Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

When teaching through a social justice lens is vital

Texas 8th-grade teacher Shontoria Walker knows the joy of empowering immigrant students, and what a difference it can make in their lives.

Joe Johnston/The Tribune of San Luis Obispo via AP/File
About 100 Paso Robles High School students held a demonstration at the edge of campus during their lunch break in Paso Robles, Calif, Feb., 2017 as part of a national "day without immigrants." Immigrants around the US stayed home from work and school Thursday to demonstrate how important they are to America’s economy, and many businesses closed in solidarity, in a nationwide protest called A Day Without Immigrants.

Tearfully, Ricardo said, “I am in 5th grade and I cannot read and can barely write. I’ve never passed a reading test and I am not going to pass this year either. There is nothing you can do for me.” This is when I told him that I believed in him and refused to give up on him. If he worked hard, I would do everything in my power to make sure he was able to read, write, and pass the state test by the end of the school year. Hesitantly, he asked, “Are you serious, Ms. Walker?” as if he had heard this promise many times before.

To help Ricardo, who is Hispanic and an immigrant from Mexico, I knew that I couldn’t just teach. I had to teach through a social justice lens. Ricardo’s academic journey thus far has been an almost consistent failure as he continued to fall through the cracks of the educational system.

How could I best help Ricardo and students like him? What does it mean to teach through a social justice lens?

Give them the tools to excel

First, it means to be aware of the expectations that our society places on kids and the meaning of that trajectory. Black and brown young men are not expected to succeed and in most cases, are not set up for success. By the 4th grade, only 14 percent of black males and 18 percent of Hispanic males are performing at proficient or above grade level in reading. By the 8th grade, this number shrinks to 12 percent of black males and 17 percent of Hispanic males. Whether it's behavioral or educational setbacks, these young men begin their education with the odds stacked against them and continuously feed into the school-to-prison pipeline.

It is our job as teachers to equip them with the tools to excel in school settings. One such tool is "The Jumping Tree" by Rene Saldana, an age-appropriate novel that not only has a Hispanic male main character, but also addresses major social issues such as family and identity crisis, immigration status, discrimination, as well as cultural cues that span across demographics. Choosing texts and lessons that are relatable to these boys’ lives and their culture gives them the resources to make a difference, not only in academics, but in life.

Believe in them

No child will succeed without someone to believe in them, which is why I work hard to debunk all negative stereotypes in my classroom. Just like Ricardo, many of my boys entered 8th grade reading significantly below grade level. They would continuously make comments such as, “Ms. Walker, they already expect us to fail, so why not?” Teachers like me are the force that develops the next congressman, engineer, scientist, business owner, author, or even the next president. I give positive affirmations to my students daily. Simple words like, “you will do an amazing job today,” can change a child’s narrative. Our students must know that they are in this classroom, on that day, to make a difference in the world tomorrow, and nothing should stop them. Who knows? You could be teaching the next activist.

Tell them their voice matters

All students should know that their voices matter. The common refrain in the world today is, “My Life Matters.” But, what is a life without a voice? All  the students in my class know that they should have something to stand for and someone to stand with. Allow for purposeful, engaging, student-led discussions. Give students the power to express themselves and be the bridge that connects their conversation to academics.  

Ricardo, who is now in high school, has since passed each core subject on the 8th-grade state STAAR exam. He has shown significant growth in reading, science, history, and math and is an avid reader of the "Percy Jackson" series, the fantasy novels I bought for my classroom library. He now tutors other ELL students whose academic journeys are similarly rocky. Through every hug he gives me when he visits my classroom, I get to experience that little piece of hope I gave him again and again.

When I talked to Ricardo recently, he said, “Ms. Walker, you gave me something I didn’t know I had. Thank you.” Little does he know that his simple thank you is what keeps me coming back to my classroom to make a difference for my students every moment of the day. I am grateful to Ricardo for making me the teacher and the person I am today.

Shontoria Walker is an 8th-grade English Language Arts teacher and grade level chair at KIPP Polaris Academy for Boys in Houston, and a member of the Teach Plus Texas Teacher Advisory Board.

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