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By Louise Brown -- May 2018
When it comes to confidence, the kids of Amesbury Middle School are on a roll.
The school sent two Grade 7 students to observe the Toronto District School Board’s high school Student Senate - and they came back Senate members themselves; elected to be the voice of middle school students across the whole northwest of the city.
When teachers at the school near Lawrence Ave. and Black Creek Drive sent Grade 8 students to a contest to see which school’s students can best put science facts to hip-hop, Amesbury brought home first prize – and second, to boot.
And a new team of student mediators at Amesbury has been so effective solving schoolyard disputes, one peer mediator jokes lunch hour has become “almost boring” for lack of conflict.
“They’re coming with swagger now,” boasts Vice-principal Karen Murray. “It’s amazing to see how far they’ve come in terms of student voice. They’re everywhere!”
But this wasn’t always true.
When Murray came to the Grade 6-8 school two years ago, school spirit was weak among the largely black student body. School climate was a concern. Fights were common, some of them physical. She and new principal Francesco Franco surveyed students to find out why, and found the tweens felt they didn’t have a say in how Amesbury was run. They didn’t feel the school was as welcoming and inclusive as it should be.
Worse, they didn’t feel Amesbury was teaching them how to respond to the racism and prejudice many face in everyday life.
“There were a lot of negative feelings about the ‘brand’ of the school,” says Murray, “but the kids wanted to de-bunk the old reputation. They wanted change, and they wanted ‘bragging rights.’ And we wanted them to be part of this change.”
So Franco and Murray launched a string of initiatives that have turned the school around. Amesbury is a living lesson in how the TDSB’s focus on equity can look on the ground, in action.
First, the school ran three anti-oppression, anti-black racism workshops for all staff about how to make classes more equitable and give students a voice. Then all Grade 7 and 8 students were given three 100-minute workshops on anti-racism and anti-oppression – that’s five hours of intense training for some 200 students.
Through role playing and discussion, students learned terms like power and privilege, discrimination and bias, stereotypes and prejudice, and gradually felt safe enough to share some of their personal brushes with racism, says Grade 8 Teacher Sara Asif, who led some of the workshops with a black Toronto police constable.
“We asked, ‘What was your first experience with racism? Some girls with hijabs said they’ve sometimes felt unsafe; some had had their hijabs pulled off. Other students talked about being followed in stores (by suspicious store managers.)
“They were ready to talk about race and racism, but this gave them the vocabulary to talk about it, rather than just coming in angry,” says Asif. “Should we be having these conversations? Yes – these are their lives.”
Grade 8 student Sierra Davis is an aspiring musical theatre star who has won school prizes for her talent. She is also black.
“We do run into prejudice,” says the 13-year-old. “Some people in the community underestimate me; they’re surprised to hear that I win music awards. They can be insensitive and stereotype me. Racism these days isn’t as bad as in the 1960s, but stereotypes still happen. It’s just more subtle.”
Grade 8 student Dantae Robinson agrees the workshops changed the narrative. “We learned about different forms of oppression, and how to deal with it. When a couple of kids were throwing some shade on some new immigrants, we could recognize it.”
Grade 7 student Abrar Hoque says “kids knew what the terms like bias, discrimination and prejudice meant, but didn’t understand how they played out. A lot of kids know this stuff happens, but we didn’t understand the scale it happens on, so learning about it gives you a whole different perspective.”
It took planning. Murray got a grant from the Ministry of Education’s Supporting Racialized Students in Ontario Schools program to cover the cost of supply teachers during the workshops, and visiting artists to help students express their new equity knowledge through dance, music, painting and poetry.
All 280 students in the school then went to the movie Black Panther as a field trip, because it deals with issues of power and privilege.
“The kids loved it; they’re still talking about it,” says Asif. “And now they have the vocabulary.”
They sure do. Amesbury sent a group of students to a landmark conference on White Privilege this spring at Ryerson University, and they already knew most of the terms being explained in workshops.
Too, Franco says Amesbury’s new team of “peer mediators,” trained in the delicate art of arbitration, have been startlingly effective at dialing down the drama outside class.
Students just feel they have a voice, says Grade 7 student Robert Nguyen.
“I never wanted to join things before; I always wanted to be the quiet guy in the corner,” says the 12-year-old, one of the two Grade 7 students who thought they were going to “visit” the Student Senate meeting, and ended up impressing the high school students so much, they were urged to run for election as middle school representatives – on the spot.
Not surprisingly, students now feel proud to go to Amesbury, says Grade 8 student Lara Manuel, a peer mediator and one of the teens organizing an upcoming student-led conference about student mental health. She was also on the team that won gold at the Science Genius contest, for a rap that explains the water cycle.
For a year-end showcase of student art that reflects what they’ve learned about these issues, the 13-year-old, who is Filipino, wrote a spoken word poem called I Am Not A Stereotype.
“Since the workshops, we’re more open about talking about things like stereotypes,” Lara says. “The school feels different than it did before.”
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