ON LIBRARIES: Teaching Social Justice in the Library

social justiceHow far should we go in teaching values?  Years ago, there was a strong belief that character development was the parents’ place.  Today a high preponderance of schools include it in their curriculum.

Current events have raised the question of whether we need to teach social justice, but in the context of a contentious presidential campaign it seems too political to touch. In some areas it could undoubtedly unleash a torrent of publicity that would negatively impact the librarian.  The easiest decision is to ignore it and claim it is outside our responsibility.

Two thoughts to consider.  First, we teach students how to think, not what to think. If the learning opportunity is properly developed, it shouldn’t bring with it any personal bias.  Secondly, social justice is a very large topic and encompasses areas far beyond current headlines.how to think

I searched to find a good definition of social justice.  Appalachian State University’s Department of Government and Social Justice has an article on What is Social Justice? In it the author defines it by citing others including “… promoting a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity. It exists when “all people share a common humanity and therefore have a right to equitable treatment, support for their human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources.’ In conditions of social justice, people are ‘not be discriminated against, nor their welfare and well-being constrained or prejudiced on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliations, age, race, belief, disability, location, social class, socioeconomic circumstances, or other characteristic of background or group membership.” (Toowoomba Catholic Education, 2006).”

Miss HoneyBut the one I think is best suited to schools comes from the description of AASL’s Roald Dahl Miss Honey Social Justice Award, which has been awarded for the last three years.   In the criteria it states:

  • The librarian has made a significant effort to teach the concept of social justice in creative, inspiring ways. This might include, but not be limited to, teaching about civil liberties, human rights, international justice, genocide studies, and local issues of justice. For example, applicants may design a special lesson, course of study, create a school or district project, or lead their students in some way to address social justice.
  • Close attention will be focused on applicants who follow the “spirit” of social justice in their classroom; namely, those who possess the ability to expose injustice while at the same time inspiring their students to repair the world through justice, service, or advocacy.

You can easily focus on international issues of social justice in designing a unit with a classroom teacher. If some students see connections to what is happening in the U.S. that would be their personal “take-away.” As part of the unit, students can create a project that would “repair the world through justice, service, or advocacy.”

Ann Yawornitsky, Jennifer Sarnes, ad Melissa Zawaski of the Wilson Southern Middle School, Sinking Spring, PA. were the 2016 winners of the award.  According to the description of the project on the AASL press release, “school librarian Yawornitsky and 6th grade reading teachers Sarnes and Zawaski collaborated to create the project “Children of the Holocaust/Holocaust Hall of Memories.” After completing preliminary research, each student was given an identity card with the photo and name of a child who suffered in the Holocaust. Using multiple resources, students researched the fate of their child and created poems, journals or multimedia presentations to share their child’s life and experiences. To conclude, students host a Holocaust Hall of Memories open to the entire community. Students assume the identity of their child, saying “My name is…” and give a short account of his or her Holocaust experience.

If you don’t want to focus on international issues, you can still find relevant topics. For example, the class can research the cause and effect of hunger, identifying how much hunger exists in their community and then organize a food drive to support local food banks. There are many local issues that can be explored without raising people’s ire.

Projects like these take students beyond textbooks and help them develop the empathy to feel for others whose lives are very different than their own. In the process they need to think critically, work collaborative, and learn to problem solve. And they may discover that one person does have the ability to “repair the world.”teaching tolerance

If you haven’t done so as yet, check out Teaching Tolerance’s website and sign up for their free classroom units and magazine subscription which are free to school librarians and teachers. You might get some ideas from it for a project – and then apply for the Roald Dahl Miss Honey Social Justice Award.