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March 11, 2016

Turning Current Events Instruction Into Social Justice Teaching

Jinnie Spiegler
Director of Curriculum, Anti-Defamation League

This blog orig­i­nally appeared on Edutopia

Marriage equality, refugees seeking safety in Europe, the Confederate flag, police shootings of black and Latino men, the presidential election, Caitlyn Jenner, ISIS, and immigration are just a few of the news stories that inhabited the headlines this year on our phones, laptops, and newspapers. Unlike 20 years ago when teachers and parents had to intentionally raise current events topics with young people, nowadays students are already part of the conversation. Through their smartphones, social media outlets, and overheard conversations, they know what is happening. And yet, do students really understand the headlines they see? Do they have the chance to grapple with the information, or is it simply seeping into their psyche with no opportunity to ask questions, dig deeper, or explore how they feel about it?

Most educators feel a sense of responsibility to talk with their students about what’s going on in society and the world. Indeed, it’s the reason that many decided to become teachers in the first place. With topics both large and small — from the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality to the lack of diversity in the Academy Awards, from racism in policing to the school dress codes controversy — teaching about current events has enormous benefits for students. And it almost always has a social justice lens with which to learn, analyze, and discover.

Whether teachers have a few minutes, one class period, or an entire unit to spend on a current event topic, the opportunity is ripe with learning potential. Students’ high interest and motivation lay the groundwork for being an informed citizen and talking at home with parents and family members. Current events discussions offer ample opportunity for skill building (e.g. vocabulary development, reading and writing informational and analytical text, oral expression, critical analysis — all part of the ELA Common Core Learning Standards). Students can build and practice their social and emotional skills, and these topics often present an opportunity to connect the present with the past. Finally, because so many current events topics shed light on human and civil rights, teachers have an excellent conversational bridge as well as a lens for addressing equity and justice, a topic that so many young people are hungry to discuss.

As you reflect on what and how to bring current events topics into your classroom, consider the following:

1. Thoughtfully consider who is in your classroom.

All current events topics have the potential to raise sensitive issues for students, especially around identity. Whether the topic brings up race, religion, sexual orientation, immigration, etc., think about the composition of your students. The young people who might identify with the topic personally will likely have a range of thoughts and feelings about discussing the topic: relief, embarrassment, annoyance, pride, excitement, or nothing at all. Do not assume that all of the students in that identity group know about or are interested in talking about the topic at hand, and be careful not to put those students in the position of being the “authority” or main possessor of knowledge on the topic. Do not ask or expect them to speak for all students in this identity group. If you anticipate that the topic could be very emotional for some students, consider speaking with them prior to the lesson.

2. Explore opinions and perspective.

Most news topics raise controversial issues with different points of view. Use the topic as an opening to help students understand what they believe and why they believe it. Provide opportunities to talk about and write their opinions on the issue. Engage them in reading about and listening to the opinions of others — their classmates as well as op-ed columnists and subject matter experts. This can and should complicate their thinking and propel them to question, change, and/or sharpen their points of view, and articulate those positions with evidence. Discussion, debate and dialogue should be foundations for these conversations.

3. Make the anti-bias, social justice theme explicit and clear.

Whatever the subject is, bring to the center of the discussion the specific aspect of diversity, bias, or injustice that it raises. For example, when discussing homelessness, explore the stigma and stereotypes of homeless people in the U.S. You may also need to provide some foundational skill development in understanding the language of bias, or give background information in order for students to understand a current controversy (e.g. understand the history of and discrimination against Native American people, including the history of mascots and symbols in sports, in order to make sense of the Washington Redskins’ name controversy).

4. Make the lesson interactive and use technology.

As much as possible, create interactive and engaging activities that also develop skills and expand knowledge. This could take the form of debates, mock trials, student surveys or interviews, small-group discussions, role plays, teach-ins, or a simpler activity. Take advantage of students’ interest and acumen in the digital world by integrating student blogs, photography and video, and social media platforms, and by following specific hashtags, infographics, and analysis of how social media has helped to facilitate current activist efforts.

5. Do something.

Topics in the news can easily lead to despair, anger, and hopelessness. Especially for young people, it is critical that we give them the perspective and tools to do something about the injustice they see in the world. Exposing students to the wide range of responses to injustice, including activism strategies both past and present, goes a long way toward their turning these negative emotions into positive actions. If possible, work together on a class project, and encourage students to get involved in larger efforts on issues that are important to them.

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June 19, 2015

Murders in Charleston Again Demonstrate the Tragic Impact of Hate Violence

The horrible murders of nine parishioners during a June 17 evening prayer meeting at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina seem like a nightmare.  But they were real – horrific and senseless.  And they were hate crimes.  The nature of the shootings, the specific location, the targeted victims, statements allegedly made by the suspect, and a Facebook profile of the suspect wearing white supremacist symbols all indicate this tragedy was motivated by racial bias.

It is noteworthy that these race-based murders happened in one of only five states that has yet to enact a hate crimes law.  The time has come for that to change.

AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton

AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton

Obviously, convicted murderers already face the most severe penalties under the law in every state.    But hate crimes laws have a significance that extends beyond the tougher sentences they permit.  They are a strong societal response to crimes specifically intended to intimidate the victim and members of the victim’s community.  By making members of minority communities fearful, angry, and suspicious of other groups – and of the power structure that is supposed to protect them – these message crimes can damage the fabric of our society and fragment communities.

The FBI and law enforcement officials recognize the special impact of hate crimes.  The FBI has been collecting hate crime data from the 18,000 police agencies across the country since 1990.   In 2013, the most recent FBI data available, almost 6,000 hate crimes were reported by over 15,000 police departments – almost one every 90 minutes of every day.  Race-based hate crimes were most frequent, crimes committed against gay men and lesbians second, and religion-based crimes were third most frequent, with anti-Jewish crimes a disturbing 61% of all reported religion-based crimes.

Federal and state hate crime laws are an important demonstration that our society recognizes the unique impact of hate violence.  45 states and the District of Columbia now have enacted hate crime laws, many based on the ADL Model Law drafted in 1981.  The only five states without a penalty-enhancing hate crime law are Arkansas, Indiana, Georgia, Wyoming – and South Carolina.

Attorney General Lynch has announced that the Department of Justice has opened its own hate crime investigation of this terrible crime – under federal criminal civil rights laws, including the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.  That essential federal statute is an important bulwark, but it is not a substitute for state hate crimes laws.   South Carolina is in mourning now, as we all are.  One of the most constructive ways for the state to move forward would be to join 45 other states who already have hate crimes laws.

We need to be realistic.  We cannot legislate, regulate, or tabulate an end to racism, anti-Semitism, or bigotry.  Complementing federal and state hate crime laws and prevention initiatives, governments must promote early learning and continuing education against bias and discrimination in schools and the community.   Strong, inclusive laws, and effective responses to hate violence by public officials and law enforcement authorities, however, are essential components in deterring and preventing these crimes.  

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June 19, 2015

The Rachel Dolezal Teachable Moment

Abstract Colorful Group Of People Or Workers Or Employees - ConcRachel Dolezal, President of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP  (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), made headlines and became the top trending item on Twitter last week when it was discovered that she had been posing as Black for many years. In her interview on the Today Show, she continued to assert: “I identify as Black.” These events have sparked strong emotions—anger, confusion, sympathy, shock, curiosity—and have fueled a lively public conversation about Blackness, identity, cultural appropriation and what it means to be an ally.  All of these concepts are ones we address in anti-bias education work.

Identity is an extremely important concept for people to understand and grapple with, starting at a young age. Knowing who you are, what groups you belong to (race, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, etc.), your history and how your family makes meaning of the multifaceted nature of your identity are critical for self-esteem development. When we know who we are, we can build bridges with others with whom we are both similar and different.  The concept of race is largely understood as socially constructed rather than solely based on genetics and biology. The racial group to which one belongs is a complex set of factors including physical characteristics, family lineage and ethnic/cultural upbringing. Rachel Dolezal did not grow up Black even though she claims to be Black.

The term cultural appropriation has been raised quite a bit in this conversation. Some people say that Rachel Dolezal is appropriating Black culture because of her hair style, complexion, life choices and insistence that she’s Black. Cultural appropriation is when people use specific elements of a culture (e.g. ideas, symbols, styles) without regard for the impact to that culture and it usually happens when a person or group exploits the culture of another group, often with little understanding of the group’s history, experience and cultural norms. According to Maisha Johnson, it is problematic for a variety of reasons including trivializing historical racial oppression, perpetuating stereotypes and letting privileged groups benefit or profit by using other people’s culture. Is Rachel Dolezal appropriating Black culture or is something else operating?

Based on her professional interests and choices, it seems clear that Rachel Dolezal has a passion for social justice and could have been an ally as a white woman.  There have been examples throughout history of people outside a particular identity group being allies to others. Countless white people have been allies to African Americans in the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s and today–some even died for the cause.  During the Holocaust, non-Jews helped Jews escape at tremendous risk to themselves. GLSEN sponsors Ally Week in which straight allies make commitments to equality for LGBTQ people.  For more than 10 years, ADL has educated youth and adults across the country to become better allies and still more works to be done. We need to teach our children that it is an important to be an ally, no matter who you are.

What can we learn from this dialogue and how can we turn it into a teachable moment for young people?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Educate youth to explore who they are culturally and racially and in all of their complexity, affirming their identity through books, curriculum and all that we expose them to.
  • Point out when you see cultural appropriation and highlight why it’s wrong; at the same time. provide young people with real cultural experiences with people from different groups.
  • Provide examples for and encourage young people to use respectful ally behavior and challenge ally behavior that crosses the line into disrespectful or unhelpful.
  • Show youth that the world would not have changed without allies and that being an ally is a skill developed through practice and hard work.


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