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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Guest Blog: Vanessa D’Egidio on Teaching for Social Justice in Primary School Classrooms

Vanessa D’Egidio teaches for social justice in primary school classrooms (photo courtesy: Vanessa D’Egidio).

The following guest blog by Vanessa D’Egidio is the first in a three-part series on teaching for social justice featuring the work of educators in primary, middle, and high school classrooms.

Vanessa D’Egidio is currently a second grade teacher in New York City. As a graduate of both Barnard College’s Childhood Education Program and the Curriculum and Teaching Master’s Program at Teachers College, Vanessa brings to the classroom a passion for teaching for social justice. Vanessa has gained a diverse wealth of experiences studying and working in Hong Kong,  Italy, and New York and is a member of the Teaching Tolerance advisory board.

“Children, not yet aware that it is dangerous to look too deeply at anything, look at everything, look at each other, and draw their own conclusions.” -James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”

Those who spend time with children know what James Baldwin noted in his 1963 speech to teachers to be true. Young children seem to carry an inherent curiosity and keen eye for observation with them to and from school. They notice the world around them. They ask questions. They notice differences. They notice similarities. They speak what’s on their minds.

Young children have not yet learned the art of self-censorship that comes with age. For some, issues related to diversity can be ignored. For others, this colorblind approach is a privilege they can never have, especially those who are directly impacted by social “–isms” such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. These children do not have the choice to turn a blind eye to bias, stereotyping, and prejudice.

Sometimes, issues related to diversity come up spontaneously in the classroom. A child will make a comment or ask a question. A teacher may overhear a conversation. I have witnessed children make a myriad of comments both inside and outside of school. “Why does she have brown skin?” “You can’t have a family with two mommies. It has to be a mommy and a daddy!” “Pink is a girl’s color!” While it is important to seize these “teachable moments” when they arise, I think it is even more important to design and implement an anti-bias curriculum that integrates culturally relevant teaching and addresses social justice pro-actively.

I believe that an anti-bias curriculum cannot be a superficial add-on to the existing curricula; it must be thoughtfully planned and responsive, as well as pervasive and embedded within all aspects of the teaching-learning process. A huge part of my practice involves building up my students’ critical thinking skills and ability to engage in dialogue around complex social issues. I want them to feel safe in our teaching-learning environment so they can ask questions, make connections, share personal experiences, and talk openly and honestly about who they are and what they observe in the world around them, particularly in regards to the “isms” that continuously impact our communities.

I also encourage my students to be allies—or people who have the courage to stand up and speak out in the face of unfairness—whether it is in the form of a gender-related bullying situation at recess or a larger issue they have observed.

Below are some classroom practices I use to integrate social justice and anti-bias principles into my second grade curriculum. These strategies are not meant to be prescriptive or implemented as “easy” solutions. Anti-bias work in the classroom is inherently complex, messy, and challenging. Keeping this reality in mind though, it can be done, and more importantly, it can be adapted successfully for the primary classroom. Continue reading

Video of Feminist Teacher and Students Speaking at TEDxYouth 2010

Several weeks ago, the students in my feminism class, Fierce and Fabulous: Feminist Women Writers, Artists, and Activists, spoke at TEDxYouth at the Hewitt School. We shared our various stories about how we found our feminist voice. The video of our talk has been picked up by nist.tv, one of my favorite new websites that features feminist videos.

During the first half of the talk, I shared stories about how I came to my feminism as a queer Latina high school and college student and later, as an educator. During the second half, the students told their powerful stories as well. Their stories range from launching a movement against the sexualization of girls in the media, to becoming a male feminist, to sharing one’s story about street harassment to impact policy. Set aside some time to listen to this next generation of young feminists. They are coming to change your world.

Young Feminists Speak Out at TEDxYouth

Students from my feminism class spoke at TEDxYouth at the Hewitt School (photo by Ileana Jiménez).

After much planning and rehearsing, half of the students in my Fierce and Fabulous: Feminist Women Writers, Artists, and Activists class and I finally got up on stage at TEDxYouth Day held at the Hewitt School in New York. The theme of this year’s TEDxYouth was “Be the Change,” and all talks were live-streamed globally. During our 16 minute talk, each of my students and I spoke about how we came to our feminist voice.

For two students, seniors Taylor Brando and Ian Tsang, their feminism emerges from watching the women in their families overcome challenges.

Brando said during her talk: “I came into my feminist voice by witnessing day in and day out the hardships the women in my family faced. They would constantly be put down or quieted, for no reason other than they were women. Most women in my family would try to get their voices heard, but nothing truly came of it. The biggest exception, however, is my mother. She always has been and always will be my main supporter. She is the one that showed me that women don’t need to be weak and defenseless. My mother is the whole reason I started working on feminism. Because of her, I want to help other women learn that they can be independent and speak their own minds. I want all women to be like my mother: independent and not afraid.” Continue reading