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Teacher Preparation Opinion

What Is Social Justice Education Anyway?

By Crystal Belle — January 23, 2019 5 min read
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The notion of social justice pedagogy has become pertinent in education, especially in urban communities that have a history of being oppressed through schooling. To practice social justice teaching and learning practices is to truly see students for who they are and where they come from. But what does it mean to see students? Seeing students requires teachers to recognize them as valuable contributors to the classroom space, as opposed to social, cultural, and academic burdens on the so-called master in the room—the teacher.

A social justice education is centered in democracy and the freedom to exercise one’s full humanity. Conceptions of equity and democracy have always been practically and theoretically connected to the field of education, which is often perceived as the greatest human equalizer. Although there is some truth to this, it is important to understand that the notion of meritocracy is flawed, especially when you come from economically marginalized communities. If you work hard and get straight As in school, it does not automatically mean that you will attain social mobility. This is the very nature of capitalism: Somebody wins, and many people lose. This is particularly true if you are from a poor or working-class community.

Many people think that social justice education is optional, something cool to do during a special professional-development session.

What I am describing here is social reproduction theory, developed by Karl Marx, to illustrate the ways that social inequality is passed on from one generation to the next. What does this have to do with education? Well, we must begin to look at education intersectionally. We cannot talk about schools, without addressing race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, and politics, because education is a political act. To ignore intersectionality within schools erases the very identities present in our classrooms and in our respective communities, every day.

As the director of a teacher-education program, one of my primary goals upon stepping into this role was building a vision that honors social justice teaching and learning practices. In one of my courses on curriculum and instruction, I implore students to look at curriculum as a primary mechanism for making the world a more equitable place.

We learn curricular theories from the likes of John Dewey and bell hooks. We use these theories as lenses to better understand ourselves, those who are different from us, and the various communities we all represent. Through this process, students begin to come to terms with the ways that their own education has been oppressive, while thinking through solutions for not repeating the cycle, once they step into the classroom.

However, I must admit that this work is not easy, primarily because many people think that social justice education is optional, something cool to do during a special professional-development session. As I continue to push for social justice education across all urban teacher education courses, everyone initially agrees to do this work. But agreeing and implementing social justice pedagogy are two different things.

One can agree that education is a great human equalizer, yet there are still schools that have significantly fewer resources and less funding than others. There are still many students, predominantly Black and Brown, who are stereotyped as “below standard” before they are loved, taught, and respected. Teachers are still underpaid and overworked, often blamed for all of the failings of the public education system. However, the problems of the public education system are layered and connected to policymakers, school districts, parents, teachers, students, and deeply entrenched racist ideologies. A surefire way to penetrate the racialized and class-based problems of urban school systems is by adopting a social justice pedagogy.

So what exactly does a social justice pedagogy or model look like?

Here are five social justice-based strategies that will help create a more humanizing, welcoming, and intellectual learning environment in your classroom across grade levels and content areas.

1. Acknowledge who is in the room.

In order to truly teach your students in a way that is humanizing and affirming, you must know who they are and where they come from. This means learning about their respective communities, cultures, and families.

2. Start with the knowledge your students have.

Your students are coming into your classroom with prior knowledge tied to various content areas that are connected to their culturally relevant understandings of the world. Embrace what they already know by implementing it into the curriculum, while building new knowledge alongside them.

3. Create unit plans and curricular maps for the entire year.

Planning for your students ahead of time is key to having the most critical and engaging school year. By using a backwards-design framework centered in equity and inclusivity with regard to your content area, you want to think of where you want your students to be by the end of the year, and work backwards to develop the assessments and activities that will accompany objective mastery.

4. Be honest about who you are and your biases.

We all have biases as a result of living in the United States, which was founded upon white supremacy. As such, it is important to reflect on your personal prejudices. Acknowledging and healing your biases will make you a better social justice educator.

5. Encourage students to question everything, including your teaching.

A social justice classroom is one that is critical in nature, thus, we should be constantly encouraging students to question the world around them as well as the schools they attend. Give students opportunities to critique and construct their own opinions and interpretations of your teaching and the overall school culture.

If we truly want to change the world we live in, education is the best place to start. Considering the rapid transformation of the United States socially, culturally, racially, and linguistically, the only pathway to a more just education system is by adopting a radical and relentless pursuit of social justice teaching and learning practices.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2019 edition of Education Week as What Is Social Justice Education Anyway?

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