Developing a Social Justice Unit in English Language Arts
This rigorous, standards-aligned narrative unit combines classic literature and contemporary social issues.
“I feel fortunate that I had a teacher who let us talk about racism and other social justice issues in his class. He taught us all the terms and helped develop the language to talk about and address racial inequity.” Those words from Josh, one of my former students, describe a defining experience in his school life and speak to the power of a social justice education, which the book Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice describes as a pedagogical approach that teaches skills for exploring how systems of oppression operate at the individual, institutional, and structural levels.
As a social justice educator, I work to help students develop awareness, knowledge, and processes to identify, respond to, and redress inequity in their communities.
Discussing Social Justice Issues Takes Prep Work
In 2015 I developed a unit that was based largely on the project-based learning framework to meet my county’s English Language 9 curriculum expectation that students write a fictional narrative essay. I had my students engage in counter-storytelling, a concept grounded in critical race theory, to use the power of narrative to counter and disrupt stereotypes and bias against marginalized groups.
Many teachers shy away from a social justice approach because they worry about their students’ ability to handle such topics, but I’ve found that students are eager to engage in this approach. However, teachers cannot simply dive into these lessons without preparing students.
Before starting the Counter Story Unit, my students and I engaged in a series of community builders to establish a level of trust. I introduced them to the discussion protocol created by Glenn Singleton, which he describes in Courageous Conversations About Race. I adapted the protocol to establish ground rules for productive discussions about difficult, sensitive social justice topics. We used Singleton’s Four Agreements (stay engaged, experience discomfort, speak your truth, and expect and accept non-closure) and the Courageous Conversations Compass, a mindset 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.
I noted that several of the curricular anchor texts (To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and The House on Mango Street) centered on the experiences of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), people living in poverty, and differently abled people. This literature offered students a chance to read about the experiences of marginalized people and explore systems of oppression. To prepare my students, I built background knowledge and exposed them to the concepts of diversity, prejudice, bias, discrimination, privilege, and systems of oppression.
Students explored the intersecting factors of their own diversity using the Social Identity Wheel activity. Students learned about the concept of privilege and explored their own relationship to privilege in journal writing and reflections using the Circle of Oppression, a tool that helps students think and talk about how our factors of diversity determine the level of oppression we might face.
Finally, students discussed the effects of stereotypes by watching and discussing the video “The Lie,” which depicts students in an elementary school class explaining the lies or stereotypes society tells about them and the truth about how they see themselves. I gave students a chance to identify the lies they had heard about themselves and proclaim the truth of who they are. Our classroom became a space where students thought about, wrestled with, and developed knowledge about inequity and social justice.
The Final Product
After building their background knowledge, students engaged with anchor texts. To focus their reading, I instructed them to think of themselves as social justice authors. Like all great writers, they would have to become great readers and study the works of those who came before them.
I guided them through various narrative genres, which they read through the lens of a counter-story teller, looking for ways in which the authors of the anchor text challenged stereotypical narratives about various marginalized groups. They analyzed how authors crafted their narratives, discussed the effectiveness of each text’s counter-narrative power, and made decisions about how they would structure their own narratives. Students broadened their understanding of narrative techniques as they addressed social justice issues.
Throughout the unit, students experimented with various genres and topics in preparation for their summative assessment, which was to write a narrative aligned with Common Core State Standard ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3: “Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.”
Exposure to standards-aligned, rigorous instruction helps ensure that every student is college-ready, and I have found that a rich social justice education provides a framework for infusing the rigor students need. However, you may experience pushback from students, parents, colleagues, and administrators, and be asked to justify your decisions. Some complain that social justice topics are not appropriate, but I would say that I grounded my social justice teaching in the course content.
Some argue that social justice teaching is not rigorous. I would answer that a social justice education requires students to explore complex topics and abstract ideas. When I first shifted to social justice teaching, my supervisor informed me of a parent’s concern about the level of rigor in my class; I was wasting time establishing trust, implementing discussion protocols, and teaching social justice vocabulary. By the end of the semester, the same parent expressed gratitude, saying that her daughter was challenged, engaged, and invested in her own learning.