Tackling Racism in School through Professional Learning Networks – Part 2

In March 2019, I went to see Akala talk about his book Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. My first two blogs about the lack of diversity in the GCSE English Lit curriculum had provoked some baffling confrontations on Twitter, and I wanted his insight.

“Akala,” I began, “our GCSE English Lit curriculum allows a choice of 24 major texts, none of which are written by black authors. When I’ve spoken with other teachers on Twitter about the value of diversity, I’ve gotten a lot of resistence from some teachers who’ve called me racist for bringing it up…”

“Precious.” Akala interrupted, smiling grimly.

“…and I want to know what you would say to these teachers about diversity in the curriculum.”

Akala speaks in paragraphs, but I remember two very important points:

  1. If you’re asking people to put Toni Morrison or Chinua Achebe on the curriculum, you’re hardly asking for tokenism, and

  2. in a multi-ethnic society, teaching white kids that they have nothing to learn from anybody else, that they should never have to put themselves in the shoes of anybody else, how are you equipping these kids for life in an increasingly diverse society?

In other words, we don’t need a diverse curriculum to ‘save’ BAME kids, we need diversity because it yields powerful knowledge. If you’re doing business abroad, or writing any text for a diverse audience, or acting as a public servant in any capacity, you need the knowledge that comes from studying a range of perspectives.

In one Bristol school, the Senior Leadership enabled me to act on these ideas. Noting that the largest BAME group was Somali kids, I asked all of our students from a Somali background to meet me during form time to discuss what they would like to teach the school community about their culture and language.

Yes, as you’ll have spotted, I did not start by seeking the guidance of Somali parents, educators or community leaders – which resulted in me acting on some ignorant assumptions. (Some academics have noted that a symptom of whiteness is assuming that every lane is yours, and that your universal relevance prepares you to lead cultural projects even if you haven’t a Scooby what you’re doing.) 

Lots of these kids didn’t speak any Somali. Several did not want to be singled out by their ethnicity. And most importantly, the complexities within ‘Somali’ as a political and cultural identity require extensive knowledge and sensitivity, not the prodding of an ignorant Canadian who had read To Kill a Mockingbird and fancied herself an Atticus Finch.

Alongside support I also received some complaints from parents. But we took forward a really cool idea from the kids, which was to teach our teachers some Somali phrases and film this. This led to a series of short films which were shared during form time.

Loads of teachers signed up, and the power dynamic shifted dramatically between these EAL kids and their teachers. The teachers were struggling to pronounce basic words in Somali. The kids were patiently repeating single sounds, praising and correcting. You could almost see the ‘click’ when teachers realised what it’s like to be in an EAL kids’ shoes, and how impressive their multilingualism is.

Our student ‘teachers’ received Cultural Ambassador certificates, signed by Marvin Reese, which were awarded at a whole-school assembly. One kid’s mom threw a party for him to celebrate, and he decided he wanted to be Mayor when he grew up.

But the language didn’t stick, the impact was fleeting, and I knew why: I needed to do my homework.

Twitter is a terrible place to argue, but a fantastic place to get input. I curated a timeline full of eminent BAME activists and academics. Prof Olivette Otele told me to see Robin DiAngelo speak at Waterstones about her book White Fragility, which taught me about the continual work and reflexivity needed to successfully challenge white-centric views – especially my own. I discovered that Somalia is known as the Nation of Poets, because of its rich and sophisticated oral traditions. Dr Muna Abdi introduced me to Warda Yassin – also an English teacher in the UK and an award-winning writer of the poetry collection Tea with Cardamom.

Dr Abdi also taught me that “there is no such thing as a ‘hard to reach’ community, if you know how to engage them appropriately”.

A year of working with BAME practitioners via the One Bristol Curriculum and Somali researchers via the University of Bristol has left my inner Atticus Finch gaping in awe. We teachers are surrounded by brilliant and generous collaborators from a wide range of backgrounds. All we have to do is engage them appropriately.

In part three, I will outline the collaboration and approach needed to develop and teach a decolonised unit of study, and how to overcome the friction this can generate within a formal school setting. Spoiler alert: the rewards are immense.

NB: My personal output from my adventures in decolonising the curriculum, a SoW on Somali Poetry, is here:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1V28U4XG_uH2ZgI1D_6cOcaw0l1ZtSc-8CJFOkJbBYds

With some accompanying docs here:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1BJt7lnTAnIiorw5xFdPySC_rTK8SHhVAXuDiC5gOV3o/edit?usp=sharing

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1RAgDy15oZ24BhtbkhM7JAWHkWxmrJF81sdqWT4Rqe-M

https://drive.google.com/open?id=15OArxzZLzBhKvwR1QFtnUEenDpOO09Ta04eeFaJXW4Y

Order Warda Yassin’s excellent poetry collection Tea with Cardamom for the diaspora poetry section.

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