Literacy · Teaching Reflections · Teaching Topics/Activities · Topics for Parents and Students

Social Issues in Ontario will always have a home in English Class!

Over the past couple weeks, Ontario teachers have been up in arms in arms about the repealing then, re-structuring of the sex ed curriculum. As an observer, I’ve kind of shrugged my shoulders about this because as an English teacher I know that many of us tackle these topics in our classrooms regularly – regardless of ‘curriculum’.

See, the absolute beauty of the English curriculum in Ontario is that it is incredibly vague – so vague, in fact, that it barely changes from grades 1-8 other than the ‘teachable expectations’ (overalls stay relatively the same). The secondary curriculum follows the same pattern – 4 strands (reading, writing, oral communication, media) with similar overall expectations to the previous grades, then different specific expectations for each course. In reality the topics and texts students read, write, view and speak about are selected based on teacher and student interest. In  short, if one of my students wants to read an independent novel about a same-sex person or family and do an oral presentation about that particular lifestyle they are more than open to that – as per the curriculum.

I’ve covered all the topics that everyone is arguing about in my English classroom for years now – as they are current, engaging and part of the social fabric of our province. No, I’m not ‘teaching’ lifestyles, political viewpoints or online promiscuity but my students do read, debate and think about social issues that impact their daily lives. I do realize that some of these topics are harder to blend into elementary classrooms, but due to the open nature of the English curriculum it is entirely possible.

In reality, my personal political lean is conservative but that doesn’t mean I want my students to be ignorant about the world they live in. I really believe there is a major difference between informing students about social topics and issues, rather than teaching them. I think that the English curriculum provides the best backdrop for this opportunity for teachers.

5 Ways to Blend ‘Social Issues’ into your English Classroom

Articles of the Week :If you read you know that I’m a huge supporter of Kelly Gallagher’s ‘articles of the week’ initiative. Essentially, the concept is that students require an understanding of the world around them, as well as an ability to learn close reading and responding skills. Students are given weekly articles on ‘hot topics’ that are current and engaging. They are then asked to complete a close reading of the article as well as complete a written response. My teachers pay teachers store offers a free resource to get you started in this task (click and enjoy).  Fun disclaimer: my first one this year will be about the controversial sex-ed curriculum. 

Persuasive Writing and Speaking: My students love arguing and I’m sure yours do too. I often have students write a persuasive essay about a controversial topic then try to convince their audience of their point of view by turning it into a speech. I usually provide students a list of ‘hot’ topics, and I also allow them to pick their own if appropriate. Topics have (and will most likely continue to include): same sex marriage, technology addiction, sexualization of teenagers through media, transgendered rights (bathrooms, etc.), abortion, etc.

Independent Reading: My class begins each day with ‘independent reading’ where students are given the choice to read whatever they want (in novel form). My personal classroom library is stocked FULL of current, engaging texts from various publishers who specialize in teen issues (i.e. sexting, sexuality, mental health, etc.). Many of my students select these novels to read of their own accord and often share them with the class via book talks, oral presentations or group work.

Journal Writing: Another classroom routine many English teachers use is journaling. I ask students to journal via a prompt I give them at the beginning of class. The purpose of journaling is to be able to explore ideas in writing. Prompts can come from a variety of different inspirations: seasons, current events, social issues, student suggestions, creative explorations, etc. I also use journals as a place students can feel safe expressing their emotions, fears and asking questions. I do not grade journals – they are a place where my students can practice their writing and have a written dialogue with me, their teacher.

Media Trend Analysis and Infographic: Media is a huge part of our world today, and with that comes a variety of new social issues: technology addiction, medical implications related to attention and mental health, information overload, fake news, access to inappropriate images and information for youth, sexting, online bullying, cell phones in the classroom etc. Since media is a strand of the English curriculum at all grade levels, these topics blend naturally into our curriculum. For years, I’ve selected a ‘hot’ media issue and have had students read, write, think about it then create a infographic to display information about it. Sometimes, I’ve asked for an information poster, other times a statistical infographic that could be shared online. I’ve also had students write and share their own fake news articles, and spent a ton of time on online bullying and the dangers of sexting.

Use the English Curriculum to your Advantage!

Again, the beauty of Ontario’s English curriculum is that it allows for any text or topic (student or teacher selected) to be used for reading, writing, oral communication or media. Logically, teachers need to be responsible in their selection of texts and topics, and select ones that are suitable for their students academic grade level, engagement and age. Nevertheless, it does allow for social and current issues relating to students to be analyzed and discussed in a very open and honest manner.




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