For educators, the beginning of every school year is filled with excitement and nervous energy. How do we best prepare our classrooms and our students? What will challenge us this year? This year, educators interested in focusing on social justice in their classrooms and communities may also question how they can address the inequities faced by many students.
By mid-September, we’re busy with school, work and fall activities. Constitution Day, on September 17, may slip past us without a thought. So why should this year be any different? Constitution Day is the anniversary of the day that the Founding Fathers signed the United States Constitution. As we reflect this year on how the current political climate and public policies impact millions of people, educators should be asking themselves a hard question: are we making a positive change to decrease the inequities that many within our communities experience?
In 2018, student activism swelled throughout the country. Seeking to make positive changes in their communities and our nation, students exercised their fundamental Constitutional rights to free speech, to peaceful assembly and to petition the government. Not only did high school students advocate for stronger gun safety laws and join in grassroots voter registration drives to turn out young people at the polls, middle and elementary school students also participated in civic activities. They started “Activist Clubs” where student leaders facilitated and moved forward conversations around bullying and harassment. Many middle and high school students planned and participated in school walkouts to protest for government action in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting. Students from one school continued their activism by organizing a school-wide education day where they and their peers used letters and phone calls to lobby public officials and political figures.
Our students are ready to participate in civic and political activities within their communities and beyond. It is educators’ responsibility to equip them with the tools to succeed. So how do we make sure we’re packing our students’ advocacy and activist toolkits responsibly? First, we need to ask our students how they want to change their communities. Next, we must teach students about current events and the critical skill of having informed, civil discussions and debates about hot button issues. While we know it’s challenging, if not impossible, to teach the required curriculum prior to standardized testing season, teaching current events and civility also are essential. It leads to higher student engagement, endless opportunities for non-fiction instruction, informational text- reading skills and chances to add student voices into the curriculum. And teaching current events can be integrated into the standard curriculum. For instance, pairing current events with older reading material is interesting for both students and adults. A comparison of then and now is an important conversation to have in the classroom. Providing students with opportunities to put their learning into action also is important. Even one hour of service learning can positively impact students and their community.
As educators we need to continue to pack our own toolkits around equity and social justice. You can do this by attending intentional professional development opportunities, by reading books like The Hate U Give, which expertly weaves narratives into one story, and by having direct conversations within our circles of impact.
Search online and you will find a variety of resources to help you. Articles, both peer-reviewed and not, discuss current educational trends and pre-made lesson plans. ADL provides many of these resources. In addition to an online bibliography that recommends diverse literature about bias and social justice, our Current Events Classroom series provides educators with lesson plans about current events. They detail what to ask, what to talk about and how to prepare yourself and your classroom for these discussions. And next year, ADL will introduce a full-scale high school civics curriculum that is social justice and anti-bias-focused.
Constitution Day can be a call to action for educators and their students. Our students are eager to exercise their fundamental freedoms to change the world for the better. Children are our future. So educators must provide students with the opportunities, space, love and support to help ensure that the next generation knows how to build and sustain a nation and world that are filled with liberty and justice for all.