Discussion topic #1: One common thread for educators is the belief that our work in multiple disciplines can speak to societal inequities and offer greater options for all students. Some have called this a “social justice” pedagogy, meaning that teaching/learning practices can support learners in thinking critically about society in ways that can lead to systemic changes (as opposed to a “socially-just” pedagogy that aims to prepare all learners for success in our current social system). Based on what you have experienced, read, and learned through past dialogues, what does it mean to be a social justice educator? How might culturally-responsive pedagogy support a social justice pedagogy? (A related question: do you identify as a social justice educator? Why or why not?) If you mention texts, lessons, films, media clips, etc. please share citations so that we may find and reflect on them too.
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To be a social justice educator means to give equal and fair opportunities to all students. Educators need to give each and every student the same chances to succeed and excel. Additionally, certain topics covered can connect to social justice problems that are happening today which teachers should use to help students understand what is actually going on in the world around them and help them make connections to the content. Most students only hear the opinions of their parents or the people around them. This give the teacher a chance to provide the student with correct information and gives the student a chance to come up with their own thoughts, opinions, and feelings about certain issues and topics. A culturally-responsive pedagogy can support a social justice pedagogy because if the students are reflecting on their personal world and not trying to see it from a different point of view they will better understand the issue and will be able to connect and make their own opinions about it based on how they live. This will help them to understand their world and the world around them much better.
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I think that being a social justice educator, and a culturally-responsive teacher requires one to be aware of the various cultures within their classroom and hold affirming views of them. For example, if a certain religion or race is prevalent in one’s classroom, then that teacher cannot, or at least should not, act bigoted towards that demographic of people. A real life example I can offer has to do with many of the students I have in my student teaching placement. Given that I am teaching in a small, poor, rural town, it should come as no surprise that many of my students are strong Trump supporters (in reality, I am sure that their parents are the real Trump supporters, and that they are probably just more or less mimicking the behavior, but nevertheless, they represent a significant portion of my student population). So with that said, I think that teachers have a responsibility to, on one affirm their students backgrounds and beliefs, yet on the other hand, help their students to be able to consider other perspectives on things. It is a strange juxtaposition; to a certain degree one should celebrate student differences such as race, but on the other, you want to help them be better critical thinkers- in a way- when it comes to topics such as political beliefs, without telling them that their opinions are wrong.
When I was in twelfth grade I was in AP Government class. Each day the teacher of the class would start class by discussing news/current events with us. Despite being a staunch liberal and Democrat, he was often able to play a solid Devil’s Advocate, regardless of the perspective one of us was presenting when we offered a news story for discussion. His means for doing this was to help us become better at thinking about topics such as political issues in more than one perspective. This is one part of what it means to be a culturally responsive educator. This comes in the form of celebrating student differences, without also isolating them.
Culturally responsive teachers will work to highlight unique student characteristics in their lessons and assignments. For example, I once read an article that discussed a lesson plan a teacher used to engage their students in learning, by having them complete an assignment with real-life relevance. The student population this teacher had was predominantly Hispanic. With that in mind, the teacher had the kids write letters to the editor to the local newspaper, offering their beliefs on Hispanic immigration, and immigration policies in the US, based upon their own experiences. This is a tremendous example of culturally responsive teaching, as well as social justice education, since engaging students in such a topic could potentially lead them to become advocates for the issue, which could ultimately lead to systematic policy change.
I believe that in order to follow a socially just pedagogy, educators must first deeply explore their own bias, privilege, and deeply held beliefs, We cannot begin to lead a class of diverse learners without first having a basic understanding of our hidden (or not so hidden) prejudices. This doesn’t only apply to race or gender. It can apply to anything from political view points to athletic ability. Once we understand ourselves as best we can, I think it is important that we have some kind of training in leading and being a part of difficult dialogues and how to conduct and moderate them. I can think very clearly of a few times when I fell flat on my face as a teacher because students (unintentionally) made very racist remarks or assumptions that were very hurtful to other students in the class. Because these incidents happened unexpectedly and out of context, and because I sensed the hurt and anger they caused among certain students while others remained oblivious, I stumbled, unsure, and missed what could have been truly teachable moments. A teacher has to be prepared for these moments, ready to respond in a nonjudgmental and open way that encourages students to examine their beliefs without demeaning the student.
In my mind, being a social justice educator just means being a good person and a good teacher. It means protecting the human dignity of those in my classroom and ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard. In essence, it means that I am a critical geographer, one who is concerned with how space, place, power, and identity intermingle and resonate in my classroom (Helfenebin 2009). In practice, it takes the form of lively debates, critical thinking, and community service. It involves teaching students about the injustices in the world and how they can use their education to empower themselves and others. However, my job as their teacher is not to teach them what to think; my job is to teach them how to think critically, on their own. It is my belief that by being a good role model and demonstrating active listening, thinking, respect, and empathy, my students will witness and learn how to be socially just individuals. By opening up their ears and eyes to new and multicultural perspectives, I can arm them with the tools they need to enter the world as respectful, considerate, and knowledgeable citizens. I can trust them to spread love, not hate, acceptance, not intolerance, and hope, not despair.