Training Teachers for ‘Social Justice’
At the Fifth Annual Northwest Conference on Teaching for Social Justice, race, class, white privilege, oppression, alternative lifestyles, identity – all the liberal buzzwords – were represented, and methods to encourage, train and promote students to become activists were out in full force.
The conference took place on October 20, 2012, at Madison High School in Portland, Oregon. It was organized by Seattle and Portland area “Rethinking Schools” groups; Social Equality Educators (SEE), an association of National Education Association union members; and Rethinking Schools, an “activist” publisher.
One workshop addressed English literature, “focusing on the application of various critical theories (postcolonial, feminist, Marxist, and gay/lesbian) to The Great Gatsby.” The course description adds that those “theories can be applied to any text and provide students more ways to connect with literature, read more deeply, and develop intellectual and political autonomy.”
The conference offered two other literature-based sessions. “Understanding the Middle East Through Children’s Literature” examined “the use of quality children’s literature to counter the negative images of Arabs so prevalent in media and popular culture” while “Smart Literature to Challenge an Ableist World” offered preschool through high school “teachers practical help to challenge ableism” which is defined as prejudice by able-bodied, able-minded people.
At the conference, the past was approached not so much as history as the history of voices “silenced by history.” The Tulsa Race Riots in 1921 were presented in curricula to be taken back to the classroom. Another presenter offered “a model of how to do social justice work with young learners” by presenting a unit she taught to her 1st- and 2nd-grade classrooms on the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
The workshop “Facing Cancer: Social Justice Curriculum for the Biology Classroom” dealt with the “inequities of cancer incidence and mortality.” “Testimony for the Tuskegee Syphilis Study” was presented as “an introductory lesson in a cell, epidemiology, or bioethics unit” and “an example of how to incorporate social justice and writing into science.”
The session “Coal, Climate, and the World” began with a quote by James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies: “Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.” Dr. Hansen’s credentials could have included “activist scientist” since he has been arrested in protests and has testified for Greenpeace members. Dr. Hansen calls for carbon fees as “the only realistic path to global action” as a means of stabilizing climate, which he says “is a moral issue, a matter of intergenerational justice.”
Two conference workshops addressed non-traditional sexual lifestyles. “Gender and Sexuality 101” was a workshop “meant to help educators develop an awareness of the issues facing LGBTTQQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual) people in schools.”
The description of another workshop, “LGBTQ Inclusive Sex Ed,” states that LGBTQ “youth are at significantly higher risk of suicide, homelessness, sexually transmitted diseases, and many other health risks than their straight peers and cis peers.” Cis is a shortened version of the gender studies word, cisgender, which is a label for an individual who has a match between the gender they were assigned at birth and their self-perception. The description continues by stating that “this is not because LGBTQ sexual practices or lifestyles are fundamentally more dangerous than those of their straight peers, but because we have systematically left their lives out of the narrative.”
One offering in the area of race relations was “Cultural Cues for Working with African Americans.” The presenter of this workshop served for four years as the Director of Equity and Race Relations for Seattle Public Schools. The conference also featured “Interrupting Oppression in the Classroom” which is “an approach to subverting the dominant paradigm by changing the way mainstream American culture uses language.” That session sought to “identify oppressive language and behavior in the classroom.”
The session “Making A Mountain Out of a Molehill: Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life” drew on the work of Columbia University professor Derald Wing Sue. Sue describes racial microaggressions as “the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities, and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.” (Psychology Today, 10-05-2010) Sue and his followers suggest that we actually should make a mountain out of a molehill, in this case.
As “educators who experience varying degrees of privilege,” recognition of the ways “oppression affects the lives of students marginalized by race, class, language, gender, and sexual orientation” and “helping students to become agents of their own change” were the goals of “Teacher as Ally, Teacher as Advocate.”
Several workshops sought to encourage student political activism. “Rethinking Democracy & Organizing for Change” provided a “hands-on, interactive training [that] is designed to equip youth with the self-confidence, knowledge, and skills to understand how our democracy was hijacked, the authoritarian tendencies that obstruct democracy, the critical link between human rights and values that lie at the core of real democracy, and how to design and implement effective action plans to build a movement and change the world.” The presenter of this workshop, Riki Ott, is cofounder and director of Ultimate Civics, which aims to work in schools encouraging students “to challenge corporate power and co-create the democracy we thought we had.”
During the workshop “Web of Injustice,” educators were presented with a unit encouraging students to write “a formal declaration using the Declaration of Independence and the Occupy Movement Declaration as mentor texts.” The student would start with an injustice relevant to his or her “group” and then create a declaration based on a “web of injustices,” whatever that may be.
To keep the ranks engaged and fortified, the social justice associations offered “Creating Local Teacher-to-Teacher Social Justice Networks” stating: “Many teachers who are passionate about social justice do not have a local network of likeminded teachers to rely on.”
For the union-oriented educator there were the following workshops: “How to Build a Social Justice Caucus in Your Union,” “Transforming Teacher Unions: How Can Unions Be a Force for Social Justice?” and “Revival of the Strike.”