Scales of Justice by CitizenSheep

photo credit: CitizenSheep on Flickr

For me, this week is one of the most important weeks in the entire semester of English 10B. The reason? We begin to delve into a gamut of complicated, yet crucial human rights issues. To be honest, there is very little that I am more passionate about than social justice. And from what I’ve seen from this generation, for many of my students this is the “stuff” that matters.

Everything about this semester is intricately crafted. As a class we’re going somewhere. I teach the Holocaust for a reason beyond the fact that my students find it interesting. I teach the Rwandan genocide for reasons other than to show them that genocide has happened, and continues to happen, repeatedly. The truth is I teach both of these to show my students that the bystander effect is lethal, often on a scale beyond our imagination.

Furthermore, I don’t ask my students to try to decide if they would’ve been counted among the few who helped persecuted people flee or hide. For me, that’s the wrong question. It’s too easy to say 15 or 70 years after a genocide that you would have done the right thing. It’s easy to tell ourselves that we’re brave — that we will stand up for what is right, regardless of the cost.

So here’s the question I pose instead. We have the equivalent of a mass genocide occur every year in the world. You may think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. I speak of those who die needlessly in developing countries, predominantly Africa, every year from diseases that we know how to prevent or treat: malaria, TB, malnutrition, diarrhea. Rather than being hypothetical, the question to my students is: what are you going to do about it? Now, and for the rest of their lives. It’s not enough to say I would have. Instead, we need to say I am. I am personally empowered by this quote:

“The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a  mistake.” Meister Eckhart

I think empathy is one of the most important attributes for young people to develop. We need to cultivate in our students from a young age the gift of empathy; the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings. And we need to act. In some way, every one of us on the globe does.

A week of immersion in the real world

Listen to this call from Bono to make our mark on history:

We can be the generation that no longer accepts that an accident of latitude determines whether a child lives or dies — but will we be that generation? Will we in the West realize our potential or will we sleep in the comfort of our affluence with apathy and indifference murmuring softly in our ears? Fifteen thousand people dying needlessly every day from AIDS, TB, and malaria. Mothers, fathers, teachers, farmers, nurses, mechanics, children. This is Africa’s crisis. That it’s not on the nightly news, that we do not treat this as an emergency — that’s our crisis.


Future generations flipping through these pages will know whether we answered the key question. The evidence will be the world around them. History will be our judge, but what’s written is up to us. We can’t say our generation didn’t know how to do it. We can’t say our generation couldn’t afford it. And we can’t say our generation didn’t have reason to do it. It’s up to us.

It’s up to us. This is why school needs to focus on real life. In the end, it’s not the mark on a standardized test that tells me what’s most important about my students’ learning — it’s the compassion they exhibit for other human beings.

So for a week my students are being immersed in countries and situations they’ve never encountered before.

My students have watched Flow and learned about incredibly wealthy companies, from whom we buy our favorite soft drinks, destroying developing countries to ship bottled water to the wealthiest parts of the world.  Furthermore, they learn that bottled water has few regulations required of it, and often your tap water is healthier and has far stricter regulations regarding the level of contaminants.

Through our connected classroom, they’ve been inside a Chinese factory to see the deplorable conditions in which most of our jeans are made. They come away with a better understanding of the subjugation of workers, the poverty and hopelessness that many young girls who work in these factories in China find themselves in, with little opportunity for a better life.

And the past two days they’ve learned that Walmart isn’t quite the company they thought it was. They’ve discovered that those low prices come at a high cost, often to the people who can least afford to pay it. For many, this has been the most shocking revelation of all. For some, it has changed their shopping habits. And tomorrow, we’ll begin to learn about the Price of Sugar.

This intense week is revelatory for many of my students. They’ve had no idea. How could they? It’s not something we often talk about in our current culture. But we should be talking about it. And this is the unit that I feel the most responsibility for teaching. As gently and lovingly as possible, I reveal to them that the world isn’t quite as honest and kind as they think it is.

It’s not about guilt. It’s about being educated and making educated choices. However, I think sometimes as teachers we draw the line at educating our students about justice issues, and forgo the most powerful and important step in preparing and requiring them do something that will make a difference.

My six-week curriculum

The classroom experience I’ve just described is the first phase of a six-week examination of the essential question: What is justice? What does that word mean? And for whom? And is our definition somehow skewed as North Americans who have more than our fair share of the resources?

As part of their study, my students will have to research their own justice issue. Something they are passionate about. Then they need to create an action plan, use technology and social media to inform the public about it, and connect with an organization that makes a difference in that area. Most important – they need to DO something.

I plan to introduce my students to Kiva & the wonder of microfinance. If you’re unfamiliar with microfinance or Kiva, this TED talk from one of the organization’s founders reveals the power of small amounts of money to radically change the life of people around the world.

The internet has dramatically picked up the pace at which we can change the world.  I believe the young people in our millions of classrooms across North America have the potential make a huge contribution to that change, starting $25 dollars at a time.

During this same six-week period, we’re also going to be studying Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird concurrently. I’m going to require my students to make the connections between these two works written centuries apart, in very different times and settings. Oddly, even though I’ve taught these two texts in the same semester for six years, I didn’t see the powerful connections until one frosty evening in March, in the midst of my students’ Holocaust museum project — some of the deepest learning about injustice that’s ever taken place in my classroom.

I’ve never attempted to do this kind of combining before. And yet, somehow, interweaving among these three activities strikes me as a very powerful teaching and learning strategy.  Throughout all this study, we’ll be creating a justice wiki that allows students to collaborate and make connections between the texts and the world they’ve been learning about.

When I mentioned to my class that we’d be studying Merchant and Mockingbird together, one of my students looked at me and asked, “What do those two have in common?” My reply: “You figure it out.”

The truth is — going into this, I have no idea how it’s going to work out. Will two texts be too much? Will they be able to keep track of it? And in grade 10?  But I’m ready to take the risk.

As a teacher, I want to require more of my students than the standard curriculum allows. So for the next six weeks, we’ll try to figure out what justice means, for us and the world, while we’re learning to fight for it at the same time.

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