Practical Magic: How to Take a Decolonial Approach to Educating

Education is one of the most oppressive tools employed by the settler colonial society that is the United States. The information we are fed as students is purposefully crafted to support the white supremacist notion that white people are the sole or most important thinkers, operators, and history makers. History, especially, is fashioned in a way that posits Western empires at the center of the universe and glorifies violent colonial processes. Given that schools are mostly structured as hierarchical, teachers easily become oppressors to youth, stripping them of autonomy and self-actualization. Educational resources are distributed unevenly and further disadvantage poor and BIPOC communities.

As someone who has been a reading comprehension and literacy educator for middle schoolers, and writing tutor for undergraduate students, I recognize that I am navigating a position of privilege. I’ve been given the capability to perpetuate harm towards students. But I’m not with colonial white supremacist bullshit, so I ensure that I am doing all I can to actively reduce the harm orchestrated by systems of oppression and work toward building a world in which the model for education is holistic, liberating, and guarantees that each student is valued and given the tools they need to succeed.

Before I continue, I want to stress that colonial structures can never be fully decolonized as long as they are standing. No matter how transformative or radical our praxis may be, we are still working in foundations that were created with oppressive intentions and constructed on stolen land. Ultimately, we will never be free until we give land back, sovereign power is restored to Indigenous peoples, and a new foundation is built.

However, does that mean we should give up our efforts in making the world a better place? Fuck no. We all have a responsibility to lift each other up and lead with care.

Give Students More Control Over Their Education

Youth often go to school without a choice, learning things they never chose to learn. While of course there are requirements set by forces beyond our control of what should be in the curriculum and how it should be delivered, we should ask students questions that will grant them more control over how they learn. Not only will they have more mobility, but they are also more likely to be engaged in learning than if they were simply fed information they do not care about. Ask them if there are any topics that particularly pique their interests, what their desired outcomes are after learning the materials.

I had students who loved graphic novels, and I allowed them to choose which graphic novels they would like to read. I had one student who loved games, so I created games that incorporated characters, plot points, literary techniques, and more. Another student wanted to create an artistic piece that reflected the book we read as a final project, so I let them and encouraged their imagination to run wild.

Have Your Students Hold You Accountable

With every student I encounter, I’ve always told them that if I’m doing something they don’t agree with or like for whatever reason, they should challenge me. I first learned this in my Feminist Theory class during undergrad. On the first day, with the class situated in seats that were placed in a circle so we can all face each other, the professor made us create a list of expectations we had for her. A few things on the list included her to never raise her voice at us, give us grace if an assignment can’t be turned in on time no matter what reason it is, and to not let her personal life have a negative impact on her teaching.

Accountability can look different in many ways. Maybe you and your students can have weekly check-ins where you give students the space to share what they think is working or may not be working. Maybe you all can create a chart that lays out what expectations you have for each other. The most important thing is to make sure that each voice is heard.

Include Materials by Marginalized Groups

When I reminisce on how I was a Latine child from The Bronx, attending schools with mainly other Latine and/or Black kids, I grow sad over the fact that most of what we read were by white authors and had white characters. These characters were also from suburban neighborhoods that were foreign to us as people from an urban community. It makes sense to me now why students would rebel and dismiss these books. There were no characters that looked like us, nor were there characters that shared our experiences. When I worked in a public middle school with a Black and brown student population, one group of 7th and 8th graders that I educated chose to read Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. They loved it. One girl in particular often shared how seen she felt by the book. To further drive home the book’s theme of Black female empowerment, I had students watch Black is King, directed by the one and only Beyoncé.

It goes without saying that representation is vital and lifesaving. But even if you have a classroom of mainly white students, it is critical to explore the diversity of being. We gain a better, more complex insight into the world when we hear voices that are not just from people like us. When we showcase voices from different walks of life, we teach students that each voice matters.

Allow Yourself to Learn

Learning doesn’t magically end once you reach adulthood. The idea that you can no longer be taught anything, and you’ve reached a superior stage in which you’re finally separate from young people who are still learning, is ageist. As human beings, we are constantly evolving and becoming something entirely new as each day passes. Just because educators are primarily doing the teaching in the classroom, that doesn’t mean educators can learn from students. From students, I’ve personally learned the importance of asking questions. Moreover, I just love learning about students’ lives in general. It brings me joy to hear about one student’s special interest in Sonic the Hedgehog or another student’s family trip to the Dominican Republic. Not only does it build empathy and compassion within me, but it also gives me better direction on how to go about tutoring and educating based on specific personalities and learning needs.

You should also consider learning from other resources. For me personally, I like to learn from books and implement ideas that I find to be beneficial into my praxis. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks recognizes the potential freedom that can be achieved in the classroom and how teachers can use their power to push against racism, sexism, and all other forms of oppression. Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire particularly highlights the connection between education and oppression and outlines how oppressed people should direct the development of their own pedagogy. Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit by Marie Battiste draws from Indigenous scholars and reflects on how the hegemonic model for education became Eurocentric.

There are plenty of other awesome books to choose from, and even if you’re familiar with these options already, I always find that I am able to have a deeper understanding of a text once I read it a second or third time.

Do you have other decolonized methods to educating? Let us know in the comments! 


Practical Magic is a new column that curates how-to articles for living your best queer life, edited by Meg Jones Wall.


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Lily Alvarado

Lily Alvarado is a queer Boricua whose heart was born and sings in The Bronx, New York. Her titles include grad student, educator, decolonial feminist, breaker of generational cycles, and lover of reptiles.

Lily has written 18 articles for us.

11 Comments

  1. I love seeing this topic addressed on Autostraddle!

    Another piece that has been important for me (drawn from hooks and others, and maybe especially important as a math teacher) is explicitly making space for students to bring their full emotional selves to class. This includes things like sharing past significant experiences with the topics we’re discussing and regular check-ins for students to share how they’re feeling on a particular day (with flexibility to share more or less depending on what’s comfortable for them).

  2. A very good list! These are additional things I use in my teaching:

    -remember decolonization is not a metaphor (see Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s article which is available as a pdf online)

    -intervene early for students who have a lot of absences, or have a sudden personality change, etc. by intervening I mean talk with them, have on campus and off campuses resources available. also semi-related if a student wants to disclose something make sure they know you’re a mandated reporter and what that means so that they have agency and can decide what to do

    -center queer and trans women/people of color. no Foucault (or other white male canon authors) ever if I can get away with it

    -keep reading about pedagogy. I checked out Textured Teaching last week and it is SUCH a good book about social justice centered teaching.

    -have alternative ways of participating, not just talking out loud in large groups. Not everyone is comfortable in that situation.

  3. I always find it super suspicious how many articles are out there saying how people having nightmares of high school literally for the rest of their lives is “normal” and “healthy”.

  4. Good morning, educators! It’s 6:12 am and I’ve been up for almost an hour, lol!

    I am a school social worker in a 3K-5 in the gentrified Bushwick, Brooklyn. My role is to support students living in temporary housing such as shelter and doubles-up, which means sharing the housing of others without being on the lease.

    I provide counseling and concrete services, and referrals to community supports. I sometimes have close relationships with families and provide unofficial counseling outside in front of the school for adult family members. It looks like long conversations and is filled with my recipe and my support.

    I formed Lunch Clubs to service students whose families don’t want counseling with my recipe of play, mindfulness, supporting growth in executive function, and joy.

    I take groups of about a dozen students to my classroom to eat and then play with the gazillions of fun stuff in my room. I have a play tent, a cardboard playhouse, a tunnel, legos, marble run, yoga mats, bean bags, stuffed animals, dollhouse, books, sensory toys, puzzles, games, bugs in jars, art supplies, magnets, and kinetic sand.

    I let the students have unstructured play with each other for the recess time, which the NYC school system cruelly combined with lunch for a total of 50 minutes so students only have about 15 minutes to play on average. I try to make those minutes as joyful, free, social, safe, and fun as I can.

    Kids today use screens too much for all their needs, and I provide tactile, whole-body play with tons of social interaction.

    It’s not the same as what you describe in your article, but it is meeting a need that can’t be met in classrooms anymore due to the insane expectations on teachers to cover huge curricula and constantly make students complete assessments.

    My Lunch Club students have the chance to play with toys and each other, use their imaginations and their hands and whole bodies, and experience joy and fun in a safe supervised environment. That is a powerful decolonization that I am proud to engage in.

  5. For anyone reading who teaches at the high school or college level, I recommend reading “The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop” by Felicia Rose Chavez. The book is about decolonizing creative writing classes, but I find the material helpful for designing composition and technical writing classes, too. Even my tutoring work has been influenced for the better by her best practices.

    Thank you to Lily for this wonderful article! <3

  6. the BEST magic!!!

    some things that make me feel excited & hopeful –

    Lyla June asked 30 Diné people what they wanted to learn. They made a school organized around the 4 worlds, and it included philosophy & botany, land restoration & permaculture, working with sheep & tanning & weaving, and traditional architecture. She talks about it some in the first 20 mins or so of an episode 22 of a podcast “Untangled” titled “The influence of capitalism on our spirits, with Lyla June”. She talks about how in this school, everyone is working together to accomplish something, in contrast to the individualism in colonial schools.

    . . . everything at https://decolonialfutures.net . . . in a book called Hospicing Modernity (where modernity includes colonialism), by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, she talks about everything a team she was on had to do to make a Canadian university into a place where intergenerational indigenous learning could happen. They had to get people (including kids) out of jail for the event. They had to get the fire marshal to turn off the fire alarms. They had to get elders and kids to and from the campus for sunrise and sunset. and on and on. but they did it. it was helpful to hear about all the undoing they had to do – all these things that had to be undone are not needed anyway, and often harmful.

    and this project – intergenerational remembering how to restore soil and grow food – https://www.trueearth.org/food-forest

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