Interview with Karen Steffensen (elementary school teacher)

Ontario elementary school teacher, Karen Steffensen, shares her experience developing an integrated unit on homelessness and the importance of homelessness education in the classroom.

Karen Steffensen is currently a Curriculum Consultant in the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) working within Resource Development, developing web-based learning modules for staff professional learning in the areas of assessment and effective literacy programming. Previously to this role, Karen was part of YRDSB's new teacher induction program team, providing in-service in a wide variety of areas related to teaching and learning, specifically designed for teachers new to the profession and the school district.

Karen began using homelessness as a topic in her teachings with her elementary school students. Surprised and empowered by her students deep feeling of connectedness to the topic and eagerness to make a difference in the world, Karen developed an integrated curriculum unit for elementary schools that connects the topic of homelessness to Language Arts, Music, Drama, Art, Dance, Mathematics, Social Studies and Character Education. In the following interview, Karen shares her experience developing the unit with her students and the importance of homelessness education in the classroom.

Q: Why is homelessness an important topic to introduce into classrooms?

Karen: It is pervasive in our society and I think it’s getting worse. We need to stop turning our back toward such a fundamental issue about humankind. I think that if we’re talking about building authentic tasks in terms of writing, reading, and creating as teachers this is a wonderful topic that students can really connect to and seek to make a difference in our world.

How did you become interested in this topic and when?

It stared with my daughter. When she was in Grade 9 English [her class] was asked to do an assignment which was about finding something that they were passionate about, something that had a social advocacy or change aspect to it. Rena decided that she wanted to look into homelessness. Part of the assignment was to write a ballad which incorporated their understanding of that topic. So Rena did a beautiful poem called “It Depends on Me and You” and that actually became hooked into both of our hearts as something we wanted to pursue and do more with.

The next stage was looking at my grade 3 and 4 students. We did an activity “If I could Change the World”, and [the students] had to promote ideas of what they would want to change about the world, so we brainstormed a large list of ideas and concerns that they had and the one that emerged the most was homelessness. So the bridge from my daughter’s poem to them was to bring that in as an example of somebody writing from their heart about something that they are truly concerned about and looking at how we can take this idea and do something in action towards this. The idea of publishing a bookmark came from this and then realizing [the students] needed more information about homelessness I decided to build this into a unit and work together with students to further extend their understanding.

What was the response of your students?

The response of the students surprised me. I wasn’t sure if grade 3 and 4 students were ready for such a topic . It has a lot of layers to it obviously, and living in the York Region a lot of the students had a misconception of what homelessness is, where it is. Was just in downtown Toronto on some street corners? Also not understanding that within the York Region a lot of youth that are also in a homelessness situation, what causes that and to unpack their thinking around the issue of homelessness from what they first conceived to at the end the difference in what they believed and what they understood and their sincere form of empathy that was developed and a desire to, not to rescue, but to really understand it and to promote understanding to others.

Our culminating project was to build a large quilt which, in each of the squares, the students captured their thinking, feeling and understanding about homelessness. And that quilt became within the school a marker. Then it was taken out into the community working with the Street Kids International and it was taken as a way to engage other youth about this topic. [My students] were honoured that it started from their initial understanding to reaching out to others in the community. To further their understanding was really exciting.

If a teacher were to use your unit how important is it for them to be prepared about issues relating to homelessness?

Extremely important. I think that is the piece for me as well. Writing the unit, and the difference in my thinking in the last five years as well and looking at it over the last year we’re revising it and transforming it and realizing it’s a continual search. As a teacher this isn’t going to be an end to your understanding or knowledge and the Homeless Hub obviously opens up wonderful ways for you to seek out current resources and add to your collective thinking and understanding of the topic.
For me, the most important piece is having that prior understanding and then looking at what the children perceive and what they think they know and then look at how we can build from that and move forward to get to a deeper understanding of homelessness.

Click here to view Karen's unit, An Integrated Unit on Homelessness for Elementary Schools.

Publication Date: 
Toronto, ON, Canada