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A teacher’s guide: Using social justice topics in the classroom


Proudly telling the world about IB our educators in our 50th anniversary year


Topics surrounding human rights and equality can be thorny, but educators can use societal issues to create meaningful dialogue with students and enhance learning. PYP teachers Kirsten Fournier, Kerri Irwin and Vivien Rosa-Vaccarelli tell us more.

Race, gender and faith—there are not many more social justice topics that can elicit unease and uncertainty if not approached with some sensitivity. And while it’s important such topics are discussed with children, they raise many questions for teachers, such as: “What am I allowed to say?” “How do I respond to students?” “How do I protect myself?”.

But educators can use this as an opportunity to enhance learning and celebrate diversity by ‘leaning in’ to topics, rather than shying away from them.

Civic responsibility has always been a part of our guiding principles at High Meadows School—a Primary Years Programme (PYP) school in Roswell, Georgia, USA. All students are introduced to carefully selected picture books and read-aloud texts that support diversity and inclusion, and discussions surround what is fair and just, paving the way for more mature future conversations.

Our approach includes five key components, developed from professionally led workshops and supplemented by key texts (see below):

1. Encourage self-reflection

During faculty training, at our monthly meetings, teachers critically assess their personal beliefs and attitudes about topics that are likely to be brought up by students. We engage in discussion and role-play with our peers, practicing active listening (listening to understand another’s perspective, not to necessarily respond), non-judgmental prompts and guiding critical thinking.

As part of the role play, each teacher rotates to a different group and hears a different prompt or situation and gives their opinion of how they would handle/react to it. One of the examples was the Charlottesville incident, and the situation example was: “teachers hearing students talking about it in the hallway and they realize the discussion will enter the classroom, what do you do as the teacher?” There may be no consensus on how to handle, but teachers get to hear various viewpoints and how to anticipate a situation like this. If we were uncertain of how to reach a conclusion, we could ask a supervisor.

2. Infuse topics into the curriculum

Teachers infuse social justice into what the class is doing already, rather than separating it from the existing curriculum. They review lesson plans with their teams and communicate with administrators and counsellors about topics they expect to arise. This also means that a support system is in place.

3. Create a safe place for students.

Classroom agreements are essential for productive discussion. Teachers emphasize active listening and thoughtful discourse. Classes use icebreakers and interactive exercises regularly to facilitate relationship-building with peers and encourage honesty and acceptance. Teachers watch ‘talk time’ to be sure that everyone gets a chance to share, and students learn to ‘sit with their discomfort’ because these important discussions don’t always resolve quickly. Dialogue is ongoing, and the same topic may come up several times.

In a multi-age 6th-8th grade Spanish class, our world language curriculum makes space for discussions about culture and current events. As students learned about ‘Day of the Dead’ traditions in Mexico, questions arose about the current state of Puerto Rico and the US border with Mexico. Teachers guided students through exploration of issues and encouraged them to respond to each other, sharing information and letting each voice be heard.

4. Let students take the lead

By providing students with engaging materials and visual or verbal prompts, they can formulate their own questions and ideas. Students should feel validated no matter what they choose to share. Teachers can document questions and discussions so that colleagues can benefit from key learning and anticipate classroom challenges.

This year, students studied art from around the globe, and connected it to issues they learned about in class. This resulted in creative expressions of their feelings about social justice topics through poetry, music and visual media. While learning about ancient civilizations, students analyzed commonalities and differences in division of labour through human history, and how recent cultures developed only through the work of lower classes and slave labourers and the ethical questions that raises.

5. “Lean in to” discomfort

Teachers can only answer the question being asked thoughtfully and honestly. When a response isn’t readily available, they give a purposeful ‘rain check’ to revisit the topic soon, and do so. That way, students don’t feel the topic is being avoided or that they were wrong to bring it up. Some discomfort is necessary as students learn to engage in discussions without false dichotomies (winner vs. loser, right vs. wrong) as these labels can change discourse and limit understanding.

A class discussing Dr Martin Luther King’s famous I Have a Dream speech recently discovered that he says the word “negro”. The class studied its origins, connotations and disuse to give current perspective on race and language. The discussion was initially uncomfortable, but led to greater awareness of how language is a factor in inclusiveness and diversity.

The outcome?

We see many positive outcomes of weaving social justice discussions into classroom instruction. Students ask more questions as they seek the ‘missing perspective’ when presented with information, exhibiting critical thinking skills. They respectfully discuss challenging issues with peers, articulating their viewpoints and listening to opposing ones.

Recently, in a multi-age 4th-5th grade social studies class, students evaluated an image of pipeline protestors at Standing Rock, South Dakota, USA. Because they now know how to critically evaluate information, they asked: “When was this taken?” “Whose perspective is shown here?” “Why do some people look happy and others sad?”.

Some connected the imagery with the previous year’s study of the Trail of Tears—when the Cherokee nation was forced to give up its land—bringing forth another historical touchpoint. Students answered each other, respectfully and thoughtfully, seeking understanding without an agenda of being right.
This is the goal of social justice dialogue.


Websites that helped to inform and shape our approach to social justice discussions:

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  • François Carreau

    What about animal rights? Isn’t that a topic worthy to teach children? Making them understand that killing animals unnecessarily for food is immoral, when there are plenty of healthier alternatives in available? Kids love animals, yet we teach them to eat and consume them.

  • Ines Dunstan

    Right vs wrong is a ‘false dichotomy’? These teachers need to live in a country where there were human rights abuses. Right and wrong are crucial categories when we talk about human rights. Study the history of the human rights movement, please. Then tell me ‘right
    ‘and ‘wrong’ are false dichotomies that limit understanding. The authors of this so called article also misunderstand the fact that right and wrong are implicit in the concept of ‘social justice’ (justice= what is right. Injustice= what is wrong).

  • High Meadows Center

    Yes, animal rights is often one of the first injustices our students encounter and speak out against. Definitely a worthy topic. As an inquiry-based school, it is a balance of teacher-presented topics alongside the often more important student-initiated topics. There is always room for emerging curriculum brought to us by students and their sense of right and wrong. Our role as educators is to facilitate these conversations and learning.

  • High Meadows Center

    Yes, there are some issues where there is a clear right and wrong. Our teachers are balancing a variety of student and family perspectives as they open their classrooms to social justice conversations. They are also balancing the age-appropriateness of many social justice topics and navigating living in the south-eastern United States. Our hope was to communicate that by presenting many issues only in the context of a binary right-wrong, you don’t leave space for creating understanding and unpacking student thinking and perspective. Yes, we use the Human Rights Declaration with our fourth/fifth grade students regularly during our Sharing the Planet units of inquiry. Thank you for your response and joining the conversation.

  • ines dunstan

    Hello, thank you for your response. The problem is that you cannot have it both ways. You cannot say that ‘all students are introduced to discussions about what is fair and just’ and then claim, a few sentences later, that your goal is ‘to seek understanding without an agenda of being right’, or that ‘right vs wrong are false dichotomies’. So many educators are fearful of using terms such as truth, or right and wrong. We live in an era of rising nationalism, alternative facts (=lies) and racism. The threat of fascism is real. Democratic principles and human rights cannot be left undefended and expected to remain safe. We need to teach kids to stay engaged, informed and ready to defend democratic principles and human rights. If you are discussing Martin Luther King with students, regardless of their age, it is impossible, indeed, irresponsible and ridiculous, to shy away from the categories of right and wrong. You cannot shy away from an acknowledgment that racism is wrong. There are not two sides to the argument. Shall we seek to understand the social/historical context of racists? Sure. That does not change the fact that as teachers, it is our duty to defend anti-racism and equality and to say very clearly and very loudly that racism is wrong. You should always create space for students’ thinking and perspective but that does not mean that you should invite students to consider whether slavery, genocide, or torture, are right. This is a wider problem everywhere: highly intelligent teachers believe that defending/teaching values such as equality means being ”closed-minded’ or limiting students’ critical thinking. In fact, it is the very opposite.

  • ines dunstan

    Last point: in the foreword to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is clearly articulated that the Declaration has become, and I quote, ‘The yardstick by which we measure right and wrong. It provides a foundation for a just and decent future for all, and has given people everywhere a powerful tool in the fight against oppression, impunity and affronts to human dignity’. So if you believe in Human Rights, you believe in right and wrong (even if these labels are unhelpful in other life situations)