What can Jena teach us?

PROVIDENCE, RI—Most teachers believe their schools are free of ethnic or racial bias, according to a 2006 survey conducted by Teaching Tolerance, the National Education Association, and the Civil Rights Project. Yet federal studies indicate that one in four students are victims of racial or ethnic incidents during the course of the school year.

The recent racially-charged “Jena Six” incident at Jena High School in Louisiana—in which six black teenagers were charged with beating a white student after a noose was hung from a tree on school grounds—has prompted intense debate and reflection, in and outside our schools. For educators committed to creating space in their classroom for lessons about social justice, the “Jena Six” provides a “teachable moment,” however tragic.

The Southern Law Poverty Center’s Teaching Tolerance Web site has posted "Six Lessons From Jena." As a path to early intervention, the lessons include ways to examine a school’s climate, including how to identify and respond to bias incidents and address offensive slang. The latter includes 10 lesson plans that follow content standards for high school students, but can be adopted for any grade level.

Teacher activist groups in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco have assembled a resource guide, Revealing Racist Roots: The 3 R’s for Addressing the Jena 6 in the Classroom. In a September 20, 2007 news release, the group writes:

If all students are expected to learn about our country’s justice system, our history, our laws and our rights, what kinds of lessons can we learn from the Jena 6? [We] set out to collect resources and lesson ideas that might help teachers and students understand contemporary racial conflict by placing the case of the Jena 6 within a historical framework. “If we want our students to understand why events like this are still happening in the year 2007, it is critical that teachers help students reveal the roots of racism,” comments Bree Picower, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at New York University and co-editor of the guide. “We hope that this resource will provide educators with tools to engage in these difficult, yet important, discussions.” Connections are also made within the guide to literature, media literacy, the arts, math and social activism.

In the era of NCLB, as schools are measured against the achievement gap, few classroom discussions address the economic disparities, inequities, and social policies that leave children behind every bit as much as do schools. We all lose when schools choose scripted curriculum in math and English instead of engaging students in lessons that explore the rights and obligations of democratic citizenship.

A growing movement of educators, however, believes that a good education should teach youth—particularly low-income youth and youth of color—to understand and challenge the injustices their communities face. WKCD presents below a few of the many regional and national organizations that pull together and support socially conscious educators.

Educators for social justice

Education for Liberation Network
This is a national coalition of teachers, community activists, youth, researchers and parents who believe a good education should teach people—particularly low-income youth and youth of color—to understand and challenge the injustices their communities face. The website includes an interactive laboratory for experimenting with new “liberatory” educational materials. Visitors to the site can find educational materials on social justice topics, share materials they have created, and comment on the contributions of others.

New York Collective of Radical Educators
New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE) is a group of public school educators committed to fighting for social justice by organizing and mobilizing teachers, developing curriculum, and working with community, parent, and student organizations. “We are educators who believe that education is an integral part of social change and that we must work both inside and outside the classroom because the struggle for justice does not end when the school bell rings.” Their website includes social justice curricula and workshops.

Radical Math
Radical math is a resource for educators interested in integrating issues of social and economic justice into their math classes and curriculum. On this website, you will find links to access and download over 700 lesson plans, articles, charts, graphs, data sets, maps, books and websites to help you bring these issues into your classroom.

Rethinking Schools
Founded in 1986 by activist teachers, Rethinking Schools is a nonprofit, independent publisher of educational materials. It advocates the reform of elementary and secondary education, with a strong emphasis on issues of equity and social justice. In addition to its quarterly magazine, Rethinking Schools offers a number of publications on critical topics in school reform.

Teachers 4 Social Justice in San Francisco
Teachers 4 Social Justice in San Francisco provides “opportunities for self-transformation, leadership, and community building to educators in order to affect meaningful change in the classroom, school, community and society. “ T4SJ organizes teachers and community-based educators and implements programs and projects that develop empowering learning environments, more equitable access to resources and power, and realizing a just and caring culture.

Teachers for Social Justice Chicago
Teachers for Social Justice-Chicago is an organization of teachers, administrators, pre-service teachers, and other educators working in public, independent, alternative, and charter schools and universities in the Chicago area. They have come together based on their commitment to classrooms and schools that are anti-racist, multicultural and multilingual, and grounded in the experiences of students. On their website they share ideas and curriculum. They are also an activist organization, working to get the voices of educators into the public discussion of school policies

Teaching for Change
Established in 1989, Teaching for Change offers hundreds of k-12 books, videos and posters for teaching from a social justice perspective. By drawing direct connections to 'real world' issues, Teaching for Change encourages teachers and students to question and re-think the world inside and outside their classrooms, build a more equitable, multicultural society, and become active global citizens.

Teaching Tolerance
Tolerance.org, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is a principal online destination for people interested in dismantling bigotry and creating, in hate's stead, communities that value diversity. Through its online well of resources and ideas, its expanding collection of print materials, its burgeoning outreach efforts, and its downloadable public service announcements, Tolerance.org promotes and supports anti-bias activism in schools and beyond.


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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator