Social Justice 12 gaining momentum in BC schools

By Janet Nicol

Project-oriented, relevant, and reaching beyond classroom walls, Social Justice 12 (SJ12) has gained momentum since first offered as an elective in 2008. My own experience at Killarney Secondary, a school on Vancouver’s eastside, and interviews with three other SJ12 teachers in British Columbia schools, reveal this course is a valuable addition to our curriculum.

“Homelessness is a really important issue,” writes Rosa Serdar, a student in my SJ12 class. “I had a chance to get to know a man who is victimized by homelessness (in a class project) and truthfully, throughout the interview, I felt really sad for him and wished there was something I could do to help.”

As Serdar’s comments illustrate, many students who gravitate to this course want to explore ways to help others. Raising awareness through group and class discussions, guest speakers, films, and readings, educate students about specific issues. For example, Gary Snyder, a resident and activist on Vancouver’s downtown eastside, gave students a better understanding of living within Canada’s “poorest postal code.” Some students became motivated to volunteer their time in the neighbourhood, and as an action project, volunteered at the Carnegie Centre and Gallery Gachet (an artists’ co-operative gallery supporting mental illness issues).

Topics generating the most interest among students have been homelessness, homophobia, and bullying. All are issues relating directly to teenagers’ experiences of power, sensitivity, and vulnerability. We grappled with a much wider range of topics over the course of the year, however, expanding students’ knowledge, tolerance, and empathy.

“A moment that stood out for me was when we had Trent come in,” wrote Jonathan Nguyen, in reference to a visit by Killarney’s First Nations’ counsellor. “He was someone I learned a lot from. There are many First Nations issues being overlooked by our government and it is quite concerning.”

School copies of fiction and non-fiction books on social justice topics were distributed and for Alyson Lohada, was an effective lesson. “While I read The Book of Negroes,” she writes,” I did a lot of thinking. The insane amounts of racism that occurred then, has lessened and is seemingly hidden. I feel that there is still a lot of racism today. I hope one day soon, all of this racial profiling will come to an end.”

Several students read Under the Bridge, by BC born author Rebecca Godfrey. The non-fiction account is based on the bullying and murder of Victoria teenager Reena Virk. Many messages come across in this story, made even more relevant by the young people involved, familiar setting and contemporary themes.

Ming Lin writes: “Under the Bridge led me to contemplate the power of the mob, peer pressure, and the capacity for evil within us all. This cemented my belief that one should stay true to herself/himself.”

“The power of the pen” was apparent when Rebecca Godfrey visited our classroom. As she came through the doorway, students spontaneously clapped. Following Godfrey’s talk, some students approached her to sign their own store-bought copy of the book.

Sami Sekhon, was among those inspired and writes, “I was blown away by Rebecca Godfrey’s analytical approach to the case and I became very interested in youth crime and the restorative justice process.”

Chris Stolz has been teaching SJ12 at Tamanawis Secondary School in Surrey for three years. He has also sponsored the Gay Straight Alliance club for 11 years. Stolz says the club, and the SJ12 course, have effectively reduced homophobic language and attitudes among students.

“The single best moment,” he says, “was in my first year teaching to a group that included some very homophobic boys. Amar Sangha of “Sher Vancouver” (the South Asian LBGTQ group) came to talk. I was worried these boys, many of whose parents had explicitly condemned LBGTQ people as “sick,” would make fun of openly gay Amar. But at the end of his presentation, they stood and applauded, and, without me asking, walked up to him to shake his hand, admiring his incredible tenacity.”

Stolz teaches SJ12 with a laptop. “There are hundreds of excellent videos on all SJ12 topics on Youtube,” he says. “We use these all the time.”

“Our class has a Facebook group,” he adds. He says students use the site for discussions, sharing links, and homework questions. But Twitter is not on the lesson radar.

“Twitter is for celebrities and marketers,” he observes.

Stolz believes the course helps guide youth through the complexities of life. “BC students are part of a complex people mosaic,” he says, “that includes all sexual orientations, many ethnicities and languages, a huge diversity of religious views, and many people who have experienced serious adversity. A thoughtful modern citizen knows who people are and what their challenges are, so that he or she can compassionately and intelligently deal with the world.”

Erin Wilkins, a teacher-counsellor at Hope Secondary School, is also in her third year teaching SJ12 in the town of Hope. She started with only 12 students in her class and this year has 29. “I believe SJ12 promotes acceptance, empathy, understanding, and a desire to make a change, both globally and locally,” she says. “This class addresses real life issues that apply to the majority of our student population and it gives students the knowledge, tools, and confidence to stand up and fight for what is right.”

There have been several classroom highlights for Wilkins and her students.

“As a teacher, the highlight for me was when one of my students told me that he had the confidence to tell his parents that he was gay because of my class.”

“Our local food bank was robbed this summer,” Wilkins also says, “and my students contacted me to ask if they could do something about it.”

Besides fundraising for the food bank, Wilkins’ students have learned about human trafficking and ways they can fight for the rights of children.

“The school and the community have noticed a huge change in the attitudes of students,” she says. “They seem motivated and determined to make the world a better place. They stand up for what is right and are not afraid to comment when something is wrong.”

Technology is part of the classroom for Wilkins too. Among the many tools used, is a teacher blog for students and a smartboard.

“A great experience!” Rachel Deschenes, writes about the course. “I learned about real issues—most of which I didn’t know existed.”

“What can I say? It was the most applicable class I have ever taken,” writes Nathan Bobroske.

Lois Sanford has been teaching SJ12 at Total Education, an alternative school in Vancouver, for two years. She says the course permits the telling of untold histories. “The course covers factual content that is often entirely unknown to students,” she observes.

“Telling these stories of others is the occasion for developing more complex cognitive tools,” Sanford believes. “First, students begin wondering about which social groups are represented more, and why; next, they begin discussing patterns of injustice. Through this process, they begin to envision more complex solutions to pluralistic social problems. Finally, students begin to appropriate the modelled analytical tools and see their classmates’ opinions as sources of teaching and learning.”

Sanford says students “walk the walk.” She says, “this is because the course covers a range of subjects that elicit a broad range of sympathies, students who feel vulnerable to one issue of social injustice might be resistant, or occasionally downright hostile, about another. Since the common theme is justice for all, not just ‘your’ group, an environment is created where students might feel deeply accepted for their own particular vulnerabilities, and then may feel challenged to face their own biases in order to accept others. Both the discomfort and resulting respect allows them a more personal and complex understanding of these issues.”

There are many highlights to teaching the course Sanford says. “It was very heartening to hear passionate social justice discussions between students continue throughout their break time.” She also says “A couple of students who became involved in their action projects were changed by their own work, and expressed their enthusiasm to pursue these fields in their post secondary studies or their careers.”

Leah Moynahan, a student from Sandford’s class, called the class wonderful. “It really opened up my mind and helped me become aware of issues that were totally related to me—and I didn’t even know it,” she writes.

Currently only a quarter of Vancouver’s 18 secondary schools offer SJ12. Interest continues to grow, as was apparent at a BC Teachers’ Federation Conference on Social Justice in the spring of 2011. Teachers from around the province gathered to network, attend workshops, and browse a wealth of resources. In the lively exchange among colleagues, the consensus seemed to be clear: youth studying important issues and taking action will create a more positive school, community, and global culture.

For more information, visit the BCTF website and click on Social Justice. Also, the BC Ministry curriculum guide for Social Justice 12 is available on line.

Reprinted from BC Teacher magazine, November/December, 2011

This article appears in Our Schools, Our Selves, an educational journal, February, 2012.

The Killarney Secondary School’s Social Justice 12 course has received a $500 scholarship, (June, 2012) to be shared between one male and one female in grade 12. Many thanks to the Vancouver-Fraserview New Democratic Party for showing their interest and support by giving this generous award.

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