Why Teach Social Justice to Eighth-Graders? The Answer Is Simple: I Don’t Think We Have a Choice

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

Gerald Dessus, a former literature/composition teacher, like many other teachers, is teaching a course that we believe all eighth-graders in Philly should engage in. Below is teacher leader Mr. Dessus’ response to our need to ensure our students are well equipped to navigate the worlds they currently and will face.

Someone once asked, “Why teach social justice to eighth-graders?” The answer is simple: As educators we do not control the world our students face when they step outside of our classrooms. However, we are responsible for how prepared our students are to engage in society.

Teaching social justice provides us with the opportunity to help students explore their own identities and communities but to also challenge them to think about real world issues. One of the greatest gifts we can give our students is the encouragement and empowerment, to not only fulfill their dreams but, to stand up and speak out for what they believe in.

Our eighth-grade social justice course is designed to help students think and speak critically about social justice issues through a historical perspective so that they can take effective action in their communities. Essentially, it is a civic engagement course that incorporates case studies from African American and South African history to encourage students to act against injustice in their own communities.

During the pilot year of the course, eighth-graders at Shoemaker have adopted a robust vocabulary from Bobbie Harro’s “Cycle of Liberation.” They are also fluent in their understanding of youth activism during the Civil Rights Movement, the youth activism of Malala Yousafzai, as well as the Black Nationalism ideology that inspired the Black Consciousness Movement during South African Apartheid and the Black Panther Party. By the end of the year, students will engage in case studies on Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter in order to evaluate their effectiveness as movements.

Perhaps what separates this course from a typical African American history course is the intentional focus on youth activism and the culminating projects students complete each report period.

In the fall, students at Shoemaker surveyed over 2,500 community members (parents, neighbors, high school students, and high school teachers)—asking them about the most pressing social justice issues facing their West Philly community. Each student then chose a social justice issue that s/he wanted to learn more about and conducted a research paper exploring different aspects of the issue.

In February, students formed coalitions with their peers and created manageable action plans to address some of these issues in their community. Their selected issues ranged from police brutality and LGBT hate crimes to child abuse and gun violence. During the spring, each coalition will work to put their plans into action and present their final projects to members of the student body.

It is not enough to teach students a traditional curriculum when we know the issues they will face today and that tomorrow warrants conscious students who are able to lead and serve in their communities.

Thank you to Mr. Dessus and all educators who work to educate our youth holistically.

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