If Your Lesson Plans Aren’t Political Statements, Rip ‘Em Up and Start Over

While most traditional schools have always grounded their work in the 3 Rs (Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic), other schools have determined that the actual work includes the 3 As.

After the NCLB law was ushered in, to sidestep the looming sanctions against schools that didn’t meet yearly gains in math and reading as measured on their state tests, many schools scrambled to develop a myopic and laser-focused curriculum on Reading and ‘Rithmetic. Many students faced a severe narrowing of the curriculum, losing the opportunity to help students explore and learn. Students lost opportunities to build vital background knowledge, and develop the love of learning necessary to nurture life-long learners.

And, while some schools promote their astuteness in developing a well-rounded student through a commitment to pursue the As: Academics, Arts, and Athletics, too often they stop there.

Give Students Opportunities to Practice Activism

While a wide range of subjects should make up a school’s curriculum, a social justice framework should be included to ensure students have the opportunity to practice another, oft-avoided ‘A’ as well: Activism.

And, while so many educators (and those who haven’t stepped into a Pre-K – 12 school since they were themselves enrolled) claim democracy is a foundational principle of school, you can’t create a “love of learning” and build conscientious citizens without this orphaned ‘A’. In other words, you cannot have a democracy without activism.

Bryant Muldrew, in a letter published in EdWeek, states:

Education should include thoroughly learning the functions and duties of government, a complete understanding of the constitution and one’s rights, learning how social justice movements change society… The public school system should exist to prepare young people for life.

Educators should ask themselves, what exactly is the life students of color confront? How are we preparing them to do it? Where do they practice and how does literacy, problem-solving, numeracy, background knowledge, health, well-being, emotional and personal development play into their preparation.

How Are You Supporting The School-To-Activism Pipeline?

By understanding this, deeply, we can plan an education. Do we approach education as if students should be wholly satisfied with the life that exists and the society that will confront them? Or do we approach education clearly seeing the structural racism and historic oppression that undergirds the society that students of color, as well as, justice-minded White students will need to confront? Should we help them to identify the systems devoted to white supremacy and racism or should we let students discover them on their own?

Muldrew further explains:

To educate is to prepare and train someone in the necessary skills to have the ability to participate in society as a full citizen.

As a friend of mine likes to say, lesson planning should be about plotting and planning for our students to create the democracy that actually includes, values, and respects students of color. It goes beyond the 3 Rs. Anyone who thinks otherwise, is ignorant of the current realities and should not be trusted with our children.

And, while affluent White students often attend schools that prepare them to take full advantage of the privileges afforded them because of their race, students of color, attend schools that philosophically, and in practice, are structured to ensure they are not prepared to fully participate in building a democratic society. Many of our schools further entrench the current inherent inequities originally built for the sole purpose of relegating certain people to an incomplete citizenship.

How Is The Activism of Students of Color Viewed Differently ThaN The Activism of Their White Peers?

As the children of the affluent are pushed to question authority, vocalize dissent (confident that they will be heard), and construct the democratic world they wish to live in, students of color are pushed towards compliance, and appreciation of life on the margins. Black and Brown students often aren’t engaged in re-imagining their worlds and the very roles of Black and Brown children in designing a democratic society that engages them as full citizens and engineers of the democracy they desire.

Many can’t fathom why a social justice framework and student activism is synonymous with a holistic education, simply because social justice isn’t needed to be humanized by the White hegemony that exists. For the privileged, studying activism to embark on a social justice issue may be viewed as a “luxury”, an extracurricular, a “nice-to-have.”

But for someone who is learning that the history, the structure, the curriculum, even the school building they attend each day, are based on a system of oppression of them and their forebears — social justice framing and activism is the only way to make sense of it, to show a path forward.

A School-to-Activism Pipeline will help students see that they don’t just have a place in this story, their people’s brilliant resistance and dedicated struggles lighted the way for other marginalized groups. It is through this framework that they can clearly see how they will continue to serve as heroes of the next chapter of building the democratic country that some, in a quintessential Christopher Columbusque worldview, believe to be a place that they’ve already arrived.

Moreover, without teaching activism to privileged White students, proponents of democracy will never break the perpetuation of oppression. Because they’ll remain complicit and active in seeing the world from the white supremacists’ worldview-one lacking awareness, empathy, and a responsibility for justice and true democracy.

I should note that democracy isn’t just a matter of what the majority wants. That won’t get us there. It is when power is returned to the people. And, to prepare our students to seize their power, they have to have perspective of how they’ve been denied power. From there, our students can practice seizing it and using it responsibly.

To calm the fretters, it should be noted that being a social justice education isn’t something that crowds out literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving. Relevancy and rigor are twins that spur achievement. And, what can be more relevant for Black and Brown children than social justice? How exactly does one teach history in this country without diving into social justice issues? How does an effective teacher approach literature, student voice, and relevancy while ignoring the realities our students face as children and will continue to face as adults?

Often, people think linearly when it comes to other human beings. But, a community-centered perspective puts kids in the middle and determines what a holistic education looks, sounds, and feels like. It determines what a child should be able to do, be, and what experiences need to occur in order for them to leave us whole, prepared, and armored for what’s to come. To consider social justice as a distraction is akin to saying finding a way to be whole and mentally sound is a distraction to higher pursuits. Nonsense.

Teaching justice and equity should be ubiquitous in our schools and classrooms. Just as other messages are. White supremacy, for example, is as pervasive as air in our schools. For generations, Black and Brown kids have had images that do not reflect them thrust on them to demonstrate Whiteness as superior – through art, posters, attributed quotes, novels, etc.

Every Lesson Plan Is A Political Document. Every Lesson Is A Political Act.

When Black students are taught they will be embraced solely because of their hard work and proficiency (in reading and math), they are being lied to-and, too many educators are liars. Our students don’t live in a meritocracy. To falsely prepare them for a world that doesn’t exist is to fail them.

When educators face and acknowledge that our school systems, and this country as a whole, were built to subjugate people of color, they then can begin the work to help students prepare to plot and plan the resistance.  It is with great honor that we support Gerald Dessus who leads a class titled Social Justice, where students analyze youth-led social justice movements in the Unites States and South Africa. It is inspiring to watch our students who titled their activist group, #RaisedWoke, engage the community, politicians, and their peers. It was a no brainer to stand beside our student Nasihah Thompson-King when she was targeted because of her Muslim scarf by officials and policy makers.

Educators, ensure you are building a School-to-Activism Pipeline though cultural responsive pedagogy and a framework that brings to bear the historical and present-day context that impacts the experiences of people of color.  Ensure you are including the contributions of people of color in any subject and topic you teach. Include examples of how racism and oppression were deeply embedded various fields of studies. Use sites like Facing History and Teaching Tolerance to expand the frame in which you engage students.

Know that every lesson plan is a political document and every lesson is a political act. When you embrace this powerful role and use it as a liberating foundation for your lessons, you will engage students and truly be preparing them for the world in which they will lead and serve in.

Only then will you truly be an educator.


Sharif El-Mekki
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.



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