A passion for history is what brought Chris Ashley to teaching, and it’s what keeps him at it 23 years after he first joined the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB). The educator from Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate and Vocational School (KCI) isn’t shy about the fact that part of his motivation came as a result of how few Black teachers he saw. He remembered having one, in Grade 7, during his time in school.
“The lack of representation of people that look like me in schools” was part of what inspired him, said Ashley. The path wasn’t an easy one. He was met with doubt, and barriers on his path to become a teacher. It only served to push him forward.
“I can do that, I will do that,” Ashley said. “Just watch me.”
For more than 10 years, Ashley has served as one of the staff sponsors of the African Heritage Club, along with his colleague, Carol Pinnock, a French language teacher. The two share a passion for education and what began as an effort to organize annual events celebrating Black History Month, has now evolved to support students and events year-round. For Ashley, this was an important step in recognizing the contributions of Black people throughout the school year and within every subject area.
“This is not a once a year event,” said Ashley. “We’re Black every day. There’s Black history every day.”
Now meeting online weekly, Ashley explained that all students are welcome to join the African Heritage Club.
“From an anthropological viewpoint, the human race originated in Africa,” said Ashley. “So, guess what? Everybody is involved in this club.”
The dedication of the staff and students involved in the African Heritage Club has not gone unnoticed. In August 2020, the group was awarded $5,000 from the African Heritage Initiative – money they have used to create a bursary to support students with the pursuit of their post-secondary pathways.
Although he has spent most of his career helping to change how history is taught at KCI and in the WRDSB, Ashley is now taking his expertise to a wider audience. Working in conjunction with a number of colleagues from across the province and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), he is helping to assemble the Canadian Black Lives Curriculum.
The resource, which will exist as a website in its final form, will provide curriculum connections for every subject area to assist teachers as they include this content in their teaching. Created by experts from each area of study, and with connections to Ontario’s curriculum, teachers can trust these resources and apply them in any of their courses.
“In a sense, we’re pointing them in the right direction,” said Ashley. “We’re connecting the curriculum documents to make it easier…for teachers to put it into their work.”
Doing this work during an unprecedented global pandemic has, no question, been challenging. However, Ashley explained that the journey has “been a very enriching experience.” Having the opportunity to reach out and offer advice and guidance on such a large scale is not one he wanted to miss.
His work, both in his classroom and outside of it, continues to shape his approach to teaching. Ashley’s classroom was never a place where you would receive the traditional, Euro-centric version of history. “You’re going to get more of a people approach, rather than military approach,” he said.
Students often remark how many new, different parts of history they learn as a result of this method. It fills in the gaps and offers new perspectives on events and time periods already covered in many history courses.
“The more you learn, you realize, there is more to learn,” said Ashley.
Ashley’s practice was shaped, in part, by an experience he had while in university. With two Jamaican parents who immigrated to Canada in 1970, he explained that striving for high levels of education was a goal, as much as an expectation. Ashley’s parents didn’t expect him to achieve this alone, though, and were ardent supporters throughout his academic journey – which included his time in post-secondary education.
A professor at his campus made a statement that women and Black people did not have a place in history. Moved to action, he began working as part of a group of students in response to the statement. He understood the need to ensure all students received an accurate, complete view of history that acknowledged and recognized the role and experiences of all people.
Ashley’s drive as a lifelong learner to gain a fuller understanding of history has taken him many places – whether it be continuing to grow his qualifications through courses or post-graduate studies at the University of Waterloo.
“I have made it a point to absorb many different aspects of education to continue enriching myself and my students,” said Ashley.
One course, led by Dr. Christopher Taylor at UW, offered a chance at an extraordinary field trip to Ghana, West Africa. For Ashley, it was more than the opportunity to visit monuments and museums – it was a chance to connect with his own ancestral roots and learn more about his cultural heritage.
“I always had it in the back of my mind, that I would love to go to see the motherland,” said Ashley. “I wanted to touch the land that my ancestors walked on.”
When it’s safe to travel, he encourages his students, and anyone who is interested, not to miss that opportunity.
“You want to go beyond the pages in the textbook,” said Ashley. “Go explore.”
The value of these experiences is more than personal for Ashley. He sees the richness and inspiration they allow him to bring to his teaching, to his classroom and to his students. The sum of his continued learning has helped to reinforce his belief in providing the full version of history to students.
“I have been very blatant about not sugar-coating history,” said Ashley, explaining that it’s important that students understand the true context of what occurred, even though some of it may be startling to learn. He is always careful to prepare his students, and set the stage to discuss these types of subjects.
“These are some heavy topics,” said Ashley. His aim is to create a brave space for these discussions in his classroom, rather than having students encounter them later in life.
The focus, for Ashley, remains on equipping students to succeed during their time at KCI and beyond. His efforts are working, as can be clearly seen looking at the students who are members of the African Heritage Club. They shifted their efforts online to celebrate Black History Month, using their Instagram page to connect with audiences across the WRDSB.
“They’ve developed and found their voices,” said Ashley. “I feel really inspired by that.”
This feeling helps Ashley remain focused on his work and his purpose as an educator.
“I have a job to educate, and I will educate young and old. I’m going to keep doing this until I have to retire,” he said with a laugh.