Social Justice in Omaha Part I

Tonight I have the awesome privilege to help out our friend Micah with a project he's doing to promote social justice in Omaha. He and a crew are interviewing a few people tonight about their experiences and views on social justice; they'll use some of the clips to create a video to show at the church Micah works at (Christ Community) for a sermon on social justice. I would say that social justice is a fairly contentious issue among many evangelical Christians because of the connotations of liberalism that it arouses in peoples' minds. So, I'm interested in seeing the final product. I'm humbled that Micah asked if he could interview me to get my perspective about social justice in education because I really don't see myself as doing something out of the ordinary; I teach the way I do because it's just the right thing to do. Plus, I feel like most of what I've done from my classroom is to the credit of other people. I've learned to teach from so many other great educators.

Today I sat down for a few hours to process through the questions that Micah will ask tonight. In typical type-A English teacher fashion, I typed out all of my responses...so, I thought it would be interesting blogging material. My responses are long, so I'll break this into two posts.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your story and background? How did you end up in Omaha and how has Social Justice become a topic of interest to you?
A: In the fall I’ll be starting my fifth year of teaching high school English. My teaching experience so far has been in rural school settings in western Nebraska. I took interest in social justice primarily because of my experiences in my graduate work with the Nebraska Writing Project at UNL. I took classes with some of the best teachers in the state, and these people pushed me to think more deeply about education. Teaching is more than tests, it’s more than standards; the best teachers present their students with a diverse perspective of the world and then give them chances to and push them to think critically in order to develop their own opinions of the world, to be able to articulate these clearly and logically, and then to equip them to act. This kind of teaching is tough and it’s messy and it’s not always valued by administrators, teachers, students, communites, or educational policies. As one of my teaching role models, Linda Christensen from the Oregon Writing Project says, "Social justice is at the core of my work because it is a belief in people's potential.” I think why I took interest in social justice and continue to find ways to bring this work into my classroom is because it takes on this belief that everyone has potential (which I think is a good starting point for social justice), and as a teacher, it’s my responsibility to tap into this potential in students. It’s my job to find their potential and help nurture it. It’s just the right thing to do.

As far as how I got to Omaha, my husband and I have enjoyed small town, rural living, but as we got closer to growing our family through adoption, we decided that we wanted our kids to grow up in a culturally rich area. So we began searching for jobs and were blessed enough to land here.

Q: Tell me more about the work you've been doing with Social Justice in the classroom? What does that look like?
A: Originally I started small by introducing a variety of writers into my classroom. I moved from a primarily white dead-guy curriculum to one that included women writers and writers of different backgrounds and cultures as a way to introduce my primarily white students’ eyes to other ways of living and being in the world. I also introduced lots of non-fiction articles that discussed issues I thought kids needed to think about: issues like race, gender, oppression, activism, etc. Eventually by the time I left Ogallala, my 9th grade curriculum included an entire quarter devoted to social action where kids studied the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s four steps to non-violent direct action in his text Letter from a Birmingham Jail. My students interviewed local changemakers in our own community to capture their stories and then make them public via stories on our class blog, and then they were required to make some sort of positive impact on their community using their passions, talents, and resources. Their projects were research based as I required them to do some initial digging through primary and secondary sources to see if their project was valid. Their culminating activity was to create a visual presentation of their research to prove why their project was necessary to complete, the vocabulary learned along the way, and photos of themselves in action, as well as a summary of what they planned to do next. They planned a project night similar to a traditional science fair, and they invited community members to attend via business letters. The two years I did this was a success--I had close to a 100% completion rate, and this year over 100 community members attended our project night to support students in their own form of social action.

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