Teaching Toward Change

High school students have lots to navigate. Balancing friends, fitness, academics,social status, and family in a frequently changing environment can be challenging enough. Students today also are surrounded by current events more than ever, and expectations are high for the next generation to make major improvements to the society they are inheriting. A new course curriculum aims to build students’ confidence in where the future should be directed by developing their own critical perspective on the past and present.

The high school course catalogs tell us that Social Justice 1 & 2 students, “...will understand how individuals operate within community contexts created through interactions and relationships structured by sociability, belonging, and responsibility. This course will encourage students to think critically and expansively about the social world and the conditions of humanity. Social Justice will provide a foundation for students to explore social justice concepts, issues, and remedies, thereby developing the necessary tools and information to see inequality and injustice and address historical and contemporary issues relevant to students’ present day lives.”

This educational lens is in keeping with current standards for history and social justice curriculum, which have been developing a critical eye on the predominant stories of the past for many years. What makes this series of courses different is the added emphasis on contemporary actors and analysis of their strategies and effectiveness, as well as encouragement for students to engage in restorative action.

The 1st Semester course serves as an introduction to concepts and possible remedies involving several social justice issues, categorized into 7 units:

  • What is Social Justice?
  • Race & Ethnicity
  • Class & Socioeconomic Status
  • Gender & Sexual Orientation
  • Religious Persecution
  • Ableism
  • Ageism

Second semester course work really begins to engage students with their own community as agents of change. Sarah Rodgers, who teaches the course at University High School, told us, “Second semester is more exploratory. We study current social justice issues in the news, and what is being done about them. We learn about activists, and examine the ways in which they’ve been effective in combating social injustices. We invite guest speakers to our class to engage in discussions about different social justice organizations that they are involved in and take  field trips to organizations that are making a change in Detroit [metro]. Additionally, students choose a nonfiction novel related to a social justice issue that they are particularly interested in, as well as completing an action-based research project for the end of the year.” Students discuss complex social issues like houselessness, food inequality, upward mobility, and segregation by redlining. Global, national, and state perspectives are all brought into the discussion; but local analysis and on the ground action is where the work happens.

Kassie Weje, UHS student, said, “I, personally, feel like the social justice course elective at my school is a very important course to take. Not only as a high school student, but as a member of our society as well. It challenges my thinking about society…in a way that I might’ve never thought of before, especially as a Black Nigerian girl who lives in a generation of increasingly prominent social justice battles. This course causes me to learn about a variety of social justice issues that have had long-term effects, such as, redlining and housing discrimination, voter suppression, environmental racism, and mass incarceration. This class helps me to consider different perspectives, and challenges me to be open-minded. I would say that the class teaches me about a lot of the terms that I had heard used, but that I didn’t really understand. It helps the complex and almost scary subject of ‘society’ not seem so intimidating. Social justice issues will never have an easy answer, but learning about the issues can change the views of a person, and help them find their place in our confusing world. I know this because, even in the short time I’ve been in this class, I can say with confidence that it’s definitely changing the way I think.”

The course materials were developed through the work of  our Equity Development Team. This team of classroom teachers and administrators has been charged with creating meaningful and sustained equity integrations throughout the learning journey. The foundation of this work is the Equity Library for use in classrooms and at home: a collection of new books selected for their representation of different walks of life, cultural or personal experiences and human perspectives. Many of these books were introduced and shared with the community at the Diversity Bookfest in May of last year. K-5 students benefit from an Equity Connections component for every part of their Social Emotional Learning curriculum which integrates these books from our Equity Library and videos.

View a course lesson presentation