Thinking about teaching a social justice unit in your class? Whether you’re reading a social justice novel or just examining a societal injustice, these three activities will engage your students with the material.
(Need some ideas for your social justice unit? Teaching The Hate U Give was the most important unit I ever taught. Dear Martin, All American Boys, and Internment are also great social justice novels.)
Social Justice Unit Activity #1: Analyze a Social Injustice
Whether you’re studying one injustice as a whole class or students are focusing on injustices of their choosing, step one will always be to analyze it.
Easier said than done though, right? Every social justice issue is complex and layered. How do you get students to start thinking about them critically?
One way is to have students identify the key players in the social justice issue. Every injustice has victims. But don’t overlook the importance of identifying who in society benefits from the injustice. Identifying who wins if an injustice continues is often enlightening for students (and adults!).
There are a number of different ways to do this. If you’re teaching about a singular issue as part of a social justice unit, you could always present this information to your students. Even a slideshow can get students feeling passionate if you’re studying the right injustice.
Alternatively, students can do their own research individually or with a group. This works well if you’re teaching a broad social justice unit or want students to choose their own topic to dive into.
I like to use this graphic organizer to help students really break down a social justice issue. This graphic organizer consists of four boxes labeled “Target,” “Perpetrator,” “Bystander,” and “Ally.” Students must identify each type of person for a social injustice.
The beauty of this worksheet is its flexibility. You can use it to talk to students about a single, fictional issue in a book you’ve read. Or, students can fill it out based on a real-world issue.
But it helps students to understand the complexity of an issue to get this all on paper before diving deeper. Plus, filling out the graphic organizer as a class allows for discussions to begin and questions to surface.
Social Justice Unit Activity #2: Have Students Research and Teach Others About a Social Injustice
If studying a particular social justice issue is the focal point of your unit, then you’ll definitely want students to learn lots about it and share what they learn with others.
There are an infinite number of ways to do this. If you’re teaching about one issue to the whole class, the topic will be obvious. But there’s no shortage of social justice issues in the world. Having students choose their own (or choose from a predetermined list) can help with student buy-in and engagement.
Once they have their topics, utilize all the resources available to you to help students learn. If you’re lucky to still have a librarian in your school, this is where they shine. My librarian has put together research presentations and gathered materials for me.
But for those of you without librarians (or, sadly, school libraries at all), the internet will suffice.
Research for its own sake, however, rarely goes over well with high schoolers. You’ll want to make sure there is a larger assessment or project for students to work toward.
If you’d like students to work on their speaking skills, consider having them write a speech on the injustice of their choosing. I feel like speeches pair well with social justice units because activism and speaking go hand in hand.
Students can research their topic before giving a speech on it to the class. These speeches should be more than just regurgitating information; the speech should call the speaker’s peers to action.
If you’d like to assign a speech like this, but don’t have time for the prep work, you can grab my Social Justice Speech Project right here.
Another assessment option is to have students create a Social Justice Leaflet. This is a great option if you don’t have a lot of class time to devote to a project or if you’d rather have students work on writing skills.
Many activists have used leaflets to inform and inspire before. Why not your students, too?
Social Justice Unit Activity #3: Discuss with Others
One last important factor of any social justice unit is discussion. If students don’t discuss injustice, how can they truly wrap their heads around it?
Discussion offers our students the opportunity to engage in discourse with people who have different life experiences.
Letting students discuss their opinions and share their own personal experiences is perhaps the fastest way to help our student open their minds. I know that I’ve had my own thoughts challenged by just listening to my students’ stories.
Even if planning a discussion is difficult (due to lack of staff, large class sizes, or student behavior), I encourage you to give it a try. A short discussion is better than no discussion.
Structuring a Discussion In Class
If you decide to include a formal discussion in your social justice unit, keep it text-based. Root the main questions in the story of whatever literature you’re reading. It will help students stay on topic rather than debating using anecdotes and vague ideas.
And, more important, it will also help you keep your job if you stray into controversial concepts.
Whole class discussions have their place, but if you can, try to break your class into smaller groups. It gives each student more time to speak and a better chance of engaging. You can do a short discussion as part of a station or bring in volunteers to lead small group discussions for one day.
My The Hate U Give end-of-unit discussion consisted of five, deep questions. Students spent the whole unit gathering evidence from the text before the big day.
I broke each class into four small groups and always had three volunteers come to lead (usually my instructional coach, the SPED teacher for our grade, and a guidance counselor). These discussions were so thoughtful and deep, that I had no problem finding staff members who wanted to be involved during their prep period.
You can do this for nearly any novel with deep themes. Choose a few complex questions (3-5) and give them to students before they even start reading. Let them gather evidence and their own thoughts leading up to the big discussion day.
Any social justice unit should consist of deeply analyzing the injustice, researching it, and trying to create change. This can be done on a small or large scale depending on the time and resources you have, but students should feel empowered at the end of it.
If you’re brave enough to take on controversial topics in your classroom, I think you’ll be excited to see how much buy-in you get from students. Our students believe in things being “fair,” and when the world isn’t, they get vocal. Use that to engage them in practicing these essential skills.
If you’re thinking about introducing a social justice unit into your classroom, but you’re overwhelmed trying to start a whole unit from scratch, consider my no prep, digital and printable Black Lives Matter Social Justice Literature Circle Unit.