The Need for Social Justice Curriculum in White Classrooms

By Gina Caneva

I began this summer reading J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy. Not your typical light, summer beach read on any account, but a piece I sought to offer me insight into a culture I knew little of growing up in the suburbs of Chicago and spending most of my adult life on the South Side of Chicago. As the summer drew to a close, the world witnessed a horrifying act of racism and domestic terrorism in Charlottesville, when a white supremacist named James Fields, Jr. plowed his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of protesters killing Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others. Fields is a page out of Hillbilly Elegy, a prime example, as Vance puts it, of a member of “a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

Recently on CNN, Vance pointed out that members of the alt-right and white supremacists are not just poor whites but are often educated and middle class whites. And although many are painting the picture of James Fields Jr. as an extremist and a neo-Nazi, his former history teacher, Derek Weimer, said that he had encountered other students with similar thoughts of white supremacy at Cooper High School where Fields previously attended.

Weimer told The Cincinnati Enquirer, “And there are others like him out there—we as a society have to do a better job of figuring out how to reach them. This isn’t something that happens overnight. It builds up over time and we need to pay more attention to this.”

Weimer also blames himself as a teacher: “I feel like I failed and that we all failed.” But Charlottesville wasn’t just about Fields. There were a lot of white men in the city that day ranging in age and hailing from all around our nation with the alt-right, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist groups. The anger, hatred, racism, and violence should alarm educators of white youths across our country.

The Charlottesville incident should embolden educators of white youths to incorporate social justice into their curricula. As a veteran teacher in Chicago Public Schools, I have taught mainly African-American and Latino students. My students are natives of social justice education; they are critical of systems of oppression, and they’ve memorized narratives of the oppressed ahead of Civil War generals. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a CPS teacher who doesn’t also consider herself or himself a teacher of social justice.

But I wonder about educators and students in predominantly white schools. Are they learning and reading narratives of the oppressed? As a student in a predominantly white public school district, I had little insight into oppressed Americans. I can recall one instance where my 5th grade teacher played Eyes on the Prize which detailed the Black Panther Party and Fred Hampton’s killing, but it wouldn’t be until I attended a diverse, public university where I took a long, hard look at our history. I had no idea about the Cold War, Reaganomics, or the war in Bosnia let alone racism, homelessness, and public school inequity, all topics I would delve into as a college student in Chicago.

Beginning research on the effects of including social justice in the curriculum reveals just how far we have to go as a nation. A mandatory social-justice class at a predominantly African-American high school in Maplewood, N.J., profoundly affected the identities and future career choices of students. Many students initially uninterested in careers that would help their communities became educators, social workers, and leaders of organizations that had large impacts on the communities they grew up in. On the flip side, when Katy Swalwell, a professor at Iowa State University, researched social-studies classes in an affluent, majority-white private school, she found that when given lessons about social justice white, affluent students “expressed a genuine concern about inequalities, but connected the problems to individual shortcomings rather than systemic disadvantages.” The white students gained knowledge of the inequalities, but they couldn’t link it to the same systems that gave them privilege.

Starting social justice lessons earlier for white students may be the answer. The Teaching Tolerance website gives teachers and school leaders K-12 standards, lessons, articles, and even professional development for infusing social justice both into the school’s curriculum and climate. One example that resonates with Charlottesville is this anchor standard on diversity: “Students will respond to diversity by building empathy, respect, understanding and connection.”

Cooper High School, the Northern Kentucky high school that Fields attended, is attempting to use Fields’ actions and the protests in Charlottesville as a teachable moment on tolerance. They are promoting “respect, tolerance, and see something, say something if a student’s behavior makes anyone uncomfortable.” Though these actions may be a start, a next, more pronounced effort would be to infuse lessons of social justice into the school curriculum and school culture.

As the school year begins across America, many educators across our nation have been posting sample lessons and urging each other to teach lessons about Charlottesville — lessons about racism, hate, diversity, and tolerance. Without a doubt, these lessons will be taking place in my predominantly African American and Latino high school. But a more powerful way that we as a nation can counteract overt acts of white supremacy is if teachers in white classrooms teach lessons about Charlottesville and infuse social justice into the curricula and school culture.

Especially now, when our nation’s president falters on publicly acknowledging and condemning acts of homegrown terrorism, America’s students, especially our white students, need teachers to guide discussions on systemic racism, teach the narratives of the oppressed, and create spaces to interact with teens and children of other races. There are ways to counteract the hatred and racism of Charlottesville, and the classroom can be a powerful way to begin.

Gina Caneva is a 14-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center Director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy.  She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.

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