Guest Blog: Emancipatory Education: Dena Simmons on Teaching for Social Justice in Middle School

Dena Simmons teaches middle school students social justice and activism (photo courtesy, Dena Simmons).

The following guest blog by Dena Simmons is the second in a three-part series on teaching for social justice featuring the work of educators in primary, middle, and high school classrooms.

Dena Simmons is an activist, an educator, and student. Born to a resilient mother who escaped Antigua to come to the U.S., Simmons was raised in the Bronx and hopes to stay there. After graduating with honors from Middlebury College, Simmons returned to the Bronx as a middle school teacher. In 2007, she traveled to Antigua as a health volunteer for the Directorate of Gender Affairs to provide better health services for Dominican sex workers. She received a Fulbright grant to study the collaboration between schools and health agencies to prevent teen pregnancy in the Dominican Republic. She is also a 2004 Harry S. Truman Scholar and 2010 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow. She is currently studying for her Doctorate of Education at Columbia University, Teachers College. Her research is focused on teacher preparedness as it relates to bullying in the middle school setting.

At the beginning of each school year, I become overwhelmed with happiness and excitement at the thought of teaching and preparing the next generation of activists.

As I reflect on some social justice practices I do in the middle school classroom, the first and most important practice that comes to mind is the act of learning who my students, their parents/guardians, and community are.

On the first day of school, I present students with a survey so that they have the opportunity to tell me about themselves, their hobbies, the languages they speak at home, their favorite foods, favorite books, their academic and social strengths and areas of growth, and so on.  I use the information students share with me to incorporate their experiences into my instruction so that it is culturally responsive and student-centered.

I also send students home with an introductory letter and parent survey as a way to communicate to parents that our work in educating their children is a collaborative effort and that I am interested in who they are and what they have to offer.

Too often, we enter our classrooms focusing on our students’ deficits, needs, and problems.  Instead, we should focus on what they do bring to the classroom and build off of it.  In addition to having students fill out a survey, I also do an activity with them called “hands, head, heart, and home” where through making posters, students share with their classmates and me their hands (what they are good at doing), head (what they are knowledgeable about), heart (what they are passionate about), and home (what organizations and places in their community they consider to be important).

Each student then presents his or her poster to the class. I hang up each poster around the room as a reminder of our class’s identity and resources. This activity allows students to have a voice and to share with their classmates and me the many resources they bring to school each day.

Along with learning about students and their families, it is important to know the assets of the community in which we work. Before teaching in a new school community (or one in which we’ve already been teaching), I recommend doing an asset mapping activity, which includes identifying institutions and organizations (social, political, economic, educational, health, religious, and so on) in the school community with whom we can partner in an effort to make educating our youth the collaborative effort it should be.

In essence, providing students and their families with the opportunity to highlight themselves and mapping the assets of our students and the larger community allow us to be effective instructors and activists, as we are able to:

  • Use what we learn to build meaningful relationships with students, parents, and community members and to include them in educating our youth;
  • Plan engaging units and lessons that incorporate student interests and cultures; and
  • Foster student socio-emotional health.

Additionally, I have used community assets and outside organizations to bring athletic, arts, music, and social justice programming to my students, especially considering the depletion of such programming in our schools because of the current culture of test-based accountability.

For example, when teaching in the South Bronx, I’ve asked AmeriCorps volunteers at Bronx Lebanon Hospital to teach my students lessons on nutrition, substance and alcohol abuse, safe sex practices and sexuality, and other health education topics.  Since my school did not have a health education program, I used a community asset to fill a gap in my students’ education.

To bring dance instruction to my class, I invited Columbia University students to teach my class West African dance while we learned about the African slave trade and the history of African Americans through reading Walter Dean Myers’ Now Is Your Time!: The African American Struggle for Freedom.

I’ve also partnered with the Studio in a School program to bring art classes to my students.  Through my role on the advisory board of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), I have also brought VTS to my school to strengthen students’ critical thinking skills through discussing pieces of art.

My work has also included inviting a DreamYard artist to my classroom so that my students have instruction in writing and in performing spoken word pieces that allow them to express their life experiences and to use poetry as a form of activism.

In addition, I’ve connected with outside social justice groups and reached out to my circle of friends during some of my social justice lessons.  During a unit on workers’ rights, for instance, I invited two representatives from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to speak to my students about their experience working on farms as well as the need for fair wages.

When I’ve taught a unit on transforming marginality in the Bronx into empowerment, I read parts of Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation to expose students to the unfair reality and injustices in the Bronx.  As part of that unit, we also watched my friend Emily Abt’s documentary, All of Us, which examines power and HIV in relationships and highlights health injustices in the Bronx.

I’ve used these mediums not only to expose the many inequalities in the health and education systems in the Bronx to my students, but also to equip them with the necessary knowledge to recognize injustice when they see it so that they can combat it.

During this unit, we discuss ways to empower community members. As an authentic performance assessment at the end of the unit, students write blog posts, create mini-documentaries or public service announcements about a problem they have identified in their community along with suggested solutions.

By connecting with the community and other outside resources, I’ve transformed what education is “supposed” to look like for the brown and black children in the South Bronx by bringing the world to my students, by making their education about what they wanted to learn, not by what politicians with little to no education background think looks good in headlines.

Essentially, building relationships with students, their families, community members, and other social justice groups is key.  Educating our children should be a collaborative responsibility, an act of solidarity.

In fact, as Maureen Adams, Lee Anne Bell, and Pat Griffin declare in Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: “the process of attaining the goal of social justice . . . should also be democratic and participatory, inclusive, and affirming of human agency and human capacities for working collaboratively to create change.”

As teachers, our role is to guide students and to create a community where students feel safe to learn. Thus, our instruction must honor students’ experiences and cultures and build upon their assets in the name of culturally responsive instruction. Through honoring our students’ lives, we create a classroom culture that supports all students, making them feel safe, loved, and part of our community.

Once a student has these fundamental needs met, they can accomplish their academic goals—of course, with their crew of family, friends, school faculty and staff, and community members cheering them on.

As social justice educators, it is important not only to teach our students to fight injustice, but also to challenge how education happens in this country by doing everything we can to make our instruction validating and comprehensive, emancipatory and empowering.

Follow Dena Simmons on Twitter. Watch her MAKERS video.

2 thoughts on “Guest Blog: Emancipatory Education: Dena Simmons on Teaching for Social Justice in Middle School

  1. Teachers are the individuals who make the students a RESPONSIBLE HUMAN BEING

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