Towards a Liberated Classroom

“The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.”
 bell hooks

TW/CW: discussions of sexual violence

Teaching is not for the faint of heart. Even in my limited experience as a student teacher, I’m often stunned by the things I hear and see in the classroom. Whatever illusions anyone reading this may have about teaching – i.e. “you get summers off!” – should be dispensed with, and fast. Teaching is emotionally, spiritually and physically draining. It is chaotic, depressing and difficult. And it is, more than you might expect, truly amazing.

My host school this year invited me to their annual Music Retreat. It was a two-day overnight trip, to an outdoor learning facility near Toronto. Each day was filled with sectionals, workshops and leadership development (LD) sessions. They split the students into semi-randomized groups for LD, as well as the many outdoor activities on offer. The sense of community was palpable. Everyone seemed relaxed, excited and carefree. I honestly hadn’t been in an environment like this in years, and soon enough, I was excited too! My morning percussion sectionals, which were supposed to be with groups of four, ended up being with one student each. This was great in its own way, because they each got a private lesson! I got to know them a little, and we worked deeply into their repertoire. I went to our pre-lunch “mass choir” session feeling refreshed and reflective. As we left for lunch, however, I overheard two boys making jokes about men beating their wives. The other foot, it seemed, had dropped.

Considering a similar incident just this past week at school, I decided not to address the comments directly. I would take some time to raise the issues with all 120 students that evening. This decision caused me some agony, but as you’ll see, I think I made the right choice. We all went to our separate sessions after lunch, and I promptly forgot about the comments. I was busy working my way through some very challenging flute music – and as any musician knows, these things have a way of taking over your brain! Around 5:00, we reunited for another mass choir session, followed by dinner. After dinner, the students played “Capture the Flag” outside. Here, I once again overheard some truly disturbing “jokes” about rape. I was reminded immediately of the comments I’d heard earlier, and stifled the urge to respond in the heat of the moment. I knew that my mentor teacher (MT) would give me the space to address the issues, and was confident that I could do so constructively.

After their talent show (which was truly impressive), my MT gave me the green light to speak to the students. With 130 students, teachers and chaperones staring back at me, I began. I introduced myself, for the benefit of the many students who don’t know me. I gave them a little background on my teaching style, which is generally easygoing and non-judgmental. Why would I do this? To set the stage for what I said next. “It’s clearly not easy to get under my skin. But some of the comments I’ve heard today have done just that. They are absolutely unacceptable.” Many students looked confused, and I continued. I told them I didn’t want to single anyone out, or repeat anything they said. It definitely wouldn’t have been helpful, but most importantly, I had no intention of repeating comments that were sure to upset many of the girls in the room.

“I overheard a joke this afternoon between two boys about men beating their wives. And in the evening, I overheard three boys making rape jokes. These jokes are not funny, and they have no place in any community.” Several girls were nodding along as I continued. I told them that I have enjoyed working with every young man in that room (true), and that I have learned so much from each of them (also true). I told them that I, personally, have said much worse than the things I’d heard that day. I had no right or desire to get on my high horse and cast judgement. I asked the crowd if they were on social media. There was, of course, lots of nodding and yeses. “So, we’re all familiar with #MeToo, then?” More nodding and more yeses. At this point, I noticed that one of my Vocal students was crying. If you know me at all, dear reader, you know that I’m a crybaby. I had to look way from her to say what I had to say.

“I have been so humbled by the stories I’ve read and heard from women and girls. I know some of them, but many more I’ve never met. I know I’m not the only one who feels sad and angry reading these stories. And I suspect that there are many young women in this room, sadly, who have their own #MeToo tales to tell. When I hear young men who I like and respect, and who have taught me so much, make jokes like this…it tells me that maybe I’m wrong about you. Maybe you don’t care as much as I thought you did, and I don’t want to think that. I want you to think very critically and very carefully about the words you use. Words hurt, but they also help create an atmosphere where bad things can happen. None of us wants that.”

At this point, I knew I had to switch gears. It was late, I didn’t have much energy left, and the students didn’t need to hear me ramble at the end of the day. I told them how impressed I was by their hard work, talent and sense of community. I decided, in that moment, to open myself up to them. I told them that I was never a student who felt terribly comfortable in school. I was pushed around and called names. And now, to wake up every Monday and feel lucky to be going to school? These students have given me a very special gift, and I wanted to let them know that I appreciate it. They had every opportunity, and frankly every right, to see me as just another student teacher. I have no vocal experience, and this is my first high school placement. If I were a student in that class, I likely would have not been so kind. They invited me into their community and let me feel like I finally had a place in school. Remember how I said I’m a crybaby? Well, this is when the waterworks finally started. My voice began to catch, and I knew that if I spoke one more word of praise, I would break down. I thanked them and headed to the back of the room. My mentor teacher welcomed me with open arms.

My hands were shaking as I went to grab some water. Another teacher began filling the students in on the bedtime procedure, and I texted my brother for support. As the students filed out, two grade nine girls (one of whom I’ve worked with) came up and thanked me for speaking out. I told them that I was happy to do so, and that I appreciated their kind words. They told me to keep it up, and I intend to do just that.

Later that night, my MT called me from the girls’ dorm as she was doing room checks. She wanted to let me know that several of the girls had shared with her that they were glad I’d said something. She said that she hoped at least some of the young men in attendance would take my words to heart; I told her that I thought they would. After I finally settled in for bed (some boys had clogged their toilet), I listened to some music and promptly fell asleep.

The next day, I attended an outdoor activity session with one of the LD groups. Once again, the atmosphere was light and friendly. I decided, at the last minute, to do a sort of ‘debrief’ with the boys in the group. Since I only knew one of them, I thought it might be interesting to see how they responded to a man they A) didn’t know and B) had been introduced to through my ‘speech’ the previous night. As the campground staff began the walk back, I told the students that I wanted to walk with just the boys. “I’m not mad, and no one’s in trouble. Relax!” Famous last words, right? I asked them if anyone had any sort of response – positive or negative – to what I had spoken to them about. One young man told me that I was very brave for saying what I said. At the time, I cynically thought he might be saying this to placate me. But knowing teenage boys, this is never an easy thing to be public about. The culture of silence and shame runs so deep with male social groups that I know he was being real with me. No one else had anything to share (I wouldn’t either, in their position) and we made our way back to the main building.

So why am I writing all this, and why so publicly? I’m worried that this entire post will come across as me painting myself as an “ideal male feminist” or some such. I don’t have the space or energy to detail all the ways that is not true, but let me say that I have about as many personal failings as the boys I work with at school. Instead, I intend this post as a sort of “proof of concept” around hope in the classroom. It’s not terribly difficult for a critic like me to lose sight of the very real learning and connecting that happens in all sorts of classrooms. We cannot ever forget that this profession calls us to deal with actual, live, human beings. Human beings are not perfect. In fact, even the best of us are quite ugly at times. But I know, from having many teachers believe in me, that we must push our students to be the best that we know they can be. Why else would we teach?


The Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession

Commitment to Students and Student Learning

What does it mean to be committed to students? At first blush, this seems like an easy answer: know the curriculum, have a plan, and be nice. And I don’t want to say those things aren’t important, but I think there’s more to student learning than the job description of “being a teacher.” Did your students eat this morning? Do they live in healthy home environments? How much sleep did they get? These are important questions that will obviously affect student learning. If we are, per OCT requirements, going to be “sensitive to factors that influence individual student learning,” we can’t help but ask these questions. If a student hasn’t eaten since lunch yesterday, or slept poorly, they probably aren’t going to be terribly interested in class participation. As an educator, I want to reach every student. So, with students like these…what do I do? How do I reach a student who hates school? Or a student who feels unsafe around their peers? There are no easy answers here – only more questions!

Leadership in Learning Communities

Teaching is often called a “caring profession,” and with good reason. Even when dealing with young adults, we are the authority in the room. Though it may be a cliché, this great power comes with a great responsibility. We have been trained in how best to foster learning, in all sort of school environments. One day I will work with senior music students, who will sometimes go to university to further their artistic studies, and the next I’m working with grade 9 beginners. In all contexts, “leadership in learning communities” means applying your professional and personal expertise to classrooms that are always diverse in experiences and social locations. In my time as a teacher candidate, I have strived to make every classroom place where students can safely, confidently and enjoyably pursue the subject of our learning. Whether that is grade 8s discussing water pollution, or grade 12s learning a new piece of music, all teachers must exercise their expertise in facilitating the best environment possible.

Ongoing Professional Learning

“What AQs are you going to take?” I’ve already answered, and asked, this question a couple dozen times in this program. I don’t think it’s a bad question, but it risks missing the point. I think we need to expand our idea of what constitutes professional learning. For a music teacher, professional learning could simply mean deep, critical listening to a new album or genre of music. It might mean practicing your first instrument, or learning a new one. For an English teacher, it might mean browsing the library for new books to read. Professional learning, like personal learning, is what happens when we reflect on the things that we love, the things we don’t love, and the randomness of real life!

Professional Knowledge

Since professional knowledge is always evolving, educators have a responsibility to “keep on top of it,” so to speak. I’ve often been challenged by course readings and ideas in my program, and while I hope the idea of challenging perceptions continues for students who come after me, I certainly hope the readings change! There are many ideas, of course, that all teacher candidates and educators ought to be exposed to, like those of Paulo Freire and Maxine Greene. But “professional knowledge” means considering these ideas in light what we know, what we don’t know, and what we want to know. This goes for the teaching profession generally, and for each individual educator. A critical music pedagogue ought to sound different in 2017 than they do in 2030, and this is what professional knowledge is all about – considering new developments in education and the world with our own lens.

Professional Practice

Educators must always be willing to consider new information, and adapt our practices accordingly. One of my former instructors likes to say that when you put students first, you can’t go wrong (even when you do go wrong). And I think this is a great way to look at ourselves and the profession we’ve chosen. Rather than castigate ourselves for real and imagined errors, why not consider what those errors mean, and how we can learn from them? None of us is perfect, and we can treat ourselves kindly while still growing as educators. Dialogue is key here. As teachers, especially at the Intermediate/Senior level, we often get caught up in subject-specific issues –  a music teacher worries about instrument repairs, and an environmental science teacher thinks about on-site/land-based learning. And while these are all valid concerns, why not have two or more departments “compare notes,” so to speak? What can I learn from my English colleagues? What can math teachers learn from French? We must be willing to talk not only to those in our subjects (or grades, at the elementary level), but also those far outside our own experiences. Friends and family, faith leaders, artists and neighbours all have things to teach us, and dialogue is at the heart of this!

“Is this a mind game?”

“Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.”
– Paulo Freire

I had an eye-opening interaction with one of my classes this week at placement. I’m placed with a vocal music teacher, which is quite far outside of my instrumental music element. And this is a great thing! Why go to teachers’ college at all if you’re not going to go out of your comfort zone? To really further my learning, I’ve gotten in the habit of asking direct questions of my students – particularly those students with lots of vocal music experience. And I notice that most students are quite hesitant to answer something like “Is this working?” or “What can I do better here?” Now, I’m an aspiring critical pedagogue. To me, learning is impossible without vulnerability and honesty. And so I don’t even pretend to be an expert in the classroom. In any music class, instrumental or vocal, there will be many students who are simply more knowledgeable than I am. They have more talent, work harder and are more interested in performance, or theory, or ear training than I ever was. And these students, if they’re being honest, know that this is the case.

With this “radical honesty” in mind, I ask students to be forthright with me. I’m sure they appreciate the gesture, but very few are really giving me anything beyond a surface “Hey, Mr. Monis!” (which I always appreciate). So now I’m stuck wondering – how do we reach these students? The title of this post is a direct quote of a grade ten student. I was running a sort of diagnostic “intro to reading rhythm” exercise, and I asked the students if anyone wasn’t comfortable reading the rhythm I showed them. I made it clear that there was no wrong answer, and I just needed to know where we were at so I could plan lessons. The students, rightly, were skeptical of this. One student asked me, “Is this a mind game?” I decided, on a whim, that I was going to get #real with my students. I told them that I don’t care about what they’re “supposed” to know, or whether they’re meeting a curriculum expectation (at least not this early in the year). What I care about is that we are all in music, learning together, and getting to a deeper place of understand of what it means to be human.

I’ve been really struggling with this moment, because it speaks to all sorts of issues for educators. What happened to these students that they are so hesitant to be honest about Mr. Monis’s lack of knowledge of vocal music – a lack that I admit freely? Or about their own inability to read rhythm – which is plainly evident but not admitted in class. Did these students have a teacher, or loved one, who made them feel (intentionally or not) that they couldn’t be honest about what is and isn’t working (in class; at home; whatever)? I experienced this in my university music degree, when I was made to feel “less than” about my comparative inability to hear harmony and transcribe by ear. Does that lack make me a crummy musician, or less of a music educator? Perhaps. But even if it does, should I be made to feel awful for it? Or should colleagues and mentors reach out and try to help me learn these things?

I’m glad I didn’t get mad at the student who asked this question, because he was practicing a sort of radical vulnerability himself. He dared to challenge his teacher by asking “Is this a mind game?” He knew, probably from experience, that I could have made him miserable for “questioning my authority,” or some such. He asked me anyway. I never had the courage to ask a teacher something like that, and I admire him for it. He has made more of a difference in this young educator’s life than he probably knows, and for that, I am truly grateful.

Teaching Music in the Intermediate/Senior Divisions – Term 2 Final Assignment

This is the second lesson plan I completed for my music teachable class. This time, we were tasked with planning a five-lesson unit (giving an in-depth plan for one of the five). I was really challenged by the assignment, and drastically changed my plan a number of times. I finally settled on what I regard as a pretty solid concept – what I call an ‘album study.’ The concept of the album study is more or less identical to that of the novel study. That is, a group of learners work together with a text, asking questions and coming to deeper understandings. Rather than a novel, of course, we study an album. I chose Kendrick Lamar’s genius 2015 release To Pimp A Butterfly, but many other albums would work just fine within the format. My other ‘finalists,’ The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and the Sara Bareilles concept album Waitress, were interesting to me for similar reasons – exploring racism, sexism, abusive relationships, and so on. This social justice/equity focus is extremely important to me, but might not always be possible in all classroom environments (student needs, time, etc.)

In keeping with the democratization of the classroom that I want to work towards,  I wouldn’t arbitrarily pick one album to study. Instead, I’d prepare a sort of short list to students, based on their interests. We would then decide as a class what we want to explore. Considering that even the longest albums are generally no more than an hour (unless you’re Kamasi Washington), students could listen to multiple albums repeatedly before we decide on one to explore as a class.

Whether or not I succeeded is not my call, but either way, I learned a lot from it. Plus, who doesn’t like Kendrick Lamar? Again, if you find any of this useful, feel free to use/adapt it in your own educational practice!


Teaching Music in the Intermediate/Senior Divisions – Term 1 Final Assignment

This is the first major lesson plan I did in my program. It’s built around graphic notation, and while it was written for a grade nine music class (likely mostly beginner musicians), it could very easily be adapted to fit most music education environments. If you enjoy it, or find it useful, feel free to adapt it in your own public and/or private education practice!

Unit: An Introduction to Women’s Studies/Feminism

As part of my school placement, all Teacher Candidates are required to engage in co-planning and co-teaching with their Mentor Teachers. For my first unit, in the fall, I wanted to introduce students to issues around women’s experiences in the world. Of course, as more than half the class is female, I wasn’t introducing these issues, per se. Rather, my goal is to work with students towards what Noam Chomsky calls ‘tools for intellectual self-defense.’ If we can pass along ideas and resources from some of the great women who came before, and work with young women (and men!) to make sense of gendered issues, perhaps there is hope for ending patriarchy. I’m glad my MT is on board with this.

To begin with, we had a very frank discussion about gendered stereotypes. There was certainly discomfort during our Four Corners exercise, when I provided a few questions and statements about gender.Three young women in the class, in particular, really impressed me. They weren’t able to hide their indignation at stereotypes! When I asked students if they agreed that men should be in control of the household, all three started talking at once. In other classrooms, with other teachers, they might have been asked (or told) to calm down, and speak one at a time. Instead, they organically spoke with and to each others’ ideas. One student would be at a loss for words describing a particular idea, and the next would instantly pick up where she left off. It was a genuinely moving experience  – and my MT and I shared a laugh over the stunned look on some of the boys’ faces!

One idea that became crystal clear over the course of this unit was how bright young people really are. I certainly wasn’t the type to see myself as an expert on anything before this, particularly as a White guy, but any illusions I may have had about that are long gone. I thought I might have to consciously step into the role of facilitator, versus lecturer, during this unit. What I wasn’t expecting was for students to essentially force me into that role! They had too much to say on all sorts of issues to let me lecture them. One boy, for instance, talked about he (like me) cries a lot. When one of the other boys called him girly for saying that, a third boy immediately jumped to the first’s defense. Neither I nor my MT needed, or had time, to address the homophobia and misogyny of the comment, because the students spoke peer-to-peer about it. This is often more impactful than using our teacher voices to chide students for bigoted comments.

One of my tutorial leaders addressed the question of ‘politics in the classroom’ a few weeks ago, after our professor had spoken quite eloquently about the Quebec City attacks. She argued that using our platform for social justice is an absolute moral imperative. Not for ourselves, or our own egos, but for the students who can;t say anything. This really framed my Women’s Issues unit, retroactively, because I realize that this is the direction my MT was pushing me in all along. What do we do with and for those female students who can’t speak to their parents about sexism? Or those who maybe don’t feel comfortable in their own bodies? Having an MT and TC (both men) who welcome these discussions…it lets our students know that they’re not alone. We are with you; we stand with you.

Pathways to Education (Gallery Walk, and some thoughts)

As part of the Bachelor of Education program at York, all first year students are required to complete a practicum placement with a community agency. In addition to our one day each week in a school, we go to this agency for one morning, afternoon or evening each week. This can be anything from a homework club, to a home for the elderly, to giving subsidized music lessons. I’ve been spending one afternoon each week at an agency called Pathways to Education, in Regent Park. For the first semester, I was in Academic Support. Basically, high school students come in with homework, or general academic questions, and we do our level best to help them. I’ve edited essays on American history and Shakespeare, as well as helping one group of students find some social justice-related resources for an equity course. In second semester, I’ve been working in Peer Mentoring with a group of grade nine students. I’ll post in a few weeks about my experiences there, and I’ll be keeping this post to my thoughts on Academic Support

One of the most interesting things to come out of this placement is a heightened awareness of how much high school has changed since I was there. Even though I’m in the Intermediate/Senior stream of my program (grades 7-12), my school placement this year is a middle school class. So, I haven’t really been in contact with high school students outside of Pathways. Although my own high school experience was highly unusual – I went to a public arts school – it had lots in common with those of my friends at other schools. A lot of the assumptions about time have changed, for instance. When I was in high school, I had no illusions about graduating in four years. I took my time, confident that I could take a fifth year of school, and spread the academic stress a little thinner. Knowing that I needed six strong marks in my senior (grade eleven/twelve credits) to make it to university, I did in three years what nearly all university applicants are doing in two years. I have witnessed the incredible toll this is taking, particularly in communities like Regent Park that already battle poverty, violence and racism. Four years is simply not enough time to mature, achieve academic success, and move from the relative comfort of the elementary schooling years, to post-secondary. Agencies like Pathways are being forced to pick up even more of the slack as the Ministry of Education hands down increasingly brutal budget cuts.

Unfortunately, because so many students (particularly in grades eleven and twelve) were asking for help with math and science, I wasn’t always able to give a lot of assistance. Nonetheless, I learned a lot from Academic Support. First, every students deserves a chance. Regardless of family resources, skin colour or sex, every student ought to be taken seriously by the school system, and treated with respect. Second, course selection and content ought to better reflect diverse communities. As great as Lord of the Flies may be, it is but one of many thousands of novels that can be taught in schools. Perhaps we can choose books with similar themes that consciously reflect a desire for inclusion and cultural diversity?

In the photos below, you’ll find some photos of a diorama I made for my Community Practicum seminar. As part of a Gallery Walk presentation, each student was required to talk creatively about their placements, and ideas connected to it. I chose a diorama for two reasons. First, and most importantly, I always loved making them. As you can see, I have basically zero talent in the visual arts, but the experience was still a ton of fun. Figuring out how to recreate the space I was working in, while speaking to the connections between my experiences and education theory (shown by the books glued to the walls) was a total mind-bender! Second, I felt it was important for me to ‘walk the walk’ in regards to trying and failing. I can’t well ask my students, current and future, to be willing to embarrass themselves if I myself am not willing to do so. As a former teacher and mentor of mine used to say, “I won’t ask you to go anywhere I’m not willing to go.”