By Sue Tiffin
A group of students sitting in a classroom became part of an activity resulting in a powerful learning opportunity without even leaving their chairs.
The Haliburton Highlands Secondary School students were instructed to not move from where they sat, while a bucket was placed at the front of the room. Though all sitting at different angles, near and far from the bucket, the students were asked to throw a ball of paper toward it – if they got the ball of paper into the bucket, they scored a point.
“Obviously, students at the front of the room have the advantage, because they are closer,” said Jenn Mills, HHSS vice-principal who led the activity. “Great discussion around if it’s fair. What would make it more fair? How did you feel about where you were sitting for this activity? How does this relate to privilege and oppression? How can we make levels of privilege more equitable?”
The activity was part of an 18-module program called the J.E.D.I. Program, developed by a team of educators, to help both staff and students at HHSS have the chance to learn more and have greater awareness about justice, equity, diversity and inclusion and consider vocabulary, topics and issues related to those topics that affect their world today.
“We all have more to learn,” said Mills. “I know I gained knowledge myself while researching and going through these modules.”
The program’s mission statement reads: “Justice. Equity. Diversity. Inclusion. [J.E.D.I] learning modules are about creating positive change in our world by increasing awareness and acting to reduce factors that impinge on equal opportunities for everyone regardless of gender, race, class, ability, religion, sexual orientation, identity or circumstance. We aim to create and foster a positive school environment in which each person’s unique set of ideas, beliefs, and skills are valued.”
“This isn’t separate from the curriculum we are teaching,” said Mills. “In fact, Ontario’s Equity and Inclusion Strategy document – released over a decade ago – states that classrooms need to be inclusive and students should be able to see themselves in what we teach. By taking this J.E.D.I. journey together, we are laying the groundwork for this to happen now and in the future because we will know the correct vocabulary, have broader views on issues and injustices beyond what we see everyday. Without this knowledge it’s hard to embed these issues into the curriculum since some students wouldn’t have the background information on certain issues/topics to give them a context to start with.”
HHSS educators Karen Gervais, Christine Carr and Amy Klose, alongside some fellow educators, developed the J.E.D.I. program modules to be used by their colleagues during class.
“They included topics that would be significant to students and allowed them to broaden their knowledge base allowing them to see other perspectives,” said Mills. “Some of the topics included were race, bias, ethnicity, Indigenous culture, stereotypes, gender, discrimination, human rights, and identity. Our teachers facilitated these lessons through discussions, interactive activities, reflections, powerful and thought-provoking videos, and world events.”
Some teachers, she said, made connections between what they were teaching, and the J.E.D.I. lessons.
“For example Ms. Andress – who was supporting the Grade 10 physics class – did some research into science, technology and race,” said Mills. “She discovered that automatic sensors for soap or sanitizers don’t all recognize coloured skin. This linked into discussion around why and who was creating the technology and doing the testing. If people with coloured skin were involved then perhaps this injustice could have been avoided.”
When HHSS staff and students moved to online learning as a result of pandemic lockdowns in the province, challenges associated with the virtual setting made implementing the modules more difficult – engagement was lower than the staff had hoped, with about half of the students participating on a regular basis, but those who did participate offered positive feedback on the learning and opportunity.
The benefits of the program are essential.
“We hope to create a community of allies,” said Mills. “Students who aren’t afraid to stand up for others or themselves if they see injustices happening. Students who are knowledgeable about world issues and societal norms. Students who feel comfortable to be themselves because they have the support of others around them. Students who can leave our school and feel comfortable having conversations about global issues because they have the background knowledge. There are so many things we hope will come of our journey we have just started.”
Feedback about the program was “overwhelmingly positive for the most part,” said Mills, with families, teachers and students responding to a questionnaire noting the program helped students feel more comfortable having discussions and asking questions about “things we don’t know about and should,” appreciate “how we were all able to learn a lot and be more conscious about what is going on around us,” and learn “about all of the different parts of our identity and what makes us who we are.” Parents said the program created discussion around the dinner table that provoked deeper thinking, and that the students were better able to understand themselves and “what they need and want to feel a sense of belonging and connection to others.”
Not all of the feedback was positive, said Mills, and that was important to hear, too. Some parents asked questions about the program and why it was being offered, though Mills said once it was explained further the families were “receptive and appreciative.”
“Some people mentioned that this type of knowledge was not needed because we live in a small town, especially for the students who are not leaving,” said Mills. “Our response is such that students from every ability level, career path, and background can benefit from knowing more about the world around us, including inclusion and equity topics. Even though our ‘small town’ might look homogeneous it is not. Just because people can’t ‘see’ differences all around them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. People come from all different backgrounds, economic status, identities, gender, race, religions, Indigenous cultures, and so much more. If we don’t learn about differences and become knowledgeable, global citizens then we could perpetuate stereotypes, bias and discrimination without realizing it. The more knowledge you can take in, the more informed your decisions and views can be. If topics make you uncomfortable, then let’s be OK with discomfort and decide that maybe we need to learn more about it so that it doesn’t make us uncomfortable.”
Mills said some feedback suggested the learning was “political,” and that students could do their own research on it if they wanted to know more. She said the program was about knowing more, and that rather than forcing opinions, educators were helping to increase awareness.
“I keep coming back to the quote from Maya Angelou – ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.’ Our job as educators is to push everyone’s thinking, so that’s what we do. Provide opportunities for students to learn, and they can do with that knowledge however they decide.”
“Many of our students, families and staff recognize the importance of this learning journey,” she said. “However we won’t ignore any of the criticism or negativity that came about – it tells us that we have more work to do and a long way to go. We will use the momentum that these J.E.D.I. modules created to continue to educate, adapt and make our school a more positive inclusive place for everyone.”
Students who participated in the program can receive an ‘ally T-shirt,’ designed by Jocelyn Chumbley and April Kovacs with help from students enrolled in art courses. The logo for the certificate of completion that students receive was designed by student Colleen Petric.
“We were pleased with the outcome so far, however we know that we still have lots of work to do,” said Mills. “This is just the start of our journey. We are grateful for the teachers who facilitated and the students who participated online in this J.E.D.I. journey in this unprecedented time.”
Feedback from students and staff on how the program might be improved will be considered and acted on.
“This will help us move forward and develop more opportunities for students, staff and our communities to become more aware, knowledgeable and stronger allies,” said Mills.