Teaching for Social Justice, Y’all

By Adam Jordan & Todd S. Hawley

One Word posters from Teaching Tolerance

Society asks teachers to carry a lot of weight these days.

They’re expected not only to teach content but also to function as defenders of social well-being. That’s a heavy burden and many people outside of education may not understand the burden of that responsibility. People outside the field may not realize the time and effort teachers put into broadening their content and pedagogical knowledge — and how often they engage in transformative experiences aimed at improving as socially conscious and responsive teachers.

This month, we like to highlight one of those experiences. Our purpose is twofold. First, to tell readers who are educators to jump on this next year! Second, to give readers who are not educators — perhaps unaware of the ways teachers engage in their own social development — a glimpse into that world. You may see ways you could be an ally in these efforts.

Teachers in the South are hard at work improving the lives of their students and communities every day. They put in the necessary time during the school year to become even better at their jobs. While Adam was hard at work in Charleston, South Carolina, Todd, along with his colleague from Kent State, Mike Levicky, spent the day with some dedicated teachers in Orlando, Florida, to attend a workshop called “Social Justice 101.” Put on by the fine folks at Teaching Tolerance, Social Justice 101 taught us much more than we expected learn.

We were there to learn more about Teaching Tolerance, which was formed in 1991 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and about the ways we can support teachers as they embed anti-racist and socially just practices into their classrooms. We learned plenty about social justice and Teaching Tolerance’s approach to fighting hate through education. But we also saw how dedicated and committed teachers are to supporting students, to confronting racism. They teach with a deep sense of purpose. It also reminded us just how fast teachers connect and form lasting bonds.

Turns out they need plenty of coffee, a powerful challenge, and space to discuss their work and how much they love teaching. Once the room filled up with teachers, an amazing thing happened: Family formed. Deep, passionate conversations sprung up among pairs and around tables. New friendships and collaborative partnerships arose, all in the name of improving the lives of students in schools and communities throughout the South. That’s powerful stuff.

For those of y’all that don’t know, Teaching Tolerance was founded to prevent the growth of hate. Let’s repeat that: To prevent the growth of hate. Not a small undertaking, the Social Justice 101 workshop was designed to prepare teachers to implement an anti-bias curriculum in their classrooms. In the workshop, teachers learned to honor the identities of all of their students and to reflect diversity, equity, and justice in everything they do in their classrooms. These goals are transformative and designed to honor the real communities where students live every day.

Far too often, school curricula fair to honor and reflect these realities. Social Justice 101 was the perfect venue to think deeply about our own work as transformative educators and to engage with so many amazing teachers. We learned how teachers throughout the South are working to make their classrooms inclusive places, where all students can learn and grow.

As former classroom teachers, we know firsthand that professional development programs aren’t created equal. Sometimes, you sit and listen and get bored quickly. Other times, when you learn more about something you are committed to — like teaching for social justice — you leave wanting more. That was the case with the Social Justice 101 workshop. Facilitators Val Brown, Sarah-Soonling Blackburn, Hoyt Philips, and Kim Burkhalter were up to the challenge of building off the excitement in the rooms. They guided teachers through a range of activities designed to challenge existing practices and beliefs about students — and to reexamine the influence of their lives outside of school. Val and Sarah’s joy, honesty, and willingness to be vulnerable inspired teachers to dig deep. Experiencing their teaching was like taking a master class in how to break with tradition and make your classroom a space for discussion and dialog, where tensions are met with honest talk and reflection.

As you might imagine, socially just teaching is not easy. Creating classrooms where students’ cultures are honored and reflected in the curriculum often challenges the norms of schools and communities. Val and Sarah pushed us to examine our own biases and to consider how we can do more to support all students — how we can connect social justice standards to our own classroom practices.

Within this experience, we got to meet and learn from real teachers who have dedicated their teaching to better lives for students across the South. These people do the work of eliminating hate and teaching for social justice.

We learned from Logan Block, a sixth-grade English Language Arts teacher at Gulliver Academy in Miami, Florida. When asked to reflect on his experience in the workshop, Logan wrote to us:

One of the constants spanning my 12 years of teaching in five different schools is the need of those communities to have tools for addressing the scary circumstances in which social justice issues arise. How do we talk to each other when race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, and or ability become part of the conversation? Too often I've seen people shy away from the conversations — and consequently shy away from the opportunity for real understanding, and growth, and a heightened sense of community. [This] was likely the best workshop I've ever attended, because it brought me together with other educators pushing the outer limits of what I consider to be the most impactful part of teaching. Integrating the Standards for Social Justice as developed by Teaching Tolerance gives me the best way to help my students achieve the promise of our country; the ideals of true democracy, diversity, justice, and fairness are brought to greater fruition through them and it is my humble role to help them along that path. To share in the journey of our country towards those goals is the legacy of true, meaningful education in our country. This experience brought me into an enclave of people who share that same impetus and feel the same urgency of purpose. It was humbling and rejuvenating.

We also want to shout out Jennifer Dickie and Santina Cambor from the Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School, Olanthia Stallworth from Idyllwilde Elementary School in Sanford, Florida, and Marina Lamela from Atwater Elementary in Sarasota County, Florida. We talked to Christina Flake, Cody Miller, and several of their colleagues from the University of Florida’s P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School. All these folks are teachers and administrators who work for social justice every day in their schools and communities. They inspired us to do more, and we want to honor their work here. Thanks, y’all.

If you are interested in learning more about anti-bias education, check out Teaching Tolerance’s upcoming workshops in Nashville. Let us know about your experience. If you are teaching for social justice in your classrooms, let us know, so we can shout you out on twitter — @aj_wade and @115coffeepot — or in a future column. Use the hashtags #SouthernSchooling and #TeachingForSocialJustice so we can all learn about the amazing work you and your colleagues are doing to make a better South.