Writing project aims to decolonize classrooms

May 22, 2018 | Society

Child and Youth Care students and graduates tackle tough topics head-on


Child and Youth Care faculty members Dr. Ahna Berikoff and Kelsey Reed who are leading the innovative writing project with several of the program’s students and graduates.

Ahna Berikoff was walking out of her classroom when she saw a group of her students huddled together in the midst of an animated conversation. When she approached, they welcomed her into the discussion centred on their complex identities and experiences as Muslim women. Two hours later, Ahna walked away inspired by the students’ knowledge, enthusiasm and perspectives.

“Our students are multilayered and multidimensional, but we often don’t see that reflected in our curriculum,” says the assistant professor in the Bachelor of Child and Youth Care program. “There is such beautiful difference among our students, but often we still teach out of a homogenous place. I think we miss the mark when we’re not inviting our students to share what they know.”

But breaking down the structures on which a colonial style of education is built isn’t necessarily easy to do in the two or three times a class meets in a week. So Ahna set out to create a forum where students could more deeply explore and honour their experiences related to identity – a place where they could unpack the single stories of gender, “race” and racism, culture, religion, and mental health. The result was a series of a dozen online writing groups that are a part of project called Write On, where students discuss and share using everything from personal writing and dialogue to drawings and poetry.

“It’s very dynamic and creative,” says Ahna. “Students challenge each other, they unpack ideas, and, in a sense, it can flip their perspectives and learning.”

That flip, she says, shines the light on ideas and perspectives being silenced, or stigma and stereotypes being upheld – wittingly or unwittingly. It also impacts the student/educator relationship.
“Students become educators and we, the educators, become students. Students step outside of the place where they contain their experiences and feelings – in this forum those things are all met, received and encouraged. That elevates both their voices and their identities, and it challenges the traditional classroom structure.”


I’ve been teaching for most of my adult life, and my experiences with students of all ages have taught me the best of what learning can be—the fun, the value of interrelationships and the importance of teaching out of care.

University classrooms are a bit different from the Waldorf schools and Russian language classrooms I taught in early in my career, of course, but there is still continuity. The first time I walked into a square university classroom with rows of chairs and tables immediately got me thinking about how we could reimagine the environment to foster creativity, accommodate different kinds of learning and encourage collaboration. Read more of Ahna's story on Facebook.


The act of decolonizing classrooms and challenging traditional educational norms is also empowering, says Kyla Langley, a Child and Youth Care student who participated in two of the online writing groups.

“As writers, we are treated as experts on our own stories,” she says. “Writing about myself, my identity and my experiences gave me the opportunity to teach my instructors and my fellow students – and there is a certain amount of power in that.”

Ahna has now partnered with fellow Child and Youth Care faculty member Kelsey Reed to continue the project and compile the students’ work in a book. Made up of chapters that overlap and intersect, the book will share identities and experiences in a way that they hope will inform both faculty members and future students – at MacEwan and beyond.

“This writing allows students to see themselves in our curriculum and reduce stigma in our classrooms. And they can also help advance thinking out in the field where our graduates are supporting youth and families,” says Ahna. “It’s about moving forward into a more thoughtful, critical place where we more fully understand the inequities people we study and work with face.” 

Ahna's presentation Decolonization: Loosening the Colonial Grip on Pedagogy and Methodology is one of several that will be offered by MacEwan's Child and Youth Care faculty members at the 2018 Child and Youth Care Association of Alberta Provincial Conference. The conference runs from May 30 to June 1 at MacEwan University. 

Get MacEwan University news delivered to your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter