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Régine Debrosse




Social justice assignments:
A perfect opportunity to leverage students’ strengths?

Régine Debrosse, Assistant Professor and William Dawson Scholar, McGill University
Teaching Resource Prize Winner

Teaching can be puzzling in this moment, especially with the challenges posed by social media undermining human attention, AI developing content too conveniently, and attempts to support students recover from what they missed during the pandemic. Designing meaningful assignments feels increasingly difficult. How to design assignments that resonate both with our own values as teachers as well as with what students most need from college education, especially in this moment? In this context, I have found myself listening closely to students sharing their experiences, seeking more information about the ways in which both teaching and learning are transformed by the current times, and passionately discussing teaching approaches with colleagues.

Increasingly, I am convinced that the answer will involve assignments that engage with students’ strengths as well as the questions they are most passionate about. This is how I have found myself experimenting and tinkering with an assignment inviting students to take action, which connects my own commitment to social justice with the passion that my students feel on this matter. Building on work from other incredible teachers, pairs of undergraduate students are invited to choose a topic, design a campaign to bring change or a toolkit/mini-training supporting a collective in bringing change, and exchange with each other about the projects they developed.

Being able to choose a topic of their choice, and to think through ways to push for change they believe in, most of my students embrace the opportunity to design the campaign or toolkit/training. They also leverage their skills with social media and design to prepare stunning and attention-grabbing materials¾including posters, interviews, social media posts, and even short films. Being able to lean on these strengths provides points of entry to engage deeply with the materials they are less familiar with and that could be less exciting, such as thinking through the specific pathways towards the change that they hope to see, or reflecting on competing visions for a just world.

The resulting assignments are integrative and quite unique, which limits the utility of AI. At core, they lean so much on students’ passions that the majority go above and beyond what is asked. My favorite part? Although students get a more concrete idea for why social change might be difficult to bring, a few students actually launch the learning tools and the campaigns that they designed for their final assignment.

P.S. Could strengths-based assignments help effectively counteract some of the challenges that other educators are facing too? I would love to discuss with you!

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