How to Make a Real Difference by Bringing Social Justice Issues into your Classroom
Why we Teach…
There are many reasons that people become educators. Perhaps they’ve always loved children, are natural teachers, or possess a deep love of learning. These are all excellent reasons for becoming an educator. However, there is another underlying reason that many people decide to go into education, a reason that can often get pushed to the wayside under the strains of meeting standards and deadlines—To change the world.
Making a Difference…
The role of a teacher in students’ lives is invaluable. Every lesson, every interaction, every conversation, is an opportunity to impact how the students look at the world, and, in turn, how they can change it.
As teachers, we have the ability to do so much more than relay facts to our students, we can teach them how to think, and, in turn, how to become thoughtful, contributing citizens. One of the best ways we can do that is to bring issues of social justice into our classroom. Dealing with problems of equality and fairness helps give students valuable experience in critical thinking, research, and respectful, meaningful conflict.
While bringing social justice issues into your classroom can potentially be of enormous benefit to students, it cannot be done without a lot of careful thought and planning.
10 Tips to engage students in conversations about social justice
1. Help guide students, don’t try to control. One of the major goals of social justice education is to give students experience participating in, and even leading difficult conversations. Your role as an educator is to help lead students in the right direction when they get off-course, not to dominate the conversation. If done correctly, you will find yourself spending most of the time listening to the students’ discussions, interjecting only if the conversations go off topic or become volatile.
2. Find relevant topics. Read social media. Check the local news. Talk to your students about what is going on in their neighborhoods. Is your town considering closing a skate park? Are there students in your school who are going without regular meals? Are students of color treated unfairly? Students will be most motivated by issues that they have observed or have affected them. The Anti-Defamation League’s website offers a wealth of topics and lesson plans that deal with social justice.
3. Be hopeful. Dealing with heavy topics can be oppressive to young people. Try to help them find the light in even the darkest issues. Help empower students to believe that all problems, even the most hopeless seeming, are solvable with cooperation and hard work. For example, if you are discussing the plight of local homeless people, show them examples of how other communities have created programs to feed and shelter the homeless. Giving them real-world examples of difficult problems that have been solved will empower them to look for viable solutions to issues of social justice.
4. Model and expect respect. Encourage debate, but find common ground. When conversations become heated, divisiveness can occur. Often students become so entrenched in their own perspectives that they lost sight of the bigger picture. Something as simple as helping students find common ground can make a big difference in the tone and effectiveness of the conversations.
It is your job to ensure that students have a safe, respectful environment in which to voice their opinions. Make it clear that bullying or name-calling will not be tolerated. The Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution provides an extensive list of resources for dealing with conflict management. For further assistance and professional development credits, check out our course on the causes and prevention of cyber-bullying.
5. Have age-appropriate expectations. Kids as young as 5 or 6 can tackle issues of social justice. However, the topics and level of conversation will be much different than those that take place on a middle school or high school level. When working with young students, make sure to choose topics that are more concrete. Some ideas could be to discuss ways to make the playground more fun for everyone, ensure each child has a healthy lunch, and debate the fairness of “team picking” in gym class. Education World offers some social justice lessons designed specifically for younger students.
6. Teach students how to do good research. While discussing issues of social justice, it is important that students learn to back up their opinions. One way that they can do that is by conducting research on the topics at hand. The internet offers a wealth of resources for information, of varying degrees of credibility. Help students understand how to tell the difference. Literacy Education Online provides some useful tips on assessing a source’s credibility. Learning to discern between reliable and unreliable information is one of the greatest lessons you can teach your students.
7. Bring in speakers. There is nothing like a first-hand account to help students become invested in an issue. Have a military veteran come to your classroom and talk about the difficulties of re-adjusting to civilian society. Invite a local wheel-chair bound woman to explain why she has trouble navigating your town’s sidewalks. Ask a former high-school student to talk to your students about how bullying affected his education. Do you know someone who has been naturalized? Ask her to speak about her immigration experience. Putting faces to the causes will give students a personal connection and ignite their enthusiasm.
8. Understand that students come from different backgrounds/perspectives. It is our job as educators to put our personal biases aside when helping students confront issues of social justice. Although you may be socially liberal, understand that some of your students may come from religious, conservative backgrounds. And vice versa.
It is not your job to change the students’ views, only to help them understand and respect other people’s perspectives. Discrediting a students’ background or life experiences will only seek to alienate them. Instead, work on finding commonalities and building bridges. With experience and maturity, you might find students with previously established beliefs opening their minds to other perspectives. Dealing with issues of social justice is one of the most effective ways to help expedite this process.
9. Keep up-to-date on current events. Social media and 24-hour news has given this generation access to more information than any other generation to date. It is crucial that we, as teachers, also stay informed in order to retain our relevancy and credibility. Besides reading news that is of interest to you, try informing yourself on topics of interest to your students. One easy way to do this is to instruct students to use sites such as CNN Student News and PBS News Hour Extra to bring in articles for classroom discussion. You may find that even issues of pop culture or celebrity news can inspire discussions of social justice. The recent “taking a knee” stance of Colin Kaepernick is one current example.
10. Take real-life action. There are few things more powerful in education than showing students that they can, indeed, make a difference. While not every issue of social justice is adaptable to a classroom project, many are. The basis of many project based learning lessons are issues of social justice. The Bucks Institute for Education website is one of the best resources to teach you how to use PBL in your classroom.
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