The people and projects modernising the school curriculum of tomorrow

With the new world order comes the need to educate our youth in a manner which is both reflective and responsive to the current realities unfolding before us. Indeed, the worrying growth of right-wing, extremist rhetoric in Belgium, the continuing inequality besieging our women and minorities as well as the sudden re-emergence of biased propaganda given exponential reach thanks to the Internet and social media means that teachers, professors, educators, social workers and the non-profits they work with have had to adapt their tools and strategies to better equip our children for the future.

Here, we look into the innovations and ideas – from the children’s book series that goes beyond family stereotypes to paint a more accurate picture of today’s society in all its diverse complexity, to the class-ready fake news curriculum – laying a blueprint for the all-inclusive, fair and sustainable community of tomorrow.

Photographer Joke De Wilde (c)

The activist arguing against schools’ headscarf ban: Nadine Rosa-Rosso

How did you get involved in the headscarf ban debate?

Back in June 2007, I started noticing a rise in bans of religious or philosophical emblems around Belgian schools. I decided to address this worrying phenomenon – kickstarted in Switzerland and France – in an article that was published at the end of the summer with the title Et si le foulard pouvait libérer? or “What if the Headscarf Were a Liberator?”. In it, I proposed the idea that many of these young Muslim women are not beholden to some patriarchal gure in their personal life as is often insinuated, but that it operates instead as a reaffirmation of their religious identity in a hostile, opposed and unsympathetic environment. I’m personally an atheist but, for many, faith can prove to be a comforting source in times of need.

How did the headscarf ban actually play out in Brussels?

Each school had the autonomy to decide for itself whether they’d instate the ban or not, affecting not only kids but adults attending evening courses too. The argument being that these schools were preparing its students for the “real world”, like workplace environments where headscarf bans are also legible. But I find that a bit ridiculous. Should we also prepare girls for the real world by giving them 15% fewer points in exams compared to boys, or reject admission papers from people with foreign-sounding names? Those are also facets of the real world! Whatever the case, a vast number of schools went ahead with the ban anyway, even if those figures have somewhat improved since.

What was the response to your article?

It was widely circulated and reached a very broad public. Many people started voicing their opposition to the ban despite initial fears of backlash if they ever came out publicly. This led me to publish a series of essays by like-minded university professors, activists and critical theorists, who all express a spectrum of reasoning for why they themselves are against the headscarf ban. The edited collection Le Bon Usage de la Laicité, in collaboration with Marc Jacquemain, came out in 2008. Another reaction to the article was an outpouring of support from the Muslim community, as I was the first person to publicly come out against the ban.

Many white Belgians see the arrival of Islam as ideologically threatening to homosexuality and women’s rights. Is the headscarf ban being rationalised in this mind-frame too?

I grew up in Charleroi, and if only you could hear the way people talked about homosexuality there, or how a lot of white Belgians still feel about it, you’d easily be outraged. These concepts are hard pills to swallow for many, because they touch us so intimately. So regardless of your identity or background, everyone has to make an effort to understand what homosexuality is – Muslim, Christian, atheist, whatever.

In your eyes, what’s been the biggest consequence of the headscarf ban?

Islamic radicalisation and the flux of young people leaving for Syria – it’s all linked. I honestly believe that if it weren’t for the ban, there would be far less Belgo-Muslim youths finding an answer in radicalisation. This ban was a clear message to the Muslim community – especially its youths – that they should just shut up, forget that they’re Muslims and deter from expressing themselves. That in schools, kids aren’t meant to discuss things and to express their feelings is unacceptable. And that created a profound unease within the community. The girls in particular were directly affected, because now they were physically prevented from expressing their identity. Many of them spoke out and protested – but in a sense I was much more concerned by the obvious silence from the boys.

In alignment with the classic immigrant trope, the majority of first generation Muslims tend to feel that they need to be “respectful of their hosts”. By contrast, most of the generations that followed feel more entitled to demand their place within the larger Belgian society, just like everybody else. Their frustrations continue to simmer under the surface, as they watch their hard-working elders continue to be seen as mere immigrants, and themselves as overgeneralised Arabs or Muslims. “Integration” still has a long way to go.

Nadine (1955) is an activist who’s spent half a century advocating for workers’ rights and anti-racism, working with non-profits, schools and political parties.

The non-profit bringing sustainable food to school cafeterias: Les Cantiniers

What is sustainability?

All of Biowallonie’s projects are founded upon sustainable development, which at its core has three fundamental pillars: the environment, the economy and society. Environment refers to products that don’t travel well over long distances and organic cultivation that doesn’t require too many resources. Economy deals with products that are attentive to a sustainable economy. So products should take into account the socio-economic needs as well as the food production that allows different stakeholders to make a living fairly. Finally, the societal goal is to create products that respect the health and well-being of its consumers with a diverse, quality-driven nutritional composition.

Sustainable food sounds expensive – is it really ideal for school cafeterias?

Cafeterias account for a large portion of our daily food consumption – especially for kids – and an increasing number of people are today looking for sustainable alternatives. Working with collectives allows us to offer quantities that result in reduced prices. The goal isn’t to switch over to organic foods entirely but rather to develop a system that allows for small-scale and sustainable producers to enter the marketplace without creating an enormous economic impact on consumers.

Is there an educational component in Les Cantiniers’ work as well?

Biowallonie is only responsible for bringing the producers and schools together, although we do strongly advocate for sustainability awareness in schools too. We work with organisations like Tournesol, Réseau Idée, Cahier du Développement Durable and Goodplanet, all of which also focus on pedagogical themes, and we actively bring them in contact with schools whenever and wherever we develop partnerships.

Do you have any success stories?

Absolutely! We analyse schools that are already open to sustainability in order to better orient their efforts, and make concrete changes. An excellent example is one of our Brussels-based schools where many students signed up for a midday meal program consisting of a soup, salad bar, a main dish, and dessert. We noticed that the students often only ate half their soup, veering towards the meats and sauces in the salad bar, and eating the entirety of their sugary desserts instead. This meant that there was a substantial amount of food waste, and an imbalance in the children’s eating habits. So reflecting on our pillars, the environmental and social impacts were not at all positive. In response, we suggested that they serve the soup earlier, around 10h. Lunch would then consist of the salad bar, but without as many sauces and processed foods. Sugary desserts are limited to one day a week, while fruit is served on other days. Eventually, the soup was offered to all the students, regardless of whether they were in the meal program or not with only a marginal impact on costs, and a subsequent increase in efficiency as there was no more need for an organisation to administer the meal plan anymore. We were able to have a positive impact on all three pillars of sustainability that we always keep in mind – and that’s just one example out of many.

Noémie Dekoninck (1987) handles communications and restoration initiatives – both private and collective – for Biowallonie, an organisation responsible for developing Wallonia’s organic sector. She currently runs the project Les Cantiniers, which promotes natural and sustainable foods in school cafeterias.

The youth press agency combatting fake news: StampMedia

Why are we seeing a rise in intentionally misleading news?

It’s really all about the intention of the author in the first place. For instance, when statistics are deliberately misleading or, worse, outright omitted, there’s a certain agenda behind it – always at the expense of academic interpretations and journalistic integrity. Of course, a key issue in today’s fake news debate is that it’s no longer just journalists nor official media outlets that have the power to create and spread news. Today’s news is churned out at an astonishing rate, from all corners of the world and by all types of people. That’s why I see journalists as kinds of gatekeepers, and it’s also a role that the Facebooks and Googles of this world could and should take upon themselves.

What inspired StampMedia to develop the Fake News program?

Thanks to our own experience with young people and other Antwerp-based youth organisations, we noticed that many struggle to understand and analyse news, with online and social media proving to be the most problematic. And yet, most kids tend to rely on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms in lieu of the more traditional newspaper or TV-broadcast, which could be argued to have more reliable sources. So we decided to set up a research project called rePresent, with the help of the similarly-minded non-profit Mediawijs. It’s a study on the significant gap between urban youths with immigrant backgrounds and the news media. One of the findings indicated that the research subjects tend to show difficulty in assessing whether a source is reliable or not. In the wake of the American presidential elections and the emergence of the term fake news, we saw a pressing need to help young people analyse the veracity of their news sources for themselves.

Your goal is to equip students with the tools and skills to distinguish “real” from “fake” news. How did you go about developing this?

We looked towards the American non-partisan body FactCheck and their news source-auditing checklist to form the basis for the programme curriculum. We then found some of the most “popular” examples of fake messages and news in both English- and Dutch-speaking media to put the theory into practice. Once that was done, we tested the lesson in a few schools that we already worked closely with, in order to receive direct feedback from teachers, and made adjustments accordingly.

The Learning Packet also makes the finer distinction between manufactured and factually dubious news. Which one do you feel poses a bigger threat?

Ultimately, all the news we consume is manufactured, so it’s the journalists’ responsibility to produce reliable work. Factually incorrect news could be due to a mistake by a bad, lazy, or overworked journalist. That’s an inevitability in any profession and falls outside the purview of ethics. In turn, intentionally misleading news poses the biggest threat because it deliberately seeks to influence the opinion of the reader, viewer or listener, and has an effect on the behaviour of those people. In an ideal world, young people are media-savvy enough to be able to identify fake news by themselves but the reality is that fact- and source-checking requires time, something many of us don’t have – or at least think we don’t.

What’s been the students’ responses to the lessons?

Students are already well aware of the relatively new phenomenon that is fake news – even if they’re
not entirely sure what it actually means or entails – and have shown a great deal of interest in our lessons. Perhaps most surprising however has been the teachers’ enthusiasm: our Learning Packet has proved to be an effective tool in making the necessary distinctions between what is “real” news, and what is not. In aiming to make students media-literate, we’ve also improved the educators’ capacity to teach this subject.

Kris Custers (1979) is an editor at StampMedia, an Antwerp-based youth press agency that operates within Flanders, working primarily with 16 to 26-year-olds.

The publisher creating children’s books devoid of stereotypes: Cavaria

What is Cavaria?

JEROEN: We’re an umbrella organisation representing over 120 Flemish and Brussels-based LGBTQI groups. In a sense we’re grassroots, but we’re also a centre for expertise and the main point of contact for the government regarding LGBTQI topics. We have a strong mandate within the education sector too. For years we were focussed on changing laws although our goal now is to change society and its attitudes towards diversity through education. Indeed, we’re only just starting to fully grasp the mechanisms through which discrimination happens and perpetuates itself. And it all comes down to gender. Two decades back, the issue at stake was homosexuality, which is how many Belgians became increasingly open to the LGBTQI community, yet homophobia, transphobia as well as sexism still persist, as they’re all linked to the misogyny and paternalism that’s deeply embedded in our social realities.

How did Lou first come about?

STEFFI: The Province of Flemish Brabant asked us to create something that would teach kids about diversity, so we came up with the idea of creating material that teachers would enjoy using, and that didn’t necessarily force diversity on to students but still alluded to it subtly. This translated into a first book, Lou op weg naar school or “Lou On the Way to School”, which came out in September 2016 together with a complementary training pack. Eleven families inhabit the Lou universe. Lou, a young boy, is the main protagonist with two fathers and a baby sister. Then there’s your generic nuclear family of a mum, dad and two kids, while another family has gone for adoption. There’s also a single-parent family – in stark contrast to most children’s books which always feature parents as couples – as well as a childless couple. Lou’s best friend Anissa lives with her parents and grandmother, and the storyline also features kids with wheelchairs, glasses or hearing aids. Perhaps one of the book’s most intriguing profile is the “hipster” family which consists of a divorced couple who have both remarried.

The books’ illustrations are all markedly simple and minimalistic.

STEFFI: That helps make the stories accessible to our very young audience. For instance, in one instalment, we depict Anissa with her mother Loubna, who’s best friends with one of Lou’s fathers. It’s no coincidence that we made them best friends – a gay man and a woman with a hijab – even if it’s never explicitly mentioned in the supplementary training sessions we provide when these books are introduced into a classroom. Loubna is much more than just her hijab, and Lou’s father is much more than his sexuality.

My first reaction to Lou was: “This strikes me as impossible.” Of course, I know deep down that it’s not – my own mother is Muslim and proudly sports a pro-marriage equality bumper sticker on her car – but still, I can’t help but feel hesitant.

STEFFI: And yet it isn’t. You see, we’ve just opened the conversation.
JEROEN: That’s what we do at Cavaria: we’re all about intersectionality, seeing people as multidimensional, and sparking conversation about how these different factors interact inside us, both positively and negatively.

Have you received any feedback?

STEFFI: We’re relieved to say that 99.9% of all our feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
JEROEN: And every single Lou book has been a number one bestselling children’s book in Flanders. Which is extraordinary, considering that these types of sales are usually reserved for TV show adaptations, or the Harry Potter’s of this world.

And is it tenable?

STEFFI: Well that’s an interesting question. While the books themselves are published by the printing house Clavis, the complete education packs – which include Lou On the Way to School, and a host of other related teaching resources – are assembled in-house, selling at break even for 30 euros. Sales have been astonishing to say the least, as all 5,000 copies of our second instalment Lou viert carnaval (“Lou Celebrates Carnival”) sold out in merely five weeks.

Steffi De Baerdemacker (1982) is a project manager for the Gender & Sexual Diversity department of Cavaria, while Jeroen Borghs (1986) is their spokesperson. Specifically, Steffi’s role involves making education in Flanders more diverse and inclusive.