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Archive for the ‘Social Justice Education’ Category

A British Columbia poster campaign aimed at starting a conversation around racism within School District No. 74 (Gold Trail) schools has sparked more animated discussion than its initiators — Superintendent Teresa Downs and the District management team — ever imagined. When the posters went up in January 2018, nothing much happened, then in early March the whole issue exploded on social media and in the national press.

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Three anti-racism posters featuring the formal leaders of the District—Secretary Treasurer Lynda Minnabarriet, District Principal of Aboriginal Education Tammy Mountain, and Superintendent Downs—went up in all SD74 schools. All three feature the speaker’s picture, with Minnabarriet’s poster reading “I lose an opportunity if I don’t confront racism”, and Mountain’s reading “I have felt racism. Have you?”

The poster featuring Downs was the one that attracted by far the most attention. Downs—who is white—is featured beside the words “I have unfairly benefitted from the colour of my skin. White privilege is not acceptable.”

WhitePrivilegeBCSD74Poster

The Downs poster proved to be a lightning-rod. One parent, Kansas Field Allen, whose son attends Grade 9 at Kumsheen Secondary School in Lytton, BC, took great exception to the “Got privilege?” campaign and particularly to the contentious poster. Allen, who is married to a First Nations man, has three children, all of whom carry First Nations status cards. Her prime objection to the campaign was that it ignored mixed race families like her own.  As someone who herself has faced racism and labelled a ‘white mama,’ she was upset to hear one student say he was ‘ashamed to be white’ and the way the whole episode affected her son. When she asked him about it, he fell silent an ‘bent his head down.”

The controversy swirled around the school district for over a week. Many commenters  applauded Downs and the administration for highlighting the often-hidden issue of white privilege, but many others sided with Field and charged that the statement smacked of  reverse racism. Hard questions were asked about whether it went too far or implied that Downs only got where she is because of her skin colour rather than her own efforts.

The “Got Privilege?” posters did not come out of nowhere.  With a sizable indigenous population, BC District 74 has embraced anti-racist education in a very pro-active fashion. The district management team is deeply committed to the cause and has sought to promote a discussion of colonization, discrimination, race, and privilege for more than five years. “Two years ago we interviewed secondary students, and they said they saw racism and prejudice in their schools and their communities,” Downs told a local news outlet. “We knew we needed to be addressing those issues.”

The poster campaign was actually inspired by a similar June to July 2017 venture in Saskatoon that featured giant billboards at the high-traffic bridge crossings. Sponsored by the City of Saskatoon, the campaign “I am the Bridge…to Ending Racism,” featured one billboard where a middle-aged white citizen was quoted as saying “I have to acknowledge my own privilege and racist attitudes.”  Like the B.C. school poster, the billboard provoked quite a reaction, especially on CKOM AM 650, the all news talk station.  It sparked outrage, division, and a horrible rash of hand-made racist telephone pole posters.

Downs and her team considered the Saskatchewan initiative to be “very brave” and knew it might spark controversy. The posters were devised last fall, all the District principals were approached about them and were very supportive. The decision for the posters to feature Downs, Mountain, and Minnabarriet was a conscious one. “As the formal leaders of the District, we wanted to have a message and be a part of the conversation, not be seen as isolated from it. We wanted to be a piece of the puzzle.”

Since the public outcry, Downs has held her ground and expressed appreciation to those who supported the campaign through the turbulence. Given the emotions stirred by the controversy, she has resisted calls for a public meeting and worked to explain it all in  “one-to-one talks with people.” One group of students rallied to the District’s defense and appealed to their principal to resist calls for the posters to be taken down. “A discussion about race and privilege is difficult to have,” Downs says,” “but it’s important.”

 

Privilege

With controversy raging in B.C. in early March 2018, similar posters, headed “Check Your Privilege,appeared at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT).  Branded with the UOIT crest, the Ontario posters promoted “a more just and inclusive world” and encouraged students to “check their privilege” using a list of privileges such as “Able-bodied,” “Christian,” “Heterosexual,” “Male, ” and White.”  After attracting social media criticism, the posters were taken down, but school administration offered up an explanation, claiming that they were not intended to shame people who fell into one of the identified privilege categories.

Racism is a serious public concern and anti-racist education deserves a place in today’s educational world. Having said that, the recent controversies do raise the critical question of how best to combat racism in and around schools. Why did the”white privilege” posters attract criticism, while the others relatively little adverse reaction?  How successful are such campaigns in initiating conversation? Can you see positive or negative long-term effects from such conversations?  

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Ontario elementary school teachers are now being totally immersed in the new pedagogy of Social Justice Education. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario’s newish resource, Social Justice Begins with Me, is being rolled out as a teaching resource for the Early Years to Grade 8.  It’s a prime example of the deep inroads being made by “social justice educators” in transforming “character education” into a vehicle for addressing social injustices through the schools.

The EFTO promotes Social Justice Begins with Me  as an “anti-bias, literature-based curriculum resource kit” that is designed for year-round use and is aligned with the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy.  The ten monthly themes are explicitly aimed at inculcating nine core “social justice principles”: acceptance, respect, hope, empathy, inclusion, diversity, human rights, and equity. It also targets some identifiable 21st century ‘evils’: anti-Semitism, ageism, heternormality, sexism, racism, classism, ableism, prejudice and faith.

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The EFTO teaching resource, like the SJE movement, thrives in a culture dominated by ‘political correctness’ and has found a comfortable home in Canada’s largest education graduate school, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, in Toronto.  That movement now has its own exclusive research unit, replacing what was left of the Department of History and Philosophy of Education. Full disclosure – I’m an unrepentant graduate of that now defunct research department.

Social Justice Education has now taken on a life of its own in many Canadian urban elementary school divisions. Serious concerns raised by the infamous June 2012  Maclean’s Magazine cover story, “Why are schools brainwashing our Children?” have done little to derail the movement. Nor has North American education research lending support to an alternative version of “character education,” founded on a different set of core principles aimed at developing student resilience.  Curriculum-informed parents will also spot the complete absence of critical success attributes, labelled ‘old school,’ such as grit, perseverance, resilience, and accountability for actions.

True believers in social justice education see elementary teaching through an engaged sociopolitical lens. Working for social justice in the schools requires “a deliberate intervention” that challenges society’s “fundamental inequalities” and seeks to advance the cause of “better educational and economic outcomes” for “marginalized children.” Social justice pedagogy aims to develop in teachers and students an understanding of “critical literacy” and its key dimensions: 1) disrupting the commonplace; 2)interrogating multiple viewpoints; 3) focusing on sociopolitical issues; and 4) taking action and promoting social justice.

Pursuing social justice in the early grades stirs up considerable controversy, especially among parents more focused on raising standards and improving student performance. Maclean’s writer Cynthia Reynolds certainly unearthed some outlandish, and undoubtedly extreme examples, of actual “social justice education ” activities:

During the 2011-12 school year, first graders in Toronto brought home student planners marked with the international days of zero tolerance on female genital mutilation and ending violence against sex workers, a means to spark conversation on the issues. In Laval, Que., a six-year-old boy was disqualified from a teddy-bear contest because a Ziploc was found in his lunch instead of a reusable container. The  Durham Board of Education in Ontario came under fire for discouraging the terms “wife” and “husband” in class in favour of the gender-neutral “spouse,” and the words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” in favour of “partner.” And in the name of inclusiveness, some school boards include Wiccan holidays in their school calendars.

Such examples of how Social Justice Education can go awry cut little ice with surprising numbers of Education School faculty entrusted with training elementary school teachers. Deeply committed to social justice reform, they believe that the classroom is the front line in the battle to address social ills and establish “safe spaces” for the children of marginalized families. It’s really just the latest battle over the age-old question: who gets to decide on the best way to educate the very young?

OISESocialJusiceEd.jpgMiddle-school teacher David Stocker, author of the textbook  Math That Matters: A Teacher Resource for Linking Math and Social Justice, for Grades 6 to 9,is in the vanguard of the movement. His math problems include items focusing on issues like  workers’ rights, racial profiling and homophobia.  “All material carries bias of some sort,” he writes in the introduction. “Really the question is whether or not we want to spend time educating for peace and social justice. If we do, let’s admit that bias and get to work.”

Psychologist Robin Grille, the author of Parenting for a Peaceful World,takes a far more balanced approach, recognizing the inherent risks in imposing a social justice perspective in the early grades. Getting too political in elementary school, where the power differential between teacher and student is vast, verges on manipulation. “You can’t use children as fodder for your cause,” says Grille.

Nor is Grille afraid to pose the right questions: “How do you know these young kids aren’t just parroting what their teacher is telling them? How easy would it be to get them to protest, say, abortion? How much are the young truly able to make up their own minds?”It’s particularly true in classrooms where kids are being graded. So what does she recommend? Children, she points out,  need to develop emotionally before they can develop politically.

The controversial 2012 Maclean’s feature story provided a few of what be termed teacher survival tips. Elementary school teacher and Simon Fraser University education professor Rhonda Philpott identified one of the biggest risks: You can’t walk into a classroom and just start a social-justice activity. It takes trust.” Not all parents appreciate the politically-driven pedagogy either. Professor Ng-A-Fook of the University of Ottawa urges practitioners to “know your students” and “prepare your parents” so you do not “offend families or traumatize kids.”

Social justice education is fraught with difficulties and tends to narrow the focus of classroom activities around issues drawn solely from a rather narrow, albeit well-intended sociopolitical perspective. More recent education research tends to focus on addressing student underperformance and ways of instilling resilience in children.

Character is now seen as the “X-factor” in explaining why some children succeed and others get left behind in and out of schools. Toronto-born writer Paul Tough,author of How Children Succeed, influenced by Angela Duckworth’s research, called the character-based X-factor “grit,” but parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba favours the term moral intelligence. 

Character education also tends to be broader and more inclusive in its reach than social justice education, particularly as exemplified in the EFTO Social Justice curriculum. The Peel District School Board, west of Toronto, embraces a “character education” model that embraces six different character attributes and seeks to educate children who are caring, cooperative, honest,inclusive, respectful and responsible. That approach is not only broader, but includes two factors related to “grit” – respect and responsibility. It’s no accident that the PDSB credo ends on this note: “Demonstrate initiative and perseverance in overcoming difficulties.” 

What is driving the movement to introduce Social Justice Education into elementary schools in Ontario and elsewhere? What are the risks of implementing a Primary School curriculum with such an overt sociopolitical agenda?  Are the fears that kids are being “brainwashed” all that exaggerated?  What’s wrong with pursuing a more balanced approach in the pursuit of character education? 

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