Social Justice in the Classroom: Not Always the Easiest Lesson

On March 4, I became a fellow of The Academy for Teachers, an organization that honors teachers who, despite everything, make their classrooms havens for passion and creativity. The Academy organizes "master classes" led by prominent experts in all subject areas, but mine was led by the incredible Gloria Steinem. The assembled English and social studies teachers all shared a passion for feminism and social activism.

The Academy's master classes are intimate. There were just 16 of us and we came from a real cross-section of New York City schools. Three worked in private schools and the rest were from a variety of public schools. Our students are among the poorest and the richest children in New York City and all of the teachers had different experiences with teaching the day's topic.

Linda Weissman, for example, teaches at Stuyvesant High School, one of New York City's top public schools. She works with 150 motivated, hyper grade-conscious, predominantly middle- to upper-middle-class children. Weissman was bothered that most of her students had never heard of Steinem, but she wasn't really surprised. (Feminism isn't a significant area of focus in most classrooms.) And she worried her attempts to generate an interest in feminism were doomed to fall by the wayside because her students were always so desperate to please her that they "give whatever answer they think I'll like and get a better grade." That's why she never shares her own opinions with them, because she wants them to think on their own.

Catherine Edwards has a different set of problems. She teaches at the Dalton School, a private school for (mostly) affluent New Yorkers. Edwards told us her students are disturbed by violence and poverty in foreign countries but didn't want to look at injustice here in the United States. So her struggle is to find ways to help her students understand the power their privileged positions gives them to effect social change here at home. She tries to get them to see that injustice, violence and poverty exists just a few train stops away from their school.

My school addresses social activism head-on. City-As-School High School is an alternative transfer public school and has no particular student population. Our students are a mix of poor, middle and upper classes. They've come to us because, for example, they were bored with the college-prep curriculum at their old schools or afraid for their safety because their school was in a violent neighborhood. Such extreme diversity could lead to dangerous culture clash, but City-As has created an environment where, as one of my colleagues says, "the only thing not tolerated is intolerance." The different struggle I face is motivating students who have lost faith in the education system. That's why my colleague JP Schneider and I created a student leadership course that requires students to educate one another on social issues that matter most to them, such as poverty's affect on homeless youth. In December, one of the students in the class shared that while he was excited about all of the help for victims of Hurricane Sandy, he wanted us to remember the sadness that children like him, who have been living in shelters and group homes for a majority of their lives, experience during the holidays. He was concerned that these children would be forgotten in the storm's aftermath. The class unanimously adopted his project and diligently worked on it because it became personal. The students successfully raised funds and purchased holiday toys for 25 children living in a group home in the Bronx. This class has helped many students understand how education and teamwork can help them become agents of change.

All the teachers had questions for Steinem and she thoughtfully responded to them all. At one point, she refused to deny the particular suffering of rich women. "Tears are tears," she said. The profound message in that small phrase pertained to each of us, because all of us, no matter our differences, experience struggle. This is a powerful lesson we can teach all of our students.