Roundtable: WRDSB students sit down with new education director

They ask about his plans for the school board and what they can expect from him

With the summer coming to a close, students are heading back to the classroom with many issues on their minds: the ongoing pandemic, racial justice, the climate crisis. Amidst all these realities youth face, the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) welcomed jeewan chanicka (he/they) as their new director of education, replacing the now retired John Bryant. With over 20 years of experience as an educator, chanicka is looking to bring systemic change to the school board and push it beyond the 21st century. 

We invited a group of WRDSB students and a graduate to sit down with chanicka for a roundtable discussion. They all have questions about his work and what his vision for the board is. 

Dani (he/she/they) is a grade 8 student whose interests include art, video games, and singing. They aim to continue improving their art and love having conversations about the state of the world around them and the ways they can make it better.

Skye (she/they) is Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan, from the Six Nations of the Grand River. Skye is 7 years old, going into Grade 2 at Country Hills Public School, and currently lives at Land Back Camp. They are joined by their mother, Amy Smoke.

Jaleel (he/him) is going into grade 11 at Kitchener Collegiate Institute. He is interested in film and visual effects, and also plays basketball for the Waterloo Wolverines.

Voltage (they/them) is 16-years-old and heading into grade 12 in September.

Zakirah Allain (she/they), a 3rd year university student at York University, double majoring in International Development and African Studies. During her time in the WRDSB, creating a safe and inclusive space for students of colour and queer students was of utmost importance to them. She hopes to be an educator of any sort, inspiring the next generation of Black and Brown students to pursue their academic dreams.

The following is a transcript of the roundtable. It has been edited down from an hour and a half conversation for clarity, brevity and flow. It was originally recorded on August 9th. 

PHI DOAN: Let’s get into the round table proper, so we’re going to start off with Zakirah with their question. Go ahead, it’s all yours. 

ZAKIRAH: So, my question was: what are some things that you have learned and taken away from your teaching positions in the York Region or the TDSB (Toronto District School Board) and that you would like to bring with you and transition into the WRDSB , despite their unique differences as school boards and districts?

JEEWAN: That was a really thoughtful question. If I think about my education trajectory, there were things that I learned that I would love to build upon. So let me start with saying that education, as a system, was built in the 18th century to serve a particular type of economic time, the Industrial Revolution. I’d argue that it’s worked for some students, but it hasn’t worked for all students, in particular Indigenous students, Black students, in particular Black boys, 2SLGBT-identifying students, students who are identified special-needs learners, students coming out of poverty, racialized students, it’s not worked. And I’d argue that it’s never worked for them. There’s definitely the need for us to think together and I would say that the answers to those things lie within those communities.  And so, what I found in both districts, while I was doing my various jobs – whether it was as a support staff, or a teacher, or a principal, or a superintendent – was that we can’t do things for the communities. We can’t see ourselves as educators as having all the solutions and all the expertise.

The other thing that I’ve learned through both districts is the significance of distinguishing between equity work and the work towards Indigenous sovereignty. We cannot combine both. One of the things that I will be doing my best to work on is how do we do this work in a way that upholds Indigenous peoples self-determination and self-governance? And it would be in consultation with wisdom keepers and elders and community members to understand what success for Indigenous children needs to look like. 

I’m really interested in looking at how we innovate and how we transform. I think that we already know from research what needs to be done in education. We have 50 years of research. We don’t need to figure that out anymore. We need to actually start working towards it, but we need to listen to the community and the multiple communities that we serve to be able to understand how to make it relevant to Waterloo Region. 

(Photo by Val Marcuzzi-Lindo)

PHI DOAN: Jaleel, you submitted a question about representation. Did you want to ask that?

JALEEL: Yeah, it was similar to that. My question was, what measures are you gonna have in place to deal with incidents of racism or discrimination or anything of that sort in schools and make sure it’s dealt with properly for both people experiencing it and also the people perpetuating it?

JEEWAN: I think the board started to already put some things in place. The new human rights branch and human rights policy that’s in place allows our reporting mechanism that anyone can go on and report it, allows us to track those incidents and be able to deal with them. There’s learning that’s been happening for the senior leaders and for all of the principals to be able to understand our roles and responsibilities. 

One of the things that has already started as well has been: how do we amplify the voices of students through this? Often we talk about student voice and engaging student voice, but we tend to do it in a way that is we go to the same structure. When I think about what we’re calling an inclusive design approach to education, it must center the voices of students, and in particular, the ones who have not yet been able to be successful in the system the way it is. It means we need to change things and so those are some of the very beginning ways that we want to look at that and to be able to think about how we make sure that people understand that we are an inclusive organization that there is no space for hate. That incidence of racism is not acceptable. That there are consequences. 

ZAKIRAH: I wanted to specifically ask about what are your commitments to making a safer environment for BIPOC teachers and staff? Like what plans you have in order to make it more inviting school board to teachers of color and queer teachers? What’s in place because I know representation is a huge thing that I would like to focus on.

JEEWAN: The board has a mentorship program in place for Indigenous, Black and racialized educators as well. We’ve already begun looking at equity leadership competencies, like what does that look like? And how do we support our staff broadly to be able to do that? So, looking at pathways and opportunities for staff – who may not have always had it – is going to be necessary. Being able to listen to the advice and the lived experiences of staff is also a necessary part of it.

It’s an organization where we honour human rights and where it’s not always about; if I do this I will get in trouble or not, although those things are realities, but also how do we build a system and a way forward that is transformative that allows everyone to show up as their full self. 

JALEEL: I was gonna say, I like how they seem like real actually tangible answers and just how you gave real steps for what you could do. So yeah thank you.

JEEWAN: I think that’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot is how do we begin to do things in really different ways? How do we actually begin to change things that are within our control? We don’t need to do research to figure out what’s not working. We already know what’s not working. We have 40 plus years of research that we can point to. What we need to figure out is how do we begin to start addressing it? 

I think about leadership as service. So how do I serve students and families who are in my responsibility? We can’t keep talking about 21st century competencies. We need to already be looking towards the 22nd century. If what I’m doing is allowing the school system to just replicate what happened when I was in school or when some of your parents were in school, then that’s not actually helpful.

(Photo by Val Marcuzzi-Lindo)

DANI: We’ve also had a pandemic and so there have been a lot of changes that schools have had to make in order to make school a lot more accessible without being able to open up the classrooms themselves. So, I wanted to tie that into my question. Since schools are starting to open up again, students and teachers are dealing with the aftermath of the initial closures. I was wondering what kind of things you would implement to prevent either further spread of COVID – because it’s still here – or what kinds of supports you’re going to have, whether it’s physical or for students’ mental health in the aftermath?

JEEWAN: We are in the midst of a pandemic. We’re still not through it right now and the reality is that there are changes. In some ways, we’re bound by what the ministry tells us and we have to follow some of those regulations. The other part of that is, I think there’s two sides to it, so we’re going to continue practices like daily screening for staff and students, regular hand hygiene, masks for students and staff, making sure that we have the right kinds of classrooms and school routines that will optimize physical distancing, enhancing facility cleaning practices, reducing shared items. 

We’re also looking at meeting students where they’re at. One of the things that in particular we’re thinking about students who have identified special learning needs, English language learners; how do we make sure that we meet their needs, so that they get the best opportunity out of all of this? The other thing that COVID has done is it’s made the equity gaps very obvious, so where people might have been able to say, “no those gaps don’t exist,” it’s now blatantly obvious to everyone.

One of the things that I’ve spoken to staff already about is this idea of going back to normal and I’ve been cautioning people that I don’t want us to go back to normal because normal hasn’t served everyone well. 

ZAKIRAH: “Normal.”

JEEWAN: Yeah, that’s right Zakirah. The normal in quotes. That normal didn’t serve everyone well, so we need to look at that. The other thing – and I think we would learn so much from Indigenous peoples in this way. A lot of people talk about the pandemic in terms of the things that we’ve lost – and there has been loss and I really want to acknowledge that – I’ve had it in my own family as well. 

There’s the other side of it, which is what we have gained through this time, and if all we do is to think about it from a place of loss, we’ll miss many of the things that we’ve gained. And one of those things that I’ve heard so many people talking about is a connection to the land and how that has been so healing for them. 

PHI DOAN: Skye, would you like to say something?

AMY SMOKE: Hey, just for some context. Skye has been living at Land Back over the last year which was – I don’t know – poorly reflected in their report card. So, I think this is a really great time for Skye to ask some of the things that we’ve been talking about. Come on over. You want to ask the question? 

SKYE: Why don’t they teach more Indigenous stuff on the land?

JEEWAN: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I know that the board has started doing some of that, the idea of learning from the land and trying to be able to connect students back to the land. Like for example, one of the things that I know from sitting with wisdom keepers and elders that many nations don’t have, for example, mathematics as a discrete subject that would be taught when children are growing up, but there’s so much math that is built into when you take care of the land and it’s not using the same maybe the same colonial structures that exist.

That is a priority for me Skye that I would love to see us grow. We’ve started already. We have a Ms. Nicole Robinson who helps us with some of those pieces. She is one of our staff members with the Indigenous education focus and it’s something that I want us to keep growing. So, thinking about what your mom was talking about; how do we make sure that it can be reflected in a very real way in things like report cards and stuff? And those are structures that we have to figure out how we navigate some of those pieces.

PHI DOAN: All right then over back to us Skye. You had your hand up.

SKYE: That’s my mom. 

AMY SMOKE: Actually, I had a follow-up. Yeah, I love Nicky Robinson; great friend of mine for years. That is only one person. I remember last year before the board, and Nicky in particular was very excited because people were going to be celebrating or acknowledging Orange Shirt Day and National Indigenous Peoples Day. How that plays out in the dozens of schools across the region, unfortunately, went very wrong and I would never have sent my child to school on September 30th or June 21st. Also just one person is never enough. We are not pan-Indigenous and we’re also very not gendered as some knowledge keepers’ teachings can be very binary, so I just wanted to also add in, one person is never enough. We know we need teams. We’re also not pan-Indigenous and, as an Indigenous queer person, I think some of the teachings are a little too binary for our children.

JEEWAN: Yeah absolutely. I don’t think one person’s enough for anything and that’s I think the larger challenge for all education systems is how do we grow that. I know that we have an Indigenous learning team, so there’s a few more; about three or four more. But I understand, even that on its own is still not enough in what we need to do. How do we ensure that Indigenous education and Indigenous sovereignty isn’t seen as part of the equity agenda? And then alongside that, being able to make sure that we are tapping into knowledge and wisdom that ensures that all of our students and families are represented in ways that it’s not just being structured as binary. Absolutely. 

SKYE: Thank you

(Photo by Val Marcuzzi-Lindo)

PHI DOAN: Over to Voltage.

VOLTAGE:  So, you were talking about how everyone’s family should be represented and I was just thinking, how can you adapt the curriculum, so that everyone feels equally represented in it? I took history last year and we just started talking about diversity. Back like five years or back ten years you wouldn’t have been talking about that at all. We wouldn’t have even been talking about the residential school situation, up until very recently and I just don’t know what we can do to change it, so that everyone feels like more included and equally represented.

JEEWAN: Thanks for that Voltage. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about [that] because curriculum is one of my passions and I struggle with things. For example, months where we celebrate something for a month. Even though I know it’s necessary, because if we didn’t have them on, some places wouldn’t even talk about it at all. 

So that’s one thing and then the other part of that where it becomes a challenge is when people, they position teaching about Indigenous people through residential schools, so they position talking about Black people through slavery. No, that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing. In fact, when I was a school principal, we had a conversation with the staff and in agreement with them, we didn’t teach anything to do with slavery during Black History Month. 

Slavery happened to Black people because of colonization. That wasn’t Black history in terms of civilization and legacy, and it’s the same thing about Indigenous people. How could Christopher Columbus have discovered a continent where, according to some reports, 80 million people were living already?

At one point I was in a debate and the person I was debating asked, “so you’re saying we should just throw out the textbooks,” and he had a textbook and he threw it in the garbage to demonstrate what I was saying, and I said yep. It only teaches somebody’s history and it’s very very much singularly focused, and it’s very Eurocentric.

ZAKIRAH: Because it is also often “his-story.”

JEEWAN: Yep, I used to teach an entire unit called “Her-story,” not history, and talk about whose stories and their stories in those ways. But it’s the opportunity now to begin to look at creating curriculum that is just reflective of the many people who contributed to the many ways that we live in the world today. 

I will say this. That often we only talk about this in the context of history, but we need to talk about it in the context of math, of science, of English, of art, music, physical education, in all subject areas. When we talk about learning music, what do we think about in terms of musical instrumentation? And what do we define as classical music and which art do we look at as being important art? If we’re not looking at the fact that subjects are not neutral and they’ve been created in particular ways, then we have a problem. 

DANI: One thing that I’ve noticed is that – we were just talking about this – how a lot of the teachings that we have when it comes to history – but again it can go with many subjects – is we’ll talk about the pain and the struggle that minorities have gone through, when often those things were brought on by the same people, which is you know old rich cis-het white men, able-bodied and such, and it’s always coming from the same person. In a way that continues to almost feed into the perspective that people are shaped by the struggles that we are forced to be put through, when in reality there are these thriving communities that have existed before and have existed after, whether brought on or not by our histories. 

Like I’m disabled and during Disability Pride Month, majority of the things that I saw – that I was aware was not coming from a disabled person or it was coming from an able-bodied or neurotypical person – they would talk about their activism; would extend to here’s a fundraiser for a horrible thing that’s happening. We should definitely bring attention to that, but this is Disability Pride Month. Talk about some of the great things that have happened coming from neurodivergent and disabled people in our history. It was just kind of the moment where I acknowledge that a lot of the things that we do learn or that we do centering conversations like this, happen to come from the lens of the struggles that we go through when it doesn’t have to be that.

ZAKIRAH: I agree with you as well Dani. It feels like all marginalized people lose their identity and almost become their trauma or become what has been done to them, so thank you for pointing that out. I did want to ask what the board’s thoughts were on breaking down the categorizations that we put students in. Like breaking down academic versus applied. What their thoughts on bringing it more together and learning from each other and being able to say a group of grade nines were also in class as a group of grade twelves learning from each other not having to break everything apart. What are the board’s thoughts on collective learning? 

JEEWAN: It’d be hard for me to say what the board’s thoughts are because I’m recently joining. What I could say is this. In one of my interviews, probably a few weeks back, when I was talking just about how antiquated our education system is; and they asked me, “What is an example of what you’re talking about?” And I said the fact that we still put kids and grades by their age is a problem, like why aren’t we looking at what students know and understand and be able to group them with other students regardless of age. We would need to look at things like socio-emotional readiness and the issues that are being covered, 100 per cent. But there’s no reason that we should still be thinking like this. 

We’ve talked about streaming only as a high school thing, but streaming happens from kindergarten. It happens in which students end up in special education classes. It ends up in which students can read fully by the end of grade one. It shows up in the pathways that students are encouraged to go to in grades seven and eight. It shows up in who lines up in those courses. It shows up in who graduates from high school. It shows up in which students get sent to the office because of discipline. Those are all ways that streaming happens and so there is a real need for us to really think about all of those processes together. At the same time, if we’re not thinking about it in a holistic way, we’ll only keep creating partial solutions that will break down when we start trying to do other things as well, so and that’s why we need everyone. 

(Photo by Val Marcuzzi-Lindo)

ZAKIRAH: I was talking with my sister before because we both have been involved in the board in different activities and she was like, “it would be really nice if you could talk about what your own commitments to your personal growth you’ve made,” and specifically serving marginalized communities and possibly your own inherent biases. So how are you in your own life tackling those? 

JEEWAN: Every single one of us is a product of the system, so we’re always unlearning things that we’ve internalized as we grow up. For me it’s been a constant ongoing process of sitting with students; sitting with elders; I’ve been doing work in these spaces for well over 20 years, and I think one of the ways that I’m committed to it is by the critical friends and elders that I keep around me because they will tell me.

I’m primarily the product of being raised by Black and Brown women who saw in me way more than I saw in myself, and who pushed me at times when I didn’t think there was anywhere else to go. 

For example, Sharon Moss when I was thinking about not moving further the way that she did. She – I’ll show you (puts on glasses) – she used to wear glasses like this and I was saying to her that I’m thinking that I don’t want to move out the classroom. At that point I was on the short list to become a vice principal and I was like, “I love being in the classroom. I love being with students.” And she did this (lowers glasses). She looked at me and she was like, “shut up and just do it.” And that was pretty much it. 

JALEEL:  Going back to teaching about Black history and Indigenous history and different things in the curriculum, from my experience it’s always been left up depending on the teacher you have. Maybe you’ll have a teacher that year who might want to teach you about these things and that’ll be great, or maybe you have a teacher who won’t go above and beyond and teach it, so I was just thinking that it can’t be like left up to the teachers to decide if they want to teach you or not. We don’t let teachers decide if we want to teach us like quadratics or something that’s in the curriculum. Like I think we need to have it mandatory.

VOLTAGE: Expanding on Jaleel’s thing. I think that it should be written into the curriculum, but at the same time I know that you can only teach so much in a year. I’ve really seen how much you have to teach with this model for the quarantine. There’s so much to learn in one year, so I see what he’s saying, but at the same time I know that there’s a limit of how much you can cram into one year.

We should have certain things that are mandatory to learn, but some things like what was the German’s perspective on fascism that should be one of the things that should be optional. With World War Two because we have to learn about the wars, but it should be do you want to learn about what women did in the war or do you want to learn about the mechanics of tanks. Which part do you want to learn about for this specific project like, I don’t know how to explain it.

ZAKIRAH: Voltage, I think what you’re expressing is something that I’ve struggled with a lot as a student. It’s that students aren’t really given much choice as to what they want to learn or what they’re passionate about. And that kind of connects back to what I wanted to say before, which is how can we bring back passion into the board and that the ideas that people have up top to trickle back down to students and reinstate this passion and students to learn. I think a big thing about it is giving students the power to pursue what they’re actually interested in and what serves them. 

JALEEL: I was gonna say, things like Black history and stuff like it doesn’t have to be its own separate unit that you just talk about. You can integrate it into the things that you’re already teaching. Let’s say you’re teaching about World War One; you don’t have to have one unit on white soldiers; one unit on Black soldiers and stuff like that. Like the problem is that they just leave them out. You just don’t leave those parts out and then you just integrate what you’re already teaching. Black history it’s not like its own separate thing. It’s Canadian history.

DANI: I very much agree with that sentiment. This year I had a very cool teacher and he made it a very big deal that – because he’s our core teacher – in any opportunity when we’re in the classroom he would try to make sure that we don’t limit ourselves to the type of teaching that’s in the curriculum. In the sense that when it’s math period, you learn about math; then it’s history, you learn about history; when it’s art, you learn about art; because in reality they’re all a part of each other. Because of that, it never made sense to me how we would separate each subject into periods. It’s okay for them to mesh.

It doesn’t need to be confined by the systems that we made back in the 1800s because now we’ve had that period. We know what we can improve and if we aren’t going to look at it from all the angles that we have been learning about or have acknowledged throughout the years then there’s not going to be enough improvement for people to truly feel like there is change going on in classrooms which there absolutely needs to be.

VOLTAGE: Just touching on what Dani said, I’m not saying each specific course should be strictly that only science and just science. Because, for example, in science I had this one thing where you had to learn slope, but I hadn’t done my math course yet, so I had no idea what slope was. And my teacher just took time out of the period to teach a slope. I think that it’s a good idea to let that mesh over just a little bit you know. That’s it, sorry. 

JEEWAN: No, don’t be sorry at all. Actually, I think it’s a great conversation and it’s one of the things that I’m really passionate about. I can’t make a decision unilaterally for the entire district, but I can say in my own opinion – and it’s something I’ve done probably in the last 10 years as an educator – when you look at what the research says  and then when you look at the world that students are going into, there is a need for us to move to what I would call social justice-based inquiry, so that students are actually answering huge questions. 

For example, the environment, which is a really huge thing for all of us, but as students, you’re the ones who are going to have to deal with the impact of a lot of what’s happening environmentally around the world. You need to be able to have room to explore outside of one subject area, but each subject area is necessary to help you to be able to come up with that solution. So, there needs to be an integrated curriculum approach where students might have a big question and the subjects give them, for lack of a better word, perspectives. So, I can have a mathematic perspective and an art perspective. 

PHI DOAN: Unfortunately, we’re at the end of our time, so I’ll have to cut the conversation there. I am going to give everyone a chance to at least have a final word.

ZAKIRAH: I guess my final word is just thank you so much for coming to speak with us. I know when I was in high school, just being able to speak to someone who was on the board, who wanted to listen to me, was like the light of my high school career. So thank you so much for prioritizing speaking to students and having these important conversations.

VOLTAGE: I think it’s really cool that you’re trying to hear the students’ voices; their perspective on what they want to see in their schools and the curriculum. I think that’s really cool. So, thank you. Oh, and my final word is photosynthesis. 

JALEEL: Thank you for taking the time to do this and I really like what you have to say. I’m definitely excited for the next school year and having you as the director. So yeah, thank you.

AMY SMOKE: Nia:wen for including Skye, and I look forward to working with you in the future. O:nen.

DANI: To be honest, when my mom first brought up coming here and asking questions, I was reluctant. I’m not like one for speaking. Whether or not I’m the one asking questions; I’m the one being interviewed, stuff like this is kind of scary to me. But now that I’ve come here, I’ve really had a fun time talking to you all. It’s nice to have a chance to talk to people who do share a lot of the same views and values when it comes to our time in the school. It’s nice to know that there are people who are going to be working and doing a great job at creating environments in our school where we don’t need to be sad that summer vacation is over because we’re going to come back to school and it’s still going to be great. It’s going to be a learning experience and the only bad thing about it is that we’re gonna have to wake up at eight every single day.

JEEWAN:  I want to say first, thank you for the opportunity to speak with all of you. When the requests came, there was a lot of scrambling happening on my part. I had said to the communications team, and they agreed with me. That this was going to be one of the more important conversations for me, from my perspective, because of my belief that the answers lie with students and with communities. I hope that this will be a beginning point, not an end point, and not something that we just check off. I would welcome, maybe half a year from now or into spring, that we do a check-in conversation to see what’s been going on. 

I will say that I know that some of the things that I’m proposing are challenging and, definitely, they won’t be easy. So, trying to figure out the how of it, will be the thing, but I’m also committed to working with everyone to do that. And so, I’m looking forward to it and I may be calling on you all at some point before that to get your expertise and your thinking, so that we can try and make things better for everyone.

*Val Marcuzzi-Lindo is a grade 11 student. Her favourite things are art, video games, and songwriting whenever he has the time. He hopes to develop his career as a freelance artist, and tries to use her skills to make real, positive change to the world around him.


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