Incorporating Social Justice in the Curriculum
A framework based on interdisciplinary experiential learning can help teachers approach issues of injustice with middle and high school students.
In several states in the United States, talking about race and racism is currently restricted in one way or another. In the year 2021, not 1950. So how will those of us who are committed anti-biased and anti-racist teachers proceed? With conviction and vigor.
Part of what we need to do is to reimagine education—to apply pedagogical theory to practice, design rigorous and engaging curricula, implement effective lessons, and critically analyze texts and subject matter with students, all while integrating issues of social justice. The teaching of truth is how we will get there. This is an opportunity for us to flex our creative muscles and practice what we preach.
Textured Teaching is one answer to this need. This new framework, which I developed, is centered on culturally sustaining pedagogy and asks teachers to work with four ideas: flexibility, interdisciplinary design, experiential learning, and a student-driven, community-centered approach. When teachers practice Textured Teaching, they’re working toward social justice—it’s a form of activism in the classroom.
4 Pillars of Textured Teaching
1. Flexibility: Through flexibility of design, structures, assessments, and more, teachers are able to meet students where they are and help them move closer to the desired goals. We’re also flexible about our role with students and our expectations. That flexibility requires that we practice and model for students the bending and pushing we need in order to work toward liberation.
Flexibility also involves pushing against rigid, biased rules that oppress students. For example, in the past there were rules that did not allow African Americans to read, that demanded assimilation from Native children, or that punished bilingualism. Today, there are rules like not allowing students to attend graduation because of the texture or style of their hair, deeming certain cultural attire unacceptable, or discriminating against Black girls in schools.
2. Interdisciplinary design: An interdisciplinary approach to teaching welcomes the integration of many ideas and subjects into the ones we teach. It humanizes students’ learning by welcoming diversity of thought. It allows us to think critically across systems, helps students see the power of our subject area in the “real world,” and supports them in developing a critical eye to analyze how institutions interact to maintain oppression around them.
In a math classroom, for example, this can be accomplished by having students research and study early Mayan pyramids. By considering their design (architecture), doing some basic research (history), and creating drawings (art), students can engage in an interdisciplinary mathematical exercise that is skill based and celebratory of Indigenous creation and intellect.
3. Experiential learning: Through experiential learning, we bring our subject matter to life. We help students see it, feel it, and more fully internalize it. In this way, we are effective at supporting students in developing both skills and empathy. This empathy builds along the way as students find themselves in the shoes of the people they are learning about or deepening their understanding of social issues they are exploring together. It can happen naturally but should be fostered intentionally by the teacher through content design.
For example, when teaching the respiratory system, a science teacher might include issues of asthma and how it impacts the Black community, and engage students in understanding how environmental discrimination plays a role in this problem. The class could take a trip to a local politician’s office to advocate for better living conditions, or to a local agency that is organizing to bring about change for the community.
4. A student-driven and community-centered approach: Lasty, Textured Teaching requires a student-driven and community-centered approach. We should be aiming to help the young people in front of us make sense of the society they live in, find ways to address the problems in it, and work hard to make it better.
With a student-driven approach, teachers welcome the issues that matter to students and focus on their needs versus simply whatever the curriculum demands. Sometimes there is a discrepancy between academic demands and student needs. We work for students, and we should be driven by their needs. This includes surveying them about topics they want to study and leveraging their knowledge for further learning, as well as welcoming their feedback into curriculum design.
Being community centered means being aware of what is going on in the students’ community and incorporating some of that to make lessons and content both relatable and useful. Is the community undergoing radical change due to gentrification? Make space for that in your math classroom through a statistical study of the population shifts. Is there a local climate or land issue? Make it a field trip in your science class and embed the topic in your unit. Are there racial tensions in the community? Welcome a book that explores this issue in your ELA classroom. This helps students transfer their skills much more easily to deal with their reality.
Students are not just the future—they are the present. How are we guiding them to be the change everyone, including themselves, needs right now? A Textured Teacher lives in the gray areas and messiness of our society—they address social issues and thrive when students start to solve problems that matter to them.