Classrooms Are Not Neutral Places: An Interview With the Authors of a Great Social Justice Resource for Students and Teachers

Sarah and Robyn

This week I have the honour of interviewing two extraordinary educators, Robyn Ecclestone and Sarah Hill, about a fantastic resource they’ve co-written for educators and students about social justice. To spend time with them is always a rare blend of intellectual provocation and pure fun. In one moment they will ask a question which takes your thinking to places you didn’t know you had the cognitive capabilities to traverse, and in the next, you will find yourself on the floor in stitches because of a hilarious The Simpsons reference which connects to it. When we say that being an ally to marginalized people is a verb, not just an adjective, you’ll be hard pressed finding two people who embody that spirit as proudly and courageously as these two.

Download the Student Resource
Download the Student Resource
Download the Teacher Resource
Download the Teacher Resource

Royan: What is social justice?

Robyn: It refers to how easily someone can move through the world, what privileges and barriers exist for different people, and trying to create a society with equal access to opportunities.

Sarah: It is also an understanding of how different forms of oppression operate and their impact, both on a personal or individual level and on systemic levels, and working to dismantle them.

Royan: How/why did you become so passionate about social justice? Was it an experience(s), a text(s), a person(s) who influenced you?

Sarah: For me, it wasn’t one event. It is simply a lens through which I view education. Through my education, I became aware of the impact that the role of an educator can have on helping students to see the world from an inclusive viewpoint.

Robyn: I’ve somehow always been passionate about social justice. As a kid I was always writing letters to Sea World or trying to raise awareness about issues in my local community that concerned me like pesticide use or recycling. I dressed up like Nellie McClung for Halloween when I was 10 or so, and people who know me seem to think that explains a lot haha :) We were lucky enough to work for a brilliant and inspiring Principal who really centred social justice work in our school at the time, and that was a big catalyst for us to start thinking more beyond our own classrooms.

Royan: How do you locate your own social identity? What influence or impact does this have on your work as an educator?

Robyn: We are very aware of our privilege and we are constantly interrogating what that means in any given situation in the classroom, how we might use it to amplify others’ voices, model the kind of deep listening that is integral to allyship, bring attention to issues of social justice, whatever the case may be.

Sarah: We also try to be vulnerable with our students about the ways in which we don’t have privilege and what impact that has. Power and identity are so complex, and if we can build an understanding of that notion we would consider that a huge win.

Royan: Why should educators and students care about social justice?

Sarah: Because it’s our job as educators. We don’t exist in isolation, learning is such a social process so it is inherently political. Classrooms are not neutral spaces so we need to engage students in the work of figuring out how, why, what it all means, and what to do about it.

Robyn: We’re not talking about asking kids to fix problems no one knows the answer to, we’re talking about engaging them in the process and bringing them into the work of actively making the world a more just place. We’ve never met a teacher or student who is not interested in making the world a better place!

Royan: Why the classroom and school as a great site for transformation?

Sarah: We have access to all kinds of minds in a school, and have the relationship to discuss these issues beyond surface-level conversations. When we really connect with students we can truly bring them into these conversations.

Robyn: I like to think of schools as ground zero for change. We have an opportunity within a classroom to reimagine what we want the world to be and then build it together. We know that schools exist within societies and students don’t enter our buildings as blank slates. If external norms influence what happens at school why can’t the inverse be true?

Royan: What needs to be in place before we can work towards transformation in a classroom or school?

Robyn: In a way, nothing. You don’t have to be an expert, we certainly don’t think we are! Do your homework, of course, learn as much as you can, but don’t feel you need to be an expert to begin the work with your students. Your ideas will shift and evolve. For example, in our resource, we suggest that teachers use person-first language, which we still don’t think are a bad idea. In listening to different communities, however, we have learned about identity-first language and now understand how that is preferable. In many cases, it results in referring to someone in the same way, and our including person-first language was our best thinking at the time. It’s about listening and learning.

Sarah: In order for conversations to go to the next level there needs to be a great sense of trust in the room. It’s all about relationships. When we have strong relationships with and between students, families, and the broader school community the work can really move forward.

Royan: Describe the process you went through to create this fantastic resource for teachers and students.

Robyn: We were invited to submit a proposal, and made sure it was really robust. Not only did we want the publisher to know exactly what they would be getting, it really helped that we had a strong skeleton when it came time to write. We are really lucky in that we write really well together, building on one another’s ideas comes easily but let’s be clear that writing is no easy task! More often than not one of us would be up and pace around, talking through ideas and the other would be capturing it all on a computer.

Sarah: It was challenging to write for people we will never meet and who we know nothing about, and although it’s said you shouldn’t try to please every one we tried to. We wanted to include something for new and experienced social justice educators at many different grade levels. As we were creating the learning experiences we would sometimes switch back and forth between the student and teacher guides, and sometimes be working on both simultaneously. It was a messy process but made sense to us, we hope you can sense our passion in the work.

Royan: Who should use this resource? How should they use it?

Sarah: NOT as a unit! Social justice isn’t a “one and done” kind of undertaking, in fact, it’s kind of the opposite! We hope those looking to incorporate more social justice into their programs use it as a starting point, and those who are more experienced find it helpful to complement the work they are already doing.

Robyn: Every classroom will do different things with it, and that’s the point! When students drive the learning it can go in any direction, we just want it to lead to greater empowerment and a sense of efficacy.

Royan: What advice do you have for educators who want to begin this work?

Robyn: No children are too young. If they are school age, they are ready for age-appropriate discussions about social justice. By the time children come to school the have real senses of fairness, as well as surprisingly rigid ideas about how the world works. They are ready to challenge and be challenged!

Sarah: Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. It’s okay for you and your students to be uncomfortable so long as you have a safe space in which to be uncomfortable together. If something challenges you, say so. Also, support your students in going beyond pity. When talking about poverty, for example, feeling sorry for those who use food banks is an easy trap for kids to fall into. Help them in digging deeper to consider the conditions that give rise to poverty.

Robyn: Social justice work is not about being fascinated by someone’s other-ness which just serves to, at best, assuage guilt and, at worst, propagate imperialist ideas. If we’re not analyzing the mechanisms of power and privilege we need to go deeper.

Sarah: And find your own allies. We do not take for granted the fact that we have each other to challenge and encourage but we are also inspired and lifted up by so many others. This work is far from easy but it is necessary, and having the right people to support you makes all the difference.


Originally published at royan lee.