Students craved a lesson in understanding anti-Black racism. So four Toronto teachers made a course

·6 min read

High school classes began this semester as a mix of in-person and online, but even on virtual days the noisy class debates make it sound like teacher Tiffany Barrett’s students are right in her home.

And that’s saying something considering it’s just a group of 10.

This is also the first time the course — one all about defining and responding to anti-Black racism — has ever been offered.

At the start of the 2020/21 school year, Newtonbrook Secondary School, a North York TDSB school, launched “Deconstructing anti-Black Racism in the Canadian and North American Context,” a for-credit university prep course that was cocreated by four Black teachers at the school: Barrett, D. Tyler Robinson, Remy Basu and Kiersten Wynter.

Very much inspired by the recent wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, the course takes students through the history that has led up to the current reckoning and shows them how they can become changemakers themselves.

“We’re talking about heavy, controversial, prickly topics,” Barrett said. “And although we’re not always on the same page, we respect each other.”

The class starts with laying out terms like “privilege” and “systemic racism” so students can start with a thorough understanding of the language.

The second unit covers the history of Black people, from communities in Africa, to the transatlantic slave trade and the role money had in the system.

In unit three, the class goes through how Blackness is portrayed in the media.

The fourth unit branches out and explores how other marginalized groups are oppressed as well.

And for the final project, students get hands on and think about how they can use what they’ve learned to create change in the system, whether it’s letter writing, getting bills passed or advocating.

“They were just so hopeful on the very first day. They looked so hungry for information,” Barrett said, reflecting on her first class, which happened to be in-person despite the rotation of in-school and online classes due to COVID-19 this school year.

She remembers asking, “Tell me all the things that you’ve learned sitting in a classroom about Black history, Black bodies, Blackness,” and many of them saying, “Not much, Miss.”

Barrett, who has been teaching for five years, recalls being nervous herself, wading into prickly topics with her class, half of whom were Black and half of whom were not.

“I wanted to make sure that I was dealing with these topics with care. I wanted to make sure that the students were comfortable,” she said.

The course came about as a response to the anti-Black racism conversations that were reignited last summer.

At the end of May 2020, news and video footage of George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis who was killed by a white police officer, captured the world’s attention.

But some students at Newtonbrook were troubled by the online conversations some of their peers were having, and brought their concerns to school administration.

A roundtable was created for the students to talk through issues and solutions. Robinson, who is the project lead, was one of the teachers students chose to join the conversation, and he says the personal stories the teens shared were emotional.

“It brought tears to your eyes listening to these kids,” Robinson said.

After the roundtable, Robinson, Wynter and their colleagues spoke more about what might cause some youth to have trouble seeing situations like Floyd’s death as racism. It came down to a lack of understanding and ignorance, Wynter said.

Robinson said that, in general, the system of education has inadequately prepared students to have conversations about race and white supremacy. “The Ministry of Education should be creating new courses that help kids make meaning of what’s happening today,” he said.

“We’re educators, how do we fight ignorance? We teach,” Wynter said about the brainstorming session she and her fellow teachers had. “What if there was a course where kids could sit, learn about this sort of stuff? What would that look like?”

That “what if,” quickly became a “let’s do it.” Robinson, Wynter, Barrett and Basu drafted a memo proposing the course and brought it to the school administration. Days later it was approved.

Course selection for the fall semester typically happens in February, but everyone agreed that this was needed soon. So, Newtonbrook administration worked to allocate resources so the co-authors could be paid to create the curriculum over the summer and they got to work promoting the course.

Ten students made room for it in their schedules.

The class will wrap up in early February, and from the start, engagement has not been an issue. Students often come in with questions written down and bite into Barrett’s lesson plan with topics they want to discuss that day.

Sometimes this means sharing their own experiences with microaggressions, like being stopped by police, or worrying that if they hand in a resume for a part-time job in-person, being Black may take them out of the running. And as a Black teacher, Barrett has been able to relate to their stories.

Basu, a co-author who works in the guidance department, teared up reading an email of positive feedback on the course from one of Barrett’s students.

With a successful semester under their belts, the team is working to spread the course to other schools around the province. So far, five other TDSB schools will be offering it for the 2021/22 school year, including C.W. Jefferys, where Wynter now teaches.

Beyond the city, the co-authors want to see the course taught all around Ontario and administered by the Ministry of Education.

Basu, who is an assistant curriculum leader at Newtonbrook and has taught for 20 years, would like to see a course like this — one about learning to critically evaluate the world through an anti-oppressive lens — become a requirement, like literary courses are.

Still, in these early stages, Basu said they have been working through barriers. One has been generating interest at schools that don’t have a large Black population.

Another is lining up teachers — when Newtonbrook students gave feedback, they said the course should be taught by a Black teacher, so how will schools make that happen if they do not have a Black teacher on staff?

School boards are also dealing with massive logistical shifts due to COVID-19, but at the same time, anti-racism teaching also can’t be forgotten.

On that note, Robinson ponders, when students finally emerge from over a year of at-home learning, “What are we going to have in place to re-engage these kids?”

Gaps in education are inevitable, and likely to disproportionately impact the Black community, he pointed out. Now is the perfect time to make sure Black students can learn about themselves, and allies can get excited about the topic too.

“It’s kind of like a snowball effect of positivity,” he said. “When a kid is excited, anything can happen.”

Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering equity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: afrancis@thestar.ca

Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star