Sometimes trying to understand and implement culturally responsive teaching in a systematic and comprehensive way feels like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time — hard. Both require focus and coordination.  And honestly, it takes awhile to get the hang of either one.

There is one way to reduce some of the initial complexity of culturally responsive teaching by jumpstarting your practice with a focus on social justice.

While they are not exactly the same thing, teaching for social justice has some similar traits as culturally responsive teaching.

Think of teaching for social justice as culturally responsive teaching with training wheels.

Hardwired for Social Justice

Fairness is at the core of social justice.  According to neuroscientists, it turns out we are hardwired to seek fairness when we are in community with others.  It’s one of five core areas of wellbeing all humans crave — along with status, certainty, autonomy, and relatedness.  Our brains are wired to drive us to minimize threats to fairness and maximize structures and processes that promote it in our lives.

Here’s the connection to cultural responsiveness.  The search for fairness through social justice is tied to the second pillar of cultural responsiveness:  validation.  In the CRP frame validation is defined as acknowledging social inequity and supporting the truth of students’ experience living with social inequity.

Teaching in this way begins by recognizing the socio-political context within society that creates inequitable structures in health care, housing, employment and other areas that sort people into the haves and the have nots.

Social justice is a way to acknowledge and give voice to students who have experienced microagressions or unequal treatment in any of these areas .  It validates their experience as real and doesn’t minimize or trivialize it.  It is the minimizing and trivializing that erodes trust in the classroom community.

So, how do you prepare to teach for social justice?  It doesn’t have to be overly complicated.

Here are a few tips.

Avoid the blame and shame trap. It’s important to remember that teaching for social justice is not about blaming and shaming any group.

Focus on offering multiple perspectives and motivations. Instead, you will want to get comfortable with presenting multiple perspectives of an issue or event.  If you think this strategy is only applicable in social studies, think again.

In English language arts, we want to present multiple perspectives of a literary text — what’s the socio-political context when the book was written?  Who is the author and what is his motivation? What is his worldview and is it inclusive of the social realities others experience?  What commentary is the author making through this fictional work?

Teaching for social justice in science and mathematics forces us to confront our assumptions about “truth” and “knowledge.” For example, in math, students can look at the mathematics of gentrification and neighborhood displacement.  In science, you can examine the eco-politics of water around the world, including the issues of water quality as well as who has access to clean water.

Have ways to acknowledge and manage emotions associated with the complexities of fairness. When addressing fairness, there can be strong emotions connected to being on the receiving end of unfair treatment or social bias. Teaching for social justice isn’t about providing students some cathartic, emotional release around issues of racism, sexism or any other “ism.”

Instead, lifting up and talking about obvious inequities is about moving through the emotions that cloud our thinking. The goal is to get clearer about how to restore equality in society for everyone’s benefit.  The same thing happens when we integrate methods of validation into our instructional practice.  Our task is to help students not get lost or stuck in the emotions generated by being oppressed or marginalized.    Use strategies like constructivist listening and tools like Glenn Singleton’s compass for courageous conversation as a way to help students handle their emotions.

Help students learn to grapple with complexity.  Often when trying to validate students’ experiences, we come face to face with the complex nature of social issues and realize that there are no clear cut “good guys” and “bad guys”.  Often we want to blame inequality on “the Man” or some other scapegoat. Students can become frustrated when its not easy to identify who is right and who is wrong.  In the end, we want students to wrestle with social justice complexities so that they become intellectually and personally comfortable with facing the duality, ambiguity, and the dynamics of living in community, regardless if its at the local, national or global level.

Use structures and processes to equalize voice and participation.  Without thoughtful structures and processes to equalize student participation, you may have a few voices dominate the dialogue in the classroom.  This can have the opposite effect of creating a greater sense of community across differences. Left unchecked, some students will shut down to keep themselves psychologically safe.  To create equity of voice, try Socratic seminars. Use protocols like fish bowls and kivas. You can find more protocols in Nancy Mohr’s The Power of Protocols.

Resources to Get Started

If you want to get more strategies for build in social justice teaching into your practice, here are a few good resources I have found handy and helpful.

Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Source Book — 2nd Edition (Curriculum and instruction of social justice teaching). Book by Maurianne Adams.

Teaching for Joy and Justice. (Language Arts).  Book by Linda Christensen

Creating Balance in an Unjust World (Math).  Website

Social Studies, Literacy and Social Justice in Common Core Classroom (Social Studies). Book by Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath.

Rethinking Mathematics (Math). Book by Rethinking Schools.

Teaching to Transgress (Inspiration around social justice teaching).  Book by bell hooks

Teaching for social justice is one of many ways into into culturally responsive teaching.  How have you managed the complexities of integrating culturally responsive teaching into your practice?  What have been some of your challenges?  Share what has been most successful for you.  Leave a comment below.