Social justice education is at the heart of the work I do in schools, and in the past couple of days, one of my mentors, Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng, reminded me of the importance of coming together with others to make this mission explicit. In correspondence from her position at the Spark M. Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, she called on various organizations to post statements on their websites, social media platforms and other spaces of influence and connection that directly speak to their commitment to education for the enhancement of civil liberties, social justice and peace. In this message, she encouraged all of us to explicitly state:
We are part of an American institution of culture and conscience. Our mission speaks broadly of the commitment to human rights, civil liberties, environmental stewardship and positive peace. In order to nourish these commitments, we seek to deepen our understanding of one another and our common humanity, to learn of and teach about the powerful experiences and universal needs of myriad and diverse peoples. We are firmly against any action that discriminates against or unfairly targets refugees, immigrants, women, native peoples, people of color, Arabs and Muslims, because such actions undermine the integrity of the nation and fail to reflect the moral courage that is owed to its people.
I instantly felt that, by communicating this clear and common stance in writing across the communities and organizations we work in, our collective capacity for working together to create positive change grew stronger.
This is the power of a shared message, and it is one of the core reasons I am deeply attracted to Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards. “The standards provide a common language and organizational structure,” Teaching Tolerance states. “Teachers can use them to guide curriculum development and administrators can use them to make schools more just, equitable and safe.” Through their theoretically sound origins and well-articulated continuum of engagement, the language embedded within the four domains of the standards—Identity, Diversity, Justice and Action—has the potential to link social justice educators across grade levels, geographic regions, diverse populations and public and private settings.
Just imagine what would happen if state departments of education and independent schools across the nation used these standards to reframe the daily experiences of students and teachers. Perhaps we would move one step closer to ensuring “the basic [educational] need for the whole spectrum of thinking/feeling competencies to be taught to all students, regardless of gender and other cultural variables,” as anti-bias education pioneer Emily Style writes in “Curriculum as Window and Mirror.” Maybe then, all of our young people would have access to both the critical content and social emotional approach to teaching and learning that is necessary for building a more empathetic, inclusive and just society.
With this in mind, my colleagues and I at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa’s (UHM) College of Education Institute for Teacher Education (ITE) Secondary Program decided to use the Social Justice Standards to redesign our teacher education program. Grounded in a commitment to creating an equitable and socially just society, this program will provide our teacher candidates with a transformative learning experience. Specifically, the program will help candidates develop a deep wisdom for teaching. That teaching will be rooted in place and community action, which will in turn serve as a foundation for sparking their future students’ wonder and imagination about how to live in the world. The program will also prepare teachers who will contribute to cultivating schools and learning experiences that provide students with opportunities to create a compassionate democratic society.
With the Social Justice Standards at the foundation of our program redesign, we have been able to come together with a clear and common language for creating program activities, coursework, curriculum and assessments. Additionally, we have a collective voice for communicating what we mean by social justice education to the university faculty, teacher candidates, K–12 teachers and students, and larger communities that we work with.
Just as Dr. Soetoro-Ng and my colleagues in the UHM ITE Secondary Program have done, now is the time for all of us to make our collective stance on social justice education explicit. With resources like the Social Justice Standards, we have the tools we need to, as Teaching Tolerance encourages, “plan and carry out collective action against bias and injustice in the world.” In the words of Mary Kawena Pukui, "‘A‘ohe hana nui ke alu ‘ia:” No task is too big when done together by all.
Makaiau is an associate specialist at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa College of Education Institute for Teacher Education Secondary Program and the director of curriculum and research at the University of Hawai‘i Uehiro Academy for Philosophy and Ethics in Education.
The first time I asked my students for critical feedback on my teaching, we were on our way back from a fieldtrip to the National Portrait Gallery. As we rode on the metro, I seized the opportunity to ask them about what they like and don’t like about my teaching. I learned about this strategy in Christopher Emdin’s book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y’all Too. His approach is grounded in Gloria Ladson-Billings’ concept of culturally relevant teaching. The idea is to consult with a small, academically diverse group of students during lunch or after school (or on a train) to discuss how you can improve their classroom experience. Students’ suggestions are put into action, and the teacher continues to meet with the students to receive further feedback.
As the teacher, you have to be ready to accept criticism from your students; you have to overcome pride, denial and anxiety. I was nervous that day on the train as I asked my students about my teaching.
“Do I talk too much?”
“What do you think about the vocabulary strategy?”
“Are students taking advantage of me because I’m too nice?”
The students told me they like my class because I encourage them to share their experiences and opinions. They criticized their peers who get off task when we use tablets. One student wanted more vocabulary practice. After just one meeting, I realized that there were needs and concerns that weren’t being met. My joy over this exchange was tempered by the thought of previous students whose needs I could have better addressed using this strategy.
Back at school, I was eager to hear from students in my most behaviorally challenging class, so I recruited four new participants. They were quick to raise the topic of disobedience during our first meeting. One student pointed to the classroom constitution on the wall and said, “You need to enforce those rules.” The other students nodded. They were concerned about a handful of their peers who consistently talk over me during class.
“You’re too soft.”
“You’re not hard on us like the other teachers.”
They were criticizing me for never yelling or punishing them. I have avoided such practices after learning that authoritarian discipline isn’t effective and is disproportionately used in high-poverty schools. During my first few years as a teacher, I would react angrily if a student’s behavior was excessively disrespectful, but it did nothing but create a stressful learning environment. My next strategy was to calmly send students out of class, but again, this didn’t address the root of the problem. This year, I vowed to keep all students in the room unless they were a danger to themselves or others. For the most part, I have won them over with humor and mutual respect. I try to preempt behavioral issues by planning engaging activities, but the reality is that some days are less engaging than others, requiring students to exercise more self-control.
From a classroom management standpoint, I can attest to improvements in student behavior that were a direct result of these feedback meetings. By simply asking students to talk about their experiences in my class, I have been able to better adapt to their needs. Critical thinking is a core value of my U.S. history curriculum, but I had failed to turn the critical lens upon my teaching. But in doing so, not only have I enhanced my practice, but also the student participants gained a deeper sense of responsibility by contributing to the successful reform of their classes.
Editor’s note: For more information on rethinking your approach to classroom management, see Reframing Classroom Management: A Toolkit for Educators and its accompanying free, on-demand webinar.
Seeger is a seventh-grade history teacher in the Washington, D.C., area and a doctoral student at George Mason University.
“Wait, do you teach in classroom X?” a student asked me as I passed out midterm exam papers for another class.
“Actually, yes. How did you know that?” I laughed in response, continuing to shuffle around the room.
“Those buttons on your bag. You have them in your room too, right? I always look in your room and see them,” he answered.
He pointed to my bag, which conveyed anti-sexist and anti-racist statements. I do, in fact, have similar buttons and posters in my classroom. And, while I always hoped and intended for my own students to notice and think about them, I was surprised that this student, whom I had never met before, had also noticed them.
To be honest, I used to dread decorating my classroom. I complained about it and often did it with reluctance. As a typical high school teacher with a perennially long to-do list, it always felt like a tedious additional chore that yielded little payoff. Last year, when I taught in three different classrooms, I was secretly pleased to not have to take ownership over any of the rooms and therefore did no decorating at all.
However, this year, when I was gifted with my own room, I ultimately decided to embrace it. As a history teacher, I hung art prints of the American West, photographs of Coney Island during the Roaring ’20s, informational texts on Supreme Court cases and various Civil War images. I also hung posters and buttons with anti-bias statements. In particular, there are anti-racism and anti-sexism messages, but also messages welcoming to immigrants and including specific information about DACA.
Photo credit: Samantha Schoeller
There is nothing particularly remarkable about any of this. Yet, in the wake of rising bias incidents in public schools and an increasingly alarming political climate, my feelings about the importance of my classroom’s physical environment have shifted. Perhaps contrary to what some may believe, as an educator I can control very little about my students’ lives and even their well-being. But I can control the physical environment they sit in for 41 minutes, five times per week. And during those precious few minutes, I can try to convey that they are welcome and safe.
There is considerable research on the connection between student learning and classroom decor. For example, a 2014 study suggested that overly decorated kindergarten classrooms might actually distract 5-year-olds. A 2009 article regarding middle and high school science classrooms urged teachers to think carefully about their choice of posters in order to maximize learning: to consider which messages they want them to convey, to rotate them in accordance with units and learning goals, and to make sure they keep students on-topic when their eyes and minds wander.
And, while the research may be varied or even contrary in some cases, one aspect is clear: Students notice what teachers hang on their walls. In that context, what messages do we want to convey, beyond the content in our lessons? How can we let them know we care about them, even if they don’t want to talk to us directly? How can we try to make them feel just a little bit safer inside their seats, especially in increasingly uncertain times? These questions should drive our choices. Clear anti-bias messages sent via our physical environment are one very small way to begin to approach these issues.
“Do you like the buttons?” I asked this young person I had just met.
“Yeah,” he said. “I like them.”
I’m glad he did.
Schoeller is a high school history teacher in Brooklyn, New York.
The Atlantic: “‘Nevada has become the bellwether for what [universal voucher] programs should look like around the country.’”
Boston Herald: “Boston schools could get a $1 million boost next year to create new food pantries, clothing closets and other support to help thousands of homeless students.”
CNN: “Much in the same way that black parents often have ‘The Talk’ with their children about how to deal with police officers, adult family members of undocumented immigrants, refugees or other children targeted by these policies will have to teach their children how to avoid conflict.”
Education Week: “Administrators, teachers, and students are now actively debating whether the district’s efforts to remake school security have gone too far or not far enough. They’re talking about what role, if any, the district’s school resource officers should play in keeping schools safe.”
The Huffington Post: “To support Black children, we must create a real agenda that prioritizes educational equity and justice for all Black students.”
National Public Radio: “The Boy Scouts of America said that it will begin accepting transgender boys who want to join its scouting programs.”
The New York Times: “The apology for the Sept. 8, 1940, killing is part of a renewed push across the American South to acknowledge the brutal mob violence that was used to enforce the system of racial segregation after Reconstruction.”
The New York Times: “At Standing Rock, the youths felt they were developing the means to overcome that trauma. The key ... was to let their history go, which they took as an almost holy responsibility: Forgive, and then take action to spare those who are coming in the future.”
The Washington Post: “The Leading Men Fellowship is one aspect of the city’s push to better serve its minority male population, a group of students who lag far behind their peers in the public schools. The program puts the recent graduates to work in a steady job, could create a seed of ambition and serves the city’s youngest students.”
The Washington Post: “The boys, who are all 16 or 17, have been sentenced to read books from a list that includes works by prominent black, Jewish and Afghan authors, write a research paper on hate speech, go to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and listen to an interview with a former student of the Ashburn Colored School, which they defaced.”
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to email@example.com, and put “What We’re Reading This Week” in the subject line.
The recent Women’s March on Washington, D.C., by some estimates the largest protest march in American history, prompted journalists of different political bents to comment on its possible impact on policy and electoral politics. Whether the march—and the spirit of resistance and hope it galvanized among its participants—can maintain its forward momentum remains to be seen. Yet, as former teachers and current teacher educators who participated in the march, it is clear to us that such protests have the potential to influence our nation’s classrooms.
While the signs participants held during the Women’s March addressed human rights issues with a vibrant blend of cathartic humor, creativity and poignant pleas, we were taken by the educational value of the march’s chants. The signs spoke to salient reasons individual people were marching, but the chants seemed to speak more to the collective consciousness of the marchers.
One of the most common chants we heard used call and response:
person calls, “Tell me what democracy looks like.”
Everyone else responds, “This is what democracy looks like.”
Started at different intervals and from different groups along the route, these chants crossed lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, creed and age, emphasizing the power all Americans have to make positive change in our society, no matter their social position. The chants created moments that countered the critique that identity politics will lead marchers adrift from their causes. The chants represented unity, not in spite of diversity, but because of it.
Careful analysis of the “Tell me what democracy looks like” chant in the classroom has the potential to disrupt the idea that activists are larger-than-life heroes, far removed from everyday people. As the Women’s March Youth Ambassadors can attest, children were an ever-present force during the march. Positioned in trees and sitting on the shoulders of friends and family members, children often had the broadest views of the crowd’s immensity and pluralism, and their voices could be heard confirming that they, too, are what democracy looks like.
During the civil rights movement, children weren’t merely in the shadows of history; they were often capable of setting the nation’s moral compass. For example, over 3,000 children marched as part of the 1963 Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama. Broadcasted images of police using water hoses, dogs and arrests to quell the children’s protests sparked national controversy, eventually forcing Birmingham to negotiate an agreement with civil rights leaders to end the demonstrations.
There are other examples, of course, such as the participation of children in the Selma-to-Montgomery March of 1965 in the face of intimidation, threats and violence, including the infamous “Bloody Sunday.” These courageous children, along with other activists, completed a four-day, 54-mile march to the Alabama State Capitol to call for voting rights for African Americans in the South. Their young voices and small steps brought about change; the march is credited with spurring the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As educators, we believe it is part of our role to prepare students to understand the power of their civic engagement to prevent and resist injustice. Our beliefs are supported by the National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework, which promotes students’ active engagement in their communities through informed action.
Elementary educators interested in promoting such a vision in their classrooms could easily incorporate literature focused on children’s roles in American protests into their reading routines, including books such as Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson and Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel. For additional readings, see the free texts in the K–12 curriculum tool Perspectives for a Diverse America.
Educators could also encourage students to create their own signs and chants that represent issues they care about at the classroom, school or community level. Teaching students about the role children have played in history, as well as the role children can continue to play in our current political environment, is just one of many ways teachers can bring protests such as the the Women’s March into the classroom.
Brittney Beck is a doctoral fellow in the University of Florida School of Teaching and Learning and a former first-grade teacher.
Stephanie Schroeder is a doctoral candidate in curriculum, teaching and teacher education at the University of Florida and is a former secondary English and social studies teacher.