“Courageous social studies teachers across the country are wading into these difficult, sensitive topics in ways that have the potential to move young people from discouragement to empowerment, from complacency to awareness.”
—Dr. Beth C. Rubin
—Dr. Beth C. Rubin
Teaching Social Justice Issues is a Crime?
When a friend posted on Facebook a link to an article indicating there is legislation pending in West Virginia that would make teaching social problems a crime, I thought it was a cruel joke from The Onion. No such luck. Emailing my cousins in West Virginia revealed several more such articles, indicating the proposal was ongoing and real. What would be a crime? Anything a critically thinking, motivated teacher does to empower students to become engaged, empowered, critically thinking citizens.
According to the article from Common Dreams, “Before students may participate in secondary level courses involving the study of social problems, global economics, foreign affairs, the United Nations, world government, socialism or communism, pupils shall first have completed basic instruction in geography, United States history, United States government and the government of the State of West Virginia, local governments in West Virginia, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutions of the United States and the State of West Virginia.” Misdemeanors were listed as penalties.
According to an article in the West Virginia Gazette, legislation may not be imminent. “Delegate Michel Moffatt, R-Putnam, said the intent of the bill is for West Virginia students to learn about the nation’s founding documents and history, but he said the language ‘needs to be worked out.’ ”
However, the situation in our social studies and history classrooms is dire. We teachers have the opportunity every day to help our students think, care, and ultimately act to change a world filled with injustice and inequality. Do we have the courage to do our civic duty? Taking the time to connect our required curricula with the issues of the day is our responsibility as teachers.
The payoff for our courage as teachers is the difference between apathetic and discouraged students and engaged, empowered citizens.
A Typology of Civic Identity
This conclusion is supported in the research of Beth C. Rubin who has spent a decade researching how students become (or don’t become) civically engaged. Her article in Social Education, linked below, details her qualitative research at a variety of schools: ranging from those in high poverty settings to affluent settings and schools with highly diverse populations to those with little racial or ethnic diversity.
Dr. Rubin includes summaries of classroom activities undertaken by six teachers who tackled tough issues with their students. The spontaneous to highly-planned classes included such activities as comparing current events such as the shooting of Mike Brown and ensuing protests with the rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights in one classroom. In another classroom, inspired by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s series “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” students created a mural depicting the differences in life expectancy, net worth, and incarceration rates likely for a white and a black baby in the United States today.
Active: Aware/Empowered vs. Passive: Complacent/Discouraged
What is Dr. Rubin’s conclusion? It is one West Virginia legislators and all teachers would do well to read. She writes, “I noticed that in classrooms in which students directly engaged in activities and discussions about both the ideals and the shortcomings of this country, about their rights as citizens and successful struggles for social change, students who felt disjuncture also tended to express empowerment, a belief in the ability to contribute to meaningful change.” This result was true in affluent and economically depressed schools.
Moreover, when students in high poverty settings do not have such opportunities in their classrooms to learn about the country’s founding documents and connect them to their rights and responsibilities as citizens, they “expressed deep discouragement, a belief that no change was possible.”
Teachers in schools with affluence and less diversity also have a great responsibility to include social justice issues in their lesson planning, says Rubin. When such students “did not participate in lessons about inequality and social justice, it was common for them to voice complacency, a sense that all was well in the United States and no change was necessary.” In contrast, her research shows, when privileged students tackled issues of inequality and injustice with their teachers, they “expressed an awareness of injustice and a desire to work for change.”
Our students often come running into the classroom eager to talk about difficult issues, and we need to make time to honor their passion. On the other hand, sometimes we are the ones who need to pull off the Band-Aid of complacency and bring an issue to our students. We can do this teaching in age-appropriate ways, and I have offered many suggestions for such teaching in past blog posts.
Other resources for bringing issues into the classroom are linked below. Teaching Tolerance, ZinnEd Project, Rethinking Schools, and my own website, Teach for Peace, are among my top go-to sites for material to use when tackling tough issues. Whether it’s by using picture books, news sources, or YouTube videos, or undertaking debate, journal writing, or document comparison, we teachers can and must help our students connect issues of injustice and inequality to their lives. Our courageous teaching can lead to their courageous actions as informed, empowered local and global citizens.
-Susan Gelber Cannon
-Susan Gelber Cannon
- Common Dreams article on pending West Virginia legislation
- West Virginia Gazette article on pending legislation
- Beth C. Rubin: Article in Social Education, A Time for Social Studies: Talking with Young People about Ferguson and Staten Island
- Nicholas Kristof: Article in New York Times, When Whites Just Don’t Get It
- Teaching Tolerance
- ZinnEd Project
- Rethinking Schools
- Teach for Peace