Bridging a curriculum of (dis)comfort and controversy: A complicated conversation by Nisha Toomey

Bridging a curriculum of (dis)comfort and controversy: A complicated conversation  by Nisha Toomey

It’s morning in the Burmese refugee camp. Cocks crow. Cows call. Goats bray. Children play and sing songs. The call to prayer blares out of the loudspeaker. Static, then voices rattle from a short-wave radio. Someone is softly tuning a guitar. My eyes flutter open. My face is covered in a cold thin mist. I stretch upward, taking in a long draft of freezing fresh air which mingles with the smoke of morning coal fires. A beetle crawls across the mesh of my mosquito net. I step out from under it, fold it over, and slip on flip flops so that I don’t step in rat droppings. I roll up my blankets. My female students shuffle through the dorm, back and forth from our communal showers. I can hear water being splashed from buckets over bodies and onto the cracked cement floor. I wrap a towel around my shoulders and walk outside to wait in line for the toilet. I take a moment to breathe in deeply- I take in the sounds and smells and heartbeat of raw humanity. Rays of sunshine are breaking through the fog. Our school is high up and surrounded by hills. Some are green and wild; others groomed into organized strips of farmland; others smoulder with small funereal fires; and the closest ones bear rows of 5 000 thatch huts which house over 20 000 people. A single thick mud road weaves through them. I can see white UN pickup trucks stacked high with rations bumping along up the hill, pursued by sporadic packs of unruly, underdressed children, the fruit of a population fenced in by barbed wire, divided by religion and language and united in their oppression.

23 years into my life I made a decision to leave our consumer-driven, developed society and head for this jungle. I had studied religion, history and politics in University, all from the Western perspective. It was time to go East, to find the flip side of myself. But just going East was not enough. I wanted to get out of industrialized life altogether, to go to a place where money wasn’t a thing because no one had any. I yearned to learn the unknown and I pursued it as my calling, my currere calling me forth. I found myself in a time and space unknown to me, with a people totally foreign. Whereas I had grown up in relative freedom in Canada, my students came from a country historically distraught by war and suffering. Most of the student population had experienced unimaginable horror. Some had had parents killed before their eyes. Others had been child soldiers. All of them, in the act of moving away, were actively resisting the dictatorship under which they and their families had lived.

I found a home here, among these hilltribe people, the friendly forlorn elderly, the weathered mothers and frustrated fathers and the bright-eyed, hopeful youth… I found my place in this other world, and among these Others, I called this place home, and it remains my third space which was “embodying both love and freedom but also transcending both” (Wang 2004, p.10). Here I experienced a transformation of selfhood. I lived as the Others, and learned from their differences. I learned that true freedom comes in the ability to defy one’s oppressed circumstances and retain belief in spiritual emancipation. In a world thwarted and demoralized, where all families had been touched by murder, rape, death of children, theft and coercion, here was resilience, here was generosity, here were loving families, here was the essence of everything beautiful in the human spirit, and as a baby lavishing in mother’s milk, here was God’s milk, a rich and tangible hope fed to me through the breast of humanity.

I want to break apart the manipulation of language and labels Minh-ha (1989) speaks of. I want to refuse the saturated definition of the word refugee, to refute that picturesque impoverished zoo you see in your mind, my third home in the so-called Third world, my spirit’s refuge. I never sought to be like my students, or to make them like me. This would have been a corruption of my unique position as an East-West woman of marriageable age with an Indian name living in the Muslim quarter of a refugee camp populated by people whose features resembled my own and whose mannerisms, food and language I understood. But I never could cook it or speak it well and didn’t try. I had found a part of myself when I moved there- I was not adapted, nor changed for the circumstances, but a person who always, somehow, belonged in that space and always will. I embraced that refugee camp self and was reinvented as Sayama (Teacher) Nisha for two years. My students, as an effect of being in a place not totally their own, were hybrids too, and we strove to understand our differences by embracing our own recreations of ourselves (Wang, 2004).

I come from a global perspective because I have to. I’m a mixed kid. I grew up with stories of Africa, where both parents were raised, of India and of the US. I remember being very concerned about what I actually was, and many kids in school were also concerned with “nailing down” my identity. I grew up with many names, given by others and myself- half-breed, mulatto, mixed, dual citizenship, Kenyan, American, Canadian, Montrealer, Irindian (Irish Indian), Jindu (Jewish Indian). At one point my brother and I decided to invent a name for ourselves: Tropiquen (for tropical children). Truth is, I was really not sure where I came from, but that never stopped me from being sure about who I was. I was me!

Hyphen? Hybrid? Bridge between cultures? I’m not sure. But I know I am a volatile thorn in the language of overgeneralization (Wah, 2000). I am one person, as all people are, containing multiple identities. I am a house with a solid foundation and multicoloured walls. I’m everyone’s big or little sister. I’m a daydreamer with a million unsung dreams. Oh, I forgot- I’m also you.

Pinar (2007) argues that the real task of “internationalization” is not to understand how we are others to one another- but how we might be others to ourselves. I think it’s somewhere in the middle. We’re building a bridge over the river of confusion about the multiplicities of the self when we discourse on the topic. The multifariously variegated i’s that make up a “one” is something similar to the transcontinental journey of atomic particles in the universe. It only takes two weeks for my breath to travel completely around the Earth. I’m changing- and connecting with the difference- all the time.

What is curriculum theory but the drawing forth of memories, the evocation of dreams and desires and collective wills, and the pulling away from the somnambulism that threatens to engulf us when we live without questions? We must integrate- as Pinar (2007) argues- the intriguing experiences of the past to engage the present and evoke our future. We carry suitcases of situations on the conveyor belts of our synapses. When one of those overstuffed valises bursts forth and escapes through the senses, we must grab it, sift through the souvenirs, and compare treasures. Even when the goods seem rotten. The conversation is the thing. Here’s one story of how a hybrid teacher in a Third world humanities classroom can make use of the third space and of vertical and horizontal experiences to strive for what Spivak (2004) calls “uncoercive rearrangement of desires in the students” (p. 93).

Our class was what we considered to be a microcosm of Burma, which is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. Our 20 students comprised people from four religions and eight different ethnic groups. The students loved each other, but things were complicated to say the least: Burma’s political history is rife with tensions between ethnic groups. At present the dictatorship uses notions of identity to pit groups against each other- and ultimately to keep them busy fighting each other to prevent a united front against the military. It is a good example of where “crossed fears continue to breed wars, for they feed endlessly on each other until no conversation can possibly be carried out without heaping up misunderstandings” (Minh-ha 1989, p. 84). Outside Burma the political complexity is similarly profound. We were located in the Muslim section of the refugee camp. The Muslims comprised 10% of 20 000 refugees. The majority of the refugees taking refuge within the camp were of the Karen ethnicity. Most of the NGO’s present in the camp had their lineage in Christian charity organizations. At the time the Muslims received no aid from local charities. No aid had perhaps resulted in them controlling most of the fiscal trade. Not one school had been set up for them by an outside NGO. Consequently Muslim schools only went to Grade Six, and after that, students had to learn Karen (the language of the majority group in the camp) or drop out.

If ethnic affiliations were the muscles of the identity-body and religion was blood, gender and age status were like marrow filling the bones. In the Burmese culture, age is power. Your age puts you in a hierarchy and you must respect those older than you and do their bidding. The status of teachers in Burmese society is extremely high- second only to parents and God- and notions of subservience, self-effacement and status abound. A teacher is not normally younger than a student, and a teacher normally has ultimate power over his or her students.

During a teacher training unit, I designed an activity meant to help students practice their teaching skills. Students had to display they knew the basics of how to teach using certain criteria. They were in pairs and were to design their lesson from a selection of books we had in our library- the subject was up to them. The books were written for the Grade Five level and covered topics like Geography, Natural Sciences and Religion.

In such an environment, what did it mean for a Canadian teacher to place a book on Religion in the pile, no matter how benign the text seemed? What did my position as outsider-insider, as shape-shifter, as teacher enmeshed in the culture yet always able to escape, mean in the context of controversy? Was it my responsibility to bring up heated topics, or to shrink away from them? I was young- younger than a few of my students. I was a woman. I had ambiguous looks. I see now I was a sort of trickster- shifting my identities to conform to or to challenge the status quo.

My oldest student, who bore the respectful title of “Big Brother”, chose the book on Religion. Easygoing, extroverted Big Brother, with his smiling eyes and soft voice, was a leader in the program, higher in status than the students but still deferential to us teachers. As a shape-shifter I embodied both teacher and girl-sister; in this latter shape I was deferent to him. On the day of that teaching lesson, he was paired with the oldest of the girls in the program. Both were Baptist Christians of Karen descent. They chose a religion textbook and their subject was “Judaism”. Their demonstration of how they would teach us about Judaism would last fifteen minutes. It began with a very lively interactive lesson outlining the basics of Judaism. About ten minutes in they arrived at the topic of the Holocaust. In one sweeping statement Big Brother calmly exclaimed, during the Holocaust at least six million Jews were killed. God sent Hitler to kill them because the Jews killed Jesus.

My head snapped up from my notes- my heart started. This is what they would teach if they were conducting a Grade 5 class on Judaism? What was I to do? Stop them in the middle of the lesson? The criteria were for how they taught, not what. We were four months in- trust had been established, but we’d never discussed religion before. There were definite prejudices floating under the surface of everything, threatening to shake up the harmony I’d worked so hard to establish. Should I bring it up? I was deeply offended in the spiritual sense. The notion that God would send someone to Earth to kill millions of people insulted me. Simply, because I could never envision a world in which God would do that. These students, who ironically were victims of human rights abuses themselves, were simplifying and justifying human travesties by passing them off as God’s will. It seemed morally and ethically wrong. To blame God for a human action was horrendously contrary to my belief system, but more importantly, the logical danger here was blatant: blaming God for the horrors of the world is a cop-out, a refusal to take responsibility for human actions, and it begets more violence. If people take the blame away from humans and place it onto God, then we become innocent of all our actions and evil in the world can be justified. Logically, it was a fallacy. Spiritually, it hurt. In short it scared the hell out of me. Still, I had a conundrum: discussing God and religion in class was a severe taboo. I had another, harder question to ask them. If it was possible that God sent someone to oppress the Jews, then it must be possible that their own oppression was also a part of God’s will.

Moral and ethical tensions aside, I had to consider status and authority. Was it right for me as a teacher to discuss matters of God? Bringing up the topic and going head-to-head with Big Brother would be very controversial. I risked losing the argument and losing the respect of my students. I remembered the words of Martin Luther King Jr. (1994), who we had studied earlier in the year: “we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with” (pp. 16-17). Here Minh-ha (1989) reminds us “every opportunity is fitted for consciousness raising; to reject it is almost tantamount to favouring apartheid ideology” (p. 84). I realized here that I was at the intersection of past beliefs and the moment where classroom practice “invites the future into the present” (Pinar 2007, p. xxi). I was worried about getting into trouble. But far more troubling to me is living in a world where human injustices are passed off as God’s will. In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr., declares: “oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and fear of being nonconformists” (p. 28). We had opened up a conversation that threatened to ruin us. But to ignore it, to let it fall to the wayside, was another kind of conversation. Silence can be murderous.

I made the choice to bring deep tension to the open. I stopped the lesson. I extended the class for 45 minutes. We made a circle. Anyone could talk at any time. I explained my role and position. As a mixed child racism and prejudice were necessarily offensive to me. I was a deeply spiritual person with no particular religion, but hesitant to talk about religion and spirituality… except that I felt it necessary now. Here I was in the schoolroom, which I in turn considered a sacred space of freedom of speech and critical thought, where everyone’s task was to nurture the gift God has given each of us- the mind. This was my church and I was at risk of a blasphemous silence. I explained that I had here the ultimate teaching dilemma: bring up religion, the most controversial of all topics, risk disruption of harmony, risk having the students feel uncomfortable, or let the opportunity for the discussion slide. Just as I was familiar with my students through openness to our Otherness (Wang 2004), I was at that moment a partner with my students, ready to learn and be taught by them, and here I had a problem to pose and a myth to deconstruct (Freire, 1990). I was a multicultural teacher and here equity in the classroom meant what Abul-Haj (2006) calls constructive confrontation and controversy.

I asked, who taught you that about Hitler? I was angered that some other teacher, who I knew was a Christian missionary, had “banked into” Big Brother years earlier, obviating his thinking about Hitler (Freire, 1990). This evidence of colonialization of the mind irked me and I said so. We had a long debate and discussed religions and past religious teachers. We discussed the role of teachers and their authority to give information though it may be wrong. We discussed the role of open talk in the class. I had no intentions of coercing the ideas of my students- but it was vital that ideas be aired, that we take our personal histories and apply them to the present. I don’t know that we eased any of the deep-seated ethnic and religious tensions. I’m not sure we started on the path of solving Burma’s problems. It was not my place to set the students out on that path. But I made it my place to address the unspoken and to encourage the students to walk courageously over a dangerous ground. This was my currere, my calling, my talent as a teacher: to use my friendliness, my love, my convictions and my hybridity to bridge the space between comfort and controversy, to nurture the spontaneous study-space of creative tension, and to be sure that the voices of all members of the classroom are aired, heard, sliced apart and combined again, so that they are recreated in a deeper understanding. As Abul-Haj (2006) notes, it “is a tall order for educational activists” (2005, p. 31), but it is the only way to close the door on our fear of the unknown and to open the door to true social justice and moral integrity.


Abu El-Haj, T.R. (2006). Race, politics, and Arab American youth: Shifting frameworks for conceptualizing educational equity. Educational Policy, 20 (13). DOI: 10.1177/0895904805285287

King, M.L. Jr. (1993). Letter from the Birmingham jail. Haper San Francisco.

Freire, P. (1990). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum Press.

Minh-ha, T.T. (1989). Woman, native, other. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Pinar, W. (2007) Intellectual advancement through disciplinarity: Verticality and horizontality in curriculum studies. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Spivak , G. C. (2004). Terror: A speech after 9-11. Boundary 2, 31 (2).

Wah, F. (2000). Faking it: Poetics and hybridity. Edmonton: NeWest Press.

Wang, H. (2004). The call from the stranger on a journey home: Curriculum in a third space. New York: Peter Lang.