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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 2, October 2004

Sure, I believe in social justice, but...

by Murray Corren

"Although I know it’s important, I don’t do social justice in my classroom. It’s too political and too controversial." For some teachers, social justice is something that needs to be addressed outside the classroom, in one’s personal time. When racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia, and globalization and privatization come up in a teaching day, they tend to ignore them and shy away from addressing them in any substantive way.

But asked, Do you think it’s important to promote social responsibility in your classroom? those same colleagues will almost certainly say yes. Is that because the term social responsibility has an air of neutrality, whereas social justice smacks of radicalism? Is it because the Ministry of Education has endorsed the Social Responsibility Performance Standards (SRPS), while social justice merits no such status?

Whatever the answer, those colleagues who teach social responsibility, who work with their students on the SRPS, are actually doing social justice.

The SRPS for Kindergarten to Grade 10 consist of four strands: Contributing to the Classroom and School Community, Solving Problems in Peaceful Ways, Valuing Diversity and Defending Human Rights, and Exercising Democratic Rights and Responsibilities. Within each strand descriptors delineate age-appropriate expectations, and examples show what it might look like and sound like when a student is not yet within, minimally meeting, fully meeting, and exceeding those expectations.

For instance, at the Grade 4 to 5 level, in the section on valuing diversity and defending human rights, a student who is fully meeting expectations "can describe some basic human rights; shows interest in correcting flagrant injustices." In the section on exercising democratic rights and responsibilities, the student "can identify some ways to make the world a better place."

At the Grade 8 to 10 level, the first section named above describes the student as one who "identifies positive aspects of diversity; often speaks out against racism, sexism, and blatant stereotyping," and in the second, the student "accepts responsibility for helping others and participating in community life; can describe a preferred future and ways to improve the community, nation, and world."

Even in the sections on contributing to the classroom and school community and solving problems in peaceful ways, we find statements such as "takes on some responsibility to care for and improve the school and community" (Grades 8 to 10), "shows empathy and can describe others’ feelings in an increasing range of situations" (Grades 4 to 5), "can assess and explain a variety of positions on controversial issues" (Grades 8 to 10).

If we are actively teaching social responsibility in our classrooms, we are indeed doing social justice at the same time. A rose by any other name...

If we consider it important to teach our students about social responsibility, we, also have a duty to demonstrate that, as their teachers, we believe in it and are prepared to model what we wish them to be. If we truly believe we have a duty to prepare our students to become caring, responsible citizens in a pluralistic, democratic society, we have no choice but to encourage them to follow our lead and to become engaged and active in issues of social justice—or social responsibility—if that is what some prefer to call it.

Murray Corren teaches at Blakekburn Elementary School, Coquitlam, and is a member of the BCTF Social Justice Advisory Committee and a social responsibility associate.



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