While working as a high school English teacher, Lisa Sibbett (PhD ‘18) became aware of a disconnect between social justice-focused teaching and its real-world application.
Several students who had taken Sibbett's 9th grade honors class the previous year asked for her help organizing a charity drive. The students wanted to raise money to build wells in Africa by selling bottled water at lunch. Despite the students' best intentions, Sibbett was disappointed that what she had taught about the difference between charity and justice, as well as the negative impacts of bottled water in developing countries, wasn't incorporated into their campaign.
“The concepts didn’t stick,” Sibbett said. “They were totally on board in class, but in their actions afterward they didn’t even see the connection. They didn’t see there was a problem with trying to create clean water by selling bottled water.”
Sibbett realized that her approaches to social justice teaching were not making an impact on her students. That realization and a desire to rethink social justice teaching brought her back to school as a PhD student in the University of Washington College of Education’s curriculum and instruction program.
Sibbett is focusing her research on how white middle class students see themselves and their role in anti-oppression curriculum, as well as how teachers react to justice work in middle and upper-middle class schools.
“There are two main questions I am asking about students,” Sibbett said. “Is it possible for students who benefit from privilege to internalize and approach social justice in a way that is socially transformative? Or are they only going to internalize approaches that reproduce the current social order?”
During her teacher preparation, Sibbett imagined herself working in an urban, high-poverty school district, but instead found herself in the suburbs.
“I assumed that kids who live in the suburbs and are predominantly white, middle class or affluent would be ideologically neutral,” she said. “I believed they were not as deeply shaped by their own backgrounds and cultural experiences. That assumption turned out to be incorrect, which I was not prepared for.”
This fall, she will begin data collection for her qualitative study of teachers’ classroom practice.
In the future, Sibbett hopes to support teachers who value social justice-based teaching practices. She envisions further development of the Northwest Teaching for Social Justice Conference, which she has been attending for years. She would also like to see the development of professional journals that are devoted to social justice.
Sibbett sees potential for major social change coming from the education of white, upper and middle class students and will continue to be involved in that work in the future.
“Students often want to volunteer, contribute to charity, or build houses in Mexico, but those actions have the limitation of reproducing a power dynamic where they are ‘elite’ and the people they are helping become ‘subordinate’,” Sibbett said. “Is it possible to interrupt reproduction of this power dynamic through schooling? If so, how do we do that? That’s the question I want to explore.”
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications