The things we carry: A profile of Carla Peck and social justice in elementary education

By Vivian Lee

Rarely can any of us articulate that moment of our childhood when we first realized that someone – a classmate, a friend, or a stranger – was different from us.

For Dr. Carla Peck, Associate Professor, Faculty of Education, however, that moment and her response to it has had a resounding impact on her life’s work.

“I was seven or eight and my best friend at the time was Joanne, who was African-Canadian,” she recalls. “We would walk home from school hand-in-hand. I remember holding her palm one day and thinking to myself that her skin was darker than my own. I remember then squeezing her hand even tighter because I did not want her to think that I didn’t want to hold her hand. That was the first time I was really aware of difference. And I didn’t want this awareness to change the relationship I had with my friend.”

This awareness of diversity and our responses to it, both personally and societally, has come to characterize Peck’s work as an elementary educator. Growing up in Ontario before moving to the Maritimes, Peck’s first teaching job was as a French teacher for a small rural elementary school. It was during her time there that Peck began to notice how politics of difference played out even in an elementary classroom.

“I was teaching in a community in New Brunswick – which is the only province that is officially bilingual- yet the community in which I taught, French language and culture were not regarded very well at all. I was so surprised. I didn’t realize the challenge I had ahead of me to convince children to like French...For many of these students, the French-speaking people of the province [Acadians] were seen as foreign and Other.”

Peck’s desire to help her students appreciate the value of French language, culture and people soon grew to encompass discussions on issues such as human rights, discrimination, and social justice. For those who might believe such topics are too weighty for third graders, Peck remarks, “Many told me that they [7- or 8-year olds] are too young for these kinds of discussions. They are not too young. Children are dealing with stereotypes and discrimination on a daily basis - on the playground, on the school bus, in the classroom and in the community. It is when they are young that we need to start addressing how they think about those things.”

Peck’s conviction that her job as an educator was to help broaden perspectives led her to pursue academic research on issues of diversity and identity in the classroom. “I needed to know more about what was out there. There was research on attitudes about diversity but those were largely survey-based. People will tell you the politically correct answer that they think you want to hear. This does not mean that their responses will be the same in real-life scenarios. This is what I try to address in my research: not only attitudes about diversity, but the knowledge structures that inform those attitudes and responses. That was the beginning for all of this.”

By “all of this,” Peck means the ground-breaking work that she continues to do in the fields of elementary and social studies education. Her approach is personal and refreshingly human. Peck does not have students or teachers “check a box” about their identities. Instead, she asks them to self-identify who they are and where they come from, writing their stories down if necessary. “What I have learned through that is the very complicated and tentative nature of [especially] ethnic identifications and their influence on how someone thinks about and feels a (dis)connection from/with, for example, events in Canadian history,” Peck explains.

Carla Peck

Peck’s work on the connections between identity and diversity largely began with her master’s thesis on children’s understandings of ethnic diversity. Peck took everyday scenarios that she thought children would be familiar with, such as a “No Hats” rule in schools, and then presented students with a few alternative points of view. For example, she showed them pictures of children wearing yamakas, hijabs, and turbans, and asked students why those children might wish to be exempted from a “No Hats” rule. Surprisingly, none of the students interviewed understood the headwear as being examples of material expressions of ethnic diversity. Instead, they thought students wore turbans and hijabs because of bad haircuts or even physical deformities. “Those interviews were a real eye-opener for me,” Peck says. “If you don’t recognize the roots of difference--those fundamental aspects of someone’s identity-- then you aren’t likely to want to accommodate. You would also fail to see that there are not just humanistic reasons to make accommodations but legal reasons, as outlined in Canada’s Multiculturalism Act and The Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Peck is now expanding her research on students’ understandings of ethnic diversity to include the perspectives of teachers. The study, which examines students and teachers in Alberta, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, will also take into account curriculum and educational policy documents on diversity and multiculturalism. “How teachers understand ethnic diversity is going to impact what students learn,” Peck explains. “It requires a lot of introspection to move beyond the idea that we are just responsible for teaching the content. Nobody is neutral. As teachers, we are also responsible for asking ourselves how we know what we know.” This emphasis on critical thinking builds upon Peck’s work with The Historical Thinking Project (HTP) that began during her doctoral studies. The HTP provides a more applicable framework for teachers to engage students with the skills required to understand their own lives within historical contexts and Social Studies curriculums.

As Peck sees it, any understanding of curriculum is influenced by the prior knowledge and experiences of both student and teacher. While current Social Studies programs across Canada emphasize the concepts of diversity and identity, Peck believes teachers face incredible challenges and opportunities in teaching these ideas in the classroom. “Often, these concepts are very narrowly defined or presented in static ways… Then, there are all these other lenses – “race”, class, gender, sexual orientation and ability – that shape the way we see the world. We are surrounded by these ideas. They’re these things we carry with us every day, but we don’t’ often open them up for examination or reflection.”

Peck hopes that her work will ultimately help students, and educators in particular, re-examine their assumptions about the factors that shape the way we live and relate to one another. “At the end of the day, it is about that kid sitting in your classroom looking to you,” Peck asserts. “And we need to know how to respond in the most open and accepting way that we can. It must start with us.”