Teaching for Social Justice transforms curriculum, educator mindset and improves student learning

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Students study literary devices (Project Photo)
Students study literary devices (Project Photo)

Both educators and students want to be excited and engaged by the curriculum, but they also need it to support learning effectiveness. By examining how they could meet the needs of their students, these educators improved engagement and equity. We are excited to share a report from the team of Teaching for Social Justice.

Why teach for social justice?

Teaching for social justice has been heralded as a way to meet the Common Core State Standards, increase student learning, and work toward equity and justice in a democratic society. Scholars who argue for social justice pedagogy encourage approaches such as:

  • encouraging the students to pursue their own curiosities and questions
  • afford students the opportunities to question knowledge, explore their identities, and become producers of knowledge, and
  • using critical literacy to enact transformative, liberatory education.

How can teacher development efforts support social justice pedagogy?

Although there are many ways to be innovative with social justice pedagogy, such as this example of culturally responsive teaching through current events, one way to approach it is through teacher development.

In a creative effort featuring the educators and students at
Harvest Collegiate High School in New York, NY and funded by McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation, Scott Stamm is leading a project called Teaching for Social Justice with the following goals:

  1. Design and revise courses to better support teaching for social justice.
  2. Conduct cycles of teacher inquiry and action research to further teaching and learning.
  3. Develop and grow a Professional Learning Community in our school that shares curricular materials, participates in peer-observation, and supports each other in formal and informal ways toward the goal of teaching for social justice.
  4. Disseminate our curriculum and research to teachers, teacher-educators, and the public.

How do you design a teacher development program for social justice pedagogy?

With the ambitious goals described above, the project emphasizes time for teachers to investigate and improve their curriculum. Through creative and collaborative inquiry, this team explored many ways to improve their teaching both in and around the school day. In order to achieve these goals, these exciting strategies were described in the project report.

Goal 1: Design and revise courses to better support the Teaching of Social Justice

  • Fall Curriculum Retreat – In August 2014 several English and special education teachers came together to plan new courses and revise existing ones by utilizing our framework for teaching for social justice (critical literacy, constructivist inquiry, and disciplinary literacy). Two courses came out of this retreat.
  • A New English Course—“Identity Quest” – One of the courses that the team created was a grades 9/10 fully-inclusive/untracked English course called “Identity Quest.” Through this course, students read critical identity theorists like bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, and Prudence Carter, and used these theories to frame their readings of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Homer’s The Odyssey. Students wrote close readings, lengthy literary analyses, autobiographies, and visual/multi-modal texts. Through these texts students explored both the canonical literature and their own identities/subjectivities.
  • Revision of English Course—“Constructing Monsters” – The team also revised a course that had not previously been tuned to our aims of teaching for social justice. In the revised version of this course, students participated in daily dialogically organized discussions (constructivist inquiry) about Beowulf, Frankenstein, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (disciplinary literacy) in order to conduct critical readings about gender, sexuality, race, and society (critical literacy). The previous versions of this course had the disciplinary content, but lacked the inquiry and critical pedagogy components.
  • Winter Curriculum Retreat – Near the end of the fall semester, the whole teacher research team met to evaluate fall courses and to begin developing new courses for the Spring semester. They staged a day-long retreat on a Saturday in order to have enough time to do the deep reflective work needed.
  • Development of English New Course—“Lit Crit & Grit” –  This 11th grade untracked course was designed to begin with having students read The Great Gatsby and then read literary criticism of the novel from scholarly peer-reviewed journals.  Students read the articles chronologically starting in the 1940s and moving to the present-day.  In this way, students can be enabled to get a glimpse into the shifting ideological terrain as criticism moves from schools of literary thought including New Criticism, psychoanalysis, feminism, Marxism, structuralism, deconstruction, critical race theory, cultural studies, and queer theory.  Each week of the course four students are prompted write their own literary criticism that situates their argument into the arguments of the other critical scholars.  Students present their papers to the entire class and all members of the class community give feedback for revision.  In this way, students become not only consumers, but also producers of literary criticism for more authentic audiences.
  • Development of English New Course—“Pop!” – This is a 9/10th grade inclusive/untracked class where students will read literary and sociological scholarship (such as the work of Roland Barthes, Peggy McIntosh, Judith Butler, Deborah Tannen, bell hooks, and Eve Segwick) to critically analyze pop cultural artifacts.  Each week students will bring in artifacts (print-text, movies, commercials, songs, tv shows, digital media) that are important to them and then the entire class will use the scholarship that they are reading in order to have a seminar about the pop-cultural artifacts.  This course is designed for students to develop critical inquiry skills and engage with both texts important to their everyday lives and complex academic texts important to the discipline.

Goal 2: Conduct cycles of teacher inquiry and action research to further teaching and learning.

  • Teacher Research Team – A Teacher Research Team was created to conduct cycles of inquiry on their teaching. They developed questions, created research designs, discussed relevant scholarship/literature, collected data (student work, student interviews, video recordings of class discussions), and analyzed the data together using methods from qualitative research (including methods from Critical Discourse Analysis, ethnography, and grounded theory). They also wrote about, reflected on, and shared our findings with each other.
  • English Department as Teacher Inquiry Team – The English department became a group focused on a collaborative inquiry around the practice of “close reading” (careful interpretation and deep analysis of text). They read articles about pedagogy around close reading, conducted their own close readings together, analyzed student work, made a plan for implementing shared practices, implemented these practices, analyzed post-intervention data, and created a plan for future directions.
  • Classroom Ethnography Project – Two teachers in the teacher research team served as ethnographic participant observers in each other’s classes. Each teacher observed two class periods a day of the other teacher’s course. In the fall Scott observed “Monsters” and Beth observed “Identity Quest.” In the spring semester Scott observed “Pop!” while Beth observed “Lit Crit & Grit.” Teacher researchers took ethnographic fieldnotes, collected audio-recordings of class discussions, collected and artifacts of student writing. Each day the teachers debriefed both classes. In this debriefing meeting the teacher researchers discussed not only pedagogy and curriculum but also research questions, relevant scholarship/theory, research methods, emergent analyses, and conceptual memos. This continuous dialectical tacking between the typical domains of the teacher (curriculum/pedagogy) and of the researcher (methodology/scholarship/analyses) strengthened both the teaching and the research, and ultimately enhanced both teacher and student learning.
  • Teacher Field Trip—NCTE Conference – The English department attended the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Conference in Washington, DC in the fall.  There they were able to network with teachers and researchers.  They attended many useful sessions including ones presented by Nancy Fry, Deborah Appleman, Michael Smith, Samantha Caughlin, and more.

Goal 3: Develop and Grow a Professional Learning Community in our school

  • Student Solutions Teams – This year the team implemented cross-disciplinary teacher teams on issues of social justice. Every Monday teachers met in these teams for 70 minutes. Teachers were able to choose which team they wanted to join. The team leader, Scott Stamm, conducted qualitative interviews with teachers and collecting other data about the effectiveness of these groups so that they can make them even stronger next year. Briefly, here is a description of each of the three groups:
    • Student Work Group – This group looked closely and carefully at all types of student work and used the Prospect Center’s Descriptive Review process to reflect on the teacher practices and student learning. This process allowed teachers to work toward not only more socially just practices for instruction on “Monday Morning” but also to develop more strengths-based and critically-conscious ideologies about teaching/learning.
    • Equity Interventions Group – This group focused on creating, implementing, monitoring and revising academic and behavioral action plans for their highest-needs students. The group approached these tasks from a strengths-based perspective to be strategic about how they made sure all students are learning. The group also created interventions for their school as an institution in order to combat institutional racism and other forms of institutional oppression.
    • Curriculum & Instruction Group – This group uses Critical Friend Group protocols from the National School Reform Faculty to improve teachers’ curriculum and instruction in their classes. This group uses protocols to tune curriculum and tackle dilemmas of practice.
    • Whole-Faculty Peer-Observations – As part of the project, for the first time all teachers conducted a series of peer-observations. Team memers trained teachers in the practices of clinical supervision, peer-mentoring, and cognitive coaching. During the training, teachers role-played and practiced the pre-observation conference and the post-observation conference. They then did a mock-observation by viewing a video and practicing how to observe and record in ways that would be constructive to others. After the training, teachers did several observations of colleagues and each month they came back together as a whole staff to check-in on how the process was working and to continue to support people in doing the peer-observations.

Goal 4: Disseminate Curriculum and Research

  • Conference Presentation – During the fall, team members Beth and Scott wrote a paper proposal, which was accepted to the Ethnography Forum at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. They traveled to Philadelphia where we presented our paper entitled “Epistemological Tensions in the Teaching for Social Justice.” They were able to network with many teachers and researchers at the Ethnography Forum and had many great conversations about research and pedagogy. With feedback from their audience, they are now working on a new version of this paper for publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal.
  • Proposals Under Review – The team members have written drafts of two papers based their research this year. They wrote one based on the research of the “Classroom Ethnography Project” about student constructions of identity in classes geared toward social justice. They also drafted a paper about the research on students’ learning with literary criticism. Formal proposals to present these research findings were also prepared and submitted to the Literacy Research Association’s annual conference.
  • June Writing Retreat – The Teacher Research team is also planning to hold a multi-day writing retreat during the summer to reflect on the year and write up further findings for dissemination.

What is the impact of teacher development for social justice pedagogy?

The efforts of this program have affected the learning of students and the teachers and created positive change in many ways.

Educators Improve Practice and Build Shared Theoretical Models Through Teacher Inquiry and Action Research

This program made it possible for teachers to work on improving practice and building shared theoretical models for how to do the work of teaching for social justice. Teachers in the teacher-research group have said that the group, “totally made me re-think the way that I teach.”

In further reflection on how the group had changed our practice, one teacher explained,

“For example, my inquiry question was around students who were less talkative in dialogically organized class discussions. I was wondering what I could do to make all students be more a part of the conversation. Using our social justice framework, I tried different strategies each week. One week I tried re-framing my questions so that they included asking readers to draw from the text and their own experiences and responses. That got one of the more reluctant students. Another week I tried doing informal on-demand writing before our seminar discussions. That got another reluctant student to participate more. Another week I taught students how to ask questions that they were authentically interested in figuring out. That strategy got one more student. One time I posed provocative questions about power ‘like is the text racist?’ That really woke up one of my students. By the end I realized that many of the strategies worked for certain kids, but there wasn’t a panacea. Now my toolbox is bigger and I can deploy the strategies based on my ethnographic observations of which strategy I think the student will best respond to. It’s not the way I’m used to teaching, but now more of my students are learning in seminar and I’m getting better.”

Teachers also learned much about methods of teacher inquiry and action research, which allowed them to become more reflective and thoughtful teachers.

For example, one teacher explained,

“It was just so refreshing to get time to reflect and think together, and now I have so many more ways to look at my teaching. I used to think research was about experimental designs only and control groups and that seemed weird for a classroom. But our work with ethnography and with descriptive review and with the theory readings that we did was really helpful. Now I know I like naturalistic ethnographic inquiry and I can see how thick description is so useful. But also I know that a formative or design research study works well for another one of my colleagues who was interested in engineering a solution to a particular problem of practice and I know how to do that now. And now I also know more about how critical discourse analysis can be useful and how that can really change how you are approaching something.”

In addition to the research group, teachers in the whole school talked about the usefulness of our new peer-observation system and of the learning that they had done through our “Student Solutions Teams.”

One teacher said,

“I’m just so glad we had a way to make interventions not just for the ‘tough cases’ among students but also for our school. When we saw that boys of color were being over represented in the discipline structure we could then name it as institutional racism and take steps to start to deal with that. We’re not done yet, but we are taking steps toward being better as a school.”

Writing Samples Evidence Student Benefits, Learning Grows

Many students were able to engage in interesting and deeper work through the classes that were designed for this project. In all of the revised and new courses, the goal was to blend the ideas of critical literacy, disciplinary literacy, and constructivist/inquiry-driven thinking.

One example of evidence of student learning that captures the goals for the project relates to the “benchmark” essay students complete at the beginning and end of the course. The benchmark asks students to write a literary analysis close reading essay of a passage that they have never seen before.

Ninth and tenth grade students have a text that falls within the 9-10 grade level of text complexity according to the framework in the Common Core State Standards for text complexity, and eleventh and twelfth graders have a text that fits into the 11-12 grade band of text complexity.

The department scores all the benchmark essays and makes sure to develop strong inter-rater reliability across the department. They score the benchmarks on a shared departmental rubric that they have created and that is aligned to the Common Core State Standards. The school-wide goal is for students to grow at least 0.5 points in each indicator on the rubric in a semester-long course because that amount of growth would keep students on track to be at the mastery stages of the rubric by graduation.

Below is the data showing growth on the benchmark from just one section of the “Identity Quest” course. This course was a fully inclusive mixed 9/10 grade class. About 30% of students had Individualized Educational Plans and 15% of students were identified as English Language Learners. The graph shows the growth in rubric points in each scored area of the rubric between the first and last benchmark:

Graph of Growth by Learning Standard from Project Report
Graph of Growth by Learning Standard from Project Report

As is evident, most students grew by 1, 1.5, or more points on the rubric in each indicator. This is more growth than seen previously and all students met the goal of growing 0.5 in each indicator within a semester-long class.

While the team members do not have the data sets to claim a direct causal relationship between our Teaching for Social Justice project and this student learning growth, they do believe that these elements are closely intertwined.

This project allowed educators to narrow in on particular skills while also creating opportunities for students to construct their own meanings and expand their academic identities. In the report they state “.. we believe that, while not at all conclusive, this data is fascinating.”

The team also shared examples of the types of complex writing that their students are doing. Both student authors are eleventh graders in the “Lit Crit & Grit” course. In this course, students read The Great Gatsby, and literary theory and criticism about the novel. Throughout the course, students took turns writing “seminar papers” which are analytic literary arguments. All of their classmates read and gave feedback on the student’s seminar paper and the student defends their seminar paper to the class. The example papers show how students are combining the ideas of constructivist inquiry, critical literacy, and disciplinary literacy in interesting ways.

In the arena of disciplinary literacy, student writing samples are strong – using academic language such as words and phrases like “ideology,” “deconstruct,” and “binary opposition.” Samples also highlight student ability to describe literary devices and situate their arguments within the context of other scholarship in the field. With regard to critical literacy, these students conduct analyses of gender/sexuality and power, explicitly refer to a “feminist lens,” and tackle ideas of wealth, social class, identity, and agency in the novel. Finally, from an inquiry perspective, these student samples showed an authentic interest in going deeper into deconstruction as a topic, reading additional sources about deconstruction, hunting for evidence throughout the novel to refute and support their ideas, and developing their ideas through multiple drafts and process writing. Even with areas of improvement, student writing from this project exhibits many of the characteristics of the types of work the team want students to be doing.

What can other teacher development projects take away from this one?

The team reported that it was initially challenging to build buy-in and support amongst the teachers to do research on their own teaching. Teachers needed to see that it was immediately useful to their practice. Although some were initially skeptical, this faded as the project began to reveal how useful and even liberating it can be to conduct inquiries into the social justice aspects of teaching.

Students study literary devices (Project Photo)
Students study literary devices (Project Photo)

Once the project got up and running, it was sometimes also difficult to sustain the work week after week. On days when the lessons didn’t go as well, more of their time was spent together was spent troubleshooting lessons than
on the specific agenda items around next steps for the research process. However, the team came to realize that this collaborative troubleshooting actually was strengthening the research and that they could view challenges in the classroom as more data to think through. To improve the project, the team now has a “pedagogical check-in” as the first part of the meeting, which allows them to have a space that is always reserved for this type of talk.

Also, the team reported that they learned that it can be overwhelming to jump right into the process of creating research-questions and designs for systematic inquiries. After a few failed attempts early on to try and create a whole research design, they shifted focus to doing everything in smaller more systematic parts. They began with a few months of just doing descriptive review, ethnographic thick description, and participant observations. This work helped them become aware of what was going on in classrooms, and only then were they able to come fresh to the process of creating research questions. To improve the project, for the next school year, they are going to start with these observation and recording techniques before they go further into their inquiries.

Where can I learn more about implementing a social justice curriculum?

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