By Lorena Germán
Social justice is not a book that you teach. It is not a unit you explore with students. It is not a week-long, school-wide celebration during which you acknowledge diversity. These are all too often superficial attempts at having in-depth conversations that require nuance, time, and pause. While well-intentioned, this type of teaching may lead educators to think they’ve done the work because they spent an hour or day teaching one idea in a one-dimensional way. However, social justice is not a topic or a content area, but an ongoing action and fight for a better quality of life for all. Therefore, it requires actionable and tangible steps.
Social justice describes a redistribution of wealth, access, and, therefore, power to those who have been excluded and marginalized. In the US, our society was designed to favor White, cisgendered, able-bodied men over everyone else. We know that by association and due to their Whiteness, White women have also benefited greatly from this race-based hierarchy. In order for this group to remain at the top of the hierarchy, reaping all the benefits of social structures and systems, the rest of us have lacked. Their freedom has been at the expense of ours. And that isn’t freedom, it is oppression. Social justice is how we aim for and work toward equity for all people. It is the fight that claims that we all have a right to enjoy freedom and reap the benefits of hard work and basic human rights.
Incorporating social justice into our curricula is crucial—and it is a practice rather than a lesson plan. Teaching about social justice is embracing a culturally sustaining pedagogy (Paris, Alim, 2017) and knowing why you are a teacher committed to social justice. A culturally sustaining pedagogy seeks to nurture and sustain the lifeways of those who have historically been vilified and erased by U.S. schooling. It’s about a restorative education where voices historically marginalized are centered and students are not required to assimilate to White American culture in order to succeed. It is acknowledging that antiracism is healing and that it’s a requirement for truly inclusive work in classrooms. Incorporating social justice into education requires a reflexive practice and knowing that we all have biases to unpack and dismantle within ourselves.
3 Important Steps
You can read here about a unit I taught as part of a course called Middle School Social Justice. The entire course was dedicated to learning about justice, social impact, and social injustices, in which students learned about action and advocacy. However, social justice can and should be applied to all areas of content, including math, science, and ELA. Below are three crucial steps to incorporating social justice into your curriculum, no matter the content area.
- Teach social justice in every unit.
This requires thinking critically about the content you’re teaching. Is the class reading a book that doesn’t mention race or feature any BIPoC characters? Talk about it. Are you covering statistics in your math class? Use it to explore statistics as they relate to human rights issues on a global level. Are you starting a new unit in biology? Consider studying hair, featuring all types, determining differences, and celebrating strengths of all types of hair.
- Make social justice interdisciplinary.
This means thinking outside the box to bring in elements from other content areas. Social justice issues are intersectional and systemic; they require the joining of various institutions in order to perpetuate oppression. Therefore, we cannot fully understand social justice issues if we isolate them by content area. For example, if you talk about COVID in science class, you will need to incorporate conversations about urban geography, urban housing, and statistics in order to have a holistic and nuanced understanding of the spread of the disease.
- Stay human-focused.
You can’t talk about social justice issues and not help students understand that you’re talking about people. These aren’t numbers. These aren’t “those people.” These are our brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings. It sounds obvious, but too often we get caught up in our content-based language and studies and we forget to bring the content to life. Social justice is about people. It’s about quality of life.
This is where you can start. As a person who has been teaching for and about social justice for over ten years in education, I assure you it can be done. Teaching about social justice requires commitment and focus. You have to be thoughtful and well-planned. It can’t be a performance for your few students of color and it can’t be a one-time event of the year, like Black History Month. Students will know if you’re honestly invested and that will determine relationships. Social justice must be embedded in your approach. This isn’t about politics or political parties. This is not about convincing students to think a certain way. This is about positive social transformation. Are you doing your part?
Germán, Lorena (2020, August, 11). Using Social Justice to Promote Student Voice. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/using-social-justice-promote-student-voice
Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2017). Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world. New York: Teachers College Press.
Lorena Germán is a Dominican American educator focused on antiracist and anti-bias work in education. She’s been featured in The New York Times, with writing published in various outlets, and is cofounder of #DisruptTexts and The Multicultural Classroom. In addition to being a full-time classroom teacher, she is a wife and mami, two of her most important roles.