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

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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