School Climate & Safety Opinion

4 Questions to Help Create a Socially Conscious Classroom

By Christina Torres — August 24, 2018 4 min read
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Like lots of teachers, I spent the week before school trying to rest as much as I could. Also, like lots of teachers, I instead found myself digging in and getting to work in preparation for the students I would see the following week.

In my seventh year, it was admittedly a little tempting to just do what I had done the year before. That’s one of the joys of creeping towards “veteran teacher” status, right? Having things figured out so you spend less time planning?

Yet, I don’t know that that’s always true. As I enter another year, I’m realizing that I’m still called to grow and question my practice all the time. The benefit is that I’m able to plan much more thoughtfully and efficiently than I was able to before. As I approached the new year, I sat down to consider what I needed to change in order to make my classroom more socially conscious. Here are some of the questions I worked through as I prepared for the new year.

1. Whose voices am I focusing on in my clasroom? Whose voices are being left out? When I first started teaching, it was easy to fall back on the curriculum I had grown up with-- the books I had been taught as a student, the ways I had been taught. I’ve been moving away from that as I’ve grown as a teacher, but this year I took time to really critically consider not just what texts I was teaching (which are sometimes out of our control), but whose voices I uplifted in those texts. Was I teaching the historical context that may have silenced others? What could I do to bring in those unheard voices into my classroom?

2. Is my classroom focused on policy and punishment, or culture and empowerment? It’s easy to get mired down in “class policy” as a way to structure our classroom-- either as a young teacher trying to establish authority, or as a more “jaded” teacher who is making sure they cover their bases when dealing with students, families, and administration.

This year, I looked through my syllabus and made it a point to look for language that felt unncessarily punishment-oriented (e.g. “Class Policy: Students will not disturb the ability of others to learn”) to something more positive. I’m fortunate that my school has two that I love (paraphrased here):

  • We create an environment that supports learning for everyone.
  • We seek to not harm the environment, others, or ourselves.

Clear systems are important to success and help make things run consistently and smoothly, but the way we frame these systems-- both with the language we use with students and internally for ourselves as educators-- can change the culture within our classrroms. Both of these rules focused on creating positive classroom culture and empowering students to make choices that would support not just their peers, but teach them to support themselves as well.

3. What citizenship objectives do I have for my students? I have (finally! After 7 years!) felt good about the learning objectives I created for the year and for each unit. I also realized that if I really believed in the virtues of backwards planning (which I do), I needed to be mindful about what life objectives I wanted my students to gain with each unit. For example, for To Kill a Mockinbird, I chose:

Learning Targets- Students Will Be Able To... (Literature)

  • Analyze the use of setting in a story
  • Identify elements of characterization
  • Analyze use of characterization in a story
  • Create different character viewpoints within a story
  • Identify and analyze use of symbolism in story

Learning Targets - Students Will Be Able To... (Citizenship)

  • Identify and analyze historical setting of the plot and how it affects the story and our reading.
  • Identify and define key social justice terms.
  • Identify and analyze the causes and consequences of systemic racism and privilege.
  • Identify, define, and evaluate gender roles presented in TKAM and in today’s society.
  • Analyze how power affects equity of voice within the novel.
  • Identify “white savior” tropes and analyze its effect on the audience.

In being purposeful with my planning, I am able to more effectively prepare and refocus throughout the unit. It’s not unsual for us to have to change plans-- life happens (sometimes, hurricanes happen!)-- so considering not just our learning goals, but the goals for creating a socially conscious classroom, are key.

4. What actions am I taking towards student and family choice, feedback, and power within my classroom? After I settled into teaching, there were times where I felt like it was best to put my head down, barrel forward, and just make it through the week. This is an understandable reaction, and I think many great teachers still have days/weeks/months/years where this happens.

Still, now that I’m a little more seasoned and capable, I am also able to be more flexible and thoughtful about providing more choice for students and families. With each assessment I ask myself, “How can I provide multiple ways for students to show mastery?” As I built class structures, I asked, “How can I provide student choice and incorporate feedback from last year?” Taking the time to get and process feedback is important, valuable work that I know helps build real relationships with my students and community.

As we move into a new school year, I’m excited to continue questioning and growing my practice as an educator and, most importantly, as a person. Often times, I think I assumed things would “get easier” the more I did this work. I don’t think it gets “easier,” but as I gain more skills and grow more with my students, I think the capacity for joy grows exponentially the longer I am around my kids. Asking these questions felt far from tedious; instead it felt like a joyful exploration of who I was as a person exploring their calling.

And, that, I suppose, is the biggest blessing of all.

Photo via Pixabay

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