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The Conscious Classroom | The Nation

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The Conscious Classroom

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The Method Spreads

About the Author

Adam Doster
Adam Doster is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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Social justice education has made inroads inside and outside the conventional classroom setting. Since 1992 the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) has stood at the forefront of this movement, running modern freedom schools in cities nationwide. CDF leaders devised a model curriculum focused on five components: high-quality academic enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational leadership development; and nutrition, physical and mental health. Like their Freedom Summer predecessors, college-age students attend a national training workshop and facilitate coursework at all the schools. Since 1995 more than 64,000 children and families have been involved, including 7,000 children in forty-nine cities in the summer of 2006.

Independent freedom schools have developed as well, each with its own local nuances. In San Francisco, students meet weekly to discuss topics like "Art and Protest" and "Nonviolence and Direct Action." Chicago youth, upon passing a rigorous application process, are actually paid $1,200 to attend an intensive six-week program that highlights sociopolitical consciousness and movement strategy.

Ironically, the rise of public charter schools, which have been promoted by the right and sometimes resisted by education reformers on the left, has been a boon for social justice education. "I don't see how that rapid expansion is possible without the proliferation of small schools and charter schools," says Payne. "They create an institutional opening and a resource base that wasn't there before." Public charter status is valuable because funding is still provided by the government, but teachers are granted more autonomy to experiment with material that some may deem too controversial in standard settings. In New York City alone, more than fifteen charter schools have opened with explicit social justice themes, many of them in the past five years. Chicago, Los Angeles and Oakland have followed suit.

With more education schools assigning the works of Freire and Jonathan Kozol, a growing number of teachers, with the help of local teachers' organizations, are infusing their curriculums with liberatory theories too. One such group is the New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCORE), an organization of past and present public school teachers founded in 2002 that gives teachers the chance to discuss larger issues of social justice while formulating ways to bring those topics into the classroom. "We find that there are a lot of teachers who are highly politicized, but they are isolated in schools where they are being forced to implement curriculum or policies that are really antithetical to their own belief system," says Bree Picower, a NYCORE member and an assistant professor at New York University's Department of Teaching & Learning. "And we look to try and network those teachers." Teachers 4 Social Justice (T4SJ), a similar group in Chicago, holds an annual curriculum fair where teachers can exchange lesson plans as well as tactics on the best way to teach about injustice in schools that don't explicitly support such activity. "You have to be careful. You have to build allies," says Gutstein, a co-founder of the Chicago T4SJ. "But the reality is that there's always space. There's always cracks."

Perhaps most encouraging, liberatory education advocates from diverse parts of the country are beginning the slow process of organizing. "Oftentimes it's individuals or individual institutions doing their own work," says Tara Mack, director of the Education for Liberation Network. "And it's one of these things where you look up and realize that there are actually a lot of different people who share similar values but haven't necessarily connected with each other." Mack's burgeoning organization--an outgrowth of a listserv of educators, academics and researchers--planned and ran Free Minds, Free People, what many have called one of the most productive social justice education conferences to date. More than 400 participants from across the country convened at LVLHS in June and ran panels, shared resources and discussed the best way to build institutional strength. Other networking groups are budding as well, including Education Action!, a nonprofit created by Jonathan Kozol, and the Teachers Activist Group, a national association attempting to align local organizations like NYCORE and T4SJ.

Breaking Into the Mainstream

In part, the growing interest in social justice education can be attributed to a kind of Bush backlash. Surging inequality and further disinvestment from urban cores to offset tax cuts and military spending have given teachers and activists the impetus to speak frankly to kids about ideas of fairness and justice, even if the President's No Child Left Behind Act has limited curriculum flexibility. "I think it's the...polarization that you see," says Gutstein. "People are talking about things in ways which I don't think I've heard since the 1970s, and that includes education."

But blaming the current Administration misses a larger point. Social justice education is a pedagogy that's reinvigorating educators frustrated with the ineffectiveness of longstanding reform efforts. Despite new focus on the "soft bigotry of low expectations," many urban students remain deeply alienated from traditional methods that seem so removed from their lives. The links between academic and financial success are tenuous at best, and command-and-control testing ignores the critical skills needed to improve the communities that the private sector and government have all but abandoned. In this context, focusing on structural inequality and human development is a compelling alternative.

While difficult to quantify empirically because much of the work is new and geographically localized, the pedagogy has shown humble signs of success. One Philliber Research Associates study found that the reading ability of 1,598 children who attend CDF Freedom School programs in Kansas City "significantly improved," outdistancing similar students, irrespective of whether or not they attended summer enrichment programs. Of the attendees, low-income middle schoolers made the greatest gains. And as those interviewed point out, the anecdotal evidence from students, teachers and parents is overwhelming. "We're rethinking these educational practices across the board," says Mia Henry, director of the Chicago Freedom School. "Because everyone is trying to find a way to do it right."

Social justice education, while growing in influence, has not yet entered the majority of mainstream education-reform conversations. Hunger strikes and protests like those at Little Village Lawndale High School may speed along the process. But if students remain engaged and educators continue to experiment and improve on their methods, it should be only a matter of time.

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