Asia Jones is a 2016 Inspired Teaching Fellow and 1st grade teacher at Eagle Academy PCS. This spring, she sat down with Inspired Teaching to discuss how she incorporates topics related to social justice into her classroom to help her students become activists.
You’ve implemented social justice curriculum in your classroom; can you share your experience approaching and executing lessons with your students?
When my mentor and I decided to teach activism, we wanted to teach students about black history that is relevant to now. We thought about Black Lives Matter in general and how we could apply those themes to our classroom to make our class a better space for learning and increase the students’ self esteem around their identity. Every student in my class is black. I taught them about historical black activists and about the change they made and their reason for wanting to make change as well as the challenges they faced. We learned about the traits a good activist must posses, so the students could learn about ways they can be an activists in their class and school.
The students were most engaged during whole-class discussions. Students who are usually reluctant to engage in class activities even expressed enjoyment about learning about the figures. Some kids told me, “I like learning about activism.” One student who is normally disengaged in other units was particularly interested, even creating activism artwork in his free time. Students told their parents, grandparents, and families. One student told his grandparents that he was learning about activism and they said, “what’s that?” This was a great example of student as expert and the students are going home and influencing their communities and families.
How have you dealt with the controversial nature of teaching topics related to social justice?
We did have some controversy. When I first put up the bulletin board for the unit, I put up “Black Lives Matter” so the students could commit to the movement and process. I immediately got an email from my principal and I had to defend my position of incorporating Black Lives Matter in my class. The administration was not immediately supportive, but I did get a lot of support from other teachers in the school and community. A lot of parents would stop in and tell me they thought it was cool I was encouraging my students in this way, and some teachers brought their classes by our board to sign their names.
How have you advocated for what you know to be best for your students?
I just stood my ground. I knew this was something I thought was important to teach them so I wasn’t wavering. I was going to find a way to satisfy my principle. So I sent in my plans and said I want to instill self esteem, advocacy, and the “want” to be better in my students and I felt like this could be a learning experience that would yield these outcomes. Then, I went with it. Of course, I informed administration of how the unit aligned with content standards.
As an Inspired Teacher, why do you feel it is so critical to teach these lessons?
It’s important to teach activism to students, young students, so they can think about how they truly can make a difference. Instead of thinking they need to accept society, I wanted to teach activism because my students are imaginative and can really envision themselves as activists. I also wanted to teach it because of the community they live in, because of their backgrounds, and because I wanted them to have more pride in their identities. Those were the main motivators. I taught activism in the context of our school. We named several problems we noticed in the school and then voted on the factor most preventing us from learning, which they identified as disrespectful and disruptive behaviors in the school. We decided to be activists in our community and set out to change, which started by changing their own behavior. Throughout the unit, we really unpacked the characteristics and tactics of the activists we studied to apply that to how they will influence their community. I honestly believe they feel empowered.
How have your students responded? What have been their reactions?
This is going to be something that they remember for a very long time, maybe into adulthood. During our showcase day, they were all able to define activism and define what an activist is. They were also able to list traits that make a good activist, and identify ways they can change their behavior to influence others. They really made the connections I intended for them to. They are really proud of their work – they randomly say the class logo and rap we wrote for the culminating projects because it is that meaningful to them. They want to show their projects to friends in other classes- and I can see their pride and their intrinsic motivation has grown because their proud.
How will you continue to promote social justice in your classroom, this year and beyond?
I always refer to the work we do to reinforce the behaviors I want and to redirect students and I plan to continue teaching this and making adjustments to make it a better unit. I refined the lesson as we progressed, so I’d like to teach it again. I’d also like to connect learning about activism with modern day movements that are relevant to the students’ lives so they can actually understand this is applicable.
What advice would you give another teacher?
Great question! I have a bit of advice.
- I think because it is a controversial matter, you have to be aware of your identity teaching social justice and be aware of how people will perceive you and approach your facilitation of the subject based on your identity.
- Lesson should be student-led and student driven. Children are going to lead themselves to the answers on their own. Let it be discussion based.
- Create a culminating project that the students can see themselves in – like the video our class shot.
- Talk to administration about your plans and reasoning. Share your plans with the whole school.
If I were to do this again, I would have chosen more activists for the students to study — perhaps some that are alive today, with similar social issues that the students face now.