As the beginning of the school year is rapidly approaching, many educators are thinking of setting up their classrooms. The start of the year is always filled with the excitement of meeting a new school family. Educators are busy planning engaging and exciting lessons for the new students they are eager to meet.
Through our work with OCDE Project GLAD, we have focused on teaching the whole child. We are dedicated to supporting children’s academics, behavioral and emotional needs. A big component to teaching the whole child is insuring cultural sensitivity. This means explicitly teaching children through honest conversations, that differences and similarities exist amongst each other. An important part of cultural sensitivity is understanding Hall’s Cultural Iceberg Model. This model emphasizes the fact that schools tend to focus on parts of cultures that can be seen; holidays, songs, art and clothing, rather than the culture in its entirety. In other words, this model shows that nine-tenths of culture is out of conscious awareness. It is imperative to consider aspects of culture that we may not visibly see. Examples of this are non-verbal communication, concepts of self, religion, and notions of fairness. Throughout the year, but especially at the beginning, educators need to take time to deeply understand and become sensitive to the cultures represented in their classroom. Cultural sensitivity influences academic growth as well as behaviors. When students and families feel valued, they are more engaged and set up for success.
Many districts throughout the country have focused on Social Justice as a component of teaching the whole child. Social Justice is defined by dictionary.com as fair treatment of all people in a society, including respect for the rights of minorities and equitable distribution of resources among members of a community. Reading this definition requires explaining equity. Educational equity is defined as the practice of accounting for the differences in each individual’s starting point when pursuing a goal or achievement, and working to remove barriers to equal opportunity, as by providing support based on the unique needs of individual students. Taking social justice and equity into consideration means that educators must focus on inclusion, building respectful relationships, and actions against bias and injustice. Educators must have the core belief that all students are able to learn from the curriculum being taught as well as from one another. In an equitable classroom affirming the culture and talents of individuals is the core of every day interactions. Research has shown that making meaningful connections to background experiences and prior learning results in meaningful and authentic learning (Spitzman, E. & Balconi, A., 2019). We must see our students as “knowledge and linguistic experts” so that they do not become passive consumers of knowledge. Learning must require students to become critical thinkers and problem solvers. In a TED Talk, Sydney Chaffee spoke of schools being “critical places for young people to become active citizens. Imagine a public education system where all levels, kindergarten through twelfth grade, have strong student councils. Through these council students can become active members of the governing body of the school and excited to take action. All members of the community can support the construction of powerful identities. Conflict mediation skills can be taught to all students as a way to work through problems and help develop communication abilities to build relationships.
A useful tool to begin thinking about social justice and equity in education are the Social Justice Standards (https://www.learningforjustice.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/TT-Social-Justice-Standards-Anti-bias-framework-2020.pdf). The standards are broken up into four domains: identity (who we are and what makes up our social group identities), diversity (learning about other groups and creating connections), justice (language to recognize and describe injustice), and action (getting empowered to act against prejudice and discrimination). The standards are further divided into two areas: reducing prejudice and advocating for collective action. Reducing prejudice involves minimizing conflicts and changing the attitudes and behaviors of the dominant group. Collective action includes challenges of inequality, raising consciousness, and improving conditions for under-represented groups. In addition to the standards, teachers need to know and connect with the cultures of their students. Linguistic structures should be provided for active participation. Researchers have developed questions that we can all consider to support implementation of social justice in daily lessons (Spitzman, E. & Balconi, A., 2019). Some things to consider in lesson are: Are multiple perspectives welcomed and respected? Is curiosity about diversity encouraged? Are self-reflection practices integrated into the lesson? Is story sharing included? Are students taught explicitly how to engage? Are student’s prior knowledge and background integrated?
In my classroom I have used Project GLAD as well Morning Meetings to develop equity and build relationships. Each day begins with a meeting where students have the opportunity to greet one another. When I had a student who spoke Arabic, she had the opportunity to teach the class how to greet one another in her home language. The children also develop their identity through sharing different topics relevant to their lives. The same student who spoke Arabic at home had the opportunity during sharing time to explain to the class that she would not be eating lunch because she was fasting during Ramadan. The class was interested to hear about this important ritual in her life. Because of the acceptance that had been developed in our class, she also felt comfortable during recess to sit and pray while the others played. Throughout the year, my class is taught and modeled respect through active listening. Activities are planned to develop cooperation and communication skills through grade level content. Group work is explicitly planned to develop communication and problem solving skills through critical thinking. Students have the opportunity to work together and earn team points for showing social skills. Teams are also able to model and discuss how they are earning team points with the whole class. Since language and relationships are at the heart of my classroom, children are seen as active members. There is rarely a quiet moment where they are not discussing, debating and expressing their opinion. I truly believe that when classroom are set up in this manner students feel that they are an asset to the school community. Their affective filter is low because all are respected and mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn.
With the excitement and anticipation of the new school year my hope is that all public education setting will hold social justice and equity at the center all they do. Together we can make school a place where young scholars are developing 21st Century Skills of Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking, and Cooperation. Students in our systems should and must be given the opportunity to become active citizens rather than passive consumers of knowledge. Together we can make a difference in creating a community of citizens with a strong sense of identity and justice.