“If students are not able to transform their lived experiences into knowledge as a process to unveil new knowledge, they will never be able to participate rigorously in a dialogue as a process of learning and knowing” -Paulo Freire @sueg4600
What does social justice pedagogy look like? Somewhat rhetorical. Completely sincere. A teacher-in-training asked this question while we were engaged in a conversation about what it means to be a teacher in the current sociopolitical context. Although I’ve studied the concept, sadly, I had no solid example to share from my own teaching career, as I’ve never taught in an environment conducive to this philosophy of education.
Social justice pedagogy is almost synonymous with another philosophy of education called critical pedagogy. Here, I will use the latter term as social justice pedagogy tends to refer to teaching and learning that occurs in the “traditional” classroom. Critical pedagogy has the educational goal of developing critical consciousness within the student. We will know this has been achieved when the student takes purposeful action to lessen and eventually eliminate power differentials that exist in society. The process that results in this goal has the student examine and critique differences across race, class, and gender among other aspects of social life.
The closest I’ve come to employing critical pedagogy is when I was a teacher at Barringer. This was at the time when the school was first failing to make adequate yearly progress under NCLB, and those who we have come to know as education deformers–the Koch brothers, Michelle Rhee, Bill and Melinda Gates, to name a few–were relatively low key. This was pre-“data war rooms,” as they were called, when high school teachers in Newark had a fair amount of control over what was being taught in their classrooms–for good and for bad–as long as it could be demonstrated how it aligned to HSPA testing, which wasn’t a difficult task. Almost anything you taught would be helpful for HSPA because it was such a low level test. During this point in my teaching career, I wasn’t even aware of critical pedagogy. None of the sessions in those six weeks of training I received from Teach for America concentrated on these methods of instruction. I had some awesome colleagues in the English Department at Barringer who I credit with ushering me along a path leading to a true consciousness of what it means to be an educator and what that means beyond the classroom. They invited me to collaborate with them on ideas that would actually engage students and put them at the center of learning.
Youth Media Symposium
Even so, I never got to witness youth being taught through critical pedagogy until I became aware of YMS–which stands for Youth Media Symposium and is an integral program of the Abbott Leadership Institute. The high school and middle school students involved in YMS create documentaries and public service announcements on the topic of public education in Newark, NJ. They learn from videography and media professionals how to produce, direct, shoot, edit, and present media projects that have all ended up having a significant impact on the public discourse about public education. I have been interviewed for two such productions–one on high school dropouts and a more recent one on the traditional public school versus charter school debate.
What makes YMS an example of critical pedagogy is the program’s goal, through the use of media, to raise public awareness regarding the inequities that exist in urban public education systems. Along with learning media techniques, the students are immersed in history through interactive lessons that provide them with social, political, and economic context. They debate the possibilities and limitations of public policy choices and then integrate their collectively constructed knowledge into their media projects. Over the years, YMS has refined its curriculum and does nothing but grow stronger.
Yet another demonstration of this strength is the ribbon cutting of their first College Success Center! This will be the first of ten to open across the City of Newark. The Centers are a major component of YMS’s Our Schools, Our Vision campaign. The ceremony will be held at Bradley Hall, Room 148 on the campus of Rutgers-Newark on Wednesday, March 11th at 4pm. If you would like to attend, please RSVP to ALICollegeSuccess@gmail.com.
The Newark Student Union (NSU) provides another example of critical pedagogy in action. In partnership with New Jersey Communities United (NJCU), the nonprofit I now work for as a community organizer, eight members of NSU returned from a long weekend in February with the mission to occupy the state-appointed superintendent’s office in protest of the controversial OneNewark plan.. This reorganization plan has closed a significant amount of schools around the district and wreaked havoc for parents trying to enroll their children in their neighborhood schools. The students’ primary demand was the resignation of the superintendent.
Over the course of 72 hours, the students livestreamed their activities in the office which ranged from an initial message stating their purpose for the occupation to a presentation on the PARCC to answering questions tweeted to them. I took that opportunity to ask them what lessons they were learning by being active participants in their own lives. This is what they had to say:
Aracelis: “In being in NSU, I’ve learned a lot about community and I’ve learned a lot about the different intelligence levels people have. People are intelligent in very different ways and can participate and add to the movement in so many different ways. We need people who are good with technology. We need artists. We need writers. We need intelligent speakers. It’s not just one type of intelligent person and it’s not just one type of thing that a person needs to do. They need to be well rounded. Another thing with standardized testing is it doesn’t accommodate that. And that’s why we have this movement–the student movement.”
Tanaisa: “In my opinion, I think I learned more being an active participant in protesting and stuff than–well, not more but I learned a lot protesting, as I do in class, because I get to see real world implications about what exactly democracy is and how real world class struggle fits into what we’re dealing with.”
Jose: “Really quickly, what I’ve learned in this past year being a part of this amazing movement is how much I matter to my community, to my city, and to the world. You know, because usually we’re told that we’re small, that we don’t matter. But, being out in the street, being out there and empowering other people has really given me the power to continue on. And it’s shown me how to love my people a lot more.”
Most people only notice NSU when they are taking action. They don’t get to see the democratic processes utilized during the organization’s membership and planning meetings. They’re not present at the organizing and “Know Your Rights” trainings the students receive. I’m one of the few who gets to peek in on or partner up with them, so I witness their critical consciousness being developed. With guidance from organizers at NJCU, the students are learning how to transform power differentials and create the communities in which they want to live. This is best told in their own words which I transcribed above.
Looking to an Alternative
If nothing else, both YMS and NSU are clear examples that the children in Newark–and I would argue any other place where they are being written off and labeled as failures–are intelligent, capable, productive citizens. They can meet and surpass any expectation made of them. Why so many students in urban districts continue to drop out of school or graduate without basic literacy skills is not a mystery. The social, political, and economic conditions in which they live play a central role in these dire outcomes. The lack of exposure to different ideas and perspectives also holds our children back from progressing down a path to critical consciousness. We see what critical pedagogy can do. It’s time we explicitly bring it into our schools.
More Student Action:
New Mexico students join others in nation who oppose new test intended to assess performance (Monday, March 2, 2015)
Students in Albuquerque, NM protest against PARCC for a second day [VIDEO] (Tuesday, March 3, 2015)