By: Erin Swanson, M.Ed.
Teaching Social Justice
Teachers shape their students’ worldview. This is both a privilege and a weighty responsibility. A teacher’s response, or lack of response, to social injustice throughout history or in present-day life makes an impact. Teachers have the opportunity to open their students’ minds to topics of racism, gender identity, differences in ability, immigration, and all the areas of work we must do toward social justice.
Yet, speaking up can feel scary. We fear saying the wrong thing, offending a student, interfering with the innocence of a student, or showing our own flaws and inadequacies. Still, it’s a form of privilege to live in complacency, to hide in the comfort of not saying anything, and to shy away from risk at the expense of justice.
We do our students a disservice if we remain silent about any aspects of their identities and the inequities of our world. No matter what core subject(s) we teach, we form a deeper connection with our students and broaden their worldview when we discuss social inequities. This is easier said than done. We’re here to help.
What If I Make a Mistake?
I’ve experienced this fear and self-doubt firsthand. As a teacher, I felt flustered talking about groups I did not share an experience with. How could I be the authority on complex topics that even I didn’t fully understand?
When I first taught lessons on social injustice, I felt as if I was trying to surf without ever taking a lesson. I’d stand on the sandy shore, willing myself to wade into the deep waters. Sometimes, I’d glide into the water, finding my flow. I’d catch a wave, steady and confident. Other times, I’d wobble, losing my balance. My board would fly out from underneath me, sending me into the swirling chaos of whitewater. I’d get sucked under, flailing and fighting my way back to the surface.
When I’d stumble and make mistakes, I would look out at the tumultuous waters and assess my next steps. Instead of retreating to the shore, I knew the only way out was through. I’d take a deep breath and dive my board under a wave, paddling out to calmer waters. The waters were deeper here, but also more peaceful. Despite my fear, I never regretted tackling the waves or paddling into the deep. The rewards were always worth the discomfort and risk.
We’ll Be Your Guide
Approaching sensitive topics with my students felt like teaching myself how to surf. Sometimes I’d freeze and avoid it altogether, sometimes I’d feel successful, and other times I’d stumble. It was terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time. Looking back, I wish I’d had a surf instructor, someone to guide me through it. JabuMind is here to be your surf instructor. We’ll teach, prepare, and guide you through these critical conversations. Whether it be through this blog or the “Critical Conversations on Inequity” professional development and meditations on our app, we’ll lead you into the deeper waters with confidence.
Start with Self-Reflection
Before you begin a lesson with your students on any of these topics, begin with the inner work of self-reflection. By doing so, you’ll not only go into the conversation with a broader perspective, but you’ll be a role model for your students for how to do this work themselves.
Reflect: What is your own unique identity?
It can help to think of identity in these ways:
- Group Identity:
- A group of people we have one or more characteristics in common with (e.g. women, Black, teenagers, baby-boomers). Members of a group, however, can share a wide variety of experiences, both positive and negative.
- Dominant Identity Group:
- A group whose members share a common privilege (e.g straight, white). An individual can belong to both a dominant and non-dominant group at the same time (e.g. straight, but undocumented).
- Someone who belongs to multiple, overlapping, and interdependent identity groups that can result in multiple oppressions or privileges.
- Watch Kimberle Crenshaw’s Ted Talk on intersectionality to learn more.
Identities you might relate to:
- Immigration status
- Body types
- Gender identity
- Home language
- Sexual orientation
- Socioeconomic status
Recognize Bias and Discrimination
We might not like admitting it, but we all have our own set of biases and ways of discriminating. Whether we actively participate in it or exist with complacency in a system that allows it, we all have work to do in this area.
Designed by psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington, “Project Implicit” offers a Hidden Bias Test to measure unconscious bias. Where do you see bias and discrimination happening within yourself? In your classroom? In your school?
By practicing mindfulness, you bring awareness to your thoughts and actions. With this awareness, you can better see your biases. Use the JabuMind app to build this ability and find self-compassion in the process.
Prepare for Social Justice Lessons
Prep Ahead of Time
Research common questions from kids on these topics, read up, and check out lesson plans from teachingtolerance.org. Talk to other teachers who have led these conversations with students. What did they learn from the experience? What went well? What didn’t?
As you head into the conversation, consider your mindset. Do you feel frazzled by a negative email from a parent? Were you frantically grading papers over recess? Your students will feel your energy going into this conversation. Give yourself a moment to clear your head and steady your energy. Listen to JabuMind’s “Critical Conversations on Equity” meditations beforehand. Meditation topics within this training include “Breathe and Flow,” “Look Inward,” and “Self-Compassion.”
Bring Awareness to Your Feelings
These conversations can become heated quickly. You or your students might be triggered. Center yourself throughout with deep breaths and self-awareness.
Do you feel a fight, flight, or freeze anxiety response to a hard-to-answer question? Acknowledge and name your physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Use mindfulness to stay curious, present, and open.
When you respond with awareness to what is happening within you, you can more thoughtfully respond to your students. Your self-awareness, emotional regulation, and thoughtful responses will help ease student anxiety and model for your students how to be respectful during these conversations. Listen to the JabuMind app’s “Breathe and Flow” and “Look Inward” meditations under “Critical Conversations on Inequity” to learn how.
It is easy to criticize ourselves during a difficult conversation.
“Did I say the right thing?” “Did I offend someone?” “What I said didn’t come out right.”
Notice all thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and judgments that come up for you. Notice shame, blame, discomfort, anger, and tightness in your chest. Be with your feelings.
Anchor yourself in your breath. Breathe in compassion for yourself. Breathe out compassion for others. Listen to the JabuMind app’s “Self-Compassion” meditation under “Critical Conversations on Inequity” to learn how.
Show Your Own Vulnerability
It’s okay not to be an expert on everything. Rather than strive to be perfect, strive to be vulnerable, open-minded, curious, and an eager learner.
Share with your students that you are also learning, unlearning, and growing. This shows students that if it’s okay for their teacher to make mistakes, it’s okay for them to make them, too. They then feel safer to speak openly and take risks. Model for your students that we always try, even in moments of self-doubt.
10 Steps for Social Justice Lessons
1) Pre-Assess Your Students
Try this with your class one day before the conversation:
Write a few questions on the board about the topic you’re addressing. For example:
- How does the topic of race and racism make you feel?
- Do you want to talk about it and share, or would you rather just listen?
- Is there anything you want me to know?
- Do you want to talk to me privately about it?
Give each student a blank index card. It helps to also provide desk dividers for privacy while writing.
For 5-10 minutes, allow students to respond to the questions on their cards. Ask students to include their names on the card, so you can privately check in with students one-on-one later if needed.
Upon finishing, each student will fold up the card and drop it into a box at the front of the room to ensure privacy from other students. After class, the teacher privately reads the responses.
(For younger students who are not yet writing, try a variation with colored dot stickers—green dot for good, yellow dot for unsure, and red dot for bad. Then, follow up with the yellow dot and red dot students later to get more information.)
This Builds Connection and Trust
I did this in my classroom before initiating challenging conversations with my students. In fact, I took this routine further and added it to the end of our schedule each day. Students would share thoughts and concerns about the lessons of the day and their social-emotional lives. I read them every day after school. Many students told me that this was their favorite part of our classroom culture. It built a culture of trust and open communication.
2) Create a Safe Space
Create a safe space in the classroom for these conversations. Perhaps that’s a cozy spot on the rug where the class gathers. Minimize distractions and set the tone for the conversation. Perhaps you have pillows on the rug for students to sit on or cuddle with. Perhaps you dim the lights a bit.
Better yet, create the space together. Ask students what makes them feel comfortable, cozy, and safe. If you allow your students to take part in creating the space, you will provide them with a sense of ownership. Higher ownership leads to higher engagement.
3) Start with a Moment of Mindfulness
Ask children to close their eyes or look down (some do not feel safe with eyes closed). You might ring a bell or chime. Note that some children feel triggered by certain sounds. You can ask students ahead of time which sounds they prefer and any they’d like to avoid. In my classroom, I used a rainstick to create a calming sound of rainfall.
Tell students to turn all their focus to the sound. Instruct them that they will silently raise their hands when they can no longer hear any sound. This promotes focused attention and calm. You might also guide your students through deep breathing exercises. Try these guided breathing techniques for kids and teenagers.
4) Connect with Students
Check in with your students before the conversation. Sit in a circle. Give each student a chance to share feelings (share yours as well). Keep each response to a few words. “I am feeling ____ because _____.” Even with these short responses, you’ll get a sense if you need to check in one-on-one with a struggling student later.
This helps you read how comfortable and ready students are for certain conversations. For example, if a student’s grandfather just died, it might not be the best day for a deep conversation on social equity.
5) Hook Your Students
Consider starting the conversation by reading a picture book (or, for older students, a poem, excerpt from a news article or magazine, or a passage from a chapter book).
This hooks students and helps them relate to a character with empathy. Choose readings based on the topic you want to discuss. Here’s a list of social justice books for students to get you started.
6) Bring in an Expert Speaker
If you are especially new to a topic or don’t have direct experience, bring in an expert to talk to the class. You can also do this through a video call if needed.
- A Black activist to speak about race
- A person with a difference in ability to talk about ability
- A person who identifies as gender fluid to talk about gender identity
Yes, we still can and should address these topics ourselves. Yet, your students will also benefit from hearing more than one voice on the topic and might be more engaged with a new speaker.
Consider this: if you are a white teacher talking about race, your students, especially those of color, might connect more deeply with a message coming from a speaker of a different race.
7) Share Content from Direct Sources
If you can’t find a speaker (or want to add follow-up content after the speaker), you can:
- Assign books written by people who have direct experience with the topic that include characters facing inequity
- Watch videos about the topic showing people with direct experience
8) Respect Students Who Relate to the Topic
Don’t expect your students who identify with the topic to share with the class or speak as experts. Just because you have a student who identifies as LGBTQ+, is a certain race, or has a learning difference, it does not mean this student feels comfortable speaking about this topic to the class or being an example.
Austin Channing Brown, in her book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, shares her experience as a student who felt nervous to speak up in class during discussions of race:
“I was surprised by my own reaction. It felt deeply gratifying to have my own experience named, lifted up, discussed, considered worthy of everyone’s attention. And yet, I had no desire to be the Black spokesperson. It felt too risky. I wasn’t sure that my classmates had earned the right to know, to understand, to be given access to such a vulnerable place in my experience. For me, this was more than an educational exercise. This is how we survive.”
9) Check in With Students Throughout
Teach your students silent hand signals, so you can assess how they feel throughout the conversation. A student might feel triggered and need a break. Pages 8 – 11 of Teaching Tolerance’s resource on navigating challenging conversations with students provide examples of hand signals to assess students’ comfort levels.
10) Now, Take Action!
Okay, we’ve talked about it as a class. That’s the first step. We can’t leave it there. For real change to happen, we must act. Consider, how can you lead your class to take action? How can your students improve the lives of the LGBTQ+ community, how can they provide greater access in the school for people with disabilities, how can they dismantle racism in their community?
Austin Channing Brown explains it this way:
“Dialogue is productive toward reconciliation only when it leads to action—when it inverts power and pursues justice for those who are most marginalized.”
Check out this resource for supporting student action toward social justice.
Let’s Do This!
Let’s dedicate ourselves and our classrooms to learning about all identities, unlearning biases, and dismantling systems of inequity. Let’s create a culture of inclusion in our classrooms.
To access JabuMind’s professional development and meditations on this topic, head to the app’s library section and click on “Critical Conversations on Inequity.” You’ll find a 20-minute training and 3 short, guided meditations in the “Options” dropdown.
More Social Justice Resources
To Educate Yourself:
*Depending on the age of your students, some of these videos might be appropriate to share with them as well.
- Ted Talks on Social Justice – all videos compiled on this topic
- Ted Talk: Our Fight for Disability Rights – and Why We’re Not Done Yet
- Ted Talk: My 12 Pairs of Legs
- Ted Talk: How to Talk (And Listen) to Transgender People
- Ted Talk: What It’s Like to Be the Child of Immigrants
- Ted Talk: The Urgency of Intersectionality
- Ted Talk: The Binary Code of Racism
- Video: Unconscious Bias in School
For Classroom Conversations:
- Preparation Ahead of Time:
- Teaching Tolerance’s resource for navigating challenging conversations with students
- Center for Racial Justice in Education – Resources for Talking About Race, Racism, and Racialized Violence with Kids
- Smithsonian – Talking About Race
- Read Alouds:
- Video for Young Students:
- Support Student Action Toward Social Justice:
For Personal Growth:
- The JabuMind app’s “Critical Conversations on Inequity” professional development and meditations
- Checklist for Allies Against Racism by Dr. John Raible
- Allies for Change – Workshops and Retreats
- Racial Healing Allies – Training (the co-founders of JabuMind completed this—highly recommend!)
- Project Implicit – Hidden Bias Test