Social JusticeDefinition from Oxford Dictionaries

This past week I have been spending a lot of time with some really smart educators from all over the country. While the premise of this convening was the enormous edtech conference, ISTE, I spent less time talking about tech tools and awesome apps and more time talking about equity, school funding, current events and the trajectory of education in the US.

On Monday, I sat on an engrossing panel with some of my colleagues talking about project-based learning (PBL) and my friend, Tom Whitby spoke about how many teachers who are successfully implementing PBL are 6 months ahead of the current conversations in education. For some reason, that comment stuck with me and I began to reflect and think about the attendees at conferences I attend, the people who attend my sessions, the people who organize events I go to and the people who design and sell the flashy tech tools that schools adopt and use.

On both of the panels I was on the conversation moved at some point to specific apps or tools. While we made sure to focus on the whys and the hows that must come before adopting a tool, it seems that, often, people are looking for a tool or a device to be a “silver bullet” (to paraphrase Josh Stumpenhorst’s closing keynote on Wednesday.)

I began to wonder–why is it that some educators are thinking about these bigger ideas and some are not? Amanda Dykes refers to these big thinking educators as “rebels” in her most recent post. Like her, I often find myself in the crowd that asks persistent questions, that offers another side to the argument, that asks the fundamental question of “why” on a regular basis.

I have a couple of thoughts.

Teachers often become teachers because they were good students. Good students sit and listen and follow the rules. Good students trust the adults and the information they are being presented with. Good students ask the right questions, not always the hard questions. Essentially, good students play the game. These good students then enter a system (the teaching profession) that also rewards those who follow the rules and play the game.

From this I conclude that teachers are not often asked to push the envelope, to ask hard questions, to reflect and question their own practices on a regular basis and they may not take that initiative on their own. Specifically, at a conference like ISTE, these teachers often see the potential for tech to enhance, improve, simplify what they are already doing in their classrooms. There are few sessions at ISTE (and I’d argue many other education conferences) that delve into that fundamental question: WHY?

What I have noticed over the last few months as the school year came to a close was a lot of conversation around topics like police brutality, racism and inequality. This has been a Spring full of events that are hard to ignore. They have forced teachers to decide, “Will I address these events with my students? If I choose to, how can I address them without risking backlash from administrators and parents?” Many teachers may not be accustomed to or comfortable with approaching hard topics with their students.

At our Edutopia bloggers summit this past Saturday, we brainstormed future blog post topics and one of the largest groups formed around social justice. Three excellent Ignite presentations on Sunday centered around topics of social justice, including a call to action for all students to be given the opportunity to succeed, for us to listen to our students and for educators to embrace and encourage the diverse students in their classrooms. When asked what the biggest challenges to integrating technology into PBL were I answered, “access.” The sad part is that much of this conversation isn’t new. Back in 1991 Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities compared the schools in Camden, NJ with those only a few miles away to show the inequities that existed in public education. Sadly, those inequities still exist more than two decades later.

So what am I getting at here?

Basically, education inequalities have not changed. Teachers tend to keep their head down and stick to the game plan. Current events involving police brutality, racism, terrorism, marriage equality, the Confederate flag, and a continuing lack of diversity in the huge tech companies that permeate our lives are hard to ignore. It’s easy to just plow through our day, business as usual. It’s harder to take a step back and reflect, to find our place in the world, to face our own prejudices and privilege, to decide where we stand on these issues and events. Once we’ve done that hard work, we must decide how we will ask our students to so. If you know where you stand and you have acknowledged your own shortcomings, misunderstandings and worked through them, then you are ready to lead your students through that same process. You are ready to ask that fundamental question: “Why?”

So why do we need to do this hard work?

When we put technology into the hands of our students we say that we are preparing them for life outside of school, that the world they live in is filled with technology and they need to know how to leverage it. The world they live in now and the world they will live in is also filled with hate, injustice, greed, and violence. How are we preparing our students for that world? More importantly, how can technology be leveraged to make the world a better place?

I have always grappled with activism and the teaching profession. While I believe that it is a teacher’s job to open the world to his or her students and to help students better understand the world, I don’t believe it is my job to judge a student’s beliefs and tell them to change. It is my job, however, to ask hard questions and to guide my students down a reflective path to make their own decisions and form their own opinions based on research and dialogue, not assumptions and hearsay.

A teacher as activist helps students grapple with their own experiences and emotions, to take a stand, to stand up for what they believe in, and to act. As Dr Robert Dillon says in his Ignite presentation, “We have to break the cycle of being shocked, having sympathy and then returning to the privilege that we all experience in our lives.” Schools are often stuck in this cycle. Once the shock has worn off, there are tests to take, units to plan, papers to grade…..

I am still exploring these hard questions for myself. I look at my son, a middle class white male and know that he will be awarded opportunities based on those three qualifiers alone. How will I address privilege with my son? Having taught in Philadelphia public schools for over 10 years I am not blind to the inequities that exist across this city, where zip codes define socio-economic status. How will I avoid accepting the status quo and how will I impart that on my students?

Jose Vilson asked during the bloggers summit about how he can incorporate Social Justice into his Math classes. We should all be asking that question about our own classes. It is becoming more apparent that teachers are seeking resources and avenues to address the issues our students face and see on TV every day. At an edtech conference of over 10,000 people these quests may have flown under the radar. But maybe it’s because we failed to ask the right question: “Why?”

Some social justice resources

Edudemic Social Justice Lessons

Teaching Tolerance website

Open data and Social justice (information justice)

Pernille Ripp— student voice – processing recent events in the classroom

Dr. Robert Dillon — what’s really important? How do we use shiny tools to make big waves?

Rafranz Davis  — where is the diversity in EdTech?



Facebook Diversity Report


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