Social Justice Projects in the Classroom
In our country’s recent history, cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, and New Orleans have become synonymous with racial intolerance and symbols of what is wrong with race relations in our country.
As educators, we have the responsibility of ensuring that our students are prepared to be successful in life and to contribute to their communities. Because of the overwhelming emphasis on standardized tests and core curriculum, we have forgotten that the concept of literacy should also include tolerance for people from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
Cultural literacy and helping our students understand these goals are two of the most effective ways to develop them. One of the most effective ways to do so is through social justice processes and projects, which encourage students to develop a mindset of concern for our society’s inequity in wealth, education, and privilege. These projects equip our students with the tools they need to make a difference in the world through awareness, advocacy, activism, and humanitarian aid. They are group activities that aid in the development of critical thinking, writing, and media literacy skills in participants. Students benefit from the interdisciplinary nature of social justice projects because it allows them to make important connections between history, culture, economics, and science.
I believe that a lack of empathy is at the root of many of our social and political problems and that developing an attitude of openness and self-reflection is a critical step in social justice projects. Students’ awareness can be heightened through research, historical facts, and data, but I have found that an emotional connection is the most effective way to awaken awareness and make concepts tangible and personal for them.
To do this, one of my favorite exercises is the Paper Ball Toss. An easy activity that demonstrates the differences in social class and how one’s position in a hierarchical structure continues to be perpetuated Following the exercise, engage students in a class discussion and self-reflection to uncover their preconceived notions and misunderstandings.
The I Am From poem (PDF) is another introductory exercise in which students reflect on their own lives and share their concerns with their classmates to gain a better understanding of other people’s perspectives. Ideally, these poems take us by surprise, reminding us that what we believe we know about our peers is not always correct. A great way to learn about how surface observations can be deceiving is to complete this exercise.
SELECTION AND VOICE
When students are enthusiastic about a subject, they learn more effectively. Allowing them to choose topics that interest them and determining the format in which a project will be completed will help to facilitate this. Teachers may choose a topic from the existing curriculum and provide students with a variety of project options to choose from. Students should be encouraged to think about their concerns through a social justice lens, and they should choose one of these to focus on for their final project.
Don Goble, a journalism professor in St. Louis, had a student who became inspired to create a project based on events in the nearby city of Ferguson. The student had previously demonstrated a lack of motivation and enthusiasm, but the incident occurred close to home and sparked a passion for learning that culminated in a successful video news story.
Students should be able to express their concerns and ask questions about our world in a public forum in our classrooms, and we should make that space available to them. Instead of writing essays or journals for the sole purpose of impressing the teacher, students should consider publishing an authentic product for the entire world to see. This gives their work more meaning and purpose. As a result of our trip to Cuba, one of my students created an online documentary that sparked an online discussion with a Cuban viewer, which altered my student’s perception of historical facts and her role as a documentary filmmaker. To truly empower our students to make a difference outside of the classroom, we should consider making their work available for public consumption online.
Blogger: Students can create online posts that include text, images, artwork, links, and videos based on the theme of the blog they are writing about. These posts, which vary in length and frequency, could take the form of an online essay, a short daily or weekly reflection, or a large-scale research project, among other things.
Engage a global audience by having students publish their work on social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. Students can reach out to politicians, celebrities, and other stakeholders by mentioning and tagging them in posts created in this short form, which allows for quick and free publication of their work. To reach a global audience, take advantage of the power of social media networks.
Examples of lesson plans include:
Investigate and follow social justice organizations and individuals on social media to learn more about their work. Initiate a conversation with them about a topic of your choosing.
Share your ideas for solutions to social justice problems using a common hashtag, such as #BlackLivesMatter, to bring them to the attention of others. Include links to articles or your blogs in your description.
Storytelling through video and other media: The power of video and photography is unrivaled in today’s world. Mobile devices can be used to record and edit videos, as well as to create short films or documentaries. I previously wrote about the importance of teaching video storytelling in the classroom and provided examples of how you can implement this strategy in your classroom. Through their international documentary trips and broadcast journalism stories, my students have investigated political and cultural inequity around the world.
Prepare interviews and testimony from members of your community for an introductory project, and then upload the videos to your class’s YouTube channel or Instagram account. Even young students can make a difference in the world by using photography and video.
Examples of lesson plans include:
Create a multi-touch book or a YouTube channel to house interviews with people who have made a difference in your community, and archive their responses.
Produce a documentary that investigates a problem in your neighborhood and proposes solutions to resolve the issue at hand.
Make a documentary about something positive that is happening in your neighborhood that others aren’t aware of.
ADVOCATE AND ASSISTANCE
Students can make a difference in the world right now as well as in the future. Letter-writing campaigns to elected officials, lobbying corporations to change policies, and participation in local parades and events are all examples of civic engagement. Additionally, students can contribute to a cause in other ways, such as by volunteering at a homeless shelter or food bank or by raising funds for charitable organizations, for example.
Students at High Tech High School in Chula Vista, California, launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise awareness about gun violence, and my journalism students produced documentaries about the struggles of former gang members in Los Angeles and the impact of a lack of affordable housing on people living in large cities, among other topics.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has a slew of additional ideas for social media projects spanning a wide range of subject areas, according to their website.
THE MOST EFFECTIVE PRACTICE
Social justice projects can be difficult to complete because they require students and teachers to step outside of their normal routines. If you want to be successful, start by creating an environment in which students feel comfortable sharing their opinions and by cultivating a culture of respect in the classroom. Consider the difference between some exercises or projects that are private (that is, they are only shared within the classroom) and others that are public. When deciding where the projects will be shared, consider the comfort levels of the students as well as the context.
We can provide students with a wide range of meaningful experiences, but those that are related to social justice may be the most important of them all. All of the facts, concepts, and skills we teach students are meaningless if they are unable to apply that knowledge in ways that benefit the world in which they live.