Peace grows in communities where opportunity triumphs over inequality. In Sao Paulo, high crime and stark disparity fester in pockets of the city, most evident in its sprawling favelas. In some parts of the city, a single street separates lavish high-rises from crowded, crumbling homes.
I teach at Graded, an international school in Sao Paulo bordering the favela Paraisopolis. My students, amongst Brazil’s wealthiest, are poised to become influential lawmakers and executives. They will have the power to change systems that perpetuate inequality, but will also have the privilege of choosing whether to ignore these issues or address them. Chauffeured to and from gated communities, they are often blind to the poverty that lies just beyond our school. As their teacher, my job is to help them learn to see.
Throughout this year, I have worked together with my colleagues Laura Murray and Lou Trajano to open our students’ eyes to issues of inequality. In our curriculum, we studied foot-binding in China, Apartheid in South Africa and working conditions during Industrialization, amongst other topics. Yet, despite discussing these topics, our students still perceived poverty as separate from their lives.
To close this gap between knowledge and perception, we collaborated with Caritas, a Brazilian organization that works with low-income children after school. Working with Caritas, our students faced in-the-flesh concepts of inequality that they had only previously studied. They met, played with and grew to care for students who had a very different background than their own. As concepts like educational inequity and hunger became human, they transformed from abstract ideas into the reality undermining these children’s safety and academic success.
To calcify the experiences we had given our students, we closed the school year with a call to action. Our final assessment for the year was a Social Action Project that tasked students with giving a presentation about an action they committed to taking next year to better their community.
Students began by reflecting on issues of inequality that they learned about in class or witnessed through Caritas or other experiences. Then, they researched social issues in their own community and how others have combatted them. Finally, they chose someone to present their project to (for some, it was a parent, an administrator, or simply their classmates).
Throughout the year our students grew in many ways, but by far the most important growth we witnessed was their transformation from ordinary kids to compassionate leaders who speak confidently about inequality, take action to combat it and challenge the biases that they and others have.
The carefully crafted lessons and experiences we gave students this year gently nudged them to face their world, honestly observe it and be open to developing new perspectives. To guide students through this process, I needed to be both a facilitator and model for my students.
The most vital components of this process were:
1. Build Relationships and Create a Safe Space. Within my classroom, my students and I felt comfortable debriefing our experiences and having difficult conversations about bias, race and poverty because we had built strong relationships with each other throughout the year. Our classroom community and norms allowed us to share our voices about topics that people often avoid talking about.
2. Create Experiences. It is easier to change someone’s perspective if you give them an experience instead of simply lecturing or showing a video. For example, when trying to help students understand the idea that race is a social construct, I had them play a sorting game that allowed them to experience how truly subjective sorting people by “race” is. As always, we debriefed the experience as a class.
3. Lead by Example. Throughout the year, students were learning-by-doing. Students were gaining their footing as leaders and learning to interact with diverse populations, but at times this was not successful. Research has shown that modeling is necessary for academic learning and the cultivation of habits and behaviors because it allows students to internalize their learning. As teachers, we prioritized modeling compassionate leadership through our actions when we worked with Caritas.