Social Justice in the Classroom: What Is It and How Does It Work?

Version 2During the present time, one can hardly avoid hearing the term “social justice” on a daily basis. People in great numbers are demanding it, apologizing for avoiding it, and expressing anger at being denied it. The phrase contains two words, both important to understanding its meaning. Social refers to friendly, mutually beneficial relationships. From the word we get socialize and society. Society is a population of people that is organized around beliefs, restrictions, purposes, and a “pursuit of happiness” that holds that population together, and gives it principles upon which to organize and direct their lives. Justice is the meting out of that which is deserved, and the practice of an agreed upon sense of fairness. Justice finds its usefulness in society; it is a tool used in applying those restrictions and beliefs needed to hold la society together. Put together into the phrase social justice, we can see that it isthe capacity to organize with others to accomplish ends that benefit the whole community characterized by the virtues of cooperation and association. Social justice is the foundation and underpinning of the concept of liberty as expressed in the United States declaration of independence. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Notice from the frame “among these,” that the equality is defined as common rights, and that those listed, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are not intended to be an exhaustive list, but examples from a larger, undefined inventory. In other words, there are certain God-given things that everyone has as a human being. In this context, equality refers to attributes of humanity shared by all people and which in part make who we are. It does not directly refer to how we are treated. The latter must be governed so that it does not impede the former. Social justice prohibits denying anyone access to pursuing happiness, from liberty, and from life itself. Governing agents may appropriately intervene when a person or persons acts in such a way as to encroach upon a person’s “unalienable rights.” When those governing agents reach beyond protecting people’s unalienable rights, they can easily be no longer acting on behalf of equality, but instead enabling inequality.

From this, we can learn that to be just does not necessarily require that everyone be treated equally. While we are all the same in so far as our unalienable rights are concerned, we are most certainly not alike in other ways. In education, educators used to treat everyone alike. All students were expected to learn the same way, succeed from the same learning style, submit work that pretty much looked the same as everyone else’s. Conforming and rote learning were the norm in schools. That was a case of demanding equality, and one that persisted for generations until educators realized that treating everyone equally was creating unintended inequality. Those for whom the strategy worked excelled, while those for whom it did not work fell further behind. Educators came around to admitting that “one size does not fit all.” Pedagogy was changed, individualized instruction was introduced, and today, students benefit from data driven instruction in which teachers are more aware than ever of every student’s strengths and weaknesses, and are able to meet individual needs better than ever. To the extent that this has occurred, a more just educational system exists. I say to the extent because state required standardized testing has pushed back hard on the benefits of individualized instruction. These tests demand regressing into old strategies to prepare students to do well on a “one size fits all” assessment.

So what does social justice look like in the classroom? “A social justice education is centered in democracy and the freedom to exercise one’s full humanity” (Belle, 2019). Belle proposed five strategies to bring social justice into a classroom.

1. Acknowledge who is in the room.

In order to truly teach your students in a way that is compassionate and affirming, you must know who they are and where they come from. Know 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.

This involves expanding your planning out from what you want to teach them, to why you want them to acquire that learning, and then teaching them to and how to apply what they have learned to their own lives and circumstances. This can be summarized in  three questions: what do you observe? what does it mean? how does it work for me?

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.

Centering on equity and inclusivity will bring more collaboration between you and your students, as you explore, analyze, evaluate, and create within a context of sharing perspectives, experiences, interests, cultures, and abilities.

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

We all have biases. Often they exist in us as blind spots; blind because we have held them for so long, they seem natural to us and so escape our awareness. But they can be readily apparent to those against whom the bias is formed. As such, it is important to reflect on your personal prejudices. Acknowledging and healing your biases will make you a better  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. This does not mean you must or should abandon your plan in the face of contrary student opinions. It does mean that students are given the opportunity and encouraged to respond to their education, and in a spirit of mutual respect, influence that education so that it better meets their goals, your goals, and your school’s goals. The classroom should be a place where students feel safe to voice their opinions without fear of retribution or ridicule. Even so, boundaries must be set on such voicing to keep it within the context of the educational plan while avoiding frequent tangents which do not make the best use of instructional time. The students assume increased responsibility for their education and develop abilities to be inquiring, independent learners while the teacher maintains ultimate responsibility for the educational, safety, and justice needs of students.

Belle, C. (2019). What Is Social Justice Education Anyway?, Education Week, 38 (19), 18-19.


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