Someone once asked me, “Why teach social justice to eighth-graders?” The answer is simple: As educators, we do not control the world our students face when they step outside of our classrooms. However, we are responsible for how prepared our students are to engage with that world. Back in 2016, Sharif El-Mekki and Katie Ziemba at Philadelphia’s Mastery Charter Shoemaker Campus provided me with the opportunity to do exactly that, developing and facilitating a course focused specifically on social justice. In the age of high-stakes testing and common standards, designing your own curriculum can be a rarity for teachers, especially for such a contentious subject. So I, of course, jumped at the opportunity. As a Black male educator, teaching social justice has not only provided me with the opportunity to help students explore their own identities but also to challenge them to think about real world issues. I am very intentional about engaging my students—specifically young Black men—in ways other content areas are not able to. I build in opportunities for them to lead and facilitate whole-group discussions, participate in mock-grand jury investigations, develop their writing in meaningful ways, and of course take action in our West Philadelphia community.
I Wish I’d Had This Class in Eighth Grade
Growing up in the Philadelphia public school system, I never received the opportunity to engage in a course like this. In fact, African-American history was only offered as an elective in 11th grade, which I didn’t have the privilege of taking. So here you have this 18-year-old Black male gaining his first exposure to African-American history at Lincoln University as part of their freshman seminar coursework. I knew there was something really wrong with this picture, and unfortunately, I did not stand alone in that experience. So, for me, teaching this course is not just about exposing my students to examples of injustice, it’s about sharing a narrative that has gone untold for far too long. We cannot expect our youth to be agents of change in their communities if the only examples of activism they are exposed to are Dr. King and Malcolm X.
It’s About What You Do, Not Just What You Learn
Our eighth-grade social justice course is designed to help students think and speak critically about social justice issues through a historical perspective so that they can take effective action in their communities. But what separates this course from a typical African-American history course is the intentional focus on youth activism and the projects that the students themselves create. For instance, our eighth-graders deepened their understanding of strategic and organic youth activism during the Civil Rights Movement and were exposed to the Black Nationalism ideology that inspired the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa and the Black Panther Party. By the end of the year, students engaged in case studies covering Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, evaluating their effectiveness as movements. We cover all of this content while students simultaneously engage in their own activism. In the fall, they use canvassing to survey community members about the most pressing issues facing their communities. Each student then researches a social justice issue that she or he wants to learn more about, such as police brutality, LGBT equality or inequitable public school funding. During the spring, students form coalitions with their peers and create manageable action plans to address some of those issues. Each coalition works to put their plans into action and presents their final project to members of the student body. I truly believe it is not enough to teach students a traditional curriculum when we know the issues that they will face today and tomorrow warrant conscious students who are able to lead and serve in their communities.
Photo of Gerald Dessus at Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus.