Teaching for Social Justice creates change for teachers and students

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Back in May we introduced you to an innovative and exciting project being spearheaded by Scott Storm and the educators at Harvest Collegiate High School called Teaching for Social Justice.  While it’s only been a few months since the original blog post, “Teaching for Social Justice transforms curriculum, educator mindset and improves student learning” (May 2016), it’s been two years since the McCarthy Dressman Education Foundation funded this project.  We are exciting to be brining you another update on this effort to improve effectiveness and equity in high school classrooms.

Project Photo
Project Photo

Before we can talk about what they are doing now, let’s revisit the project’s original goals. Teaching for Social Justice” aims to design curriculum, support the development of teachers as social justice educators, and disseminate these lessons to progressively wider audiences. This requires a break from a dominant paradigm which views teaching as monologic, teacher-centered, and lecture-based. The following goals have been explored in this project.

  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.

Recipient Scott Storm explains, “In our work, we saw that the conception of teaching for social justice has been theorized from disparate, sometimes contradictory, epistemological and ideological positions. Our project aims to mesh these theoretical stances in locally situated practice.”  

What kind of teacher development efforts strengthen social justice pedagogy?

In the past two years they have made a lot of progress on the following four goals. We’ve shared them below with some examples of student work in this teacher development project.

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

  • Curriculum Retreats: In the first year of the project they held Curriculum Retreats to promote ideas for new courses, start to draft the courses, and reflect on their past work.
  •   New And Revised Courses:

o   Fall 2014, New Course: “Identity Quest”

o   Fall 2014, Revised Course: “Constructing Monsters”

o   Spring 2015, New Course: “Lit Crit & Grit”

o   Spring 2015, New Course: “Pop!”

o   Winters 2015 and 2016, New Course: “Writer’s Retreat”: They created a new course for the January term (two weeks) called “Writer’s Retreat” in which 26 students traveled to a cabin (with no Internet, television or other electronic distractions) for several days. Many of the students came out of this experience with stronger writing skills.

o   Fall 2015, New English Course—“Human Nature”: In this class students read Locke, Hobbs, & Rousseau alongside Lord of the Flies and Macbeth.  Students explored ethical and moral issues and participated in group simulations and role-playing activities that identified ethics, oppression, and privilege.

o   Spring 2016, New English Course—“Dysfunctional Love”: This course engaged students in questions around love and relationships through some classic literature.  Students read Romeo and Juliet, Jane Eyre, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and other texts.  Students talked through difficult issues while also analyzing textual form.

o   2015-2016 School Year, New Course—“AP English Literature & Composition”: This past year they offered an AP English Course open to all students. They recruited from special education classes, English Language Learners, low-income students, and those who are normally not encouraged to take AP at other schools. Students read poetry and many works including: Pride & Prejudice, The Sound and The Fury, Mrs. Dalloway, Invisible Man, Waiting for Godot, The Woman Warrior, Beloved, Midnight’s Children, Angels in America, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Some essential questions that guided these courses were “what is literature—and what do we do with it?” and “what is the relationship between form and meaning?” The assessment at the end of the unit asked students to use the theories of literary modernism to create their own short stories, poems, paintings, or musical scores, and then present and/or perform these at an evening coffee-house event.

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

  • Teacher Research Team: For the past two years, Teacher Research Teams conducted inquiry on their teaching. They developed essential questions, created research designs, discussed relevant scholarship/literature, collected data, and analyzed the data together using qualitative research.
  • English Department as Teacher Inquiry Team: Teachers focused on two areas: reading literary texts and writing as process.  For each of these inquiries, they read articles about pedagogy around close reading, conducted their own close readings together, analyzed student work, planned for implementing shared practices, implemented these practices, analyzed post-intervention data, and created a plan for future directions.
  • Classroom Ethnography Project: Teachers in the teacher research team served as ethnographic participant observers in each other’s classes (one or two periods a day). The dialogue between the teacher and the researcher improved both teaching and student learning.  

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

  • The Teacher Summit: A “Teacher Summit” was a day-long conference where half of the faculty presented on the courses they developed, on a portfolio of their work, or on one of their teacher inquiry projects.  The faculty were excited for continued improvement of their teaching and the enhancement of their professional community.
  • Teacher Learning Teams:

o   Year One: In the first year of the project they brought together three teacher teams focused on:  1) descriptive review of student work in order to reflect on and refine teaching practices; 2) designing and implementing intervention plans for high-need students.; and 3) use of Critical Friends Group protocols from the National School Reform Faculty to fine-tune curriculum and assessment. Year one was about deep understanding and new knowledge.

o   Year Two: In the second year of the project, they had the teachers from each of these teams use the skills that they had learned the first year to spread this learning so that all teachers became more familiar with these methods.

o   Teacher Study Group: Each semester the Teacher Study Group chose a focus of study. In the fall, the group looked at “questioning as pedagogical tool” and in the spring they explored “formative assessment.”  Each week they read a peer-reviewed journal article about the topic and discussed how this could improve their practice.

o   Whole-Faculty Peer-Observations: In year one they had all teachers conduct a series of monthly peer-observations.  They continued this practice in year two which has been helpful for the teachers to see themselves as a community of practitioners rather than individual silos.

Goal 4: Disseminate Curriculum and Research

There has been substantial progress in this area. They have written conference proposals, presented at conferences, and had articles published about their work!

  •   Publication: Storm, S. (2016). “Teacher-Researcher-Leaders: Intellectuals for Social Justice” Schools: Studies in Education. 13.1 57-75.
  •   Academic Conference Presentations:

o   February 2015, “Tensions in the Teaching for Social Justice” presented at the University of Pennsylvania’s Ethnography in Education Forum.

o   December 2015, “Adolescents Enacting Disciplinary Literacy in English Literature: Education for Social Justice or Model of Cultural Reproduction?” presented at the Literacy Research Association’s annual conference in Carlsbad, CA

o   December 2015,  “Epistemological Tensions in Teaching for Social Justice: A Case Study” presented at the Literacy Research Association’s annual conference in Carlsbad, CA.

o   February 2016, “Reading Literary Criticism: Method of Critical Liberation or Tool of Cultural Assimilation?” presented at the University of Pennsylvania’s Ethnography in Education Forum.

  •   Other Presentations/Workshops

o   Fall 2015, Critical Pedagogy Workshop for Student Teachers: Swarthmore College

o   Fall 2015, Grammar/Writing Pedagogy for Justice Workshop for Student Teachers: Swarthmore College

o   Spring 2015, Teachers as Researchers Presentation for pre-service English education students at the University of Pittsburgh

o   Spring 2015, NYC Writing Project Teacher to Teacher Conference—one of our colleagues presented her work at this conference.

Additionally, they have submitted a number of presentations that are currently under review.

How does social justice pedagogy impact teachers and students?

They have definitely been busy and while it is great to hear what they have accomplished, it is even more important to hear about how they are doing.  We also wanted to know how the teachers responded and how this has impacted students.

Project Photo
Project Photo

This project allowed teachers to collaborate, build shared professional knowledge, and to work toward social justice.  In the first year of the project they did a lot of capacity-building as they worked to develop the skills of teacher-researchers.  This year they have gotten to reap the benefits of putting so much time and energy into these activities.

In a reflective meeting in August before they started the new school year, one teacher remarked, “it’s incredible how much we learned…and now we get to use it all year!”

The English department in particular had some major achievements.  They continue to create new courses that leverage students’ strengths and engage them in rigorous intellectual instruction. This has been a benefit to both teachers and their students.

At the school-wide level, the team is seeing the benefits of training teachers in peer observation, descriptive review, equity interventions, and Critical Friends protocols.  Teachers who were participants in these groups last year are leading these activities in their departments and their grade teams. One teacher remarked, “I just feel like the tools that we have now let us actually focus on teaching and learning more and that to me is what improves practice.”

Finally, a big achievement this year has been having some of the teachers going to and presenting at conferences.  At the conferences they shared their work with a wider audience. By doing this, they are hoping to  improve practice beyond their school.

The teachers are not alone in being recipients of the benefits of this program.  Students across the school were able to engage in interesting and deeper work through the courses that they have designed.  Through the AP English course, students who might not have access to this level of work in another school were able not only to access the curriculum but also really thrived in this environment.  One of the assessments in the course had students write an 8-10 page literary analysis on a book and question/topic of their choice and then present their work in an oral defense to a panel of external examiners.  The examiners used a rubric to score the student’s work.  One of the teachers, who has been doing this type of work for a decade, said of the students, “I have never seen so many students get [the highest level of the rubric] on projects like this.  Our students have really learned how to do so much.”

Excerpt from Harvest Collegiate Student, Karen S.'s paper from the Lit, Crit & Grit: Deconstruction course.
Excerpt from Harvest Collegiate Student, Karen S.’s paper from the Lit, Crit & Grit: Deconstruction course.

Here is a sample of some students and the titles of their papers:

  •      Leo R. – “Flower Imagery in Mrs. Dalloway
  •      Elijah R. – “The Comparative Use of Animals in Modernism and Postmodernism”
  •      Omar C. – “To Close Read or Not To Close Read: Resolving the Epistemological Tensions Between Close Reading and Pleasure Reading”
  •      Emely H. – “The Gothic: A Solace for Humanity”
  •      Michelle H. – “The Coalition of Inner versus Outer Self in Palahniuk’s Fight Club”
  •      Francisca H. – “Accepting the Inevitable: A Discussion of Death and Time in Mrs. Dalloway and Beloved
  •      Vanessa P. – “Forming Identity with Talk-Story in The Woman Warrior”
  •      Lucas G. – “Beloved: Redefining Motherhood Through the Language of Obligation”
  •      Nafissa M. – “Literary Era and the Construction of Motherhood”

As exciting as this project is, it’s not without it’s challenges and ways to improve.  While many of the challenges from year one were about creating buy in and building capacity, the challenges the second year have been about sustainability.  The teachers have found themselves with less time budgeted for professional development meetings than they would like but they are working around it as best they can.  Additionally, it has been difficult to get teachers to write about their experiences for wider audiences.  To address these for next year, they are scheduling more time to write, reflect and think about how they can frame their learning for wider audiences.  They have also started to have more teachers present at conferences to “get their feet wet” in conversations beyond their school.

Challenges aside, it sounds like this program is reaping benefits that ripple far beyond teacher development. Students who were never given this opportunity are excelling and teachers are learning to better serve those students. The pursuit of Social Justice is an invaluable virtue but this program goes to show it can also be a valuable teaching tool.

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

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