Social Justice is a rising focus in education today. It is imperative that educators, and all people who work with kids learn a few components of teaching social justice. Teaching for social justice is recognizing that oppression comes in different forms and by taking action within the classroom we as educators interrupt the cycles of oppression through educating our students. Below is a list of key aspects of City Year’s culture that support our efforts to teach social justice.  

1. When walking into a new space with students, always approach the space with an open heart and an open mind.

As a Corps member in Philadelphia, I work with a diverse group of students with different backgrounds. I noticed that a lot of my students were not always willing to accept what I had to say because I was a girl from the south and I was different from the people they saw in their neighborhoods. During my initial training to become a corps member, City Year taught me a motto that says “I will serve with an open heart and an open mind.” These words helped me to persevere in my journey of helping my students achieve. Instead of getting frustrated and annoyed that they did not want to work with me or hear me out because our lives were not similar, I let them tell me why they did not want to work with me. I tried to understand their frustrations and why they did not like working with new people. In listening and trying to understand, I maintained an open heart and an open mind.

2. Set a level of expectation on day one.  

As my focus lists (a cohort of students who are assigned to an intervention list focused in math, literacy, social emotional learning and attendance) began to take shape, I set high expectations for my students. I never let pity lower my expectations for them. The feeling of pity only exempts them from learning with rigor and excellence. Although the challenges that our students face on a daily basis are ever present, we should not let our children’s circumstances hinder them from receiving the best that we have to offer through education. Low expectations for students will only perpetuate educational oppression that will neutralize their intellectual promise.  

3. Never let the word “dumb” be used in your learning environment. 

Never let the word “dumb” be used in your learning environment, or let anything disrespectful be said about parents or guardians who support our students. Some students may have challenges, but it is our duty to be patient, wise, and skillful in supporting students as they advance in academics and in life. As corps members it is also important that we make steps to improve ourselves as we strive to help our students.  

4. Build relationships with your students.  

Relationship building is essential to having a student trust you and being open to learning from you. The easiest way to build meaningful relationships is by asking questions and letting your students talk freely, without judgement. Keep in mind that you don’t need to have anything in common with your students to form a meaningful connection with them.

5. Allow a space for reflection, free expression and creativity.  

Allowing a space for reflection, free expression, and creativity is also key. Some students don’t like to talk or discuss much. Allowing a space to write, draw, create art, and meditate creates an outlet for them. A great way to put this to practice is by using the 50 Act of Greatness or the 50 Acts of Leadership. A favorite go to is the reflective hand activity where the student and ACM trace their hand on paper and on each finger they are to make a reflection of the past week using pluses and deltas. This activity can be adapted to fit any topic such as goals for the year or marking period, self-reflections and so much more.

Teaching for Social Justice is important as agents for change in the schools we serve. It is important that we continue to interrupt the cycle of oppression on all levels to ensure a just and equal society for all students. In doing so, our students benefit and their communities improve. I can only hope that I have instilled the tools to achieve and overcome bad days and challenges that the students face. City Year has given me the training and foundation in which to be a change agent. Pay it forward by being a catalyst for change. 

Written by City Year Philadelphia AmeriCorps Member, Erica Hawkins, serving at the Tanner G. Duckrey School Team. The work of Erica and her team is made possible by Team Sponsor, The Lenfest Foundation. 

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