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Teaching for Social Justice Online (One Thing You Might Try...)

Posted by admin on Jan 21, 2021 12:32:25 PM

In this week’s One Thing You Might Try… blog post, first-grade teacher Santasha Dhoot tells the story of her class’s voting rights unit and challenges us to make space for social justice work in our classrooms—whether they are in person or online.

When I was setting up my classroom last year as a first-year teacher, I put up a photo of James Baldwin on my desk, a hero whose words resonate with me as I push through on the toughest days of teaching. On the back of the photo is a quote from James Baldwin’s essay, “A Talk to Teachers,” that reads, “The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions . . . this is the only way societies change.” I hold these words at the core of my teaching philosophy.

As an aspiring anti-racist educator, I want to teach my first graders to be critical of the world in which they exist. I want them to feel empowered to be change makers and create a more just, equitable, and compassionate world in which everyone can thrive. Before the pandemic my first graders dug into the Black Lives Matter movement, Indigenous activism past and present, and inequities in education globally. When the pandemic hit, I knew that this work could not stop; it is needed now more than ever, as the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities that run deep in our country. Teachers have had to rethink many teaching practices during this pandemic, including how we teach for social justice online. 

Below are a few tips for how to navigate the complexities of teaching online while also teaching social justice issues to our students. While these tips can be used for any social justice topic, the examples I will share are from my class’s voting rights unit. 

"Why is it important to use your voice?”

"Why is it important to use your voice?" I asked my first graders this question as we began our three-week voting rights unit. Even though my first graders cannot vote in an election, I still wanted to teach them the importance of voting and why people have fought and continue to fight for voting rights. I wanted to reinforce that they can be active members in their community by encouraging others to go vote. This unit also provided them the space to discuss what they were hearing about the election from adults and on the news. 

As I was planning all of this for my class, I kept thinking to myself—
  • How do I make this work meaningful online? 
  • What will parents say?
  • How do I prepare for students’ questions about the current election?
Whether you’re engaging in a unit about voting rights like my class or considering another social justice issue, it is important for students to know that they can make change now and in the future.

Connecting with Families

Before I started teaching the unit, I connected with my students’ families about what we would learn. I was transparent about the content I planned on teaching and provided additional resources for families to continue the conversation about voting at home. In my newsletter to families, I wrote about how we would be learning about voting rights in the past and present, and teaching students how they can be involved in the voting process. 

Because students are now spending much more time at home with their grownups there may be more opportunities for students and adults to tackle tough conversations about current social justice issues.

And yet, sometimes adults feel uncomfortable bringing up social justice issues with young children, either because they are not sure where to start the conversation, or because they worry that their children are too young to understand. As teachers we can partner with families to help them facilitate these conversations in an age-appropriate way.

When election week came, I wrote to families in my weekly email, “As we have discussed a lot about voting in our class, this would be a great opportunity to talk with your student about what people are voting for, why voting is important, and the importance of using our voice to make the world a better place.” I also attached an NPR article titled, “Now is a Good Time To Talk To Kids About Civics” which provided more guiding questions for parents to use.

Connecting with families about our voting rights unit provided transparency. Families knew what I was teaching their students beforehand so that when they heard what their child was listening to in our online classroom it was not a surprise. This clear communication can help families mentally prepare for the questions their child might ask. Ongoing communication also allowed families to ask me questions and address their concerns.

For example, a family shared with me that they would be taking their first grader to the ballot drop box. My student was so excited to share in our class about his adventure putting the ballot inside the slot and receiving an “I Voted” sticker. We had discussed in depth as a class about why casting a ballot is such a significant moment, and how people have fought their whole lives to be able to do that. This student’s excitement and understanding of the significance of this voting moment, along with his parents’ choice to include him in this process, made me extremely proud as an educator. 

Empowering Student Activism

One goal of teaching for social justice is to teach students the tools to be activists within their own communities and take on social justice issues they care deeply about. For our voting unit, I wanted students to feel empowered to be a part of the voting process even though they themselves are unable to vote. To do this online, I had my students create “Go Vote!” posters and tape them up in the windows of their homes and out in their communities.

Go Vote PosterOne student’s “Go Vote!” poster

Students also completed a writing assignment in which they completed the sentence “In the future I will vote for . . .” This assignment emphasized to students that in the future they will have the opportunity to vote and be able to make the world a better place.

Student writingA student wrote, “In the future I will vote for more playgrounds.”

The opportunities for students to create posters for their communities and think about what they would vote for in the future made our learning much more meaningful. Students were becoming active citizens and engaging in thoughtful conversations with their adults at home while they completed their assignments. The silver lining of online teaching is that the bridge between what we learn in the classroom and learning at home is much stronger. This school-home connection provides much deeper learning for our students. 

Creating a Brave Space for Open Sharing

To address my students’ questions about the November 2020 election, on Election Day we started the morning with these questions:

  • What is coming up for you?
  • What are you noticing?
  • What are you wondering?

It is important to note that my class had already established community agreements at the beginning of the year that we abide by, especially during open sharing time. These community agreements are crucial for creating a brave space for all students to feel comfortable to share and know to respect others. Part of our classroom agreements is to understand how our words impact others. I emphasized this agreement as we started our sharing time. The purpose of this agreement is for students to practice empathy and to understand how their words impact others. A central part of discussing social justice topics in my classroom is centering my students of color and perspectives of communities that have been left out of the dominant narrative. I believe that our job as teachers is to de-center Whiteness within our classroom and protect our students who have been marginalized from opinions that may cause harm.
On this day my first graders shared discussions they had with their grown-ups at home, what they saw on TV, and questions they had. One student shared, “I really want the person my parents voted for to win.” We discussed how it feels when we vote for things in our class and do not get what we voted for, and how even if we do not get what we voted for there are still ways to make change. One student asked, “Why are we still waiting to find out who our president is?” This led us into a conversation about how the pandemic changed the method in which many people voted.

Though I felt nervous to facilitate an open discussion amongst my students about the election, something that I myself was so anxious about, I prepared by brainstorming questions I believed they would ask as well as follow up questions I might ask them. I also knew that if there was a question that I did not know how to respond to I would tell the class I would follow up with them the next day to give myself time to brainstorm an appropriate response with colleagues.

Our Students and Our Country Need This Work Now More Than Ever

Our online teaching right now is hyper-visible and on display for families, which can make us feel vulnerable and hesitant to discuss community and world issues. We are in new teaching territory, doing work that has never been done before. However, this does not mean that we stop teaching relevant content for our students and engaging them with social justice issues. Our students need this work now more than ever—to feel empowered to take on the issues in our country and know they can build a better future for themselves and their communities.

About the Author

Dhoot Headshot 1Santasha Dhoot (She/Her/Hers) is a Punjabi Sikh first-grade teacher in the Greater Seattle Area. She graduated from the University of Washington with a Masters in Teaching. She has a passion for educational justice and aspires to be a part of building an education system in which all students thrive. She loves learning alongside our youngest students and believes our future is bright because of them. You can follow Santasha on Twitter @tashadhoot.


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