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Virginia Journal of Education

The Power of Influence

You can increase social justice in your classroom and beyond.

By Janet Dorn

As a new school year gets going, wouldn't it be refreshing if we could begin it with a goal of creating more equity in our classrooms?

Perhaps you work in a very diverse school and feel there is already a great deal of equity present there. After all, a diverse student population encourages young people to have a more open view of the world. The more open-minded everyone is, the less likely they are to be judgmental, racist, or....

But does diversity alone really create change? Or do our interpretations of and behaviors toward diversity sometimes actually, subconsciously, create or cement unintended socializations instead? When we fail to add elements of social justice to the classroom, that’s exactly what can happen.

For instance, it's great that our students Ana, Jon and Tanya all get along, despite the fact that Ana lives in a $1.5 million home, Jon is currently in a homeless shelter and Tanya's family shares a small apartment with two other families. But that doesn’t guarantee anything. We must build on their friendships and be on guard to avoid doing things that can inadvertently promote stereotypes.

While most of us probably don't question the fact that Ana will one day go to college, perhaps we're really not sure about Jon and Tanya. For them, it's possible that much of their college plans depend upon whether they possess something that will earn them a scholarship. Truthfully, we may not have the same expectations of Jon and Tanya that we have of Ana.

Why not? Perhaps it’s because we, as educators, sometimes contribute to putting Jon and Tanya “in their place,” lowering their own expectations of themselves. When this happens, we’re unintentionally adding to their internalized oppression – their own acceptance of probable failure due to factors beyond their control. Given the day-to-day economic struggles they witness, it’s unlikely they’ll encounter the same number or quality of mentoring relationships that wealthy Ana is likely to build upon.

What Individuals Can Do
The beginning of the school year often means a parade of shiny new sneakers, clean backpacks, new t-shirts and great haircuts. It’s not our intention that our classrooms become materialistic places, but welcome to the beginning of school in America. Who wouldn't want to have a "locker chandelier?"

However, while we’re complimenting Jason on his new tennis shoes, what do we do about the fact that Anthony has squeezed into last year's beat-up shoes? Perhaps we find the counselor later and try to help by finding a pair of shoes or a gift card for the family. We feel better, but it doesn't really take the focus off Jason’s very cool shoes.

What if lower-income students came to school with nicer things in the first place?

What if we could help create an atmosphere where no one came to class to show off their finest, but to learn instead? If your school has obvious differences in family incomes, perhaps it would be helpful to have a classroom discussion on wealth. It might be transformational for you to hold a discussion about how although you see all these shiny new things, what’s truly important to you as the teacher are the things no one can see: the attitudes the children bring; their personal motivations to learn; their goals for the school year. Sure, the new shoes might be nice but, to you, they’re really not going to matter one bit when it comes to the most important things. Let students know that it’s their willingness to learn, to think new thoughts and to ask questions that will make all the difference in their school year.

You can be an example of this. Wear your old scruffy shoes and bring your favorite old backpack on some days, and point that out to students as you discuss materialism with them. You just might be able to help students move out of the immediate sphere of materialism and consider the overriding sphere of systemic economic disparity, which is actually the bigger problem. Let your students know that you don't think the lack of a new backpack is going to hold anyone back - in fact, you have confidence in, and high expectations for, all your learners!

A Curriculum Change?
Why, for example, do so many teachers begin the school year with a writing or speaking exercise about "What I did this summer"? There’s no social justice in having less privileged children hear about a privileged child's trip to London or Disney World. It can simply turn into a platform to exalt the lucky child and so, from the first week of school, less privileged children are openly reminded of their ranking in society.

Maybe we need to consider that a child might have spent his or her entire summer vacation in an apartment while mom and dad were out working multiple jobs. Perhaps the most exciting thing another student might have done is to go to McDonald's. It’s helpful to keep these possibilities on our radar screen. Why do we unfairly impose a cultural norm of an exciting summer vacation on our learners? Why do we even need to discuss summer vacation?

It’s likely the well-intentioned summer vacation exercise is our standard go-to because it’s easy and an attempt to forge commonality between students. In fact, it’s likely to create divisions that may not be overcome for the entire school year. Instead of taking this path, perhaps we could use a modified version of this exercise to make it more inclusive and less of a showcase for the privileged.

One example would be to have students write or speak about a person who was important to them this summer. It may not even be a person they know: Maybe it’s a singer whose lyrics helped them to express their own emotions. Maybe it’s someone they saw on the news, or a mom who was working two jobs to make sure there was enough food. The real goal should be to recognize individualism while building a group identity in the classroom.

What Can School Systems Do?
Isn't it interesting how K-12 schools provide students with textbooks, microscopes, jump ropes, desks and musical instruments, but not with paper and pencils? I wonder why more of us don’t question why our culture requires families to purchase school supplies for their children—why isn’t there a place in school budgets for scissors? Why do we require so much back-to-school shopping? Has it become an economic construct meant to enrich corporations such as Mead?

Why have we become OK with the fact that Susie gets to have two notebooks with puppies on the cover and Carolyn has to publicly acknowledge that her family can’t even afford to buy her a single notebook?

It’s easy to say that this is beyond our control as classroom teachers. But it’s also a topic we’ve become expert witnesses on and something we could bring to the attention of those who make the bigger decisions. What’s the risk in bringing such disparities to the attention of your principal or PTA to see whether they would join the discussion? Why not pose the question to the school board?

It’s difficult to stand for change that can potentially harm our individual well-being. However, if we can organize a group of individuals to work together, we’re all more likely to pursue changes that can result in social justice. Isn’t this one reason we belong to our education association?

The truth, whether we admit it or are even aware of it, is that we make judgments about our learners and their families. Back to School Night is a regular event in most schools early in the school year. How do you feel about the parents who never showed up? Do you suppose they’re just not interested and not going to be your ally in helping their child this year? Are you concerned their absence points to likely issues with attendance at conferences? What do you do about it? Do you let it slide or do you reach out and make an extra effort?

Perhaps you take the time to contact parents to say you missed them at Back to School Night and just wanted to introduce yourself and see if they had any questions. What if you made that extra effort before the event?

Could you encourage your school or even your district to ensure that Back to School Night forms are available in languages relevant to your population? That they’re sent home a day or two in advance? And that they include a note asking parents if they’ll be able to attend, if they need help with transportation, or if they’d prefer an individual phone call from the teacher because their work schedule or home issues won't allow them to attend?

Yes, outreach involves more work for teachers and administrators, but the potential result of creating a more equitable community and showing parents that their voices and engagement matter may yield results far beyond Back to School Night.

Expand Your Sphere of Influence
Delving into this vast territory of complex issues raises more questions than it answers. We need to see past the obvious and find the implicit, more hidden forms of inequity that we may be inadvertently supporting. The real point is to build our equity literacy, to become more aware of the issues and how they’re affected by our own actions and attitudes. Then we can begin to make personal, alternative choices that might lead to more equitable environments and outcomes in our classrooms, our schools and our society.

Dorn, a member of the Arlington Education Association, teaches English for Speakers of Other Languages at Barcroft Elementary School.


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