Teaching for social justice- it matters

Teaching for social justice is different from teaching to prevent crimes. And perhaps this is part, only a part, yes, but still an integral part of the problem. I currently live in Toronto, and ten minutes from my home three young people were shot – one died. I learned of the event via twitter- before it was reported on the news. The person hardest hit was a teacher, a young man of promise – he died- the other two young people, a boy and a girl, late teens, early twenties, hospitalized. No one knows why the event took place; except it is summer, it was a hot evening, people often congregate outside.

I realize what a horrific event transpired in Ferguson. I know what a horrific event took place a stone’s throw from me. I worry about both my young adult children who go out at night, and come home using public transit. I worry about the random acts of violence- but yes I am lucky- for to date, I haven’t seen a reason to worry about the police. Whether in Manhattan, where I lived for a period, or here in Toronto, Canada, the men and women who make up the police force have always been, on the occasion I have had direct contact with them, thoughtful, courteous and direct. Knowing they now patrol the area actually provides a sense of well being. Because one of the victims was a teacher, many children in the area were affected as well. How to explain – to answer the “why?” when the criminals weren’t caught? How to remind that basically this is a safe community, that crime and criminal acts can take place anywhere, and that there are, for lack of a better term- “bad people” out there, but one doesn’t have to emulate them.

I know that each of us presented with young minds puzzle at how to teach towards understanding. How to encourage the growth of a caring society, one in which mutual respect exists. One without fear of the very people, our police, who are expected to protect us from just such unthinkable events as what befell the young teacher this summer. But just as we don’t want to turn into a police state, don’t want to need patrol cars on every corner, we must teach that violence is not cool. Because if we teach hatred towards members of a service profession- and the police like the fire department, are providing an essential service, we will not be encouraging people to believe that there might be a place for them within these professions.

When we teach children to care about their place in society we are teaching that they in fact have a place in society. That they belong. That they in time may be able to make a difference; and that is why yes, teaching the stories of others who have made a difference can help. For if indeed these stories may then become part of the backbone of courage that many of our young people will require as they go through life, then we must tell the stories through a whole school project- not in isolation, not as a race or gender issue but as a part of living history- an opportunity to encourage a literacy based, project based, arts integrated, science practiced, full STEAM ahead, school.

When we teach for something we have become proactive. We have become empowered, as teachers, concentrating on transformative curriculum, rather than focused on disciplinary lectures- but the learning has to start early! From preschool up children absorb what they see and hear going on around them- home and school, community and practice. Teaching to prevent crime? Reminiscent of Up the Down Staircase, or To Sir with Love; books and movies in which the teacher wins some and loses some, and everyone marvels at the teacher’s ability to fight the system itself. What if instead, the system and the educator work together? Returning to a whole school approach, and community interaction; when I was little both the Fire Department and the Police came for visits- and we went to the Firehouse and to the Police museum. People who are part of one’s community may lose a bit of mystique, but the community will gain in understanding that the goals of one section are in tandem with the goals of a peaceful society.

For it IS about peace. It is horribly sad to consider why youngsters would need to find surrogate families within gangs and there is as much wrong with our system today as there was in the time of Victor Hugo, but, if we justify looting and robbery, we are saying “might makes right” – in Hugo’s day a character is hounded and imprisoned for stealing food- the greater picture of a hungry society being presented through the eyes of a main character and his villainous tormentor- a member of the police – and readers can’t help but side with the Jean Val Jean character. I can’t imagine what the police in Ferguson were thinking when releasing the video showing Mike Brown behaving like a thug, and stealing from a store; except perhaps to try and de- saint the young person. But – we have been shown the video, and that brings up, why had the character in our modern times believed it was OK to torment the shop owner/employees? In short, why did that action take place at all? Missing in Ferguson appears to be any kind of peace, if looting is common place, if kids are racially profiled, if anger was so close to the surface that it boiled over into this past month of stand offs.

In the end then, regardless of subject we must teach Why something matters. We as teachers, matter. Our students and their hopes and dreams, matter. Each and every person, matters. Again, it begins in preschool, and it can’t be over taught. It must be reiterated each and every year. I didn’t invent the concept – and as a concept it is older than you or I. What matters today is that we remove it from a conceptual ideal and place it squarely into real discussions, real and safe communication, real and daily practice. We must make caring – matter.

information about the incident in Toronto may be found here: http://www.cp24.com/news/victims-of-lawrence-heights-shooting-not-targeted-by-gunmen-police-1.1903477

an American teacher’s set of suggestions for how to teach about Mike Brown may be found here: http://rethinkingschoolsblog.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/teach-about-mike-brown-but-dont-stop-there/

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