Democratizing Education: An Interview with Dan Scratch | By Claire Edwards

Education Visionaries in Edmonton is a series of articles highlighting educators whose passion for their work, dedication to their students, and desire for innovation are invaluable to the growth of Edmontonians and our city as a whole.  By conveying multiple perspectives from leaders in a diverse array of educational fields, The Wanderer hopes to illustrate the intrinsically valuable nature of learning, and celebrate the admirable art of teaching.

Dan Scratch is a social studies teacher at Inner City High School. Established in 1993, Inner City High School aims to provide Edmonton’s high risk youth with tools and opportunities to break the cycle of poverty, desperation, and dependence that dominates their lives.

Dan says “a student can learn far more from a hip hop song than they could from a textbook.” On his blog, Dan writes about teaching for social justice, providing fellow teachers with the tools and resources necessary to make their classrooms more democratic. For this, we are proud to celebrate him as a visionary in education.

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Claire: Why did you become a teacher?

Dan: Good question. I don’t have the best answer. I didn’t have a lot of success in school. I struggled a bit and had some conflict with one particular teacher that ended up shaping my career. I thank him now, but at the time I hated his guts to say the least. That kind of relationship – hating school, being frustrated, feeling inadequate, insecure, being told by my teacher that I wasn’t going to amount to anything – was tough. I had this idea in my head at that time that ‘I could do this better than you can. I’m not going to sit at my desk and yell at kids, telling them they suck.’ Teaching can be way more. It can be something different, something empowering. That experience motivated me to get into teaching.

Claire: Can you talk about Inner City High School and how teaching there is different from a conventional school?

Dan: I think because of my struggles as a student, my career has gone in a way where I’ve naturally ended up working with youth who struggle in school. I understand what it’s like to be in a classroom and not understand the material. Inner City High School is a school for high risk youth in Edmonton’s inner city. It’s been around for over twenty years now. It started out as a drama program in the late 80s, early 90s to help youth work through some of the challenges they were dealing with – poverty, racism, addiction.

What’s made Inner City High School such a great experience for me personally is I have the freedom to really be creative and try different things that might not fly in a traditional classroom. I use a lot of music – hip hop and punk rock to engage youth. My youth are hip hop culture. They live it, breathe it, wear it and speak it. I’m trying to utilize that to engage them in academic work. Specifically, Nas, Tupac, Jay Z to teach students about the world. And that’s what social studies is, learning about the world. I think a student can learn far more from a hip hop song than they could from a textbook.

Claire: You wrote a blog post about how education is inherently political and how teachers have a role to play as activists. Can you talk more about that?

Dan: When I was learning how to be a teacher I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know what a good teacher looked like because I didn’t have a lot of good examples as a student. I wanted to be completely different; I thought education should be something more, more than just what you do in the four walls of the classroom. Teaching is impacted by society. Issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, colonialism and so many more impact our students’ lives in a number of ways. So how are you going to tackle those things? You don’t want students going through the world not being able to recognize these issues. In the case of my students, who have a very clear idea of what poverty and racism are: how can you use that in the classroom to understand it, tackle it, combat it, and feel empowered so they aren’t restricted by it?

Going back to education as political…I don’t mean that it’s political in the sense that it’s partisan, as if I’m choosing to teach more about the Conservative Party than I am about the Green Party. It’s everything we choose. If we choose to highlight the stories of prime ministers over activists in the story of Canada, we are making a political decision that says the voices of prime ministers are more important than the voices of an Indigenous or a feminist activist throughout Canada’s history. You don’t want to silence any voice as a teacher. You want to lift the voices of those who have been silenced. That’s what social studies is; it’s storytelling. It’s not a powerpoint presentation. Not just my story; it’s everybody’s story.

A lot of times we reduce education to getting a job. And obviously that’s important; I want my students to discover their passion and get paid for it and have a good life. But I also want them to be critical active participants in the world that they live in – in their communities, their neighborhoods, their country. Because if they’re not, someone else will take up their spot. So they have a voice and a role to play and I’m encouraging them to use it. Not what ideology to follow, but to use their power and their voice. That’s political.

I come at education with a social justice viewpoint or framework and I write about that on my blog. And that scares people sometimes. Just last week I woke up to my Twitter account having over 250 notifications from trolls, basically online bullying, defaming me personally. For some reason, the message that I want to make the world more equitable, just and fair through teaching scares some people.

Claire: You wrote a blog post about teaching with privilege, and you talked about helping your students recognize and dismantle systems of oppression. Given that your students are going through challenges that so very few of us will ever understand, how do you navigate the difficulties of teaching from such a privileged background?

Dan: I’m a white man standing up in front of a classroom with a majority of First Nations/Métis students. I’m certainly sensitive of that, and I think about the perception…I have a lot of privilege to be able to analyze my place in society, and not be bogged down with the stresses of being able to make rent or getting groceries for my family. So the choice that I think we have as teachers is: what are you going to do with that privilege? You can choose not to recognize it, as if it doesn’t exist. If you do choose to recognize it, how will you use it?

I need to use whatever spaces I can insert myself into with my privilege to advocate for my students. So when it comes to things like poverty, I need to help eliminate it. I need to be more educated on issues facing First Nations/Métis/Inuit youth.

I see the worst parts of poverty everyday at work. There’s some pretty scary stuff that these kids go through. Does it make me angry? Absolutely. It motivates me to get involved in every way I can. I have to; it’s part of my commitment to my students. I heard someone say at a conference once, “When you signed up to be a teacher, you signed up to be an advocate for your students.” If I was working in the suburbs, I might be advocating for something else. In the inner city, my privilege grants me voice in areas that they might not be able to get into. I need to share their stories, perspective and reality with those who might not know it exists.

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Claire: You talk a lot in your blog about the future of public education. How has education changed since you were a student? What do you think education will look like in ten, twenty years from now?

Dan: I’ll say this about Alberta Education. When I came to Alberta and looked at the social studies textbook it was the most progressive curriculum I had ever seen. I didn’t expect that. But what worries me about Alberta Education is we’re in the process of completely changing the model of education to an inquiry or discovery based model, which has a lot of positives to it. We’re encouraging students to be independent learners, solve problems, get involved in the community. Those are great things and the new curriculum is making way for that. What scares me is this idea called “21st century skills”…which is very industrial or entrepreneurial language. What mostly scares me is the corporations who want a say in our education system.

There’s an organization called 21st Century Education Canada that is backed by corporate funders and as we know with the recent curriculum rewrite, there were a lot of corporations who felt they should have a say with our curriculum. Maybe there’s room for that in high school, but in kindergarten, or K-3, I don’t know what Suncor would have to teach kindergarten students. It doesn’t make sense to me. Curriculum should be created by teachers, in consultation with parents, students and community members, not someone with an interest whose bottom line is profit.

Education is a public good. If it’s not based on democracy and justice, then what is the point? I don’t understand anyone who can say it’s just about jobs. Education is one pillar of democracy. And if you don’t strengthen it – make sure it’s sustainably funded and based on principles of justice and equity – what kind of society are we creating?

Claire: So how do you make your classroom democratic?

Dan: So, the way I structure my class, is at the beginning of every semester and a few times every week, we have a talking circle. It’s an opportunity for me to tell my students, “I value everything you say.” It’s also an opportunity for us to discuss the guidelines to use in this classroom to make sure it’s a safe, positive, open learning environment for everybody. And everyone gets to speak.

The really hard part for a lot of teachers is they think that by being democratic, ‘Aren’t I just giving full control to students, and won’t that be a bad thing?’ Well, we need a paradigm shift, because your job as a teacher isn’t to control students in the first place. Your job is to work with students, guide students, both in their lives and their academic experience.

Being a democratic teacher doesn’t mean I don’t have authority in the classroom. When something happens in class, if a student makes a comment that is hurtful or discriminatory, or they’re acting in a way that’s violent, or they’re interrupting the learning environment, I have to use my authority in that moment to make it safe for everybody else. But I still include the student who was causing the disruption in the talking circle the next day to talk about what went on, how does everybody feel about it, and how can we make sure that they can come into the classroom and not be angry again. It’s about allowing students to come up with some of the rules and guidelines.

Sometimes as a teacher you get caught up and you rush through the curriculum, and you know you’re not doing it justice. Worst timing this year, because I’m teaching about the Holocaust, just before Christmas break. It’s not the best timing but we had to get through it before Christmas. With a two week break, for a lot of students I don’t see them back in January. Two weeks away from a structured environment means they can get lost in some other stuff.

So I was teaching and I had one student, while we were doing a reflection assignment on the Holocaust, basically just started swearing at me, crumpled up the assignment, threw it at a wall and left the classroom. Totally unexpected. The student is usually very calm, no problems. I went out in the hallway to talk to him and he was upset because he thought I was presenting the Holocaust in a very one-sided way. He felt I was grouping all Germans as Nazis. And I thought, ‘Oh, crap.’ He was part German and he started to feel terrible about himself that block. The next day I apologized to him in front of the class, and apologized for not presenting it in a more well-rounded way. I asked him to bring in two articles about German resistance to Hitler. We discussed them as a class and developed that bigger picture.

That’s democracy to me. The beauty of being a teacher is one day you can change lives, the next day you can really mess up lives. It’s a tough job that way, and you won’t do anything perfect all the time. You’ll have days where you mess up. And as long as you can look at your mistakes and talk to your students about that, that’s a pretty good message to send youth – that we make mistakes and they can challenge you on that. They can show dissent towards me and my authority.

It was hard for that student. He was almost in tears challenging me. But I had to convince them that it was a good thing. I have an award system in my class; we call them “Freedom Fighter Awards.” So, every week, someone who stood up for something, where they called for justice or did something in the community, they get the award. He got the award this week.

Claire: What tips do you have about bringing social justice topics into the classroom?

DanIt kind of goes back to your question about teachers as activists. I think a lot of teachers are hesitant to bring in controversial topics into the classroom. One, you might not know how to bring it up. Two, you know there might be a parent who might not appreciate you bringing it up. But that’s a political decision, to ignore it, or wash your hands of it. We suffer greatly in our education system from this idea of neutrality or objectivity. There’s no such thing as neutrality in teaching. If you don’t want to talk about LGBTQ issues in your classroom, are you making that a safe space for LGBTQ students? If you don’t want to talk about racism, are you empowering students who face racism?

What’s really encouraging is that when I first started, not a ton of these resources existed. Now, there are so many great organizations and teachers who create these wonderful lesson plans and wonderful resources that allow you not to tell students what, for example, racism is, but lets you read about it, watch it, discuss it. Teaching about social justice is not telling students what to think about social justice. Teaching social justice is allowing these stories to be told and having dialogue with your students about those issues, allowing them to research a project that they’re interested in, and to get involved with a community organization.

We often get lost in teaching, going back to that “control” issue – I control the classroom, I control the students, I control the information. Well, no you don’t. It should be, “Here’s this issue, what do you guys think?”

Claire: What’s one last thing you would say to teachers out there?

Dan: I would say to any new teacher just starting out, just try every crazy lesson plan or project out there. Just try it. Don’t ever let any teacher, principal or parent hold you back. You are a professional. You have the skills, ability and knowledge necessary to interact with youth and get them excited about learning. In this day and age you can’t be afraid to talk about these issues. This is such an important time. We have to encourage students to be democratic. If there’s one thing we can all agree on, regardless of where we are on the political spectrum, it’s that we want a healthy democracy.

You can read more about Dan Scratch and teaching for social justice on his blog at danscratch.blogspot.ca

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Photography courtesy of Wanderer Online photographer Brad Lam; banner design courtesy of Wanderer Online Design Editor Janelle Holod.

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