When I first started teaching roughly 10 years ago, I knew that I wanted to embrace social justice as a framework to my pedagogy. Specifically, I wanted to create the conditions where my students and I could learn about how issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and colonialism have impacted the world we live in and what students can do to take an active role in their communities to help make our world a little bit better of a place. However, what I quickly realized, as I progressed throughout my career, is that social justice education is much more than simply teaching social justice topics. Rather, it requires educators to understand how issues of equity and justice permeate through our profession in areas such as assessment, discipline, pedagogy and classroom management.
I taught for many years in Edmonton’s inner city working with youth in the margins who faced issues of poverty, homelessness, addictions and many other barriers that impacted their ability to find success in school. Before I could start teaching content, I had to ensure my students had their basic needs met. Our school provided three meals a day, counseling services and many other supports to help meet their needs. However, what struck me the most was the stories my students shared about their experiences in traditional schools. Almost every one of my students had either been expelled from or dropped out of school at one point or another. When I asked why, students explained that by not having a strong relationship with a staff member at the school it prevented them from feeling a sense of belonging. Without these key relationships, finding a meaningful reason to stay in school when they were also facing so many challenges outside of school became almost impossible.
This experience profoundly shaped my view of teaching and education. I learned that in order to engage students who have not traditionally found success in the classroom, I needed to embrace an entirely new approach to teaching. The heart of teaching for social justice starts with forming meaningful relationships with students along with creating a safe and welcoming classroom where all students can belong. Taking the time to develop relationships between teacher and student, as well as among students, is the most important element to any good teaching, especially when working with hard to engage youth. My students taught me that in order to connect with them I not only had to demonstrate that I believed in them and their ability to demonstrate brilliance, but I also had to reimagine the classroom in a way that made my students feel that their identities and experiences would be affirmed as welcome stories in my classroom.
Embracing social justice education required my classroom became a space of democratic citizenship. Classrooms are political spaces and, despite common perception on this issue, teachers are neither neutral nor objective in the classroom. Acknowledging that classrooms are political spaces in which teachers and students can create a meaningful learning experience is essential to social justice education. Specifically, teachers have the ability to create the rules and expectations of the classroom alongside their students. I can choose to hold classroom meetings where students have an opportunity to bring up any issues they may have and I can also choose to allow students to have voice and choice in how they are assessed. By acting less as an authoritarian and more of a democratic educator, I can work towards transforming the classroom in a way that students can take ownership and responsibility for their learning and the classroom community.
In my experience working with hard to engage youth, I know the impact that grading has on their confidence and how they perceive their ability to succeed. Early in my career, I saw many of my students immediately throw away their projects and essays in the recycling bin on their way out of class after seeing a disappointing mark. I have had countless conversations with young people who feel unmotivated and disconnected from their learning as they believe they will never achieve a mark that would make them feel proud. I have found that reducing as much grading as possible in my classroom has allowed me to assess students in a more equitable way. By removing and reducing grades where possible, I have been able to see students who felt alienated from academic work take an interest and even flourish when they can focus on the skills and knowledge instead of their grade. Portfolio assessment has been an important tool as it allows me to collect students work over a longer time-frame and I can then conference with students individually to assess work in real time. Conferencing with students allows them the opportunity to advocate for their quality of performance when I need to have a summative mark on a report card and students can get a level of feedback from me that no singular mark would have been able to give them. Assessing students in a more humane way in order to increase engagement is a transformational experience for both teachers and students.
As an educator teaching for social justice, I believe it is essential that I not only look at the decisions I can make around pedagogy and curriculum but also reflect on how issues of equity permeate education on a more systemic level. Specifically, I have to ask myself tough and difficult questions about how issues of assessment, discipline and other policies impact my students’ achievement and engagement in school. From my experience, it is clear that the prejudice and discrimination that impacts our world also impacts our students in the classroom. This is why I believe it is essential to view teaching and education through an equity lens. By understanding, and in the words of Paul Gorski, how to become a threat to inequity, teachers can begin a process to tackle the inequities in classrooms to ensure that policies and practices are in line with the realities which surround our students. Classrooms are just one space where teachers can address inequity and injustice, but by learning about these issues as well as having an understanding and compassionate framework for developing relationships and community can allow both teachers and students, working together as a community, to begin learning about the world and how our actions can lead to a better one.
Social justice education has the power to engage students in remarkable ways as it requires that we link curriculum to the real lived experiences of the youth we teach. When youth can start to deconstruct and understand how the issues they face in their lives are connected to their learning, it can have profound impacts on helping them become more confident and capable learners. Youth who face various forms of oppression on a daily basis can demonstrate their brilliance when they are given the opportunity to share their experiences and have their identities affirmed. However, it is also necessary to understand that social justice education is not just for students who face oppression. It is just as essential for students who do not face these barriers. It challenges them to thoroughly investigate why and how oppression is perpetuated in order to develop compassion, empathy and an understanding of how they can contribute to creating a better world.
Most importantly, I have found that when I incorporate and tackle complex issues of racism, classism and other forms of oppression into my curriculum I can help youth, and they can help me, make better sense of the world. Teachers do not have to be experts of these topics to address them with students, but we do have to have the ability to help youth navigate difficult conversations and issues in order to make sense of the world we live in. Social justice education can help us see the injustices and inequaties that are perpetuated throughout our world, but it is essential that we do not leave our students in despair after learning about these issues. Perhaps the most important thing teachers can do is to empower students to take action on issues through connections with their community and beyond. Taking the time to connect the classroom to community leaders and organizations who are working on these issues or even creating projects where students take a stand on an issue within our schools or communities can have profound impacts on helping students become democratically engaged citizens. It is necessary that students can demonstrate to themselves that not only does their voice and experience matter, but also that they can get involved in making the world a little more just and equitable.
Teaching for social justice is a process. It’s not something that is supposed to be mastered in a couple of lessons or over the course of a school year. In my experience, it requires teachers to constantly reflect upon our values, practice and how we build relationships and community with students. For me, the most exciting challenge in teaching for social justice is that in order to achieve justice in the classroom, we have to constantly be part of a process of making and remaking what our classrooms can be to ensure that students receive the education they deserve and the skills they will need to successfully participate in and work for a democratic, just, and equitable society.
Dan Scratch is a social studies teacher at a public high school in Alberta, Canada. His work centers around empowering students to impact their community in positive ways. You can read more of his work at danscratch.blogspot.ca.
What do you think? Sound off in the comments below or continue the conversation on Facebook.