Teaching for Social Justice 8.3

Making Connections, Examining the World

By Bob Peterson

It’s November and a student brings in a flyer about a canned food drive during the upcoming holiday season. The traditional teacher affirms the student’s interest — “That’s nice and I’m glad you care about other people ” — but doesn’t view the food drive as a potential classroom activity.

The progressive teacher sees the food drive as an opportunity to build on students’ seemingly innate sympathy for the down- trodden and after a class discussion has children bring in cans of food. They count them, categorize them, and write about how they feel.

The critical teacher does the same as the progressive teacher — but more. The teacher also uses the food drive as the basis for a discussion about poverty and hunger. How much poverty and hunger is there in our neighborhood? Our country? Our world? Why is there poverty and hunger? What is the role of the government in making sure people have enough to eat?

Why isn’t it doing more? What can we do in addition to giving some food?

Participating in a food drive isn’t the litmus test of whether one is a critical teacher. But engaging children in reflective dialogue is.

Unfortunately, lack of reflective dialogue is all too commonplace in American schools. Less than 1% of instructional time in high school is devoted to discussion that requires some kind of response involving reasoning or an opinion from students, according to researcher John Goodlad in his study of American schooling. A similar atmosphere dominates all too many elementary classrooms, where worksheets and mindless tasks fill up children’s time.

Divisions between traditional, progres- sive, and critical teaching are often artificial and many teachers use techniques common to all three. As I attempt to improve my teaching and build what I call a “social justice classroom,” however, I have found it essential to draw less on traditional methods and more on the other two.

Lots of literature has been written on progressive methods — the process ap- proach to writing, whole language, activity- based mathematics, and so forth. But there is little written about critical/social justice approaches to teaching, especially for elementary teachers. What follows is an outline of lessons that I have learned as I have tried, sometimes more successfully than others, to incorporate my goal of critical/social justice teaching into my classroom practice over the last 15 years.

There are five characteristics that I think are essential to teaching critical/social justice:

  • A curriculum grounded in the lives of our students.
  • Dialogue.
  • A questioning/problem-posing ap- proach.
  • An emphasis on critiquing bias and attitudes.
  • The teaching of activism for social justice.

A well-organized class based on collabo- ration and student participation is a prerequisite for implementing such a program (see side bar, p. 11). I’d also like to add that such “characteristics” are actually goals — never quite reached by even the best teachers, but always sought by all good teachers.

Curriculum Grounded in the Lives of Our Students

A teacher cannot build a community of learners unless the voices and lives of the students are an integral part of the curriculum. Children, of course, talk about their lives constantly. The challenge is for teachers to make connections between what the students talk about, and the curriculum and broader society.

I start the year with a six-week unit on the children’s family and background. To begin the unit I have students place their birthdate on the class time line — which covers nearly 600 years (an inch representing a year), and which runs above the blackboard and stretches around two walls. Students write their names and birthdates on 3×5 cards and tie the cards with yarn to the hole in the timeline that corresponds to their year of birth. On the second day we place their parents’ birthdates on the timeline, on the third day those of their grandparents or great-grandparents. Throughout the year, students add dates that come up in our study of history, literature, science, and current events. The timeline provides students with a visual representation of time, history, and sequence, while fostering the understanding that everything is interrelated.

The weekly writing homework assignment during this family background unit consists of children collecting information about their families — how they were named, stories of family trips, favorite jokes, an incident when they were young, a description of their neighborhood. Students share these writings with each other and at times with the whole class. They use these assignments as rough drafts for autobiographies which are eventually bound and published. They also inspire classroom discussion and further study. For example, one of my students, Faviola Perez, wrote a poem about her neighborhood which led to discussions about violence and what we might do about it. The poem goes:

My mom says, “Time to go to bed.”
The streets at night are horrible
I can’t sleep!
Cars are passing
making noise
sirens screaming
people fighting
Suddenly the noise goes away
I go to sleep
I start dreaming
I dream about people
shaking hands
caring about our planet
I wake up
and say
Will the world be
like this some day?

In the discussion that followed, many students shared similar fears and gave examples of how family members or friends had been victims of violence. Others offered ways to prevent violence.

“We shouldn’t buy team jackets,” said one student.

“The police should keep all the criminals in jail forever,” was another suggestion.

Needless to say the students don’t have a uniform response, and I use such comments to foster discussion. When necessary or appropriate, I also interject important questions that might help the students deepen or reconsider their views. I also try to draw connections between such problems and issues of conflict that I witness daily in the class. When a student talks about a killing over a mundane argument or a piece of clothing, for instance, I ask how that differs from some of the conflicts in our school and on our playground, and how we might solve them.

Focusing on such problems in writing and discussion acknowledges the seriousness of a child’s problem; it also fosters community because the students recognize that we share common concerns. Ultimately, it can help students to re-examine some of their own attitudes that may in fact be a part, albeit small, of the problem.

Throughout the rest of the year I try to integrate an examination of children’s lives and their community into all sections of the curriculum. In reading groups, children relate both contemporary and classic children’s books to their own lives. For example, in one activity I have students divide their paper vertically: on one side they copy an interesting sentence from a book they are reading; on the other side they write how that reminds them of something in their own lives. The students then share and discuss such reflections.

In math we learn about percentages, fractions, graphing, and basic math through using numbers to examine their own lives. For example, my fifth grade class keeps logs of the time that they spend watching TV, graph it, and analyze it in terms of fractions and percentages. As part of our school’s communication theme [A nine- week, schoolwide theme on “We Send Messages When We Communicate”] they surveyed all the classes in the school to see how many households had various communication equipment, from telephones to computers to VCRs.

Such activities are interesting and worthwhile, but not necessarily critical. I thus tried to take the activity a step further — to not only affirm what’s going on in the children’s lives, but to help them question if it is always in their best interest. As we looked at television viewing, for instance, we found that some of our students could save over 1000 hours a year by moderating their TV watching.

“I can’t believe I waste so much time watching TV,” one girl stated during one discussion.

“You’re not wasting it,” replied another. “You’re learning what they want you to buy!” he said sarcastically.

Similar discussions helped children become more conscious of the impact of TV on their lives and minds, and even led a few to reduce the number of hours they watched TV.

One problem, however, that I have encountered in “giving voice” to students is that the voices that dominate are sometimes those of the more aggressive boys or those who are more academically skilled. I try to overcome this problem by using structures that encourage broader participation. During writing workshop, for example, I give timed “free writes” where children write about anything they want for a set period of time. Afterward they immediately share their writing with another student of their choice. Students then nominate classmates to share with the entire class, which often has the effect of positive peer pressure on those who don’t normally participate in class. By hearing their own voice, by having other students listen to what they have to say, children become more self-confident in expressing their own ideas, and feel more a part of the classroom community.


The basic premise of traditional teaching is that children come to school as empty vessels needing to be filled with information. “Knowledge” is something produced elsewhere, whether by the teacher or the textbook company, and then transferred to the student.

This approach dominates most schools. “Reform” usually means finding more effective ways for children to remember more “stuff” or more efficient ways to measure what “stuff” the students have memorized.

I agree that children need to know bunches of “stuff.” I cringe any time one of my fifth graders confuses a basic fact like the name of our city or country. But I also know that the vast bulk of “stuff” memorized by children in school is quickly forgotten, and that the “empty vessel” premise is largely responsible for the boring, lecture-based instruction that dominates too many classrooms.

The curricular “stuff” that I want the children to learn will be best remembered if it relates to what they already know, if they have some input into what “stuff” is actually studied, and if it is studied through activities rather than just listening. All three approaches depend on dialogue and on making students an integral part of their own learning.

To initiate dialogue I may use a song, poem, story, news article, photo, or cartoon. These dialogue “triggers” are useful for both classroom and small group discussion. I often use them as a starting point in a social studies, writing, or math lesson. I have a song, word, poster, and quotation of the week which, whenever possible, is related to our curriculum topics.

For example, during the study of the American underground railroad earlier this year, I used the song “New Underground Railroad,” written by Gerry Tenney and sung by Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert.

The song compares the underground railroad of the mid-1800s in the United States to that of the movement to save Jews during World War II and to the sanctuary movement to help “illegal” Salvadoran refugees in the 1980s. My student from El Salvador connected immediately to the song. She explained to the class the problems of violence and poverty that her family had faced because of war in El Salvador.

This one song raised many more questions, for example: Why did the Nazis kill people? What is anti-Semitism? Who runs El Salvador? Why does the United States send guns to El Salvador? Why are people from El Salvador forced to come to the U.S. secretly?

Another trigger that I use is overhead transparencies made from provocative newspaper or magazine photographs. For poetry lesson during writing workshop, I used a NewYork Times photograph taken during January’s cold spell that showed piles of snow-covered blankets and cardboard on park benches near the White House. Many students initially thought the piles were trash. When I told them that they were homeless people who had been snowed upon while asleep, my students were angry. The discussion ranged from their own experiences seeing homeless people in the community to suggestions of what should be done by the President.

“That’s not fair,” one student responded. “Clinton said he’d take care of the homeless people if he got elected and look what he’s done,” said a second student. “Nothing.”

“I didn’t vote for him,” said a third. “Us kids never get to do anything, but I know that if we were in charge of the world we’d do a better job.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Well, on a day that cold he should have opened up the White House and let them in,” responded one student. “If I were President, that’s what I’d do.”

One of my students, Jade Williams, later wrote a poem,


I walk to the park
I see homeless people laying on a bench I feel sad
to see people sleeping outside nowhere to go I felt
to help them let them stay in a hotel
give them things until they get
a job and
a house to stay and let them pay me back with their love

A Questioning/Problem-posing Approach

Lucy Calkins, director of the Teachers College Writing Project at Columbia University, argues that teachers must allow student viewpoints to be part of the class- room curriculum. “We can’t give children rich lives, but we can give them the lens to appreciate the richness that is already there in their lives,” she writes in her book, Living Between the Lines.

But even that is not enough. We should also help students to probe the ways their lives are both connected to and limited by society. This is best done if students and teachers jointly pose substantive, challenging questions for the class to try to answer.

Any time a student poses a particularly thoughtful or curious question in my class we write it down in the spiral notebook labeled “Questions We Have” that hangs on the board in front of the room. It might be during a discussion, at the beginning of a day, or during a reflection on another students’ writing. Not every question is investigated and thoroughly discussed, but even the posing of the question helps students to consider alternative ways of looking at an issue.

In a reading group discussion, for example, the question arose of how it must have felt for fugitive slaves and free African Americans to fear walking down the street in the North during the time of slavery. One student said, “I sort of know how they must have felt.” Others immediately doubted her statement, but then she explained.

“The slaves, especially fugitive slaves, weren’t free because they couldn’t walk the streets without fear of the slave masters, but today are we free?” she asked. “Because we can’t walk the streets without fear of gangs, violence, crazy people, drunks, and drive-bys.”

In reading groups a common assignment is to pose questions from the literature that we read in common. For example, while reading Sidewalk Story by Sharon Bell Mathis, a children’s novel in which the main protagonist, a young girl, struggles to keep her best friend from being evicted, my students posed questions about the ethics of eviction, failure to pay rent, homelessness, discrimination, and the value of material possessions over friendship. “Is it better to have friends or money?” a student asked, which formed the basis of a lengthy discussion in the reading circle.

Other questions that students have raised in our “Questions We Have” book include: Who tells the TV what to put on? Why do geese fly together in an angle? Did ministers or priests have slaves? How many presidents owned slaves? Why haven’t we had a woman president? Why are the faces of the presidents on our money? How do horses sweat? If we are free, why do we have to come to school? When did photography start? Who invented slavery? Why are people homeless? What runs faster, a cheetah or an ostrich? Did any adults die in the 1913 massacre of 73 children in Calumet County, Michigan? (in reference to the Woody Guthrie song about a tragedy that grew out of a labor struggle).

Some questions are answered by students working together using reference materials in the classroom or school library. (Cheetahs can run up to 65 miles an hour while ostriches run only 40 mph). Other questions are subject of group discussion; still others we work on in small groups. For example, the question “What is the difference between the master/slave relationship and parent/child relationship?” developed one afternoon when a child complained that his parent wouldn’t allow him out in the evening for school story hour. A girl responded that we might as well all be slaves, and a third student posed the question. After a brief group discussion, I had children work in groups of 3 or 4 and they continued the debate. They made two lists, one of similarities and one of differences, between the master/slave relationship and the parent/child relationship. They discussed the question in the small groups, then a spokesperson from each group reported to the class.

The fascinating thing was not only the information that I found about their lives, but also how it forced children to reflect on what we had been studying in our unit on slavery and the underground railroad. When one student said, “Yeah, it’s different because masters whipped slaves and my mom doesn’t whip me,” another student responded by saying, “All masters didn’t whip their slaves.”

When another student said that their mothers love them and masters didn’t love their slaves, another girl gave the example of the slave character Izzie in the movie Half Free, Half Slave that we watched in which Izzie got special privileges because she was the master’s girlfriend. Another girl responded that that wasn’t an example of love; she was just being used.

In this discussion, students pooled their information and generated their own understanding of history, challenging crude generalizations typical of children this age. Students also started evaluating what was fair and just in their own lives. It was clear to all that the treatment of slaves was unjust. Not so clear was to what extent and how children should be disciplined by their parents. “That’s abuse!” one student remarked after hearing about how one child was punished.

“No it’s not. That’s how my mom treats me whenever I do something bad,” responded another.

While no “answers” were found, the posing of this question by a student, and my facilitating its discussion, added to both kids’ understanding of history and to their sense of the complexity of evaluating what is fair and just in contemporary society.

Emphasis on Critiquing Bias

Raising questions about bias in ideas and materials — from children’s books to school texts, fairy tales, news reports, song lyrics, and cartoons — is another key component of a social justice classroom. I tell my fifth graders it’s important to examine “the messages that are trying to take over your brain” and that it’s up to them to sort out which ones they should believe and which ones promote fairness and justice in our world.

To recognize that different perspectives exist in history and society is the first step toward critiquing materials and evaluating what perspectives they represent or leave out. Ultimately it helps children see that they, too, can have their own values and perspectives independent of what they last read or heard.

We start by examining perspective and voice. “Whose point of view are we hearing?” I ask.

One poem that is good to initiate such a discussion is Paul Fleischman’s dialogue poem, “Honeybees,” from Joyful Noise, Poem for Two Voices. The poem is read simultaneously by two people, one describing the life of a bee from the perspective of a worker, and one from the perspective of a queen. Children love to perform the poem and often want to write their own. They begin to understand how to look at things from different perspectives. They also start to identify with certain perspectives.

After hearing the song of the week, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee My People Are Dying,” by Buffie Saint Marie, one of my students wrote a dialogue poem between a Native American and a U.S. soldier about smallpox-infected blankets the U.S. government traded for land. In another instance, as part of a class activity when pairs of students were writing dialogue poems between a master and a slave, two girls wrote one between a field slave and a house slave, further deepening the class’s understanding about the complexity of slavery. During writing workshop six weeks later, three boys decided to write a “Triple Dialogue Poem” that included the slave, a slave master, and an abolitionist.

Students also need to know that children’s books and school textbooks contain biases and important omissions. I find the concept of “stereotypes” and “omission” important to enhance children’s understanding of such biases.

For example, around Thanksgiving time I show my students an excellent filmstrip called “Unlearning Native American Stereotypes” produced by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. It’s narrated by Native children who visit a public library and become outraged at the various stere types of Indians in the books. One year after I showed this, my kids seemed particularly angry at what they had learned. They came the next day talking about how their siblings in first grade had come home with construction paper headdresses with feathers. “That’s a stereotype” my kids proudly proclaimed. “What did you do about it?” I asked. “I ripped it up;” “I slugged him,” came the chorus of responses.

After further discussion, they decided there were more productive things they could do than to hit their siblings. They scoured the school library for books with Indian stereotypes and found few. So they decided to investigate the first grade room. Two of the students wrote a letter to the teacher asking permission and then went in.

They found a picture of an Indian next to letter I in the alphabet strip on the wall. They came back excited, declaring that they “had found a stereotype that everybody sees every day!” They decided they wanted to teach the first graders about stereotypes. I was skeptical, but agreed, and after much rehearsal they entered the first-grade classroom to give their lesson. Returning to my classroom, they expressed frustration that the first-graders didn’t listen as well as they had hoped, but nonetheless thought it had gone well. Later the two students, Paco Resendez and Faviola Alvarez, wrote in our school newspaper:

“We have been studying stereotypes of Native Americans. What is a stereotype? It’s when somebody says something that’s not true about another group of people. For example, it is a stereotype if you think all Indians wear feathers or say “HOW!” Or if you think that all girls are delicate. Why? Because some girls are strong.”

The emphasis on critique is an excellent way to integrate math into social studies. Students, for example, can tally numbers of instances certain people, viewpoints, or groups are presented in a text or in mass media. One year my students compared the times famous women and famous men were mentioned in the fifth grade history text.

One reaction by a number of boys was that men were mentioned far more frequently because women must not have done much throughout history. To help facilitate the discussion, I provided background resources for the students, including biographies of famous women. This not only helped students better understand the nature of “omission,” but also generated interest in reading biographies of women.

In another activity I had students tally the number of men and women by occupation as depicted in magazine and/or TV advertisements. By comparing their findings to the population as a whole, various forms of bias were uncovered, not only in how the media portrays the population, but in the structure of jobs that helps segregate women into occupations such as office worker or waitress. Another interesting activity is having students tally the number of biographies in the school library and analyze them by race, gender, and occupation.

One of my favorite activities involves comparing books. I stumbled on this activity one year when my class read a story about inventions in a reading textbook published by Scott Foresman Co. The story stated that the traffic light was invented by an anonymous policeman. Actually it was invented by the African-American scientist Garrett A. Morgan. I gave my students a short piece from an African-American history book and we compared it with the Scott Foresman book. We talked about which story we should believe and how one might verify which was accurate. After checking out another book about inventions, the students realized that the school text was wrong.

The Teaching of Activism for Social Justice

The underlying theme in my classroom is that the quest for social justice is a never-ending struggle in our nation and world; that the vast majority of people have benefited by this struggle; that we must understand this struggle; and that we must make decisions about whether to be involved in it.

I weave the various disciplines around this theme. When I read poetry and literature to the children, I often use books that raise issues about social justice and, when possible, in which the protagonists are young people working for social justice. In math, we will look at everything from the distribution of wealth in the world to the percentage of women in different occupations. The class songs and posters of the week also emphasize social struggles from around the world. I also have each student make what I call a “people’s textbook” — a three-ring binder in which they put hand- outs and some of their own work, particularly interviews that they conducted. There are sections for geography, history, current events, songs, poetry, and mass media. I also have a gallery of freedom fighters on the wall — posters of people that we have studied in social studies and current events.

In addition to studying movements for social justice of the past, students discuss current problems and possible solutions. One way I do this is by having students role play examples of discrimination and how they might respond.

I start with kids dramatizing historical incidents such as Sojourner Truth’s successful attempt to integrate Washington, D.C., street cars after the Civil War, and Rosa Parks’ role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. We brainstorm contemporary problems where people might face discrimination, drawing on our current events studies and interviews children have done with family members and friends about types of discrimination of which they are aware.

One day in the spring of 1993, my class was dramatizing contemporary examples. Working in small groups, the students were to choose a type of discrimination — such as not being allowed to rent a house because one receives welfare, or not getting a job because one is a woman — and develop a short dramatization. Afterward, the kids would lead a discussion about the type of discrimination they were acting out.

After a few dramatizations, it was Gilberto, Juan, and Carlos’ turn. I had no clue as to what they were going to dramatize.

It was a housing discrimination example — but with a twist. Gilberto and Juan were acting the part of two gay men attempting to rent an apartment, and Carlos was the landlord who refused to rent to them. I was surprised, in part because in previous brainstorming sessions on discrimination none of my students had mentioned discrimination against gay people. Further, as is often unfortunately the case with fifth graders, in the past my students had shown they were prone to uncritically accept anti- gay slurs and stereotypes. But here, on their own initiative, were Gilberto, Juan, and Carlos transferring our class discussion of housing discrimination based on race to that of sexual orientation.

The dramatization caused an initial chorus of laughs and jeers. But, I noticed, the students also listened attentively.

Afterwards, I asked the class what type of discrimination had been modeled.

“Gayism,” one student, Elvis, yelled out.

It was a new word to me, but got the point across. The class then went on to discuss “gayism.” Most of the kids who spoke agreed that it was a form of discrimination. During the discussion, one student mentioned a march on Washington a week earlier, demanding gay rights. (Interest- ingly, Gilberto, Juan and Carlos said they were unaware of the march.)

Elvis, who coined the term “gayism,” then said: “Yeah, my cousin is one of those lesi… lesi…”

“Lesbians,” I said, completing his sentence.

“Yeah, lesbian,” he said. He then added enthusiastically: “And she went to Wash- ington to march for her rights.”

“That’s just like when Dr. King made his dream speech at the march in Washington,” another student added.

Before long the class moved on to a new role play. But the “gayism” dramatization lingered in my memory.

One reason is that I was proud that the class had been able to move beyond the typical discussions around gay issues — which had in the past seemed to center on my explaining why students shouldn’t call each other ‘faggot.’ More fundamentally, however, the incident reminded me of the inherent link between the classroom and society, not only in terms of how society influences the children who are in our classrooms for six hours a day, but also in terms of how broader movements for social reform affect daily classroom life.

It’s important not only to study these progressive social movements and to dramatize current social problems, but to encourage students to take thoughtful action. By doing this they see themselves as actors in the world, not just things to be acted upon.

One of the best ways to help students in this area is by example — to expose them to people in the community who are fighting for social justice. I regularly have social activists visit and talk with children in my classes. I also explain the activities that I’m personally involved in as an example of what might be done.

I tell students they can write letters, circulate petitions, and talk to other classes and children about their concerns. My students have gone with me to marches that demanded that King’s birthday be made a national holiday and that there be an end to the nuclear arms race. Another time, while studying the Sanctuary Movement and learning about the wars in Central America, half of my class accompanied me to a demonstration demanding an end to U.S. government support of the “Contras” fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Two of my students testified before the City Council, asking that a Jobs With Peace referendum be placed on the ballot. Another time students at our school testified with parents in front of the City Council that special monies should be allocated to rebuild our school playground.

Such activities have gotten mixed reviews from my colleagues and supervisors. Is it proper for teachers to promote student activism? Doesn’t this run the danger of indoctrination?

Many teachers believe that teaching should be politically neutral. That is impossible. Everyday decisions of what to teach and not to teach are inherently political decisions. For example, when a teacher chooses a read-aloud book or makes a specific writing assignment, a certain perspective is being promoted in the classroom. The presence of that perspective and the absence of others is a political act. It might not be conscious, but it is political nonetheless.

Likewise, if a teacher decides not to discuss past or current social movements that address societal problems, it is a political decision, in this case of omission. The message, while subtle, is clear: such social activism does not warrant the attention of the class compared to the rest of the curriculum; that social activism in the broader society is not of value and should not be viewed in a positive light.

However, in a society based on democratic principles, a key purpose of a public school system is to foster active participation in political and civic life. Some educators, and in some cases entire districts like the Milwaukee Public Schools, are advocating that students be encouraged to “demonstrate more responsible citizenship” and “be involved with their community.” What better way than to encourage students to act on their beliefs?

At the same time, certain safeguards must be taken. First, in discussing any issue, various points of view must be examined. At the elementary level this usually is the teacher’s responsibility. At times, I take positions opposed to what I believe in order to challenge student thinking. For example, during a role play trial of a fugitive slave who faced return to his southern slave master, I was the attorney for the slave master, as many students had difficulty presenting a substantive case for the master.

Second, teachers shouldn’t hide their personal opinions on controversial subjects, but they should be labeled as such, i.e., one person’s opinion. It must also be clear that a student’s grade does not depend on agreeing with the teacher.

For a teacher to pretend to have no opinion on controversial topics, however, is not only unbelievable, but sends a message to students that it’s OK in a democracy to be opinionless and apathetic toward key social issues.

Such apathy is not OK. At a time when cynicism and hopelessness increasingly dominate our youth, helping students understand the world and their relationship to it by encouraging social action may be one of the few antidotes. Schools are a prime place where this can take place.

Teachers are a key element in it happening. Teaching for social justice is a necessary priority as we approach the new century.

Bob Peterson teaches 5th grade at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee and is an editor of Rethinking Schools.