Social justice isn’t “new” ...

By Pauline Théoret and Bob McGahey
February 15, 2013
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A large part of what makes us Canadians is learned in our public schools. Author Robert Fulgham reminded us that the ideas of social justice begin in kindergarten and that those “rules” may be applied to even the most complex social issues. As children are exposed to world events through multiple forms of media, it is even more important for teachers to help them think critically about what they are experiencing. Google, Facebook, Twitter and other sources are inundating today’s youth with material to which they might not have been exposed just 20 years ago.

Teachers help students to process the events of a globalized world and to find constructive ways to have their voice heard. Critics may be quick to point out that this could lead to the politicizing of children - that teachers may use world events to inculcate a specific point of view before children are prepared to think on their own. But since there have been schools, teachers have used their expertise to ensure that curriculum is grade appropriate. Helping students to process national or international events is no different.

Recently, for example, a high school class trip to watch the presidential election in the United States was cancelled due to complaints that students were spending their time with the Democrats’ campaign. This, according to the critics, was somehow indoctrinating them as Democrats. The bigger picture of having an opportunity to view a national election from the inside in a country for which the students or teacher could not vote and did not have an interest was lost. Students had been prepared for weeks to be observers of the process and the teacher would have helped them unpack what they saw upon their return – an excellent learning opportunity lost due to fear-mongering and narrow-mindedness.

Social justice is a “broad term” yet social justice is not complicated – remember we were learning it in kindergarten. Social injustice is the result of inequality on some citizens, imposed by other citizens; it’s the imbalance of power and opportunity, and it’s been around since the creation of human kind. In his 1847 Report on a System of Public Elementary Instruction for Upper Canada, Egerton Ryerson, public education was created in Canada to ensure that youth were prepared to their “appropriate duties and employments of life…as persons of business and also as members of the civil community in which they live” (p. 9).

Ryerson recognized, as should we, as beneficiaries of the public education system, that education is more than the transfer of numeracy and literacy skills from teacher to student. Education includes a socialization component that compliments parenting. As teachers, we face such a large diversity of issues and challenges in the classroom. Meeting the curricular needs as well as the emotional and social needs of students, sometimes requires real-life issues – i.e. social justice issues. These issues are sometimes brought by the teacher but often times raised by the students themselves.

Teaching is the transfer of knowledge from one generation to another and such knowledge is acquired through formal learning, training and certification. But, we can’t deny that knowledge, for every one of us, is also acquired through day to day living and being a responsible citizen.

Students as young as those in Kindergarten and grades 1 and 2 can learn the benefits of litter-less lunches and help change the habit of previous generations. Students in grades 3 and 4 can learn the values of intergenerational relationships through social action projects with seniors. Students in grades 5 and 6 can learn about respecting differences and promoting resolution in relationships. Students in grades 7 and 8 can take on a variety of issues as they develop from child to youth. Students in grades 9 to 12 can tackle complex issues and become social activists. All of these teaching and learning projects and outcomes are with a view to working towards sustainable and positive societal outcomes.

As teachers and as responsible citizens, we cannot limit teaching to numeracy and literacy and meeting the needs of ever-increasing competitive ideology. As teachers and responsible citizens, we need to nurture generations of empathetic and caring policy makers if we are to sustain equity and peace in an increasingly turbulent world.

Teachers can find out more about engaging their students in social justice projects by visiting CTF’s Imagineaction Web site:

Pauline Théoret is a Program Officer with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. Bob McGahey is Acting Director of Research and Information at CTF.

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Perspectives web magazine is published by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), a national alliance of provincial and territorial teacher organizations that represent over 273,000 elementary and secondary school teachers across Canada.

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