Bringing Social Justice Issues to Life

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Linda Christensen, author of the EL article “The Place That I Call Home” (March 2015), explains how carefully chosen literature helps students learn to pose critical questions about social justice.

EL 3-4I’ve recently been coteaching a unit I developed on gentrification that is connected to the Albina neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, where I taught for years. During this unit, students learn to pose critical questions that examine how power structures work. Like any good unit tied to social justice, this one helps students develop a framework of essential questions to use as a lens for viewing every aspect of the curriculum. Teaching about social justice and power encourages students to question not only gentrification but also the ethics of scientific study, the crime rate, the testing and tracking practices of their schools, and so on.

Sometimes it’s powerful to bring ideas about social justice to life through fiction. In the gentrification unit I crafted with language arts teachers at Portland’s Jefferson High School (which is in the Albina neighborhood), we decided to add the novel This Side of Home by Jefferson graduate Renée Watson. The novel is set in a fictionalized school in Portland, but the problems it addresses parallel problems the Albina community addressed in the past and continues to address now. It brings gentrification to life as characters both rail against the changes and accept or even embrace them.

A scene from the novel’s opening exemplifies the “push out” many of our students face. One character, Essence, is forced to move from the house where she grew up—the house across the street from her friends and where her posters hang on the wall—because the landlord is selling it. The landlord is making all the home improvements he never completed during the years Essence and her mother lived in the house. Later, in a scene set in a former neighbor’s house that’s been turned into a coffee shop, an older African American neighbor, Mr. Washington, reveals the history of Essence’s neighborhood. It’s the same history that Jefferson students have recently learned through studying newspaper accounts and historic records—the history of redlining, the Vanport flood, and urban renewal projects that changed Portland’s African American neighborhoods. When a girl asks Mr. Washington how he feels about the changes to the neighborhood, he answers like this:

Most of these folk are just good people trying to make a livin’, I suppose. If having them here means more stop signs and handicapped-accessible sidewalks, then so be it. Those of us black folk who do own our homes, who aren’t itching to sell, have seen the value of our property rise. It’s not all bad. . . . Now, just looking at it from a business standpoint—they need us and we need them. They need us to come in to their stores, and we need them to come out into the community and get involved.

Although Watson’s novel is set in Portland, the problems she addresses are national. As language arts teachers, we can make book choices that contribute to either creating a vision for a more just society or condemning students to the belief that life is unfair and there’s not much we can do about it. When we choose books, we need to ask ourselves questions like these: Who are the main characters? Do they represent a wide range of humanity? Do they raise issues of class, race, gender, and justice? Do they actively challenge stereotypes? Do they move beyond victimization and show resistance and empowerment or hope and transformation? Is the book written by a member from the group?

Teaching for social justice means creating a curriculum filled with authors and characters that not only represent our students’ roots but also provide a window to the world. The books we choose to bring into our classrooms say a lot about what we think is important and greatly influence whose stories get told, whose voices are heard, and whose voices are marginalized.