Guest Blog on Social Justice Part 2 of 3

How Schools Around the World are Tackling Social Justice – Part 2” by Janice Walton was originally published on Getting Smart.

We are currently exploring how schools and classrooms around the world are incorporating the myriad of social justice issues going on each and every day. In our first post in this series, we heard from school leaders at Gimnasio Los Caobos in Colombia, Shanghai American School in China, and Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, DC, and they shared how they are addressing issues of social justice and providing the space for their teachers to discuss with students. In this post, we will hear from teachers at these schools to learn more how they are integrating social justice in their classrooms.

As we did last time, let’s first understand the makeup of these classrooms.


Jorge Jimenez Buritica teaches Social Studies, at Gimnasio Los Caobos, to 14, 15, and 16-year-old students which is the equivalent of grades 9, 10, and 11, in the United States. Jorge uses Project-Based Learning (PBL) in his teaching given the school’s recent move to becoming focused on PBL.



Kirk Irwin teaches 7th-grade students Social Studies at Shanghai American School. Their ages range from 11 – 13. Kirk uses “the PBL model most of the time with a focus on how the students can relate what is happening in the world today with history. We also focus a few of our projects on how our students are directly affected by what is happening in the world and also how they affect the world they live and how they can be apart of change if they believe/want it to happen.”


The United States:

Alyssa-Paige Miller is a 10th grade English teacher at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. She shared, “my students are 95 percent African-American, and all qualify as economically disadvantaged.”

There are two main questions we posed to these teachers:

  1. How do you discuss social justice issues in your classroom; and
  2. Do you connect with other classrooms/teachers for ideas on how to teach about this subject?

As we saw in our first post of this series, with the leaders of these schools, social justice issues exist in each of these communities, and as expected, discussion is happening in the classroom. We start with Alyssa to begin to understand the learning strategies each teacher is using to talk about these issues.

Alyssa Paige-Miller, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, on discussing social justice issues in the classroom:

It’s hard for me to imagine teaching and not addressing social justice issues as this is something that I intentionally incorporate into my classroom. I love taking organic opportunities to discuss social justice by making space for discussion, being vulnerable with students, and responding as needed. Students love expressing their thoughts and feelings, and they will respect you for letting them share (whether you agree with their ideas or not). Often, in the organic moments, I don’t need to respond, but sometimes, it’s necessary for them to know where I stand on certain issues–especially with the population of students I teach.

I also intentionally build some elements into our lessons, such as pairing a meaningful song as a “Do Now” that will set a foundation for issues affecting characters in that day’s reading. When I prepare for these conversations, I always make sure that all student voices are heard and that students are allowed to disagree with me and/or classmates.

I’m constantly thinking about how to bring real-world issues into my classroom for my students, so if I see a video or an ad or read an essay, I consider how my students could engage with it and their curriculum content to have a better experience. As an English teacher, I tend to use resources that are text-based, such as current articles, lyrics to a justice- or injustice-oriented song, relevant poems, and excerpts of essays. For example, we’ve used “Reagan” by Killer Mike to discuss mass incarceration, and we used  “Casket Pretty” by Noname to engage a conversation about community violence, police brutality, and death. Anything can be a resource, as long as it’s a meaningful opportunity for genuine discussion and high-level learning.

How Alyssa connects with other teachers and classrooms:

I had the privilege of attending a National Endowment for the Humanities workshop this summer, and in my collaboration with teachers across content areas around the nation, I  gleaned an immense number of ideas. Many of my ideas and approaches are influenced by Teacher Twitter; I follow many amazing educators and activists who share great methods. I’m also very lucky to be at a school that values collaboration among teachers, which lends itself to general discussions and advice, combined projects, or cohesive activities among classes.


Kirk Irwin, Shanghai American School, on discussing social justice issues in the classroom:

We have a project we are working on currently that has been focusing on Historical Social Activism and how our students can be socially active today, what that could look like and why it is important to be a global citizen. In this project, students are primarily focusing on Social Media campaigns and we are trying to steer them away from the ‘donate money’ idea as they are not really becoming activists in this way. We are finding that many of the students are so far removed from some of the topics that they have a hard time understanding how they are impacted by some of the issues, besides the environmental ones. Some of the students are discussing supporting refugees/migrants with language classes to help them get employment, while others are talking about educating both groups of people concerning the issue of police brutality against African Americans. We will continue to talk to them about these issues and push them to become more informed and current when it comes to global issues and social activism.

We ask the students to come up with an issue they are most passionate about at this time and then come up with a plan on how they can be socially active right now, in their school or community (this is tough b/c we live in China, but we try).

The primary resources we are using are library databases for information: Britannica and World Book Online Encyclopedias, US/World History in Context, Scholastic Magazines and
News Websites.

How Kirk connects with other teachers and classrooms:

Currently, Kirk mentioned his class is not really connecting with other classrooms but he said he definitely does reach out to others as he is planning units. He shared, “ee sometimes bring in experts or professionals in certain fields to come and talk to the students about the importance of the issue or why being a globally minded citizen and helping others is important for them.”

Jorge Jimenez Buritica, Gimnasio Los Caobos, on discussing social justice issues in the classroom:

It can at times be a challenge to talk about social justice issues happening in Colombia, with my students. The students are, by and large, first-class students and their reality is not the war or the social issues that are currently going on. Sometimes I like to show testimonies of people living through the war in capital cities of Colombia but we get pushback from the parents about these experiences being shared. Within this context, it becomes a struggle on how you relate to current events, the peace process, and the politics of what is going on in the country. So, you begin to incorporate these issues in different ways. Rather than teaching directly about these events, I teach through a comparative analysis of what can be learned from wars throughout history such as World War I and II. I’ll ask the students to think about, “what Colombia can learn and avoid from these examples?”

Of course, the goal is to also teach the students to be aware of the other Colombia that exists. The students are aware of the “other” Colombia in terms of its history, but they are not emotionally connected to the fact. The students are not aware of how others are living because they never really explore Colombia outside of their own city. For vacation, they go outside of the country. The parents reinforce this as well. Most parents are interested in wanting their children to in know about the culture of other countries but not the culture of what is happening in Colombia. It is easier for the students to learn about the social justice situations that other countries may be going through, and some may be similar to what Colombia is facing, rather than relate to the plights within their own country. History and current events are still being taught and will continue to be taught because it is important for the students to understand their history and how it impacts the future, which includes the student’s place in that process. As Jennifer D. Klein mentioned in our previous post, the school is committed to ensuring the students have the knowledge and understanding to make a difference in their community and the world. A great example of this is that the school has a heavy focus on entrepreneurialism and it is Jennifer D. Klein’s goal to infuse more social importance into the projects students are creating. She wants to encourage students to think about social responsibility and not just about the thing they are creating.

How Jorge connects with other teachers and classrooms:

The 11th-grade class will soon start a partnership with an AP Spanish class in Colorado. Through this partnership, the class will learn more about Colombia and the peace process.


If you are a teacher we’d love for you to join us in this conversation. How are you integrating social justice issues in the classroom? Comment below or respond on Twitter using #SmartPlanet.

Be sure to visit our first post in the series where we talked to school leaders. For our third and final post we want to hear from you. What barriers, if any, do you think exist to teaching about social justice? We recognize responses may be sensitive so you can share with us anonymously here.

For more, see: