Teaching for Social Justice in Multicultural Urban Schools: Conceptualization and Classroom Implication

By Lalas, Jose | Multicultural Education, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Teaching for Social Justice in Multicultural Urban Schools: Conceptualization and Classroom Implication


Lalas, Jose, Multicultural Education


Presumably, everyone shares the understanding that teaching for social justice means providing students with a supportive learning environment that is just, fair, democratic, and even compassionate. In reality, people are probably using this term to mean many things without actually embracing it as a perspective for educating students in urban school settings.

Is teaching for social justice a process of conveying a set of radical beliefs related to equity, diversity, and racial differences? Does it mean taking a political stand and becoming a change agent in diminishing the inequities in schools? Is it a virtue? Is it possessing certain abilities and knowing certain kinds of knowledge to do certain things in the classroom that reflect equality?

In this article, I examine the different definitions and conceptualizations offered by a number of educator-researchers on teaching and learning for social justice and identify the common principles that are applicable, relevant, and translatable into classroom practice. I then offer a personal perspective on how the notion of teaching for social justice can develop, evolve, and become part of an ideological and political commitment for educational advocacy and activism.

A Glimpse of Urban School Reality

One has to be aware of the demographic situation in urban areas and the social reality of isolation and poverty faced by its residents to make the connection how these conditions affect urban schools and why there is a need to teach for social justice in an attempt to raise the students' identity, provide equitable access to appropriate curriculum and instruction, and remedy any existing harmful inequities.

Jean Anyon (1997) documented that most residents of large urban areas across the United States are African American or Latino. They can be found in New York (57%), Chicago (62%), Los Angeles (63%), Atlanta (70%), Detroit (79%), and Miami (88%). More than half African American, Latino, and Asian reside in the cities of Baltimore, Cleveland, El Paso, Memphis, San Antonio, San Francisco, San Jose, and Washington, D.C. The relatively poorer urban residents who mostly belong to minority populations are isolated from the economic mainstream of middle class jobs and not provided adequate social services because of the impoverished situations of many city governments.

Urban schools are directly affected by the overall political and economic conditions in urban areas and provide what Anyon termed "ghetto schooling" to its diverse student population (Anyon, 1997). Kozol (2005) described the "savage inequities" in inner-city schools further by reporting that nowadays scripted rote-and-drill drill curricula, prepackaged lessons, standard-naming and numbering rituals, display of standards in bulletin boards, rewards and sanctions, and other forms of control on every intellectual activity are prevalent. He also observed that "the more experienced instructors teach the children of the privileged and the least experienced are sent to teach the children of minorities" (p. 275).

Kozol cited Gary Orfield and his colleagues at the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University who reported that "almost three-fourths of Black and Latino students attend schools that are predominantly minority... attend schools which we call apartheid schools (in which 99% to 100% of students are nonwhite). Kozol (2005) concluded that "these are confections of apartheid, and no matter by what arguments of urgency or practicality they have been justified, they cannot fail to further deepen the divisions of society" (p. 275).

Kincheloe (2004) asserted that "urban education is always in crisis-yesterday, today, and certainly in the near future" and that we need to develop a powerful urban pedagogy and a rigorous urban education. In an essay "What Is Urban Education in an Age of Standardization and Scripted Learning?" Hill (2004) writes:

Urban, we know, is the environment of a city: a complex hub of human endeavor, a place of dense population of diverse peoples, an important location for financial and governmental affairs, and a rich center of cultural imagination and artistic creation. …

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