Un\Bridging The School Curricula to Transform Mirrors Into Windows by Valérie Robert

Un\Bridging The School Curricula to Transform Mirrors Into Windows by Valérie Robert

All life journeys are discernibly marked by a string of memories, their meanings in turn fading and coming into focus. Like pins succeeding each other on a clothing line, John Dewey, on whose ideas narrative inquiry leans, described continuity as a string of experiences supported by previous experiences and leading to new ones. This paper adopts the concept of continuity, and maps the resulting personal landscape through what some would call internal borderlands, in other words the fluidity of my various identities. My internal landscape can then be examined through the looking glass of narrative inquiry. This type of inquiry, by which researchers or subjects talk to learn, “…involves the reconstruction of a person’s experience in relationship both to the other and to social milieu” (Clandinin and Connelly, 2000, in Clandinin, 2007, p.5). The reconstruction of experiences is what this paper will attempt, using critical pedagogy and the works of identity authors (Wah, 2006, Aoki, 1979) for support. The driving point of inquiry, “How can I analyze the progress I have made as a francophone, as a student and as a human being?”, was inspired by the master courses’ insistence on looking backwards to my educational journey thus far and the knowledge I have stumbled upon. I have found some solace and answers during this process through reading the likes of Westheimer, Freire and Macedo, regressing through these schooling reminiscences to unearth the turning points in my conscientization.

Most will agree that education begins before ever even setting foot inside a school. Lining up my own childhood memories, I recall the emphasis that was put on my francophone heritage. Belonging to a minority, according to my parents, meant constant vigilance on our part to establish a strong basis in the French language and protect it. This, they claimed, consisted first and foremost of keeping to our own community and shunning the têtes carrées. Once we were old enough for school, establishing a strong francophone root also meant choosing a school belonging to a French Catholic school board.

Recollecting my journey through this particular school system, I am struck by the sheer amount of efforts devoted to teaching students the proper personal, social and cultural behaviour of a francophone. I associate this effort to a survival tactic on the part of the community. Francophone parents and teachers’ worst nightmare is that their progeny will become ‘half-erased’, their English too good, just as Fred Wah (2006) described his mother in Diamond Grill. While I can never disagree that there must be a survival narrative incorporated into the francophone experience, my main concern with this strategy is that by itself it rarely transcends semi-transitiveness, the first level of critical consciousness. Freire (1970) defined this level as that at which the entire focus revolves around the survival narrative, eschewing all interest in the analysis of the general scope of the problem. By lacking this analytical capability, francophones survive through an identity constructed on the idea of victimization by the English language. Opinions, thoughts and actions are constantly being questioned in relation to the perceptions and actions of the majority group. This same group, being unconstrained by such doubts, holds a cultural trump card. By not putting so much emphasis on the formulation of behaviours, their identities, far from being erased, flourish and are enriched. David Geoffrey Smith (2003) explains part of this problem when he speaks of truth-as-home:

The sense of human estrangement from the world takes many different forms … but they take their genesis in the pre-reflective predisposition to see the other as that which constrains the projections of the Ego and which turns the Other into something that must be overcome to protect the Ego’s self-constructed identity. (pp.315-316)

If we are to trust Smith’s observation, francophone cultural ideology in present schools is mainly used as a political tool, with the intent of forcing this projection of the Ego which views the Other as the Eraser and ultimate source of estrangement. The consequence of this decision is the creation of a myth, based on commonality among francophones and meant to rally the community. Such a myth, subject to scrutiny and critical analysis, cannot long be sustained. The implosion of the myth creates a second sense of estrangement in francophones, in that the individual who had adhered to the myth must now transform the reference points of his identity in order to find a balance and a new sense of allegiance between the original and the original Ego.

The slow exposure of this myth for me began during high school. Until then, the waiving of the green and white flag, the singing the Notre Place anthem and a strong school spirit had been reassuring enough against the force of the majority. Furthermore, the lack of contact outside the francophone community had been sheltering. While I had met and acknowledged the Other, I had never come face to face with the need to interpret diversity as a sociocultural challenge to this Ego versus Other conflict. Our school system had taught us to close our mind to such encounters and to label them accordingly as threatening. If, as Smith (2003) says, knowing the deeper truth leads to a world not at war with itself, then the francophone cultural ideology employed in schools, by using surface symbolism as the main markers of identity, becomes the very source of this world at war with itself. My schooling pre-disposed me to internally reproduce power structures and according to Freire (1970), these became self-fulfilling prophecies.

Nevertheless, during high school I had no choice but to become more involved with the larger community by finding my first employment. While it is a big step for any adolescent, it is even more so for someone who has grown up in a homogeneous community. I was suddenly thrust into a social environment wrought by a variety of tensions which my education had not readied me to embrace and examine critically. My schooling had consisted mostly of what Freire (1970) called a ‘banking education’, in that teachers had instilled in us a strong sense of verticality, of historical facts and dates, but almost no sense of the horizontality and current context. Although I could not have expressed it at the time, working with the public began to reposition my identity within the Ego and Other duality. It afforded me an opportunity, through conversation and observation with those who at the time were still Others, to first tentatively toe the bridge “that is not a bridge” (Pinar and Irwin, 2005, p.83). Drawing on Aoki’s work, Pinar (2005) tells us to consider this as:

… a bridging space “of both conjunction and disjunction.” This is, Aoki explained, a space of tensions, both “and/not-and,” a space “of conjoining and disrupting, indeed, a generative space of possibilities, a space wherein in tensioned ambiguity newness emerges.” (p.83)

Teachers, according to Aoki (1990), should be part of the complex conversation forming the bridge. As mine were involved in this process by an alienation fed by the francophone cultural agenda, my employment remained my sole source of critical and dialectical relations with Others. Thanks to this job, I could not now again forget that there were ongoing conversations beyond the scope of my rather cloistered community. What I started to find problematic was my lack of interaction with the totality of my environment. I was, as Westheimer (2005) would say, a personally responsible citizen. Within this context I would participate outside of my francophone school only when asked or required to do so, and then mostly at the behest of school friends with personal contacts outside the school community. The curiosity of this situation began to weigh on me. And, I began to question the concept of Otherness, its value and its definition. I began to wonder if, in what I now viewed as self-imposed sequestration, we had not transformed ourselves into the very Others we so feared.

However it was not before entering university that I took the opportunity to truly explore other viewpoints and seek new experiences, as I soon became disillusioned and disengaged with my degree. The political science courses to which I had signed up were not invitations to discussion and debate, but rather the teaching of the art of defending a predetermined position. I was again being banked with factoids and symbolism. The words of Smith (2003) on Ego projection and ‘Others-as-obstacles’ were once more being echoed through the curriculum. This did not satisfy my desire for a deeper understanding of the underlying social currents I had sensed in high school. As Macedo (2006) suggests, “If schools were really involved in the development of critical thinking to arm students against the orchestrated distortion and falsification of reality, they would have to teach the truth and teach how to question” (p.34). Lacking the necessary competitive drive for the political science department and becoming steadily more uncomfortable with patterns repeated from high school, I soon changed my bachelor to international development.

This otherwise simple decision proved fateful. Here was, finally, an environment in which diversity thrived and in which we were expected to become social-justice citizens (Westheimer 2005), intent on critically exploring current affairs. Whether the courses actually managed such a feat remains debatable. There was not much space to deviate from the authorized format for hand-ins. But the much wider array of opinions offered up for discussion armed me with a language whose existence I had hitherto unsuspected. If Freire (1992) is right in saying that possessing the knowledge of living language is the path toward true citizenship, this undergraduate degree helped me take that step forward. Now better equipped to formulate questions and challenge, I threw myself into activities outside the university frame in order to chase away the feelings of disengagement and alienation which I had felt for so long. I credit my program for giving me the most important opportunity of all to develop my budding critical awareness. In the third year of my bachelor in international development, I requested an academic exchange to France through the University of Ottawa’s International Office and was accepted for a full year of credits at the Institut d’Études Politiques in Grenoble.

Within a few hours of touching down on French soil, I knew things would be different. We exited the Lyon airport, only to be caught up in a massive student protest, supported by unions and blue-collar workers, contesting the new contrat de première embauche which would have altered such things as the période d’essai rules. Here, in this city with one of the highest general population to of university students ratio in France, is where I first met those who, though they were not meant to be part of the dominant political and economic spheres (Macedo, 2006), were loudly and massively clamouring for such a right. It was a movement propelled by both French and foreign students alike, the arts and science faculties, the rich and the poor. As I became more and more involved due to my school’s political student wing, I slowly came to realise that a piece of the puzzle was still missing; the activism I was seeing was in fact dilettantism, meaning a rather superficial interest in a specific branch of knowledge, that of the unionized and organized movements. In other words, they had developed a curricula operating at the second stage of critical awareness, naive transitivity. This stage is marked, according to Freire (1970), by an over-simplification of the problem, by nostalgia for the past (in this instance that of their parent’s experience of the nanny-state), and finally by a fascination with fanciful explanations of reality (here denoted by numerous conspiracy theories against the youth of France). The power wielded by these participatory citizens had initially taken my breath away, but the increasing violence of the movement and the decreasing interest in investigating all facets of the situation were leading to ever more sensationalised disinformation efforts. I became convinced that many of these people I had so admired at first were in fact what Ortega y Gasset (1930) called ‘learned ignoramuses’ and describable by Macedo (2006) as semiliterates who:

“…read the word but are unable to read the world. At the highest level of instrumental literacy achieved via specialization, the semiliterate is able to read the text of his or her specialization but is ignorant of all other bodies of knowledge that constitute the world of knowledge.”

In the end, so focused were they on winning that they in essence became as highly trained by the movement leaders to bark at print as I had for been for my francophone high school, slowly sliding anew towards a narrative of survival. I once more felt the sense of disengagement I had felt during my first year of study in political sciences. I had learned the hard way that being a participatory citizen did not necessarily lead to conscientization and that there is value in not blindly acting on the urge to follow the moving masses. Westheimer’s last stage of citizenship, the social-justice level, could not be reached without first developing Freire’s last level of critical awareness.

Upon my return to Canada, I finished a few credits and toyed with the idea of applying to the Bachelor of Education. I finally applied, my decision partly motivated by a desire to help other children build what it had taken me so many years to develop: critical awareness. However, the summer beforehand, I left for further travels abroad in order to experience life in diverse contexts, hoping to unite the theory to my actions. To quote Freire (1970), I finally understood that: “While no one liberates themselves by his own efforts alone, neither is he liberated by others” (p.66). For the very first time in my life, I decided to fully take charge of my own critical development. Being out of my environment, I developed narrative and dialogues that at the time both shocked and challenged me. I felt as if I had reverted to childhood, constantly asking the oft-dreaded one-word question: “Why?” I consider Freire’s (1970) words on dialogue to be enlightening: “The correct method lies in dialogue. The conviction of the oppressed that they must fight in their liberation is not a gift bestowed by the revolutionary leadership, but the result of their own conscientization” (p. 67). By reading and defining the world in my own independent terms, I became one step closer, according to critical pedagogy, of assuming a participatory citizenship.

I returned from these travels with very high expectations from the Faculty of Education and a perhaps idealized view of the kind of work and pedagogical approaches I expected of myself and of my professors. Within a couple of weeks, I realized that there would be none of Freire’s (1970) “solution to the teacher-student contradiction…so that both are simultaneously teacher and student” (p.72). I encountered ‘banking education’ (Freire 1970) in a much blunter manner than before. We were handed ready-to-fill lesson plan outlines and these constituted the majority of my work for 8 months. Here, at the very foundation of Ontarian education, it was daily proven that “education as the exercise of domination stimulates the credulity of the student” (Freire 1970, p.78). This was a very distressing realization. To borrow Macedo’s (2006) words:

Courses that deal with issues such as race relations, ethics and ideology, are almost absent from the teacher-preparation curricula. This serious omission is, by its very nature ideological and constitutes the foundation for what I call the pedagogy of big lies. (p. 12)

However, in contrast to my past reactions, the feelings of alienation and disengagement were not allowed to take over. A group of proactive students banded together to address the problems. Besides meeting with various professors to discuss our concerns, we formed a discussion group, meeting whenever available. During these reunions, which were at times themed explorations of topics we did not cover in class, we encouraged each other to compare, support and contest colleagues’ opinions and lived experiences, to examine various interpretations of the problems we encountered in education and to investigate the literature. If one takes a look at Freire’s (1973) description of the third level of critical awareness, critical transitivity, one notices much of the same terms and aims, for example rejecting passivity, testing one’s findings and openness to revision and reconstruction. Though we would not have described it in these words, our efforts were spent trying to steer us away from a system which according to Macedo (2006) “…deskills teachers and students so as to reduce them to mere technical agents who are destined to walk unreflectively through a labyrinth of procedures” (p.36). In so doing, we hoped, as in Gee’s (1992) proposal, to obtain literacies, rather than literacy.

Through this new vocabulary and literacy, novel bridges between what were seemingly unrelated memories and events are now constantly appearing. In the pursuit of the ultimate goal, the development of a social-justice sense of citizenship, participating in the M.Ed. proves to be the next logical clothing pin to add to my continuity line of experiences As I am now better equipped than ever to mediate dialogues between my francophone upbringing and my past personal and academic experiences, I at last turn open eyes toward a future where the self-reflection quality of mirrors can be transformed into open windows of opportunities.


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Clandinin, D. (2007). Handbook of narrative inquiry: Mapping a methodology. Thousand Oaks, NY: Harvard University Press.

Freire, P. (1970/1990). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum Press.

Gee, J. P. (1992). The social mind: Language, ideology, and social practice. Series in language and ideology. New York, NY: Bergin & Garvey.

Macedo, D. (2006). Literacies of power: What Americans are not allowed to know, (Chapter 1, pp. 9-36). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Smith, D. (2003). The specific challenges of globalization for teaching and vice versa. In Trueit, D., Doll, W. E. Jr., Wang, H., & Pinar W.F. (2003). The Internationalization of curriculum studies. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Wah, F. (2006). Diamond grill, (selected poems). Edmonton, AB: NeWest Press.

Westheimer, J. (2005). Schooling for democracy. Our Schools, Our Selves: The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 15(1), pp. 25-39.