Literacy educator Tanya Manning-Lewis is working for those on the margins

Tanya Manning-Lewis is entering her twentieth year as an English as a second language (ESL) and literacy educator. Born and raised in Boston, Jamaica, she grew up speaking both Jamaican Creole and English at home, and studied in English at school.

Tanya completed her Ph.D. in Educational Studies: Language and Literacy at UVic in 2016 under the supervision of Dr. Kathy Sanford and taught as a sessional instructor in the Department of Educational Curriculum and Instruction at UVic for four years. In May 2022, she was awarded the UVic Faculty of Education Diversity in Education Excellence Award for her work delivering anti-racism training for our teacher candidates. Recently, she took a position as an assistant teaching professor in the School of Education at Thompson Rivers University. We caught up with her via video chat:

How would you describe your work?

I focus on diversity, equity, diversity and inclusion, bilingualism in education, masculinity and marginality and the Caribbean identity. It seems like it's a wide span, but often they all come together.

As a teacher in Jamaica, I have started many initiatives in my school that included meeting diverse students’ needs. One of these initiatives included a community project with grade 7-12 students that had them going out into communities working with the elderly, and with folks who were homeless. I had them involved just so they could build empathy.

As it relates to equity in school, I've always felt that we are not serving all of our student populations. We have this kind of one-size-fits-all way of teaching and doing everything, as such, students who identified as having any particular need that fall outside of that mainstream are not catered to in meaningful ways. 

In a way, I've always been advocating for those whom I feel are on the margins and are not being given equal opportunities to succeed, whether it be the students that I work with or folks that I work with in the community. I always felt like we need to invest time in people if we're seeking to have a better world. That is something that I feel like we're not doing enough of.

How did you become interested in this work?

At age nine, I was the first recipient of a community award program in my hometown. Being a recipient, I thought it was important to give back in some way. So, I told them I wanted to be a part of the youth group and they were like, ‘you're way too young to start’. But eventually, they let me join.

Since then, I have been involved in community work. My grandma and my aunt were also heavily involved and influenced my participation. So, it stems from that, but it's also stemming from being in the community from a young age and seeing how much work others put into helping community members – especially the elderly and the young of my community – and seeing how it impacted their lives significantly. All through my K-12 teaching years, I never gave up my community work. Even though I love teaching, I feel like my community work is the essence of who I am.

As it relates to how I became interested in language research, as an ESL teacher, I am concerned that we live in a society (Jamaica) where students speak one language and we teach in a different language. 94% of the Jamaican population speaks Jamaican Creole, but the only language of instruction in schools is English. We find a number of students who struggle in making that transition, but there is no accommodation in the system for that. We tend to focus quite a bit on students’ low performance in English language learning without addressing the issue of having them learn in one language but speak in a language that's not included in school. For me, these issues around bilingualism are important. I wanted to bring that to the attention of the Ministry of Education. I wanted this to be something that we have more conversations about as educators and policymakers. I thought it would be ideal to work with populations who are usually targeted in the sense of being seen as ‘at-risk’ or ‘low performers’, to bring their stories to the fore as it relates to language learning in school. That’s why I became interested in it.

So much of a sense of identity and community is tied up in language. Identity is such a huge part of the work that I do, because telling someone to leave a significant part of themselves at home before coming to school is just a devastating way of teaching and learning. I'm surprised that, as a society, we haven’t recognized that yet. That's not how things work. You can't come in and say: ‘Oh, today, I'm not this person’ or ‘I don't speak this language today’.

What was your experience like at UVic?

I had a really great experience at UVic. I felt like I was thriving all the time. I can't say enough about my supervisor Kathy Sanford. She saw me as a person first, and then as a student. She saw me as someone who was capable. She saw me as someone who had much to offer the faculty and the department. She had that gentle way of making me feel like I was an equal partner in the whole process of what I was doing. She was not dictating, and that allowed me to be myself, to be comfortable in the work that I was doing.

Can you tell us about the Courageous Conversations project?

Part of the recognition I got at UVic for my equity work and research is around the Courageous Conversations Equity Labs project, where I worked with Kerry Robertson to create the first anti-racism initiative in the Department of Educational Curriculum and Instruction. We led teacher candidates through real-life situations and scenarios to learn how to create more equitable classrooms and how to deal with diversity and inclusion in their schools and classrooms.

It's so important that we prepare teacher candidates to demonstrate equity in their work. The equity labs were opportunities for them to see what that really looks like, to participate and to ask hard questions. We also had opportunities to start what we call ‘courageous conversations’. The idea behind courageous conversations is that we would talk about things that make us uncomfortable in a space where no one feels judged.

I've found these to be very successful in the sense that folks have opportunities to be true to themselves and recognize what their shortcomings are, what their strengths are, and how they can be real allies in this work. Then folks who have felt marginalized have opportunities to really share what their experiences have been at UVic. For me, that was one of the greatest accomplishments of the whole project, just having those real conversations.

Why do you feel your work is important to society at large?

I think my work is very important, given my focus on EDI issues. For instance, when I did research with inner-city youths in Jamaica, I went into a school that was ranked as one of the lowest-performing schools in the country. I went there because I wanted to understand what those students' learning experiences were like. I chose to research boys because they were, in many ways, demonized as being ‘problematic’ and uninterested in learning. You see it in the media. It's a lot of conversations around their lack of performance but no real conversations with the students or the teachers themselves about what's actually happening in the school. I wanted to have an understanding of that and provide a platform for those students to tell their stories.  I chose multiliterate forms (graphic novels) for them to do so.

One of the boys' graphic novels was entitled ‘Shades of Truth’. He had this page where it was behind a metal bar kind of thing and it said, “Do you see me?” He felt like what many people chose to see were inner-city youths that they cast as problematic or at risk or violent, but didn't really see who they were as intelligent, kind and caring human beings who were doing their best to contribute to a society that does not acknowledge them as such. I came away from that project thinking to myself that we do such a disservice to our students and to our communities when we create a narrative that really demonizes them and not seeing people first.

As such, I thought it was important to share these stories. I organized to have folks from the Ministry and admin come in for a round table to see the graphic novels. I remember sitting in one of those sessions with ministry folks, where we passed around the graphic novels and there was absolute silence. One ministry personnel turned to me and said, “I did not know kids were having these experiences in school, I'm shocked that they are having these experiences”. It had such an impact on them.

How can educators and curriculum developers do this work?

When it comes to how we can do this work, it's about allowing for diverse approaches to teaching and learning. Often, we go into classrooms with one way of doing things and we continue with that one particular way. We tend to have that very direct way of getting through teaching and learning, especially when it comes to language education, I feel like that's the opportunity for us to diversify our work in many ways for us to diversify our approaches to teaching and learning. 

For example, the teachers whom I interact with would often report that their students struggle with writing and the development of their creative writing or using storytelling tools. If you ask, they'll say these are the things they struggled with. Yet, through graphic novels, these very same students were able to create an entire story from start to finish to include all those things that someone might say they struggle with. They're able to generate their setting. They were able to develop the characters based on themselves and their experiences. The point I'm making is that they were able to do all the same things that someone might report that they were not able to do.

Too many of our students are sitting and learning without really participating. When I worked with those students, they used their phones to take photographs, recorded themselves, wrote and drew. There were so many ways in which learning was taking place in a holistic and authentic way. I saw how those students responded to what they were doing and their level of enthusiasm. This was their story to tell. This was their work. This is something that they could be proud of. That is a reminder to curriculum developers that we have to provide those opportunities for students to participate in their learning in meaningful ways.

If we want real change, we have to commit to the work we're doing. We have to do the real work, we have to show our students the importance of what they do, especially our teacher candidates. When I was working with teacher candidates, the importance of what they are going out to do impacts the effects they will have on others.

What does success in this area look like to you?

Success looks like authentic participation from students in their learning. If we have students leading initiatives, being inquisitive and curious, then that is a success.  It should not be measured by the sort of outcomes that we have in education where you have to be getting a particular kind of grade. I don't want to see success in that way.

I want to see students who are feeling that they can be their authentic selves in a classroom and that they can bring pieces of themselves into their learning so that they can actively participate in what they're doing. They can leave a space feeling like, ‘yes, I did something that mattered today or said something that mattered today, and it's not just about the kind of grade that I walk away with’.


Here are some images from the graphic novels created by Tanya's students in Jamaica: 

Inner-city youth voices challenging false narratives

Inner-city youth breaking free of stereotypes

Migrant youth experiences

Women of colour challenging diversity fallacy in higher education