Social justice is necessary to weave into the English curriculum because it allows students to explore their own world views and discuss them with other students. Teenagers must be provided with a space to explore and discuss important social justice issues. Sometimes, they need just a bit of guidance. Here are five ways to incorporate social justice into the classroom.
1. Help students find a social justice issue they are passionate about.
Not everyone will share the same passion about the same topics, and that’s okay! It is crucial to help students explore what they feel strongly about. Start by asking them what aspects of their lives they value most, and create a discussion about how those things might not be present in everyone’s lives. For example, a student might be really passionate about sports and may be interested in making sports more accessible to people worldwide. By asking your students questions about what they value, you can help them find causes they may want to support.
2. Challenge them to write from a different perspective.
Asking students to try to write from someone else’s perspective helps to uncover beliefs, values, and opinions that differ across people. This exercise will also involve some research for students to understand the new perspective from which they are writing. Research and subsequent dialogue will foster conversations about privilege and opportunity disparity across communities.
When working on this exercise, it is essential to discuss implicit bias and stereotypes. By doing so, students will grow and learn. As teachers, we encourage students to review their writing to make sure it is free from implicit bias and stereotypes.
3. Include books from a variety of authors.
In an American literature class, it may seem like there would be a typical storyline throughout texts. But for so much of public school’s history, the American Lit class has mainly presented one perspective of American Lit: that of the white male.
There are so many different perspectives from the same period, so teachers must include more than just the majority voice. One way to do this is to evaluate the significant literature you teach in your curriculum. If the majority of your work is from white authors, it is time for a change. And, that means more than merely adding in a short story or poem. If you teach in a district similar to mine where your anchor texts and curriculum is pre-selected for you, speak out and request a more inclusive literature list that contains a more historical accurate narrative..
Including texts that reach a broad range of people will help cultivate conversations about social justice. Find texts that feature Black, Latinx, Asian, indigenous, and LGBTQ+ authors and characters to ensure that there is a representation of multiple walks of life. And even more importantly, you want to find texts that highlight the strengths of these characters. For example, don’t just read books or documents emphasizing the Black struggle. Find texts that celebrate Black culture.
Once you’ve gone through and supplemented your literature, it is time to reevaluate BIPOC characters’ roles in literature you teach. You’ll want to make sure that you address stereotyped characters that lack agency. For example, when I teach Arthur Miller’s The Crucible this year, I will do a much better job with Tituba. We will look at and analyze the POLICIES in place that ENSLAVE her as a starting point for that conversation.
4. Make the classroom a safe space.
When students know that we hear their voices and value their opinions, they are more likely to dive deeper into the material and their own beliefs. However, when student opinions and views teeter on racism, teachers need to step in and say something constructive so that the classroom remains a safe environment for antiracism teaching and growth.
Creating a safe place for discussion is critical so students can reach beyond what is comfortable for them. One way to create a feeling of safety and support in the classroom is to discuss social justice issues as they come up. In the US today, there are constant incidents of racism and violence targeted at various groups of people. Addressing these issues will help students further understand the emotions they feel and how to tap into those emotions to foster change.
A big part of creating a safe space for social justice conversations is knowing how to facilitate these conversations. As a teacher, this is something that I am still working on, but teachers need to step in when racist ideas (from flat out racism to overt racism and microaggressions enter the conversation).
Rather than calling out a student in the class and saying, “don’t say that, that is racist,” it is essential to point out the why so that some students are not confused. Instead, say something like, “let’s take a look at why that (idea/feeling/sentiment/statement) is racist. That idea ties to racists thoughts/policies/actions because of XYZ.” Yes, it will create some discomfort in your class, but it will also lead to growth.
I recall this instance in my classroom that happened several years ago. We were analyzing Frederick Douglass’ speech What to the Slave is the Fourth of July and discussing his tone. One of my students immediately said that Douglass’ tone was aggressive. That moment became a teaching moment. We talked about race and stereotypes, and how aggressive plays into a common, negative Black stereotype. Then, we discussed connotation and denotation and brainstormed quite a few other tone words we could use that didn’t come with racist undertones. After some discussion, the student changed his answer to passionate. Douglass delivered his speech with a passionate tone.
5. Emphasize that the conversation does not need to end when the class is over
Discussions about social justice and self-reflection can be challenging, so reinforcing the idea that conversations should exist outside of the classroom is an excellent way of encouraging students to continue to think critically about the material they’re exploring. Inviting students to discuss social justice in other parts of their lives will promote a widened world view with a focus on societal change.
One way to encourage students to continue this conversation is by asking students to share social media accounts they follow that actively speak out about against oppression.
Another way to continue this conversation outside of your classroom is through cross-curricular integration. Are other teachers at your school facilitating these conversations as well? If not, it is time to start. You can speak with your team leaders and administration about the next steps you and your school can take to make social-justice education a school-wide priority.