A Collection of Resources for Teaching Social Justice
(Original article: Jennifer Gonzalez, Cult of Pedagogy, Feb. 14, 2016)
Ask teachers to describe the impact they hope to have on their students, and most will eventually 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.
And maybe: I want my students to change the world.
But how many of us know how to make that happen, really? Can we explicitly teach students how to change the world? If this question has been whispering in the back of your mind, the resources in this collection will help.
What is social justice, and how does it fit into the curriculum?
The National Association of Social Workers defines social justice as “the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.” 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.
If you teach social studies, you’ll have no trouble finding direct curricular links to social justice. The National Curriculum Standards for the Social Studies includes Civic Ideals and Practices as one of its 10 Themes of Social Studies, and this includes an emphasis on learning how to get involved in influencing public policy. In history and social studies class, social justice teaching is a natural fit.
In other content areas, teachers disagree over whether social justice has a place. We put ourselves in a vulnerable position by exploring issues that are seen as more controversial than others (a topic I will get into in the next section), and some teachers prefer to completely steer clear of those kinds of complications. For others, social justice was a driving force in why they became teachers, and they weave it into whatever content they are teaching. If you choose to address some or all of these issues in your classroom, the next section offers some tips for doing it effectively.
Some Advice for Teaching Social Justice
As an undergraduate, I served as a student counselor for three years and a resident assistant (RA) for one. I regularly delivered workshops on social justice topics, and I learned a few important lessons along the way. Here are some things to keep in mind when studying social justice issues with your students:
- Make getting to know students a key component of any social justice teaching.If you and your students don’t spend time examining your own backgrounds, biases, and beliefs, you will be missing an essential component of any social justice curriculum. We all view every social justice issue through the lens of our own experience, and these different lenses can block our growth and learning if we aren’t aware of them. If we fine-tune our self-awareness, our individual lenses can richly inform classroom conversations and help us understand issues on a much deeper level, directly from each other.
- Know that not all students feel the same way about these issues. Most, if not all, of these resources have been created from a pretty liberal, progressive viewpoint. For example, one of the lessons in the Teaching Tolerance series described below is on Confronting Unjust Laws. The lesson uses California’s Proposition 8 as an example of an unjust law. But not all of your students (or their families) will see a law like Prop 8 as unjust. In fact, some may strongly oppose same-sex marriage. That doesn’t mean you can’t successfully talk about controversial issues; in fact, teaching students how to respectfully discuss an issue with people who don’t share their opinions is a lesson that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
- Familiarize yourself with the material before teaching. Sometimes we just skim materials before we teach. With social justice topics, this would be a mistake. Not knowing exactly what’s in all of your teaching materials, including the texts or videos you and your students will be looking at, can leave you vulnerable to problems when unexpected content pops up.
- Keep your administrator in the loop. As with any potentially controversial lesson, it is essential that you talk to your administrator about it ahead of time. Show the curricular connections between your planned lessons and the standards you’re teaching. Talk about potential problems or objections that may come up and how you both plan to address them. That way, if your administrator gets a phone call from a concerned parent, she or he won’t be blindsided.
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