This project helps students think and speak critically about social justice issues through research, coalescing, and action planning.

Photo of Gerald Dessus
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Aside from building students’ academic skills, it is essential for educators to prepare students for civic life by helping them identify and analyze societal issues, giving them space and opportunities to deliberate with other people about how to define and address issues, and providing them with the resources necessary to take constructive and collaborative action against those issues. Ultimately, this long-term social justice project is designed to help students think and speak critically about social justice issues from a historical perspective, so that they can take action in their communities.

Inspired by Bobbie Harro’s Cycle of Liberation, this project is divided into four different stages: Waking Up, Getting Ready, Reaching Out, and Taking Action.

  1. Waking Up: During the first stage, students spend two weeks engaging their peers, school staff, friends and family, as well as neighbors in dialogue around social justice issues facing their community. Students are asked to survey 25 people who are not taking the same course, asking each person three questions: (1) What do you think is the most important social justice issue facing our community, (2) What do you think we can do to fight against it, and (3) When my classmates and I create our action projects, would you be willing to help us fight against different injustices?
  2. Getting Ready: The second stage gives students the space and opportunity to independently research a single issue that they are interested in. With this stage, students are learning the value in research as a tool to extend their understanding of an issue, evaluating the credibility of different perspectives on an issue, and ultimately naming the different complexities that surround an issue.
  3. Reaching Out: During this stage, students coalesce by forming groups around similar issues. For example, if two students researched police brutality and three other students researched systemic oppression, they may find it beneficial to combine their efforts as one group to take action against police brutality, viewing it as a form of systemic oppression. Therefore, in order for students to be successful during this stage, they must not only present their research, but also explore the research of their peers to get a better understanding of the wide variety of issues being studied.
  4. Taking Action: The final stage provides students with the opportunity and resources to design action plans with their groups and begin to implement them. Thus, it’s a culmination of all of their work - from surveying to coalescing.
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As adults, we often ignore how exposed children are to issues impacting humanity and how much they actually know. However, reality is, our children need us the most when our country is struck by tragedy and outrage, such as the killing of unarmed young men or the unfair treatment of people based on their gender, religion, race or sexuality. They need us to keep their faces and voices at the forefront of our minds, in those moments more than ever. They need us to allow them space and opportunity (at home and at school) to have uncomfortable discussions and intentional conversations about race, injustice, and safety. This project, in its entirety, is not typically explored at the middle school or early high school level, so in many ways it is a courageous undertaking, but I believe it must be done. Teaching our students how to survive and thrive by assuming their civic duties and standing up against injustice is, in many ways, just as important as teaching them how to analyze literature or think critically about math and science. This project helps create well-rounded youth leaders who are ready to serve.

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In spring 2016, I was approached by Sharif El-Mekki, the principal of Mastery Charter School - Shoemaker Campus, to teach a pilot 8th grade history course that centered around social justice education. During that summer, with input from two curriculum leaders and two school leaders, we created a scope and sequence as a map to measure what students should be learning throughout each report period. However, the most compelling part of this course is the implementation of the culminating project (broken into the four stages) that requires students to begin the process of taking real-life action in their communities.

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I would be thrilled to collaborate with you as you adopt and modify this #CivicLiberation project to meet the needs of your classroom and school community. As you begin to envision this project in your classroom, first consider your classroom environment, and then explore the resources made available to you and your colleagues. 

  • In order to establish a learning environment where students feel comfortable and engaged when discussing social justice issues and how to act against them, it is important for educators to create culturally responsive classrooms that acknowledge the different experiences and perspectives of all students. This can be accomplished by first exploring concepts around identity and community so that students feel comfortable, safe, and respected when sharing their opinons with each other.

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  • I have developed a website that hosts all of the instructional resources that I have developed and used thus far for this project and my social justice course. Exploring the website may give you ideas of how you can modify this project to meet the needs of your classroom. 

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Photo of David Chester

To teach about social justice is very important but one should prepare the ground carefully so that it has meaning not boredom to the students. Social justice should mention where injustice lays and what we should do about overcoming it. This has a strong tendency to be political and so it be mentioned that our society is structured without giving attention as to how social justice might be naturally preserved.  My research on this subject suggests that if we were better able to share in the natural resources, there would be a fairer distribution of opportunities and then there would be less difference between rich and poor families.

Photo of Gerald Dessus

David, I absolutely agree. The four projects outlined above do not cover social justice coursework or context, but helping students discover their own awareness of injustices for different social identity groups is critical to the success of each project. I teach an 8th grade social justice course which embeds these four projects throughout the year. What's great about this is that my students have the historical content knowledge, experience with socio-economic, gender, sexual, religious, and racial injustice, as well as the desire to want to learn more and take action. David, feel free to check out my website www.teachsocialjustice.com to browse through some of the course content and resources.

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