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Helping Students to Recognise and Respond to Social Injustice: Suggested Strategies and Resources

Written by: Naashia Mohamed
Published on: Jun 26, 2023

Students unitingPhoto credit: Jacob Lund/Adobe Stock

In conversations with preservice teachers, a question that inevitably arises is this: Why did you choose to become a teacher? Among the varied answers, there is always one common theme. This relates to wanting to make a difference in people’s lives by influencing the next generation, and, potentially, changing the world.

But do we actually do this? As individuals, do we even have the capacity to change the world? We live in a time where poverty, war, oppression, injustice, and uncertainty are predominant issues in every part of the globe. Many of us, as teachers, may feel overwhelmed, and unsure of where to even begin.

February 20 is World Day of Social Justice. The day is celebrated to raise awareness of social justice issues worldwide, highlight the power of global solidarity, and advance opportunities to promote social development and human dignity. As educators, this may be a useful opportunity to enable conversations about inequities and injustices, so that we can help students to develop the critical thinking, collaboration, and self-reflection skills necessary to foster a better society. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

What Is Social Justice?

Social justice has been defined and understood in different ways. At its simplest, the concept of social justice deals with decreasing or eliminating inequity, promoting inclusivity, establishing access, and promoting equal opportunities by removing barriers to disadvantage and supporting people to reach their potential. We can think of social justice at three levels:

  1. At the personal level, social justice relates to our moral compass, or the beliefs and values that guide us to determine right from wrong.
  2. At an interpersonal level, we need to consider how we can uphold people’s dignity in our relationships with them, or how we might be an advocate for others when they are being treated unfairly.
  3. We can also think of social justice from a broader systemic level to consider what inequities are taking place in society: Whose voices are privileged, and whose voices are silenced?

How Do I Teach Social Justice?

Educate yourself on social issues.

What are the biggest issues in your school or society? Who are the disadvantaged groups? What are their concerns? Select causes you are passionate about, and find out more. Equip yourself with adequate knowledge through books, social media, conversations with affected groups.

Get to know your students better

Learning about your students’ lives, experiences, and challenges needs to be prioritised. Whether your selected topic brings up race, religion, sexual orientation, immigration, or something else, think about the composition of your students, and their background. Be sensitive towards their feelings. If you anticipate a topic could be difficult for a particular student, consider speaking with them first.

Accept difference of opinion

Have open conversations about social issues, so that existing biases and beliefs can be questioned and challenged. These conversations are necessary to help us see things from different perspectives and truly understand the experiences of others. But, know that not everyone will view things the way you do. What one might consider to be unjust may be viewed differently by another. Tolerance and respecting differences are key aspects of social justice. Talking about controversial issues with sensitivity is therefore essential – a skill you can help develop in your students.

Bring the world into the classroom

Make students aware of what is going on in their communities and in their wider world. Talk about the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. The war in Ukraine. The plight of the Uyghurs. The hunger hotspots in the world. Discuss the challenges in other parts of the world and in their own communities and ask: What can we do to change this? How can we help? Consider upcoming events, such as elections, and utilise those to discuss related issues, such as citizenship and democracy.

Use multicultural and multilingual books and film

To provide different perspectives, utilise a range of books and multimedia resources. These could be incorporated as part of read-alouds or independent reading, or as research materials on a particular topic. Some wonderful picture books for young students include We Are Water ProtectorsThe Proudest BlueRuby’s Wish, and Emmanuel’s Dream.

Educator Resource Collections

LearningforJustice has a wealth of free educational resources to suit every level. From lesson plans to professional development resources to teaching strategies, this website has everything you may need to take social justice into your classroom. Two lesson plans I particularly like include one on Countering Islamophobia and another that engages students in thinking about how equitable their school calendar is and considering ways to make it more inclusive.

Learning about social justice is the first step toward making a difference. Encouraging your students to take up a cause and advocate for justice should be embedded in your curriculum. DoSomething is a collective of young people to actively bring about change by participating in civic action. Among its many causes are issues such as gun safety, mental health, bullying, racial justice, and the environment. Teachers can advise students on potential campaigns, or guide students to browse through the campaigns and select ones that they are most passionate about.

TeachingForChange helps teachers to draw connections to real world issues and encourages educators and students to reflect on how to become active global citizens and build a more equitable and multicultural society.

A Day in the Life lesson plan from GlobalOnenessProject helps students understand how children across the globe share similarities in their daily lives despite differences in cultures, religions, and locations.

Lesson Plans on Specific Causes

Amnesty International has suggested lesson plans on raising awareness about human rights. One particular lesson plan I can recommend focuses on refugees and asylum, and it is suitable for children between 11 and 16 years.

Young people are savvy social media users. This lesson plan from PBS NewsHour Classroom suggests ways in which students can use social media to advocate for social justice.

The New York Times has a rich archive of resources to teach about Black History, including a lesson plan featuring black superheroes.

What Has Worked for You?

Of course, social justice is not something that can be taught in a few lessons. What does social justice education look like in your classroom? Please share in the comments.

This post first appeared on the TESOL Blog. Reprinted with permission.