Enacting socially relevant curriculum: A case study of responding to tragedy

Dr Janette Kelly-Ware, University of Waikato

Contemporary curriculum needs to speak to “the things that really matter in children’s lives or in the lives of those who care for them” (Silin, 1995, p. 40). I have previously written (see here and here) that curriculum that balances the interests of the child with the interests of the community should focus on issues like fairness, justice, anti-racism and our shared humanity – issues of concern to society as a whole. What knowledge is valued and spoken about, and what knowledge is ignored or silenced in education settings, concerns many of us who value social justice, including teacher educators. This blog post explores these issues in relation to my own teaching practices in an online early childhood education (ECE) paper at The University of Waikato.

Research context: The 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings

On 15 March 2019, fifty-one children, women and men were killed in massacres at Masjid Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Ōtautahi / Christchurch, New Zealand. News of the massacres committed by a lone gunman during juma (the congregational prayers on Friday) sent “seismic shocks throughout the country”.

I was teaching when the news broke and, after their break in my face-to-face Friday afternoon class, I overheard students talking about the horror. Over the next few days New Zealanders heard that the shootings (which were livestreamed on social media) were directed specifically at Muslim worshippers. Arndt and Tesar (2020) argue that as a result, “many questions were brought to the fore about what racial ‘otherness’ means in New Zealand, as well as related concerns about social relations – and disintegration” (p. 36). 

As a teacher educator/researcher committed to social justice and socially relevant curriculum, these terror attacks challenged me to urgently respond. It seemed highly inappropriate to teach as scheduled about Play and Creativity in the Curriculum in the midst of a horrendous tragedy. Here was an opportunity to enact ‘socially relevant curriculum’, which had been a key feature of my recently completed doctoral thesis.

I set up an alternative discussion forum for the next week (18-24 March 2019) entitled: What happened to our world? And does God go to preschool? I provided provocations for the students in the form of responses to catastrophes and tragedies in ECE through the arts and through religion and spirituality (see also the chapter by Hannigan in this book). Additional links included a news article entitled What to tell children about the Christchurch mosque shootings and the Human Rights Commission’s video Give nothing to racism.

I obtained ethical approval to examine students’ discussion posts from this forum for research purposes. Students made 50 discussion posts over 7 days, and 16 out of 25 students (65% of the all-women class) subsequently consented to their contributions being analysed and shared publicly for the purposes of continuing the dialogue and supporting pedagogy in this area.

Findings and learnings

The students’ forum posts indicate that the tragic incidents and the related provocations within our online coursework generated rich learning. This section reviews the different discourses and themes that were identified in the data.

Personal connections

Unsurprisingly in our small country, several students made personal connections with the attacks in Ōtautahi / Christchurch in their posts. One student knew children who were involved in a school ‘lockdown’ near the mosque, while another related that their local dairy owner in Hamilton lost nine friends in the attack. Another student identified herself as Muslim, posting:

“I know the sense of peace and mindfulness that occurs during juma (the congregational prayers on Friday) and am deeply saddened by what happened in a place that is viewed as safe for many people.”  

Vulnerability, safety, and support

Many students mentioned ‘safety’ and ‘vulnerability’ in their forum posts, with some expressing shock and disbelief that this country was not safe for everyone. One student wrote reflectively that whilst she believed everyone was safe here,

“This belief highlights once again how colourblind I am.”

Another student posted:

“The recent Christchurch terrorist attack has shattered this peaceful nation, but this nation won’t bow down against this cowardly attack of racism and is trying its best to stand tall again.”

Other students talked about their curriculum obligations as teachers and described how they would reassure children that they were safe when considering what they might say to young children at this time.  

Otherness and sameness

The discourse of sameness – ‘cultural homogenisation’ or universalising – was sometimes represented uncritically. Borrowing from a song, one student posted:

“People over the world, reach out your hand, and touch each other, people over the world, we are the same, just different colours.”

Others described the attack being on all of us, not just Muslims:

“All of New Zealand was hurt, all of New Zealand needs to heal”


“This unitedness that is pouring out now shows everyone else feels the same.”

Only one student problematised the discourse of “otherness and sameness” that the statement “They are us and we are them” by the Hon Jacinda Ardern could be seen to invoke. This student wrote:

“The events were more confusing for me because I did not expect the media to refer to this as a terrorist attack. I expected to see the viewpoint I have grown accustomed to hearing ‘they brought their problems to our country’. Instead, there was an overwhelming display of aroha, manaakitanga and unity from New Zealand as a whole. This was an attack on Muslims but all of New Zealand felt the effects.”

This student’s sense of otherness was seemingly mitigated in some small way by the media description of the events as ‘a terrorist attack’ where the victims and not the perpetrators were Muslim, and her identification of New Zealand as a unified country.

Racism and anti-racism

A number of students cited either personal examples or examples common in the media at the time where people described racist behaviour they had been subjected to and fears for their safety due to their ‘cultural otherness’. The HRC video had a powerful effect, with almost every student referring to the video noting that racism starts small with seemingly insignificant jokes, statements and acts, and that it has a cumulative effect. Many students recognised their unique positions as teachers and parents who are responsible for

“Building a positive foundation in terms of cultural awareness and diversity.”

One student succinctly summarised what ‘give nothing to racism’ means, stating it is:

“To not just ignore racism but to reassess how we contribute to racism as a society and to stand up against it even when it feels uncomfortable to do so.”

Spirituality, religion, and faith

Religion, faith and spirituality were keenly debated. One student described religion as personal, a polarising topic, and something she preferred not to talk about. Other students variously identified as Christian, Catholic, Sikh, Muslim, Atheist, connected to a Buddhist community, or as supporting “a broad perspective on spirituality.” This latter student advocated for a similarly broad view in ECE, as

“In that way it can be relevant to every faith. My beliefs are that of a higher consciousness and I do not prescribe to an organised religion.”

In their posts, many of these women sought to share a little of their faith, identifying it as being fundamental to their identity, and to the children and families they were/would be teaching. Cowhey’s (2006) work helped many students visualise how they might address issues of spiritual beliefs and religious differences with young children.  

Childhood innocence – knowing and not knowing

The discourse of childhood innocence was potentially visible as students unanimously posted that, in their ECE workplaces and their families, young children aged under 5 years had no inkling of the tragic events on 15 March 2019. However, one student teacher had a realisation,

“Having not previously considered that many of the preschoolers have older siblings who have probably seen and heard about it, and small snippets will come through to preschool so we do need to know how to deal with any questions or comments or behaviours that arise”.

Another student posted that

“Children have an innocent and accepting view to difference, but as they grow, they soak up the views of their influential adults/society”. 

A closing challenge

The massacres that took place at Christchurch mosques were significant, traumatic events, and the initial impact of what happened on 15 March 2019 was widely felt across tertiary classrooms, ECE centres, schools and workplaces throughout Aotearoa New Zealand. At the time of the Mosque killings, the women in this research had been at The University of Waikato for only two months and had only spent one week face-to-face for orientation purposes. The online discussion forum arguably offered a space in troubled times where a partnership in learning emerged that was “supportive of both students and teachers as whole human beings with complex lives” (Balakrishnan & Claiborne, 2017, p. 51). Subsequent discussions with these and other student teachers have reinforced the need for educators and students to be prepared to speak about the things that matter.

Leading by example, teachers can open up spaces for dialogue and for students to learn with and from each other (see Betts & Gaches’ chapter in this book), and so I encourage readers to reflect on the example(s) they set. Do we shy away from tough topics – difficult conversations, dangerous knowledge, cultural otherness, and diversity and difference? Or do we tackle issues of concern to society in our curricula, regardless of who or where we teach? What other issues warrant our attention in order to create socially just and socially relevant curriculum? This blog post and the associated research are intended to continue this important dialogue.

This blog post is based on an article published in Teachers’ Work in 2020. Interested readers can access this article via the link: https://ojs.aut.ac.nz/teachers-work/article/view/300/458

Cover image: Bernard Spragg on Flickr

Janette Kelly-Ware is a Senior Lecturer in Education and the Academic Coordinator for the Graduate Diploma in Teaching (Early Childhood Education) at The University of Waikato. Her research interests include spirituality, sexualities, diversity and social justice, picturebooks, and nature-based education.

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