The Perkins Perspective | Features | Winter 2013
Connecting the Dots Between Education and Social Justice
By Brooke Moorhead
The 10-year-old boy gave us a toothless smirk as he scrounged for food. We stood outside of a South African bakery, shielding ourselves from his awkward begging, but I couldn’t help but be drawn to his eyes. I discovered he had the wit of a boy with the understanding of an adult as I spoke with him about his family and future aspirations. Yet as I boarded the study abroad bus, I realized the coffee in my hand had cost 8 rand more than I had given the boy.
From that moment, my views on education and culture would never be the same. I would evolve as an educator to support my future students through multicultural education.
The similarities between the students that I tutor at White Center Heights Elementary School and this boy are uncanny. What I find most common among these diverse groups of students is their innocent hope in the prospects that educational opportunity will provide for them. They also possess the desire to reinvent themselves ― and their worlds ― through personal achievement.
Finding the same needs at home
In South Africa, diversity in the classroom is inescapable, but I didn’t expect this diversity would travel with me to an urban school. In South Africa, I was taken aback to discover that more than seven languages where spoken in our classroom. I felt privileged to encounter this diversity, which required me to develop an awareness of learning styles due to the difficulties students faced inside and outside the classroom.
This new perspective helped me to perceive the web of issues facing one of my Seattle students. He had recently entered the foster care system and was diagnosed with ADHD. It is these kinds of difficulties that make teaching not only about imparting knowledge but also about supporting and uplifting students in need.
Too often, our education system seems to punish students from low-income backgrounds through inadequate funding and high-teacher turnover rate. After reading Jonathan Kozol’s Shame of the Nation, I became committed to equity-oriented education. Kozol illustrates the need for social justice perfectly as he states, “There is something deeply hypocritical in a society that holds an inner-city child only eight years old ‘accountable’ for her performance on a high-stakes standardized exam but does not hold the high officials of our government accountable for robbing her of what they gave their own kids six or seven years before.”
The awareness of disparities in U.S. learning communities led to my commitment to create a classroom environment where all students are seen as important members of the learning community despite their situations.
As educators, we should emphasize developing trust with all students and their families, as well as building bridges across cultural boundaries. While I built these bridges among my students in the United States, I also sought to develop a safe classroom: a haven from fear, a place to foster empathy, and a world of opportunities for excellence.
“Recognition” of students
At Seattle Pacific University, I expanded on my social justice lexicon. My course, “Diversity in the Classroom,” was a partnership between Seattle Pacific University's John Perkins Center and School of Education. In our class, the professors (educational activists, really) drew on the justice languages of John Perkins, Dr. Nancy Fraser, and Dr. Iris Marion Young to help me move away from mainstream educational thought that tends to misrecognize non-dominant students and ends up deforming their self-image.
Where misrecognition creates barriers to learning, dependence, and social dependence, recognition allows educators to see each student as possessing potential and as a contributor to their learning community. That is, recognition values each student’s culture, gender, or socioeconomic status.
Studying Fraser enabled me to see the classroom as a microcosm of society. Thus, I seek to encourage a parity of participation and self-efficacy as a means to encourage a love of learning and to transform social inequities beyond the classroom. I make sure my students know they can pursue change through community involvement with organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs, Urban Impact, Salvation Army, food banks, churches, and local politics.
A broadening perspective
To force myself to broaden my perspective, I volunteered in Judy Siphiora’s classroom at White Center Heights Elementary School for the 2011-12 school year. During this time, I observed Siphiora work alongside parents, a classroom translator, and the students to help better communicate with the class.
I often witnessed Siphiora adapt her teaching style to better fit the students’ needs, but I also witnessed her deal with many difficult situations where she was strict and firmly redirected students. When a student got into a fight during recess and she ordered him to the principal’s office. In a different situation, she helped a student cope with challenging situation from home in nontraditional way. For a student who could not speak properly, Siphiora brought her own laptop to school to help the student learn more efficiently. This is multicultural education. Pursuing reconciliation in the class involves a teacher’s willingness to adapt the classroom material and teaching styles to better fit her students.
Often instructors underestimate children’s potential, but the assigned readings and videos in “Diversity in the Classroom” demonstrated how bright all young minds are, and that even the most marginalized students achieve and beat the dismal odds predicted in the mainstream media and our research institutions. It takes only one courageous person, as shown through Linda Vista Elementary School in San Diego, California.
In 1987, its new principal, Adel Nadelu, challenged the faculty and staff to tailor a program to support this unique student group, many of whom were performing below grade level, and who had previously been assigned to classes without language support.
According to Nadelu, this incredibly diverse school included students from “five different language communities — Hmong, Vietnamese, Lao, Spanish, and English were represented as well as several other language groups with small number of students. Students from newly arrived immigrant or refugee families, and often with no previous exposure to formal education, arrive at the school’s doorstep on a regular basis.” A partnership between staff, students, and parents led to the school being acknowledged by the state of California, as well as Redbook and Time magazine.
Linda Vista Elementary is an example of how a group of educators has the ability to transform their teaching styles to better serve the multicultural students. Becoming aware of her and other educators’ ability to adapt to new concepts and ideas inspired me to stretch and transform my own perceived borders into boundaries.
In the process, I’ve learned that teaching is more than depositing knowledge into our students, a concept that educator and theorist Dr. Paulo Freire calls “banking education.” This approach prepares students to accept passive roles in society, and dims their hope for meaningful change in their communities.
Now exposed to ideas and strategies that combine empathy, compassion, problem solving, and social justice-oriented approach to education, I, too, will create opportunities for excellence in education to support student achievement in my own classroom.
Brooke Moorhead graduated from Seattle Pacific University in Autumn 2012 with a degree in sociology. Her experiences at White Center Elementary School and in South Africa solidified her desire to teach in a low-income school district. She now plans to pursue a master's in teaching at the University of Washington.
|Learn more about The John Perkins Center by watching the video This is the John Perkins Center on iTunesU.|