Social Justice Education – Black Lives Matter

Image courtesy of Sarah Forst.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a sentence from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 that serves as a guiding principle for me as I continue on the journey of being a culturally responsive teacher: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. 

When we, as educators, are silent about an issue of injustice we are taking an active role on the side of that injustice.  Being silent serves as a very loud response for our students. 

Why should America’s educators embrace the need to teach about injustices in their classrooms? Because the role of an educator is to help the next generation.  We know there are injustices in our world.  We are witnessing them today, but what are we, as educators, going to actively do in our classrooms to help the next generation? Silence is not an option. 

Here are some resources, from Teaching Tolerance, that have guided me that I feel are worthy of sharing with my fellow educators, especially given the current events surrounding racial injustice.

Teaching Tolerance is the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center with the mission of “to help teachers and schools educate children and youth to be active participants in a diverse democracy.” You can learn more about Teaching Tolerance here

Professional Development Resources

Test Yourself for Hidden Bias – This professional development resource includes the link to the Implicit Association Tests developed by psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington to help measure our unconscious bias in the academic setting. The resource also provides tips for educators so that we can take steps to ensure that our implicit biases do not result in biased actions. 

Let’s Talk – Facilitating Critical Conversations With Students – This resource is available as a PDF file for educators to have a guide on how to have open dialogue with students about social inequality and discrimination.  Section I provides educators the opportunity to take steps to plan and create a classroom environment where critical conversations can stay productive and positive.  I feel that it is particularly beneficial is the ability for educators to examine themselves as they plan the groundwork for their classroom environment. 

Image from Teaching Tolerance’s Let’s Talk – Facilitating Critical Conversations With Students, page 6.

We as educators, as are all human beings, are not immune to our own subconscious bias.  Acknowledging, learning, and growing from this point benefits the individual educator and the students that they serve. 

Section II provides a day-of guide to ensure that students feel respected and heard during the conversation.  There are tons of great ideas in this section on how to structure the classroom conversion from phrases to use and community agreements to structuring questions for age appropriateness.  One of my favorite strategies in this section is the ability to measure the emotional temperature of the room using the “fist to five” strategy that allows the educator to pause the conversation and gauge the student’s needs at that moment.

Image from Teaching Tolerance’s Let’s Talk – Facilitating Critical Conversations With Students, page 32.

Allowing time for students to debrief before leaving the classroom is a very important step.  Students cannot be expected to end the conversation and move on without time to process the emotions and experiences of the critical conversation. This can be done by journaling, drawing, and small group discussions as outlined on page 37 of the document. 

Classroom Resources

Jumping into a conversation without students having a common context is hard and runs the risk of not being productive.  While current events may shape conversations, I personally prefer to use literature and informational texts to provide a common context for students to be able to explore difficult topics.  Teaching Tolerance has a plethora of classroom resources from lesson plans, student texts, film kits, and more. They offer an easy to use search feature that refines content by grade level, topic, social justice domain, and content area. 

Lessons and Text Materials

Here are a few engaging lessons and texts to bring into your middle school classrooms each with the provided overview statement from Teaching Tolerance.

A Personal Mission: Sammy Younge Jr. – This text tells the story of the young black Civil Rights activist Sammy Younge.

A Time to Speak: A Speech by Charles Morgan – In this lesson, students will study Morgan’s speech to better understand the civil rights movement and the value of speaking out against injustice.

Allies for Justice: A Lesson from Viva La Causa – Students will understand the power of allies in civil and human rights movements.

Harlem – “Harlem” is a poem written by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and originally published in the book Montage of a Dream Deferred in 1951.

I, Too – “I, Too” is a poem written by Langston Hughes and published in 1959.

Looking Closely at Ourselves – In this lesson, students explore race and self-identity by creating self-portraits. The lesson aims to help students develop detailed observational skills and use these skills in relation to themselves and others. It also begins constructing a vocabulary that is crucial in helping build community and discuss some of the more challenging aspects of race and racial identity formation.

“Nonviolence vs. Jim Crow” 1942 – This essay was first published by Bayard Rustin in July 1942 in Fellowship: the journal of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Peaceful Lessons from Peaceful Leaders: Tri-Leadership – This [February] shortest month of the year is typically filled with history reports, pageants, guest speakers, cultural fairs and the like. Seldom a day goes by that we don’t hear the names of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Madame C.J. Walker, George Washington Carver, and so on.

Racial Profiling – Racial profiling occurs when law enforcement agents impermissibly use race, religion, ethnicity or national origin in deciding who to investigate. This lesson focuses on racial profiling. Students learn what the term means, discuss why it matters, conduct research and present their insights.

Recognizing Discrimination – People sometimes look the other way when they see an act of discrimination because they do not know how to stop it. This lesson provides students with real-world examples to help them identify peaceful ways to respond.

Still I Rise – “Still I Rise” is a poem written by Maya Angelou and published in the 1978 book And Still I Rise.

The Skin I’m In (Chapter 3) – This excerpt comes from The Skin I’m In, a novel written by Sharon Flake and published in 1998.

Using Photographs to Teach Social Justice | Exposing Racism – Photographs can sometimes capture important moments in American history. This lesson is part of the Using Photographs to Teach Social Justice series.

Walking with the Wind – John Lewis’ book, Walking with the Wind, was first published in 1998. The following is an excerpt from the book.

What If There Were No Black People? – “What If There Were No Black People?” is a poem written and self-published by Sean Mauricette, also known as “SUBLIMINAL.” 

Teaching Tolerance Magazine Features

Here are some thought-provoking magazine features from Jamilah Pitts, a fellow educator, that have been featured in Teaching Tolerance over the past few years that helped me explore my role as a culturally responsive educator.
Why Teaching Black Lives Matter Matters | Part I 
Bringing Black Lives Matter Into the Classroom | Part II 
Don’t Say Nothing 

Additional Resources

See this compilation of resources from Teaching Tolerance in regards to their materials for educators for teaching about race, racism, and police violence.

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