Teaching Social Justice

As a social studies teacher, I find Struthers’ article about whether or not human rights is a “controversial” topic for the classroom to be a very interesting perspective (2016). There is a section of the NYS Social Studies curriculum that is specifically dedicated to human rights, so it is something I am familiar with teaching. I think what makes this different however, is that the human rights violations that are taught about in social studies are the large-scale atrocities such as genocides like the Holocaust or Darfur. These are horrific events in history that are well-known and generally regarded as crimes against humanity. Students understand that they are human rights violations. I think Struthers brings up a good point however, that maybe the small-scale, not so publicized human rights violations that take place all around us are not treated as such. The lessons on human rights that I teach are to 10th grade students. At this point, the students have mostly developed their values and ideas of basic human rights. So I can impact their perspectives, but only so much. I agree with Struthers that the ideas of basic human rights should be taught to students earlier on. The concept of genocide would clearly be too heavy for an elementary school student, but teaching about fundamental rights (food, shelter, water, an education) can lay the foundation for these students to be able to identify violations much sooner in their lives around them.

I feel as though I have the benefit of being able to easily work in discussion of human rights into my content that I teach. Nearly any history lesson involves some sort of relation to the subject. For other content areas, for example math, it might not be as simple to tie into a lesson. I think tying in current events to nearly any subject can be an easy bridge to relate your subject matter to an idea about social justice. A lesson about statistics can be used to talk about achievement gaps. A science lesson can be turned into an inquiry about Flint’s water crisis. What was the cause? Who is being affected? How can the problem be solved? Why hasn’t it been solved yet? I think any lesson where you can relate your content to the world around your students is the most effective lesson you can teach. It makes the lesson relevant and it makes your students care. This is not something however that may come naturally to teachers. As with everything, it requires practice and time to work at it. The more teachers are trained and prepared to teach about social injustice, the more they will teach about it and the better the lessons will be. This can start at the school level, with identifying the social justice situation within a school system. Identifying what problems lie within the school can be a great start, especially addressing achievement gaps (Poplin & Rivera, 2005). There is always room for improvement and always something that can be worked on.

 

Poplin, M., & Rivera, J. (2005). Merging Social Justice and Accountability: Educating Qualified and Effective Teachers. Theory Into Practice,44(1), 27-37. doi:10.1207/s15430421tip4401_5

Storms, S. B. (2013). Preparing Teachers for Social Justice Advocacy. Multicultural      Education, 20(2), 33-39.

Struthers, A. E. (2016). Human Rights: A Topic Too Controversial for Mainstream Education? Human Rights Law Review,16(1), 131-162. doi:10.1093/hrlr/ngv040

18 thoughts on “Teaching Social Justice”

  1. I am also a social studies teacher and you bring up a great point. As social studies teacher we are used to discussing human rights but one on such a large horrific scale that the smaller scale issues seem small. We need to discuss the smaller more prevalent human rights violations with the same enthusiasm and importance as the larger ones. I agree that the idea of human rights should be started earlier on in the educational career to begin with a strong foundation and not have them create that foundation with inaccurate information that they might hear from other students or on the internet. We do have an easier way to add human rights into almost any lesson in social studies, so we need to use that to our advantage. Great post!

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    1. Thank you for sharing your teaching experiences and the very tangible possibilities to further the social justice education that students receive. You’re right that this is something that will take a lot of time and training. My approach is on the other end of the spectrum, where I feel that teachers are in a perfect position to lead by example, to show what is and what is not to be tolerated in the school environment. The social context of the school setting is a huge learning experience for students along with their curriculum content, so an approach that leads by example and also expanding into the curriculum could be very effective in getting the messages to students about social justice. Teachers also have to be brave and say the sometimes socially awkward thing to make sure they are stomping out any underlying opinions and world views that may be growing in students’ minds that would compromise socially just ideas and practices.

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    2. I think it is so awesome that you are able to share your teaching experiences and to relate them to this discussion. Although it may be easier to connect social studies and social justice, I definitely believe that it is possible with all content areas. And I like this idea you provided that simply relating whatever content area to some sore of social issue or event allows students to start to think about where they stand on the topic.

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    3. Enjoyed this perspective when it came to Teaching Social Justice within the classroom. I agree with the aspect that students can understand the major incidents that have happened on a large scale over the years; however, we are not teaching them regarding the day-to-day, or small scale incidents that are constantly affect us.
      As educators we need to discuss and speak about the major incidents when it comes to human rights, but as the professor stated, I agree with having them understand that small scale human rights violations that we see regularly. Starting with the day-to-day, and having our students understand that these are violations are the beginning to hopefully stopping these major incidents from occurring. I had the privilege of going to school in a different country (Canada), where we did learn regarding human rights on both a major, but also small scale. Being from Toronto, we are extremely diverse and as we do have issues regarding social justice and social inequalities, we have no where near the issues that the United States does. I feel that if we educate our students at a younger age while their minds are still developing regarding this issue, then maybe we can tackle some of the problems before they arise. Not to say that problems won’t still continue to arise over the years; however, we may be able to shape more minds in a positive manor when it comes to social justice and the inequalities that we are constantly seeing within this country.

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    4. I completely agree with the idea of adding in human rights education at an earlier stage. Along with that the idea of focusing on some smaller events that relate more personally toward the students is a great way to make the “grand ideas” more accessible. What a great platform (Social Studies) to be able to start cultivating important ideas.

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    5. I agree. The human rights issues discussed in Social Studies are large-scale and horrific, so it may make those smaller scale issues seem minuscule, even though they are just as wrong.

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  2. I agree that it is easy to implement the teaching of human rights into a social studies lesson because like you mention it is already a part of the curriculum. For elementary school teachers it is easy to relate human rights curriculum to both ELA and social studies lessons through use of literature and writing activities. However, as you also mention these issues can also be tied into science and math as well. I really love the examples you provided on ways human rights can be provided in these lessons. I also agree with you that relating lessons to real world content makes them much more effective. By doing so students are provided background knowledge, which will help them to comprehend the lesson. It can also help them to comprehend real world issues and encourage students to help provide ways to fix these issues in the future.

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  3. I really enjoyed reading your response. It was interesting for me to read a response from someone who teaches higher level grades, because I work with K-5. The point you made when you said “At this point, the students have mostly developed their values and ideas of basic human rights. So I can impact their perspectives, but only so much. I agree with Struthers that the ideas of basic human rights should be taught to students earlier on.” Really stuck out to me. As you said your students have already developed ideas and opinions on these issues and topics, and that is why it is so important to begin introducing issues at the earlier stages in schooling. Although the issues we teach down at the elementary school levels may not get into specifics because some content may be too heavy for these students, we can begin to introduce the fundamentals. I agree completely with this idea because the sooner we introduce and explain these topics, the more time students have to familiarize themselves, and form educated opinions.

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  4. Hi! You make an excellent point about the way human rights are taught in schools today. While I was student teaching, I actually witnessed the effects of only teaching human rights on a large scale. I teach ELA, but I was also teaching a Holocaust unit in a 10th grade classroom. During a discussion about discrimination during my first week (mostly observing), a student boldly claimed that discrimination “isn’t really a thing anymore.” Fortunately, the other students had quite a bit to say to that, but this is the product of schools without human rights education, curricula designed without emotion, and teachers who are too afraid to speak up about these topics. We need to change that, especially now in this political climate.

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  5. I really like how you bring a perspective from a class that talks about social justice issues as they are specific standards as you mention. I am a math teacher and feel that it is still my responsibility to bring in current events specifically in relation to social justice. For example, we could graph the average family income of communities in different areas and then dig deeper into what might cause these different wages? Is the access to jobs, transportation, etc. equal among these communities?

    I saw a youtube video addressing privileged that you might find useful to incorporate into your discussions to bring awareness to the social justice issues that you mention might not seem as much of a threat as a larger genocide that students are learning about. I have attached the link below. I find this video so powerful as it highlights that the opportunities we have throughout our lives are often out of our control at a young age but can greatly impact our life and perpetuate stereotypes, discrimination, and unequal access. I hope you enjoy it!

    -Natalie

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  6. I really enjoyed this post! I was a history major throughout undergrad and although I teach elementary school and most of our teaching is about communities, I try to integrate my human rights in literacy. I completely agree with you when you said the students are in 10th grade and you can only do a limited amount of influencing. I think human rights lessons need to be taught in elementary school. This can be done by sharing stories of other students or families so the students can connect to their peers. Like you said, teaching about things like the Holocaust are great and the students should be aware of these historical events, but I think as teachers we need to take more time to teach about current events.

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  7. One of the reasons I became a social studies educator was to make an impact when discussing items such as privilege and human rights. The video that Natalie posted is one of my favorites! I think it is critical for us as educators to teach about these subjects. Unfortunately, sometimes people see it as pushing your beliefs on a student and that is not the case. Showing students that this is a reality is crucial in the development of students who make an impact. I see one of my goals as a teacher is creating students who are outstanding citizens. I enjoyed reading your post! Great job!

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  8. I am also a social studies teacher, and I think for us it is much easier to talk to our students about these issues because it is part of our curriculum. This allows us to relate current events to these atrocities that happened in the past. This creates educational discussion in the classroom. I agree with you though, that all content areas should be responsible for educating and discussing these issues. I think you have some great ideas on how other contents can incorporate these issues in their classrooms as well. I think it is important that students are seeing this in all their classrooms so they realize how important these issues are. I really enjoyed reading your post!

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  9. You make a great point when bringing up that there are ties to social justice in our curriculum and standards. I teach fifth grade and the engage modules for ELA also teach about human rights. Not only is it important for us to think about vertical planning but take these subjects and find a way to incorporate important issues. It can be easier for some to do than others but with the proper training and development, we can start to take that step. No matter what age students are, elementary or high school, they notice differences and unfairness. Like you said, we can always improve in teaching this.

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  10. This post is so wonderful because of its true real life implications. It is true that students read about certain social studies topics and feel that those things can never happen to them. However, in our country these things are happening. It is important for the students to be aware of what is going on around them and how to help. As a math teacher I consistently get the real world question, when am I ever going to use this in life? This is a prime example of using daily interactions and ideas to teach life long lessons. I think a great thing for the students to use would be a journal technique. They could write about incidents that occurred within the school or their everyday lives. They can also write about their beliefs and ways that they can make an improvement on the world.

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    1. I agree that journalling is a fantastic way for students to voice their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. I try to use them when doing long-term assignments, as a way to discuss their progress within the process and any issues or questions they have. I would love to be able to use it as just a journal about their lives as well and how it could maybe relate to the curriculum.

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  11. I think that’s awesome that the NYS social studies curriculum has a area dedicated for human rights. I liked how you brought up how we normally only talk about genocide and the awful things in history that deal with human rights. While it seems that we skip over the human rights that get taken and abused every day. That would be the way I would want to learn about human rights.

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