How Schools Around the World are Tackling Social Justice – Part 1

We are currently in a time period where social justice issues such as racism, extreme poverty, environmental issues, access to healthcare and the like are being ever more threatened, and injustices are playing out in news cycles around the world. In light of these injustices, we have seen an overwhelming number of people activate themselves to protest, campaign, and stand up for social justice. While grassroots organizing is happening around the globe, we are left wondering how are these conversations making their way into classrooms and schools around the world?

We seek to examine this question and have called on Getting Smart friends in Colombia, China, and the United States to help us, and our readers, learn more. To jumpstart the conversation we reached out to school leaders at Gimnasio Los Caobos in Colombia, Shanghai American School in China, and Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, DC.

Before we dive into the responses, let’s first get to know the schools a bit better:


Jennifer D. Klein, Head of Gimnasio Los Caobos (and author of The Global Education Guidebook), school is situated in Chía, just north of Bogotá, in Colombia. The school has existed for 26 years and currently enrolls 600, 4 to 18-year-olds which equates to grades Pk-12 in the United States. The students that attend the school are in the middle and upper classes of society. Three years ago the school made a shift to focusing on project-based learning and personalized learning.



At the Shanghai American School we spoke with Instructional Coach, Andrew Miller, who shared that his school is “an international community with teachers from over 27 different countries. Our students learn from a variety of core subjects, AP and IB, as well as a variety of electives in languages, physical education and the arts. We use many standards and curricular outcomes from the United States including the Common Core, the National Core Arts Standards, the Next Generation Science Standards, and the C3 Framework for Social Studies. While many of our students are local Chinese, many are expatriates from other countries including Korea, the UK, the U.S. and many more. Our students engage in variety of activities that take them outside the 4 walls of the school from regular sporting events to “China Alive,” our “week without walls” where students learn in a variety of contexts across China.”


United States:

Josh Parker is an Instructional Coach at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington, DC. He explains that “most of the students come from an impoverished background yet have enormous potential for learning and greatness. Our school is the first public high school for African Americans in the country and boasts some of the great African Americans of our time as its alumni (Dr. Charles Drew and Senator Eleanor Holmes Norton) as well as its distinguished faculty (W.E.B. DuBois).” The school is currently in a slight restructuring which includes new staff along with an eye towards building a new history for its students. Dunbar “is looking to re-establish the Drew Academy for engineering as well as the Norton Academy of Law and Public Policy.”

There are two main questions we posed to these leaders:

  1. Are there social justice issues going on within your community, and how do you address them within the context of your school?
  2. Are you talking about social justice issues from around the world as content within your school and how do you address them within the context of your school?

Like many schools around the world there are social justice issues going on in each of these school communities, and while they vary in context they hold a common thread that no place is without the opportunity to discuss current events. Starting with Josh Parker, here’s what each leader had to say:

Josh Parker, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, on exploring social justice issues within the community and world:

Our community, the Noma/Ivy City community, is situated in Ward 5 of Washington, D.C. This community is diverse in its inhabitants and in its issues. There have been homicides that have affected the students (and teachers) of this school as well as issues related to access to high-quality teachers and course content. As a school leader, I support my teachers in having those community conversations as well as global conversations about issues of social justice. Additionally, our curriculum does not shy away from these subjects and invites them into the classroom through thematic units designed to promote conversations that we all need to have. One particular example comes to mind when I consider how the leadership of the school rallies around our teachers’ commitment to social justice. The leader of the Social Studies department, lead a campaign through her street law class that was promoted primarily through t-shirts. Each t-shirt read: Know Your Rights. I can proudly say that nearly every faculty member purchased a shirt. You can see us wearing them nearly every week; bringing awareness to a platform issue that was birthed with classroom conversation.

As a school, we subscribe to the 4 R’s: Rigor, Relevance, Relationships and Responsiveness. We attempt to make relevance a part of daily instruction by prompting teachers to connect the daily learning with the out of school lives of children. This can be done through the Essential Questions of the Unit, but is most practically done in the Warm-Up activities and spontaneous discussions that arise out of the content students are learning. We encourage our teachers to ask this question of their instruction as often as they can remember: why would a Ward 5 student want to know or care about this lesson? How can s/he apply it in a real-world context?

Andrew Miller, Shanghai American School, on exploring social justice issues within the community and world:

As Shanghai and China is a very diverse city and country, we have many common social justice issues, from pollution issues with smog to food safety and poverty. In addition, many of our students themselves have challenges such as depression and anxiety, which are major health concerns. To explore and take actions on these issues, many teachers create engaging PBL units where students make content and skills connections to real-world problems. Math teachers had students investigate whether or not our ramps met standards for safety as set by the United States. Some students might engage in a social justice project on a topic of their choice, or create documentaries to tell stories on social justice issues. Our middle school health program has many projects where students problem solve stress issues, investigate healthy eating, and even build awareness campaigns on other health issues. Some of the projects related to student concerns like anxiety come from teachers and the community noticing it themselves. As these issues became more prevalent, teachers thought about engaging curriculum in health to support the whole child. At the high school level, a decision was made to not only have college counselors but also counselors focused on social-emotional needs, so all students have access to both, one per grade level. In terms of the social justice issues in the community like poverty, students don’t bring those issues up as much. It’s more of a “teacher move” to make those connections.

Students might also do projects where they connect with students across the world, such as math project where students designed a playground for students in Nairobi. In general, teachers often use PBL as a way to not only teach and assess content, but address social justice issues. As an instructional coach, I’m often involved in dialogues to help teachers design and implement these authentic projects. We continually support teacher reflection on how to use PBL to make connections between curriculum and the real world and often this takes the form of a project experience connected to social justice.


Jennifer D. Klein, Gimnasio Los Caobos, on exploring social justice issues within the community and world:

Colombia is at a turning point right now. In late August, the then called Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) moved from its distinction as a rebel group to a political party. The party is now called the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force but it still is known as FARC, and the country is divided both on how it views the peace process and the legitimacy of FARC as a political party. To understand this, one most understand Colombia’s history, including FARC’s involvement in the challenges of the war. The long-lasting war, the peace negotiations with FARC, the ongoing peace process, and all the reasons FARC initially came into existence: the inequality and repression that existed (and exists) between the poor and rich, this is of course coupled with the extremely violent means FARC at times used to come into power, and you are left with a country facing social justice issues, unrest, and the healing of a nation.

While the country is undergoing the peace process, there are lasting wounds that still exist. Thousands of people were killed during the years at war and hundreds of thousands were displaced. While the country deals with these realities, the school is pretty insulated from it given the population it serves. The students come from very privileged backgrounds, and don’t understand, nor at times have interest in, what’s happening in the rest of the country. This is coupled with a very engaged group of parents who have at times expressed they do not want their children to be taught about certain current events. This then leaves the school, and its teachers, to think creatively about how to teach about current events. Even with this juxtaposition between what is currently going on in the country, and the challenges of teaching taught about it, Jennifer stresses that the school is seeking to impress upon the students that they should be able to connect to a deeper sense of purpose and understanding. She referenced the classic Spiderman notion that, “with great power (in this case privilege) comes great responsibility.” The goal is to get students to understand that they have an opportunity to make a contribution to society and their country and do this they first they must have knowledge of what is going on. In addition, the school is trying to ensure the students gain exposure to the many facets of the country, such as communities that have not benefited from war and people they have never had access to.

While learning about Colombia’s own social justice issues may present challenges at times, students are regularly learning about social justice issues happening around the world. Jennifer equates this with the view that is often easier to grasp the “other’s” issues rather than the issues going on within one’s own country. It has been Jennifer’s experience that it is easier for people, including these students, to investigate and ask questions about someone, or someplace that is not close. It becomes easier for people to talk about someone else’s problems because they are not as embroiled in them. If problems exist outside one’s own backyard safer to address.

This may be the context that currently exists, but educational leaders and teachers always find ways to creatively teach difficult topics and that is exactly what is happening at this school. We will learn more from a teacher at the school in our next post.

Get Involved

If you are a school leader we’d love for you to join us in this conversation. How are you addressing social justice and allowing teachers the space to discuss within your own school? Comment below or respond on Twitter using #SmartPlanet. In the second post of this series, we’ll learn about some of the ways teachers are bringing social justice to the classroom.

For our final post we want to hear from you. What barriers, if any, do you think exist to teaching about social justice? Share with us anonymously here.

For more, see:

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Janice Walton

Janice is passionate about ensuring equity and access in education and the majority of her career has been spent advocating for increased opportunities for educators and their students, specifically in the areas of teacher leadership, global education and STEM.

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