Social Justice in the Classroom: How Teachers Inspire Students to be Heroes

Laurie BrooksDiversity Initiatives, Inside WITS, Mission & Outcomes

Ask teachers to describe the impact they hope to have on their students, and most will say something along these lines: I want my students to grow into responsible citizens. I want my students to participate in society in an active, productive way.

As an educator for social justice, I want my students to change the world.

I believe school has to be bigger. It has to mean more than “I teach my subject.” School has to be about teaching people to change the world for the better. Considering the rapid transformation of the United States socially, culturally, racially, and linguistically, the only pathway to a more just education system is by adopting a radical and relentless pursuit of social justice teaching and learning practices.

A lot has been discussed and written about being an “educator for social justice.” What does that really mean?

What is Social Justice Education?

To me, social justice is a simple concept. It’s the notion that all people in a society deserve fair and equitable rights, opportunities and access to resources. To study social justice is to learn about the problems that dramatically impact quality of life for certain populations, and how people have worked to solve those problems. Thus, social justice education is centered in democracy and the freedom to exercise one’s full humanity. Conceptions of equity and democracy have always been practically and theoretically connected to the field of education, which is often perceived as the greatest human equalizer.

Critical Practices for Social Justice Education

To practice social justice teaching is to truly see students for who they are and where they come from. But what does it mean to see students? Seeing students requires teachers to recognize them as valuable contributors to the classroom space, as opposed to social, cultural, and academic burdens on the so-called master in the room—the teacher.

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.”

So what are those skills? OK, here’s a secret: many of the skills that people need to orchestrate the kinds of change that will lead to justice are already built into the work of schools. Things like problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, perseverance — none of that should be revolutionary on its own. Combine that with the ability to understand history not as one static and objective narrative on which we all agree, but as a series of intertwined events about which there can be countless interpretations. If we deliberately choose to explore history with our students rather than just teach it, we help them understand that history is ongoing and that it’s connected to current movements for justice. And we help them see themselves as potential players within a living history. 

Developed by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice group, the social justice standards for K-12 educators are designed to help students embrace their own identities, avoid bias and respect people from different backgrounds. The standards include a set of anchor standards, corresponding grade-level outcomes and school-based scenarios to show what anti-bias attitudes and behavior may look like in the classroom.

In addition to the standards, here are seven social justice-based strategies that will help create a more humanizing, welcoming, and intellectual learning environment in your classroom across grade levels and content areas.

1.      Support students’ identities and make it safe for them to fully be themselves, while building and drawing on intergroup awareness

“My job as a teacher is not to teach the curriculum or even to just teach the students; it is to seek to understand my kids as completely as possible so that I can purposefully bend curriculum to meet them.”

Cornelius Minor

In order to truly teach your students in a way that is humanizing and affirming, you must know who they are and where they come from. This means learning about their respective communities, cultures, and families. When our students walk into our classrooms, they bring their identities with them.

In addition, when students learn about each other’s identities, it helps them understand their own biases and prejudices, as well as build a space of respect and tolerance for all. Teachers have the power to shift their focus from what a student lacks to the vast array of experiences and diversity that such students bring. Teachers can focus on differences in their classrooms instead of deficits.

2. Honor and build-on the knowledge and experiences your students already have.

The knowledge students have from their families, communities, and lived experiences informs the ways they process and retain new information. In order to foster classroom social justice, teachers must first build a safe, encouraging place where students can speak about their experiences and beliefs. Your students are coming into your classroom with prior knowledge tied to various content areas that are connected to their culturally relevant understandings of the world. Embrace what they already know by implementing it into the curriculum, while building new knowledge alongside them.

Teachers can use surveys and conferences with students to find out their interests and then use those as the foundation to help them build more knowledge. Students can take a walk with their parents to find “community curiosities” that spark their interest. All communities have unique histories that can enlighten and inspire. When we listen to understand and develop purposeful inquiry, we are rewarded with not only unique unit ideas but also the power to make the world a better place.

3. Use backwards planning and year-long curricular maps that include instructional strategies that support diverse learning styles and allow for deep exploration of anti-bias themes.

Planning for your students ahead of time is key to having the most critical and engaging school year. By using a backwards-design framework centered in equity and inclusivity with regard to your content area, you want to think of where you want your students to be by the end of the year, and work backwards to develop the assessments and activities that will accompany objective mastery.

At the beginning of each year, my students and I engaged in a series of community builders to establish a level of trust. I introduced them to the discussion protocols created by Jane Nelsen, co-author of Positive Discipline in the Classroom. I adapted the protocol to establish ground rules for productive discussions about difficult, sensitive social justice topics. We used Agreements (stay engaged, experience discomfort, speak your truth, and expect and accept non-closure) and, a check-in tool that helps students evaluate their emotional state and find their emotional center. I worked to create a classroom culture of relational trust, and provided students with the basic tools they would need to engage in lessons about inequity and injustice.

4. Be honest about who you are and your biases.

We all have biases as a result of living in the United States, which was founded upon white supremacy. As such, it is important to reflect on your personal prejudices. Acknowledging and healing your biases will make you a better social justice educator.

One thing that many teachers often forget, is how perceptive our students are; they can pick up on the slightest hint of anger, disgust, and insincerity.  Being human, even though the tasks we get our students to perform and succeed seem super human, we make mistakes, and our our biases and perceptions may creep into our interactions with students.  As teachers, we must do our best to rid ourselves of these biases and can do that by experiencing and learning about other cultures first hand.  

This is hard work, but you can begin by taking inventory of your feelings. It’s normal to be most comfortable around people who are like you. It’s just not good when that makes you and those like you an “us” and those who aren’t like you a “them.” Use a journal to sort through your personal feelings on racism or read books that provide perspective on systemic inequities and bias. These long-haul strategies will produce change in you while you take more immediate action in other ways.

5. Encourage students to question everything, including your teaching.

A social justice classroom is one that is critical in nature, thus, we should be constantly encouraging students to question the world around them as well as the schools they attend. Give students opportunities to critique and construct their own opinions and interpretations of your teaching and the overall school culture.

Living up to that vision is going to require that we are flexible, and it’s going to require that we’re creative. It’s going to require that we’re brave enough to stand up in the face of people who try to silence or delegitimize dissenting voices. And hardest of all, it’s going to require accepting the fact that sometimes we will be the ones our students will rebel against. 

Sometimes they’re going to point out ways in which systems that we have created, or in which we are complicit, contribute to inequity. It’s going to be uncomfortable, and it’s going to be painful as they push us to question our own assumptions and beliefs. But what if we change the way we think about rebellion in our kids? When our kids rebel — when they thoughtfully push back against our ideas or the way that we do things, what if we chose to see that as a sign that we’re doing something right and that they’re becoming liberated?

6. Contextualize your content and learning goals; make their classwork relevant to their lives

Everything they experience in our rooms is bound up in historical context, and so if we insist that education happens in a vacuum, we do our students a disservice. We teach them that education doesn’t really matter, because it’s not relevant to what’s happening all around them. 

Students learn best when they’re passionate about a subject. Facilitate this by allowing them to pick topics that interest them and decide what form a project will take. Teachers might take a topic from the existing curriculum and provide several options for projects. Even better, have students use a social justice lens to generate a list of concerns, and develop one of these as the focus of their project.

 Teachers and schools can begin by offering opportunities for students to gain knowledge and practice skills while they engage in the practical application of real-world skills that matter. Then, students can metaphorically walk through doors on their own path by sharing their voice through poetry, photography, podcast, or whatever medium that is inspiring and impactful.

7. Show them that they have power to change their own lives, and the lives of others – that their actions can make a big and lasting impact in the world.

No matter the knowledge and good intentions, educators must take a step back and relinquish control of the learning to our students. Social justice educators are facilitators of our students’ activism. We’ve got to help them learn how to have really tricky conversations, we have to expose them to different opinions, and we have to help them see how what they’re learning in school connects to the world outside. 

As a social justice educator, our work is to help students develop awareness, knowledge, and processes to identify, respond to, and redress inequity in their communities.

Research says, working for justice, engaging in activism, helps students build skills like leadership and critical thinking, and it correlates positively with their political participation and their civic engagement and their commitment to their communities later in life. In other words, students are telling us that social justice matters to them and researchers are telling us that it helps students learn.

This begins by proving to our students that we will listen to their voices and that they do have the power to effect change. It’s our responsibility to equip our students with the tools and the skills that they need to insist on a more equitable world — and then sometimes, to get out of their way, and let them apply those skills to things that they care about. 

I know it would be easier if their critical thinking skills manifested in more convenient ways — on their essays or their standardized tests — I get it — but convenience and justice do not often go hand in hand. And when our kids learn to think critically about the world around them, they become the kinds of engaged citizens who will recognize and question injustice when they see it and work to do something about it. 

If we want our young students to change the world we live in, the elementary classroom is the best place to start. Social justice should be a part of the mission of every school and every teacher in America, if we want “liberty and justice for all” to be more than a slogan … because schools are crucial places for children to become active citizens and to learn the skills and the tools that they need to change the world. If we believe that, then teaching will always be a political act. We can’t be afraid of our students’ power. Their power will help them make tomorrow better. But before they can do that, we have to give them chances to practice today. And that practice should start in our schools.