Narrating Dangerous Single Stories: An Analysis of Alberta’s Draft K-6 Social Studies Curriculum

Thomas King (2003) powerfully asserted, “The truth about stories is that’s all we are” (p. 153). As a narrative inquirer, my scholarship and research are rooted in my belief that our lives and world(s) (Lugones, 1987) are profoundly storied. As such, I will provide an analysis of Alberta’s Draft K-6 Social Studies Curriculum by first sharing and then interweaving some of my stories of experiences as a Muslim woman, pre-service teacher educator, and researcher living within amiskwaciy-wâskahikan in Treaty 6 lands. As you read what follows, I invite you to think with the stories I share and consider: What story is being narrated in the Alberta K-6 draft social studies curriculum? Whose? Why?

Every Winter term, I am blessed with the opportunity to teach three sections of an advanced elementary school social studies methods course. I begin this course by asking pre-service teachers to watch Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s (2009) TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” Single stories, according to Adichie, are created and proliferated when places and/or people are repeatedly reduced to a single (stereotypical) construct. She emphasized: “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power …. How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.”

Throughout the term, as we engage with concepts and works related to critical thinking, geographic thinking, historical thinking, citizenship education, historical and ongoing reverberations of colonization, Treaty responsibilities, individual and collective inquiry, current events, and teaching for equity, I ask pre-service teachers to consider: What is (the single story of) curriculum? What is (the single story of) social studies? What is (the single story of) citizenship? What (single) stories are told about Canada and Canadian history? Who has (had) the power to tell these stories? What (single) stories might we hold about different children, youth, families, and communities? How can we eschew (individual and systemic) single stories in ways that honour different ways of knowing and being in the world? How can we imagine and live out more ethical and sustaining stories alongside students, colleagues, families/caregivers, and community members within school landscapes so that all children and youth feel seen, valued, and loved?

Illuminating often taken-for-granted single stories in social studies education necessarily entails analyzing work/sources from a multiplicity of perspectives and critically grappling with the following questions: Whose story is being told? What story is being told? Who is telling the story? Who is this story being told for? Why is this story being told? What and/or who is left out of the story (because this is often just as, if not more, telling than what is included)?

To extend our conversations, I also draw upon my doctoral research alongside Muslim girls and women (Saleh, 2017, 2019), and my current research alongside Muslim refugee mothers of dis/abled children within familial curriculum-making landscapes (Huber, Murphy, & Clandinin, 2011). Sharing some of the stories from my research in which participants are located at the intersections of systems (Crenshaw, 1989) of gendered Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, ableism, classism, poverty, and xenophobia, I ask pre-service teachers: Who is (single) storied as a “good” student and citizen (and thus ‘worthy’ of belonging) within school landscapes and beyond? Why? What can we do to try to ensure everyone feels a sense of belonging?

Highlighting the spirit with which this work may be approached, I repeatedly turn to the work and scholarship of my friend and colleague, Dr. Dwayne Donald. Troubling the pervasive idea and approach of “incorporating” or “infusing” Indigenous perspectives into our curriculum and pedagogies in a superficial/tokenistic manner, Donald (2013) continually stressed that “we need a new story to guide us.” He asserted: “So, what to do? It has become clear to me that we need a new story to help us eschew colonial frontier logics of the fort and renew Aboriginal–Canadian relations on more ethical terms. Such a story would be inspired by the treaties, which teach that we are called to work together in ways that bring benefits to all people who live on the land together.” After reading and discussing Donald’s work, I ask pre-service teachers to repeatedly (re)consider how we might respond to the Truth and Reconciliation’s (TRC’s) Calls to Action as Treaty people within our classrooms, schools, and communities with this spirit of ethical relationality (Donald, 2016, 2019).

It is clear to me that the spirit of these teachings, considerations, and discussions alongside pre-service (and often in-service) teachers are in stark contrast to the overall framing and content of the Alberta K-6 draft social studies curriculum. For me, the draft social studies curriculum narrates harmful (single) stories, including but not limited to[1]:

It stories children and youth in deficit ways. As Dr. Carla Peck and others have noted, the draft social studies curriculum is illogically sequenced and not at all age-appropriate. At the root of these issues is that the curriculum writer(s) hold a (single) story of children and youth as empty vessels that need knowledge poured into them, rather than as knowing beings who have the ability to make connections to their own knowledge and lived experiences (this is often referred to as Paulo Freire’s “Banking Concept” of education).

It eschews the TRC’s Calls to Action. As mentioned above, I ask pre-service teachers to continually (re)consider how we might respond to the Truth and Reconciliation’s (TRC’s) Calls to Action with a spirit of ethical relationality (Donald, 2016, 2019). Pre-service teachers are also familiar with the Alberta Education (2020) Teaching Quality Standard (TQS) that emphasizes: “A teacher develops and applies foundational knowledge about First Nations, Métis and Inuit for the benefit of all students.” Eschewing the TRC’s Calls to Action and recommendations of scores of Indigenous peoples and communities, this draft curriculum does not ask for students to learn about the numbered Treaties until grade 4, and Residential Schools until grade 5. Please read this powerful post by Dr. Pamela Roach about the potential reverberations of this failure.

It is profoundly Othering. Over forty years ago, Edward Said (1978) wrote about Orientalism and “the exotic Other” in relation to narrativizations of those from “the East” by those in “the West.” Not only does the draft social studies curriculum literally use the Othering term “the Orient,” it consistently frames and approaches difference in Othering ways. Even when individuals and communities of different Nations, races, cultures, and religions are “included” or “incorporated” (to borrow Dr. Donald’s framing), it does so from an exoticizing gaze of “us” vs. “them.” The very first draft had the following wording for a grade 6 outcome: “Freedom of religious practice is encouraged, but acceptance can come less easily—in part, because newcomers bring new and unfamiliar religious faiths and practices.” After public outcry, it was then modified (without public acknowledgement of the modification) to be slightly less damaging but still from an Othering lens: “Freedom of religious practice is encouraged, but we sadly know from history that acceptance can come less easily—in part, because newcomers bring new and unfamiliar religious faiths and practices. But fear of the unknown can be no excuse for intolerance. Students will specifically study other faith traditions so that unfamiliar practices become respected and understood in a pluralistic society.” Another example is in Grade 2, children are to be taught “Describe some of the significant encounters between different peoples, either in person or indirectly through the goods they produced, along the Silk Road between Europe and Asia.” Who is being referred to as “different peoples” and products “they” produced? The message is clear here and in too many other places in the draft: there is a normative “us” and a non-normative “them.” I cannot stress enough the curriculum violence (Jones, 2020) that this draft curriculum has the potential to unleash upon children, youth, families/caregivers, and educators (particularly those who are racialized).

It does not tell an honest story of Canadian history. This curriculum draft tells a dishonest, linear, reductive, and Eurocentric story of progress and heroism. A huge part of my work as a social studies methods teacher educator involves grappling with how we might teach and learn about what Deborah Britzman coined ‘difficult knowledge.’ (I have delved into the concept of ‘difficult knowledge’ in this recently published paper and also this paper alongside my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Cathryn van Kessel.) I ask pre-service teachers to consider how we might approach teaching about historical (and ongoing) events and experiences (especially those that highlight injustices) in honest, yet simultaneously hopeful ways. How might we teach and learn about colonialism, Residential schools, the Chinese head tax, Japanese Canadian Internment, anti-Black racism in Canada, the Holocaust, and other local and global historical (and ongoing) events and processes in age-appropriate, trauma-informed, critical, factual, and hopeful ways? Pre-service teachers in my social studies methods classes engage in a group project that allows them to work through these questions and gain confidence that they can indeed engage in honest and hopeful ways around a myriad of (historical and ongoing) issues of injustice.

It actively erases important stories and ways of being and knowing. As my friend and former professor, Dr. David Smith, repeatedly stressed when I was a doctoral student, educators must actively search for what is present through its absence. Basically, what is made increasingly visible through the very act of being made invisible? Reading through the draft document for the first time several weeks ago, I immediately noticed the glaring omission of historical and ongoing contributions and issues related to LGBTQ2S+, dis/abled, and newcomer individuals and communities. Throughout my time with pre-service teachers, I continually assert the need for all students to have the opportunity to be provided with mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors (Sims Bishop, 1990), because children and youth need to see themselves reflected, engage with other ways of knowing and being in the world, and have the opportunity to walk/travel alongside others in good ways within our classrooms, schools, and communities.

It only (briefly) acknowledges racism as a past (rather than ongoing) story. This last year, many protests and movements around anti-racism have highlighted the many ways that individual and systemic anti-Black racism is still very much alive in our world(s). However, in the draft document, racism (mentioned four times in the entire document) is only briefly storied as something that was present in the past. For example, the draft curriculum encourages grade 4 students’ “knowledge” of Alberta’s community of Amber Valley and the accompanying “understanding” that “Racism, discrimination, and exclusion were [emphasis added] everyday realities, especially in the 1920s and 1930s.” Later, in grade 6, students are expected to learn about the KKK (and their disgusting slogan) as a past organization without ever mentioning racism, white supremacy, and/or connections to current white supremacist groups and ideologies. Further, in grade 3, students will be expected to learn about slavery (again, without mentioning racism and white supremacy) with the following language being used: “Slaves and servants were common. Blacks in New France were considered the ‘property’ of white settlers and the Code Noir (rulebook) was used, even though it was not the official law. Enslaved Blacks were brought from Africa and sold as part of the trans-Atlantic trade in goods.” The use of the term “Blacks” (rather than “Black people and communities”) narrates its own harmful story; however, the framing of “slaves and servants were common” tells an even more sinister, racist, and apologist story as though those who were forcibly enslaved and those paid to serve could be equated. It is morally and ethically reprehensible and inconceivable to expect students and educators – particularly Black children, youth, and teachers – to engage with such blatant curriculum violence.

It does not allow for inclusive education. I use the term ‘inclusive education’ in a very specific way here. Inclusive education involves intentionally creating spaces and curriculum for children and youth of all dis/abilities to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance in their classrooms, schools, neighbourhoods, and communities. (Please watch this video and read this book by Shelley Moore for more information on inclusive education). As a mother to a dis/abled child, this is an area that is incredibly close to my heart. My daughter currently attends an inclusive grade 2 classroom in her neighbourhood elementary school, and her teachers work incredibly hard to make meaningful connections for her related to the current social studies program of studies. As I read through the grade 2 learning outcomes in the draft social studies curriculum (where students will be expected to learn about Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the “history of time,” classic architecture, Medieval Times, Anglo-Saxon England, the origins of the Silk Road, among other topics), I immediately thought of my daughter, other dis/abled children, and their teachers. My daughter’s teachers draw upon her lived experiences and knowledge to make authentic connections to current social studies concepts (such as “my community”) … and I know that it would be exceedingly difficult to make the outcomes in the proposed curriculum meaningful and accessible for her and all children.

It is framed (and brimming) with harmful (single) stories. At the end of every semester, I ask pre-service teachers to read and discuss the final chapter from Thomas King’s (2003) “The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative.” Contemplating the inconsistency of our (individual and collective) ethics within and across different contexts, King powerfully asserted that we can change the (often harmful) ethics that undergird how we engage with one another: “After all, we’ve created them. We’ve created the stories that allow them to exist and flourish. They didn’t come out of nowhere. They didn’t arrive from another planet. Want a different ethic? Tell a different story” (p. 164).  Again, I invite you to read the draft curriculum and respond to the following prompts that I often use with pre-service teachers when analyzing different sources: Whose story is being told? What story is being told? Who is telling the story? Who is this story being told for? Why is this story being told? What and/or who is left out of the story?

We are sorely in need of a different story to guide educational systems. Not only does Alberta’s draft K-6 social studies curriculum not encourage this much-needed change, if mandated, it will undoubtedly be an obstacle in the (ongoing) struggle for more equitable and sustaining ways of engaging alongside each other (especially children and youth) in classrooms, schools, and beyond. For these reasons, it is clear to me that this document cannot be ‘fixed’ or ‘improved’ through piloting and revising, as its entire frame/structure, organization, and content are deeply flawed. The document, and the dangerous single stories it narrates, needs to be wholly rejected.

References

Adichie, C. N. (2009, July). The danger of a single story [Video]. TED Conferences. http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html

Britzman, D. P. (1998). Lost subjects, contested objects: Toward a psychoanalytic inquiry of learning. State University of New York Press.

Crenshaw, K. W. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, (1), 139–167. http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8

Donald, D. (2013, June 3). Teachers, aboriginal perspectives, and the logic of the fort. ATA Magazine, 92(4). https://www.teachers.ab.ca/News%20Room/ata%20magazine/Volume-93/Number-4/Pages/Teachers-aboriginal-perspectives.aspx

Donald, D. (2016). From what does ethical relationality flow? An “Indian” Act in three artifacts. Counterpoints, 478, 10–16. www.jstor.org/stable/45157205

Donald, D. (2019). Homo economicus and forgetful curriculum: Remembering other ways to be a human being. In H. Tomlins-Jahke, S. Styres, S. Lilley, & D. Zinga (Eds.), Indigenous education (pp. 103–125). University of Alberta Press.

Freire, P. (1970/2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Penguin.

Huber, J., Murphy, M. S., & Clandinin, D. J. (2011). Places of curriculum making: Narrative inquiries into children’s lives in motion. Emerald.

Jones, S. P. (2020). Ending curriculum violence. Learning for Justice, 64, 47-50. https://www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/spring-2020/ending-curriculum-violence

King, T. (2003). The truth about stories: A native narrative. Anansi Press.

Lugones, M. (1987). Playfulness, “world”-travelling, and loving perception. Hypatia, 2(2), 3–19. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1527-2001.1987.tb01062.x

Moore, S. (2017). One without the other: Stories of unity through diversity and inclusion. Portage & Main Press.

Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. Random House.

Saleh, M. (2020). Honouring our grandmothers: Towards a curriculum of rahma. Cultural and Pedagogical Inquiry, 12(1), pp. 8-21. https://doi.org/10.18733/cpi29526

Saleh, M. (2019). Stories we live and grow by: (Re)telling our experiences as Muslim mothers and daughters. Demeter Press. http://demeterpress.org/books/stories-we-live-and-grow-by-retelling-our-experiences-as-muslim-mothers-and-daughters/

Saleh, M. (2017). Stories we live by, with, and in: A narrative inquiry into the experiences of Canadian Muslim girls and their mothers (Doctoral Dissertation). University of Alberta. https://doi.org/10.7939/R3JH3DG7R

Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3), 1–2. https://scenicregional.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Mirrors-Windows-and-Sliding-Glass-Doors.pdf

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Calls to action. https://nctr.ca/assets/reports/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf

van Kessel, C., & Saleh, M. (2020). Fighting the plague: “Difficult” knowledge as sirens’ song in teacher education. Journal of Curriculum Studies Research, 2(2), 1-20. https://doi.org/10.46303/jcsr.2020.7


[1] Please note that these issues and concerns are not ordered according to importance. Further, many practicing teachers, teacher educators, concerned parents, scholars, and community members have already written and/or spoken out about many of these issues. As such, I will be including hyperlinks to various blogs, articles, and media that expands upon the ideas presented here.