Classroom Strategies, Research and Reflections

Why Teaching Justice Through Reading & Writing Cannot Wait

How teachers can enact change and combat racism through purposeful discussions and literary curricula

Early in my education career, I taught U.S. Government and was invited by the Director of the Center for Civic Education to attend a Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. Once labeled “Bombingham” because of the explosive, racist attacks on black people, this city also was home to the historic 16th Street Baptist Church. Targeted by the KKK for being a command center for the Civil Rights Movement, this church is where four young black girls lost their lives getting ready for Sunday School when a bomb detonated on September 15, 1963. Forty-four years later, in September 2007, I was on an airplane going to meet the foot soldiers of the Children’s March and the parents of Denise McNair – one of the little girls who tragically lost her life in that church bombing. The white man in his late 40s sitting next to me on the plane asked why I was traveling to Birmingham. I briefly explained, and he said, “The bombing was the turning point for my parents.” He was a little boy sitting in an all-white Sunday School classroom of his own across the city in an all-white neighborhood that morning. He said, “It rocked the city so hard we thought it was an earthquake.” The bombing and deaths of those four girls also rattled the moral conscience of his parents, who had previously believed segregation was not their issue to fight. He said many non-racist white people disagreed with segregation, but they trusted others to figure it out over time.

George Floyd’s horrific death this past month blasted my memory back to that plane ride. Pondering the number of black people who’ve lost their lives to police brutality, I’ve wondered, “How many white people think police brutality is wrong, but not their issue to fight?” I’ve flashed back to standing in the same hallowed spot of that church basement where Denise McNair and her three friends lost their lives to bigotry and hatred. The stained-glass face of Christ symbolically shattered in the sanctuary that morning, and many throughout the nation grieved. Denise’s parents believed their daughter brought a city and nation to its knees in repentance over the injustice of her death. Today I wonder how many more people of color must still die at the hands of racial brutality before we’re shattered enough to correct the sin of racial injustice forever? 

1963 was a pivotal year for the Civil Rights Movement. It was the year of the Birmingham Children’s March, where thousands of children were arrested and imprisoned and some put in hog pens at the fairgrounds when the jail cells overflowed. It was 100 years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the year Martin Luther King, Jr., led the March on Washington and declared the time for waiting for full citizenship rights was over. It was the same year he referenced Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience when he wrote the following in Letter from Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When one person loses his or her life at the hands of racist brutality, and we think someone else will fix it, no American is safe.

To quote Reverend King, “Now is the time” for those of us who must educate colleagues, students, and communities that racial injustice is not a black or white or brown problem – it is a moral atrocity of mass destruction. We must shake and rattle the conscience of the education community to teach tolerance and the value of human dignity. How can we do this? Here are some ideas:

  • Infuse texts by authors of different ethnicities and perspectives into both fiction and nonfiction curriculum. Have students journal about the feelings and experiences of the author and note parallels and differences in their own lives. Creating graphic organizers comparing and contrasting the author’s life and experiences to the student’s is an effective, visual way for even elementary kids to internalize what they read.
  • Host guest speakers. As a social studies teacher, I invited a Holocaust survivor and a black man who experienced racism and segregation working for the Birmingham police department in the 1960s to speak to my classes. I also had a German WWII veteran, who came and spoke about how Hitler had manipulated the German people through propaganda and fear. When I taught English, my students helped me organize and host a Social Justice in American Literature night. Guest panelists spoke on poverty, religious persecution, bullying,  and racism. There was no agenda – simply an awareness night with expert panelists and lots of Q & A. Students then wrote about their experiences and what they learned. All we had to do was reach out to local organizations with an invitation, and the speakers graciously attended. If a live event is not possible, consider using Google Meets or prerecord and upload for your students.
  • Teach students that human dignity is timeless. Find literature where the themes are similar, and give historical context for each before diving into complex text. Beyond text analysis, plan how you can guide your students into the life lesson application of what they read. One of my favorite activities as an ELA teacher was having my high school juniors compare and contrast Letter from Birmingham Jail to Civil Disobedience. That was predicated by digging into “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence and when – if ever – it is okay to rebel against your government. Thoreau and King then helped kids refine their understanding of “just” and “moral” laws and how rebellion sometimes comes with a price in order to prove how unjust government can be.
  • Model and guide purposeful civil discourse. Discussions help students process and synthesize others’ beliefs and their own. Whether it’s Fishbowl or passing a talking piece, there should be structured and agreed-upon ground rules as a class. An example is when my students debated whether or not Colin Kaepernick’s Take-A-Knee Movement was unpatriotic. Students on each side were given clear parameters and time limits with no personal attacks on anyone. Students of color afraid of white police officers were able to express their feelings, and students with family members in law enforcement described how hurtful it was for their relatives to be stereotyped as people who would abuse their power. Those who knew people in the armed forces shared their perspectives, some cited 1st Amendment freedoms, and others referenced non-violent peaceful protests. As students shared and wrote, they realized that we may agree to disagree, but we all want the same civil liberties for all. These conversations can be done live in a classroom or through Google, Canvas, and other remote discussion tools.
  • Assign students an opposing view to prove. For example, ask students if they support amnesty for young adults who were brought to the U.S. as undocumented children by their parents. Those who say yes go to one side of the room, and those who say no go to the other. Then tell students they will argue for the side they’re against. Instruct them to collectively develop their arguments within a specified time frame and they can use devices to research if applicable. When done, pair each with a partner on the other side and have them share their answers with a chart of Yes & No Reasons. They can then write a reflection on whether or not they still hold to their original view based on the activity as they cite reasons for and against. This is good for teaching claims and counterclaims and preparing students for simulated mock hearings.
  • Encourage transparency and authenticity. Tell students you have had your own biases and stereotyped people in the past. Share a story about how you misjudged one of your own teachers as a kid or wrongly thought poorly of someone because of what your friends had said about the person. Ask kids to think about how they develop opinions and biases and what influences their perspectives. Not all students will want to engage in open dialogue within a classroom or a virtual discussion. They will fear judgement from others or have to acknowledge their own prejudices and views are being challenged and changed. Establish “no judgment spaces” and encourage kids if they are uncomfortable to talk to you or write a reflection on why they are struggling.
  • Preemptively communicate the objective. When pushing students to think critically about their own values and social responsibilities, kids and parents might get uncomfortable. Make it clear to students and parents you have no agenda other than to encourage critical thinking about life issues through literature and writing.  If you think discussions, activities, or text will create potential conflicts, give parents and school leaders a preview of what you are doing and how it connects to academic standards and the character principles in your school’s mission and vision. Make yourself available to answer questions and concerns.
  • Utilize excellent resources. Some of Brown University’s Choices curriculum, Courageous Conversations About Race by Glenn Singleton, the Center for Civic Education, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and Teaching Tolerance through the Southern Poverty Law Center are good places to start. Talk to your administrators and colleagues about what you can do in your school.

If you are already purposeful in integrating opportunities to combat racism and stereotypes in your classroom, continue the good work. If you are looking for ways to improve, reflect on the barriers holding you back. Now is past time – this is our turning point, and our classrooms are still safe.

2 thoughts on “Why Teaching Justice Through Reading & Writing Cannot Wait

  1. Excellent article!
    As an educator, for many years I have felt that the educational system in this country has a moral obligation to teach students what systemic racism is and to eradicate it. This year has taught every person regardless of color, sex, creed or religion that not enough has been done to wipe out racism globally. We must continue to carry the torch and fight for justice for all people everywhere. I feel as though the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s was just a small taste of what the future holds. I am looking forward to a bright future where my children will not have to worry about fighting for justice.
    I have always felt that there are racist people everywhere with racist views. I cannot help but wonder how many of them are teaching our children in the school systems of the United States..

  2. Great article! I would like any ideas on how to begin exercises similar to the ones you mentioned with elementary students. Although they are small they also experience the impact of racial injustices. I am in an urban school district. I would like to give them a safe space to express what is going on around them. I believe that if I can begin social justice teaching in the elementary grades then as they get older the seed would have already been planted.

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About the Author: Yvonne Thompson is a writer, speaker, and educational leader with experience in public, charter, and private schools. She has contributed to state and national curriculum projects, and her articles have appeared in several publications, including SEVENTEEN Magazine and The Indianapolis Star. She is currently a proud Falcon Master Teacher at Perry Meridian H.S. in Indianapolis.