Fostering Social Justice in the Classroom

Notes from the Classroom


“The function of education . . . is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically . . . . Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

It used to be that every February, we broke out our collection of books celebrating the contributions of black Americans, our videos of Ruby Bridges and Martin Luther King, Jr., and we felt satisfied that we were doing a good job including this critical content in our teaching. Thankfully we have come to realize that this is not enough.

Social justice and equity demand more of us. This definition of social justice, which my district is using, reveals why:

Social justice is evident when an institution or a society tries to expand equal opportunities and outcomes for all members of society; challenges inequities and discrimination; and promotes participation of all people.  

It’s a broad challenge, and one that many people struggle with. So, where can we begin when teaching for equity?

We can start by using texts that reflect our students’ experiences.

A few years ago I had two students of Chinese heritage in my class. They were so excited to see The Year of the Dog in my regular classroom collection; it helped me realize how powerful it is to have books that reflect students and their experiences, and how it is critical for students to see themselves in the classroom texts.

While this can be a challenge, the payoff is huge for our students. That’s because having texts that reflect our own story validates our experiences, and communicates that we are valuable–and important enough to write about.

Our classroom lessons should also focus on a variety of people and experiences.

This is critical for the texts we choose, and during read alouds and mini lessons. We need to bring in the people that are often left out: women and minorities in science, history, and mathematics.

A treasure trove of primary resources, music, images and documents are available online. To find these materials, you can use the links listed at the bottom of this post.

Still, it’s not just about text selection. To foster social justice and equity, we also must foster critical thinking in our classrooms.

The authors of Rethinking Our Classrooms argue that teaching students to think critically is key to developing citizens who question, analyze, and ultimately make change.

One of the finest resources I have used comes from Ron Ritchhart and his “Cultures of Thinking” resources. His thinking routines uncover student thinking and push students to deeper understanding. Some routines that would be particularly effective for digging into ideas and issues of social justice would be:

  • The Story Routine: Main, Side and Hidden
  • Unveiling Stories
  • Step in, Step Out, Step Back
  • Beauty and Truth
  • The 3 Ys
  • Making Meaning 

Remember to keep moving forward.

The resources below are truly just a beginning. Teaching for social justice begins with creating a learning environment where students’ cultures are not just celebrated, but made relevant in the context of the learning. It continues with the purposeful inclusion of resources that give a broader context, and it finds its peak when students can critically analyze content, ask questions, and plan and effect change.

This is a never-ending process and one that we must always be cognizant of so that we do not become complacent.

Resources

Social justice in the classroom: teacher and classroom resources

  • This short excerpt from Volume 2 of Rethinking Our Classrooms explains beautifully what it means to teach for equity and social justice.
  • These 25 short films from The New York Times help students explore race and bias.
  • The Anatomy of an Ally toolkit helps social justice educators develope their identities. The toolkit comes from Tolerance.org, which includes a wealth of resources (and goes well beyond just tolerance).
  • “All that we share,” a video on YouTube, reveals that people can have much in common, even if outwardly they seem very different.

Multimedia resources

  • Digital History: I have used this site often to bring social studies to life in my 5th grade classroom, and I share it widely with everyone I can, as the resources span K-12.
  • Women in mathematics, from Agnes Scott College, provides many female mathematicians’ bios.
  • This article, from Smithsonian.com, details five accomplished women in mathematics.
  • This article, also from Smithsonian.com, details ten accomplished women in science.
  • Discovery Education provides numerous classroom resources about women and minorities in STEM fields.

beth Beth Rogers (@bethann1468) has taught in the elementary setting for the past 11 years. During this time, she earned her Master’s in Educational Technology from Michigan State University. This year, she is in a new position: Instructional Technologist K-12. This gives her the unique opportunity to work with teachers and students, district wide, to incorporate technology into their teaching and learning, in ways that engage, enhance, and extend the learning. She has already already begun to work with multiple classrooms to engage students in blogging, and to help teachers understand the power of this platform. At home, she lives with her husband, sons, and an anxiety-ridden German Shepherd who requires inordinate amounts of time and attention.

Approaches to Content Area Literacy

REGISTER – instructions for how to self-enroll

shutterstock_221575594Audience: teachers in all content areas grades 6-12

Format: five 2-hour self-paced online modules; to be used individually or with PLCs, departments or teams.

If you are a grade 6-12 teacher in any content area interested in

  • familiarizing yourself–or maybe re-familiarizing yourself–with some of the basic ideas and elements of metacognition as it relates to literacy and
  • learning about effective ways to help your students read more carefully and process the content in your subject area,

these modules are for you. They introduce key ideas, terms, and habits of mind that are essential to understanding how metacognition works, as well as how to help your students with apprenticeship–the practice of increasing their comprehension and engaging in discourse about important readings in your discipline.

Module activities include:

  • watching presentations about metacognitive strategies,
  • reading texts about metacognition and literacy,
  • taking short quizzes,
  • analyzing and discussing sample texts and lessons,
  • adapting activities and materials for your own students, and
  • designing lessons for improved literacy, more thoughtful reading, and more in-depth discourse in your classroom.

Our goal is for you to complete the course feeling inspired and energized to make greater use of metacognition and discourse as you assign and discuss readings with your students in your classroom. Our hope is that you will move from these modules to enhanced daily practice where you see you and your students directly benefit from powerful ways to make better meaning of the texts you assign.

Topics addressed:

  • what metacognition is and why it matters so much while students read inside and outside your classroom;
  • habits of mind that turn students from passive into active readers;
  • the benefits of nurturing a culture of inquiry through discourse in your classroom;
  • and several strategies you can use tomorrow for your students to read more carefully.

SCECHs: available – 10 hours

Consultant Contact: delia.decourcy@oakland.k12.mi.us