Why Teaching About Social Justice Matters

Why do you make everything about “social justice”? Can’t you just let it go?

These are questions I have been asked by… well, everyone—from parents to people on Twitter. I’ve been asked this by other teachers in my prep programs, teachers down the hall, by my own family members. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t ask myself sometimes: Wouldn’t it be easier to just let it go?  Can’t you save “social justice” for them to learn on their own?

And I sit with that: Why can’t I just let it go?

Then I realize something most teachers realize at some point: We may control the cultures of our classrooms, but we are not in control of the world our students face when they step away from their desks. So it’s not my problem to let go of. It’s the one they will face all the time.

Whether or not I talk about it, my students are bombarded with issues surrounding privilege and power every single day. “Activism” is now so rampant that it, for better or worse, even appears in Oscar acceptance speeches. Protests are televised and publicized at the click of a button, and the Internet has turned four hash marks into weapons of mass discussion. Whether or not I talk about it, they will.

Moreover, my students won’t just see these issues discussed; they live them. They will wonder why they don’t see their stories told on film, or why assumptions are made about them based on their last names. Even in the “racial paradise” some claim Hawai‘i is, my students are able to identify these issues in their lives. When asked to write a paper on stereotypes, 40 percent of them wrote about racial stereotypes they faced. Another 20 percent wrote about gender stereotypes. Without knowing what they are called, my students wrote stories about micro-aggressions they dealt with on a daily basis, and lowered or unfair expectations put upon them. My students are not just keen observers of the outside world; they experientially learn from struggles around power and privilege every day. They have important stories to tell and to hear.

So, the issue is not mine to let go. It is either mine to acknowledge or ignore. Every day I teach is a day that these discussions are either a gaping ocean to try and leap over or a tool to help better my students.

Every day I enter the classroom, I think about the lessons I had to learn myself as a student.

As a Mexican-Filipina-American kid growing up in a mostly white neighborhood, I struggled with my own identity. My brown skin and curly hair stuck out like a sore thumb, and my ethnic background was associated with the word dirty—an insult lobbed casually at white boys who had gotten too tan.

I needed someone to show me my culture has glorious role models of integrity, creativity and intellect, and that we need more people to tell those stories. 

I also needed someone to teach my other classmates—and, at times, myself—empathy, context and understanding for people from minority backgrounds. We needed to learn how to listen to those stories.  Only by hearing and understanding them would real progress be possible.

Yes, cultural and societal knowledge can (and should) be taught at home—those of us who grew from students of color to adults of color often had no other choice.

However, it must be asked: Who will validate these familial educations outside the home? Who will help students of color navigate the murky waters of a system not built for them? Who will give those who do come from cultures of power the impetus and tools to navigate their privilege so they can ally with the disempowered?

Who will teach these students to look at the world around them and figure out the problems and solutions with context and empathy? Who will teach them to tell their stories, and listen with open minds to the stories of others?

Isn’t that my job?

I was recently at a parent meeting, and a coach said something that struck a chord with me: “Thank you for giving us the opportunity to work with these students. Thank you for giving us your children.”

As teachers, we know this is not just a job; it is a privilege. Being able to teach with and learn from our students is a gift.

I can teach them poetry and about the social issues they see in the outside world. I can show them how stories don’t just use beautiful tools like allusion and metaphor, but can be used as tools to subvert power, question normalcy and change society as we understand it.

For that to happen, though, they need to understand society as it is. They need to face the conversation happening in our world right now with frankness and honesty. Teaching “social justice” must occur not simply because it’s relevant, but so my students can explore how their stories fit into the larger tapestry of a national and global story. Anything less is a wasted opportunity to challenge and expand not only their minds, but mine as well.

So, it is often not easy. It sometimes doesn’t feel good and rarely ends in simple answers. Still, as an educator I must ensure that each student who enters my room at some point leaves feeling empowered to stand up for what they believe in. They may not always agree with me, but at least I will have given them the tools to share those beliefs.

At the end of the day, that’s my job, my privilege, my kuleana: When a kid leaves my room, they’re going to have heard as many stories as I can give them, and they’re going to feel like they can tell their own.

Torres is a seventh- and ninth-grade English teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Helping Girls Find Their Voices

At a faculty meeting several years ago, I noticed that the women in the group were interrupted by men far more often than men were being interrupted by women or other men. There were about the same number of men and women in the group. I was soon wondering why the women tolerated being interrupted and why the men felt it was OK to interrupt women. As a teacher educator, I also wondered if something similar was happening in our K-12 classrooms. I decided to conduct an informal study over the next several weeks as I visited student teachers in five different elementary classrooms. I asked the teachers to schedule my visit at a time when their students would be engaged in a class discussion.

As I listened to the students discussing different issues, I kept a tally of who was doing the interrupting and who was being interrupted. I also took notes on what strategies the student teachers used to support all students in having their voices heard.

This is a summary of what I found:

  • Boys interrupted girls far more than girls interrupted boys. 
  • Boys were more assertive than girls in not allowing others to interrupt them while they were speaking.
  • For the most part, student teachers did little or nothing to stop or minimize students interrupting each other. Rarely did the teachers offer encouragement to students who were not actively participating in the discussion.

As I met with the student teachers after each of my observations, I asked, “Did you notice any difference in how boys and girls participated in the discussion?” Only one teacher seemed to be aware of boys interrupting girls and being more assertive in expressing their ideas. After sharing my observations, I asked the student teachers for ideas of what they could do to encourage girls to be more assertive in having their voices heard. Together, the student teachers and I came up with these suggestions:

  • Set rules in advance about how to participate in a classroom discussion. Emphasize that all students have a right to share their ideas without interruption.
  • When one student interrupts another, remind him or her of the rule and allow the student who was speaking to continue.
  • Encourage non-participating students to share their ideas. If a student reacts badly to being called on individually, meet with them after class and tell them that you are interested in their ideas on the topic.
  • Give students an example of how they might respond when interrupted, such as, “I’m still speaking. I will listen to you when I’m finished.”

While these suggestions will be helpful for all students, they may be especially beneficial for girls. A recent report of studies conducted in over a dozen countries and commissioned by the Government Equalities Office in the United Kingdom indicates that as many as one in five girls feels too insecure to share her opinions in class. For some girls, it’s because they don’t want to draw attention to their less-than-perfect selves, and they’re afraid of being criticized.

Dr. Anita Gurian, researcher with New York University’s Child Study Center, explains that by age nine, girls are more likely than boys to have low self-esteem, which is associated with other emotional, social and academic problems. Children with low self-esteem, she notes, tend to be overly self-critical and may become passive, withdrawn and depressed. They may have a difficult time dealing with problems or hesitate to try new things. 

Supporting girls in speaking up during classroom discussions won’t solve all the issues that can harm girls’ self-esteem. But any steps we can take to help girls realize their ideas are valued and to create an environment where they feel safe to make their voices heard are steps in the right direction—for all students.

Additional Reading:

The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman (2015)

The Confidence Gap” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, The Atlantic (2014)

Girls on the Edge by Leonard Sax (2011)

Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer.

'Perspectives': We Did Our Homework!

Perspectives for a Diverse America, Teaching Tolerance’s K-12 anti-bias, literacy-based curriculum, is the culmination of three years of hard work—including the curation of nearly 300 readings covering a variety of social justice topics. Needless to say, we’re proud to have it in the hands of educators around the country, but we’re not stopping there. In addition to continually adding new texts, we strive to improve the usability of the curriculum so educators and students can get the most out of it. We started with a pilot study to determine its impact in classrooms.

During the 2013-2014 school year, 74 teachers across five sites (Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, New Mexico and Wisconsin) participated the Perspectives pilot study. The group represented a tremendous range of educators: They taught grades K through 12 in urban, rural and suburban settings, and worked in dual-language, special education and gifted classrooms. The task? Use two Perspectives texts in the classroom and complete an integrated learning plan (more on that next week!).

Here’s just a snippet of what we learned.

Did the scope and nature of the Perspectives curriculum meet teachers’ needs?

In a word, yes. Perspectives’ strategies and tasks were grade-appropriate, challenging and useful. Teachers found a sufficient array of strategies and favorably cited the accompanying rubrics and guides. The curriculum met teachers’ needs for challenging texts, vocabulary instruction, oral language development and challenging writing assignments. Here are some key findings:

  • Almost all teachers (99 percent) agreed that the texts they chose allowed them to introduce important topics into conversations with their students.
  • Almost all teachers (97 percent) agreed that Perspectives strategies engaged their students.
  • Almost all teachers (95 percent) agreed that Perspectives strategies helped students build reading comprehension skills.

Did Perspectives improve teacher capacity in implementing the Common Core State Standards and the goals of anti-bias education?

The study shows that Perspectives has the potential to significantly improve teacher capacity in implementing the Common Core. Almost all of the teachers (97 percent) said the strategies helped their students make progress toward mastery of the CCSS, and 90 percent said the strategies helped the teachers themselves to understand and apply the CCSS.

Perspectives is a promising vehicle for encouraging the wider adoption of high-quality anti-bias education. Pilot teachers reported that the curriculum allowed them to have new and meaningful discussions about identity, diversity, justice and action in their classrooms. Plus, the curriculum made teachers feel comfortable and confident discussing issues relevant to their students’ lives and communities, even when those issues were controversial. Teachers’ experiences with Perspectives were so meaningful that many encouraged colleagues in their buildings or professional networks to use the curriculum.

What effects of using Perspectives did teachers see in their classrooms?

Pilot teachers reported substantial effects in five major areas: literacy development, student engagement, empathy, classroom culture and student behavior. All the teachers said the curriculum built students’ literacy skills in all of the dimensions measured, and the evaluation found that teachers were pleased with students’ high levels of engagement. This engagement contributed to productive discussions and student enthusiasm for subject material and culminating tasks. Key findings included:

  • Almost all teachers (97 percent) said Perspectives texts engaged their students.
  • Almost all teachers (98 percent) said that Perspectives texts helped make classroom discussions more productive.
  • Almost all teachers (97 percent) said the culminating task brought their students closer together.

Teachers also reported that the curriculum helped them build classroom community and engaged students with their communities in new ways. Teachers saw connections between the use of Perspectives and fewer student conflicts as well as greater tolerance for differences.

How did findings relate to the research informing the Perspectives design?

One of the major theories underlying Perspectives is the idea that texts can generate empathy in readers, building understanding and awareness of diverse experiences. Pilot teachers observed this in their classrooms across grade levels and subject material, whether they were in diverse or relatively homogenous classrooms. Two other concepts were robustly supported by the findings:

  • Complex and relevant texts can increase student engagement.
  • Appropriate curricular design can promote collective action.

This evaluation shows that exposure to Perspectives’ central texts created motivated learners. This is in line with research demonstrating that text selection matters tremendously for academic, social and emotional outcomes. Longitudinal use of Perspectives materials may help educators see real results in improved school and community climates. Finally, Perspectives shows promise for promoting an integrated instructional approach that moves teaching and learning from prejudice reduction to collective action.

Read the full report on the pilot study here.

Agree to (Respectfully) Disagree

Most educators would agree that it’s important for students to respect classmates with different religious or nonreligious beliefs. But what if the doctrine or practices of the belief system in question contradict students’ values or marginalize or limit their identity group? Or what if a student has experienced microaggressions or harassment from peers of a different religious tradition? How do you respond when a student asks, “They don’t respect me, so why should I respect them?”

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) individuals make up one identity group that has experienced unequal treatment within certain religious traditions. According to a 2013 survey of LGBT Americans by the Pew Research Center, a vast majority describe Islam (84 percent), the Mormon Church (83 percent), the Catholic Church (79 percent) and evangelical churches (73 percent) as unfriendly toward them. This perception is corroborated by another Pew survey of the general American public. Although support for gay marriage continues to increase (just over half of Americans favor it), “opposition to gay marriage—and to societal acceptance of homosexuality more generally—is rooted in religious attitudes, such as the belief that engaging in homosexual behavior is a sin.”

If your students feel excluded or offended by faith-based rules and opinions, you can still encourage respectful conversations on religious diversity. Here’s how.

Distinguish People From Doctrines and Practices

Rather than asking your students to respect all belief systems, ask them to practice respecting all people, regardless of their belief system. Students don’t need to agree with their classmates’ religious or nonreligious beliefs, but they should be expected to interact with them in ways that are constructive and civil. In a previous blog post, we highlighted the multiple facets of a person’s identity. Pointing out similarities in some facets amidst differences in others can help students engage in these positive interactions.

Avoid Assumptions Based on Religious Identity

Just because an individual belongs to a particular belief system doesn’t necessarily mean he or she agrees with all of its tenets and practices. In fact, in some cases, a majority of adherents disagree with decisions of the leadership. For instance, a survey by Univision found that 59 percent of Catholics in the United States think the church should let women become priests, a belief that contradicts the current decision of church leadership. 

Within Islam, vocal and active feminist movements aim to counteract misogynistic interpretations of Islamic texts by male imams. Rather than abandoning their faith in the quest for gender equality, many Muslim women combat oppression by appealing to Islamic texts and laws. For example, one of Tanenbaum’s Peacemakers in Action, Jamila Afghani, created the first holistic gender-sensitive imam training program in Kabul, Afghanistan.

By exposing your students to diverse perspectives within a particular faith, you help diminish the likelihood that they’ll incorrectly attribute specific attitudes and opinions to all individual members of a religion.

Keep in Mind That Emotional Reactions Have a History

Prior to walking into your classroom, students may have experienced bullying or negative comments about themselves and the belief systems to which they belong. In extreme cases, teachers have even made questionable or inappropriate comments to students about their religious traditions. An awareness of this potential history will put students’ emotional reactions into context and underscore the importance of creating inclusive, respectful learning environments where students are encouraged to abide by established rules of engagement.

Provide Tools for Respectful Disagreement

Educators can give students tools to respectfully disagree with people of different faiths, even if those in marginalized groups are the ones being disrespectful. By sharing these tools ahead of time, before conflicts based on religious identity arise, you will be better prepared to address and resolve such conflicts in the moment. You can refer back to what was already discussed, rather than having to come up with a response on the fly.

One tool that establishes a firm foundation for respectful disagreement is Tanenbaum’s Respecting Each Other lesson plan, which asks students to define what respect looks, feels and sounds like, and then to create their own rules of respect. If you spot any behavior that breaks these rules, you can correct it with greater credibility than if you had made up the rules yourself. Students can—and often do—take on the role of enforcer, holding each other accountable for honoring the agreements they’ve made together.

Krister Stendahl, an accomplished theologian, created another helpful tool that’s specific to religious differences. Here are his Three Rules of Religious Understanding:

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for “holy envy.” (By this, Stendahl means that you should be willing to recognize elements that you admire in the other religious tradition or faith and that you wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.)

If everyone obeyed these rules, what a more peaceful world it would be! The unfortunate reality is that, in spite of an individual’s best efforts to follow guidelines for respect, the reactions of others may be angry and intolerant. When a student asks, “They don’t respect me, so why should I respect them?” remind him to distinguish people from tenets and practices, avoid assumptions, consider the emotional history and remember the tools of respectful disagreement.

Fasciano is an education program associate at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.

What We're Reading This Week: February 27

GOOD: As members of the Ferguson community attempt to heal, the Truth Telling Project is creating safe spaces for people to speak their truths and ultimately help relieve their trauma.

The Washington Post: High school students in Maryland created a video to capture their experiences as minorities on campus. It opened up a conversation about how to foster a more welcoming and inclusive school climate. 

The Washington Post: Juveniles tried as adults are more likely than youth tried as juveniles to return to prison. A book club called Free Minds works against this trend by supporting youth who are charged and incarcerated as adults in Washington, D.C.

The Civil Rights Project: A recent report from UCLA raises concerns about “egregious disparities” found in suspension rates across race and ability groups.

Education Week: Meet Superintendent Richard A. Carranza, an educator with first-hand knowledge of what it means to navigate the education system as an English language learner. 

Disability Scoop: A mother's two-year legal battle with the Broward County School Board in Florida recently ended when  a U.S. district judge ruled that her son can be accompanied at school by his service dog.

Marketplace Learning Curve: In this series of four articles, Learning Curve explores the ways in which technology can impact education for juveniles who are locked up.

If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to and put What We’re Reading This Week in the subject line.

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