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Teaching Social Justice in the Trump Era


by Robin Moten - October 01, 2018

This commentary examines how a high school English teacher approaches teaching a course, the very title of which connotes political bias, and discusses the importance of facilitating authentic conversations.

“Were you trying to make us feel guilty or something?” My students, all seniors, had just watched Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th. The air in the room was thick with, well, a myriad of emotions. There was Nick’s sentiment, stated above. One young lady of color was frustrated with what she felt was a lack of emotion on the part of her white peers, so she retreated to the restroom. Another young woman, who was white, was tearful about whatever it was she was sensing, that thickness in the air. I knew the best thing to do was to sit with the silence for a little bit of time, but not to let them leave the room feeling like they didn’t have a chance to voice whatever they were experiencing. After a few minutes, I offered up the chance for anyone to make any comment. Most eyes were pointing toward the floor or staring into space, so it was no surprise that no one took me up on my offer. The bell rang, and the ordeal was over.


The students were part of the Social Justice class at Seaholm High School, where I’ve taught for the past 22 years. For just the past three years, the class has been a part of a revamped district-wide English curriculum. It is one of three senior seminar courses offered to all 12th grade students; the other senior courses are Future Studies (focusing on science fiction literature) and Heroes and Humanities. The curriculum for Social Justice has continued to evolve, but Nick’s question has stuck with me for months. It wasn’t, to me, just the question about the choice to screen 13th, but much larger questions that lingered as well: what should the goal of a Social Justice class be? What does the phrase actually mean, and how should the class be approached in an era when the phrase is, in some circles, fully embraced, and in other circles, openly mocked?


Many students come into the Social Justice class having never explored what the term means, even though they hear the term quite often. There are several reasons for this: one, our community is relatively politically conservative, and so the meaning of the term social justice is more than likely not widely discussed outside of school. The second reason students don’t explore the meaning of the term is that it is rarely discussed inside of school. These are turbulent times for teachers, so approaching a subject that even has the appearance of being too political is done with extreme caution, if at all. Finally, the complexity of the term immediately invites further study, and many students opt for the simplest solution, Google, and are satisfied with the answer from their five second search.


To combat the problems surrounding defining the term social justice, I invite students to work on defining the term for themselves and to take the twelve-week trimester period to do so. Therefore, whatever their entry point into the conversation is, it is recorded as an essay, and at the end of the trimester that essay is returned to them for modification (if they feel it’s needed), and to serve as a visible measurement of their growth in grappling with the term and the concept.


Continuous work on defining social justice allows students to use the curriculum as a tool for self-discovery and self-efficacy. Michael Nakkula and Eric Toshalis (2008) found “The construction of one’s life… occurs through and gets held together by the evolving stories we tell ourselves and the ways in which these stories become internal guideposts for ongoing decision making, everyday behavior, and self-understanding” (p. 6). In other words, from the beginning until the end of the class, the students author and therefore own the term social justice, not using my definition or a definition having any political agenda set forth by me.

 

Funny thing about the aforementioned words, political agenda. At the beginning of each trimester, Seaholm hosts a curriculum night where parents come in for meetings and then get the chance to “be” their children as they go from classroom to classroom for five-minute versions of each class. Teachers are expected to be there for the meet and greet evening, distributing syllabi and answering any questions parents may have about the class. It is mostly a very pleasant way to begin the twelve-week journey that everyone, students, teachers, and parents, will undertake. This past year during one of the curriculum nights, a parent very pointedly asked me what my “agenda” for this class (Social Justice) was. I had heard from a colleague who had this parent’s other child that the parent was… well let’s just say eager to poke a stick at a bear who she considered to have the wrong political views. Reading the room after the mic drop of the potentially problematic question, I responded by discussing the origins of the class and our (at the time) newly revamped English curriculum at both district high schools. But the most important thing I talked about was the high value placed on open and honest dialogue in my class, and the amount of time we spend in seminars in order to make sure every voice is heard. The parent seemed as pleased as she could be, but the question remains, during tense political times, how do we discuss the purpose of a class whose very title connotes a political agenda? In the future when (not if) I get asked the question, I plan on slightly modifying my answer. I will continue to talk about why discussion and authentic dialogue is so salient to the trajectory of the course, but I’m also going to put the importance of character education on the table as well.


Character education is a driving force throughout our district. The agenda for my class is to provide an opportunity for character growth, specifically moral and civic character education as defined by Scott Seider:


If moral character is situated in an individual’s relationships and interactions with other individuals, then civic character is situated in an individual’s role within local, national, and global communities. Examples of civic character strengths include civic and political knowledge, an ethic of participation and service, and the numerous social skills necessary to productively work with others for the common good. (2012, p. 33)


In the Social Justice class, we have an opportunity to work on moral character development via relationship building through seminars and open, trusting dialogue. We also have the opportunity to work on civic character development via service learning days, readings, and non-fiction narratives on poverty, race, immigration, and LGBTQ issues. Grappling with these subjects allows students to begin thinking about questions such as what is the common good, what role do I play in establishing it, or to paraphrase Erik Erikson’s (1968) summation of the questions of adolescence, who am I and what is my place in this world?

 

As I prepare for the fall, and the largest number of Social Justice classes I’ve taught thus far, I have no doubt I will have students whose parents have warned them about the class’ “agenda,” or whose friends have mocked them for turning into “social justice warriors.” We will also be halfway through Donald Trump’s first term as President of the United States, and smack up against heated midterm elections. I most definitely will have another Nick who will want to know if I just want my class to feel bad about some of our nation’s issues, but this time in return I will offer up the most thought provoking and respectful response I think there is… “what do you think?”


References

 

Erikson, E: (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York, NY.: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Nakkula, M. J., & Toshalis, E. (2008). Understanding youth: Adolescent development for educators. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard Education Press.


Seider, S. (2012). Character compass: How powerful school culture can point students toward success. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard Education Press.

 





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 01, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22519, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 11:57:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Robin Moten
    Ernest W. Seaholm High School English Department
    E-mail Author
    ROBIN MOTEN is a teacher in the English Department at Ernest W. Seaholm High School.
 
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