Prime Minister's Award winners:
Carolyn Wilson in Stratford
Mark Robbins in Barry's Bay
Carolyn Wilson has taught English, media studies and global issues at Stratford's St. Michael Catholic Secondary School in the Huron-Perth Catholic DSB since beginning her career in 1987. Throughout this time a strong sense of empathy and interconnectedness has shaped her practice and inspired her students.
“For me, the Catholic school system is about the social teachings of the church – prioritizing human rights and responsibilities, the dignity of all people, the promotion of the common good, social and economic justice and global solidarity and development. The things I do with my students reflect these teachings.”
“She made me want to learn,” says former student, Pascal Murphy. “Her classes focused on real-life issues and events. They weren't about memorizing facts. I came out of her classes with a vastly different perspective about myself and my place in the world.”
Murphy went on to attend King's University College at the University of Western Ontario, developing his own course of study, which became the basis for a program in social justice and peace studies. He now works at King's College as an admission and liaison officer.
Clive Beck, a professor at OISE/UT and the author of Better Schools: A Values Perspective (1990), says that this kind of teaching is about “helping children become good citizens, with values and skills vital to our dynamic and multicultural society.”
Beck calls it way-of-life education.
Using international field trips and a close examination of the influence of the media, Wilson challenges her students – moving them to critically assess their values and their roles in society and to become global citizens.
“Thanks to Carolyn I have a broader perspective,” says another former student, Sheila Flaherty, now studying political science at the University of Toronto. “I care about world events and what's happening in the news. I'm politically active and I have a heightened awareness of social justice.”
Analysis and opinion
Wilson helps global issues students understand world events by teaching them to critically examine mass-media messages – many of which she believes are designed to sell via shock.
She points out what is absent. We may see pictures of extreme poverty and suffering in Bangladesh, for example, but not hear about the improvement in women's literacy rates and the profound benefits this is having on families and society.
“The story about literacy unfolds slowly, without compelling pictures. It can't compete with a flood, so we don't hear about it – even though the number of lives saved by educating women far exceeds those lost in a flood,” Wilson explains.
In media studies class Wilson encourages students to think about and discuss contentious issues, such as US involvement in the Middle East.
“Teenagers fired up about world events – that's what real learning is about,” says Flaherty.
The world awaits
Wilson also strives to provide her students with direct experiences that will assist them in understanding the mediated ones they receive elsewhere.
She agrees with Beck that, “Unless students have opportunities to live values rather than merely talk about them, their learning will be minimal.” We learn to practise and appreciate things like tolerance and empathy by example – not through an artificial values-laden curriculum,” she adds.
Wilson's lifelong interest in development issues began in her hometown of Seaforth, where she heard about local nuns and priests involved in outreach and missionary work. In 1995 she decided to integrate this interest into her teaching and organized a school trip to the Dominican Republic. The trip was an overwhelming success and continues to be.
The students do not become involved in work projects. They are simply immersed in a community, living with host families and learning how people live and work. They visit schools, families, churches and spend time on the sugar-cane plantations (batteys). Most of all, they listen to stories and gain perspective on the developing world and themselves.
Many Dominicans and Haitians work in sweatshops and the sugar industry and live in extreme poverty. Yet they celebrate family and community and a strong faith sustains them as they truly believe that God will look after them.
Flaherty describes her experience as both spiritual and surreal. “These people, especially the children, have nothing – just four concrete walls,” she says. “Yet they're happy and full of joy. I was happy there too – content in simple surroundings. It's so vastly different from home.”
In Canada, we tend to budget our happiness. “We often think, when I graduate, I'll be happy; when I have my first job, my first car, when I've paid off my mortgage, then I'll be happy,” says Wilson. “The Dominican people define happiness in profoundly different ways and we can learn a great deal from them. Our students take away so much from this experience – it's an incredible journey towards creating compassionate global citizens.”
“After the trip students never see the world the same way again,” says Wilson. “And they want to apply what they have learned to their own lives and to those around them.”
For many, schoolwork takes on a new perspective. They may change their plans for jobs or university. Many have different views of consumerism and materialism.
For one global-issues class assignment, students are asked to pick a clothing label and trace its manufacture through a follow-the-logo activity. They visit the designer's web site, analyze ad campaigns and investigate criticism from organizations such as the Canadian Labour Congress that document labour practices. They learn the importance of looking beyond labels to the “reality behind the image.”
For her project, Flaherty looked at the Gap. “I learned that great friendships mean much more than good clothes. And they don't wear out.”
“I came to see the political and economic influence we in the first world wield,” says Murphy. “We really have a tremendous impact on those living in the third world. It's up to us to make a difference.”
Murphy's commitment to global issues and social responsibility continues. He has spent time in Ghana, working on projects led by Ghanaians. Back in Canada he has worked with the Children's Aid Society and L'Arche, an organization devoted to helping adults with mental health challenges live integrated lives outside of institutions.
Another outside-the-classroom activity takes students to Fort Benning, Georgia – home to the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), where soldiers from around the world are taught how to quell demonstrations and civilian uprisings.
SOA Watch was created in 1990. Each November it organizes a week-long teach-in, attracting thousands of students and culminating in a “die-in” and mock funeral procession on the weekend. As many as 15,000 people march to the gates of Fort Benning – each carrying a cross with the name of a person killed – some merely because they were suspected of being involved in a political demonstration – by a graduate of the school.
Each year Wilson organizes a weekend trip to Fort Benning, where students join the massive demonstration and peaceful protest march commemorating November 16, 1989 – when six Jesuit priests, their co-worker and her teenage daughter were massacred in El Salvador. (A US congressional task force reported that those responsible were trained at SOA.)
“Being there, wearing black and suddenly being splattered with [fake] blood and dying left quite an impression,” recalls Flaherty. “Thousands of us lay dead on the ground for two hours, listening to the names of innocent people killed.” She recalls how her own physical discomfort faded as the names were read out and she thought of their suffering and their families.
“We take students outside their comfort zone to experience a new reality,” says Wilson. “Afterwards, many start to examine their own choices and values. It's a powerful experience.”
“For me, the motto of the event is mourn the dead; fight for the living,” says Flaherty. “I have a strong sense of social justice from that experience and I believe I always will.”
Murphy also learned about SOA from Wilson and now organizes an annual trip himself. In 2004 nearly 100 King's University College students and London-area residents went with him. He looks forward to seeing his teacher-mentor at the gates of Fort Benning each year.
For many current and former students, this teacher has opened the world. What better praise could a teacher hear than such heartfelt appreciation:
“Carolyn Wilson is an inspiration and a hero,” says Flaherty. “She has broadened my horizons and inspired me to do great things.”
Murphy concurs: “A decade later, her influence is still present in my life. She sparked my interest in social justice and she gave me tools to develop those interests.”
In addition to teaching full-time, Carolyn Wilson is president of the Media Literacy Association. She has lectured widely and given numerous workshops on global studies and the media, gender representation and the role of media literacy in communications technology programs. She also co-authored the popular textbook, Mass Media and Popular Culture, Version 2 and prepares study guides for CHUM Television's Cable in the Classroom programming.
Association for Media Literacy
Carolyn Wilson is currently President of the Association of Media Literacy (AML), a North American organization of teachers, librarians, consultants, parents, cultural workers and media professionals concerned about the impact of the mass media on contemporary culture. The organization promotes the understanding of culture and technology and aims to help students develop an informed and critical understanding of mass media, their techniques and their impact.
Wilson notes that, while one-quarter of every high school English credit must reflect media literacy teaching and assessment, many English teachers have no direct training. The AML is lobbying for changes to pre-service English qualifications that will ensure that new teachers receive this training.
The web site of the Association for Media Literacy offers media-related resources, teaching and learning materials and links. Membership is $30 per year.
Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence
These awards recognize outstanding teachers in all disciplines who instill in their students a love of learning, helping them excel and build a successful future. The awards are given to teachers who have achieved outstanding results with students, inspiring them to learn and continue learning and equipping them with the skills and attitudes they need to succeed in our changing society and knowledge-based economy. For more information or to learn how to nominate an outstanding teacher, visit pma-ppm.ic.gc.ca.