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People & Places Spring 2016

Transformation to a community school model makes a difference in Austin, Texas, and a high school educator takes social justice into the classroom.

Uncle Sam Goes to Court

Teaching Social Justice In The Classroom

By Brenda Álvarez

Breaking news: Uncle Sam is on trial—a mock one, that is—for matters related to Japanese internment, the bombing of Hiroshima, Viet Nam, and the War on Terror. At the helm of the case is Buddy Bear, a social studies teacher at Port Angeles High School, just an hour shy of Seattle. 

Bear’s eleventh graders will go on a fact-finding mission and review the various conflicts and disputes that would lead a jury to find Uncle Sam guilty or not. 

This is one element of the social studies curriculum, called American studies, Bear uses to help his students begin to see who may be responsible for what happens in their community, state, and country.

“Social justice has always appealed to me. I’ve often questioned how we can encourage leaders (or anyone in education) to speak on behalf of others, especially when it comes to issues like racism, sexism, and classism,” says Bear, a 30-year veteran educator. “I found that the social studies curriculum helps answer many of those questions. When you add the concerns for social justice, you help the students, and others, develop an informed view of their surroundings as well as understanding their rights.”

The full curriculum he uses is executed with the help of another educator. “I team up with a colleague who teaches American Literature, and we share our ideas around a thematic curriculum,” Bear says.

These ideas, include: 

  • Freedom: How free are we in America? Students study the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and determine how those principles apply to people. They also look at the political spectrum and how politics may affect our freedoms. 
  • What is the American Dream: Students primarily focus on immigration.
  • Unity and Division: What unites us or divides us as Americans? How do race, gender, social class, or region create divisions in America? 
  • Social Responsibilities: How are we responsible for others in our community?
  • Modern vs. Traditional Living: How has the impact of technology affected our culture in America?

The units are intended to build upon one another, and help students realize their role in the U.S., and how those actions can and do affect their citizenry, whether by participating in their community, as soldiers or paying via taxes.

Moreover, the curriculum addresses how these “rights” can be taken away. “If we let them,” underscores Bear. “This curriculum encourages students to know what it takes to be a citizen, and they walk away (after my class and graduating from high school) with an understanding that they must use their voice to step up on behalf of others.”

Interested in Social Justice?

Educators who want to incorporate social justice into their curriculum should first be inquisitive about students’ opinions on social justice issues, Bear says. Educators should find out whether students understand what the political spectrum or compass is and how it works? Do they understand where they may stand on it and how to determine which side they’re on? Who or what political group is on a particular side? Can a person go back-and-forth on this spectrum? 

Next, what are students’ personal issues or concerns on various topics that represent each side? What are the topics? How does this spectrum affect the decisions people—or the government—make?

Educators should then find the resources on social justice and decide which topics should be covered or determine a set curriculum, and enlist the help of colleagues, too.

To start the process, NEA has put together a diversity toolkit, which offers basic information, a quick list of strategies and tools, and suggestions for how to find out more. Links are listed under each topic for more in-depth information. Additionally, the NEA Social Justice Lesson Plans share the stories of the NEA Human and Civil Rights Awards recipients. Through the sharing of their stories educators can help students learn about these exemplary social justice leaders.

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