Carole Edelsky is a Professor of Language Arts in the Division of Curriculum and Instruction at Arizona State University. She earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of New Mexico in 1974. Her dissertation was the first study of children’s awareness of gender stereotypes in language use; it won the Popejoy Outstanding Dissertation Award (Outstanding Dissertation from the College of Education, Business, and Liberal Arts for 1974-1977) in 1977. Dr. Edelsky has won several additional awards for her work in education and has participated in numerous other service projects throughout her career. Dr. Edelsky’s research interests include first and second language literacy, gender and language, critical literacy, and classroom discourse. Her influence on education and research within her field of study has been and continues to be great.
Students with disabilities have a right to a high quality education, an education that goes beyond a focus on skills and instead sets its sights on loftier goals (promoting equity), more ethical dispositions (e.g., a concern for fairness), and more elusive but critical habits of mind (e.g., engaging with inquiry). All students deserve such an education, and students with disabilities are no exception. What does such an education look like? What is the teacher doing? And what is the principal doing?
To answer those questions, it is necessary to step back and note some requirements that are not easily observable. Education for social justice requires a stance and particular understandings—as much a set of dispositions and habits of mind on the part of teachers and principals as it does for students. Educating for social justice requires that teachers and principals are passionate about promoting equity and lessening injustice. It requires that educational personnel understand how society-wide privilege and oppression are systemic, not merely matters of individual prejudice or unfair actions by individuals but, rather, are built into the premises and activities of institutions and of representatives of those institutions. Beyond these goals and understandings, education for social justice requires a willingness to include concerns for equity in plans for long-term units of study and also in spur of the moment teaching.
Back to the question of what education for social justice looks like in a classroom and in school. First, it is much more than inserting a unit on “difficult” topics (e.g., poverty, homelessness, stereotypes, racism, sexism, prejudice against disabled people) into a traditional curriculum. Although teachers aiming to teach for social justice would most likely work with children’s literature dealing with such topics, and although they might also teach occasional units with a potentially explicit justice-based focus (e.g., a unit on unemployment or on child labor), their social justice goals would not be reserved only for such obvious topics. They would be working hard to develop students’ empathy and concern for others, their curiosity and respect for differences, their appreciation of the existence of multiple perspectives, their willingness to work with others, and their desire to have an impact on the world and make it better. These dispositions are developed through open-ended discussion of children’s literature, role-playing, drama, and other expressive media. To the extent possible, social justice teachers plan curriculum by observing their students, noting reactions to race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and various disabilities and attending to students’ concerns about fairness. Teachers then plan ways for students to seriously investigate questions that begin from these observations. Teachers also deliberately foreground serious study of individuals, events, and movements that, throughout history, have resisted injustice. Throughout their work in regard to many topics, social justice teachers ask themselves—and teach students to ask—some key questions:
*Whose story is this?
How would it be a different story if it were someone else’s story?
What voices are consistently missing from this version?
*How did “things” (this phenomenon) get to be like this?
Who benefits from it being like this?
How else could it be?
What can we do—and what can we stop doing—to begin to make this better?
What principals do on behalf of social justice education is promote, support, and protect. They promote it by encouraging teachers to develop their own professional study groups using materials such as those published by Rethinking Schools (http://www.rethinkingschools.org/), “alternative” histories such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1998, Harper), and anti-bias curriculum materials; and by carving out time for these study groups. Principals support this kind of education by, again, providing time, space, and materials, and, importantly, by decreasing pressure to teach from scripted programs or “with fidelity” to commercial programs that do little or nothing to promote critical awareness and social justice. And principals protect teachers who teach for social justice by justifying the educational and societal value of such teaching to those who might criticize it.
Education for social justice is supremely optimistic. Its premise is that we are not condemned to continue the present, that, instead, people working together can make the world more just and equitable. Teachers and principals can join with other educators who are already working in this way, and they can ensure that students with disabilities, too, benefit from this kind of high quality, thoughtful, emotionally enriching, and socially relevant education.