Implementing Justice in an Unjust Classroom

By Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora:  two teachers challenging the status quo

deskWhen thinking about poverty and its impact on society, many of us to think about the streets of the inner-city or across the ocean to a Third World Nation.  The reality is that we only need to look out at the desks across our classrooms and see the poverty that inhabits our rooms.

And though we are trained professionals, competent in curriculum and practices, we need to admit we are not  fully aware of our students and their complicated lives.   We do not understand those special situations that make school and its practices difficult for them and their families.  But once we acknowledge this, we need to take action to create change, ensuring that our students of poverty do not feel differently about themselves because of the requirements of our class.

No teacher consciously chooses to make a students feel differently about themselves while they are in the classroom, but the lessons and projects we create can inadvertently create a strong class awareness.  For example, consider the teachers’ favorite conclusion to a unit:  the project.  The parade of creativity begins with the with:

  • the hot gun genius who loves demonstrating his/her prowess with hot glue and shiny things
  •  the art work done with sophisticated  art products that probably were bought by a frantic parent who made a wild and crazy run to the craft shop before closing

appleAs teachers, it is hard to hold back our admiration for students’ efforts on end of unit projects, and who among us does not like sparkly things?   But consider the project done on plain cardboard with three colored pencils.  This may receive the very same grade as the others, but we may have inadvertently taught the artists of the latter projects that they are not as fortunate as their peers because their products do not sparkle and shine; they do not have the resources; they are poor.  And though we cannot see it, their self-esteem plummets.

Most teachers come aren’t aware of situational and generational poverty, but we think most people can remember how it feels to be left out or made to feel different.  Jeff Sapp, a professor at Cal State Domiquez Hills excellent article, How School Taught Me I Was Poor, underscores the fact that more is “caught than taught” in the classroom when it comes to status and class order.  We inadvertently allow inequity and injustice to enter our practices and affect our students.

changeTo create equity pathways, public school teachers must be aware that our practices and projects are often not thought out to include the needs of students in poverty.  Ann Van Etten, in response to this article, How Gadgets Teach Kids They Are Poor, underscores the need for a new sensitivity as we attempt to reach our students in this age of technology that separates the haves from the have nots.

Sonia Nieto’s demonstrates how many of our activities inadvertently exclude the very students we are trying to reach in the same article in  Teaching Tolerance  Her list of ideas, Making Students Feel Welcome, was a response to Jeff Sapp’s article and asks us to consider our students, their environment and their family circumstances:

  • It is clear from this article that the traditional “Family Tree” assignment excludes or marginalizes many students, including those who live in poverty, those not from traditional nuclear families, or those who are adopted, among others.
  •  Another project that draws a clear distinction among students of different social classes is the traditional science fair. For one thing, middle-class families frequently help their children out with the projects both with advice and with extra resources. 
  •  For a variety of reasons, students who live in poverty are often absent from school sports and other after-school activities. 
  •  Students are automatically excluded from some school rituals and traditions that require their families to pay (for example, school trips, “Spirit Days” where everyone is expected to wear particular items, and so on).  

 Moment of Clarity: Chatting with my school’s literacy coach about the this issue and my work to change practices and create a classroom of equity, she shared her story:clarity

It was on spring break when she received a call from an emerging a high school ESL student asking for her help with a history research project.  He was a quiet young man who came to the US and worked in the fields at a very young age.  His hands were calloused like a grown man when he was placed in the 5th grade with little or no English skills.  Working to always catch up, he called her as his lifeline to a project assigned over break.

Meeting with him the next day, he produced the directions he received for his research project.  Text-heavy, she knew this was an assignment he could not understand it, so she began to take it apart with him and realized it required a great amount of research.  Asking him if he had access to technology, he pulled out his mother’s cell phone, his only form of research.

He was also required to have a special binder with page separators, and on and on and on.  He had no extra money for any of this or had any resources to find and print out research.

Rolling up her sleeves, she went home and researched and printed documents for him, and meeting with him the next day, taught him close reading strategies so he could understand the text.  Outlining the task, she worked with him until he felt secure to work independently, and then she  shopped for his materials.  The shopping list meant little to her budget, but would have been a meal to his family.

And they worked together that break period until he completed the project.

And he went back to school, aware now of the importance of the Viet Nam War, an event that occurred while he was working in the fields, and confident his work would be like the other students.

Have Faith

We choose to teach and to be agents of change in the classroom.  There is so much we can accomplish if we remember that the most important element of our teaching is sitting before us, complex and fragile.  And they are counting on us to make their lives better.





About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
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