enthusiastically. The man wasn’t using profanity, or wasn’t, until he was provoked. He was saying things like, “Oh, ya, I sure like music,” and “Oh, that’s fine music.” He was just commenting, loudly. I wondered if the spontaneous adlibs might be part of his culture? I have a great Aunt like that.

Following intermission, the second performer began, reading about gods and demons, good versus evil, and heaven versus hell. Ironic? She read beautifully and like the rest of us, the man became animated. It appeared to me he was simply engaged with the art.

Don’t get me wrong, when the host tried to calm him I too was pleased. I wanted to hear the reading, and more so, I was worried I would not be able to hear my students perform.

But soon after he was hushed, the man jumped in again.

And then the performer, using the mic, told the man to shut up.

A woman from the back of the coffee house came forward and offered the man a cigarette and the two of them and the host stepped outside.

The performer apologized for telling the man to shut up.

Yes, Yes, Yes, the audience nodded.  Fine.  And the performance continued.

Yes, yes, yes… I don’t think so.

My daughter looked at me. I looked back at her. We looked at my kids. Would we have nodded our heads had she told me to shut up? Would we have nodded our heads had she told one of the kids to shut up?

Then the police arrived. And the performance went on.

I turned to the kids.

“Look,” I said without a whisper. “Look.” And I turned towards the front entrance. “Remember this moment.”

That man will spend the night in jail, not for public intoxication, but for being excited about poetry, just like the rest of us. We do not know if he can or can not help his addiction any more than I can change the fact that I am person with a learning disability. I do not have the right to judge him. What gives me the right to define storytelling?

At that moment the performer read these words, “Small insignificant corner of the world.”

Never forget this moment.


“All right! Now let’s bring up the Sage Hill writing kids…”


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Exactly What is a ‘Social Justice Focus?’

About two months ago, and a week into ECMP 355, I knew I needed to have my own personal tech advisor.  Or, at least I had thought I needed to.  I found Jeremy Schubert, (don’t google him) a tech type from Alberta.  Anyway, as Jeremy and I were exchanging emails about setting up my blog, he asked about the Middle Years program, to which I

Middle Years Interns, 2009

Middle Years Interns, 2009

replied, it had a ‘social justice focus.’ 

 Jeremy asked, “Exactly what is a social justice focus?” 

Middle Years Grads, 2009

Middle Years Grads, 2009

 Wow.  A good question.  In fact, I thought it was such a good question I decided to ask my peers and post the copious replies that I was certain would fill my inbox.  So, I sent out emails to all the post-interns (now, by the way, all individuals with shiny new teaching certificates, and many with teaching contracts) and to the upcoming interns, asking what their take was on our program’s social justice focus.  I had one response.

Chris McCullum is an intern and a clever, level headed guy.  He’s the kind of fellow who goes home to help with the family farm and gets teased a lot for it, who is a self-declared-I-don’t-read-books-kind of guy, but a person who knows more about current events than anyone I know.  He was our go-to-guy at university for anything going on around the world, and his social studies lessons knocked my socks off.  He’s a CBC listener, and, I dare say, a more reliable source for history than Wikipedia.

 Here’s Chris’s reply:Chris cropped

“I really don’t know what the party line is for social justice but for me it’s about teaching kids to think critically and be aware of other people and situations around the world.  I’m not sure if that’s close but I really think that critical thinking is the key because then it’s not about indoctrinating kids to see things my way but rather to thinking things through, questioning, challenging and then coming to their own conclusions.”  Chris McCullum, Thursday, May 21, 2009 12:54 PM

 So what is the Faculty’s ‘party line’ on the social justice focus of my middle years program?  Many of my instructors, and certainly my programs’ department head, Dr. Meredith Cherland, have offered this take,

 “[T]eaching for social justice… here [at the Faculty of Education,] is both a process and a goal.

 The goal for social justice is the full and equal participation of all groups in a society mutually shaped to meet their needs; this will require the equitable distribution of resources; a healthy natural environment and sustainable ways of living; and

 Processes for working toward social justice are inclusive, participatory, and democratic; they affirm human agency, and encourage a sense of collective responsibility for the good of the whole.”   Adams, M., L.A. Bell, & P. Griffin (Eds.) (2007) Teaching for diversity and social justice, second edition. New York: Routledge.

 Yet, in her own courses, staying closer to her own party line, Dr. Cherland also offered the following quotes to help her middle years students shape our emerging understanding of teaching for social justice. 

“The voices of indignation and protest have resounded through the years in response to injustice and human suffering…social justice is a concept contingent on particular historical circumstances. It does not exist in some supersensible realm, anymore than in the minds and souls of individual human beings.”  Maxine Greene. 1998. Introduction. In W. Ayers, J.A. Hunt, & T. Quinn (Eds.), Teaching for social justice. New York: The New Press.

“The struggle for social justice is nothing less than the struggle for a reduction of human pain and suffering.”  Franklin, U. (1999a) Address to the “Made to Measure” National Symposium on Designing Research, Policy and Action Approaches to Eliminate Gender Inequity. Halifax, Nova Scotia. October 1999.

I have emerged from my Middle Years program with the understanding that teaching for social justice is about empathy, critique, hope and action.  But, these words are trite, easily recited, yet must be more than goal and process, or teaching.  I believe, like a belief system, to teach for social justice, it must first be a lived practice.

At the end of April I reflected on my university experiences and my emerging perspectives on teaching and learning in an article I wrote titled The Absolutely True Ramblings of a Reduced Course Load Almost Intern.  In the article I reflected that:

“I did not sit idle; I stayed true to being critical, and to being engaged in the teaching learning process and to believing in equity.  I’ve learned that there is no authentic social justice in the environment of learning, whether that be the learning environments of my past, the one I’m in now, or probably not the ones in which I’ll be part and this saddens me.  Learning is so cloaked in privilege and power.”  Cori Saas, April 15, 2009, EPS 390

logan with snakeWas I too harsh?  Too pessimistic?  No, I know how I ended my piece, and I know I athree kids workingm an eternal optimist (though, you likely can’t believe that now).  I believe in kids, I believe in difference making, and learning.  Yes, that’s my hope for living a social justice lens, an unshakeable belief in kids and an unshakable belief in difference making and an unshakable belief in learning.

Now, like Jeremy, I want to know, what exactly is your understanding of a social justice focus?

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