George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Teaching Students to Stand Up and Speak Out

The importance of social justice education

June 18, 2012

If a student dropped to the linoleum floor hungry and ill, as a classroom community, we would come to her aid immediately. We would offer food and comforting words and search out medical support from the school nurse and possibly even dial 9-1-1.

Yet when students leave the classroom, they follow the social norms we've established here in America: If you see homeless who are ill and hungry, keep walking. Don't encourage that "behavior" by giving them money. If they want help, they can get it.

I don't want to oversimplify the issue of homelessness and poverty in the richest country in the world but that fact that we even have a problem is the problem. The US census this year revealed that nearly half of Americans reported as low income or living in poverty. Homelessness in America has grown exponentially since the late 70s. It's everywhere. And with the current high unemployment rate, it might not be far off before we add children visibly living on the streets to that mix.

In the Classroom

As teachers, we are given the charge and entrusted with preparing students intellectually, ethically, emotionally, and socially. The latter three meaning everyday we are guiding and nurturing students into helpful, altruistic, empathetic citizens -- and we expect them to act according to this creed while on school grounds and within classroom walls.

But how about when they leave campus? Are we preparing students and arming them to be allies rather than bystanders, to be advocates for those in need in our larger community, as well as stand up to injustices when necessary?

When it comes to teaching and the notion of neutrality, Howard Zinn said it best in his book, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: "Education becomes most rich and alive when it confronts the reality of moral conflict in the world."

In 1963, while teaching history at Spelman College (an all-black women's college in Georgia), Zinn was so rattled when he was told by the University president to ignore the civil unrest (i.e. civil rights movement) happening all around him and was basically ordered to just do his job as a professor -- teach. He rejected this, and joined his students in protests, petition signing, and sit-ins. He was fired. (Zinn's book A People's History of the United States is used today in middle and high school curriculum across the country.)

Social Justice Lessons

In the classroom, how might we tackle the "moral conflicts" Zinn speaks of that we see in the neighborhood, our city and state, our country, and the world community?

Consider any of these activities:

  1. Have students write a narrative about a time they witnessed bullying or mistreatment of another, and how they made the choice to be a bystander. Have the students share their stories in small groups and then re-write them, changing their role to ally.
  2. Create a class brainstorm of all the things happening in the community that they consider wrong, unjust, unfair, and unkind. Decide on a class to take on one of those injustices and become activists for that cause. (Perhaps they will choose children who are homeless and have a bake sale, or host another type of fundraiser.)
  3. Choose an important issue or select something from the class brainstorm from above, and lead students in a letter writing campaign to a local or state politician.
  4. Using Political Cartoons from history that vilified a specific group, have students analyze why these depictions are morally wrong and the detrimental effects they have on both the group and society as a whole.

Helpful Resources

Linda Christensen's books, Reading Writing and Rising Up and Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-Imagining the Language Arts Classroom.

Young people's acts of heroism, courage, and compassion are highlighted and shown to play significant roles in history in Zinn's book, A Young People's History of the United States: Columbus to the War on Terror.

The Zinn Education Project offers resources to use with the Zinn's History book.

Teaching for Change website offers tools, training and strategies for teachers to help students "be citizens and architects of a better world."

How do you teach students to stand up and speak out?

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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