Last month, I facilitated a workshop at the Educating for Peace and Justice Conference at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education on ‘Teaching Ethics and Social Justice through the A.R.T.S.” While the workshop provided teachers with arts-based activities for engaging students in expressing their ideas, it mainly focused on 3 aspects of my classroom teaching and learning about social justice (and many other subjects, for that matter) that I have found to be recurrent and foundational in my pedagogy over the past 7 years. My workshop drew mostly on my classroom experience, along with my knowledge acquisition over the years on issues of social justice, along with my lifelong passion for the Arts. This blog post will provide a brief overview of those 3 foundational components (more on the arts-based activities in another post).
A: Awareness. These days, students are bombarded with information from a wide array of sources. Raising a critical awareness in students is an essential first step to being well-informed, effective agents of change. Teaching students to identify bias in different contexts of their lives and understanding something as seemingly (but often not) basic as the difference between facts and opinions, sets students up with important building blocks to becoming critical thinkers. Teaching the students to embrace critical feedback and challenging them to ask questions that venture into new thinking paths, can help instil not only the skills, but the confidence to navigate the complex web of information that surrounds them (from their peers, the media, adults, faith groups, family, news articles, books and more). One simple yet foundational activity I do with my students in order to set the stage for thinking and learning about justice is to identify the difference between a fact and an opinion. Surprisingly, even youth have difficulty with this concept. In response to a provocative media piece, students come up with one sentence that is either a fact or an opinion about the issue they just witnessed. They then share that sentence with another student, who then passes on their partner’s sentence to someone else. It’s eye-opening for students to see how difficult it is to really listen to what their peer is saying to them and then repeat it to someone else without changing the language to fit their own biases. As students learn to be critically aware of the way information is portrayed and how they themselves portray information, they can then get one step closer to being critically aware.
R: Relatability. Relatability is about compassion. Students may have a great deal of awareness but they also need to feel a deep sense of compassion and connectedness with the issues at hand in order to embrace social justice as a personal value and a way of living and being, and not just as an isolated classroom project. Making the content relatable to their lives and their communities helps bring about this compassion, which can lead to empowerment. Animals bring about a great deal of compassion in kids as well. Using music and voice is a great tool for helping kids express their fears, dreams and questions about issues of equity and justice and ‘feel’ each other through a compassionate lens.
T.S. Taking a Stand. One can be aware and one can have compassion but ultimately, effective, sustainable action is needed to bring about change. Taking a stand is about standing up for issues that the students have come to embrace as important, crucial and perhaps unjust. It’s about using effective communication strategies to speak about what they want to change and it’s about working collaboratively and uniting together to have a voice around the issues that matter to them. Writing letters to political leaders, using movement and drama to express critical, challenging issues and visual arts to give visibility to those who feel invisible are some ways of taking a stand.
This is a complex topic that I’m continually navigating and tweaking, but it was a privilege to be able to share some of my ideas with fellow colleagues who attended my workshop.