Teaching for social justice is the attempt by classroom teachers to use their position in the classroom to promote social and educational reform within and despite current educational conditions and mandates. However, while a growing number of K-12 teachers have published anecdotal reports of their attempts to teach for social justice in secondary classrooms (e.g., Bender-Slack, 2007; Christensen, 2000; Singer, 2005), there is great variability among these accounts, and scant evaluation of their impact on specific academic, behavioral/motivational, and attitudinal outcomes (see Grant & Agosto, 2008; Kelly & Brandes, 2008; Poplin & Rivera, 2005).
This qualitative study addresses this research gap by offering a concrete framework for teaching for social justice that is informed by multiple education reform traditions (including democratic education, critical (Freirian) pedagogy, multicultural education, culturally responsive education, and social justice education) and associated with positive academic, behavioral/motivational, and attitudinal outcomes. Next, I present the results of a constructivist grounded theory analysis examining how twenty-four English Language Arts teachers conceptualize teaching for social justice, as well as a content (lesson plan) analysis detailing how they operationalize the practice through the use of standards-based curriculum.
Findings indicate that secondary ELA teachers define teaching for social justice as having three primary dimensions: curriculum, pedagogy, and social action. These priorities are reflected in their curriculum, which addressed all four strands of the Massachusetts ELA Curricular Frameworks (Language, Reading and Literature, Writing, and Media) and a range of social justice topics. Additional study findings examine challenges associated with teaching for social justice, the impact of teachers’ identities and school contexts on their social justice practice, and variance in how teachers conceptualize and implement teaching for social justice according to their sociopolitical emphases.
This study has several implications for policy and practice. Specifically, this study challenges critics’ attempts to portray social justice education as poorly aligned with academically rigorous content-area instruction (e.g., Will, 2006), offers curricular guidance to pre- and in-service teachers interested in transforming their own practice, and lays the foundation for future empirical research related to how teaching for social justice affects student outcomes.