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Social Justice Starts in the Classroom

TeachHUB Interview

Social Justice Starts in the Classroom Teachers for Social Justice is a grassroots organization of teachers from Chicago schools - from public to private to independent and alternative. These educators come together to create classrooms that support anti-racist, multicultural, multilingual educational experience that teaches students to question the world around them.


With their annual curriculum fair coming up this fall, member Jonah Bondurant was kind enough to give us some insight into the work of Teachers for Social Justice.


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Can you briefly explain what Teachers for Social Justice is and what you are trying to achieve?


TSJ is a grassroots network of educators engaging in the questions: What is a social justice educator? What is social justice? What is social justice education? How do you enact social justice as an educator? Toward this end, we engage in political education, political action, curriculum development, coalition building, community outreach, political forum, discussions and movie screenings, action based study groups and mentorship.


How did you get involved with Teachers for Social Justice?


I don't remember how I heard about TSJ, but I had been to a few curriculum fairs an undergrad and got on the listserv so I stayed updated on events. Then I graduated and got a teaching job and thought it was important that I get involved with something that reflected my beliefs in student and community empowerment and a pedagogy that was based on ideas of social justice and liberation.

I saw TSJ as taking a radical, grassroots stand for the type of education system that I was interested in producing so I got involved first by joining the discussion about empowering LSC's and I actually got elected to the LSC at the school I was at.


What do you do to make your classroom meet TSJ’s goals?


As a teacher for two years I made partial steps towards a classroom more based on ideas of social justice. In my curriculum and in my methods, I would try to ensure that my students would be successful and push the limits of their creativity and understanding of themselves and the world. I tried to help students listen to each other and de-center myself as the generator and authority of knowledge. I tried to connect to each student and find out what motivated them, what drove them to learn and apply what I learned about students to the classroom. I often failed, however, I occasionally succeeded.


Have you seen positive change based on that effort?


I saw positive change occasionally. It occurred more in individual students than in whole classes. All of the changes were partial and I always felt like more could have been done. I was still figuring out how to be an authority and maintain student focus on the learning tasks.


TSJ vehemently opposes “Renaissance 2010” – the city’s plan to improve achievement in Chicago schools. What does the organization think is the right way to reform Chicago schools?


Ren10 is a plan to privatize, gentrify, disempower communities and further empower the business and political elite. It places the blame on communities that have been systematically marginalized and disinvested from. We think that the education of our students should be decided by the parents, communities, teachers and students, not the mayor, businessmen or developers.

Schools and teachers need greater investment, LSC's and local instruments of power need to be bolstered, students need robust after-school, arts and recreation opportunities, greater teacher excellence needs to be encouraged. There are great examples across the city of schools that, as the TSJ position paper says, "are grounded in children’s lives, cultures, and identities, that are anti-racist and pro-justice, that have a rigorous curriculum and are hopeful, joyful, and visionary, and that teach children to think critically about the world we live in so they can actively participate in making it more just."

TSJ official position


Is this grassroots effort spreading beyond Chicago?


Yes, at the curriculum fair, educators from around the nation will convene to discuss how privatization, centralization and the Duncan agenda is playing out in multiple cities like Milwaukee, Philadelphia and St. Louis. TAG (Teacher Activist Group) is a coalition of grassrots, progressive teacher organizations around the country who conference call, share resources and work together every month. Local conferences held by each organization are attended by organizers from other cities. The Education for Liberation Conference is going on it's third or fourth year. Also, internationally, TSJ has sent two delegates to Honduras as a part of a larger delegation to promote solidarity with the resistance against the coup d'etat in Honduras where the teachers or at the forefront.


The TSJ Curriculum Fair is coming up this fall. Have you been the previous Curriculum Fairs? If so, can you describe the event? (How many attend? What’s the energy, atmosphere, etc.).


I have been to three fairs and organized two. Last year was the largest yet at between 500 and 600 people. The energy is jubilant. So many teachers have their core values based on ideas of social justice, yet in their everyday life at school, that core self is ignored, erased or discouraged. But at the fair these teachers get to fully embrace that core self in celebration and solidarity with many others. The atmosphere is charged with excitement and powerful discussions. There are so many things to do, people to see and talk with, resources to pick up, it's a radical teacher carnival.


Chicago schools has made national news after the violent killing of an honor student. How does TSJ address violence in schools?


One of the things in process and just developing is a curriculum to guide youth inquiry projects that was proposed by Chicago Freedom School director Mariame Kaba titled "Why Derrion Died?" It should be available in mid-January.

We're going to collect lesson plans, ideas and curricula submitted by educators and then edit them into the guide. We look at this tragedy with a wider lens than the media does. We are asking what conditions allow for this to happen? How did these conditions arise? What response and what actions would honorably bare witness to this tragedy and how can we express solidarity?


How do you teach social justice in your classroom? Share in the comments section!

Image: photo from TSJ's 2007 Curriculum Fair panel discussion.


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