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September 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 1

Social Justice in the Classroom

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Ms. Lee's 3rd grade class was discussing the question, What is a fluid? Mariana, a Hispanic youngster, commented that she liked to drink coffee. Jenna, an African American, said, “Don't do that! It will make your skin blacker.” Ms. Lee responded, “That's not true. Now, we are talking about fluids . . .”
Mariana's comment and Jenna's response fell outside the framework of the explicit curriculum of the class, and the teacher's reaction minimized both. A teachable moment was lost.
Unfortunately, we often fail to respond to young students' spontaneous and earnest comments about many aspects of human interaction. Questions that consider skin color, race, and the even more controversial issue implied in this example—negativity associated with darker-skinned people—are typically suppressed rather than recognized as important material for exploration and examination. Although the school curriculum often deals with culture, it rarely overtly addresses social justice (Lewis, 2001; Polite & Saenger, 2003). As students mature, they get the message that comments dealing with race are rude or socially unacceptable, and they stop bringing those topics up (Lewis-Charp, 2004).
When we discourage students from engaging in public conversations about race and social justice, we lose an important component of education. In a multicultural society, it is crucial to help students consider diversity, understanding, and the places where the two intersect and clash. We need to create classrooms that involve students in quests to make sense of their world. Such classrooms authentically address equity, educate the whole child, and value each and every student.

Does Coffee Make Your Skin Blacker?

Mariana and Jenna's teacher believes that her responsibility is to cover the curriculum on fluids. This academic content is important, of course, and we want students to learn it. But fluids are part of a larger, more complex world that every student inhabits and is trying to understand.
In a constructivist classroom, the teacher might respond with, “Jenna, you say that coffee will make your skin blacker. Do you think that this is true of all liquids? Will orange juice make your skin more orange?” This response embeds three basic tenets of constructivism: The teacher values Mariana's and Jenna's points of view, brings those comments back to the lesson topic of fluids by challenging their suppositions, and poses a problem of emerging relevance for all students to consider (Brooks, 2002; Brooks & Brooks, 1993/1999). The ensuing discussion is filled with potential to reveal student perspectives, information, misinformation, biases, and other ideas central to the process of becoming fully educated.
In such a classroom, teacher and students jointly search for meaning. The teacher might continue the inquiry into fluids by asking the students to research whether coffee or various other liquids can actually affect skin color. She might challenge them to research some selected solids—sweet potatoes, carrots, peaches, apricots—to see whether they have anything in common. The students would discover that all these foods have high beta-carotene content and, with the teacher's guidance, consider a phenomenon that many parents of fair-skinned babies notice after a meal of those kinds of fruits and vegetables—the babies do have orange skin! (The excess beta-carotene that the body does not convert into vitamin A gets deposited in the skin.)
Is orange skin bad? Is it something to avoid? Is black skin something to avoid? This juncture in the lesson offers different opportunities for important discussions, including the distinction between fluids and solids (a precursor to lessons on states of matter in the next science unit); the nutritional components of certain foods (a precursor to lessons on nutrition at the next grade level); and the question of why somebody would want to avoid having darker skin (a precursor to understanding prejudice, the lesson for a lifetime).

Cultural Capital and the Constricted Curriculum

According to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, every youngster brings rich cultural capital to the classroom: subtleties of language, artistic preferences, unique knowledge bases, and links to resources (Fowler, 1997). But classrooms often do not value, acknowledge, or use the cultural capital of some groups of students. Thus, some students may feel that they have no acceptable way to express themselves and share their cultural capital in the school setting.
Curriculum bound to textbooks, curriculum guides aligned to high-stakes assessments, and large-scale multilevel curriculum adoptions are rarely concerned with the range of issues that students bring to the classroom. They focus instead on content—typically, content that has been carefully measured and edited to conform to widely accepted and easily assessed standards. In this era of high-stakes testing, teachers' coverage of the explicit curriculum rules. Today's classrooms focus on topics that culminate in mandated tests—and there are no tests on justice!
Focusing on the academic curriculum to the exclusion of the social curriculum constricts learning for all students. But it does the most harm to students of low socioeconomic status, who may depend on teachers to bridge the gap between their own cultural capital and the mainstream cultural and social perspectives. For these vulnerable and often disenfranchised students, the larger the incongruence between the predominant cultural capital of their schools and themselves, the less effectively the teaching of the explicit curriculum can stimulate their learning or develop social justice understandings.
Classrooms can either cultivate social justice and its composite issues—appreciating diversity, promoting equity, advancing broad-mindedness, and encouraging voice and expression—or they can suppress it. The following three scenarios illustrate teacher responses that devalued students' perspectives and offer alternative responses that would have recognized and honored the students' points of view.

Ignoring What Students Say

Many students don't have a voice in school. Teachers may ignore what some students say because responding to their comments seems too dangerous; there's too much room for misinterpretation.
In a high-performing school district, Jason's 2nd grade teacher introduced the concept of community. The teacher asked students to identify an individual who provided a valuable service to the people in their community. Jason, a bright and articulate African American student, eagerly raised his hand and said that his housekeeper, Pearl, also an African American, cleaned his house and the houses of some of his friends. She did a good job and was very helpful and nice. The teacher, who had been listing the jobs on the board under the label “Important Services,” did not list this occupation on the board. She thanked Jason and then moved on to another student. Jason's teacher had preconceptions about important community services, and housekeeping was not among these services.
Did Jason leave this classroom with a diminished view of the role and value of housekeeping? Is it also possible that Jason generalized this new understanding to other aspects of Pearl's—and his own—ethnic background? Maybe, and maybe not. But what certainly occurred was the devaluing of Jason's perspective.
In contrast, Jason's teacher could have asked Jason to explain how housekeeping is an important community service (as she did with prior contributions from other students). With this question, the teacher would honor Pearl's work—and Jason's perspective—and invite the rest of the class to examine their own viewpoints about this often undervalued work.

Transposing What Students Say

Everyone sees the world through her or his own lens, including teachers. Teachers have an important professional responsibility to see the diverse cultural value systems of their students with an open mind, as free as possible from their own value systems. Nonetheless, many teachers unwittingly interchange their value systems with student contributions, restating students' comments in ways that are not aligned with what the students meant.
A 4th grade class was engaging in a lively discussion about neighborhoods. The teacher had asked his students to describe what they liked best about their neighborhoods. Carlos, a Hispanic student who had moved to this suburban community three months earlier from a low-income housing project, said that although he now had his own room and a nice backyard in which to have barbecues, he missed his old neighborhood, especially sharing a room with his cousin and playing on the block with his many friends. There, he could go to the store alone and play in the park near his apartment. His teacher thanked Carlos for his contribution and then proceeded to explain to the class how fortunate Carlos was to have a community that provided him with more space, safer living conditions, and good schools. By transposing Carlos's feelings about his former and current neighborhoods with his own views, the teacher essentially disregarded Carlos's beliefs about the quality of community life in his urban housing project.
Did Carlos leave the classroom with new doubts about his warm memories of his old neighborhood? Did he leave with some negative views of urban living? Will Carlos contribute to classroom discussions in the future? Maybe, and maybe not. But what certainly occurred was the devaluing of Carlos's perspective.
In contrast, Carlos's teacher could have honored Carlos's views by asking more questions about what life was like in his previous neighborhood and by asking Carlos whether it would be possible to re-create some of those advantages in his present neighborhood. If this had occurred, Carlos's meaning, not the teacher's transposed meaning, would have run the discussion through a different filter. Carlos's appreciation of the emotional connectivity among family and friends and the ability to move about independently in a smaller area would have been given a value equal to the teacher's appreciation of safety, space, the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood's residents, and the “quality” of the schools.

Marginalizing What Students Say

Teachers sometimes marginalize student contributions with phrases that essentially communicate the message, “That's wrong; that's not what we are talking about.” While conducting an art appreciation lesson, a high school teacher asked her class to identify a great artist of the 20th century. Paul, a 10th grade African American, mentioned Romare Bearden, adding that his parents had several of this artist's prints in their home. The teacher reiterated that she wanted “great artists” and suggested that Paul refer to his textbook.
The teacher's adherence to the textbook's list of great artists eliminated whole areas of inquiry and discussion from her classroom and forestalled critical thinking on the topic. Paul learned a lot through this interaction, but probably not about art. Did Paul learn that his parents don't know what they think they know? Or that the textbook dictates what is valued not only in this class but also in the larger society? Or that his own aesthetic sense doesn't matter? Maybe, and maybe not. But we can be certain that Paul's perspective was devalued.
Instead, the teacher could have asked Paul to explain the features of Romare Bearden's work that make him “great” and to speculate on the reasons that Bearden was not listed in the textbook. This question directs attention to the definition of “greatness” and the value that society attributes to the cultural capital of the artists of those “great” works. Also, it reinforces the notion that “greatness” is subjective and culturally defined.

Why Social Justice Issues Get Lost

No teacher purposely devalues his or her students. The failure to acknowledge students' perspectives typically arises from dissonance between the values held by the teacher and the cultural experiences brought to the classroom by the student. Although this is true for all students in all settings, it is glaringly true for African American and Hispanic students in many public school classrooms.
What stands in the way of teachers acknowledging perspectives that differ from their own? One factor is the narrowing of the curriculum. In response to mandates to implement carefully prescribed syllabi and stay on pace to prepare students for state assessments, teachers are reporting that they honor only student contributions that directly support the syllabi's tightly bundled objectives. Understanding the complexity of social relationships requires higher-order thinking at the analytic and synthetic levels. But state assessments under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) keep conceptual understanding at bay while directing class time to lower-inference procedural knowledge and recall.
In trying to translate objectives into learning activities, many teachers inadvertently create an additional barrier. Lortie (1975) described teachers' translation of education objectives into specific and manageable activities as a reductionist endeavor. During the reduction process, teaching strategies may become infused with the teachers' unexamined convictions based on their past experiences. The three classroom examples illustrate this idea. The teachers of Jason, Carlos, and Paul are all well-intentioned, but they are all culpable of having unknowingly established an invisible filter around classroom interactions that screens out social capital not aligned with their own.

A Framework of Unconditional Respect

We need to recognize social justice issues as they occur and create links between those issues and classroom instruction, thus expanding the parameters of the curriculum. Such an approach does not detract from academic learning. On the contrary, decades of research, including recent neurobiological research, has suggested that we can foster complex cognition most effectively in classrooms in which we have established social norms of interdependent exploration, emotional safety, flexibility, and complexity (for example, see Hunt & Sullivan, 1974; Siegel, 2001).
Carl Rogers's concept of unconditional positive regard (1974) provides a conceptual framework to help us create more inclusive, intellectually rigorous classrooms. Rogers asserted that acceptance is a fundamental human need without which learning is diminished. Within the context of schooling, unconditional respect is every student's entitlement. It provides the foundation for meaningful teaching and learning.
Keeping this framework in mind, we can create classroom environments in which complex ideas of all kinds—including the thorny, crucial social justice issues that are often difficult to confront—have a forum. Our students deserve no less.

Aims of Education - Social Justice in the Classroom

Aims of Education

My request is: Help your students to become human. Your efforts should never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths and educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more humane.

—Haim G. Ginott


Brooks, J. G. (2002). Schooling for life: Reclaiming the essence of learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Brooks, J. G., & Brooks, M. G. (1993/1999). In search of understanding: The case for the constructivist classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Fowler, B. (1997). Pierre Bourdieu and cultural theory: Critical investigations. London: SAGE Publications.

Hunt, D. E., & Sullivan, E. V. (1974). Between psychology and education. Hinsdale, IL: Dryden.

Lewis, A. C. (2001). Washington commentary: Toward a nation of “equal kids.” Phi Delta Kappan, 82(9), 647–648.

Lewis-Charp, H. (2004). Breaking the silence: White students' perspectives on race in multiracial schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 85(5).

Lortie, D. C. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Polite, L., & Saenger, E. B. (2003). A pernicious silence: Confronting race in the elementary classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 85(4), 274–278.

Rogers, C. R. (1974). Client-centered and symbolic perspectives on social change. In D. Wexler & L. Rice (Eds.), Innovations in client-centered therapy (pp. 465–496). New York: John Wiley.

Siegel, D. J. (2001). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York: Guilford Press.

Jacqueline Grennon Brooks is associate professor and director of the Science Education Program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

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