Teaching Social Justice in Theory and Practice

The Social Justice Classroom

Historically, classrooms have been the stage for social change, providing a venue to promote and accelerate new ideas. In addition to academic instruction, one of a classroom teacher’s most important roles is to help students develop the critical thinking, collaboration and self-reflection skills necessary to foster a better society.

Goals of social justice

Social justice doesn’t manifest in a singular fashion, nor is it achieved through a specific means of instruction. Students studying this field use critical examination of themselves, others, institutions and events to find patterns of inequality, bigotry or discrimination, then explore possible solutions to the problems they’ve identified. Social justice advocates hope to build a society in which individuals have equal access to resources and receive equitable treatment regardless of their race, gender, religion, sexuality, income level or disability.

Enabling conversations about these issues empowers students to voice their concern and question unjust situations in their lives or in the lives of those around them. To help students examine systemic inequality, teachers can have them consider questions such as:

  • Who makes decisions and who is left out?
  • Who benefits and who suffers?
  • Why is a given practice fair or unfair?
  • What is required to create change?
  • What alternatives can we imagine?

Through answering these questions, students can start to recognize injustice existing at the micro and macro levels.

Adding the philosophy of social justice to the classroom

In “Rethinking Our Classrooms,” Wayne Au, Bill Bigelow and Stan Karp write that “classrooms can be places of hope, where students and teachers gain glimpses of the kind of society we could live in and where students learn the academic and critical skills needed to make it a reality.”

However, classrooms can also shut down that conversation, whether it’s in order to prepare for standardized tests, through a lack of discussion time, or because a teacher simply doesn’t understand or value cultural competency. In order to foster classroom social justice, teachers must first build a safe, encouraging place where students can speak about their experiences and beliefs.

Fostering a classroom community of conscience

The first way to promote social justice in the classroom is to create a community of conscience. This environment ensures that students’ voices, opinions and ideas are valued and respected by their instructor and peers. Teachers can establish a community of conscience by creating rules that teach fairness in classroom discussions and behavior.

Productive conversations can be created by teaching students to share their ideas and respond to the ideas of others in a way that allows for disagreement but still values the student’s perspective. Teachers can model questions and answers that illustrate ways to thoughtful conversation rather than making students feel bad or devalued by their classmates. By providing model responses, teachers can illustrate to students how a good response helps to enrich a conversation whereas some responses can shut discussions down.

Helping students see each other as co-learners rather than adversaries

Ideally, students should view each other as academic siblings or co-learners instead of competitors. This perspective allows students to understand that while disagreements may occur, they must work together to increase their knowledge.

If students don’t perceive the classroom as competitive, they can approach the learning process as a path to solving problems instead of a mark of achievement only available to a few students. By creating this sort of classroom environment, teachers enable students to build each other up in conversation and action.

Including diverse experiences and backgrounds in classroom materials

Teachers can also strengthen the classroom community through learning experiences that draw upon the diverse backgrounds of their students. New information that includes multiple perspectives will better resonate with students’ previous knowledge.

Teachers must also be aware of the messages sent by the learning materials they use. To determine if texts are privileging certain narratives, teachers need to analyze whether they recount an event — the Civil War, for example — from multiple points of view or favor the dominant culture.

When choosing class materials, teachers should employ books, articles and lesson plans that include diverse voices and cultures. Educators also may need to call upon colleagues or community members from specific backgrounds in order to better understand their cultures.

Social justice in the real world: classroom discussions that help students critically engage with issues that affect them

Once teachers are able to foster a learning environment that enables thoughtful discussions with a variety of opinions and perspectives, they can facilitate conversations about real-world issues that affect students’ everyday lives. Students need to be able to recognize real-world problems and critically engage with these issues.

Racism and social justice

Racism in the United States has been the focus in several high-profile incidents of violence against people of color. As students explore issues like the Trayvon Martin case or witness racism in their own lives, they need to be able to bring up these issues in class discussions. They also need to be able to recognize ways racism masquerades as normal treatment and question this treatment.

Bullying, friendship and dating behavior

While young people are fairly adept at recognizing overt bullying in the form of assault, name-calling and online harassment, they might not be aware of the other ways that bullying can manifest. Students should be taught about the harm done by smaller behaviors that are often normalized as a part of the adolescent experience.

It’s important that students recognize this behavior both in their own actions and those of peers. Examples include groups of girls who exclude or mistreat one member, boys who prove their masculinity by dominating and controlling others, or anyone who bullies a peer due to their declared or perceived gender or sexuality.

Students should also learn they have a right to healthy romantic relationships. To do so, they must understand issues of consent and be able to tell the difference between positive dating behavior and the use of coercion, humiliation or other forms of abuse.

Turning social justice learning into community service and action

Once students are able to recognize and discuss social injustice, teachers can help them act upon the issues they see. Teachers can use service learning projects to connect their classroom to the surrounding community. Through long- and short-term projects, students can meet specific needs by participating in book and food drives, gardening or park care, or mentoring at-risk students.

Social justice classes can also use activist strategies such as social media campaigns, demonstrations and teach-ins to raise awareness of an issue and build support for positive change. Teachers can connect engagement in these activities to writing assignments that enable students to reflect upon how their actions have the potential to evoke social change.

Ultimately, social justice can’t be taught in one easy lesson. It is a value that gets integrated into the teaching philosophies and actions of teachers. By helping students feel safe and encouraged, teachers can help students start asking the right questions and then participate in ways that are purposeful and productive.

Caitrin Blake has a BA in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.

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