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Learning Moral Courage with Professor Irshad Manji

We live in divided times, and our world is more polarized than ever before. While social media platforms today allow us to communicate instantaneously and effortlessly anywhere in the world, they have engendered a new crisis, ironically, of communication—the effects of which we could not possibly have anticipated.

At present, the prospect of communicating across divides—political or otherwise—seems an impossible task. As our lives become increasingly isolated and insular, we feel more distant from our friends and neighbours, and from the world at large. The American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offered a poignant assessment of our contemporary social affliction in a recent article for The Atlantic: “We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.” Yet, recent data published by Gallup reveals that our society was more cooperative, with intergroup relations perceived nearly twice as positively, only ten short years ago. So, how can start to bridge our modern divide and begin to heal collectively, as a society?

Professor Irshad Manji (University of Oxford) proposes a simple, yet satisfying, answer: by learning to communicate with each other—again.

Last year, Ridley College joined the growing ‘moral courage community’ by partnering with Professor Manji’s non-profit Moral Courage College (MCC), an organization that empowers and works with institutions, including K-12 schools like ours, to engage in honest diversity work rather than simply rushing to adopt the trendiest framework out of fear of appearing unresponsive. In September 2021, we invited Professor Manji to host a series of virtual workshops with students, faculty, and staff to teach us about moral courage and set out on a path together, as an institution, to develop the skills to engage constructively about contentious issues without sowing division.

Of course, Professor Manji is no stranger to Ridley College. As many in our community will no doubt recall, she was the inaugural speaker in our MGI-Gordon Distinguished Speaker in November 2005 during the tour for her controversial second book, The Trouble with Islam Today, which had been released the previous year. Seeking a dynamic speaker who could spark discussion and debate around big ideas, she fit the bill perfectly and, as with her latest visit, she certainly did not disappoint. This year, however, Professor Manji returned to Ridley in a new capacity—as our first Global Leader in Residence, sharing her wealth of knowledge and insight with our students, parents, faculty, and staff, as well as some of the intimate biographical details that inspired her to establish the Moral Courage Project.

Before joining the University of Oxford’s Initiative for Global Ethics and Human Rights, Professor Manji served for many years as a professor of leadership at New York University. Prior to that, she held a number of positions under Canadian New Democratic politicians—as a legislative aide, press secretary, and speechwriter—while somehow also finding time to moonlight as the host of a television program about queer issues and author multiple New York Times bestselling books, most recently, Don’t Label Me: How to Do Diversity Without Inflaming the Culture Wars, published by St. Martin’s Press in 2019.

But despite her many accolades—including Oprah Winfrey’s Chutzpah Award for “audacity, nerve, boldness, and conviction”—Professor Manji remains completely authentic, wholly unpretentious, and down to earth. She moves fluidly between registers from session to session, deftly navigating a spectrum of big—and often controversial—topics in a way that is engaging and memorable, masterfully modulating her message to command the full attention of her audience, whether comprised of Kindergarteners, teens, or adults over 50.

Stepping out onto the Mandeville Theatre stage in person for the first time in nearly two decades, she addresses the packed crowd on Monday morning with humility and grace—virtues she credits to having her proverbial butt kicked in the early years of her career. “I wanted to change the world without recognizing that I had to change myself,” she reflects. 

“Back then, the voice in my head told me if you don’t fight back, your opponents won’t know that you mean business. […] But this was the biggest mistake I ever could have made because it made my critics more rigid in their thinking and made my sympathizers question my sincerity.”   

But this change did not come easily. After nearly a decade of “digesting toxic energy,” experiencing clinical depression and panic attacks, she collapsed just moments before the biggest interview of her life. Then, her doctors presented her with an ultimatum—either she quit her book tour, or they quit as her doctors. “It was the hardest decision I ever had to make,” she explains. “My body was trying to tell me something, but I was not listening. Then my body showed me who was boss.” 

Today, she is no longer the incendiary, confrontational figure who “used to walk on stage with her metaphorical fists clenched, ready to punch back at her opponents,” but instead, strives to be a thoughtful and respectful adversary to those with whom she disagrees—a power she claims is entirely within reach for those who are willing to “speak truth to the power of their own egos.”

Drawing on the principles of neuroscience and positive psychology, she started the MCC to help educators and leaders communicate and develop relationships across divides by learning to modulate their emotions in situations where they are forced to confront difficult, often emotionally charged, issues. This instinct to fear and lash out when we are confronted with views different from our own, and the related impulse to subdue this perceived threat by labelling others, is a fundamental part of how we are wired, she explains. However, letting our emotions—primarily fear—guide us tends to produce only fast, often temporary, fixes that only deepen existing tensions and polarization.

 “Instinctually, we are always scanning for threats. When we perceive them, the primitive region of our brains—the amygdala [part of the Limbic System]—starts to take over. […] When we disagree on subjects that we feel passionately about, our brains make us believe others are attacking us. We perceive disagreement as an existential threat. But in reality, we are only experiencing mere discomfort.” 

In those decisive moments, we are forced to make a choice. We can let fear overtake us and become defensive—usually at the expense of being heard by our opponents—or we can choose to listen, which requires us to acknowledge and respect the singularity of the individual we are facing, despite our initial instinct to reduce them to a set of labels.   

“There is no shame in categorizing,” she continues.  

“The trouble with labels is not that they exist, but the baggage that goes with them. But we must remember that we are also owners of a more evolved part of the brain. Rather than letting emotion bully cognition out of the picture, we must find a way to let cognition and emotion peacefully co-exist.” 

A problem arises only when we let our assumptions—and our emotions—take the wheel and shut down rather than engaging with our opponents as equals. In these moments, we deprive others of their humanity by reducing them to caricatures rather than engaging with them as our equals with complex thoughts, opinions, and emotions, at which point, Manji emphasizes, “social justice becomes anti-social, and justice is reduced to ‘just us.’”

True justice, she counters, manifests when we recognize that individuals who belong to the same demographic group are not identical, and we are impelled to create space for that individual to express their unique point of view.

“I am a Muslim. But does that mean that I think like every other Muslim? Not all Muslims think alike. And if that’s true of marginalized groups, it is also true of the so-called straight white guy. […] If you’re going to [make the conscious effort to] know me, [rather than] of me, you are going to engage with me, not make assumptions based on this or that label.” 

So, how do we outsmart the limbic system which causes us to react this way? The answer might surprise you: take a deep breath. “We must give our bodies the time and oxygen to transition from this hyperemotional ego brain to the more evolved pre-frontal cortex […] where cognition and emotion can cohabit and coexist,” Manji claims. This is not to say we need to banish emotion. “Good luck trying,” she scoffs. Rather, it is coming to the realization that our biggest obstacle is not the other person, but our own egos.

“By lowering our emotional defences, we are using our power wisely to motivate the other to follow in our footsteps,” she explains. But unfortunately—in the age of cancel culture and reactive social media platforms—many social justice advocates and educators have lost sight of this noble ambition. 

As governments, businesses, non-profits, and other institutions around the world continue to direct considerable effort and resources to creating or revising DEI or JEDI mandates, Manji emphasizes the need for creating organizational cultures that respect and encourage a diversity of viewpoints, which she suggests is both a cornerstone of our pluralistic, liberal-democratic way of life. Recent events show, however, that this way of life is increasingly threatened by a creeping homogeneity driven by a fear of appearing ineffective, behind the times, or worse—prejudiced.

“There is a tendency to frame free speech as antithetical to social justice and social justice as contradictory to free speech. You can have one or the other but not both. I’m calling B.S. on that. You must have both.” 

In response to changing tides, administrators in K-12 and higher education have deployed various “inclusion efforts” and “inclusion training” programs over the last decade which Manji claims have only “inflamed the culture wars” and fuelled an “us versus them” mentality—usually in service of “speaking truth to power,” a slogan that Manji partially takes issue with.

This statement, and the term “moral courage,” she explains, are usually attributed to the same source—former U.S. Senator, Robert F. Kennedy, who was an advocate for the civil rights movement and fought against corruption before his tragic death in 1968. When we are called upon to “speak truth to power,” we are being asked to take a moral stance on an issue and stand up for what is right, even when it is inconvenient or unpopular, or our position might be perceived as unnecessarily critical or offensive. But in our current climate of “us against them,” Manji claims, “the way we speak truth to power matters as much as the truth we think we are speaking.” 

“Speaking truth to power is not enough. We must appreciate that we have power. Moral courage today has to mean speaking truth to the power of your own ego, even as you are speaking truth to powers external to you.” 

One of the key tactics deployed by the civil rights movement that ought to be leveraged by today’s educators and social justice advocates is the capacity to educate one’s emotions. She explains: 

“During the civil rights movement, facilitators of activism taught young people to educate [their] emotions. If you simply lash out, you are not going to make your point in a way that motivates the other to hear you. These moments spent so much time building resilience and antifragility. We have lost that today.” 

Doing moral courage work today, therefore, requires learning to master our emotional defences so we can productively communicate and develop relationships across divides. Doing so, she explains, permits us to overcome our all-pervasive us versus them mindset so that we can begin to work co-operatively to build cultures—organizational and otherwise—that reject shaming and labelling and champion free speech, diversity of expression, and diversity of viewpoint. For educators, this means rejecting fear and putting these skills to work in their classrooms to create and cultivate respectful spaces for open dialogue and debate. But it also means teaching students to respect the plurality of forces at work in each of us and begin to view themselves and others as more than individuals or a set of labels—but as “plurals.” Only plural, Manji explains, “accurately captures all sentient beings [and suggests] that there is so much more to any of us than meets the eye.”

This responsibility will not fall squarely upon faculty members. In the fall, Professor Manji will be virtually leading an exciting new club, “We the Plurals,” which is open to all students between Grades 7 and 12 who are 100 percent committed to the cause. The club will teach students to recognize themselves and each other as plurals, teach them to educate their emotions and equip them “with the skills to engage across lines of difference, disagreement and mutual disgust”—skills that Professor Manji notes are increasingly in demand in our global society.

Members of our faculty and staff will also enroll in Professor Manji’s Moral Courage Mentor Certification Program in the coming months to become certified Moral Courage Mentors. This program, which she bills as a “Moral Courage boot camp,” teaches participants to “finesse [their] moral courage skills, boost [their] confidence to teach those skills to younger people, and meet fellow aspiring Mentors.” At the conclusion of the course, all participants will receive a certificate issued by the University of Oxford and be equipped with the skills to teach Moral Courage both in the classroom and in communities beyond. We encourage parents and students to consider enrolling in the course as well to help us extend our Moral Courage teachings beyond the classroom.

As we continue to advocate for and define our individual approach to cultivating justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion on campus, we remain committed to empowering our diverse community of learners, fostering global competency, and providing a safe space for healthy debate on global issues. Above all, Ridley College is a place where everyone belongs and finds a home. Equally, we reject the chilling modern tendency to respond to intolerance with new, sometimes greater, forms of intolerance.

We are so grateful to Professor Manji for her kindness and profound insight, and we look forward to working with her in the future as we continue to integrate the teachings of Moral Courage into the essential foundation of our learning community.

Gratitude During COVID

By Vanessa Ferrante ’21

The past year has certainly brought its share of challenges—but it’s also started important conversations about managing stress, cultivating resilience and finding hope. For TigerPost contributor, Vanessa Ferrante ’21, practicing gratitude has been a key part of her stress-busting strategy during the pandemic. Read on to learn how simply being thankful can help you.

There have been a lot of things to stress about during this pandemic. The risk of becoming sick, having to quarantine, learning virtually, not going out with friends, and more. This has amplified our anxiety and sense of helplessness making us lose sleep, hope and serenity. Being in a constant state of stress is not good for our minds, bodies, and those around us. One ‘stress-buster’ that I find especially helpful is expressing gratitude.

stressed student with laptop

Being in a constant state of stress is not good for our minds, bodies, and those around us.

Gratitude is a state of mind where you focus on the present and your blessings in life. When we both express and receive gratitude, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two most crucial neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions. You try to forget the negatives and focus instead on the silver linings that make you happy. Gratitude is easy in good times, however, when times are tough, it is not always that simple. It is important to know that there are always things to be grateful for in your life. By allowing yourself to turn to gratitude, you can find hope amidst despair.

signs posted on fence that read Thank You Ridley and Dean's House with a heart

Gratitude can always be learned and, if practiced properly, you will reap the benefits that come with it. Perhaps during COVID you are feeling sadness, grief, anxiety, stress, fear, and even anger. Having emotional balance helps us to attain stabilization between our mind and body. When this happens, remember that you are feeling these emotions for a reason. Acknowledge them and allow yourself to experience them while also knowing when it’s time to feel happy.

During these unprecedented times, it is obvious that we should be grateful to essential workers, such as food suppliers, healthcare workers, delivery people, and first responders. They have all taken on risks for the benefit of everyone else. How can we repay them? We do this by showing gratitude and paying kindness forward. Although it is extremely important to be grateful for essential workers, we should express appreciation for all those who make our life easier and happier.

Lower School students sitting in a circle in a classroom

One might ask, “how do I do that?” There are many ways in which one can practice gratitude. Perhaps you can put your gratitude on paper: write down the names of three people or things in your life for which you are grateful and why. Or maybe you can tell someone you appreciate them. I know I appreciate the teachers and staff at Ridley who are working overtime to find creative ways to teach us virtually and keep us safe. How about challenging yourself to stop complaining for 21 days? Break the habit of concentrating on the bad in your life. Showing gratitude feels good and encourages kindness in those who receive gratitude, and in anyone who witnesses a kind act.

four Ridley friends smiling with their arms around each other

It is important to know that there are always things to be grateful for in your life.

When you live your life this way, it is contagious—just like the COVID virus. Except, you want this virus in your life! When you do something kind, those around you will pick up on it and want to pay it forward. One action has the potential to spark a chain reaction. There are lots of ways you can practice gratitude as the world deals with times of uncertainly. What has become crystal clear is that only through our efforts, together, can we create a better future for us all.

This article was published in the Winter 2021 issue of TigerPost magazine.

The Digital Generation: How Technology has Impacted Student Life

It’s now an archaic image. One lonely computer set at the back of the classroom, equipped with Netscape Navigator and Compton’s Encyclopedia. The computer monitor, off-beige in colour, was roughly one foot in depth and weighed approximately 40 pounds. Access to this new classroom technology was, in most schools, given as a reward for good behavior. This was the role of the computer in the classroom in the early 1990s­—not as a functional educational tool, but as a break from class. In fact, at the time, only 20-30 million people worldwide actually owned computers or had access to the internet. Today, there are billions who have access, with the internet being readily available in most of our pockets. Ultimately, digital devices have made their way into the classroom and are an integral part of our day-to-day. 

Twenty years is not a long time when considering the entire chronicle of the history of technology in education. However, in just two decades, technology has brought vast improvements into the classroom, assisting in the way lessons are taught, how information is stored and how students are able to collaborate. There is an ever-evolving relationship between technology and culture, and with the advent of the internet, emails and even laptop integration in schools and workplaces, we have the ability to communicate with ease and speed. At Ridley, the influence of technology has greatly impacted the role of the teacher, who is committed to evolve and grow with each new technological advance.  

We are now more connected, have more information and have even greater technological advances in the classroom than ever before. 

Connection:

We have entered an era where we are connected to everyone around us through the click of a button and at top speed. Through a simple email or text, we are linked with someone on the other side of the world. Email is used to connect students with teachers, teachers with parents and parents with the school community. Mr. Geoff Park ’80 (Department of Social Sciences) remarked on the advantages of this connection: the ease to send and receive work, to remind people about any changes taking place, to arrange to meet students for tutorials, and to send useful links, to name a few. 

Students, especially boarders, can easily stay in touch with their families near or far—a vast difference between the communiqué of 20 years ago. “When I started in 1990”, recalls Ms. Karen Oude-Reimerink (Department of Science), “most boarding students communicated with their parents once a week via a pay phone in residence. Advisors communicated once every six weeks or so (with effort grades) via a phone call. Individual teachers rarely communicated directly with parents – all communication was through the Head of House or the Advisor.”

Although we are more connected than ever before, the drawback is the risk of feeling disconnected and isolated. The fast pace of life that has taken hold of society can sometimes prove to be more of a hinderance than a freeing agent. With the convenience of digital interaction through social media and email, traditional methods of keeping in touch are falling by the wayside, thus creating a dichotomy between the convenience of digital connectivity and the closeness of our relationships. 

Ridley is cognizant of this challenge and has responded to it by implementing a number of measures to promote interpersonal communication. Devices are not permitted in the Great Hall in an attempt to encourage social interaction during meal times, students participate in daily physical activity and there are ongoing organized events and activities in classrooms and the Houses, which allow for students to nurture their social and emotional skills. 

Regardless of the negative effects of online connection, we live in a digital world and the use of technology has become an essential life skill. 

Access to Information:

With the internet being omnipresent in the classroom, there is a difference in the way students research and learn. According to Mr. Chris Gordon (Department of Classical and International Languages), “the world is literally at your fingertips; we can easily learn about the world around us and are able to collate information that, even 20 years ago, would have been much more difficult to find.” 

By having access to a vast trove of information, we obtain a richer understanding of the subjects at hand and students are granted the opportunity to examine a wider variety of perspectives on any given topic. Mr. Geoff Park ’80 supports this view, saying “we can find articles about any issues or topics from around the world. When I used to teach geopolitics and discuss Israel, I could access The Jerusalem Post and Al Jazeera, and news sources of different biases from around the world. It enabled a broader perspective.” 

“Technology allows the classroom walls to extend far beyond the confines of a physical space.” – Mr. Chris Gordon. 

The variety in which materials can be shared is useful in relaying specialized information “The access to online videos and simulations is wonderful in clarifying scientific concepts,” says Ms. Karen Oude-Reimerink. This helps to inform and assist students in forming their own unique perspectives. 

Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, has weighed in on the impact technology is having in the classroom and emphasizes it’s value. “We’ve moved from 100 percent of learning materials coming from an out-of-date textbook, to interactive materials and students in remote locations having access to high-quality resources,” Culatta notes. “Technology has enabled learners to explore and learn on their own in ways that were harder to do when the resources all had to come from the teacher. It’s very powerful.”

The challenge that comes into play is evaluating if the information at hand is actually a credible source. How can a student tell if content is written by a competent authority? Mr. Gordon notes, “the ability to analyze and evaluate the source of information is now so much more important, and this can be a struggle.” Students need to learn how to be thoughtful consumers of digital content and discriminate the reliability and accuracy of this. 

This has been one of the new research skills stemming from our digital world. Students are now taught what to look for during the research phase of a project and are educated on both primary and secondary types of research. Through the McLaughlin Resource Centre and the Matthews Library, students have access to countless resources and can connect to the infinite information found on the web. Through required citing, faculty members are able to confirm that students are searching for evidence in the right place and getting the most out of their online practices. 

Technology:

Gone are the days of the computer lab or the one-computer classroom. The growth of technology in schools has influenced the way teachers must approach their lesson plans.

“Information technology is a great asset to education, but it is equally important that the teacher relays not only curricular content, but also demonstrates how to best navigate their systems, so that students will be more successful with the course at hand,” says Mr. Gordon. 

Mac Integration at Ridley brought about the most significant change in how students absorb the topics at hand, the way they conduct their educational activities and the way they communicate with one another. The Mac Integration Programme began at Ridley in 1998, where all faculty received school-owned laptops. Upper School students followed shortly after, with the laptop rollout beginning in September 1999. Over the years, classrooms went from having dial-up and Ethernet to wireless connections.  

“Mac Integration and the use of smart projectors has enabled us to create bespoke lessons and class note sets for each course and to provide students with a collection of materials for their learning support that is much more robust than ever before,” exclaims Ms. Rachael Scott (Department of Mathematics).

Fifteen years ago, classrooms were first outfitted with Smartboards — the go-to technology for interactive learning. Today, all classrooms are housed with Epson Smart Projectors that eliminate the need for a dedicated white board. Currently, Ridley is in the midst of adding Apple TV’s to all classrooms, allowing teachers and students a seamless way to collaboratively share and display information from their laptops without the need for cables.

Another great advance in technology and communication has been the implementation of TigerNet. First introduced in 2005, TigerNet is Ridley’s student information system that gives teachers the ability to record grades and add comments, share course assignments, tests and class notes, assign deadlines, receive assignments through a Dropbox feature and much more. Since the inception of TigerNet, the sharing and transparency of information across all roles have been game-changing. 

With the implementation of new technology, there is always the possibility for some challenges to come into play. One of the biggest challenges at hand is the opportunity for distraction. “Even the most dynamic lesson is hard pressed to compete with an online conversation with a friend, a game, a movie etc. and while teachers try to stay on top of that, if you need your laptop for that lesson, and you can’t see all the screens at once, it is impossible to prevent misuse” says Mr. Park. There have always been avenues for distraction throughout the history of teaching, the laptop is just another vehicle for this. Adaptability, innovation and an open mind is key to successfully integrating technology into the classroom and maintaining a strong student-teacher relationship.

“My teaching continues to grow and change, as does that of my colleagues,” says Ms. Scott. “We are constantly learning different ways of introducing material to students and ways of helping the students to develop learning skills that will enable them to learn anything of interest to them in the future. This is the exciting change.”

Technology is not meant to replace the teacher but rather, creates a more flexible learning environment that breeds innovation and enriches the classroom, resulting in a more collaborative learning milieu. Today’s students have never experienced a world without the infusion of technology. By embracing this new digital landscape, we are preparing students for the globally-connected world of tomorrow.