Fostering Social Justice in 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.
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.
- 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 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.