Exploring Social Justice Through Literature

A poster with the caption “We The People Defend Dignity” hangs on an English classroom wall. Many English teachers use their position to create a dialogue about current issues with their students. Photo by Brennan McConnell-Griner

High school serves as an important transition between childhood and adulthood, as students shape their identity and develop goals for the future. It is during this time that young adults begin acclimating to the world around them and become exposed to the challenges that society must work towards resolving. By the end of high school, many graduating seniors will be eligible to vote, and all will be affected by the political climate. As a result, the role of informing these students about the world around them is a very important job. Teachers of all disciplines have the power to work important themes of change into their curriculum, and are encouraged to do so by administration. Jenny Tatone, who teaches the senior English course called Reading and Writing for Change, expresses the importance, saying, “raising awareness and paying attention to what’s happening right now is really important and helping young adults navigate the insane amount of information that’s out there is something I should be doing because there’s so much to go through.”

Although these discussions are encouraged in all academic subjects, they are much more easily applied in certain disciplines. English class often becomes the main outlet for students to discuss and debate social issues. Desmond Spann, who is currently in the process of developing a new course, Hip Hop Literature, says these kind of conversations are an easy fit in the English classroom because, “in English we study literature, and one of the things I believe about literature, is that the best of it teaches us something about life and what it means to be human.” He explains that hip hop culture provided him with his knowledge of self, and he hopes to use that cultural lense to access skills learned through an English class. The curriculum hasn’t been fully developed yet, but Spann anticipates lyric analysis, nonfiction readings, and original student raps to be important components. He believes that social justice will be very prevalent in the class and says, “hip hop music is a reflection of what’s in the culture, and by bringing it into the classroom, that becomes the talking piece to begin to explore these ideas and broaden our perspective. In my view, that will help create more inclusivity and our ability to handle multiple perspectives.” Spann says that every classroom environment has the opportunity to break down the reasons why we value certain people more than others, and he sees the upcoming Hip Hop Literature class as one way to encourage that dialogue.

Another class at Franklin that incorporates social justice topics is “Women’s Literature and Social Issues” which is available for a junior English credit. The course was created last year by Fanny Ortega and is focused around literature created by women, for women. Students analyze articles, short stories, novels, and videos with the goal of answering questions like “what is modern day feminism?” and “what are the values and norms that society has placed on women?” In addition to reading and writing, students in the Women’s Lit course participate in socratic seminar style discussions. Ortega likes using class discussions, and says, “I really hope that [the students] realize that their voice is important and to use that voice.” This philosophy combines well with the Women’s Lit curriculum. Ortega finds it important to introduce social justice issues to her students because, “this is the world that we live in and if you’re not informed about your world, then you’re gonna continue to perpetuate a system that alienates and marginalizes people. It’s important to understand that everyone has a certain amount of privilege and to be able to use that to help others, to prop others up, to make a better world in general.” She continues by saying, “if we don’t know the reasons why things are a certain way, then we can’t make those changes that are necessary.”

Social issues and movements are easily meshed with literature because both result from the human experience. Teachers who choose to include texts about activism face no shortage of themes to pull from. Often times, the most challenging part of being the facilitator of these discussions is knowing how to successfully keep students engaged and mediate any disputes about the topic. Spann likes to set norms and stay out of the conversations as much as possible so students can lead the discussion. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that it can be challenging to keep discussions respectful when students have differing opinions. “One of the challenges when you bring these conversations into the classroom is to set the foundation to where people don’t start saying ‘you should not feel this way’ or ‘you should feel this way because I’m this and you’re that’ which is hard to do,” he says. Even with these challenges present, discussions about current events and social issues serve an important role in getting students to be more aware of the world around them.

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