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.


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, 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, details five accomplished women in mathematics.
  • This article, also from, 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.

A Book to Spark a Conversation

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

all-american-boysI recently read a knock-out YA novel. It happens to be one of the choices for the Global Read Aloud, and it sent me into a recommending and discussing orbit through both my school and personal life.

With the media flooded with police shootings, attacks on officers, and Black Lives Matter events nationwide, All-American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, offers parents, teachers, and teens a perfect opportunity to open the door to a difficult but hopefully fruitful conversation.

The Plot

Rashad and Quinn go to the same school. They know some of the same people, but they’re not really friends. They are both headed to the same Friday night party when everything changes.

Quinn sees Rashad lying on the ground outside a convenience store. He’s been accused of theft and beaten severely–by a police officer, who is a close friend of Quinn’s family.

Quinn hopes that the whole event will blow over and that he’ll be able to erase the horrible image of a beaten and bloody Rashad from his mind. But as the week goes on, the community starts to divide and a movement starts to build–#RashadIsAbsentAgainToday. Now Quinn has to make a big decision. Which side is he on?

Why It’s Worth Reading

Adults who spends time with teenagers find themselves needing to have difficult conversations about the world around us. The interactions among high school students raise plenty of questions, not to mention the frequently unsettling events of the world at large.

As a worry-worst parent of two boys under four, the possibility of these complicated queries already keeps me up at night. (Is “Dad wanted to talk to you about that” an acceptable response?) As a teacher, I struggle to find the right balance between acknowledging concerns and encouraging students to seek understanding for themselves.

Enter a well-written, thought-provoking book like All-American Boys. Such a book puts the topic into play, eliminating the onus for an awkward introduction, and allowing all who partake to feel engaged in the global conversation.

This book moved me. It helped me clarify some feelings and ideas that, even as an adult, were difficult for me to summarize and express. It reminded me that good books have power–power to start a conversation, power to inspire change, power to foster empathy. I may soon start to annoy people because I won’t stop talking about this book, but this is a conversation that is worth starting.

Book Details:
Reading Level: AR = 4.9, Lexile = HL770L
ISBN: 9781481463331
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Atheneum
Publication Date: September 29, 2015
Awards/Accolades: 5 starred reviews & Jason Reynolds won the Coretta Scott King Author award in January, shortly after this book was published.

Bethany Bratney

Bethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.