As an educator, I’ve seen firsthand that literacy training both helps narrow the achievement gap and is the best tool in addressing social justice issues. As an author, among my most critical goals are showing every child that they have greatness on the inside, and helping them understand how to tap into that greatness.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where educational inequality is still a pervasive problem, and is too often the roadblock in a child reaching his or her full potential. As a society, we’ve made strides towards a more universal understanding—and desire for implementation—of social justice. Now, it’s necessary that we not only make sure our students have equal access to resources, we work on instilling qualities in them that make a priority of promoting and sustaining equality.
Social Emotional Learning is the first step in understanding social justice.
Integration of SEL in schools has been focused on teaching skills for personal development, which studies show bolster academic success. Beyond that, social emotional learning is critical in empowering students and teaching empathy, both of which are essential for understanding social justice and being proactive in implementing it. While social awareness and relationship skills are important aspects of SEL, many children are inclined to think about these topics from a limited perspective—their own. We often ask children to consider how bad behavior or social conflict makes them feel, and then apply that to another person or group of people. For children to truly develop empathy, parents and educators have to guide them in understanding the world from different perspectives. One of the best ways to do this is through reading and open discussion, ideally with a diverse group.
Create a shared experience and classroom community through books.
I believe this is a necessity in any classroom, but let’s be honest—access to books is a huge factor in the disparity of educational opportunity. The ideal classroom library has a wide variety of books, and plenty of them. According to Fountas and Pinnell (1996), a classroom library should contain 300-600 books, depending on number of copies of each book and grade level. Statistically, low-income children have fewer books in their homes and classrooms, and more restricted access to public libraries. We know from the Teacher & Principal School Report: Equity in Education that regardless of school poverty level, 31% of teachers have fewer than 50 books in their classroom libraries. So, how do we make sure all children can explore a shared experience and build a community through reading? By becoming advocates—for our own community as well as the broader educational community. It’s up to all of us to demand that children have equal access to resources.
The first steps in creating a classroom reading community is access to an array of high-quality books, and teachers who are dedicated to implementing a true love of reading in their students. Creating a shared experience relies on teachers providing a forum where opinions, experiences, and questions can be discussed openly and honestly. A child who learns to speak their mind in a constructive way is one step closer to becoming an empowered student—and a social justice advocate.
Talk about different perspectives, and why each one matters.
Ideally, children would have ample opportunity to interact with peers of a variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds. In reality, many classrooms are more homogenous. In every classroom, it’s important to have a truly diverse array of books, not just titles that reflect the majority of students in the classroom. And yet we learned from the Teacher & Principal School Report that teachers need more culturally relevant titles (54%), books with diverse characters (43%), and books in other languages (41%) for their classroom libraries. It’s essential that every child is encouraged to openly and respectfully share their own experiences and perspectives on what they read. This may mean discussing sensitive topics, tackling stereotypes, or fielding awkward questions.
Dealing with reading material that’s outside of students’ understanding is the perfect opportunity to work on both critical thinking skills and true empathy. Explain to students that by thinking through and discussing facts and implications in the book, and doing our best to leave behind our own assumptions and prejudices, we can better understand a character’s perspective.
We live in an ever-changing world, so it’s our job as educators to prepare children to tackle not only current problems, but anticipate the dynamic landscape of our students’ futures. Together, with a diverse collection of books that support social-emotional learning and social justice, we can work to create even more empathetic and empowered educational advocates in the next generation.
Photo via Byron Garrett