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What Does Social Justice Education Look Like?

“We’re going to hear from Rossemary about a special opportunity for a social justice field trip.”

This is how I started my class during the second week of school. One of our 11th-grade students had already organized a social justice event. She informed us about Barnard College’s Activism and the Academy conference. She urged us all to get registered. And so we did.

Elsewhere in the building, my colleague was signing select students up to work with Rocking the Boat, one of our community partners in Hunts Point who fight for environmental justice. That same day after school at least 15 of our students rushed down to The Point, another ally, to sign up to be a part of A.C.T.I.O.N. (Activists Coming to Inform Our Neighborhood), a group of young people who are paid to advocate for the improvement of the South Bronx.

The year had just started and I thought to myself, “This is what social justice education looks like.”

Over the past few years I have heard a lot of educators talk about social justice. I actually did my student teaching at a now-closed school called Social Justice Academy in Boston. Their mission statement was beautiful, with nods to Paolo Freire, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi. This was high-handed material that a young, very liberal educator like me salivates over — but it wasn’t so great for students who were already disenchanted by the generally negative atmosphere of their school.

I found that only a handful of the teachers believed in the mission. Consequently, the ones who were did often struggled to make community partnerships and actually motivate the students to engage in any kind of activism. The biggest symbolic defeat came midway through the year when we asked students in our class what social justice was and none of them had an answer. Though I do not think the school should have been closed, it had certainly not met its lofty visions and did not deserve to wear the banner of social justice.

Not long after that, I saw another kind of half-baked vision of social justice education. I interviewed at two New York City charter schools that, in glossy brochures and snappy promotional videos, made grandiloquent statements about their social justice aspirations and how education is “the great civil rights challenge of our time.” Yet, when I observed the schools, I found there was no instruction or discussion around issues of justice and injustice. Instead, at one school, I saw high school students who were ordered to be silent and walk on lines painted down the hallways. It is true that nothing can get done in a chaotic atmosphere, but these schools reminded me more of minimum-security prisons than laboratories for experiments in democracy.  For them, it seemed to me, social justice education meant creating a hyper-disciplined school where students passed tests and achieved some level of social mobility. It was an admirable goal but, in my view, distressingly incomplete.

So when I finally did get hired at a school and heard that its leaders were trying to investigate critically how it could truly practice social justice, I drew from past rather than recent experiences. Several years ago I visited Urban Academy, one of 28 city schools in the Performance Standards Consortium (a collection of schools that in 1997 created an assessment system that eschewed most state tests and focused more on measures of college readiness). Urban sought to overhaul the state’s methods of assessments because its leaders knew that the assessments rewarded already excelling schools and in important ways did not predict college success.

This place predated nearly all charter schools. It was small. It explicitly taught social justice (in its course titles and in class discussions). It had a relaxed, yet productive atmosphere (their classes were all seminar style). Most importantly, it had a track record of exceptional student achievement in high school (students did have to take the English Regents exam and they consistently aced it). This success continued through their college years (see Martha Foote’s study). Last spring I was able to convince a number of my colleagues at Hyde Leadership Charter School to see Urban Academy for themselves and learn from its proven model.

I also drew wisdom from Jeff Duncan-Andrade’s book “The Art of Critical Pedagogy.” In it, Duncan-Andrade, a high school teacher in Oakland, Calif., gives concrete examples of what he and his colleagues have done for years to utilize social justice education as a means of raising student achievement. He outlines his Youth Participatory Action Research program that got students out of school working in different neighborhoods to research persistent injustices and discover who perpetuates them. The end product was a college-level paper and an obligation to educate the rest of the community. Duncan-Andrade also helped to clarify for me that social justice education means doing innovative activist work as well as more traditional preparation for students to access the culture of power in the form of academic skills. In other words, having a community poetry slam to raise awareness about violence is just as crucial as offering free SAT prep classes. We’ve got to do both.

It is with that mindset that our school ended last year and began this new year. I am teaching 11th-grade English. This is the year students take the Regents exam. I am quickly realizing, thanks to the advice of experienced practitioners, for me to be a truly socially just educator I have to keep teaching after-school SAT classes, practice Regents-style essays in class, and continue to do home visits to help students complete significant assignments.

But it is equally important that I work with our school’s progressive staff members and community partners to host events that inform us about big issues (income inequality, institutional racism, gentrification, environmental justice, gender roles, etc.) and spark critical conversation. It is crucial to create opportunities for students, such as Rossemary (whose trip to Barnard served as both a college visit and a chance to discuss and interrogate gender roles) and our A.C.T.I.O.N. applicants, to take leadership and plan events that they most deeply connect with. Then we are not imposing anything on them. Instead, we are merely facilitators in their quest to take education well beyond the classroom until it’s no longer just school to them, but their lives.

In no way has my school, or nearly any school, achieved the ideal in social justice education. I am still trying to figure out what the ideal actually is. But the critical language of justice is pervasive in our school and students are internalizing it. In just the first few weeks of the year, our students are reminding us that social justice work outside of the classroom is just as rigorous and important as any test or quiz we could give them.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.