For elementary teachers, it’s an increasingly tricky question to contend with: How to address immigration, race, gender identity and other social justice issues that touch the lives and futures of their students?
Even as public schools in the United States grow more diverse and systemic inequities continue to impact the quality of education available to students, educators rarely have time to authentically work together on how to address those issues of inequity in their teaching.
“Teachers have a desire to attend to these social justice issues, but the focus, especially for new teachers, is more often around getting the ‘content’ down,” said Deborah Massachi, project manager for the University of Washington College of Education’s INSPIRE initiative. “With all of the other demands on teachers, there’s not enough space to work on how they can talk about social justice issues with their students in a productive way. And many teachers find themselves isolated in that work.”
That gap spurred the focus of this year’s EduDesign Lab, a teacher-led professional development effort launched three years ago by INSPIRE that has previously helped teachers build their technology toolboxes and grow their elementary science teaching practices.
During the four-day summer institute at Seattle’s Maple Elementary School, 26 educators from Puget Sound elementary schools worked together to design and practice lessons that forefront social justice issues.
In one lesson with elementary students, for example, teachers and students worked together to create a skit about how to support a classmate, Tony, who is made fun of after coming to school in a pink shirt. After a few minutes of planning and rehearsing the students acted out a skit where they stand up to classmates making fun of Tony and invite him to play together during recess.
Several participating teachers reflected on EduDesign Lab and its impact on how they plan to approach teaching for social justice. Their reflections below have been slightly edited for clarity, style and length.
4th/5th Grade Teacher, Lawton Elementary (Seattle)
I went into teaching to make the lives of my students, and the world a better place. It's easy for teachers to lose focus on authentically connecting with students about things that matter to them when you're faced with meeting standards and having high marks on standardized assessments. The work we did this week in EduDesign Lab helped to bring back my student-centered focus so I can re-establish the groundwork necessary for a classroom community where kids care for one another and will be better equipped to take on the world's problems.
I'm excited to start the year off with the new ways to honor every student and begin discussing social injustice with kids in a meaningful and positive way that helps them see one another as agents for social change. I aim to highlight real world connections between student learning and how they can apply these lessons and skills to support our community every day.
My colleagues and I have already begun working to change our practice this coming year. We’ve planned for a unit where students will look at people in our world history and current events who are sparking positive social change. We will also use instructional methods to develop student voice and confidence. Everyone can learn to thoughtfully discuss and debate their ideas with evidence.
The teacher-designed format of this professional development is really what teachers need in order to do good work. There’s time for planning and collaborating with peers to solve the issues and problems we see in our classrooms, getting to try it out with students, debriefing with colleagues and tweaking what we're doing to continually improve.
1st Grade Reading Specialist, Catharine Blaine K-8 (Seattle)
As a teacher I am often fighting the feeling that even my hardest work isn't enough. I want to grow to be the best I can for my students, but in reality, most days I am isolated from colleagues with little time devoted to meaningful reflection, planning and pushing forward my practice. I see professional growth as a responsibility, but I am often disappointed with the one-size-fits-most format of available trainings.
I discovered EduDesign Lab through a colleague and participated for the first time this summer. On the first day of the social justice summer institute I began to observe the power of teacher-designed professional development. I watched a set of my peers take action in creating something completely new. I watched participants dig-in to the experience with a commitment that mirrored the passion of the facilitators.
As participants, we were positioned as contributors, motivators, risk-takers and learners. I felt empowered to break out of an observer role and take action. Most importantly, I had the opportunity to "do." Working in the lab model, we dove into collaboration with peers and designed a set of lessons for a group of real live students! This gave us the chance to take risks, push our thinking forward, and to support each other in creating something greater than what we could do in the isolation of our own classroom. Teaching with peers and reflecting on our experience got us thinking deeper than I thought possible in a four-day institute.
Every morning I ask myself, "What can I do to make the world a better place?" As a teacher this question guides my work with students, inspires me and challenges me. UW EduDesign Lab introduced me to a group of colleagues from all around our region who share this commitment, passion and the heavy responsibility of being a teacher. These are allies who will stand by me each day taking on the hard work with courage and commitment. Opportunities like these combat the isolation of our day-to-day realities and provides an answer to what type of professional development has an impact on teacher practice and student learning.
3rd Grade Teacher, Campbell Hill Elementary (Renton)
Our new principal is committed to social justice work and it will be a focus in our school next year. I am really excited to have proverbially “whet my palate” so that I can jump right in and feel more comfortable.
I believe a lot of this work around social justice can be fleshed out, practiced and refined during the class meetings that take place two to three times a week in my classroom. During our class meetings, we pose problems—both real and theoretical—and come up with solutions to these problems. Students then put these into practice and during the next class meeting we revisit to see if the solution was helpful or worked. If not, we refine it. Issues like gender and race equality (and beyond!) are the perfect topics to discuss in this type of forum.
2nd Grade Teacher, Catharine Blaine K-8 (Seattle)
What really inspired me about EduDesign Lab is the overall openness of everyone in participating, sharing ideas and resources, and flexibility to change. It inspires me to launch this work in my classroom for next school year and continue the work throughout.
I want to consciously and intentionally put this work into practice on a weekly basis, even having certain themes that are appropriate for my second graders to start off with, and launching from there. I want to focus on building it into my classroom community even starting off on the first week of school by doing some icebreaker activities, getting data from my students on what they already know, what they think and then use that to launch into these themes. I want to build a rapport with my students where they are not only comfortable with each other but with me to have these courageous conversations. I want to build a community that is not only aware of these issues, but continues to challenge it even when they themselves experience privilege.
Kindergarten Teacher, Brookside Elementary (Shoreline)
EduDesign Lab Co-Facilitator
During EduDesign Lab, teachers shared expertise, were empowered to make the learning experience a better fit for the group and strengthened their network of like-minded educators.
I love that teachers worked together to do their own thing. Teachers saw a need, gathered resources and like-minded professionals, and pooled their expertise to learn and create a new thing. I saw teachers bounce ideas off of smart, experienced educators and try new things out in a safe environment.
I was inspired when teachers talked about how to circumvent the bureaucratic red tape that limits creativity, inventiveness and responsiveness in public school classrooms. Brave teachers who aren’t afraid to move faster than the glacial pace of public policy inspire me to be brave myself, and share what I’ve learned back with my grade level team and larger staff team at my school. I’m inspired to return to my staff a different teammate than I was when the school year ended in June.
Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications