Making the Space for Social Justice

This teacher believes tackling social justice issues adds something to her students’ lives—and requires more than occasional treatment.

This summer, I ran a course called “Little Journalists.” Each week, my mostly fifth- and sixth-grade students and I produced newsletters that covered everything from field trips other classes were taking to mosquito-bite prevention. We had a blast working together.

Still, because class ran for nearly four hours each day for five days a week, there was a lot of time to fill. By each Thursday, we had already learned something new about media (the difference between paraphrasing and quoting, for example), and produced a pretty solid newsletter. That left four hours every Friday that I needed to figure out how to fill—an experience also known as “Every Teacher’s Worst Nightmare.”

After panicking initially, I realized that open, unstructured time is actually a beautiful gift. It allowed me to run a seminar once a week on any topic I wanted.

With this, Social Justice Fridays was born.

Dear @Tolerance_org I've decided every Friday in Summer School we're just going to do lessons from you all so thanks for existing.

— Christina Torres (@biblio_phile) June 19, 2015

Every Friday, I decided to let Teaching Tolerance do the legwork and used some of their lessons to spark important discussions with my students. We covered identity, bias, food deserts and body image. It was pretty awesome.

I think it’s essential to cover topics like these within the context of my day-to-day teaching. Culturally critical pedagogy shouldn’t be limited to special “once-a-month” lessons. But it is also essential to set aside time and space for deep, reflective practice—not just reminders or occasional surface scratches of social justice education.

By the third week of the summer, Social Justice Fridays had not only given me a chance to talk with my students about important topics but had also provided a safe space for my students to discuss issues that were very present in their lives.

During the school year, I try really hard to get my seventh- and ninth-graders to focus on world issues. My summer school class, though, was fairly young, and I wanted to touch on some essential topics they might face once they get to middle and high school.

I chose TT’s “Different Images of Beauty” lesson, with a few modifications. I added a printout I had created about the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, an organization that empowers Asian-American Pacific Island (AAPI) actors and artists, since most of my student population is AAPI. 

I started off with a simple question: “What is beauty?”

The answers were wide reaching. My younger students called out, “Everyone is beautiful in some way!” (Please, hold onto that! I wanted to respond).

I pushed the question further and asked, “Who are you supposed to think is beautiful?”

My students were able to call out immediately: Young. Blonde or at least straight hair. Skinny or fit.

Then I asked, “Do you see a lot of people on TV shows who look like you? Not the news, but on TV.”

I would’ve had a hard time answering this question at their age, but fortunately, my students were able to think of a few, namely characters on Fresh Off the Boat.

From there, we finished the lesson using the handouts TT and I had created. We talked about the pressures we faced to look a certain way and where those pressures come from.

Afterward, I asked each student to create a poster celebrating one part of his or her body, and that was one of most rewarding parts of the lesson. I talked with Shelly, age 9, about why she thought she wasn’t pretty. I pushed Anna and Bree to think about why it felt difficult to say that they like something about themselves. “I feel like I’m bragging!” one said.

“Why? Because you like yourself?” I responded, completely understanding her struggle.

“I know!” she said. “It’s ridiculous!”

If I did anything, I hope I at least gave my students the tools to question the messages they are getting. Are those lessons part of my set curriculum? No. Do I believe that taking the time to discuss these things adds something to my students’ lives? Absolutely.

If I seek to center my work on my students, however, I know that I have to at least attempt to make the space—so they can see what it looks like to prioritize social justice. Then, just maybe, I’ll be able to ask for their help in making the world a better place.

Torres is a seventh- and ninth-grade English teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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