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). Continue reading

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