Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 6

Developing Social Justice Educators

In a teacher inquiry group, educators collectively examine how to teach for social justice.

Developing Social Justice Educators- thumbnail
Although many teachers in high-poverty urban schools struggle to meet the needs of their students, some gifted educators achieve consistent success. What enables some teachers to effectively reach the same students whom other teachers can't seem to reach? Three highly effective teachers recently articulated their teaching philosophies as they participated in a teacher inquiry group at Power Elementary School in South Central Los Angeles.
As these effective teachers shared the philosophies guiding their instructional practices, curriculum designs, and relationships with students, they made it clear that the strength of their teaching came from a focus on student-empowering social justice pedagogy. The inquiry group shed light on two questions: “How can a focus on teaching for social justice energize teaching and learning in an urban school?” and “How can urban schools create a formal space for teachers to investigate and question their philosophies and beliefs and learn from colleagues who provide relevant, socially transformative instruction?”

A Social Justice Philosophy

I proposed the teacher inquiry group at Power Elementary as a three-year program. Its purpose was to support the development of student-empowering social justice themes in teachers' practice. Seven teachers signed up to participate. All were fairly new to teaching when we began; the most senior had six years of experience. At the outset of the program, their students' test scores covered the school's achievement span: Three of their classes consistently scored in the top quartile of the school, two were in the middle, and two were in the bottom quartile.
Ms. Grant, Ms. Kim, and Mr. Truong, the teachers with the highest student test scores in the group, all subscribe to Paulo Freire's idea that effective education for —alized groups must employ a liberatory pedagogy—that is, one that aims to help students become critical change agents who feel capable of and responsible for addressing social injustices in their communities (Freire, 1970). Ms. Grant, a 4th grade teacher, explains,Racial, cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic status has no effect on students' abilities to acquire knowledge. Schools should provide students with the fundamental skills and ideas necessary to develop within the system while also preparing them to transform the system.
Mr. Truong, a 5th grade teacher, cites a series of problems with the institutional culture of urban schools:The first thing I wonder about urban schools is, Where is the love? Even a surface-level analysis of our school reveals that students dislike the school; they are unengaged and exhibit resistance. The environment is not child-centered. This is reflected in the scripted or mandated programming . . . a set of decontextualized academic exercises, an overemphasis on basic skills. Students have become machines; they are not allowed to question the relevance of what they are learning. They are forced to perform for the sake of the task at hand. In short, our schools reflect a prison system mentality, a lot like the conditions in urban communities.
  • Engage. Provide culturally responsive teaching that validates students' funds of knowledge.
  • Experience. Expose students to various possible realities by presenting narratives that show the perspectives of those often unheard in society.
  • Empower. Use a critical and transformative pedagogy to give students a sense of agency, both individual and collective, to act on the conditions in their lives.
  • Enact. Create opportunities for students to act out their growing sense of agency, learning from and reflecting on their successes and struggles.
Ms. Kim also develops traditional academic skills by paying attention to students' cultures, critical thinking, and agency:My practice begins with the recognition of the students' cultural capital: language, culture, family, interests, and so on. . . . My goal is to offer counter-discourse to the traditional curriculum and to incorporate this in a fluid, meaningful, and empowering way. It is important that my pedagogy identify forms of oppression—and not ambiguously, either, or else students feel like things cannot change.
These three successful teachers are keenly aware of the dire conditions in which many of their students live. They believe that they should not ignore these conditions, but instead should talk about them in the classroom. They design their pedagogy to empower students with tools for recognizing, naming, analyzing, and confronting the most acute social conditions facing them: poverty, racism, violence, and inequality.
To these teachers, success means both raising students' test scores and developing students' ability to think critically and act constructively. They insist that one without the other is unlikely to reduce the opportunity gap for urban students. They do not accept urban poverty as an excuse for underachievement by either teachers or students. Instead, they see unequal material conditions as a set of constraints that students can and should transform.
The philosophies of social justice embraced by these educators go beyond the traditional narrative, which sees education as a vehicle to escape financially impoverished communities. These teachers view education as a vehicle to invest in that can improve conditions in urban areas. They want their students to become college graduates who will come back and transform their urban communities. Less successful urban teachers tend to have more modest ambitions, such as wanting their students to study for tests, behave well in class, and persist in school.

Social Justice Teachers in Action

Ms. Grant

Although Ms. Grant does not approve of the school district's scripted reading program (Open Court), she rejects the arguments of those teachers who claim that they are pedagogically handcuffed by it. She develops social justice-oriented units that incorporate media and critical literacy into the scripted Open Court themes.
For example, as her class worked with the program's “Mysteries of Medicine” unit, she had students view the popular film John Q, discuss inequities in the health care system, and follow up with writing assignments and poster projects examining how these issues affected their own lives and the lives of other people in their community. In these assignments, students developed individual and collective policy positions on health care issues.
After the class participated in these learning activities, class members significantly raised their scores in three of the reading program's measured areas: applications, strategies, and conventions. But Ms. Grant is especially proud of her students' transformative thinking about their own community. A typical student, D.T., not only made notable academic gains but also connected what he learned to local conditions. He wrote,I went to Ralph's and I seen strikers. One striker's son had a broken arm, and they was on strike because they didn't have enough health care. And it made me think about John Q, when his son didn't have enough money to get a new heart. It made me feel bad because a lot of people have more health care than the people who are on strike.

Ms. Kim and Mr. Truong

Ms. Kim is only in her third year as a teacher, but her students have some of the highest math and literacy test scores in the school. She attributes this success to three things: her social justice pedagogy, her collaboration with colleagues, and the fact that she was able to stay with the same students through 2nd and 3rd grades.
Mr. Truong's 5th grade students also show exceptional growth on standards-based testing—an amazing achievement considering the inexcusable working conditions he has experienced. Because of Mr. Truong's reputation for being effective with students other teachers could not reach, the school administration shuffled several “challenging” students into his class and collapsed an undersized 5th grade class into his room, leaving him with 38 students and no additional support. At the beginning of the year, fewer than 50 percent of the students in this class were scoring at or above proficiency in spelling, vocabulary, and proofreading. By February, however, class proficiency in these skills had risen to 83, 88, and 92 percent respectively. In the same time frame, the class average in reading fluency jumped by 20 words, exceeding the district fluency benchmark, and the percentage of students at benchmark in reading comprehension tripled. Mr. Truong's students showed similar gains in math.
Both Ms. Kim and Mr. Truong contend that their students' success is a result of instructional strategies that enable students to apply what they learn in the classroom to real issues in their lives. An example is their collaborative response when the school disciplined several students for having toy guns on campus—guns that the students had purchased from an ice cream truck in front of the school.
As part of their letter-writing unit, Ms. Kim's students wrote to the ice cream truck vendor, telling him that toy guns were creating a negative environment in their school and asking that he stop selling them. Mr. Truong's class wrote to toy manufacturing companies expressing similar concerns during their persuasive writing unit. When neither party responded, students from the two classes got together to organize an official protest. Under the supervision of teachers, parents, and the principal, students boycotted the ice cream truck. They held signs that read “No More Toy Guns” and “Don't Sell Guns Here” while chanting, “What do we want? No more toy guns at Power Elementary. When do we want it? Now!”
The ice cream truck left after several minutes of the protest, and it did not return. Although a rethinking of the school policy of letting a vendor sell toy guns near school property would have represented a greater victory, Ms. Kim and Mr. Truong emphasize the importance of letting students come to conclusions about their effectiveness on their own. They believe the real victory here is that students felt empowered to apply the lessons they learned in school to challenge the immediate conditions of their lives.

Teachers Teaching Teachers

It is not news that exceptional urban teachers like Ms. Grant, Ms. Kim, and Mr. Truong exist. To help the majority of teachers attain such success, however, urban schools must rethink their approach to teacher development. A promising approach is to create opportunities for successful teachers to reflect on their practice and share with less successful colleagues.
At Power Elementary, this strategy has proven effective and mutually beneficial for all the participants. The seven teachers in the inquiry group meet once a week for two hours in a four-week cycle of activities guided by the following themes.

Intellectual Development

During the first week of each cycle, the teachers discuss their written reflections on a reading chosen by one of the participants. Each reflection includes a classroom action plan for addressing issues raised by the reading. Group members who are already effectively addressing the issue use this time to share their practice with the other teachers. Those who are having less success can prepare an action plan informed by their colleagues' successes.
For example, Ms. Kim used her reflections on Henry Giroux's introductory chapter in Literacy: Reading the Word and the World (Freire & Macedo, 1987) to share with the group an activity she finds effective for implementing Giroux's emphasis on “naming and transforming” negative ideological and social conditions (p. 5). In her class, she explained, she uses periods of open dialogue to encourage students to identify and critique nondemocratic structures in their lives. She used the 2004 presidential elections, for instance, to develop dialogue about democracy. As students expressed their strong opinions about the candidates, Ms. Kim observed, they were empowered to “be dynamic, intellectual, and critical of what is going on.”
Ms. Kim detailed how she charts student discussions on a Concept/Question Board in the classroom, which is used to continue previous dialogue and to display the students' various opinions. These discussions also enable her to assess students' functional and critical literacy skills. She uses these assessments to develop additional support structures in basic phonics for struggling readers and more advanced literacy techniques for those students who are ready.
Other teachers in the inquiry group were able to use Ms. Kim's ideas to address challenges in their own classrooms. Mr. Ballesteros, for example, began using similar student discussions to identify individual student needs and provide skill development appropriate to those needs in his math instruction. He started to decrease his use of whole-class instruction, adding more individual and small-group instruction tailored to his students' performance levels. As a result, he reported, “I'm now seeing progress in the student work; they are showing greater understanding and they are getting it.”

Professional Development

During the second week of the cycle, teachers pair up and observe their partners' classroom practice, debriefing afterward one-on-one to learn from their partner's reflections and feedback. When the entire group meets later in the week, each teacher reports on what he or she saw and learned from the observation. At these meetings, teachers use dialogue, questions, and suggestions to build a culture of teaching and learning.
Participants use the second hour of this meeting to discuss student work. Each teacher brings work samples from specific students (one high, one middle, and one low performer) whose progress they are following over the year. They draw from the samples to highlight challenges and successes and to get critical feedback from their colleagues. This activity allows for concrete support. It also develops accountability among colleagues because of the expectation that all the students will show academic progress.
Ms. O'Leary, for example, brought to the group her concerns about keeping her lowest-performing students on task. She was welcomed to observe in Ms. Grant's class to generate more effective strategies. After the visit, Ms. O'Leary reported to the group,I recently tried something I never wanted to do because it seemed time-wasteful, but it worked well when I saw it in Ms. Grant's room. She had kids line up to check work with her, rather than stay seated and do something else when finished. My kids got one another distracted when I let them stay at their seats when finished with writing as I saw kids one at a time. So I tried Ms. Grant's method and it seems to work well. The kids worked harder and made more significant changes when I did the writing conferences this way.

Community Development

During the third week of each cycle, the teachers collaboratively develop out-of-classroom projects, such as after-school sports and game clubs, academic support systems, and parent and community partnership plans that the teachers want to implement or improve. With each new cycle, teachers evaluate the progress of their projects and discuss issues with the group to keep the projects moving forward.

Holistic Growth

During the final meeting, teachers review their reflections from the first week. They prepare new reflections detailing their progress on the issues they addressed in week one, discuss their growth, and ask for additional support in areas in which they would like better results.
The opportunity for teachers to articulate newfound feelings of motivation, professionalism, and commitment is central to the development of a positive professional climate. As Ms. O'Leary, one of the improving teachers, explains,This group makes me feel like things are gonna change. I'm gonna need to change because it makes me always want to get better, and I want to offer what I have. As long as this group is available, I'll feel professional. In fact, this is the first time I've felt like a professional. I no longer feel replaceable or like the goal of professional development is to make all teachers the same. This community of professionals is going to help everyone get better and keep people [in teaching] longer.
The holistic growth meeting also enables highly effective teachers, such as Mr. Truong, to improve their practice and model an enduring commitment to professional growth:Thinking back to my goals and previous reflections, I am reminded that I am not where I want to be with my goals. . . . I am not satisfied that I have fully taken advantage of potential literacy moments in science. . . . By the next reflection, or sooner, I will come back to this and see if I have ironed out the wrinkles.
The opportunity to be reflective ensures that all inquiry group participants, not just the struggling teachers, have the opportunity to identify themselves as achievers and learners.

Toward Better Teaching in Urban Schools

Urban schools face sizeable challenges. Two components that can help urban school leaders meet these challenges are (1) developing a better understanding of effective urban teachers' philosophies and practices, and (2) putting a system in place to support the professional growth of all teachers. School leaders can develop these supportive systems of professional development if they use successful practitioners as resources.
Power Elementary School's inquiry group enables highly effective teachers who espouse a pedagogy of social transformation to share their philosophy and practice with colleagues. The structure of the group balances high expectations with teacher autonomy, support, and collaboration. Such professional development communities hold great promise for helping urban schools improve professional practice and student achievement.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the word and the world. South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

End Notes

1 School and teacher names are pseudonyms.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
From our issue
Product cover image 105033b.jpg
Learning From Urban Schools
Go To Publication