In honour of Black History Month, a Canadian Black educator has found a novel way to help students across the world learn about the African Diaspora—something not usually covered in schools. Ms. Shiren of Coquitlam, B.C., was inspired by her own ancestry, and now she’s using that passion to inspire children to embrace other cultures through her engaging online classes on Outschool, a leading online learning platform. We spoke with the lovely Ms. Shiren to learn more. —Noa Nichol
Please tell us a bit about yourself to start, and about your mission to help students across the world learn about Black History and the African Diaspora.
I am Canadian-born, from one of the most multicultural cities in the world, so my perspective is influenced by that. However, as I got older and started to travel on my own, I realized that was not the only perspective, and not even a majority one necessarily. Being black, it made it even harder to see my story in the global dialogue, whereas it seemed I could easily access information about almost everyone else. I love learning about global history, so feeling this absence started to feel like a slap in the face after a while. Teaching what I know and have picked up on my own journey helps me provide to others knowledge that I found hard to access. It makes me feel I am doing something beneficial knowing I can be a guidepost for other young learners on their own journey. For some, this will mean hopefully not having to face as rude of an awakening as I did growing up, while for others, it may mean feeling inspired that they are broadening their own compendium of knowledge on the subject in general.
What inspired you to create your online classes for children on Outschool?
One of Outschool’s philosophies involves “teaching what you love”. Two things I love are language learning and acquisition, and the global contexts languages are spoken in, as well as exploring where my own identity fits into that puzzle. For some of the reasons I mentioned earlier, I enjoy learning about Black histories around the world, and understanding both our shared identities, and what might be different. Putting this passion together with my passion for learning languages helped me decide which courses I should be teaching on Outschool.
What are the classes like, who are they for, and what will kids learn?
My classes are small group experiences where kids and teens can hear about aspects of world history, and prominent figures that played a part in world history, but that may not be taught in a more conventional setting. Each topic is a doorway to expand their knowledge in the area of the world we are discussing that week, with a focused effort to explore that knowledge with an African Diasporic lens as well. Activities are sometimes used to diversify classes, and discussion is welcomed. The classes are for anyone wanting to round out their world history with perspectives that have been less explored, as well as those wanting to learn more about the African Diasporic experience around the globe.
Why do you think there is a lack of coverage of this subject in schools? Where is the issue most prevalent? What can we do to solve it?
I feel like I am learning more about this myself as I go, but I can tell you that the learners that come to my classes have rarely heard of the information I bring forward to them. It is troubling to me that in a world where Black history has contributed so much to our world, young people are often not aware of these things. Black History Month has been a great step forward in providing opportunities for this type of learning, but it also makes me think that teaching a few tidbits of Black History in a class or two during this period does not leave learners, of any heritage, further knowledgeable about the contributions of African-descended peoples throughout history and the world. By contrast, the average learner can often rattle off varied information about many other civilizations. While I don’t have the answer for how to solve it, I realize that this disparity also contributes to something of a societal issue—because it is only common to want to find information to dispel one’s own biases, but if that information is not readily available, biases, prejudices and stereotypes too easily persist.
What would you like parents and teachers to know about this valuable resource that you are offering?
I would like parents to know that this is one resource that exists to expose their learners to a broader understanding of Black history around the world, as well as to global history from a Black perspective. Sometimes the material is fun, and sometimes it digs a little deeper into some of the harder truths of our shared past. While it is kid-sensitive and the activities are meant to be engaging, learners should also be ready to sometimes contemplate some of the questions around how we got here as humanity and how we can take some of this information to move forward.
It’s Black History Month; what is your advice for those of us who are not part of the community, but wish to gain more knowledge/understanding and be allies?
I think the idea of alliance in this “work” is a wonderful place to start; we definitely need allies in a world where micro-agressions and bias are still a common experience for so many, and persist in so many industries. However, I also think that compartmentalizing Black history as something other to be learned in a vacuum is part of a problem I hope my class can contribute to addressing. My recommendation to this would be to treat Black History as one’s own history, because it is world history, as any other. I would treat it the way you would when you are curious about an aspect of world history and feel an urgency to look it up, or to ensure that your children are aware of that history. In other words, by not compartmentalizing history that involves people of African descent as something only for consideration in February, but rather, integrating it into the larger picture, we can move towards a more holistic understanding of global history, with all that entails. One thing I have become aware of, and which continues to be an issue even for me, is that many times, the details of that history are not as readily available, for many of the reasons I mention. Otherwise, the details have been misrepresented, after centuries of mis- and disinformation. This just means a little more effort and discernment would be required when endeavouring to take on this step. This also means that we need to keep our own “thinking caps” on as well, and question how history is presented when we come across it: who wrote it? What was their intention and perspective at time of writing? What period of history was it written in? Then, when we answer these, ultimately deciding whether it is actually the best resource to use, or whether we should move on to something more “holistic” in its coverage of events and perspective. Finally, we have to check our own lenses and things that we have all been taught growing up. Unfortunately, if the question of representation and perspective in history-telling is an issue of concern now, it is even more likely that some of the information we may have been exposed to before this current ‘age of reckoning’ had many more of these issues entangled; before it was even “a thing” to question it. So, we need to be willing to revisit what we think we know, and be willing to learn, and even embrace, new perspectives.