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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 30, 2015

The Time Is Now: Bringing LGBT Topics into the Classroom

Wikicommons/InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA

Wikicommons/InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA

Over the past few years, our country has made enormous strides on marriage equality and as of June 26, 2015, marriage equality is the law of the land in all 50 states. On that day, the Supreme Court of the United States held that that the 14th Amendment requires a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize marriages lawfully performed in other jurisdictions. Sixty-one percent of Americans support marriage equality.

Has our country reached the tipping point?  Are we ready to bring LGBT topics into our curriculum and classrooms?

Consider the numbers. According to the 2010 Census, there are approximately 594,000 same-sex couple households living in the U.S. and more than 125,000 of those households include nearly 220,000 children under age 18.  Further, there are as many as 6 million American children and adults who have an LGBT parent. With the Supreme Court ruling, all U.S. residents live in a state with marriage equality.

In addition to the children of same-sex couples attending our schools, there are students who themselves identify as lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual and/or who don’t conform to traditional gender norms. Many of these students suffer teasing, bullying, harassment, violence and internalized oppression that can lead to risky behavior and even suicide. Almost half of all elementary students say they hear comments like “that’s so gay” or “you’re so gay” from other kids at school and 75% of LGBT middle and high school students report being verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation. The good news is that these students also report better school experiences when pro-active supports and resources are in place.

There are gay and lesbian educators in our schools but many don’t feel safe to be “out” to their students and the school community. LGBT teachers do not have the same privilege that heterosexual teachers have to talk about their partners/spouses and other core aspects of their lives and the school climate can be downright hostile towards them. There have been recent cases of teachers getting fired because of their sexual orientation. Some states have laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity but most do not. Federal legislation (ENDA) has been proposed to address this problem but it has stalled in Congress. Even teachers in states with legal protections aren’t necessarily comfortable coming out because administrators can find ways to fire them.

For children and teenagers, just knowing a gay teacher can be a powerful experience; it gives them the opportunity to know, admire and care about someone who is LGBT.

Given that our schools are populated with children of same-sex family households, LGBT students and gay and lesbian teachers, it is time to bring this topic into our nation’s schools and classrooms in a comprehensive way.  It is an opportunity to expand young people’s concepts of family, discuss marriage equality, infuse the curriculum with LGBT people and their history and accomplishments and address bias-based bullying for kids who identify as LGBT or are perceived as such.

For young children, family is central to the curriculum; therefore, discussing same-sex household families should be integral to the conversation. This “normalizes” instead of marginalizes children in same-sex households.  Children in those families need to feel comfortable talking about their own families and when those families are not represented in classrooms, teachers can share their stories through children’s books and discussions.

As children move into upper elementary and middle school, teachers can incorporate conversations about gender, gender norms, kinds of families and LGBT people and identity. Students can be taught about marriage equality and the road to the Supreme Court ruling.

Bullying, especially identity-based bullying for LGBT or gender non-conforming students, should be discussed not only when an incident occurs but regularly. Children’s literature continues to be a positive way to understand and empathize with LGBT people and families.

In the middle and high school years as students emerge into adolescence, the conversations about identity can continue and stories of LGBT people can be explored and infused into the everyday teaching and learning. Reading young adult books with LGBT characters and integrating the accomplishments of LGBT people into social studies are encouraged. During the teen years, bullying around sexual orientation can be brutal and teachers should maximize opportunities to discuss it directly.

In 2011 California passed a law requiring educators to teach gay and lesbian history. On the other side, eight states currently have “no promo homo” laws which forbid teachers from discussing LGBT people and issues in a positive light and some prohibit discussing the topic at all. Because schools are central to any community, addressing LGBT topics will make our schools safer and more inclusive and will begin to curb the marginalization of LGBT people for the present and for future generations.





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July 29, 2014

Embracing Technology, Challenging Cyberbullying

If you have been reviewing any number of parenting or education blogs lately, you’ll see headlines proclaiming the menace and dangers of technology.  Technology, and more specifically, social media and mobile apps are often treated like “monsters” to guard against and the creators of all matter of social ills.  Even if technology is scary and daunting to some adults, for youth it is a necessary and positive part of life.  In addition to using technology for homework and research, teens use technology as a part of an active and complex social life. Of youth  12-18 years old, 78% have cellphones and 74% are mobile internet users.

Family taking picture with mobile phone (iStock_000041774914)

That is not to say that there are not valid issues and concerns related to technology. Disrespect, bullying and bias are all experiences which still exist for youth, and technology adds different modalities for it to spread.  From our vantage point,the real menace in our society is ignorance and apathy, and adults can slay the metaphoric monster with education and empathy-building.

Being thoughtful, kind, using humor in good ways and developing skills to be an effective ally are all socializing opportunities and hold valuable lessons for youth. Adults have the opportunity to explore, learn alongside and guide youth to utilize technology and social media sites in respectful and positive ways, teaching youth to be an active part of creating an inclusive online world as well as behaving in ways to keep themselves safe.

Educating youth about online behavior is not just about “bully-proofing” them; it’s about doing your part so that your young person isn’t the aggressor or a bystander in acts of cyber cruelty or cyberbullying.   Here are some ideas to cultivate online ally behavior for youth in your life:

  •  Adopt a positive attitude about technology and social media. The overwhelming majority of youth are utilizing technology in positive ways. If you always speak negatively about this aspect of their life, you are dismissing an important aspect of their life.
  •  Show humility if you are unsure about how something works online. Ask questions that broaden your understanding and don’t verbalize any judgments when you are learning.  Consider appointing or hiring a “youth guru” to fill you in on the latest and greatest apps and social media sites. Or stay connected with our Grown Folks Guide to Popular Apps in Social Media.
  •  Ask more questions, use lectures sparingly. For example: Why do you think some people think its ok to make jokes about someone’s race or religion? What kind of place does the internet become if no one cares about  the words they choose?
  •  When you see biased online stereotyping, jokes, memes or videos online- discuss them openly. Anti-bias education with youth requires ongoing discussion. You don’t have to have all of the answers, but one important lesson can be made clear: it’s not ok.
  • Regularly share examples of youth standing up and being allies. The message you send is “I love this behavior, and I want to see this from you.”
  • Teach youth that reporting is not the same as “snitching.” Many youth understand that hurtful comments and posts are the wrong thing to do, but many youth believe “snitching” is worse. Helping youth to understand that reporting hurtful comments, and especially threatening comments, is an integral part of creating safe spaces online. ADL’s Cyber-Safety Action Guide can help you navigate how to report concerns to service providers.

For more resources on how to prevent and intervene in bullying and cyberbullying, internet guidelines, and information on cyberbullying warning signs- visit our Families and Caregiver Resources List.



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