Instead of letting my fear of offending or “getting it wrong” get in the way, I took a deep breath last year and spent a semester studying issues of equality, equity, and justice with my seventh graders. The outcome was powerful for all of us.
Over the next month, teachers will be taking part in a social justice roundtable discussion in the CTQ Collaboratory and on Twitter with #CTQCollab.
I have some confessions to make in this posting, and I may as well start here: the idea of writing about social justice and its presence within my classroom is daunting.
It shouldn’t be daunting or overwhelming. But it is. There’s a reason, and it’s another confession:
I’ve been afraid I’d screw it up.
There, I said it. I’ve been worried that because of my heritage (western European) and culture, I would offend or insult others. So to avoid offending or insulting, I caused an even greater injury: I just kept quiet. Issues and questions surrounding social justice came up only occasionally, and we’d discuss them briefly and move on. We talked about various cultures, read multicultural literature, but I was reluctant to step out of that “safe zone” and move deeper into the issues surrounding justice.
It’s bothered me, but I let the fear overpower the voice in my head saying, “Do something.”
Eighteen months ago an ideal opportunity presented itself, and I jumped at it. A company I’ve often used as a resource and support for my work with gifted children published a new ELA unit entitled “The Pursuit of Justice.” After looking over the preview materials, analyzing them against the standards, reflecting on the strengths and needs of my learners, and sharing them with my coordinator for gifted services, we decided to purchase the unit for use with my seventh graders. I spent last summer and fall carefully reading and considering the various texts within the unit. The more I read and the deeper I got into planning out our work, the more excited–and nervous–I became.
You see, once again I was afraid. In addition to being afraid I was going to mess it up, I was afraid of the reactions I might get from students and their parents, especially if I did mess it up somehow.
To help prepare for the work, I asked my assistant principal to look at what I was planning and read the text I was most concerned about: Melba Patillo Beals’s memoir Warriors Don’t Cry, her memoir about her experiences as one of the Little Rock Nine. I had some reservations about one particular situation Beals described, as well as some language in the book. My assistant principal gave the book a careful reading and returned it to me with a note on it saying, “Go ahead.” I had to stop by her office later to double-check: “Are you sure?” She was positive. As long as I sent a letter home explaining what we were going to be reading, what was controversial about it, and how I was planning to address that in the classroom, she was confident I would have no problems.
So after winter break, I took a deep breath, and we dove in. We started by sharing our definitions of the word “justice,” which were mostly what one might expect of seventh graders: fairness, equal treatment, getting what one deserves. Then I broke my students into groups and asked them to read two articles. One was a factual reporting of the events surrounding the Tamir Rice shooting, which had happened about fifty miles from my school. The other piece was about LeBron James’s refusal to comment on the case in late December 2015. Since many of my students are Cleveland Cavaliers fans, I knew reading about LeBron James was a good hook. The two local stories did exactly what I had hoped: they drew my students into our study and generated questions. Some of my students were frustrated that I didn’t have answers for them, but the questions we generated became the spark of our semester-long study about justice and injustice.
Our unit focused on several aspects of social justice. We spent several days reading and discussing Lucy Stone’s speech on women’s rights in the 1840s. We looked at how Abraham Lincoln defined liberty. We considered poverty and the role it plays in justice and injustice. We spent a few weeks reading S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders and considering the concepts of justice and injustice portrayed in it. Prior to showing the movie based on the novel, I sent home a letter to parents, sharing my plans to show the movie and delve into the Civil Rights Movement through our study of Beals’s book. I half-expected an email or phone call with some questions, but none came.
We started our study. As we worked through the memoir, we also studied a number of other texts, including Supreme Court decisions, amendments, and speeches. I showed a number of video clips from the Eyes on the Prize documentary series produced by PBS. My students continued sharing their thoughts and reactions. What they had to say gives me hope. I am very hopeful about our future; my students are developing an understanding of the history of social justice and injustice in our country much earlier in life than I did. They value equality and equity, and they see that our society today still hasn’t reached the vision that Dr. King described in his speech.
I’d be lying if I said I have no fears, there is nothing to worry about. That’s not true. I still worry that I’m saying or doing something that will perpetuate injustice. I am constantly checking myself and my biases, as Joseph Bolz wrote about earlier in this blog series. I’m coming to accept that I am going to make mistakes. I am going to say something, sometime, that reveals a bias or attitude I didn’t recognize as biased or unjust. Better that I learn from the experience and model how this should be handled, so that I can improve and my students can see how our society can learn and grow, one person at a time. There is no time or room for fear or silence. There is only time to speak up and be a role model of a person learning, growing, and doing better.