Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 8, 1999
Schools focus on social teaching
Gospel values taught through service projects, social justice awareness
By LELLA BLUMER
Special to the WCR
It's 10 a.m., and a handful of Grade 12 students are grappling with the questions raised by the Jubilee 2000 debt reduction campaign.
Should the world's poorest countries be forgiven their debts? Is it immoral to continue to burden them with impossible interest payments at the expense of proper medical care? Or is it their responsibility to pay off the money they owe?
The panel discussion is part of the Religion 35 course at St. Francis Xavier High School, but it's not limited to a moral discussion of right and wrong. Students talk about good and bad business practices, the role of multinational corporations in Third World development, and the politics of dictatorships.
Underlying the discussion is a question raised by teacher Mike Dea: How do we respond to our call as Christians to care for our brothers and sisters?
"We don't expect kids to have the answers," says Dea after the debate. It's a question of raising awareness of social justice issues, and of the Church's teaching on social justice.
In the Greater St. Albert Catholic school division, there is a special focus this year on how Gospel values are reflected in the wide variety of community service projects in which students are involved.
"We want our kids to understand the causes of other people's difficulties, as well as reaching out to help others," says Dawn Kirvan, religious education and Christian family life consultant for the division.
"We make sure the kids know and can articulate the link between Gospel values and service projects, so they are aware of why we are doing this."
Kirvan says service projects are nothing new, and public schools as well as Catholic schools are involved in activities like collecting food for the food bank and raising money for service organizations.
"I think there's been an increase in the secular world on social justice issues, because events (like natural disasters, wars) are in the news so often." But she cautions that the call to treat people justly goes deeper than filling a Christmas hamper.
Elementary schools in St. Albert support the Holy Childhood Association, which provides them not only with educational material and projects to become involved in, but focuses on the importance of prayer in the lives of Christians.
Junior and senior high schools receive educational material from the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, and students participate in events such as ThinkFast, which raises money for Third World countries while examining the causes of hunger.
Although there is a strong social justice component throughout the religion curriculum, beginning in kindergarten, Kirvan says it is integrated into other subject areas wherever possible.
"When we talk about the economy, social studies teachers may raise the issue of agricultural practices of large companies which leave local farmers impoverished. At other times they could point out human rights abuses, such as the lack of political freedom and censorship."
The role of teachers is critical in articulating the Church perspective on social issues, says Patrick McDonald, religious education consultant for Edmonton Catholic Schools.
"The obligation is on teachers to inform themselves, first of all, of the social justice teachings of the Church, and then to be creative, no matter what they're teaching" in integrating those teachings into the curriculum.
But are kids getting the message?
Sometimes it works better than at others, says Kirvan. It's most effective when personal contacts are made, people in the community come in and talk about their work with social agencies and the difference they've made.
Bob Schmidt, animator for the Alberta-Mackenzie district of Development and Peace, agrees.
"Our best experience in trying to captivate the imagination is when we bring people in who can speak from the heart about their work, and that really captures their attention."
"There are always those who are really keen, and those who are not really interested," Schmidt adds. But the goal of raising awareness is "to help students analyze critically the world around them, and ask specific questions about why things are the way they are."
"We want to encourage students to work within the building, but also to step outside the building and look at what's out there," agrees Rick Winter, head of the social studies department at St. Francis Xavier.
And if the goal is increased awareness, the student discussion at St. F.X. is proof that goal is being reached.
They may not feel equipped, ready or willing to answer the call to create a more just society . . . yet.
But the seeds need to be planted, says religion teacher Mike Dea.
"We can't get everything done in the classroom. You have to raise the issues, let the ideas perk a little bit, and then go back and raise them again and again."