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Creating Classrooms for Social Justice

Tabitha Dell'Angelo

Dr. Tabitha Dell’Angelo is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Urban Education Master’s Program at The College of New Jersey.
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A lot has been discussed and written about being an "educator for social justice." What does that really mean? In this post, I will break down a few basic classroom practices that allow teachers to engage with best practices in teaching core subjects while also being advocates for social justice in the classroom.

Social justice is recognizing and acting upon the power that we have for making positive change. Teachers do this every day in many ways. And, in order to take that idea to the next level, teachers might include classroom practices that will make this dynamic explicit. It's a good idea to give students opportunities for seeing how positive change happens and how they can be both actors and leaders in creating change.

It is also important to note that many of the practices that demonstrate a social justice orientation are also reflective of best practices in teaching. Social justice is not an "add on" for classrooms. This is a both/and proposition. Teachers can both maintain high-quality content instruction and create a classroom with a social justice orientation. Also, a social justice orientation is appropriate for all classrooms. This isn't something that just gets done in diverse classrooms, or classrooms that lack diversity, or urban classrooms -- or any other special category of school. It is a way of teaching and being that supports high-level thinking and learning throughout our lives.

Connecting to Students' Lives

When making curricular decisions, consider, value, and build on the diverse prior learning experiences of your students. This can be as simple as knowing a little bit about every student's background, if they are coming from another school, or if they have an interest in a particular area. Acknowledging and showing that you value what students are already bringing to the classroom is an important step in creating a classroom for social justice.

Linking to Real-World Problems and Multiple Perspectives

Make what you are teaching relevant to what is going on in the world. The classroom walls aren't magical barriers to the realities outside of them. If there's something happening in the news that you can link to your content, do it. Choose something controversial, or ask your students if they have questions regarding anything they have been hearing about. Chances are that someone is going to mention teacher strikes, honeybee decline, trash pick-up, even the events in Gaza or Robin Williams' death. This is an opportunity to teach children high-level thinking skills:

  • Discerning fact from opinion
  • Figuring out your own and others' point of view
  • Interpreting all of this information to decide on your own "truth."

Of course, this is not an opportunity for a teacher to impose his or her beliefs on the students. It is important to choose topics about which you feel you can be pedagogically neutral as you support students' own journey of learning how to be critical thinkers and forming their own opinions.

Creating Classroom Community

Create opportunities for students' voices to be heard. They need to be taught how to participate in a discussion. As teachers, we can encourage both sharing one's own ideas and responding to the ideas of classmates. The teacher's role is to use questioning that can help students make connections between the big ideas that inform the lesson content.

Classrooms can also provide time for collaboration toward a common goal. Teach students to be "academic siblings." We all know that sometimes siblings get on each other's nerves, but ultimately you know that you can count on your siblings to have your back, be honest with you, and support you.

Also, teachers can take a critical look at the materials in the classroom. Do the books, stories, and other curricular materials present one specific narrative? If they do, revamp what you have to be sure that your materials include examples from diverse aspects of society, including ethnicity, religion, language, gender, ability, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status in a non-stereotypical manner.

Include Authentic Assessments

Authentic assessments are opportunities for students to write for real audiences, share knowledge with a wide audience, and engage in the kind of work that occurs outside the classroom. For instance, if you are having students learn how to write letters, be sure they actually get mailed to a real person. A few years ago, I saw a classroom where students wrote letters to a fictional zookeeper. They went into the teacher's homework pile. Although the letters were fine, I suggested that the students revise them and send them to an actual zookeeper. As they made these revisions, the students learned that a zoo has multiple zookeepers for different animals. They each decided which zookeeper they would send letters to. That led to researching the animals in that zookeeper's care. The letters were richer, more personal, and just plain better. And then, they got responses! Getting those responses taught the students that they could make things happen in their world -- that they could be agents of change.

There are many other ways that you can be an advocate for social justice in your classroom. I have suggested just a few. It's also important to note that you don’t need to do all of them in order to have a social justice orientation. As you think about your classroom, try to find small ways to include the ideas outlined here within the practices that you know will work best for you and your students.

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Tabitha Dell'Angelo

Dr. Tabitha Dell’Angelo is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Urban Education Master’s Program at The College of New Jersey.

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Creative Change's picture

Thank you so much for this blog post. It captures so many great strategies.

I wanted to share information about a course on social justice and race that my organization, Creative Change, designed and implemented in the Ypsilanti community schools. The middle school course engaged students in an in-depth investigation of institutional discrimination, social policy, etc. The program was very successful and boosted literacy scores by 20%. It's a great example of what is possible with teachers who are committed to equity.

Here's a link where you can download the report:

Thank you again for your blog post. I look forward to following your work!

Susan Santone

Tabitha Dell'Angelo's picture
Tabitha Dell'Angelo
Dr. Tabitha Dell’Angelo is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Urban Education Master’s Program at The College of New Jersey.

Thank you for sharing your work Susan! Middle school is such an important time in a child's development. I am so inspired by the community of educators who are sharing their ideas via Edutopia.

Dineica Davis's picture

I really enjoyed reading your blog. I teach 2nd grade in an inner city title 1 school. My students are constantly thrown into "life around them". I believe that students--no matter how old-- need to be involved and informed about the world around them. The four walls in our classroom will not protect our children from the things that go on right outside of there very doors.
I am constantly trying to find ways to help my students to stay motivated in the curriculum and I think that some of the approaches that you discussed would help me to grow in the idea of infusing our curriculum with more socially related topics. Thanks so much for your ideas!!!

Karen Eggenschwiler's picture

I am so glad to see that teachers are being encouraged to be agents for teaching social justice and free thinking when students are learning to evaluate the media they see everyday.

iMattFrat's picture

I think this is a really important article on a topic not widely covered at a time when we really need it. One notable thing missing, and maybe thought the author thought this went without saying, is the passions of the teacher. If a teacher is not passionate about nuclear energy, then they should probably not use Fukashima as a path to teach SJ. Also, would have liked to at least hear a mention of blowback from parents/admin. So doing a unit on the perils of nuclear power is great, until you find out the parent of one of your students is on the board of the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Tabitha Dell'Angelo's picture
Tabitha Dell'Angelo
Dr. Tabitha Dell’Angelo is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Urban Education Master’s Program at The College of New Jersey.

Yes! Absolutely. Thank you for making that point.

Tabitha Dell'Angelo's picture
Tabitha Dell'Angelo
Dr. Tabitha Dell’Angelo is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Urban Education Master’s Program at The College of New Jersey.

Thank you for writing. I love that teachers like you, even with little ones, are willing to do this work.

Sydney Ceasar's picture

Hello, I'm just a parent an not an concern and a lot of other parents in are nation are that we have seen what social justice teaching does to a nation.just look at are last election,social justice teaching caused every one of those students to freak out a woman did not win or he's a racist or any of the other things main stream media (fake media) told us.they cut class need safe places have to play with play dough? You have reduced them all to uninformed toddlers and ruined them for life.they were brainwashed to only see the teachers views yet never giving them the knowledge to decide on there own,all you need to do is go to YouTube and search social justice warrior or sjw there are over a million videos of uninformed sjw's not a one can answer a question only to answer with another question usually unrelated or attack someone well wearing a mask and usually carrying a communist flag or burning an american one. Then you have the cry babies you turned out who can't handle reality because you gave them safe space(omg I'm just freaking out) at least go to YouTube and see what you are causing to happen to are nation.please watch and stop destroying are nation.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

I like this article's definition of social justice: "Social justice is recognizing and acting upon the power that we have for making positive change."

Because at its core, that's what this process is supposed to be about... helping students to think critically about their world and to know the ways in which they can change it. In essence, this is what it means to be an engaged citizen.

Now, I understand that "social justice" means different things to different people. Politics has a way of coopting language, but the ideal in education is to leave the biases at the door and help students learn to think for themselves--to be able to analyze media and political messages, to place events in the context of history, to be able to articulate their thoughts well, and communicate them in multiple media.

Jennifer OBrien's picture

Informed, well designed teaching about social justice creates empowered, strong students who are ready to make a positive change in the world. This isn't the same thing as watching You Tube videos- while well selected ones used in the context of deep learning can be valuable. But the previous commenter brings up a good point to never miss an opportunity as a teacher to help our students become engaged and resilient citizens!

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