Alix Juillet is an elementary student teacher at SFU, hoping to work in the Surrey or New Westminster school district as a primary or early intermediate teacher after her program finishes in December. Based out of the Surrey campus, Alix is a member of the Literacy in the Urban Classroom module and has spent the last four months both at the university with her cohort and in a short practicum applying her knowledge. With special interests in social justice and fostering critical thinking in her students, this conference caught her eye. She decided to focus this article on what stood out most for her as a future teacher.
Highlights from the Conference, by Alix Juillet
On April 28th 2014, I had the privilege of attending the We Shall Have Peace conference at Simon Fraser University, a BCTF Regional Social Justice Conference organized by the British Columbia Teachers for Peace and Global Education (PAGE BC), a BCTF Provincial Specialists Association. The day consisted of workshops and a youth panel in the morning, with a keynote speech and spoken word performance in the afternoon.
As a student teacher and thus a newcomer to the world of education I was excited to be involved in a conference centered around peace and social justice. In the morning I participated in a workshop on Developing Strategies for Discussing Controversial Issues, focused on providing educators with tools and activities on teaching challenging issues in a responsible and respectful manner.
The session was largely taught through experiential learning opportunities by facilitator Ron Hofman, with the participants learning meaningful, easy to implement strategies that provide students with the safest space conceivable to unpack controversial issues.
The most thought-provoking technique explored was the Horseshoe Activity, where students physically place themselves in a horseshoe shape based on their stance on a particular issue. Strongly agree is on one end of the spectrum and strongly disagree is on the opposite, with students slotting themselves in where they identify with the topic at hand.
The session and this activity in particular provided opportunities to learn inclusive teaching methods that center around the idea of safety for students. Since discussing controversial issues can often be sensitive and potentially uncomfortable, it is necessary for students to develop a safe, trusting space in which to share opinions and perspectives. The Horseshoe Activity accommodates all learners by allowing more reserved students to simply show their position through their physical stance instead of speaking out. Students can also move around the horseshoe as the discussion ensues if their opinions change, thus making this an activity that promotes critical thinking and embracing new perspectives.
Throughout the session, we as participants had many chances to voice our thoughts and share what we have done in our practice surrounding controversial issues. This was one of the most valuable parts of the workshop for me, having the opportunity to collaborate with like-minded peers and gain new perspectives through discussion. This is the goal of many professional development seminars and Hofman did a fantastic job of creating an open and sharing atmosphere for the attendees.
The afternoon keynote speech by Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish was a standout as well. A medical doctor who grew up in Palestine, his past differed greatly from my own and likely most of the individuals in the room. He tragically lost his wife to cancer and three of his daughters to violence in his home country and has since been touring the world through his organization Daughters for Life. This group, established in memory of his daughters, awards scholarships to women in Middle Eastern countries to help them achieve their goals and become leaders in the world. He believes very strongly in education for women and said during his speech that women’s education is the key indicator of development in any country.
After hearing him speak it is no surprise that Abuelaish has won countless humanitarian awards for his great work. He spoke extensively about peace and its importance in education. The work of teachers, for Abuelaish, is to establish a lasting peace and create harmony in a classroom where students may not experience safety and belonging elsewhere in their lives. By making the school environment a diplomatic one, learners have the chance to see peace in action and gain strategies for fostering goodwill in the larger community.
One of the key messages in Abuelaish’s speech was that we as humans must not remain stagnant because if we do, we damage ourselves. It is necessary to keep moving and act for justice, for “the more we sweat for peace, the less we bleed in war”, as said by the keynote speaker. These actions begin locally and can be something as simple as a school or community service project with our students that slowly expands to reach a larger group of people.
There are countless understandings stemming from this conference that I will incorporate into my pedagogy, perhaps the most profound being the awareness that we as teachers have a fundamental responsibility to ask questions of the world and be change-agents. We must pose important questions to our students and look beyond the requirement of merely teaching the curriculum. We must teach to the whole child and teach them, as Abuelaish said, to “ask, to learn and then to act”.
It is not enough to simply learn about the injustices of the world, instead we need to step out into society, practice kind words and good deeds. Perhaps in this way we can follow the wisdom of Maria Montessori when she said that “establishing lasting peace is the work of education”.