Connecting with causes

Today’s students are more connected with social issues than the previous generation. Here’s how local teachers are making that happen

You can’t scroll through your Facebook or Twitter feed, read a magazine or newspaper, or watch the news without being challenged by a social issue or issues. From community to national or international in scope, they deal with a struggle that people face. Cheryl Ward, principal of Heritage Academy in Ottawa understands.

“The majority of our students have dyslexia or specific language disorders,” says Ward, “so, for some students, it’s not only a struggle to read, write, or spell, but many find it challenging to read facial expressions or social cues. And now with everyone wearing masks, it makes it even more difficult.”

That has not held back the students at Heritage Academy when it comes to participating in social awareness issues. “Our students understand that they have the power to make positive changes in their community and abroad,” says Ward. “They understand the meaning behind Pink (anti-bullying) and Orange (recognition of the impact of residential schooling on the Indigenous community) Shirt Day, Bullying and Learning Disabilities Awareness Day and that it’s about a struggle. They’ve struggled, so they take real pride in the fact that they are helping others.” Ward says that many Heritage Academy graduates have gone into the caring professions. “We focus on the elements of social, emotional and academic well-being and show our students how to understand their values,” says Ward. “They get the fact that issues are important and our involvement with community social issues has fostered that positive behaviour and willingness to help others.”

For Gareth Reid, director of Turnbull School, it’s all about participating in the community. “One of our primary social causes has been the United Way,” says Reid. “We’ve been involved for many years and focus on social issues like youth homelessness and school breakfast programs. Our emphasis has often been on children and programs for children.” For a small school, they’ve made a big impact. “We hit the $1M-raised mark for the United Way, The Ottawa Hospital and Help Lesotho, in April of 2016,” says Reid. He also emphasizes that it’s not just about the money raised, but the educational component and raising of awareness as well. “We want our students to understand how they can help,” says Reid. “And our international campaign—Help Lesotho—really brings that home for the students.” The campaign raises money for AIDS-ravaged Lesotho, Africa during December. “We’ve raised money to supply Lesotho students with backpacks filled with oral hygiene items or socks and underwear,” says Reid. “That makes our students feel good about making a difference. But they also understand the value of closer-to-home issues like environmental initiatives, or Pink and Orange Shirt Day and reaching out and recognizing the needs in the community.”  

“Within a year such as this one, keeping connected and ensuring students creatively remain engaged and involved is crucial,” says St-Laurent Academy principal of elementary and middle school Colleen Long. “We plan events and activities surrounding the many positive initiatives that occur throughout Ottawa, Ontario and Canada. We look at our year and facilitate monthly student and family events. To name only a few, we are very involved in the Terry Fox Run for the Cure; Orange Shirt Day; communication campaigns with Canada’s Veterans; Amnesty International Letter Writing Month; Anti- Bullying Month/Pink Shirt Day; Black History Month and Earth Day. We are able to weave both community and curriculum into all we do.”   

A key focus within the St-Laurent elementary team is that of Canada’s Indigenous community and peoples. Each month, the students begin their monthly school assembly with a “territorial acknowledgement” and a theme linked to Canada’s Indigenous Cultures.  An in-house team provides lessons, activities tools and visuals for each grade level to use in their classroom curriculum. “With Earth Day right around the corner, the perfect connection can be made here.” says Long. The school has also adopted the Minwaashin Lodge, an Indigenous women’s support centre, and raises funds throughout the year to help support the work they are doing in raising and educating their children under some difficult situations.

All of these efforts complement more traditional subjects, especially in these unusual times. “This year has been a vastly different experience for all schools,” says Long. “Although we are keeping very connected through technology, it just can’t replace the human touch.”