Keep Social Justice Relevant in Your School

By Laura Head, Founder of Heads Up Learning

McGraw Hill
Inspired Ideas


I’ve spent the last couple of months developing my series on remote learning. I’m sure I will in the future return to remote learning with more key insights, but for now, a new series: Social Justice in the Classroom.

This is in no way an exhaustive list, but it’s a start to share some of the things we did in my classroom to facilitate social justice. Have I missed a stellar idea? Let me know!

Diverse Books by Diverse Authors

I did a Donor’s Choose for my class one year, in order to collect diverse books by diverse authors for diverse readers. Here are a few of the selections among what we added to our library, to give you an idea:

  • Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan
  • Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez
  • The Table Where Rich People Sit
  • Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down
  • My Princess Boy
  • The Curious Garden
  • A is for Activist
  • Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa
  • Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride
  • Richard Wright and the Library Card
  • Henry’s Freedom Box
  • Rad American Women A-Z

These books gave us the opportunity to develop deep and meaningful literary skills, all while exploring themes of race, segregation, feminism, discrimination, gender, sexuality, wealth, oppression, and the environment.

We didn’t quite hit the mark on intersectionality, a theme meriting equal exploration, but we did cover a lot of other ground. From these texts alone, I watched my students make growth in their ability to ask poignant questions, practice empathy, and uncover historical trends.

Kids met the readings on the regular with questions like Why weren’t they allowed to start a library? And How come farmers weren’t given enough money?

Empathetic remarks were commonly made like, it doesn’t seem fair that he wasn’t allowed to get a library card just because he was black! And, women can do sports too, but like nobody thought Billie Jean would win!

Most fascinating to me personally is when my students would remark on historical patterns, finding trends across themes of discrimination and privilege: When Henry could only get out of slavery by a box, that’s just like when Sojourner had to be a slave, too.

Civics Circles

In my second year of teaching, I started Civics Circles in an effort to facilitate conversations on current events, to try and expand on the historical perspective we were gaining through books. I sat my third graders in a circle, and in age-appropriate language, described a current or historical event. Then, I opened the floor to questions, comments, and worries, and took a back seat as a facilitator.

Civics Circles had a similar benefit as did the books, evoking inquiry, empathy, and historical awareness from my students.

Unique to Civics Circles though, I was able to massage the direction of the conversation. While discussing 9/11, the Pride parade, or the election of Donald Trump, I could air questions like, how would you feel if you were in this situation? We keep hearing about this sort of thing, when else did something like this happen? We’re sitting here chatting about this — what else can we do to help support others?

Don’t Cling to the Holidays

Celebrating Black history during Black History Month and Women’s history during Women’s History Month is nice, but not really. It sends the message to students that these perspectives are only valued at certain times of the year.

An easy way to break this up is by doing end-of-day reads. When we had time between pack up and dismissal, I’d pull a book off the library shelf and read an entry from Rad Women A-Z or the Book of Black Heroes. We’d have a conversation based on the page, and with any luck, find relevance to a concurrent study of science or social studies.

As a more intensive solution, you can also write these studies into your curricular units — and you really ought to. A literacy unit on Native Americans is a great time to talk about the marginalization of and violence towards the people at the birth of the nation. A study on the American Revolution is an excellent time to rope in the realities of slavery at the time. And so on and so forth.

Make Privilege Relevant

Every year in my classroom, we participated in the school-wide canned food drive. Every year, the script to my kids started the same: There are people in New York City who aren’t able to enjoy a holiday meal. We collect cans so that while we’re at home enjoying our meal, others are able to have something to eat too.

From there, the conversation always evolved. We discussed who was receiving the food, the other things they likely didn’t have, and, in simple terms, the economic frameworks that have put them in such a position (i.e. “some people don’t have jobs, and so they don’t have money. In some countries, the government will give you money if you’re out of a job, but there’s a lot less of it here). We talked about our fortune for being in a position to celebrate Thanksgiving and be able to help others. We discussed that racial minorities are often over-represented in homeless populations, and why that is (again, in very simplistic terms).

The years we won the canned food drive, we got to celebrate our compassion and competitive spirit and teamwork, and dedication. We also talked about how we have the means to be able to win — We have families that have the time and energy and means to go collect cans, more than some others have.

You can do this with any occasion or holiday. Fundraisers, election day, Veteran’s day; There’s always a social angle to raise.

Let the Students Lead the Way

This piggybacks off of the Civics Circles: When in doubt, let your students’ voices lead the way. All of their inquiries — in their presence and their absences can be a guide to subjects to explore and conversations to have to expand the minds of your avid learners.

There’s no formula for practicing social justice in the classroom, and I’m still learning. The best thing to do is simply get started. This alone sends the message to your students that social justice is a cause worth uncovering together.

Passionate educator writing insights on remote learning, early education, and social justice. Laura started Heads Up Learning in 2020, to help students in a smaller setting with their French- and English-language learning.

Prior, she lived in Paris, France, and then taught for 4 years in a Brooklyn public school, leading a French-English dual language immersion classroom for 3rd and 4th graders. When she’s not teaching, she’s playing piano, writing for the ukulele, and out for runs in the woods. Follow more of Laura’s writing on her Medium blog.

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