It is the goal of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario to work with others to create schools, communities, and a society free from all forms of individual and systemic discrimination. To further this goal, ETFO defines equity as fairness achieved through proactive
measures which result in equality, promote diversity, and foster respect and dignity for all.
Notes to Teachers from the Authors
To facilitate Ontario’s Ministry of Education Equity and Inclusive Education Policy, we have prepared a series of suggested activities for early years to grade eight based on a variety of texts and related resources.
Our hope is that we can inspire you to begin class discussions and dialogue around issues of social justice. As we build awareness of experiences and realities other than our own, we can motivate our students to become socially engaged and responsible citizens. As part of the dialogue both teachers and students are encouraged to identify, examine, and critically challenge forms of injustice. Often, the starting point of making connections rests on the simple principle and well-used catch phrase, “think globally, act locally.”
An inclusive community promotes a sense of pride and acceptance by minimizing barriers,
acknowledging differences, and fostering empathy, care, and respect. This commitment reflects a thoughtful, ongoing approach to the integration of equity and social justice in an effort to create inclusive classrooms. Join us in our journey towards awareness, engagement, and activism—in other words, a social justice approach.
Gewirtz (2001) offers the following thoughts: “Social justice has traditionally been understood as referring to the way in which goods are distributed in society. I want to suggest that social justice is more usefully understood in an expanded sense to refer to a family of concerns about how everyone should be treated in a society we believe to be good. Broadly conceived in this way, social justice can be said to encompass two major dimensions—a distributional and a relational dimension.” (p. 49.)
A Social Justice Approach
Introductory comments by Dr. Finney Cherian and Sherry Ramrattan Smith
Gewirtz’s distributional and relational dimensions of social justice reveal the following relationship between tolerance and prosperity: With an increase in economic prosperity we tend to see an increase in our acceptance of cultural, class, gender, and sexual orientation differences. Conversely, with decreased economic prosperity we tend to see a decrease in our tolerance of others. At the level of the street corner, these prosperity and relational trends can express themselves in unsavory comments like: “These immigrants and refugees are taking all our jobs.” and “I wish those people would stop being so lazy and get off welfare.” These types of comments are crude and painful. But their vulgarity should not distract from the potential that in the hands of socially conscious and pedagogically-skilled educators these comments offer opportunities to develop in their students’ awareness, engagement, and a desire to take action on biased opinions and unjust social conditions.
Teaching for social change is complex work and not for the faint of heart. It is a praxis that demands much of teachers and students. Its complexity and necessity become even more profound in a time where the accumulated effects of wars, global economic despair, terrorism, and the associated fears have frayed the threads of human relations. We live, teach, and learn in chaotic and uncertain times.
Gewirtz’s definition provides us with clarity on what social justice is and its relevancy in socially tense times. But how does one teach from such a paradigm? What resources exist to support teaching from a social justice framework? The authors of this resource have made answering such questions a central priority in their work.
Social justice is not an approach solely grounded in personal desires for benevolence and altruism.
The conceptual framework of social justice and its pedagogical expression draws upon scholarship that includes critical theory, anti-racist education, and multiculturalism. Each of these three traditions are different in their ideological distinctions, but together foster and sustain democratic education.
A social justice approach involves teaching in order to become aware through learning about issues,
engaging in learning by making personal connections or building understanding of experiences outside of our own, and practicing skills through inquiry and critical conversations that lead to actions for negotiating change. Social justice pedagogy nurtures classroom ecologies in which teachers and students negotiate and decide: what to learn, when to learn, how to learn, and how to assess learning.
Philosopher, Trappist monk, and social activist Thomas Merton reminds us that beliefs are those things we tend to hold tightly to our chests. We can only examine the value and integrity of our beliefs when we are willing to stop clenching and extend them out from ourselves for examination. Social justice teaching is meant to expose students to new ideas, which can lead to challenging
pre-existing beliefs. If we are to help students value others, we must first help them to value themselves. Once this self-affirmation is firmly developed, we can guide students to go beyond themselves, their needs, and learn to value others. This is the very spirit of what it means to teach through social and cultural lenses. When educators teach from a sociocultural framework, they are influenced by a compelling desire to understand how identities, experiences, and relationships mediate learning.
The scope of social justice is broad and as complex as the social ills it interrogates. Social justice teachers grapple with many issues like: distribution of resources, relationships, power and privilege, race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, policies, and responsibilities. From a social justice perspective classrooms are merely labs in which students capture glimpses of a just world. Voyeuristic glimpses are not enough. Students need to take the knowledge and skills distilled from classroom curriculum and critique the existing social order. Students need to be taught to ask: Who makes decisions and who is left out? Do some of societal decision makers look like me, and reflect my identity? Are the historical accounts and information I am taught accurately and authentically reflect my personal journey and those of my people? When is a social practice fair and unfair? What is required of me to make social change? What alternatives and solutions can I think of to address social inequalities? To address these questions fully, students need to be exposed to real world issues and problems within classrooms. They can then move beyond the walls of schools to approximate and test possible solutions to various forms of oppression. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire reminds us that a good education is only partially lived out within the context of classrooms.
South African expression of Ubuntu:
“I am because of the way we are.” Meaning, our lives are shaped by the attitudes and noble virtues we exchange with those around us.
Giese (2008) states in her study, “Powerful Stories, Powerful Conversations: Using Literature To Teach For Social Justice,” that teachers view literature as “a powerful vehicle for social justice education” because it requires “emotional and cognitive engagement with themes and provides multiple entry points to engage diverse learners.” (p. iii.)
When educators assist students to enter multiple entry points of intellectual and social engagement, they work towards living out the South African expression of Ubuntu: “I am because of the way we are.” Meaning, our lives are shaped by the attitudes and noble virtues we exchange with those around us—or the lack thereof. The notion of Ubuntu describes the ethos of this resource.
This online support resource connects ministry mandates to equity and inclusive education by highlighting a variety of culturally relevant texts, posing critical questions, and including a variety of lived experiences. The intent of the resource is to provide a series of starting points for beginning conversations about social issues and to provide some strategies that support teachers and students in their ongoing work. This includes questioning existing practices that may be unjust. Social justice work is never complete, instead it is always evolving.
The resource is designed to be cumulative and modifiable over time by encouraging users to contribute new books, activities, and comments or suggestions. It is the hope of the writers that the resource, “Awareness, Engagement, Activism: A Social Justice Approach,” will provide viable strategies to integrate social issues into the elementary curriculum and support the Ontario Ministry of Education’s equity and inclusion vision for students. We invite teachers, students, and community members to provide us with feedback so we can continue to improve the resource. A feedback form and lesson plan template is included in the appendices to facilitate this process.
Giese, C. (2008). Powerful Stories, Powerful Conversations: Using Literature To Teach For Social Justice. Doctoral Dissertation. Toronto: OISE, University of Toronto. Gewirtz, S. (2001). “Rethinking Social Justice: A Conceptual Analysis” in Sociology of Education Today, Jack Demaine (Ed.) p. 49-64.
Dr. Cherian is an associate professor with the faculty of education at the University of Windsor. His research interests are in the areas of critical literacy, as well as, leadership and its associated complexities in relation to professional learning communities (schools and corporate contexts).
Dr. Cherian holds a Ph.D. from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, the University of Toronto.
Sherry Ramrattan Smith is the former coordinator of Equity and Women’s Services at the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. She is now retired.
RELATED THEMES The ten monthly themes are based on the themes from the school-wide kit, Social Justice Begins with Me. September
Self-esteem develops over time; education and social interaction play a critical role in its process. Kindness, positive attention, and care are required to build a child’s sense of self-worth.
Self-esteem can be nurtured or neglected. Neglect can lead to lack of self-respect or isolation, whereas nurturing can ensure a growing sense of confidence and independence.
Theme: Sharing Our Lives
It is important for all students to see themselves, their families, and cultures reflected across the curriculum. It is equally important that students recognize that their experiences may be different from those of others.
By introducing a variety of perspectives, the teacher provides a forum which can harmonize and validate the wealth of their shared experiences. Far too often, many students are only given the opportunity to read and study from a predominantly middle-class, able-bodied, male, heterosexual, Eurocentric perspective. That view of life is the main one taught and those are the experiences which are frequently described as the norm.
For this theme, students are encouraged to explore the myriad ways our lives can be shared.