Social Justice Teaching in the Content Area

Even in the reddest of states like Oklahoma, public education still bends toward progress. It has been this way from the beginning. Educators know it. The people at Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) and Choice Remarks certainly know it. The so called “liberal agenda” of public schools is one of the favorite talking points of school choice proponents. By social justice teaching, I mean a safe learning environment full of adults who care about economic and social equity for all students and families. If this is what is meant by a “liberal agenda,” then I gladly accept the label.

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I often have colleagues ask me what social justice teaching looks like in math, science, or language arts. In thinking about how to answer that question, I am beginning to let go of the idea that social justice teaching belongs primarily in social studies classrooms. Social studies teachers should be careful not to be the gatekeepers of social justice teaching. Anywhere and everywhere that educators can get students thinking about fairness and justice is a good thing.

Social justice teaching is not supplemental curriculum to be randomly inserted into unrelated content. Much of social justice teaching relates outside of the curriculum and can have a profound effect on elements of teaching like classroom management (or something better), grading policy, teaching style, and of course, discipline. There is so much to be said about the comprehensiveness of this concept, but for now, allow me to submit some thoughts for incorporating social justice teaching into the content area.

Math

It is the struggle of every math teacher to constantly address the question, “What does this have to do with real life?” When relating math to real life, the social justice teacher must also ask, “To whose life am I relating this math?” Word problems in math have a long history of being exclusively relatable to middle class white students in a traditional family structure. White math teachers with diverse classrooms must be careful to move project based learning beyond what sounds interesting to them. PBLs must be grounded in student experience.

Bringing social justice teaching into the math classroom is in part finding the moral component of math. The other part is not being afraid to get political and controversial. Politics creates injustice, and therefore, social justice will always be political. There is a lot of data related to social justice movements and analyzing that data could apply to various levels of math comprehension. Math classes could compare data (from reputable sources) relative to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the new American Health Care Act (AHCA) and draw conclusions about equitable access to affordable health care in the United States. Students could analyze data on gun violence in the U.S., especially as it relates to racial disparities, and conduct a formal debate on possible solutions.

Science

Despite the ardent efforts of law makers and the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma, science curriculum and textbooks are generally strong on the science of climate change. The Oklahoma Energy Resources Board (OERB), the propaganda machine of the industry, spends millions every year to get the message of fossil fuel dependency into Oklahoma classrooms. Read the State Impact piece here. The first part of teaching social justice in Oklahoma science classrooms is fending off the bribery of stipends and classroom materials offered by OERB.

The social justice issue of our time related to science education is environmental racism. Click here for a video primer. In short, climate change is a social justice issue. It’s about people. The situation in Flint, Michigan is ongoing, and science classrooms everywhere should be following closely. Currently, science curricula all across the country are at odds with the policies of the President of the United States. This is controversy that science teachers everywhere should not be afraid to jump into head first.

Language Arts

Particularly in language arts, though it is also true of science and math, representation matters. In literature, students need to see themselves represented in the authors and the stories they tell. Language arts teachers must strive to find works of literature by women, authors of color, immigrants, queer authors, and others. Literature texts are still dominated by “classics” written by straight white men.

If social studies is where social justice teaching originates, then language arts is where it culminates. As I often tell my students, “The people who are changing the world are doing two things: 1.) They are reading a lot and 2.) They are writing about it.” Social justice teaching in language arts could follow a three step process: 1.) Constantly ask students, “What do you want to fix in the world?” 2.) Help them gain full access to reading material pertinent to that problem plus time to read it and 3.) Provide them with the skills and tools to write their ideas and share them publicly and widely.

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