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Teaching for Justice


This fall I was on a panel at my district’s fall professional development day called “Teaching Controversial Issues.” I was not sure why I was on this panel. Teaching and social justice work are synonymous to me. I am not immune to that nagging doubt, that (parent/principal) voice in the back of my mind questioning the work I do, but I do it anyway. Class, race, gender, age, sexuality, ability determine our access to power and privilege and students need intellectual and humane tools to talk about intersectional identities, their own and others’.Т  Teaching critical reading and argumentative writing requires learners to dig into the complicated ideas of our time. PAGES afforded much space to do this work this fall.Т  Cindy Sherman whetted many of my students’ appetites for feminist perspectives. Coupling arts integration work with choice reading (Roxane Gay, Jill Lepore, Joan Didion, HRC, PatriciaТ J. Williams, Mary Karr, Phoebe Robinson, John Krakauer, Hope Jahren, Kate Bornstein, Jessi Klein, Peggy Orenstein, and Rebecca Traister) nurtured authentic curiosity in these complex issues we face today. Am I teachingТ controversial issues?

To prepare forТ I Am Not Your Negro, I wanted to be certain that students would have a grounded understanding in theТ ways that Raoul Peck parallels contemporary vilified movements for racial justice with the lauded movementsТ of the past. We did a unit on understanding Black Lives Matter.

We just scratched the surface to get ready to seeТ I Am Not Your NegroТ at the Wex. Peck’s film ties to BLM in explicit ways, but I worried they knew little about it.Т  So we did some prewriting about what they already knew or believed, listened to the Hidden Brain “In the Air We Breathe” (about implicit bias), took IAT tests, read through the Congressional QuarterlyТ overview on racial conflict today (it had an emphasisТ on BLM), watchedТ Baltimore Rising,Т did more interest-based research based on what we were learning, sawТ IANYN,Т and danced with Alexis Wilson (really we used words and movement to express ideas about modern social activism).Т  Was I teaching controversial issues?
As we debriefed our unit, I discovered we were charting new territories for students. These were not alwaysТ friendlyТ waters. Students described their discomfort and unease at talking about America’s history and present of racial inequalities, but they also realized the productive nature of that discomfort and openly wondered why they wereТ not doing more of this workТ across the curriculum. Students want to have the language and the tools to talk about controversial issues.Т This phrase is starting to annoy me. These are the issues of the time. The ideas that will shape the world we build together. The cartographers of the future need educators to prepare them for this endeavor.
My musings pale in the light of my students own words on what looking (relatively) deeply at the Black Lives Matter movement meant to them. I share them here to inspire and remind us as educators that this is work and its import must quell our fears at working for justice.

This unit brought us closer together as a class confronting difficult issues.Т 

This unit really helped me connect to my mother more.Т 

I personally loved this unit. It helped me explore who I am and educate myself.Т 

We have the right to peaceful protest in our nation…”nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Silence cannot make change. Even though I am less directly affected, I have a role in change and need to figure out what it is.Т 

Teaching controversial issues is not scary; it’s nurturing, transforming, empowering. Am I teaching controversial issues?

I am teaching.


1 Comment »

  1. You are indeed Kim Swensen!

    I loved reading this. So many things that you share about learning resonates with me as well. The district and your students are so incredible lucky to have you. I wish I could have had you as a teacher. And, as I mentioned, you ARE also a natural dancer!!

    Thank you for having me and sharing your wonderful classes with me. I loved every minute! XO AW


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