Should Teachers Be Able to Teach “Contemporary, Controversial Issues?”: Classrooms as Sites for Social Justice Learning

I’ve been following the news and public outcry following the death of Trayvon Martin and having lots of conversations with fellow educators and education advocates as the story unfolds.  This morning, as my husband (also a teacher) and I drank our morning coffee, we listened to a story on NPR titled “Trayvon Martin Story Sparks Difficult Conversations.”  The radio program featured multiple guests talking about the conversations they’ve been having as well.  One guest, a high school teacher who sounded very able to facilitate conversations with his students on social justice issues, noted that his fellow educators were not as comfortable doing so: “Some are not as comfortable about, you know, basically dealing in a real, contemporary, controversial issue.”

This quote really struck me.  Some educators are in classrooms but are not comfortable, knowledgeable, and/or equipped to handle discussions with their students about what is happening now in education and for youth.  Why is this the case? And shouldn’t there be public outcry about this?  What are classroom spaces really for?  And what is public sentiment surrounding the work that should be done in schools?

The program I teach in at Portland State University is all about working on and discussing contemporary, controversial issues.  Capstone students volunteer in the community and have the opportunity to become more educated about the roots of the issues in these courses.  I love teaching these classes because I see students becoming better citizens and more thoughtful community members as they realize the intersection among things like poverty, systemic racism, the history of redlining, issues of standardized testing, state budgeting, etc., and can become more active based on their knowledge.

But shouldn’t this kind of education be happening on all levels?  Students shouldn’t make it all the way to their senior year in college to have these kinds of conversations and to do this kind of work, should they?  Shouldn’t we be rallying in the streets not only for Trayvon but also for the millions of students who are disenfranchised everyday because they are educated differently and treated with different expectations?

While all of these thoughts have been swimming around in my head, I also received the most recent edition of Rethinking Schools.  The article by Mark Hansen titled “Persuasion from the Inside Out” gave me the hope that I needed.  Here is a teacher of 3rd graders who believes in them as thinkers and as community members and who isn’t afraid to talk about social justice.  Supporting this kind of teaching may be just what we need to shift the entire system that leads to violence against black youth in our communities and so many other kinds of inequities for kids.

Ending this post, I will reiterate what I say to my students every day that I teach:  it is amazing to have knowledge, but it is more important to do something with it.  And it is great to volunteer for a term or for a weekend, but it is more important to work in the community for a lifetime.  One easy way to get involved?  Join the Portland Area Rethinking Schools group and/or think about mentoring a young person: Oregon Mentors.

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