This unit grew out of a desire to make research in my English classroom more actionable. Every year sophomore students at our local urban magnet high school participate in a year long Social Justice Project of their choice. At the beginning of this year, when I asked my students to define social justice I received a variety of honest answers. One sophomore identified social justice as a negative term, a concept people claim to achieve in posturing but fail in action. Some students struggled to identify the impact of social justice in their communities, stating that the issues such as racism and gun violence were real, but they were unfamiliar with any leaders in their communities who were actively seeking to change things for the better.
While performing research on social justice issues, I noticed that students felt the compulsory need to use formal procedures to verify knowledge. When one student leaned deeply into conducting interviews with rappers in the community to learn about representation in the industry, he at first mentioned that he didn’t feel as though he was completing “real research”. In fact, as his classmates dug through databases constantly reframing their search terms to stretch for new information, they looked at him questionably and doubted the validity of his project. Individuals in the class also felt tension from learning objectives that required students to research multiple perspectives. To achieve this objective, students researching topics such as police brutality were asked to research a perspective that dehumanized and challenged their and their community’s lived experiences.
While the objectives of the original social justice research unit were well intentioned, they fell short in delivering on the most important aspects of social justice: the need for specific and localized action and a disruption of a colorblind ideology in research methods. The following unit seeks to identify and disrupt dominant narratives in social justice education and research. More importantly, the unit seeks to provide counter practices that make the ideals of social justice actionable by incorporating the methods of researchers from Latinx and Indigenous communities and tools for holding space for education through community discussion.
Rationale: Rethinking Social Justice Research in High School ELA
Rethinking Social Justice Research in the High School ELA Classroom curricular unit focuses on a year long, student centered social justice research project in English II. The research based unit is framed using the concept of Community Cultural Wealth which highlights "an array of knowledges, skills, abilities and contacts possessed and used by Communities of Color to survive and resist racism and other forms of oppression" (Yosso, 50). Students engage in evaluation and critique of traditional ELA research methods and hold these methods in comparison to anti-racist and decolonial research methods to determine the scope and methodologies of their own research projects. By engaging in a variety of research methods to derive knowledge from academic and communal sources, students gain insight into Community Culture Wealth as well as generate their own contributions to the study and record of social justice issues in New Haven.
The unit begins with students generating inquiries into social justice issues present in their school and local community. Students are asked to consider their personal experiences, community members’ experiences, local history, and current events to identify a cause or issue that they wish to study. The unit progresses to provide space for students to reflect on the value of personal experiences and community members’ experiences in the classroom through personal narrative, storytelling, poetry, and oral history. The project scaffolds community connection further by discussing and engaging in collaboration and consultation with community leaders and experts in the social justice topics from the city. Students work through their insights by creating podcast, documentary, and seminar styled projects. Students work collaboratively in topic themed groups to discuss, design, and produce public facing projects with the purpose of returning their gained knowledge to their communities. By the end of the unit students will have gained knowledge that can be used to propose strategies for change in their communities or contribute to the organizations with which they collaborated. The unit will culminate in a Social Justice Symposium and online website where students will share their research with the school community and New Haven community.
Rationale: Social Justice Symposium Research Curriculum at HSC
High School in the Community (HSC) is a small, magnet high school located in New Haven, Connecticut. Of 237 students enrolled at HSC, 87% are students of color and 75% of students come from low-income families. High School in the Community is ranked below the Connecticut state and national average in both math and English standardized testing. As a small school in a large city, HSC faces similar challenges as New Haven in the educational achievement gap and wealth gap present in the small state of Connecticut. High School in the Community’s magnet theme is leadership, social justice, public policy and service, HSC takes pride in being a “small school for students who want to do big things”. Through project based curriculum and mastery based grading policies, HSC strives to empower students to step up and make a positive impact on society while pursuing their individual educational goals.
In English II, sophomore students study a year-long enduring theme of social justice. The Social Justice Symposium asks students to select and then research a social justice issue that concerns them, synthesizing their work into a proposal for making a positive change. At the culminating event, sophomore students invite community members to discuss the real life actions that, based on their research, students recommend to address the problem. At its core the Social Justice Symposium is meant to encourage students to inquire into and challenge the conditions that create social injustice in the local and national community and share solutions with school and community leaders. The implementation of the Revisioning Social Justice Research unit works to ensure that the ideals of social justice are researched and upheld. Social justice works to deconstruct and repair the conditions of those who are most impacted by injustice and must be approached with an anti-racist framework.
Rationale: Embracing Anti-Racist Research Methods
The instruction of traditional academic methods of research in secondary English curriculum seeks to introduce students to the basics of obtaining knowledge, information, and data. Research operates within the supposed context of “objectivity” that is taught often without a close critique or acknowledgment of implicit biases. Students are taught research methods such as the “C.R.A.P. Test” to evaluate credibility, reliability, authority, and purpose without being taught to question why the use of such techniques is practiced. Instruction on research methods also places emphasis on academic and peer reviewed knowledge, often without acknowledgement of sources of communal knowledge or research methods. In addition, ELA educators may also be complicit in advancing the need for understanding of opposing viewpoints or ideologies. Enforcing a dichotometrical perspective on topics, such as Black Lives Matter, reinforces a white supremacist narrative that favors traditional and outdated research methods more heavily than the lives and experiences of students. When requiring students to research opposing viewpoints for the sole purpose of research procedure, without considering a student's lived experience or systemic factors, educators adhere to implicit racial hierarchies perpetuated in academia.
Focusing on the use of academic research methods and acknowledging academic institutions and educational organizations as the only sources of knowledge are innately forms of gate-keeping what constitutes knowledge. Western academic research methods were derived using models that upheld white supremacist values and continue to inform academic practices. The legacy of this is most apparent in the continuing promotion of the fallacy of colorblindness and objectivity. As researchers Crenshaw, Harris, HoSang, and Lipsitz note, “Behind the colorblind facade of the existing disciplines is the historical role that knowledge production has played in creating and fortifying racial projects ranging from slavery and segregation to imperialism and genocide. Historically situated against the backdrop, colorblindness thus becomes a series of moves and investments that conceal the fingerprints of the university in constructing the very conditions that colorblind frameworks refuse to name '' (5). Traditional academic methods of research in secondary English curriculum carry racist implications because they rely upon the basics of colorblindness.
Recognition of racial hierarchies in academia and knowledge production is necessary when teaching young people to inquire into the social injustices present in their lives. It is not enough to simply point at injustice without critically dissecting the systemic roots of the issues that are present in their lives. As researcher and educator Milton Reynolds states in his theory of Conceptual Impoverishment, “[individuals are predisposed to] patter[s] of learned outcomes that distorts the way people understand and make meaning of the world they inhabit. Denied access to specific information, students formulate belief systems that fail to account for the significant role race plays in structuring opportunities and outcomes” (354). Educators that do not recognize the racialized history of academic research lead students to engage blindly in systemic practices that perpetuate racial hierarchies. Educators also fail to account for histories of numerous systemic injustices that directly impact student lived experiences. Failure to view systemic injustice makes efforts to engage in social justice action seem well intentioned but ultimately ineffective.
When upholding traditional research methods instead of Community Cultural Wealth and Indigenous research methods, educators create an environment that blindly upholds the biases of white supremacy and undervalues the experiences and knowledge community contributes to the understanding of social justice topics. As an anti-racist English Language Arts educator it is necessary for me to confront the way in which ELA has operated without questioning the traditional frameworks of research and the sources curriculum values. It is my goal to highlight research methods that are collective, community based, and acknowledge the value each experience contributes to the understanding of social justice issues.