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Teaching for Social Justice

Patricia Chilsen

Patti Chilsen, STAFF

The late Dr. Maxine Greene Ph.D., Philosophy of Education and Professor Emerita at Teachers College at Columbia University, was a pioneer. Armed with her philosophy of Aesthetic Education she tirelessly railed against social injustice in the field of education. She was committed to changing the narrative and transforming education through the arts.

“In many respects,” stated Dr. Greene, “teaching and learning are matters of breaking through barriers - of expectation, of boredom, of predefinition.” Her life’s work promoted a philosophy of aesthetic education that awakens and sharpens the mind and opens the heart. Her philosophy is one that honors diversity, and invites creative and critical thinking.

The standard education that we receive in school, the messages received through media outlets reinforce many societal factors that teach social injustice. Power and privilege are held up as the shining stars to be reached. Daily we encounter countless cues that being under-privileged is shameful. We learn from a very early age that there is a superior status, whether it one’s profession, type of car, designer label, hair color, body type...

Renee Watson - poet, author and lead trainer of Community-Word Project’s Teaching Artists - agrees that we have major barriers as educators. In her keynote address, “The Role of Art in Social Justice” delivered at the United Nation’s International Symposium of Cultural Diplomacy, Watson states:

As an educator and writer, my job is not to do the easy thing…teaching for social justice requires a willingness to ask difficult questions, an openness to want to learn about someone else’s perspective. It is bringing what is going on outside of the classroom, inside. It is about paying attention to the world and creating art that responds to what is happening.

Watson’s full speech here>

Watson suggests that arts education has the capacity to critique, celebrate, and change our world. By applying an experiential, inquiry-based process to art-making we can approach a position of not teaching for social injustice. She explains, "What takes an art-for-arts-sake class to an art-for-social-justice class is asking our young, budding artists to explore justice questions through their art making."

We ask questions that empower…We ask questions that foster creativity…We ask questions that build connections…Through art, students search for answers…Artists are problem solvers. Young people are using their art to plant seeds of change.

It is the educator’s responsibility to bring the arts to all children, include them in the conversation, and challenge them to ask critical questions. It empowers them to play an active role in their education. This is meaningful learning.

Art has the power to create well-rounded citizens. It encourages us to live in a thoughtful, humane society. It is essential, not only to establish critical thinkers and innovative citizens, but to establish a more empathetic, socially-conscious society.

Many classrooms, however, continue to teach social injustice. Old, deteriorating buildings, over-crowded classrooms, and limited and outdated resources send a message of low value. A public education system, bogged down by bureaucracy and politics, perpetuates a message of injustice for all. 

Renee tells this story of an exchange she had with a colleague:

But I thought you taught social justice—like political poems, like you know, fight the power poems.” He couldn’t believe I was proud of poems about a park with not enough swings, unwed mothers, and raggedy shoes. “Where’s the justice in that?” he asked.

The justice is in the dignity and pride that comes back to places and people who have been marginalized, whose experiences have been trivialized…

Each year, students taking poetry and art classes taught by Community Word Project create a collaborative mural. …These murals celebrate the vibrant beauty that is the Bronx. They praise the clamor of the subway, the melody of different languages swirling in the air, the music blaring from car stereos. They are celebrating home. And this celebration is a way of talking back to the world.

Poems about urban blight, parks with too few swings, single mothers, and worn-out shoes illustrate a problem in our shared society. They reveal injustices. They create a window for us to see our culture through a broader lens. Witnessing these injustices with clarity and candor lays the foundation for change. It lets students know their story is relevant. It informs the choices they make about their realities and their futures.

“If the artistic-aesthetic,” muses Dr. Greene, “can indeed open up a petrified world, provide new standpoints on what is taken for granted, those who are empowered to engage with the arts cannot but pose a range of questions that never occurred to them before. They cannot but do so in the light of what they themselves want to know. And it is surely those who can pose their own questions, pose them in person, who are the ones ready to learn how to learn.”

Changing our classrooms and our communities is no easy task. “When I get discouraged or overwhelmed,” says Watson, “I remember that with my art, I am planting seeds…I believe many seeds were planted in me from writers like Gwendolyn Brooks and Lorraine Hansberry. I am a part of their harvest.” Watson joins Dr. Greene in the unwavering belief that arts education makes a significant difference. The teaching staff at Community-Word Project is part of Dr. Greene’s and Renee Watson’s harvest. 

Community-Word Project’s 2014 Summer Institute, a professional development intensive for experienced teaching artists, focused on teaching for social justice. The three-day training was based on the principles of Bree Picower’s Six Elements of Social Justice Curriculum Design. Using the arts and an intentional inquiry-based pedagogy as tools, participants explored the history of the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union, Alvin Ailey’s choreography, political cartoons and the work of various writers, including Margaret Walker’s Sorrow Home and Dyan Watson’s A Letter from a Black Mother to her Son

We convened. We asked the tough questions. We pushed each other to create and collaborate. We challenged our ideas. We reminded ourselves of the importance of this work. 

Dr. Greene’s introduction to Teaching for Social Justice touches upon Jurgen Habermas’s theory of “communicative democracy”. “The idea is for people to come together without coercion and of their own free will to discuss issues of significance for them.” Greene continues, citing Iris Marion Young in Radical Philosophy:

“By listening to others and trying to understand their experience and claims, persons or groups gain broader knowledge of the social relations in which they are embedded and of the implications of their proposals. These circumstances of a mutual requirement of openness to persuasion often transform the motives, opinions, and preferences of the participants. The transformation often takes the form of moving from being motivated by self-interest being concerned with justice.”

How do we nurture the seeds of change that are sustainable and far-reaching? What does a socially just education really look like? How do we expand this dialogue to more educators and policy-makers to stop teaching for social  injustice?

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