A Pedagogy of Possibilities: Social Justice Delivered Through Literature and Writing

We often hear that students today are apathetic about school, each other, their future and learning. As adults, we are taken aback by what we see as a genuine lack of interest in receiving an education or participating in developing a climate and culture in school that values teaching and learning. Yet, have we really stopped to take a closer look to see if perhaps, we just aren’t asking students to take on the “right” work? Are we preparing our students to be successful in a diverse society? Are we asking our students to learn and explore the concept of social justice?

The goal of social justice according to Lee Anne Bell is, “equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs… in which the distribution of resources is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure.” Schools have an obligation to examine every aspect of our work to make a determination of where we are on adopting and implementing the ideals of social justice. If in the process of the assessment, we determine that we need to make changes, the process needs to begin immediately. A framework for creating a socially just school is necessary to ensure that those empowered with making decisions are aware of the implications of every action and reaction on all those are a part of the school community.

5 Aspects of Social Justice

Heather Hackman shares the five aspects of social justice for schools: “Content mastery, critical thinking, action- skills, self-reflection, and an awareness of multicultural group dynamics.” It is helpful to teachers and leaders to have key terms such as these that allow for a common vocabulary in teaching social justice. As educators, we know that we must explicitly teach new information (content mastery) in order to ensure that students have new information and perspectives that will lead to a change in behaviors. In order to take in the information and apply it to different situations, students must be taught how to look at the classroom and school and to become observers of the dynamics between different people (multicultural group dynamics). In our observation of the interaction of others, we are able to determine through the types of interactions whether an individual values another’s perspective, respects the individual and often through body language whether they are truly “closed off” to the other person.

In teaching students to study group dynamics, self-reflection must be included. The focus of the self-reflection is to determine my own role in creating the current situations within classrooms and the school community. Critical thinking is a process-oriented pedagogical approach that works directly with students to apply information to different situations and analyze how the information influences the outcomes from the process. Critical thinking is the bringing it all together part of the journey. Literature and writing are essential to this process. Finally, explicitly discussing and modeling the importance of self-reflection is the critical lens from which we demonstrate our own commitment to a continuum of our journey of embracing and applying social justice to our own lives and the systems in which we work and spend time.

A socially just school, cares about the safety of all staff and students, it ensures that all students have instruction that is appropriate, it manages its fiscal resources with an eye on ensuring that the needs of all are considered when making a decision and it believes that by creating a caring and supportive community, we will be better able to serve each other. Yet, school days are short, and the curricular demands are great. So, often, when the concept of social justice being taught is raised, everyone agrees its important, but no one is sure what to “give up” to make time for this. What if we just believed that social justice was the cornerstone of our school and infused our work with reading, writing, listening, speaking and problem-solving as much as we can about it? What if we decided that continuously exploring social justice with our students would help us to create less apathetic, more instructionally rich, safer schools? Would it help us reduce the concern about time?

Teaching Social Justice

Schools are anchored in standards. There are social justice standards available to educators to use through Teaching Tolerance. The four areas addressed are Identify, Diversity, Justice and Action. The standards are written to ensure that there is a community of action engaged in reducing prejudice in a deliberate and measured way. In addition, there is an expectation of direct and explicit teaching around not only changing our actions as individuals but also engaging in changing the system (schools and communities). There are suggested anchor standards available that bring together diversity and justice standards as well as lesson plans that are ready for all grade levels. In addition, the Teaching Tolerance site offers rubrics and tasks for students to complete to demonstrate competence and mastery of the standards provided.

Research by James Banks supports that if we wait till adolescence to introduce social justice topics, we have missed the time when young learners have developed their opinions and values, which shape their actions and thoughts. As educators, we have some freedoms with the titles we choose for books for students to read, topics for students to write about and how we ask students to solve problems. When we are selecting books for students to read and topics for students to write about, we often pick titles that we read as students and topics we were asked to write about as students. There are so many titles available to us to read, fiction and non-fiction, that allow for teaching social justice for elementary and secondary students. These titles along with so many others are anchored in Community restoration, dignity for all, forgiveness, problem-solving, empathy and creating a sense of belonging. Once we are reading about social justice, we can begin to act through writing, problem-solving, projects and discussions.

Restorative Practices

As students grow in their knowledge of social justice, we will need to be prepared for some of our more traditional approaches to discipline to be challenged as well. The work of restorative practices and other less traditional approaches to behaviors will need to be explored if we truly want to use social justice as the cornerstone of our schools. Traditional approaches in schools are based on a punitive approach which research has found generally targets marginalized students and creates an unjust approach to discipline within schools. The foundation of restorative practices postulates that the school is a community whose members are of equal importance. Restorative communities create an understanding that we are all a community and our actions impact others and most importantly impact our relationships with others. In a restorative practice community students are taught that by breaking the norms/rules, you damage your relationship with others in the community. In order to be a successful member of the community, you need to repair the harm caused and reset the relationships. The book, Restorative Practices Meets Social Justice by Anthony Normore, offers more in-depth insight into the connection between restorative practices and social justice.

As the adults in the schools, we have an obligation to engage in a process of review of where our schools are in being socially just. We need to be open to differing opinions, admit that we have bias and stereotypes that we will have to address on a near daily basis and be committed to explicitly teaching the principles of social justice to our students. It is through this work, that will learn that our students weren’t apathetic at all, just not being asked the right questions about the right topics!

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Dr. Margy Jones-Carey

Dr. Margy Jones-Carey is an Assistant Professor and Program Director for the Educational Leadership Program at St. Bonaventure University.

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