Social Justice Through Popular Culture

I have put a lot of thought into how I am going to supplement my new curriculum to make sure I am representing all of my students. I have decided to take a note from one of my favorite3 YA authors, Kwame Alexander.

Kwame Alexander has shown so many students what the power of song and poetry is. I wanted to take a note from him and work with my students on the power of poetry. I have always stopped just shy of this when working with poetry before because I am so uncomfortable with writing poetry. I took several classes in college on poetry writing and analysis and I never felt like I fit in. I think it is because I never had a story to share.

My entire first unit is usually spent showing students the art of story-telling. They write personal narratives and short stories as well as a few poems that have specific forms or rhythms. Ideally, I would push past this boundary of forms and let students move into the story-telling aspect of poetry and rhythm like Kwame Alexander has in his books. If I am lucky and my district decides on the curriculum I am hoping for, I will be able to partner this new project with Kwame Alexander’s book, The Crossover. Here are a few songs/poems that have inspired me, and I hope to use in my classroom.

Latinoamérica” by Calle 13 – I have linked to the translated version of this song so that all of my readers can see how this song tells the story of someone who is trying to find their place in a world they don’t feel like they belong or are being kicked out of. This is familiar to so many of my students and their families. It would be a great project to use a this song as an inspiration for my students to write their own.

“Mexico Lindo y Querido”by Vicente Fernandez – This is an ode written in Spanish declaring his love for his home. There are poems in my current curriculum written from an African–American perspective that are odes to their homes. It would be such an easy addition to have this poem as an option to read.

Rolas de Aztlán: Songs of the Chicano Movement– This compilation of songs is a overture to the Chicano Movement. This is a great example of what a “playlist” might look like for a time period. It would also be a great idea to split these songs up between groups and have them analyze them individually and then come back together to see how each songs fits into this album.



6 Things Every Teacher Should Know About Social Justice and Teaching

  1. Look at your classroom critically. Analyze everything you ask your students to do or bring. Analyze the signs you have. Analyze the way you speak. Now, change any part that makes a student feel marginalized. This happens continuously. You will never be perfect but being aware is a step in the right direction.
  2. When looking at your school’s policies, ask yourself “to what extent does this put more burdens on some families rather than others? Some policies have a tendency to outcast certain kids. My school has a dress code of sorts (collared shirts, no rips in jeans, no navy blue or red, no patterns or brands on shirts, etc) and I have noticed that some of my students notice when a student only has a small rotation of clothing. Having these dress code standards puts pressure on some families rather than others. At a certain time, it was necessary for our school to have a dress code to help move away from gangs at school, but is it still necessary? Just because it had worked in the past doesn’t mean we still need it. Social justice advocates bring these difficult questions up for the good of their students.
  3. Find your allies. Standing up for social justice is difficult work and you can’t do it alone. You need people who will fight with you. The teacher next door or a Facebook group maybe. I am lucky, I have my fellow teachers and my Mount Holyoke Masters in Teacher Leadership (MATL) cohort. Go team compost! These are the people I turn to when I face setbacks or have crazy ideas. These are the people that have my back and I have theirs. This is the trick, you have to have each other’s backs. You need to create a partnership with them where you are willing to take risks with them and they are willing to take risks with you.
  4. Paul Gorski, coauthor of Case Studies on Diversity and Social Justice Education, once told my MATL cohort, “do as much as you can do without getting fired, and you gotta find where that sweet spot is, and that sweet spot is different for everybody.” Our jobs matter. We can push the limits to our heart’s desire, but we can do far more work for social justice in the classroom than out of it. Once you push the boundaries once, you can push them a little farther the next time and a little farther after that.
  5. Be a bridge to social justice, not a door. With a door, you are either in or out. With a bridge, you have a spectrum and it signifies that you are on a journey. A bridge is also a tool that helps people access something that they previously couldn’t. It accesses something that may have been scary to get to before. With your help, the path seems less scary.
  6. Follow the critical race scholars. There are so many incredible people out there. I can recommend following Jemellah Coas @GeorgiaTOTY2014, Ruthanne Buck @ruthabuckPaul Gorski @pgorski, Michael Dumas @MichaelDumasPRO, Christine Sleeter @csleeter, and Kevin Kumashiro@kevinkumashiroand so many others that I couldn’t possibly name in one post. These are movers and shakers in the world of social justice Edu reform. Since following these scholars I have been flooded with new ideas and inspiration. Their tweets lead you on journeys through the internet filled with resources, chats, and everything you could ever dream of.

Bonus Tip: Never stop trying and never give up. You are making a difference. Your work matters. You are doing the right thing.

Boxed Curriculum and Social Justice Dilemma

Boxed curriculums have been carefully designed and curated by teams of teachers who are all more than qualified. These curriculums are great, for certain people. They are designed to be “one size fits most”. What happens if your school is not ‘most’?

My school district is the home to thousands of students, the majority of which are Hispanic and not performing at grade level. Most have an apathy for ELA and sometimes school in general. A lot of my students know two languages, work jobs, and take care of siblings before and after school. My students are brilliant human beings. According to state and national standards they are “at risk”. In order to help my students get the best education possible, my district started using a free version of a boxed curriculum called Engage NY. Immediately, teachers noticed these materials were notstudents friendly. In 8thgrade, we were expected to read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat Young Reader’s Edition by Michael Pollan. These texts are great, but they are not 8thgrade level texts, at least not in my district. My students worked with these texts and we made it through successfully according to the tests, but they were not engaged in their learning. They were remembering what I told them to and struggling to connect. After giving an end of the year survey to assess school climate we also noticed that our students did not feel our curriculum represented them. I knew they had a point.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, my district is getting a new curriculum for the fall. We wanted to look in-depth at three curriculums: Wit and Wisdom, Springboard 2018, and Engage NY Going through curriculums I noticed a few things. The first thing I noticed was the reading/Lexile levels of all of the curriculums. They are all higher than what I would choose for my students. I would prefer to use one text that is complex and a multitude of texts that my students would be able to explore and understand on their own.

After realizing that I would not be able to find a curriculum that worked like that, I started to look at a second success criteria: perspectives. I wanted to find a curriculum where the characters and perspectives are as diverse as those in my classroom. According to several researchers and teachers, students are more apt to push themselves deeper into their learning when they have background knowledge and can see through that character’s perspective. Check out this article by Matthew Lynch because I could not sum up why diversity in the classroom in needed better than he already has.

I went through these three curriculums as they are represented on EdReports and took note of a majority of the texts used in the curriculums and organized them into categories based on race of primary character or perspective. There is no doubt these curriculums have diversity, but there are holes. It was interesting to me to see exactly where those holes are.

Perspective of Primary and Supplemental Resources
Curricula White African or African-American Hispanic or Hispanic- American Other Unknown
Springboard 2018 ·  Excerpt from the Odyssey by Homer

·  “Where I Find My Heroes” by Oliver Stone from McCall’s Magazine

·  “O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman

·  “Grant and Lee: A Study in Contrasts” by Bruce Catton

·  The Giver by Lois Lowry

·  Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

·  Excerpt from Night by Elie Wiesel

·  Life is Beautiful, film directed by Roberto Benigni

·  Excerpt from Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech

·  “A Man” by Nina Cassian

·  “Private Eyes” by Brooke Charlton

Engage NY ·  To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

·  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare

·  Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand

·  The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat, Michael Pollan (Young Readers’ Edition)

·     Ain’t I a Woman?” Sojourner Truth

·     A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School, Carlotta Walls LaNier and Lisa Frazier Page

·     Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration, Shelley Tougas

·  Inside Out and Back Again, Thanhha Lai

·  “The Vietnam Wars,” Tod Olson

Wit and Wisdom ·  All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque

·  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare

·  In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae (poem)

·  EPICAC, by Kurt Vonnegut (short story)

·  The War to End All Wars, by Shari Lyn Zuber [Cobblestone article] (historical account)

· The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander (John Newbery Award)

· Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Phillip Hoose (John Newbery Award)

· Filthy McNasty, by Horace Silver (musical selection)

· The Block, by Romare Bearden (painting)

· Slam, Dunk, & Hook,by Yusef Komunyakaa (video)

·  What is Love? Five Theories on the Greatest Emotion of All, by Jim Al-Khalili, Philippa Perry, Julian Baggini, Jojo Moyes, and Catherine Wybourne (opinion piece)
*this chart is categorized by the main characters of the story. Most stories have multiple races represented but the main characters or the perspective the story is told is representative of their category.

I chose to analyze based off of these three main categories because these are the three main races of found at my school. I want my curriculum to connect to my student’s identity: race, age, and gender. Race is the most pressing issue to me because I know that each culture has a story to share that deserves to be heard. It was also important to me because I felt like the last curriculum I was assigned to use did not recognize my students. Once I broke down the texts and categorized them I still noticed that the Hispanic column was sadly empty.

From what I have seen these curriculums are not equitable.Just as a disclaimer, I am not an expert at all of these texts and this is not a full picture of these three curriculums. I am going off of information found on Google, my brain, and, the one thing all of these curriculums have in common is that there is no Hispanic-American literature! Considering this is the majority of my students, I am upset. There is no possible way that there are no credible stories coming from the Hispanic perspective. I have already used Gary Soto, Matt De La Pena, Meg Medina, and many more other Hispanic authors in my classroom and I know they have incredible educational merit. Why are authors like these not being represented in curriculum? They use the same universal themes and literary techniques as any of the other authors. The argument can be made for new vs classic texts, but literary techniques are literary techniques.


Well, I’m triggered. How do I teach any of these curriculums with fidelity if I am morally not ok with the fact there are no Hispanic perspectives included?

Curriculum Woes

Back in January my ELA teammates and I were told we were getting a new curriculum in two weeks and you have to teach it exactly how it is stated, and you cannot use any of the units you have planned for the rest of the year. Say WHAT!?!? We all immediately went into panic mode as 6th. 7th, and 8thgrade had all just received new books from donors choose and were extremely excited to start using them.


Four years ago, we were handed SIX THREE-INCH BINDERS filled with Engage NY curriculum and told we had to teach it in the fall. We tried it out for a year and it was simply not working out. We spent the next three years researching texts and carefully curating a curriculum that was suitable for our student body. We thought we were very successful. Over the last three years, our ELA test scores increased dramatically. Our teachers were excited about what we were teaching, and it was specifically created for our students. No more texts that were way too complex to teach! We even had the whole school on board with common writing techniques. Even with our successes we were still told our curriculum was not good enough. *insert frowny face here*

So here we are back in January when the curriculum bomb was just dropped. Somehow 6thgrade ended up being the only team having to start the new curriculum in January and the 7thand 8thgrade teams were allowed to research curriculums to be introduced. I took this as a leadership opportunity and took off running to look at curriculums on If you’re unfamiliar with this website, it compares boxed curriculums on several different aspects. It even dives deep into the merit of the curriculums and gives details on texts and lessons the farther you get in.

At this point, I am not against looking at new materials. I love creating curriculum and I was excited to apply what we had learned to new texts. I found two curriculums I really liked: Springboard 2018 and Wit and Wisdom. This was purely on text sets. I’m a sucker for Kwame Alexander and Elie Wiesel. Besides my favorite texts, I noticed that a lot of the texts still seemed way too advanced for my students. I teach at a Title One school that has a massive dual language/English second language student population, so literacy is not our strong suit. We have found that using lower level texts make it so we can still teach to the standards without losing the majority of our students in the confusion. Our scores have proved that this is working, and I think a lot of other teachers would agree this works. We are not getting away from the boxed curriculum thing, so I have to decide what curriculum would be best for my students…. Back to EdReports for me.

Beating the Imposter Syndrome

If you haven’t heard of the “Imposter Syndrome” read this article by the amazing Megan Allen. She talks about the terrible truth that is the imposter syndrome.

Check all that apply:

  • You feel like you are the weakest link on your team.
  • You think everyone else is thinking lowly of you.
  • You don’t think you will ever be taken seriously.
  • You feel inadequate.

You checked all the boxes? So did I.

My crippling social anxiety kept me from standing up in front of my peers and showing just how educated and prepared I was. I thought that if I did, they would reject me. Who am I but some twenty-something who teaches and drinks her way through her twenties? Oh that’s right, I am a highly educated, qualified, passionate, and determined teacher. Here are some things you can do to beat the imposter syndrome.

  1. Find your passion – besides your curriculum, what are you passionate about happening in your school? Passion projects are what will keep you from losing your mind, but also give you your own place in your school. It is something that sets you apart. My passion project is my dance team. I saw that my students were not able to finance after school activities like dance so I started a team. I call this a passion project because I still have yet to get a paycheck from it and you might not ever get one either. What I did receive from it was evidence that I can create something and it can be successful.
  2. Voice your triumphs – once you start doing what you love and making a difference, you are going to start getting questions. Own up to it. Don’t just say “oh geez” or “it was nothing.” Stand up and own what you have worked so hard on. Be proud. Fake the confidence until you have it. 
  3. Say something in your next staff meeting – how many times have you sat in a staff meeting thinking that no one is saying what everyone is thinking? Be the person who takes a stand. Say it kindly and say it with authority. Use sound logic and evidence to support that opinion. If it is purely emotional, it will not be taken seriously. 
  4. Take risks – when there is a time to step up and help plan something, take on a new role, or go to a meeting that isn’t required, do it! What’s the worst that could happen? 
  5. Stay informed – it is so important to know what educational moves are happening around the world and in your district. Spend time reading and go to a board meeting. Being in the know means that you are valuable. Amp up your twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest with all of teacher resources you can get. Eventually reading educational articles and surfing the ed-web will become second nature. 

So go forth and conquer your schools and districts, but keep me informed! I want to know all the cool things happening around the ed world.