The Conscious Classroom

The Conscious Classroom

A new generation of educators, frustrated with ineffective reforms, turns to pedagogy focused on social justice.


Positioned among smoky factories and aging row houses on Chicago’s West Side, the immaculate Little Village Lawndale High School (LVLHS) serves as a constant reminder to community residents of what collective action can produce. Concerned that 70 percent of neighborhood students traveled to different parts of the city for high school, parents organized vigorously for the construction of a new facility in their backyard. After initially approving the plans, city officials stalled construction, claiming that funds had to be diverted to other projects. In response, the community redoubled its efforts, culminating in a nineteen-day hunger strike at the site of the proposed building, referred to by supporters as Camp Cesar Chavez. “Construyan la escuela ahora!” was the protesters’ battle cry, and after six long years, the school was opened as promised in 2005.

Aside from the beautiful building, the struggle birthed a new educational environment for Little Village’s youth. “The parents kept saying they really wanted our school to teach the values of peace and struggle,” says Rito Martinez, the principal of Social Justice High School at LVLHS, “and what the community had to do to fight for the school.” One of four small schools housed on the campus, Martinez’s social justice school was specifically created to foster basic skills and literacy–as well as critical inquiry–through projects and problems centered on race, gender and economic equity. “There’s a combination of self-awareness and the opportunity to become socially conscious,” he says. “We’re not dogmatic about it…but we give them the opportunity for self-discovery.”

On a fall morning a week into the school year, it’s clear that the school’s methodology excites the students of LVLHS, 98 percent of whom qualify as low-income. It’s Wednesday, which means the kids participate in extended teacher-generated colloquiums focusing on topics that allow students to explore their identity in an academic setting. In a section on student organizing, thirteen high schoolers attempt to define the word “community,” brainstorming about their city’s assets and problems and how the students can tackle an issue of importance to them. Down the hall, an enthusiastic teacher focusing on ethnography leads a lively discussion about racial stereotypes in the media as an entree into the idea of hegemony. Hands pop up across the packed classroom as students argue about how advertisements influence the way society views larger populations. As Martinez notes, providing students the flexibility to “explore learning” is something that’s generally offered only to kids in affluent districts, yet the practice can be transformational.

While the history of LVLHS’s genesis is unique, its approach is not; the movement to link education, social justice and activism is appealing to a growing number of educators and community organizations around the country. Updating successful principles from liberatory education programs of the past, teachers and community members are finding exciting ways to engage a new generation of urban students alienated by mainstream methodologies, something countless reform efforts have thus far failed to accomplish. And as Congress moves to reform or scrap the No Child Left Behind Act, legislators could benefit from studying these new techniques, which have been largely ignored on a national scale.

Back to the Future

Much of the work that now falls under the social justice education umbrella is grounded in a rich educational lineage dating back more than forty years. Among the intellectual forebears is Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, author of the landmark 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire described traditional education as “suffering from narration sickness,” in which the hierarchical relationship between teacher and student causes the former to deposit facts into the latter without cultivating an understanding of what those facts mean. He argues that only through a dialectical praxis, or “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it,” will students develop the critical skills necessary to realize their potential as scholars and citizens.

Another equally important influence is the Freedom School movement of the 1960s. In 1964 various civil rights organizations created a network of free alternative summer schools in Mississippi as a means to end the political marginalization of black people by encouraging students to become active in their communities. Divided between an “academic curriculum” that used reading, verbal and writing activities based on the student’s own experiences and a “citizenship curriculum” that allowed for discussions about each student’s role in the Jim Crow South, the course work was demanding. But more than 3,000 black students of all ages attended that summer, demonstrating the program’s appeal.

Twenty-first-century social justice education builds on these models while also emphasizing dialogue and remaining attentive to each student’s social environment. “Taking kids’ lives as a point of departure and bringing the world into the classroom really does seem to give a context and a purpose that is very motivating,” says Stan Karp, a veteran English teacher and an editor of the Milwaukee-based education reform magazine Rethinking Schools.

Conservatives, with the New York Sun and City Journal leading the charge, have denounced the movement for indoctrinating public school students with leftist politics at the expense of general education. But successful social justice education ensures that teachers strike a balance between debating sociopolitical problems that affect children’s lives and teaching them academic basics on which they will be tested. A science teacher can plant an urban garden, allowing students to learn about plant biology, the imbalance in how fresh produce is distributed and how that affects the health of community residents. An English teacher can explore misogyny or materialism in American culture through the lens of hip-hop lyrics. Or as Rico Gutstein, a professor of mathematics education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, suggests, a math teacher can run probability simulations using real data to understand the dynamics behind income inequality or racial profiling. These are “examples of lessons where you can really learn the math basics,” he says, “but the purpose of learning the math actually becomes an entree into, and a deeper understanding of, the political ramifications of the issue.”

Such practical exercises, advocates argue, improve upon the standard approach to youth development, which aims to promote individual success but fails to examine the inequities that inhibit it. “At least to expose people to a structural analysis of inequality and the distribution of goodies in society,” says Charles Payne, the Frank P. Hixon Professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, “seems to be one of the more obvious ways that we can do better than we have done.” If executed properly, social justice education also lays the intellectual foundation so essential for independent analytical thought while providing students the opportunity to realize their own human agency. In this way, urban students are treated not as burdens to their community but as partners in solving the complex problems that plague their neighborhoods.

The Method Spreads

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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