June 15, 2014
Teachers Talk - Social Justice in the Classroom
Matthew Whitty, Teacher, Deer Lake SDA School, Burnaby, BC

“Over three billion people live off of less than $2.50 a day … 22,000 children die each day due to poverty ... 72 million children of primary school age in the developing world were not in school in 2005 ...”1 We often hear statistics such as these. Today, we have access to information technology that let’s us know about what is happening in places far removed from our homes and experiences. As a result, there is a growing movement of educators seeking to emphasize a global perspective in the classroom through the use of social justice. 
 
The concept of social justice is broad and diversely defined. Often it encompasses themes of equality, charitable actions, human rights, democracy, conservation, tolerance, and social and economic relations.2  One definition of social justice describes it as “the process of working toward, and the condition of, meeting everyone’s basic needs and fulfilling everyone’s potential to live productive and empowered lives as participating citizens of our global community.”3  This goal, and the principles of caring, fairness, empathy, and responsible action required to meet it, are worthy for both the classroom and the world at large.  
 
The trend to emphasize social justice in the classroom may not seem new to Christian education which has always focused on instilling morals and values of “loving thy neighbour as thyself” (Mark 12:31). Nevertheless, we have many opportunities to introduce world issues across multiple subject areas, tying in content and curriculum.
 
Social justice lends itself easily to the social studies classes that I have taught. While studying the French and American Revolutions, we were able to compare these historical events with the Arab Spring revolutions happening across the Middle East. In other studies of history, as we looked at issues of slavery and child labour, students were surprised to learn that these practices continue in different forms around the world today.
 
I had the opportunity to take a group of student leaders to attend a WE Day event in Vancouver hosted by the organization Free the Children. The event was designed to inspire young people to become active in their communities, to take a stand against issues such as poverty and bullying, and to act on behalf of those less fortunate than themselves. The students came away excited and motivated, and they shared what they had experienced with their classmates back at school. The event spurred the students to organize a penny drive that collected over $750 for clean water projects in developing countries. Also, several students participated in the “We Are Silent” campaign for which they kept from speaking for an entire school day to raise awareness and funds for the issue of child labour.  
 
Teaching from a social justice perspective leads to many opportunities to engage students in topics in which they are already curious and interested. Lessons can be built around developing critical thinking skills and easily accommodate activities such as class discussions, collaborative group work, analysing, evaluating, as well as developing problem solving and conflict resolution skills. These work together towards a worthy objective of creating global citizens--young people with a heart for the less fortunate; young people who want to see the health, security and freedoms which we enjoy accessible for all.
 
Social justice themes are not limited to social studies, but can easily be incorporated across subject areas. Novel studies covering social justice themes are common--students can write persuasive letters to members of government arguing for a cause they believe in. Math lessons can analyse data on various social issues such as poverty or gentrification. Science lessons can evaluate the human impact of environmental degradation on various populations.
 
I believe it is important to present these perspectives to our students so that they understand that they can be part of creating solutions--technological, political and social--for many of the problems facing our world today. Our students may not presently have the capacity to make a large contribution, but we can send them on a path that will make them global citizens who are mindful of what they can do to make a positive impact in the world. Social justice in Christian schools serves to support our efforts to live out the principles of the kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
 
Footnotes:
1http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats
2 Pipkin, C. W. (1927) The idea of social justice. New York: MacMillan.
2 Young, I. M. (1990) Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
3Wade, R. C.(2007)  Social Studies for Social Justice: Teaching Strategies for the Elementary Classroom. New York: Teacher’s College Press.

Resources on Social Justice in Education
  • http://www.teachingforchange.org/
  • http://humaneeducation.org/blog/category/humane-connection/
  • http://www.sojust.net/
  • http://radicalmath.org/
  • http://casel.org/wp-content/uploads/Social-Justice-Language-Arts.pdf