How should we teach about social justice in a post-(Michael) Brown world?

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post by Beth Ellor

Picture a 5th Grade classroom in Chinatown on New York’s Lower East Side. Twenty-seven mostly Asian children – when I use the classic ‘clap, clap, clap-clap-clap’ signal, they fall silent immediately, eyes on me. Thorough plans from their teacher, including Social Studies – based on a Scholastic News magazine article about Selma and Civil Rights.

How do we introduce this to first generation immigrants (based on their accented English and preference for conversing in Chinese) who clearly have no context for that time? We read the article round-robin (a rarity these days), but the follow-up questions are met with blank stares. To enliven the short article, I’ve found some archival photos online to project on the Smartboard, and invite some discussion of how people might have felt then, seeing the shocking images on TV for the first time ever. Then I continue to a video from the recent 50 year anniversary celebration, specifically the speech made by John Lewis before he introduced President Obama. Immediately I regret this, for so many reasons.

The computer is set to the wrong screen resolution, stretching the images too wide. The sound quality is poor, and Rep. Lewis, with his strong Southern accent and also choked with emotion, induces snickers and imitations. My heart freezes. The mikes, positioned for the tall president, virtually obscure the much shorter Georgia Representative Lewis, so he appears to be bobbing in and out of sight. Suddenly, a Civil Rights icon and personal hero of mine is being subjected to derisive whispers and mirth. I find myself reminding them sharply that this man was willing to give his life for his beliefs throughout the Civil Rights struggle, and on that day, he almost did. The youngsters straighten their faces and attempt to pay attention, but there is no resonance for them. Someone else’s fight in some distant time, and definitely not about them. Epic Fail.

During lunch, I examine the bulletin boards around the room, which are based on their study of the Civil War era. Contemporary illustrations have been pinned up, surrounded by hand-written responses by the children. Around an engraving of enslaved people hoeing land and planting, an overseer on horseback holding a whip, and a white man lounging against a fence, watching, the children have noted: “The people want to get all the work done.” “He needs to make sure the work gets done.” (The overseer) And “He is watching to make sure the work will be finished in time.” (The white man) No-one remarks on the whip, the ethnicity of the characters, or the leisurely stance of the slave-owner.

I fall back on my own stereotypes of China under Chairman Mao, with the devotion of workers to collectivism, common goals of productivity, and self-effacing obedience. 60 plus years have passed since the Cultural Revolution, but how do Civil Rights images look to an Asian immigrant compared to a child born in the South Bronx, in Newark, NJ, or in Selma, Alabama? How does a teacher bring up the subject effectively in a 5th Grade classroom in Chinatown? And does it matter?

So it was with perfect synchronicity that I attended a meeting on May 12th called Digging Deeper: Teaching Rights and Social Justice in a Post-(Michael) Brown Era, offered by the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU, in partnership with:

International Perspectives on Human Rights Ed, International Ed Program, Dept. of Humanities and Social Services, Steinhardt School.

NYU Partnership Schools Program

Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, NYU.

The event was spearheaded by Carol Anne Spreen, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Steinhardt, NYU, and Chrissie Monaghan, Ph.D. Coordinator, NYC-RTE. Faculty biography., including links to other published works.

Her immediate boss, Jonathan Zimmerman, was also there to give an outline of his own contributions to the subject. Faculty Biography

Also on hand was David E. Kirkland, who spoke from both a professional and personal perspective about the systemic factors influencing people and communities of color in recent times. – for a video with Assistant Professor of English Education David Kirkland discussing how we can understand the complex literate lives of urban youth in and outside of the classroom and the experiences that develop their identity and engagement with the larger world. Faculty biography.

Following these presentations, short introductions were given by representatives of organizations which provide various forms of support and expertise to schools and public forums. I was already familiar with several of these, such as

Teaching Tolerance,

Which is the education arm of the

Southern Poverty Law Center Also

Howard Zinn’s education site -in conjunction with:-

Teaching for Change, and

Rethinking Schools

But there are so many dedicated organizations also offering social justice education programs!


Facing History, Facing Ourselves

Equitas (look under educational resources)

Amnesty International:

Asia Society:

Human Rights Watch:

Global Nomads Group:

Speak Truth to Power: and

Street Law Inc.

Brooklyn 826 (Valencia 826)

Educational Video Center:

Voice of Witness:

While each of these offer distinctive resources and focus, every educator who cares about increasing the depth of exposure and understanding of their students will find a wealth of support here. As with all resources, find the one(s) which meet your needs, match your voice and purpose, and stick with it.

To return briefly to my 5th graders – the educators I spoke to had two important messages.

  • it is best to start with personal stories and experiences before launching into the topic, so that you can create common ground between your students and the theme you plan to launch.
  • (this especially from Facing History, Facing Ourselvespresenter Daniel Braunfeld), create the plans around the age and experience of the students themselves. What works for one group may be entirely inaccessible for another of the same age/grade, so Facing History curriculum is always developed together with teachers on site, not scripted in a pre-digested format.

An article in Scholastic in 5th Grade will be too early and a mismatch for the children’s historical perspective, compared to mine after decades of living through it myself! I hope they will eventually get to discover for themselves, using one of these wonderful programs which are free and available to teachers and schools everywhere!

This post originally appeared on Beth Ellor’s page, and was republished with permission.


Beth Ellor has explored the New York City schools as a parent, as an early childhood teacher, and as a retiree currently providing professional development to inner city schools (as an independent contractor for a celebrated i3 provider). Also a substitute teacher in a wide range of schools, she is a close observer of the reality behind the rhetoric of school success, struggle and reform.

Choose your Reaction!