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Make It Matter: Teach Justice

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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Children force us to acknowledge realities that many of us can and would chose to ignore. How is it that I regularly hurry past the homeless, hoping to avoid interacting, while my son intentionally slows down and registers that there is a human being in need right there in front of him? After I give my son change to put in the donation cup, we walk away and he asks me, "Why can’t we do more to help her?"

Young people are uniquely positioned to recognize injustice and question dominant paradigms. When she was younger, my daughter described the skin of the people that she knew as part of a spectrum of light brown, medium brown, or dark brown. My partner and I hesitated to provide her with our society's accepted terminology to describe race. Why teach her to replicate a system of racial separation that oppresses millions? Fortunately, the place where she did learn the terms "black" and "white" was a progressive school committed to empowering children to combat and undo racism. Such education aims to hold onto the child's innate ability to see the world differently, while arming her with the historical and cultural knowledge to name injustice and fight it.

In our society, it is widely believed that because young people lack experience, they aren't smart, capable, or insightful. (These beliefs are often referred to as young people's oppression or adultism.) In reality, young people share the fresh perspective of children and are able to develop deep understandings, make intellectual connections, and take action in ways that adults often can't or won't.

For school to matter, students must be given opportunities to engage with the world around them and ask questions about issues that are often ignored or overlooked. The most important and meaningful way for students to engage is by reflecting on their experiences, learning about our society, and envisioning and working for social change.

A Classroom Example

Recently, I was inspired by the work of a group of students in one of my 12th grade classes. The four students were planning a lesson to teach to a sixth grade class at a nearby middle school. Over several days, I had conversations with them as their ideas slowly evolved. Their initial idea of a lesson about LGBT rights was a good one that they seemed excited to pursue. "How can you design the lesson in a way that will challenge the sixth graders to think in new ways?" I asked them. "How will you frame the discussion?"

Several consultations later, they had designed a powerful lesson. They planned to begin by showing some images from the civil rights movement and then asking the younger students to share their knowledge and insights about this period of history. Then they would share information about the Stonewall riots in 1969 and present the movement for LGBT rights as an example of a current, continuing human rights struggle. Finally they would ask the sixth grade students to use their knowledge of social movements to identify strategies that could be used effectively by the LGBT community and allies. My 12th grade students were excited about and empowered by the lesson they had designed -- it was an opportunity for them to focus on the world they want.

I was worried when, on the day of the scheduled lesson, I had to miss school because my son was home sick. It turned out that my students were so committed to what they had designed and so empowered by the idea of stepping into the role of teachers that they took care of the final details themselves, taught the lesson, and then entertained me at home with emails about their success and exclamations about how much they had enjoyed teaching.

I share this story as an example of students excited about, inspired by, and dedicated to their work. The assignment allowed for student choice and encouraged groups to choose topics they felt passionate about. The structure integrated an authentic audience. Providing students with an opportunity to pursue justice by doing work that had meaning in the world led to deep engagement and ownership of the process.

Focus on Justice Thoughtfully and Passionately

There is a danger that a focus on injustice can leave students feeling overwhelmed without feeling empowered to act. For this reason, curriculum should be designed around ideas of creation, change, agency, and empowerment. My colleagues at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia have inspired me with examples of science classes studying the politics of food and working in a local community garden, math classes investigating the different costs of groceries in different neighborhoods, history classes creating walking tours of people's history, Spanish classes studying art and social change, and English classes creating publications for and by teens.

Powerful learning experiences examine the flawed world we know while moving toward creating the world of our dreams. Giving students permission and encouragement to do this work leads to engagement and empowerment of young people while giving them opportunities to do real, necessary work. The most important work teachers can do is to create experiences that help students understand themselves, their potential as intellectuals, and their power as agents in the world.

How have you seen and helped your students engage with bettering their world?

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Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


A popular question from the scholars during chapter 28 this week, State Government--The Judicial Branch, is always ... Do you think I'll ever have to go to prison?

That's fair. It's a real-world question to the real world information we're learning in a chapter whose key words and phrases are plaintiff, defendant, criminal case, prosecution, felony, capital felony, misdemeanor, jury, superior court, trail jury, grand jury, indictment, and the word that gets them all hot and bothered the most: juveniles. Something about the word ... juveniles ... sets them off. That's been quite a revelation, and makes me think that when they're hanging out with each other over the weekends that they talk about how much they're watched by their parents or the police and the delinquency of the kids they know down the street who've gotten into some serious trouble.

But it gets us talking and that's good. It gets them talking about when their mother got pulled over for speeding...or when she went through that stop sign and got caught. But what scares me is that some of them wonder why people have to obey laws. They ask why they're so oppressed and regulated and controlled?

Petal asks in a dark tone ... Why are there laws in the first place?

I give them the simplest and most powerful and easiest-to-understand answer: in hopes of attempting to keep billions of people from killing each other.

In a tone of voice, as if she was defeated, Petal said ... I guess you're right.

Chris Davis's picture
Chris Davis
Teacher, Tech Innovation Project Coordinator

Hi Joshua,

Great inspiration. I especially like the reference to "adultism" and the stress of empowerment to the student voice. Having recently reviewed Paulo Freire's "Pedagogy of the Oppressed", the lens turns easily to student voice and autonomy. Quoting Freire, "Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence. The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects." It's great to see your students are making inquiry their own and learning that knowledge is by definition an action.

I have just begun browsing the projects from the Science Leadership Academy, all very inspiring as I am studying different project models - Buck Institute, Design Thinking, Project/problem/product/challenge/zombie-based learning, etc... Is there a specific model that you all use? Once students have defined a problem and chosen how they will approach it, what kind of prototype loop do they go through? You mention "consultations", could you elaborate on what that looks like? How do you deal with oversimplification, misinterpretation, and balancing empathy for divergent viewpoints on social issues?

Thanks for the article, will definitely follow up on your other posts.

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Thank you for your comments Chris.

My colleagues and I plan using backwards design we do connect our practice and student work to our school's core values: Inquiry, Research, Collaboration, Presentation, and Reflection.

The consultations that I wrote of usually consist of me floating around the room and huddling with students to hear their ideas, see their progress, and nudge them forward with their work. I also often structure activities where students consult with each other using peer review forms or other exercises.

Your last question is a good one and a big one! It feels like a little more that I can respond to here. Maybe some of my other posts begin to answer it in some ways? Feel free to contact me if you want to connect more.

Sean Collins's picture

Adultism is a very teachable concept. As a student and teen, there is nothing a teacher can do to engage me more than empowering me. Telling students that they have the ability to see injustice very easily can mean better results on a justice evaluation assignment or assessment which can also lead to them being very exited to participate in legal matter. It may even inspire them to examine law careers.

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