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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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Jennifer OBrien's picture

Social justice through the lens of real world issues and authentic assignments is the key to student understanding and engagement. In my classroom, we share info through ThingLinks about the environmental racism found in the documentary Mann v. Ford, write first person accounts of people exonerated by the Innocence Project and even explore differences in perceptions of events by on racial differences in the OJ Simpson case (and now Trayvon Martin & Michael Brown cases).

For example, here is the link to the "I am..." Project my students complete after exploring the issues of how people can be wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit:

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.

Jennifer -- your work sounds really exciting. Have you seen the documentary Unnatural Causes ( I think it would fit in to the kinds of work you do with your students.

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