There Has Never Been a Better Time to Teach Social Justice

By Lee-Ann Stephens and Katherine Bassett

The National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) recently published a free Social Justice Book List to help teachers and parents teach a variety of current social justice concepts. Recommended by State and National Teachers of the Year and Finalists, the list includes more 200 titles for students, from pre-K to adult.

Below, two members of our network describe how they have used two of the titles on the Social Justice Book List to help students check their assumptions and biases about race, immigrants and social class. Given the acts of injustice that our children have seen over the last few years, there has never been a better time to expose them to these great books.

Lee-Ann Stephens: We in this country truly need to recognize our personal biases and reflect on how those assumptions influence our actions. As tragic events unfold routinely in our news, students are watching our reactions and looking for guidance. And, as there is no end in sight to the social injustices they may see, educators need to equip them with resources that bring clarity to the issues and the people at the center of them so that they can become part of the solution. One title from the Social Justice Book List that I recommend is The Other Wes Moore, by Wes Moore.

In The Other Wes Moore, readers meet two Wes Moores, individuals who share similar backgrounds but experience dramatically different outcomes. How is one sentenced to life in prison while the other becomes a Rhodes Scholar? What role do the opportunities afforded (or denied) to each play? As a racial equity coach, I use this book to lead a courageous conversation with 10th graders. We talk about what it means to live the American Dream and who decides the context of that dream. We examine our own assumptions about people who are different from us. We analyze the biases held against Wes Moore, the Rhodes Scholar, because he grew up without a father. And we consider the judgments made about the other Wes Moore, because he ended up in prison.

Through this text, which is a true story, we confront our biases about ourselves and others. Students begin to challenge their origins. Once we challenge, we can reconstruct our beliefs and see the humanity in us all.

Katherine Bassett: I love reading and teaching The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes, a treasured book for grades 4-6 that has not been out of print since it was published in 1945. The story is an important a resource for battling prejudice and promoting social justice, and it helps young readers to understand what it means to do nothing when confronted with injustice.

The plot centers on a young girl, Maddie, who tacitly participates in bullying Wanda, an immigrant attending her school. Wanda is poor and speaks with a heavy accent. She insists that she has 100 dresses in her closet at home, yet she wears the same, ragged one each day. Though Maddie does not actively tease Wanda, she stands by and says nothing when others do because--a poor girl herself--she fears that the other girls may turn on her if she speaks up. Eventually, Maddie learns that Wanda is a talented artist who has drawn 100 beautiful dresses, which she keeps in her closet at home. When Wanda gives Maddie one of those drawings for Christmas, Maddie determines that she will never again stand by and say nothing while another person is bullied.

The lesson of The Hundred Dresses is not lost on young readers, who become introduced to the concept of a bystander and grapple with what to do in the face of prejudice and discrimination. As a teacher and librarian, I also use this book to teach important social justice vocabulary words: victim, perpetrator, resister, rescuer and survivor.

Today in the United States those particular words have never been more important to remember and teach. As educators, we recognize we that cannot stand by and say nothing while acts of racism and hate are perpetrated against our citizens by our citizens. Each of us must decide whether we will be a bystander or a resister, one who condones or one who confronts. Our children will learn from what we do. We must teach them well.


Lee-Ann Stephens is a Racial Equity Coach for St. Louis Park City Schools (Minnesota) and the 2007 Minnesota State Teacher of the Year. She serves on the Board of Directors for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the Advisory Board for Re-Imagining Schools.

Katherine Bassett is the CEO and President of the National Network of State Teachers  of the Year and 2000 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year. She is a member of the Board of Directors of NASDTEC.

 Photo credit: National Network of State Teachers of the Year


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