Equality, agency, empowerment, democracy, and liberation are among the goals expressed by our education system. Closer examination reveals, though, that school culture and curricula often perpetuate the very injustices they are trying to fight.
When I initially came to this realisation, I felt helpless in a system much larger than the four walls of my classroom. I have the opportunity to teach music to students in grades one through six in an inner-city school in Montreal, where more than a third of our students live below the poverty line, while others come from working-class homes. The majority of students are Anglophone. Most of our students are white, with less than one quarter coming from areas of the Middle East, Africa, and the Caribbean Islands. The community is characterised by generational poverty, and many of our families know only the welfare system as a source of income. On a Ministry of Education index of socio-economic levels, it is ranked 10 (most disadvantaged) on a scale of 1 to 10. Literacy rates are low with only 38.6% of students reading at level. Many parents have had negative experiences in school and consequently place little value on education.
With a critical eye, one sees how present curricula and teaching methods safeguard the status quo with respect to inequalities and neoliberalism. An example can be seen in how curricula situate certain communities and subjects. The Quebec Education Program (QEP) prompts teachers to awaken students to different cultures by teaching the dress and diet of Canada's Native Peoples. Students would have a better understanding of Native communities if they were presented a comprehensive history highlighting the inequalities First Nations have endured, including the many social ills they face today. In the QEP approach, critical thinking and reflection are avoided while students learn about wigwams and hunting practices.
I want my students to understand the complex structures and inner workings of our society which maintain the status quo of the privileged and the oppressed. Avoiding disturbing realities happens too often in our schools, not because our students cannot handle the complexity of social conflict and its causes, but because fear of parental or public response often makes teachers uneasy (Kuehn 2007). This is not to say that the system is unchallenged. There are many examples of teachers actively working to equip students with an understanding of global injustices. It was on a beautiful day last fall that the door opened to starting this dialogue with my students in a very meaningful way.
The Birth of Our Social Justice Club
It was around the time of the United States presidential election when several of my grade six students entered my classroom singing the "Obama song". When I asked why they were so excited, they responded that "he'll change the world!" When I asked what needed to be changed, the main answers were poverty, the gap between rich and poor, disease, and racism. Next, the conversation moved to slavery as we were discussing music of the Underground Railroad. When I asked my students if they knew that slavery still exists today, they were shocked. This prompted an hour-long, mature discussion about various social issues that occupied the minds of my twelve-year-old students. On slavery, I explained how young boys in Africa work as slaves to pick the cocoa beans to make our chocolate. Immediately, some students swore off chocolate. Another student raised her hand, stating that "even if a couple of kids in Montreal stop eating chocolate, it isn't going to stop the problem of slavery, the problem is way bigger than that." In an effort to encourage this sort of thoughtful reflection, I asked the students what they, as kids, could do to make a difference in light of their new knowledge. Their responses included fundraising to purchase a slave to set free, a large-scale boycott of chocolate, and an awareness campaign. Next, I asked the students if they realised that there are an estimated 600 slaves in Canada today. Many students were upset that this could be happening to people in their own country; they could not understand why this was the first they had heard of it. We discussed various forms of human trafficking in Canada, particularly migrant domestic workers and sexual slavery.
When the issue of AIDS in Africa arose, I discovered, to my dismay, that most students believed that AIDS was curable. How could our education system allow 12-year-olds, some of whom were sexually active, to make choices based on such misinformation? I explained to the students that there were medications to prolong the lives and diminish the suffering of AIDS patients; however, access to these medications is difficult. One student stated, "I see a lot of commercials about AIDS in Africa, do they have medication there?" I explained that the medication was available, but at a cost. Another upset student said, "But those Africans in the commercials don't have money for AIDS medication, most don't even have money for food!" Another student chimed in with "that's because the world is racist, that's why the African people can't get their hands on...