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Action-driven education can make stronger, healthier citizens

"What's your philosophy of education?"

I was asked this question repeatedly as an education student, before I had any idea how daunting it would be to actually lead a classroom. Each time I thought, "But when will I learn how to teach?"

Six years later, I now recognize the importance of this question. My teaching philosophy — my understanding of education's purpose — underpins everything I do in the classroom. Through that philosophy I'm just beginning to grasp the tremendous responsibility that teachers and schools have to students and communities.

"The health and wellness of our communities depends on us teaching our young people to become socially conscious adults."

Like many, I believe education should help students lead healthy, meaningful lives, lives that positively and purposefully impact others around them. I want kids to leave school a little kinder, a little happier, and a little more thoughtful than when they entered. I hope that when they leave, they are good people, or more specifically, socially conscious people.

We should all hold onto this philosophy, because students are citizens and will eventually make decisions that affect us all. If they become kind, generous people, they'll make positive impacts on the health of our communities. They'll volunteer time or donate money, if they have those resources to give. They'll work in positions that allow them to influence policy, or work in and alongside the many marginalized groups who strive to make our society more equitable. The health and wellness of our communities depends on us teaching our young people to become socially conscious adults.

This ‘inspiring the young’ attitude is complicated for two reasons. The first is that educational experiences that foster emotional growth, or trigger decisions to act altruistically, are not easy to mark. And in a growing climate of accountability and proof in education, teachers are tempted to teach and mark only what is easily measurable.

The second complication is that not all students enter the classroom already 'caring'. And it's difficult to awaken the sort of social consciousness required to fuel community-minded action in a classroom setting.

I struggle with these problems of accountability and student apathy as a teacher of English language arts (ELA) and social sciences, which should be ideal courses for social awakenings. But in moments when these challenges cause me to waiver in my commitment to my philosophy of education, or when I only have the energy to teach what's easy to mark, I think back to one particularly powerful experience and am again reminded of the positive potential we have in students.

Two years ago, filled with a new teacher's enthusiasm for social justice and 'making a difference', I began the ELA B10 unit called 'Equality and Ethics'. The curriculum asks teachers to consider how ELA can help students "find fulfillment, be socially responsible, and act in ways that will make their community and world better places." In other words, it is a course built around empathy, altruism and positive citizenship.

Excited to inspire young justice-minded do-gooders, I had students learn about Canada's Indian Residential Schools. We read articles, graphic novels, and poetry written by survivors. We watched documentaries like We Were Children. We studied the holocaust, read books on war, and watched Schindler’s List. But as the semester went on, through all of this learning about, I found students becoming not more empathetic, but more apathetic.

I got the sense they'd heard these types of stories before. They knew these atrocities did not, and likely would not ever happen to them. These feelings mark the tremendous privilege experienced by the mainly white-settler population of my school, but also my own privilege in teaching human rights violations without any historical scars of my own, positioning myself as a sort of ‘hero teacher’.

"I decided that we couldn't just talk about the hardships of others anymore, we needed to engage them."

For those students, reading and watching stories of hardship only solidified the differences between their own lives, and the ones they saw on the page and the screen. Those stories only reinforced their sense that they were lucky people, privileged people, who do not have to engage with social injustices if they don't want to.

I wanted an outlet for these uncomfortable feelings of guilt, apathy, and powerlessness. I decided that we couldn't just talk about the hardships of others anymore, we needed to engage them. The class too, felt we needed to be active in our learning. Together we came up with what we broadly named 'The Social Action Project'.

In small groups students chose a local or global organization, researched their work, and then did something for them. Some of their actions included making posters, donating time or money, fundraising, creating YouTube videos, and designing bulletin boards. Given the chance to act, they quickly showed they were not apathetic after all. They did care, and were ready to learn from their own experiences.

"Meaningful education makes us consider our places in the world and with others."

As a class they raised and donated more than $700 in cash toward local charities, $2,400 in dog food to a local animal shelter, and three packed truckloads of clothing, toys, and toiletries to Carmichael Outreach and Sophia House. The organizations they supported ranged from Kidsport and SARCAN to mental health and anti-bullying organizations like To Write Love on Her Arms and I Am Stronger. Students chose these organizations themselves, many out of personal significance.

I was humbled by the work they did. The feelings of frustration I’d experienced earlier in the classroom dissipated when I realized all they needed was the chance to show they could, and would act altruistically if given the chance.

Committing to education that leads students to be kind, altruistic, and thoughtful means we have to be okay with not having a mark for everything they do. The Social Action Project was nearly impossible to grade, yet I have no doubt students learned. Because we spent weeks of class time completing it, I had to mark the measurable aspects, but I'm not qualified to mark the emotional growth they experienced, or the impacts they made on the health and well-being of themselves and others.

Meaningful education makes us consider our places in the world and with others. It asks us to reflect on our own privilege, and to act in just ways. Through encouraging young people to develop their own senses of social consciousness, we also invest in the long-term health and wellness of our communities, and create more supportive environments. Education that allows students to do work that benefits themselves and their communities sets them up to be the kind of adults who really can make a difference.

Learn more with these resources for existing programs that focus on community centered work in the classroom: Community Based Learning: Connecting Students with their World & Community Service Learning.




nicole_headshot.JPGNicole Squires is in her sixth year at Lumsden High School where she teaches English, history, and psychology classes. She's also an active coach involved in cross country, badminton and track and field. Nicole received her Bachelor of Education and Bachelor of Arts from the University of Regina, and is completing a Master of Education degree in curriculum and instruction.

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