By Sophia Rottman
Largely motivated by the Black Lives Matter movement of last year, individual teachers in the TDSB were inspired to create a course on anti-Black racism. The course, Anti-Black Racism in the Canadian and North American Context was developed by four Black teachers from Newtonbrook Secondary School, where it is being tested this year. It will be offered at seven additional board high schools for the 2021/22 school year. D. Tyler Robinson was one of the four teachers, along with Tiffany Barrett, Remy Basu and Kiersten Wynter who created the course. Mr. Robinson told CBC Toronto, “We think that, if 20 years from now, every student who comes out of a high school in Ontario understands anti-Black oppression and as a result of that understands racism and anti-oppression and critical race theory and critical thinking in general, we think our society will be in a far better position. This is education as a transformative thing.” Ms. Narula, Harbord’s Guidance Assistant Curriculum Leader, says, “I’d love to see the Anti-Black Racism course that’s been discussed in the media offered at Harbord as well.”
This hopeful future described by Mr. Robinson is something we have yet to achieve, as shown by recent racist incidents in TDSB meetings and online classes. One such incident occurred at a TDSB Parent Council Sub-Committee on Equity meeting, on January 28th. Mr. Robinson wrote in his public statement following that over fifteen people who hacked into the Zoom meeting “waited 30 minutes in anonymity and cowardice, before beginning a targeted, coordinated, anti-Black racist attack intended to prevent us from speaking of the need for a Ministry-mandated course pertaining to these issues.” Recently the Harbord community was informed in a letter on January 11th from Mr. Yee of an incident when “During a discussion on Black Lives Matter, an unknown intruder entered the Google meet and shouted an anti-Black racist slur and immediately left the online chat.” These hateful attacks have been coined as “zoom bombings” across the world, as online school presents new challenges allowing for people in and out of the school community to invade a classroom environment, perpetrate racist behaviour and remain anonymous, without being held personally accountable.
The students at Newtonbrook currently in the pilot Anti-Black racism class will write down questions they have and sometimes shift the plan their teacher had that day to what they want to discuss. Ms. Barret, the teacher currently administering the course, told The Star that the students will share their own stories and experiences, as well as feedback on the course itself. Mouna Aden, president of the Whole of Africa and Caribbean Club (WACC) at Harbord, said, “Who better to hear from in [a course on anti-Black racism] than Black students themselves, as they probably have more insight and or experience that cannot be taught through the course material.” A frequent comment from Newtonbrook students was that the course should be taught by a Black teacher, lending itself to the obvious question, what if there is not a Black teacher in the school or department? Ms. Narula talks about her experience as a student, saying, “Throughout my public school education, I didn’t have a single educator who wasn’t white and we didn’t really talk about race… I mean, ever… so I spent most of my youth too ashamed and ill-equipped to explore what it meant to be not white.” Mouna expresses concern if non-Black teachers were to instruct the course, stating, “For them to teach [about] anti-Black racism, they themselves must learn about it in order to teach the material correctly and do it justice.”
Ms. Narula is excited by the improvement she sees, “Almost thirty years since my high school experience, I see progress. We’ve got amazing teachers at Harbord and courses I never had access to; next year we’re hoping to add Studies in Literature: The African Diaspora (ETS4U); Aboriginal People in Canada (NAC2O) and grade eleven English: Contemporary Aboriginal Voices (NBE3U).” While students at Harbord will not have the opportunity to take the course on Anti-Black racism next year there are new options. Ms. Narula adds that “We hope enough students choose these courses so that they run! This is one way we can amplify voices and perspectives that have traditionally been silenced.” Studies in Literature: The African Diaspora will be offered next school year as an elective grade twelve English course. In autumn 2019, WACC and the Boys to Men club at Harbord led conversations with Black students, discussing changes they would like to see made at school. A frequent theme that arose was that they wanted to see more content on Black history, excellence and joy in the curriculum. Ms. McNeely, the English department’s Assistant Curriculum Leader said, “This inspired the English department’s idea of offering the Studies in Literature course next year with a focus on the literature of the Black diaspora.”
Mouna Aden says, “I think it’s fantastic they’re finally bringing a course that Black students can see themselves in”; she wishes she could take the course but she graduates this year. The one concern she has about the course surrounds the teachers, “Will they be asked to attend mandatory training? They can’t teach something they don’t know about, and if there’s no training whatsoever, there shouldn’t be a course.” Students from WACC and grade eleven English classes were surveyed on the material they would like to see included. “[We] are thrilled that students have been introducing us to books, musicians and films that we were sometimes unaware of,” said Ms. McNeely. Mouna adds, “I think it’s such a great idea to get students involved in developing this course because since it’s an elective, students will be more interested in taking a course they know more about and have a contributing role in creating.” The course’s curriculum will be centered around looking at texts by Black authors from Canada, the U.S., the Caribbean, England and Africa. Ms. McNeely provided more detail on the sorts of topics they are hoping to include, such as “activist memoirs, the cultural impact of Black dialects, music from artists like Nina Simone, Childish Gambino, Beyonce and Bob Marley, popular contemporary literature from authors who are playing roles in the Black Lives Matter movement” and more.
Ms. Narula highlights that fact that “Still, we need to acknowledge that there are systemic barriers resulting in the under-representation of BIPOC folks in the teaching pool and many students are still saying they’ve never had a Black teacher, or an Indigenous teacher. There’s a lot of work to be done.” She finishes by saying, “To leave you with a point of light… check out this amazing Bachelor of Ed program (https://www.yorku.ca/edu/students/waaban/ ) through YorkU focused on supporting Indigenous folks entering the teaching field. It excites me to no end that one of our own students is about to enter this program to become a teacher!” While there still are improvements the TDSB can make to address race and equity issues, as students we are finally seeing an effort to develop courses and curriculum that can play a meaningful role in creating a more inclusive and anti-racist education.