Anthology highlights student stories about school

Cosmopolis, Toronto, an anthology of stories written by students from 32 countries about their educational experiences around the world, will be launched tomorrow.

Compiled by Chris Searle, visiting professor at the Atkinson School of Social Sciences, the anthology features stories, poems and autobiographical writings about students’ experiences of schooling. It grew out of a creative writing assignment in which students were asked to write about their educational experience – real or imagined. Students wrote about topics ranging from bullying and making friends to poverty and social justice, and described a variety of educational experiences from the British colonial model to the competitive schooling in China and Korea.

"York is privileged to be a University with one of the most multi-ethnic student bodies in Canada," said Searle. "Each student carries with them stories of childhood, their experiences in other countries, and traditions of their culture. These stories bring with them important lessons that not only the York community but society at large can benefit from. Storytelling is about more than just disseminating knowledge. It is also about interrogating that knowledge and using it to create effective tools for change."

On March 21 from 5 to 6:30pm members of the York community are invited to help celebrate the release of Cosmopolis, Toronto by attending a launch in the Chancellor’s Room in the Underground. Searle will speak at the launch, as well as some of the students who contributed their stories to the collection. Copies of the anthology will be available, with all proceeds helping to rebuild education in communities affected by the 2004 tsunami that devastated south-east Asia. Monies collected will go towards the reconstruction of schools and provide educational resources to areas in need.

Left: Chris Searle

Searle, who teaches courses on childhood, education and society, has taught in Britain, Canada, Tobago, Mozambique and Grenada. His books include Classrooms of Resistance, Words Unchained, This New Season, We’re Building the New School, The World in a Classroom, Grenada Morning and The Forsaken Lover (for which he was awarded the Martin Luther King Prize). His books of poetry include Mainland (1973), Red Earth (1980), Common Ground (1983) and Lightning of Your Eyes (2006).

Cosmopolis, Toronto is a collection of works by students Searle taught at York in 2004-2005. (An edited selection of six of the stories was published in YorkU magazine in its October 2005 issue.) The anthology captures the voices of students across a wide range of cultural and geographical landscapes, providing readers with insight on topics ranging from racism and poverty, to social justice and anti-oppressive teaching and learning practices.

In Matthew Harasiewicz’s piece, titled "Life Lessons", the reader is confronted with the devastating effects bullying can have – the protagonist commits suicide after witnessing boys at school taunt his friend, and after becoming a victim himself. Harasiewicz refers to bullying as one of the "realities of childhood", a reality from which not all can escape unscathed.

Left: Matthew Harasiewicz

"I tried to ignore and forget the abuse that I suffered from my peers and in doing so…I had forgotten who I was," writes Harasiewicz. "It was not my friend who suffered and died, but it was myself. I tried to remove my mind and soul from my body in attempt to hide my friend and realized that it was not my friend’s trials and tribulations that I was describing; they were my own."

Whether the bully or the bullied, a positive experience or one filled with painful remembrance, each student relays a common message throughout their stories: though education can empower an individual, for many, it can also be an oppressive experience.

In Andrea Mourad’s autobiographic story "I Can’t Hear You", Mourad describes her misdiagnosis as a deaf child. She is stereotyped by her teachers and viewed by other school staff as a student of disability rather than ability.

Right: Andrea Mourad

But Mourad refuses to accept her diagnosis, knowing she is more capable than others think. Her father’s encouragement and her own internal strength allow her to lead a life where her disability becomes irrelevant.

For Mourad, the hardships she faced as a child have prepared her to become an effective teacher who takes an anti-oppressive approach to both teaching and learning. It is her hope, that her story will impact students in similar circumstances, encouraging them to defy labels and to believe in themselves no matter how discouraging things may seem. Mourad also hopes that her story, as well as the anthology itself, will provide current and future educators with insight on how their teaching attitudes and styles affect students both in the short-term and in the long-term.

"Writing this assignment was challenging," said Mourad. "It was somewhat difficult to go back in time and remember all the hardships my family and I had to endure. Knowing that my contribution to this book, regardless of how big or small, has the potential to make a difference in the quality of life of at least one child is a most rewarding feeling."

Searle will also give a lecture on the anthology on March 29, titled "Pedagogy of Story: Cosmopolis, Toronto and Student Storytelling." The lecture will focus on the value of storytelling as an effective teaching and learning tool. The lecture will take place from 7 to 8pm in the Harry Crowe Room, 109 Atkinson Bldg.