September 04, 2013

Teaching teachers to bring social justice to their classrooms

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
Karen Robinson, Senior Education Manager, Speak Truth to Power, RFK Center for Human Rights and Social Justice, speaks during a staff development session on Social Justice for the Taconic Hills School District
Caption: NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler and Karen Robinson, Senior Education Manager, Speak Truth to Power, RFK Center for Human Rights and Social Justice at the Taconic Hills School District staff development on social justice

Taking a theory and turning it into effective action takes practice and practical suggestions. That is what a trio of social justice advocates provided to an auditorium full of teachers and staff at Taconic Hills middle and high school during a professional development session on Tuesday.

Whether it’s getting to the ground level of peer pressure or finding ways to take a stand for justice, there are solutions.  But they are not always simple.

“We teach (students) about peer pressure as if it only happens to them,” said Lee Cutler, NYSUT secretary-treasurer. He told the educators a story about hanging out with a bunch of adventuresome boys in middle school.  The camaraderie came to an abrupt halt one day when the boys were trying to get cars coming around a steep curve to run over a frog, and Cutler grabbed the frog and ran into the woods to set it free. Not only was he chased down and beat up, but he was tagged with a sneering nickname from then on.

Although he paid a price, he doesn’t regret his actions. “I don’t want to present to students that it’s easy,” Cutler said.

Each person’s story of self, when shared with another, can open the path to understanding.  This can change a school climate.

“When we understand and know each other, it’s really hard to be awful to each other,” Sara Niccoli, director of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition. She marveled over the school clerk in Atlanta, Antoinette Tuff, who recently talked openly with a gunman who had come into the building armed and frenzied. Tuff shared her troubles with him as she tried to calm him down and ensure he felt heard. No one was harmed, though he had 500 rounds of ammunition.

How else does walking toward understanding look like? What does speaking out sound like? Cutler gave examples that educators can use with their students:

  • In the Adirondacks, high school and college students gather each year at the Tupper Lake Natural History Museum for a youth summit on global warming. The criteria for attending are that participating groups must have a plan in place to make their schools more “green.”
  • In East Ramapo, 500 students took part in a peaceful walkout in June to protest the elimination of art and music from the curriculum, and the deteriorating conditions of the school itself.
  • In Ithaca, students set up their own political action committee and interview each candidate for school board. They then campaign for those who will support student needs.
  • In South Jefferson, students design and then build desks, dressers and beds in wood technology class for fellow students who are in need.
  • In the Herricks school district, students turn Flag Day into a day of honoring the military through poetry and art, and by inviting veterans to the school to speak to students.
  • In South Seneca, in October, students make cardboard shacks and construct a makeshift village, sleeping out on the football field to raise awareness and money for the homeless. The Labor-Religion Coalition has had students write to Hershey’s on Valentine’s Day, asking the candy manufacturer to stop using child labor in their factories. Other students have stood up to GAP, saying they will not purchase clothes made by kids in a factory in Bangladesh.

“I can’t tell you what your passion is,” said Niccoli. “I just want you to find it.”

Taconic Hills school nurse Kathy Keyser and the group she brainstormed with at the session agreed that, to further social justice in a school community, students and teachers need to do research and be informed about the causes they are choosing to promote. They also need to find commonalities with each other, and to cultivate self-empowerment.

“In nursing, you teach others to take care of themselves and better themselves,” she said.

One group has chosen to seek justice on behalf of animals. The Animal Club, a student group led by teachers Diane Fingar and Laura-Ann Cammisa, has already been successful this year in helping to get legislation passes to prohibit trapping of snapping turtles.

“It’s a natural bridge from animal to human advocacy,” Fingar said. “Its easy to incorporate lessons because kids have a natural compassion to animals.” Students do blanket and towel drives for the Green County Humane Society, and build winter shelters out of straw and Styrofoam coolers for stray cats.

Animal abuse in a home can also be a strong indicator of domestic abuse, Cammisa said, and they are working on developing faculty workshops to present at faculty meetings on signs that teachers can look for relating to how family pets are treated.

Karen Robinson, senior education manager for the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, said other avenues of speaking out are available through the Center.  For instance, students can put on a play available from her organization called Voices Beyond the Dark, which has been produced all over the world.

Teachers and students can also enter the RFK Speak Truth to Power video competition, where students choose a human rights defender, create a video about that person, and design a project to follow the lead of that defender’s mission on a local level. For more information, visit

Additionally, Speak Truth to Power, working with NYSUT members, has available ready-to-go lesson plans on about 30 human rights defenders from around the world, whose work can be studied in classes for social studies, science, writing, English and more.

And soon, the Center will open up nominations for Defender Day, where people can nominate everyday human rights defenders who they know of in their own communities and lives. An online tribute will be set up to defenders nominated in the United States in April.