Equity & Diversity Opinion

3 Small(er) Changes for a More Socially Conscious Classroom

By Christina Torres — March 28, 2019 4 min read
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I often think of teaching, particularly with a social-justice lens, like running a marathon.

When people who don’t run marathons hear that I run marathons, they sometimes look in wonder. They may ask, “How do you run for so long?” or posit that they “could never do that,” shaking their heads at something seemingly impossible.

The thing is, it’s not impossible for lots of folks. I didn’t start running until I was in my early 20’s and had never been good at it. It seems unfathomable and ridiculous, but like any big task, it was something that I needed to learn about and break down into manageable chunks so that it could become a part of my life. I didn’t wake up one day and say, “Today I’ll run a marathon!” Instead, it took many months and years, thousands of small steps and changes in my life that got me over the finish line. And just because they were “small” doesn’t mean they were easy, but breaking them into smaller concepts helped.

Doing social-justice work in our classrooms is very similar. It’s not possible to wake up one day and say, “I want to teach social justice!” and do it in one lesson. It takes tons of work—internal and external—to build a classroom that digs into these difficult topics.

I wrote previously about remembering the fact that the small moments matter when we craft socially conscious classrooms. In that spirit, I wanted to present some perhaps more-manageable ideas to begin incorporating these ideas into a classroom.

Make no mistake, though: Teaching with a socially conscious lens is not easy, nor does it happen overnight. It is not a small task. It is heavy and powerful work that we have to take seriously. Doing just these things is not enough to have a socially inclusive classroom.

However, they can be the smaller steps that begin moving in the right direction and eventually lead to the strong marathon that is our teaching career.

Do your research. This is crucial, especially if teaching in a community we’re not originally from, but is necessary for everyone. Research the community your students come from and your school is located in. What histories might have been silenced? How can you bring them to your classroom? What community members could play a role in your upcoming lesson, unit, or assessment?

In addition, research your students and their families. No, I do not mean creepily Googling them. Give your students the opportunity to interview their family members and share their stories with you and their peers (some examples from my classroom here) or to think about and share their identities. “Culture” is much bigger than race and socioeconomic status, so take the time to really understand the culture of your school community. You can’t be “culturally responsive” if you don’t know what a student’s culture is, and that has to be more than stereotypes.

Review assignments for possible pitfalls or places to open the world. When we’re creating big assignments, we tend to imagine our students going through the steps the way we would. While that’s natural, it also makes it much more likely that our bias and blind spots could, even unintentionally, make our students feel othered. Be mindful that tasks you may consider “common” (e.g., “Ask your mother about her childhood”) may not part of your student’s lived experience. Take a second look and ask someone else to review anything you’re not sure about.

The way we use language in our work can also help validate and affirm the identities of our students. Can your word problem feature an LGBTQ+ couple? Is the short story or poem you’re reading from featuring diverse voices? These are smaller changes that can have lasting impacts on your students.

Make spaces for socially conscious work. At the beginning of the school year, I shared four questions I ask myself in preparation for the upcoming year. With a few months left, revisiting those questions (or visiting them for the first time) is a good way to review and redirect your classroom as needed:

  • Can you reframe some of your structures to include more student voice or feedback?
  • Are there activities you can tweak to open your students to more diverse perspectives or ask them to empathize with people different from them (some examples)?
  • Can you incorporate some aspect of social-emotional or social-justice learning into your lesson? (e.g. using “The Four Love Languages to discuss characterization—thanks to Marybeth Baldwin for that idea!)
  • Can you assess your students in other ways that allow them to share their stories?

As we come up on the end of the school year, it’s easy to start dreaming about summer and perhaps mentally begin to move on. Rethinking the end of the year is not only a great way to revitalize our own mindsets but also help our students reach the finish line as well. By making movements toward equity, we will start planting seeds of affirmation, validation, and critical thinking that will help students do well not just in the race of this school year but also in the marathon of their lives long after.

Photo via Erika Nizborski

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