Category Archives: critical thinking

Fighting Slut-Shaming and Cyber-Bullying: 7 Things Teachers Can Do

These last few weeks, the topics of slut-shaming and sexual extortion have been weighing on my mind. These are huge problems facing girls in schools and I’ve been thinking a lot about how they tie into digital citizenship and the formation of a digital identity. Through watching videos, reading articles, and reflecting, I’ve come up what I think some of my responsibilities are – as a teacher and as a young woman – to support my students in the face of these issues.

Your Body = Your Worth

About two weeks ago, I went to a film screen put on by The UnSlut Project, a project working to undo the dangerous slut shaming and sexual bullying in our schools, communities, media and culture. Here is the trailer for the documentary film:

Emily Lindin started the UnSlut Project in response to hearing stories about suicides of girls like Rehtaeh Parsons, Amanda Todd, and Audrie Pott. She was reminded of how she felt when she was labelled as the school “slut” in her middle school and decided to share her story by posting her diary entries from ages 11-14 online. The Project has become a collaborative space for sharing stories and creating awareness of sexual bullying and slut-shaming.

While watching the film, it stuck out to me that girls are told over and over again that their worth is based on how their bodies look to other people. The media constantly imposes impossible standards of beauty on girls and diet/beauty industries fuel body dissatisfaction to make profit.

It starts scary young. Media Smarts reports that three-year-olds already prefer game pieces that depict thin people over those representing heavier ones, while by age seven girls are able to identify something they would like to change about their appearance.

Photoshop Pic

Image from Media Smarts

“The barrage of messages about thinness, dieting and beauty tells “ordinary” girls that they are always in need of adjustment—and that the female body is an object to be perfected” (Media Smarts). And not only are girls told that their bodies are objects to be perfected – they are also told that until they can perfect their bodies and become thin, beautiful, and sexy, their worth is compromised. If they want to be worth something, they need to eat less, workout more, show more skin… The list goes on.

Sexy = Valuable But Sex = Shameful

So this idea that girls must have a perfect body and be sexually attractive in order to be worth something sounds awful when you say it outright; however, these are the messages that the media is sending to young girls, who often receive and internalize them.

And perhaps the most sickening part is that when girls learn the rules of our culture – that their sexual desirability is what makes them valuable – and try to portray themselves as sexy, they are labeled, shamed, and bullied for it. It’s a vicious, grueling cycle and one that many girls, including Amanda Todd, have fallen victim to.

This paradox doesn’t disappear as girls grow up, either. It manifests in double standards that put women down for doing the same things as men (ie. she’s a slut, he’s a stud). Jarune Uwujaren from Everyday Feminism puts it this way: “Ironically, our society simultaneously values women for their sexual desirability and shames them for having sexual desires.”

What’s the point? There should not be worth tied to a woman’s or a girl’s sexiness or how much sex they choose to have. Slut-shaming is extremely harmful to a person’s self-concept and internalizing those negative messages results in tragic outcomes for girls and women.

Constant Pressure, Little Control

Girls are constantly pressured into portraying their bodies in ways that will please others, whether it’s posting pictures to social media, sexting, or revealing themselves to a camera online. But once they share, they have little control over how the images will be perceived or what the viewer might do with the image. The pictures are easily circulated and become part of a digital footprint that remains with them forever.

The Sextortion of Amanda Todd, a documentary by the Fifth Estate, shows the extensive blackmail that the seventh grade girl received after flashing the camera in an online chat with a man she had been messaging with. He was a ‘capper’ – a cyber-predator who stalks websites looking to flatter girls into performing sexual acts and then capture and distribute their images. When Amanda was put under pressure, she made one mistake and the damage was done.

Although the RCMP was notified about blackmail attempts on at least five occasions in the two years leading up to Amanda’s death, they simply told the family: “If Amanda does not stay off the internet and/or take steps to protect herself online … there is only so much we as the police can do.”

This (lack of) response horrifies me. It’s victim blaming and it places all the responsibility for Amanda’s protection on her and her parents’ shoulders. I think it would have been pretty obvious that it was the RCMP’s job to protect Amanda had her harasser been physically stalking and harassing her. Why should it be any less their business when it’s online?

Digital Dualism

I don’t think it’s realistic for us to tell young people to just stay offline when their lives are so intertwined with online spaces. They have grown up in a world of digital dualism, where they interact in two different worlds that are fully, inextricably weaved together. We can no longer separate our digital lives from our offline lives, nor can we expect young people to do this. And avoiding the problem wouldn’t have solved anything, anyway. She couldn’t have stayed offline forever.

Amanda needed someone to teach her how to protect herself and be safe online. She needed someone to show her that she could start to build a trail of positive artefacts (which I think she was trying to do in the famous video where she shares her story) that would someday outweigh the picture that destroyed her reputation. She needed support in rebuilding her self-concept and strategies to deal with her online and offline bullies.

As educators, what are our responsibilities? What can we do about all of this?

  1. Speak out about slut shaming and sexual bullying.

We must start with a ground up approach by speaking out within our personal spheres. One strategy suggested by the Unslut Project is to ask the person to define “slut” or to explain what they mean by their problematic comment. The conversation might go something like this:  “What do you mean by ‘slut’? “Well.. a promiscuous woman.” “What’s promiscuous?” “Well.. she has too many sex partners.” “So how many is too many? Who gets to decide?” It quickly becomes apparent that no one has any business judging anyone else based on their sex life.

It’s also important to note that women can simultaneously be victims and perpetrators of slut-shaming. This means we need to be critical of our own thoughts and careless comments and catch ourselves when we slut-shame. Through speaking out and listening to one another’s stories, we can humanize each other and begin to work together against this shaming.

2. Help students deconstruct media messages and develop critical thinking skills.

I tried to do this in my internship through a health unit on body image. I had my students examine a variety of advertisements and critique them in groups using a questionnaire. We discussed influences on body image, such as the media, family, friends, culture, place through videos like this and talked extensively about stereotypes related to body image. In fact, this unit turned my students into the Stereotype Police. They became really passionate about reporting stereotypes they heard at home, around the school, and from one another. We also examined photoshop mistakes and saw how photoshop is used to create a problematic “ideal” body type. These are just a few ways we can get students thinking critically about the messages the media sends.

3. Educate students about their worth.

It’s our job to make our students feel loved, respected, valued, and affirmed for who they are and what they do. When we constantly remind students how irrationally crazy about them we are, we help them understand and believe that they are worth so much more than what their bodies look like.

“And when you start to drown in these petty expectations you better re-examine the miracle of your existence because you’re worth so much more than your waistline.”

“…Standards don’t define you. You don’t live to meet the credentials established by a madman. You’re a goddamn treasure whether you wanna believe it or not.”

I also recently came across this beautiful poem by Rupi Kaur and I think it would be great to share with students:

i want to apologize to all the women i have called beautiful

before i’ve called them intelligent or brave

i am sorry i made it sound as though

something as simple as what you’re born with

is all you have to be proud of

when you have broken mountains with your wit

from now on i will say things like

you are resilient, or you are extraordinary

not because i don’t think you’re beautiful

but because i need you to know

you are more than that”

Rupi Kaur

These are the kinds of traits we need to recognize in our students and help them recognize in each other. We can model these types of compliments: You are resilient. You are passionate. You are extraordinary. You have such great vision. You are working so hard. I love how you support your group members. Through our words and through the resources we bring in, we can show our students how deeply valuable they are and remind them of their endless potential.

(My focus in this post is on girls, but I recognize that boys also need to be educated about their worth, as they are also affected by the problematic way that masculinity is defined and portrayed by the media. I also recognize that transgender students, probably the most of anyone, need to see positive representations of their identity in the classroom. So although I’m focusing on girls in this post, I truly believe in instilling a positive self-concept in ALL students.

4.  Educate students about digital identity and digital citizenship.

Teaching students the how and why behind constructing a positive digital identity is an extremely important responsibility, as professional digital profiles have huge effects on future employability and might even start to replace resumes.  The digital footprint students leave will impact them short-term and long-term.

This tweet, from Katia Hildebrandt, is a response to this article, which makes it clear that as a society, we are willing to consider the context and timing of mistakes like DUIs, but unwilling to consider the context and timing of mistakes in the form of hateful social media comments.

Because their digital actions will continue to affect them throughout their lives and because of the harm we have seen in Amanda’s story, it is imperative that we teach our students to ask themselves questions before they put anything on the Internet. When posting about themselves, we might teach them to ask: Would I want my grandma or future employer to read this? Does this represent me in a positive way? And when posting about others, we might teach them to ask: How would I feel if this was shared about me? Do I have this person’s permission to share about them?


Photo Credit: MO3-2005 via Compfight cc

We can also teach them about online predators and the risks of exposing themselves online. We can show them examples of how our digital footprints can easily slip out of our control. Rather than asking students to simply avoid the internet or installing ineffective filters, we need to give them the tools to make responsible decisions for themselves.

5. Educate parents about digital footprints and their child’s digital identity.

Along with educating students about digital identity, we need to educate their parents. Research from the University of Washington finds that while children ages 10 to 17 “were really concerned” about the ways parents shared their children’s lives online, their parents were far less worried.  Another study finds that ‘sharenting’ – parents who share details of their family life online – can be detrimental in cases where parents put their online popularity ahead of spending time with their child. We need to model the process of asking students for permission before sharing about them online. We can offer support in helping parents find a middle ground, where they can share about their children online in a way that doesn’t compromise the child’s privacy or dignity.

Throughout the documentary, Amanda’s parents went from supporting her use of YouTube as a tool to share her singing talents to being highly concerned about her online behaviour when her photo went viral and she began to receive blackmail from the capper. Although they documented everything and continually informed the RCMP about the blackmail, they seemed ill-prepared to give Amanda any advice on how to defend herself online or how to start to repair her digital identity.

6. Educate ourselves about the online tools, apps, and websites students are using.

We need to keep up with the online tools are students are using and bring those into our classrooms and schools. For example, young people love Snapchat and there are many ways we can use Snapchat in our schools and classrooms for teaching, communicating, and sharing. We also need to educate ourselves on specific issues related to the tools, apps, or websites being used. For example, I recently became aware of the huge issue of cyber self-harm, a phenomenon in which young people create fake online identities to attack themselves and invite others to do the same. They might do this to pre-empt criticism from others, to bring their pain out into the open, or to get compliments from peers. We need to make ourselves aware of these issues so we can better understand what our students are going through and can support them in the best ways possible.

7. Educate everyone about moving toward a more forgiving digital world

Finally, because we are living in a world that no longer forgets, we need to work towards greater empathy and forgiveness towards others when they make mistakes online. We need to learn to make informed judgments rather than snap decisions and teach our students to do the same.

This means a few things, which Alec Couros and Katia Hildebrandt outline in their joint blog post. It means thinking about the context, timing, and intent of digital artefacts when we evaluate them. It means considering whether the artefact is a one-time thing or a pattern of behaviour. And it means holding ourselves accountable to the hypocrite test – asking ourselves whether we have ever said or posted something similar and thinking about whether we would want that held against us.

Burden or Opportunity?

My heart breaks for Amanda Todd, Retaeh Parsons, and so many other girls who have taken their lives due to experiences like this. As educators, we have a ton of responsibilities for educating ourselves, our students, and others on these issues. These responsibilities may seem burdensome, but they also place us in a unique and critical position to support students and families as we all learn about digital identity formation and online safety together.

So what do you think? What other responsibilities would you add to this list? What steps can we take to prevent tragedies related to slut-shaming, cyber-bullying, sexual extortion? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Creating A SAFE Space for All Students

“I don’t know where this journey will take me, but I know where it starts.” – Michael Cappello

On Friday, I was mandated to attend the Social Justice & Anti-Racist Anti-Oppressive Forum on Education (SAFE), which was being held for the first time at the University of Regina as part of my program. If I could, I would relive this day over and over again, going to each and every session and listening to the keynote speakers, Michael Cappello and Shauneen Pete, share their wisdom and conversations with me each and every time.

During the keynote, I was so mesmerized by the conversation and the learning taking place that I completely forgot to take notes, but luckily I have connected with a great group of classmates, who I will mention later on in this post, that reminded me through conversation about the most memorable moments. Michael and Shauneen started the keynote talking about March 2014, when the University of Regina cheerleaders made headlines for dressing up as Cowboys and Indians for their last practice and posted the pictures to Twitter. The result of this media attention was a mandatory ‘sensitivity training’ for the cheer team with Dr. Pete. She spoke of this training during the keynote, talking about how the cheerleaders adamantly stated that they were “good girls” in the session. They were “good girls” who volunteered, kept their grades up, and never meant to hurt anybody. But who is allowed to be good girls? Who is allowed to infantilize themselves in order to shirk responsibility for their actions? By simply saying that they were “good girls” they were displaying an unconscious dominance over Indigenous women who are often sexualized and treated as women throughout their childhood. Who gets the privilege to dress up as ‘Indians’ and play fantasy, and who has to wear the scars that come with that term every day?

After they had asked these critical questions, Mike and Shauneen started to talk about the impact that this anti-racism education, or as the university called it ‘sensitivity training’ affected them. Mike started by saying something that I connected deeply to: “This work does not cost me enough.” As a white woman, if I don’t fight for anti-racist and anti-oppressive education, nobody will really notice, but the moment that I do, I am given an “ally cookie”, as Mike called it. This cookie hails me as some sort of hero, fighting for the rights of others when I could choose to ignore inequality, but this is not a cookie I want. Since when has it become a job worthy of hero status to believe in equality? What kind of society do we live in when fighting to raise others up and let their voices, their stories, and their perspectives be heard is worthy of reward? This should be normative, but it’s not. This doesn’t mean that I will stop fighting for anti-racism and anti-oppression within schools and the broader society, it just means that I now realize that these rewards are a form of dominance in themselves. Shauneen, however, brought it home to all of the people that I spoke with during the day. She talked about the reaction of the cheerleaders to the training, how they discredited her as too emotional and too angry. She brought Mike with her to meet the cheerleaders so that he could offer his perspective on the events as well, and this led the cheerleaders to think that she was ill prepared and they were not the only ones. Shauneen was also made out to be a villain by the media, with one interviewer continually trying to reinforce that the cheerleaders were “good girls”, and why were they being forced to pay for a simple mistake?

The conversation continued to a response to the situation from one of Mike’s friends, who asked him “So if six-year-olds play Cowboys & Indians, is that racist?” The answer was a resounding “Yes!” Racism is often not the result of individual behavior; it is systematic. The fact that six-year-olds know these stereotypes is proof that racism exists within society. Six-year-olds playing Cowboys & Indians should be used as proof that racism and the stereotypes that come with it run rampant within society, not a way to try to fight this thinking. Throughout the day, I kept thoughts of this keynote and the many lessons that it taught me at the forefront of my mind.

For my first session of the day, I attended Teaching Students with Significant Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities: How to Make a Choice presented by Dr. Scott Thompson. Teaching students with special needs is something that is close to my heart because of my past experience with Campus for All students and the Big Sky Center for Learning and Being Astonished, so I wanted to attend a lecture on this subject to become more knowledgeable about how this relates to social justice. Two main lessons came out of this lecture. First, Dr. Thompson spoke about the assumptions that people hold about students with disabilities. He noted that often the expectations for these students are either over or under estimated simply because of the disability that they have. We need to give our students the best educational experience possible, regardless of disability. The way that we can do this is getting to know where each student is at and scaffolding the experiences that we give them to ensure that they feel confident in their learning. The second lesson that Dr. Thompson taught us was to make sure not to talk about students with special needs in front of them as if they cannot hear or understand what we are saying. All that this does is promote aggression and learned helplessness. Every person has the ability to make choices and to learn, but if they are continuously treated like they do not have this ability, they will no longer try.

The second session that I attended was Place-Conscious Teaching for Social and Ecological Justice presented by Karen McIvor. I was interested in this session because place-conscious teaching is something that I see as very valuable and I wanted to know how I could relate this to social justice. Place-conscious education brings together critical pedagogy, which focuses on deconstructing dominant narratives and ways of living, with place-based education, which brings the environment into learning experiences. One important lesson that I learned from Karen in this session is that it is not enough to simply take students to a space; we must deconstruct the places that we take students in some of these experiences. Deconstruction takes place by asking questions like: what has happened here, what is happening here, and what could happen here? Place-conscious teaching doesn’t have to involve big adventures to gain knowledge, it can happen in our own backyards or in our school grounds, but it is important to provide students with these experiences to enhance their school experiences. This work is very important to connecting youth to the community around them, as evidenced in Heartwood’s Circle of Awesomeness, and is used by Karen to help students at risk within her school gain credits for any number of classes while learning through experiences that are meaningful to them.

For my third and last session of the day, I attended Unsettling Treaty Education and Anti-Oppressive Education: Theory into Practice presented by Chauntel Baudu and Tamara Smith. This was one of the sessions that I was looking forward to the most, since treaty education and anti-oppressive education are two aspects of my education that I am very passionate about, but I haven’t gotten much instruction on how they actually work in a classroom. Chauntel started this session off by talking about anti-oppressive education, which she describes as creating togetherness rather than separation in school environments. She started on her path to anti-oppressive education in much the same way that I have. She was taking classes at the university and imagined having the same deep conversations about anti-oppressive education that were occurring in her class with her students and she made it a reality. One key lesson that I learned from Chauntel is that if I want to talk about anti-oppression within my classroom, I need to give students the tools to unpack their ‘invisible knapsacks’ effectively. If students are to talk about oppression, they need to know the forms of oppression that affect them, whether it is a positive or negative affect. It is important to teach critical literacy and have students identify whose voice is heard and whose voice is silenced within texts so that they can identify the oppression that exists. Another key aspect of anti-oppressive teaching is reflection, not only for teachers but for students as well. We need to reflect to figure out where we come from, what we know, why we know it, and what has changed over time to figure out what students need from us as anti-oppressive educators. Chauntel stated that anti-oppressive education doesn’t have to be overwhelming; you don’t have to make dramatic leaps and bounds to make a difference within your classroom. Anti-oppressive education is simply about increasing your knowledge of oppression and working to fight it in ways that you feel you can because when we know better, we can do better.

After Chauntel’s presentation, Tamara took the floor to talk about treaty education. Tamara spoke about the importance of teacher initiative in treaty education. Even though it is mandated in Saskatchewan, many teachers we will meet in schools choose to remain ignorant of treaty education in an attempt to retain innocence when thinking about the past of colonialization in Saskatchewan, but at what point does this ignorance become unacceptable? Often in social studies and history classes, the focus is on the ‘strength of the homesteaders’ while the strength and benevolence of the Indigenous people is ignored. We claim ignorance to avoid the trauma of admitting uncomfortable truths, but we need to ask ourselves who benefits from this ignorance and who is oppressed by it. If you are going to begin teaching treaty education, you must first be open to growth and learning and you must accept that you may feel alone on this journey, but you must not give up. If the support does not exist in the school that you find yourself working in, and even if it does exist, there are supports to help such as the Office of the Treaty Commission, elders, and leaders within the area of treaty education. Many teachers fear treaty education because they do not want to make mistakes, but this is where your own initiative in discovering knowledge and your humility becomes essential. We must learn to admit that we are not perfect, that we are humans that make mistakes, because this is what makes any subject that we teach real to our students.

To close the day, I had a discussion with some of my classmates about what we took away from the many sessions that we sat in during the conference. We took the opportunity to introduce a group that five of my classmates and I have started on campus with the support of Michael Cappello, called STARS Regina, which is dedicated to blogging resources for future and practicing teachers as well as providing professional development sessions revolving around social justice education. Our group met up for supper after these conversations with our classmates and some of the presenters and talked about our main takeaways from the conference and where we will move forward as a group. Throughout our discussion, our main focus was our passion for anti-racism and anti-oppression within our teaching. In one of the sessions that I attended, the presenter continually told us to teach with our passion and even if you feel alone at first, those people that think similar to you will find you and those conversations will be available for support. During the times when the work seems to hard to go on, we need to keep in mind the ripple effect that our efforts have on our students and the community surrounding us.

As we moved forward from the keynote at the beginning of the day, we were asked to consider what we were going to do to start accepting the gifts of knowledge and culture that First Nations and Metis people have been offering for years. By the end of the day, I was asking myself what had held me back from going to ceremonies and having conversations that led me to learn more about First Nations and Metis culture, I realized that more often than not, it was fear of being the only white person at these events and disrespecting their traditions and culture simply because I do not know enough. When I catch myself in these thoughts in the future, I hope that I will have the voice of Sheena Koops, a new friend that I met two weeks ago with my classmates in STARS Regina, in my head telling me “Go forth and be awkward”. Embrace the situations that you feel uncomfortable with, because that is where you find new knowledge that transforms your thinking. More often than not, your willingness to learn about the knowledge and the culture of First Nation and Metis people will not be seen as a sign of respect, and if you do blunder, there will be someone there to teach you how to do better at the next event that you attend. Make those important connections, go to the ceremonies and events around your community, get involved; even if you stumble, there will be someone there to catch you and you will become a better teacher for it.

Response to a Critique of the ‘HeForShe’ Campaign

I – along with the rest of the world – was recently captivated by Emma Watson’s moving speech on feminism at the UN, which launched the ‘HeForShe’ campaign.  First of all, Emma Watson has been my girl crush since I was in junior high, and second, I was pleased to hear her clarify the definition of feminism, as it has been misunderstood by many.  Watson states that feminism is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.”  She goes on to invite men to join the movement for gender equality, pointing out that gender stereotypes imprison men as well as women.  Finally, she ends by encouraging everyone to ask themselves, “If not me, who?  If not now, when?”  I found that ending really empowering because it implies that even though I may feel small, I can make a difference and there is no reason to wait.

Now, that video sat well with me for about a week.  I talked to others about the speech, praising Emma Watson and spreading word of the ‘HeForShe’ campaign.  I did have a prickle of discomfort when I was thinking about the name of the campaign because it seems to imply that men are stepping in and saving women, but I pushed it aside and told myself I was being nitpicky.

Then I read this critique of Emma Watson’s speech and the ‘HeForShe’ campaign, which points out some problematic things:

  • There has been little discussion of what men who sign the pledge can actually do to improve the lives of women.
  • Emma Watson acknowledges that she was privileged because her parents and mentors did not expect less of her because she was a girl, but does not acknowledge how being white, wealthy, able-bodied, or cisgender have affected her life experience.
  • The campaign reinforces the gender binary and excludes those “whose gender identities don’t fit into such tidy boxes,” the very people who are more likely to be oppressed.
  • The campaign fails to invite those whose voices need to be heard the most – the voices of non-white women, trans men, and non-binary people.
  • There has been little discussion about how HeForShe can improve the lives of women and non-binary people who experience intersectional oppressions, like racism, transphobia, and fatphobia.

The critique ends with the suggestion that Watson should have handed the microphone to Laverne Cox (transgender actress, LGBT activist) or Janet Mock (transgender woman, transgender rights activist) if she really wanted to be a “game-changer” for feminism.  After reading this critique, I felt a little defensive of Emma Watson.  I have also been in a position where I was called out for not acknowledging how my privilege shaped my life experiences.  That’s the tricky thing about privilege – it can easily slip by unnoticed when you’re the one who has it.  Also, I wondered, isn’t she managing her privilege by using it for good in standing up for women whose voices aren’t heard?  (Except that she is only standing up for certain women.)

I agree with the critique in its concerns about the exclusion of non-binary people and I’m really ashamed that I didn’t notice that when I first listened to the speech.  I need to get back into the practice of being critical of what I read and listen to.  Additionally, haven’t been able to find anything that explain what the ‘HeForShe’ campaign will actually do to end persisting inequalities.

What do you think of Emma Watson’s speech and the ‘HeForShe’ campaign?  Did you initially agree with it, or were you critical of its shortcomings?  Could Emma Watson have used her privilege in a more productive way?