What do we mean by teaching for social justice?


Excerpted  from "Creating Classrooms for Equity and Social Justice", pp 4-5, Bigelow, B., Christensen, L, Karp, S, Miner, B. & Peterson, B. (1994).  Rethinking Our Classrooms:  Teaching for Equity and Justice.  Milwaukee, WI:  Rethinking Schools, Ltd.

Bill Bigelow and others (Bigelow et al, 1994) describe a "social and pedagogical vision that is characterized by several interlocking components that together comprise what we call a social justice classroom" (p. 4).  They state that curriculum and classroom practice must be:

Grounded in the lives of the students.  The class has to be about students lives as well as about a particular subject.  Students should probe the ways their lives connect to the broader society, and are often limited by that society.

Critical.  The curriculum should equip the students to "talk back" to the world.  Who makes decisions and who is left out? Who benefits and who suffers?  What is required to make change?  Through critiques of advertising, cartoons, literature, legislative decisions,...or school life, students should have opportunities to question social reality.  Student work must move outside the classroom walls, so that scholastic learning is linked to real world problems.

Multicultural, anti-racist, pro-justice.  Implicit in many traditional accounts of history is the notion that children should disregard the lives of women, working people, and especially people of color, led to view history and current events from the standpoint of the dominant groups.  By contrast, a social justice curriculum must strive to include the lives of all those in our society, especially the marginalized and dominated. 

Participatory, experiential.  Whether through projects, role plays, simulations, mock trials, or experiments, students need to be mentally, and often physically, active.  Our classrooms must provoke student to develop their democratic capacities: to question, to challenge, to make real decisions, to collectively solve problems.

Hopeful, joyful, kind, visionary.  The ways we organize classroom life should seek to make children feel significant and cared about by the teacher and by each other.  Together students and teachers can create a community of conscience.

Activist.  We want student to come to see themselves as truth-tellers and change-makers.  A critical curriculum should be a rainbow of resistance, reflecting the diversity of people from all cultures who acted to make a difference, many of whom did so at great sacrifice. 

Academically rigorous.  A social justice classroom equips children not only to change the world but also to maneuver in the one that exists.  A social justice classroom offers more to students than do traditional classrooms and expects more from students.

Culturally sensitive.  Each class presents new challenges to learn from our students and demands that we be good researchers, and good listeners.  Quoting Delpit, "when teachers are teaching children who are different from themselves, they must call upon parents in a collaborative fashion if they are to learn who their students really are."

Finally teachers who want to construct more equitable, more meaningful, and more lively educational experiences for children must also concern themselves with issues beyond the classroom walls. 
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Pat Russo
 Last Updated 2/16/10