Having ‘courageous’ classroom conversations on difficult historical and contemporary topics

Faculty of Education
Equity, diversity and inclusion
Abstract illustration of conversation with diverse opinions
Helping future educators learn to lead respectful, productive discussions is a core component of our Teacher Education program. Part of our BEd candidates’ preparation for careers working with diverse populations includes professional learning with community partners engaged in antiracism and human rights work.

With antisemitism, including Holocaust denialism, and Islamophobia, the subject of a November 2023 Senate of Canada report, on the rise in Canada, teachers must often navigate complex classroom conversations.  But how best to speak with children and youth about historical harms, social divisions, and polarization, and create supportive spaces for them to share their experiences? 

Recently, a talk by Tibor Egervari, University of Ottawa emeritus professor and representative of the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship, as well as another by Aasiyah Khan, Director of Education for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, offered perspectives on how teachers can help their students understand the importance of democratic values.

Participants were asked to first consider their own understanding of history and then to think critically about how racism and hate are linked to increasing violence across the country. The presentations dovetailed with the Ontario Ministry of Education’s plans for an expanded Holocaust curriculum and the province’s support for combatting Islamophobia in schools. 

Learning from history

Professor speaking to students in a lecture hall
Tibor Egervari speaking to Faculty of Education students. Photo credit: The Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship

More than eight decades have passed since the Second World War. Fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain to share their experiences. Himself a survivor, Egervari offered a history lesson on how racist discourse during the Nazi rule of Germany dehumanized Jews, leading to a rapid, aggressive loss of rights and freedoms. He told the story of his childhood in Hungary and the memory of his father and brother being forced to walk towards Auschwitz. He never saw them again.  

Egervari’s was a first-hand account of how quickly the narrow space between hateful ideologies and deadly violence can be crossed. “The most important thing I would like you to understand,” he said about the origin of the Holocaust, “is that it (was) a racial persecution.”  

Challenging stereotypes

Aasiyah Khan
Aasiyah Khan, Director of Education, National Council of Canadian Muslims

Khan’s work as Director of Education for the NCCM includes teaching, training, and advocating for Muslim inclusion in life in Canada. This involves urging schools to address Islamophobia. Dispelling myths about Islam and countering harmful stereotypes are part of the role educators have in making sure their classrooms are safe, caring places for all students, Khan says.  

Using definitions from the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Khan guided participants through the steps in identifying Islamophobia and the ways it can show up in different school settings. She explained how “Muslim children are impacted by the negative public discourses about their faith” and why using “teachable moments” about the rich diversity of Muslim communities and their members’ contributions to society can help counteract discrimination.  

Khan adds that the use of “culturally responsive and relevant pedagogies” — such as incorporating the diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds of students into everyday teaching — is needed to foster belonging in the classroom. 

Preparing future teachers

Tracy Crowe, Teacher Education program specialist, says “these professional learning opportunities provide an extension of the learning our teacher candidates do in their course work and in their practicum. Our program is centred on the importance of teachers adapting to the needs of students in their school communities, and framing our responsibilities as educators with an equity, diversity and inclusion lens."  

“Through understanding the lived experiences of students and reflecting on their own experiences, our candidates develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes essential for teaching in today’s classrooms” she explains.

Schools are a microcosm of Canadian diversity, where the democratic values of freedom and respect for difference are nurtured. Equipping future teachers with the knowledge and tools for engagement with and holding space for multiple points of view is essential for having courageous conversations.