British Columbia·Video

B.C. teacher's backpack project aims to help students fight inequality and racism

Eugene Reimer Middle School teacher Nerlap Sidhu came up with a class project to teach her Grade 6 class about what it means to be inclusive and anti-racist.

Abbotsford middle school students created personalized packs filled with classwork on anti-racism themes

Nerlap Sidhu teaches her Grade 6 class about anti-racism, equity, equality, and inclusion outside of Eugene Reimer Middle School in Abbotsford, B.C., on Nov. 26, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

When Abbotsford, B.C., teacher Nerlap Sidhu met her Grade 6 social studies students at the beginning of term last September, she knew right away she wanted to do a class project with them about anti-racism and inclusion.

Last spring, Black Lives Matter protests had ramped up in the U.S. following the killing of George Floyd during an arrest in Minneapolis.

Conversations about police violence and racism were also heating up in Canada. 

Having just completed a master's degree in equity studies in education, and seeing that almost all her students come from diverse backgrounds, Sidhu felt lessons about equity and inclusion would be timely. 

She was also motivated by her own personal experience with racism.

"I got the things where people say, 'Where are you from? No, really, where are you from?'" Sidhu said.

"And I'm born in Canada. So it did hurt and it made me feel awful.

"I don't want other kids — regardless of their background — to ever have to feel that way."

Nerlap Sidhu hands one of her Grade 6 students their backpack project. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

What's in the backpack?

So, Sidhu came up with a class project called the "equity backpack."

Throughout the term, her students created personalized backpacks filled with artwork, journal entries and other classwork centred around themes such as equity, equality, inclusion, respect, identity and anti-racism.

WATCH | Take a look inside an "equity backpack":

What's in an "equity" backpack?

2 years ago
Duration 0:43
Grade 6 student Tanvir Singh shows some of the items he made for his backpack.

For one recent assignment, students learned how to combat racial stereotypes by drawing three Band-Aids, each coloured in with a different skin tone. 

On one side of the artwork, they listed "negative words." On the other side, they listed "positive words" to counter them.

"Everybody has different skin tones and that's unique about them because that makes them them," said student Sara Rotar, reflecting on what she learned.

"We should celebrate our differences."

To hear about Nerlap Sidhu's motivation behind the "equity backpack," tap the audio link below:

One of her classmates, Tanvir Singh, says if he ever witnesses someone being targeted for their race, he would intervene even if "it would be a bit scary."

"You're just somebody on the side and … sometimes you just don't want to get into things," he said. 

"But sometimes it's actually the good thing to do it. It's the right thing to do."

To hear Sara Rotar and Tanvir Singh reflect on what they've learned, tap on the audio link below:

Buy-in from other school districts

Sidhu hopes the backpack project will equip her students with the tools needed to become social justice leaders in their community.

She also hopes other school districts in B.C. will replicate the project — particularly schools that don't already have a culturally diverse staff and student body. 

Her principal, Ian Levings, says it's especially important for white educators such as himself to reflect on their own white privilege and support anti-racism teaching initiatives. 

"Only now we are starting to address these topics, I think, in certain pockets," he said. 

"It's easier at our school where we have a very multicultural school, but not every classroom is like that."

To hear a parent speak about the positive impact of the equity backpack project, tap on the audio link below:

Tanvir Singh, 11, wears the backpack he made in an inclusion and anti-racism class on Nov. 26, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)