I’m sometimes asked to explain why equity education work is still needed in schools. People might say that the social injustices of racism and sexism and classism (not to mention all the other human rights violations) are issues more relevant in the past than in the present. Others wonder whether elementary schools are the right places to explore such weighty issues. My response, in a nutshell, is that teaching equity has never been more relevant, and that it’s never too early to start teaching about fairness. Social justice education needs to be in the fabric of our daily teaching work because every day social injustice is woven into the fabric of our students’ lives.
Social justice and social justice education, nurture human potential and challenge injustice. In this way, social justice is both process and goal. A democratic and socially just education system that is responsive to everyone and serves all groups equally and well, is a key mechanism for engaging in that process and communicating that goal. If we don’t address real issues of fairness in schools, we simply aren’t furnishing our kids with a complete education or a truthful story.
The Tale of a T-Shirt play
Consider a recent school field trip to a local theatre where grade 3 and 4 classes at my son’s school attended a short, alternately funny and serious play centred around an ordinary item of clothing. The Tale of a T-Shirt (1) took its audience on a journey that began with students examining tags on their clothes (discovering that nearly all were made in China, Bangladesh, and Vietnam). Then, through a series of real and fictional vignettes the play chronicled the cotton seed’s international travels and transformations: first we were transported to the southern U.S., where cotton is planted and harvested; then to India where it’s spun into cloth; next to Bangladeshi factories where cotton shirts are sewn; then to British Columbia ports where finished T-shirts are shipped for distribution; and finally to Ontario where cotton T-shirts destined for retailers’ shelves arrive by train.
The actors brought a high level of energy and the vignettes were mostly playful and filled with considerable silliness – obviously designed by the theatre company to keep even squirmy eight-year-olds attentive. By the end of the show, the artistic director’s goal – “we want kids to know that their clothes don’t magically appear in the stores” – had certainly been achieved. But that’s just the beginning of what the students learned.
Children care deeply about justice
After the final curtain, the kids were especially eager to discuss the scene involving a fatal fire in an unsafe and poorly inspected garment factory in Bangladesh. During the play’s emotional climax,