On a recent Wednesday nearly two dozen teachers from the San Juan Unified School District gathered in a meeting room at the district. The educators grouped themselves by the subject they teach and were attempting to answer this question — how can they show students what they learn does affect their lives and that the skills taught in classrooms can translate to real-world actions.
The workshop is part of a partnership between San Juan Unified School District and Sacramento State University to develop methods of incorporating social justice into classrooms.
The program came about as the district has seen a rapid growth in numbers of students coming in from different countries and cultural backgrounds. The number of English language learners has nearly doubled since 1997. And as the student population becomes more diverse in the district, teachers are trying to find ways to make sure their lessons connect with their students’ lives. At the same time, the district is looking for ways to attract teachers from diverse backgrounds.
“A lot of research in civic and social justice education shows that projects and tools relevant to students personal experiences in their communities lead to increased academic achievement and civic engagement after high school as well,” says Dale Allender, who is a Sac State professor in the College of Education.
He teaches social justice courses that include discussions about gender gaps, school segregation and the Black Lives Matter movement at Sac State.
Allender says it’s important to get teachers to ask their students more questions about their lives. This way, teachers and students are able to build a connection. Then, those students become more comfortable with being engaged in the classroom, he says.
The English learner population in the SJUSD has grown from 2,743 in 1997 to 5,495 as of last year. Meanwhile, the number of refugee students in the district jumped from about 200 students to 832 in the past three years.
These students must quickly learn a new language while possibly dealing with past traumatic experiences, like wars. During this critical time, the district says, it’s important that teachers quickly connect with the students.
The district also wants to promote equity and close the achievement gap in grades, testing and attendance for students of color, English language learners and low-income students.
The schools participating in the first year of the partnership are San Juan High School, Encina High School, El Camino High School and Mesa Verde High School. Five teachers were selected from each school through an application process.
Maribel Rosendo-Servin is an ethnic studies for English learners teacher. She says she finds it difficult at times to engage students during literacy lessons.
“One thing I realized in teaching is students haven’t seen stories about someone they can relate to, or an author,” she says.
The program began in June with a summer institute. Teachers are encouraged to use life experiences of students as examples they can relate to.
The idea is to have teachers look at their students and implement lesson plans based on who the students are. One teacher suggests having students write their own life story in order to fully understand their backgrounds.
At the workshop held earlier this month, teachers, student-teachers and professor mentors put what they discussed into practice and modified their existing lesson plans to include social justice teachings.
For example, group of math teachers used figures around gender representation in various fields to teach a ratios and proportions.
Another group of math teachers created a lesson around hunger by asking students to calculate how much food a person needs in order to survive and compare those numbers with how much food is produced in the world.
Students are then asked to reflect and decide whether it makes sense that there’s a starving population in the world. To wrap up the lesson, students would be challenged to come up with solutions.
Rio Americano High School physical education teacher Justin McMann’s lesson is about making frisbee golf more inclusive to people who are younger, may not have the best skills in the game or those with special needs.
This becomes not only a P.E. lesson but it’s also a life lesson on adjusting daily activities to help others.
Allender says this kind of professional development for teachers is unique and groundbreaking.
“Just how doctors need to professionalize themselves with new methods,” he says, “Teachers need to do the same.”
This partnership is supposed to last for three years. The district hopes the data will show enough of an impact and provide evidence for the need to continue this effort beyond the three years.