Question: Can K-12 teachers without a deep understanding of social justice concerns effectively engage and enlighten their students on those topics?
Joseph Flynn, James Cohen and Mike Manderino would say “no.”
But the three professors from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction are ready to start equipping teachers to tackle those tough conversations from a well-rounded perspective of the issues.
Nearly 60 teachers and other school professionals will arrive June 11 at NIU for the inaugural Social Justice Summer Camp for Educators, a four-day, three-night, candid and nonjudgmental exploration of multiculturalism, privilege, identity, oppression and more.
“Practicing K-12 teachers and administrators typically have the best of intentions, but it is important for them to also have experiences that can help further their understanding of various forms of oppression and social justice in general,” says Flynn, who first proposed the summer camp.
“Regardless of what people might have to say, or whatever political stripe they may be, social justice issues are actually happening to people,” Flynn adds.
“And if we really believe in social justice and equity, it becomes imperative for students to actually engage in these issues. Offering students opportunities to explore problems helps them with critical thinking and helps them understand their world.”
James Cohen and Mike Manderino
Manderino and Cohen are excited to join in Flynn’s vision.
“Schools are a microcosm of society. They’re not this separate place where the world doesn’t exist anymore,” Manderino says. “And whether it’s racism, sexism, discrimination against one’s gender identity, sexual preference or religious background – these are systemic issues. Schools, and the school system itself, really have to confront the fact that these issues are present.”
“In an age of emboldened racism, and emboldened discrimination in our society, we have to be equally emboldened to fight back all of this racism, discrimination and injustice,” Cohen adds. “What better way to spread that message of social justice than to work with teachers?”
The camp, which will take place in New Residence Hall, will feature keynote speakers JQ Adams and Stacey Horn, panel discussions, film screenings and, most importantly, long and pointed conversations followed by opportunities for reflection.
Discussions will probe the historic development of multicultural and social justice education and key ideas; the nature of privilege across identities and how privilege impacts policy and practice in schools; and the ways in which school policies foster inequity and how to reform such policies.
“We have a whole range of issues that these schools can think about,” Manderino says. “Some schools might be struggling with equity gaps in suspension rates, or in who gets access to some classes. It could be writing more gender-inclusive policies, or providing safe spaces.”
Key to those talks is coming up with a definition of oppression, Flynn adds.
“Oppression happens when prejudice against a group is backed by historical, social and institutional power. It’s much more than feeling mistreated,” he says.
“Affirmative action is not a form of oppression against white males, for example, as compared to the ways the LGBT+ community has been marginalized for decades, let alone centuries, in American culture,” he says. “When you have a series of laws that are consistently passed that have a negative impact on your community – even if that’s not intentional – then those are markers of oppression.”
Films on the summer camp’s evening schedule include the powerful documentaries “Color of Fear,” “Cracking the Codes” and “Precious Knowledge.”
Campers will set goals for their schools and, before they leave June 14, explain how they will begin making a difference for students in the fall.
“One of the six goals of multicultural education is to act on your knowledge,” Cohen says. “They will create action plans for how to advocate for linguistically and culturally marginalized students in their respective schools.”
Teachers who attend will learn to reduce their reticence toward taking on this challenge.
“I’ve met a lot of teachers who feel like, ‘Yeah, what the Black Lives Matter movement is saying against police brutality is really important, but I don’t know enough to say anything about it,’ ” Flynn says.
“We can help them become more comfortable with, one, approaching the subjects in general; two, how to engage their students in discussions; and, three, and perhaps most importantly, in admitting that they don’t know everything, and that’s OK,” he adds. “It’s OK to say, ‘You know, I don’t know. Why don’t we figure that out together?’ ”
Flynn’s journey of turning social justice issues into teaching tools began in 2000, the year he began teaching in higher education.
His first course covered human diversity, power and opportunity in social institutions, a focus that prompted him to become more conscious and thoughtful of how various groups are positioned in society.
“I do believe that the United States, if it really believes what it professes in our founding documents, like the Declaration of Independence, that it’s incumbent on us when we can to help people understand how various forms of oppression work,” Flynn says.
“I believe that doing everything we can to make life better for all people is incumbent on us as citizens. We as a society cannot just keep saying that it’s terrible that these things happen if we’re not going to further educate ourselves and create spaces for kids to talk about these things.”
JQ Adams and Stacey Horn
The professors are eager to welcome the campers, lead and participate in their conversations and, ultimately, see positive results begin to blossom.
Campers should regard the event not as “come and learn everything in a few days” but as the catalysts for expanding their mindsets, they say.
“Public education, and education in general, has the promise and potential to provide opportunities for people to pursue their passions and their interests. It gives people choice and agency over their lives, and it has the potential to broaden the perspectives of students much earlier in their lives,” Manderino says.
“But as participants in a societal institution, we as educators must become mindful of these issues. Then I think we can start to grow people’s participation in our democracy because it becomes more inclusive.”
For Cohen, the answer lies in rising above the notion that “there’s no such thing as white rule.”
“When teachers understand how white privilege plays a role in their teaching, how misogyny plays a role in their teaching, how linguistic privilege plays a role in their teaching – if they can gain that awareness, they will be teaching students multiple historical perspectives,” he says.
“Students will be much more aware of the realities of people who don’t think and look and act like them,” he adds, “and that’s what this really comes down to.”