George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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Comments (10) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Tania Christoforatou's picture
Tania Christoforatou
Senior High School (15-18 years old) Biology Teacher in Crete, Greece

Congratulations on your article. I will use the suggestions mentioned, in my classroom.
Thank you,

Tania Christoforatou's picture
Tania Christoforatou
Senior High School (15-18 years old) Biology Teacher in Crete, Greece

Congratulations on your article. I will use the suggestions mentioned, in my classroom.
Thank you,

Laura Gonzalez's picture
Laura Gonzalez
7th grade history and reading intervention

Some people on facebook already have their knickers in a knot about "morality in education." This was my response:
To say that "Teaching morality is NOT the domain of public education" is to ignore the facts on the ground. Morality is embedded in schools on many levels. Not teaching morality would mean no more anti-bullying curriculum, no more "safe ambassadors" programs, etc. When I tell my students that I will not tolerate name calling, whether it's "W**back," "N***er," (which your ridiculous censors won't let me post) "gay," or "retard," that's a mini-lesson in morality. When teachers touch on topics of war, whether in literature class or history class, how can we not touch on morality? How would a teacher be able to talk about the Holocaust without bringing morality into it? How can I sidestep morality (and hypocrisy) when talking about the first Crusade and what the Crusaders did when they got to Jerusalem? Or for that matter, how can I not help them make connections between the Pope promising heaven to those who would go fight, and Muslim extremists promising 72 virgins? It's all supposed to be "morality-free?" How can teachers discuss the civil rights movement without talking about how much of the country was *not* on board with what black people were demanding? We can't pretend from a 2012 pov that "yeah, wasn't that whack that black people couldn't drink from the same fountains as white people? They were so stupid back then." As any history teacher knows, there is nothing new under under the sun, and probably the reason for this is that we as humans cannot or will not make the connections, reflect on what has happened, and figure out how to truly move forward. Morality is ingrained in all of this.

Sandra Wozniak's picture
Sandra Wozniak
President, NJ Association for Middle Level Education

Thanks for your suggestions. There are lots of great lessons to be found at I also use online discussion tools and role playing (all set up in the SCAN tool found at TregoED) to help students step into other's shoes and develop empathy. There are free lessons on cyberbullying and one on different perspectives on Pearl Harbor. Great ways to teach students to stand up and speak for themselves and develop empathy for others

Mary Anne Lock's picture

Excellent entry and suggestions! It will never work to merely talk about or tell students about conflict or issues of social injustice, past or present, unless we connect to their prior experience in an age appropriate manner as an entry point to further learning. Asking students to write about a time when they did not take action to right a wrong is a great example. Likewise, asking students to perhaps write about a time when they were mistreated or when they mistreated another can be a powerful experience. The point is students have a way to understand social justice at age appropriate and entry levels; thus, they are more likely to become empowered to transfer their understanding to every day life, as well as, understand the more complex issues.

Meg Heubeck's picture
Meg Heubeck
Director of Instruction, UVA Center for Politics

I am posting this on the Youth Leadership Facebook page. Just another example of how we can combat apathy by teaching the topic of social justice. So important!

Meg Heubeck's picture
Meg Heubeck
Director of Instruction, UVA Center for Politics

I am posting this on the Youth Leadership Facebook page. Just another example of how we can combat apathy by teaching the topic of social justice. So important!

Deborah Menkart's picture
Deborah Menkart
Teaching for Change ED and co-director of the Zinn Education Project

Thank you for referring readers to Teaching for Change and the Zinn Education Project. Following up on your story about Howard Zinn at Spelman -- last year we co-sponsored a special event where the current Spelman president, Beverly Daniel Tatum, spoke about her reaction when she learned that Zinn had been fired decades ago. The video clip of her moving talk about how she invited Howard Zinn to come back to give the convocation speech is included on this link (scroll down to Tatum's clip): (The link includes other speakers from the evening including Marian Wright Edelman, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Cornel West.)

AC's picture

I really enjoyed this article. I'm still very surprised by how little emphasis is placed on social justice education in K-12 education. Shielding our youth from exploring these complex issues denies them the opportunity to make connections between the world they live in and how these injustices impact themselves and others globally. Depriving our children from having multiple opportunities to make these connections can endanger their possibility of becoming civically engaged adults.

If, in fact, the purpose of public education is in any possible way to create independent, socially aware, thought leaders and creators then social justice education can no longer be viewed as too uncomfortable or not appropriate to include in our daily instruction.

Kim Kim's picture
Kim Kim
English Teacher, Sacramento, CA

I've recently started thinking about how to incorporate social justice lessons into my high school English classroom. Thank you for these great ideas! I also liked the quote by Howard Zinn.

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