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Teaching Through, not About, Social Justice-Oriented & Equitable Practices

Currently, I teach a foundations of education course as an adjunct professor at a couple of the campuses in my area. In one of my classes we began our introduction to the topic of social justice in/through education and the issue of "time" came up, as it often does during this dialogue, where a few of my students expressed their desire to incorporate culturally relevant/responsive and social justice-oriented practices, but feel they don't have the time to do so or no idea where to start.

As a former elementary school teacher, I understand that time is a major component in the development and implementation of pedagogical practices, particularly when attempting to do so in a manner that goes against the grain of traditional approaches to teaching and learning. Amidst the numerous school, district, state and nation-wide mandates that often dictate what teachers feel like they should and could be doing in their classrooms, along with the daily grind of preparing and delivering learning experiences for students, communicating with parents and keeping a healthy balance with your family and social life, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure of where to begin in transforming your pedagogy.

Let's face it y'all, teacher burn out is real!

However, I suggest the real issue is NOT time, but rather the framing of teaching for social justice and equity as something ADDITIONAL to the act of teaching your core curriculum. In other words:

Teaching for Equity and Social Justice, Incorporating Culturally Relevant/Responsive Practices and Humanizing Education, is something you do WHILE you teach the academic content.

It requires attention to the process as well as content. It's in the materials you select, the arrangement of the physical space of the classroom and the rules of engagement that shape the climate and social dynamics.

I often remind the pre- and in-service teachers in my courses that there is a difference between teaching about issues of social justice/equity and teaching through social justice-oriented/equitable practices.

While the first might help students interrogate and develop a stronger understanding of the various systems of inequality that impact society, it does little to disrupt the messages they produce, especially if taught through teacher-centered instructional practices that still frame them as passive receivers of knowledge.

Transformational instructional practices shift this focus, reframing students as active collaborators in the development of teaching and learning experiences. Looking to critical and culturally-relevant/responsive scholars such as Paulo Freire, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Christopher Emdin, Lisa Delpit, Jeff Duncan-Andrade and others, I found that attending to the following five key areas of your classroom culture can help to transform one's classroom culture and instructional practices toward a more comprehensive

1. Communication/Dialogue: How do teachers and students communicate with each other? Are students encouraged to question approaches and topics of instruction and provide feedback on more effective methods?

2. Space: Does the classroom authentically reflect students' identities, communities, interests and lived realities? Are students encouraged to bring in items to make the space more reflective of who they are? Is the room organized in a way that encourages collaboration and dialogue? Is it it a space that welcomes and values their authentic expressions of self?

3. Participation/Expression of Knowledge & Understanding: Are there a variety of ways that students can express their knowledge, including those that require movement and/or physical expression, hands-on engagement with materials? Are there project-based learning opportunities that incorporate a cross-curricular approach and also encourages students to explore how to apply the various concepts to explain and address real-world problems in their communities and society?

4. Materials & Content: How are materials used in lessons selected? Are they primarily teacher-selected, or are students encouraged to identify relevant resources/examples rooted in their personal interests and lived realities? Are students viewed as collaborative partners, and provided opportunities to co-create and facilitate learning experiences?

5. Classroom Discourse/Voice: Whose voices & experiences are prioritized and whose are silenced or relegated to surface-level explorations during special units at certain times of the year (i.e. Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Women's History Month, etc.)? Are underlying messages inherent within traditional approaches to teaching your content area explicitly explored and discussed?

Attending to these components of one's practice can help teachers begin to shift the power dynamics in their classroom in a way that disrupts the dominant messages that students have received about their role in their education, and hopefully, promoting visions of themselves (both students and teachers) as active participants/change agents not only in the classroom but in society at large.

Additionally, in framing students as collaborative partners, teachers can actually use their time more wisely as they don't have to spend time guessing/assuming what is going to be effective and meaningful to their students because they are incorporating opportunities for students to actually tell them and create such experiences with them.

For more resources and examples of how to incorporate these concepts into your teaching practices check out the following books from some of the scholars mentioned above:

Each one of these books was instrumental in developing my own understanding of what it means to develop and implement practices that embody social justice and equity and I hope that you all find them just as useful. As always, if you have other books or resources that you want to share, please feel free to leave a comment with a description and link or email me at and I'll share it on the blog!

Let's continue to build and grow together.

Dr. Courtney Rose

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