Through my work as a digital education leader, I will:
Work toward social and environmental justice by empowering students.
(Based on ISTE Standards for Coaches, 5. Digital citizenship, a. Model and promote strategies for achieving equitable access to digital tools and resources and technology-related best practices for all students and teachers)
Educators have a moral imperative to serve all of their students well. To do this, educators must structure classroom environments in a way that is accessible to historically underserved students, including students of color (especially Black and Latinx students), students who are classified as English language learners and students who qualify for special education services. In the context of the digital classroom, the teacher must ask, “Does the learning technology increase access and means of expression for all students?” By creating more equitable and effective learning environments, educators empower all students and work toward social and environmental justice.
Jost & Kay (2010) offer a general definition of social justice as a property of social systems broken down into three aspects (p. 1122):
1.) distributive justice: benefits and burdens in society are dispersed in accordance with some allocation principle or principles
In the digital classroom, distributive justice is implemented through differentiation strategies that increase access and equity for all learners.
2.) procedural justice: procedures, norms and rules of decision making preserve the basic rights, liberties and entitlements of individuals and groups
In the digital classroom, procedural justice is enacted through educator practices of planning, preparation and assessment that increase equity in the classroom, as well as student practices that improve classroom functioning and advance their learning.
3.) interactional justice: human beings (and perhaps other species) are treated with dignity and respect not only by authorities but also by other relevant social actors including fellow citizens
In the digital classroom, interactional justice takes shape when the learning environment fosters thoughtful, respectful communication and understanding between the teacher and students, from student to student, and from inside the classroom to outside communities.
To further clarify their definition of a just social system, Jost & Kay (2010) offer counterexamples as “those systems that foster arbitrary or unnecessary suffering, exploitation, abuse, tyranny, oppression, prejudice, and discrimination.” (p. 1122) Sadly, our students can draw from myriad personal and societal experiences with injustice, including inequalities in their local education system, racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system and local and global abuses of the environment and its inhabitants. As daunting as they may seem, each of these challenges presents an opportunity for us to learn and grow as we work toward solutions, and we can rely on our students to identify and be motivated by injusitces.
In my experience, middle school students have reliably strong justice motives. Students care deeply and are motivated by what is fair or unfair. They want to be treated fairly and are often bound together by, among many things, their youth. Students often feel mistreated by adults and are keen to defend each other, even at the risk of their own welfare, to ensure that others are treated fairly – a quality that Jost & Kay (2010) refer to as “the purest evidence of a ‘justice motive.'” (p. 1124) As educators, we can foster these motives in order to help students empathize with people outside of their peer groups to generalize their drive for justice to all people.
Our urgent need to better serve students of color in Seattle is illustrated by racial and ethnic inequalities in the 2016-2017 assessment data for middle school students in public schools. In the subjects of English language arts and mathematics, White students met the standard at rates of 82 and 76 percent respectively, as compared to 52 and 44 percent of Latinx students and 34 and 29 percent of black students, according to Seattle Public Schools school reports. When faced with such stark achievement gaps, the digital educator ought to ask, “how might access to learning technology remove barriers for historically underserved populations?” and “how might learning technology help us ‘leverage the benefits of student diversity’ (Chapman, 2016, p. 287) in our classroom?”
Palmer (2007) emphatically reminds us that, “students learn in diverse and wondrous ways, including ways that bypass the teacher in the classroom and ways that require neither a classroom nor a teacher!” (p. 7) So, while we go about creating welcoming and positive learning environments and differentiating lessons to meet the needs of every child in the classroom, we cannot forget or neglect the broader social and global contexts our students live in.
Our students face racial and gender disparities in many contexts outside of school. If educators forget or neglect the injustices of students’ communities and broader society, we become complicit in them. As Coates (2015) writes to his son:
“a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker.” (Chapter 1)
The U.S. criminal justice system disproportionately prosecutes and sentences people of color. Mauer (2011) reports that one of every three Black males born today can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, as can one of every six Latinx males, compared to one in 17 White males. Incarceration rates for women are lower across the board, but the racial disparities remain. One of every 18 Black females, one of every 45 Latinx females and one of every 111 White females can expect to spend time in prison. (p. 88S) Such disparities negatively affect the way youth of color see their prospects for a successful future in the United States.
Arrest and incarceration statistics alone do not paint a complete picture, because they may lead some to believe that people of color are committing crimes at disproportionate rates; however, Davis (2013) points out factors such as discriminatory law enforcement policies (e.g. “the War on Drugs”) and the “discretionary nature of the police function” (p. 825) that render the role of disproportionate offending uncertain. Even when youth of color make the right decisions in their attempt to avoid crime and thrive, they may fall victim to an unjust system of prosecution.
Mauer (2011) goes on to assert that what seems like a racial effect may be more so a question of social class. (p. 90S) Mauer cites results of a study indicating that rates of violence were considerably higher in “extremely disadvantaged” neighborhoods, regardless of race. It so happens that many of said disadvantaged or impoverished neighborhoods are also communities of color. It also happens that the same impoverished communities of color are disproportionately affected by negative environmental impacts and stressors.
As a science educator who holds strong environmentalist values, I remind myself that students cannot embrace such an immense and oft abstract principle before they develop a sense of their own identity and feel a sufficient degree of physical, intellectual and emotional safety in their classrooms and in their communities. How can a student be expected to care about something as grand and longterm as global warming or something as tiny and invisible as a particle of lead in their water if they are faced with more immediate and tangible threats to their safety and wellbeing? For this reason, though the two are inextricably linked, social justice comes first in middle school education and environmental justice follows.
For parallel reasons, the communities who have been historically most affected by pollution and other environmental hazards have been underrepresented in the environmental justice movement, despite the best efforts of Senator Ed Muskie at Earth Day 197O (Purdy, 2016):
“the only kind of society that has a chance” is “a society that will not tolerate slums for some and decent houses for others, rats for some and playgrounds for others, clean air for some and filth for others.” And he insisted that, “Those who believe that we are talking about the Grand Canyon and the Catskills, but not Harlem and Watts are wrong.”
Bullard (2000) highlights a several factors for the lag of support of environmental justice behind social justice within communities of color (p. 3):
1.) The environmental movement of the U.S. that emerged in the 60s and 70s focused on wilderness and wildlife preservation and was supported primarily by middle- and upper-middle-class White people.
2.) Research on environmental quality in black communities has been inadequate.
3.) Mainstream environmental organizations were late in broadening their base of support to include blacks and other minorities, the poor and the working-class.
4.) Low-income and minority communities have had few advocates and lobbyists at the national level within the environmental movement.
Part of our work is to help make up for lost time and ensure all of our students can take ownership and become stewards of their communities, especially those who belong to communities that have historically been disproportionately impacted by environmental injustices.
Disparities between the sexes in representation in science and engineering occupations is an environmental justice issue. Women are equally as affected by environmental stressors as men, but are disproportionately excluded from environmental policy making, opportunities for scientific discovery and engineering challenges. A major call to action for educators is to include, empower and enlist female students of science and engineering.
With both issues of social and environmental justice, it is imperative that educators recognize them, call students attention to them and make real connections to them that students can relate to.
As educators, our social and environmental justice work is three-fold:
1. ) Do not be complicit in social or environmental injustices,
2.) Raise awareness among students of social and environmental injustices and the work being done to fight them, and
3.) Empower students to advance social and environmental justice in their communities.
Practice pessimism of the mind and optimism of the will while implementing learning technology systems.
(Based on ISTE Standards for Coaches, 5. Digital citizenship, b. Model and facilitate safe, healthy, legal and ethical uses of digital information and technologies)
In examining the roles of pessimism and optimism in the implementation of learning technology, I am reminded of the the following excerpt from a 2011 interview with Bill Moyers:
“I fall back on the balance we owe to the Italian political scientist, Gramsci, who said that he practices the pessimism of the mind and the optimism of the will. By that, he meant he sees the world as it is, without rose-colored glasses, as I try to do as a journalist. I see what’s there. That will make you pessimistic.”
“But then you have to exercise your will optimistically, believing that each of us singly, and all of us collectively, can be an agent of change. And I have to get up every morning and imagine a more confident future, and then try to do something that day to help bring it about.”
-Bill Moyers June 08 2011
Gramsci’s pessimism of the mind (or intellect) and optimism of the will is a useful strategy for everyday life as well as for digital education leadership. I will implement learning technology systems with:
1.) open eyes: I will be perceptive and critical. I will pursue what Selwyn (2016) calls “a purposeful pessimism” (p. 553) when approaching the implementation of learning technology. I will develop policies as Chapman (2016) suggests with guidelines for identifying appropriate learning technologies, to ensure that learning technologies provide differentiated learning opportunities and to monitor the success of the policies.
2.) a level head: I will, as Selwyn’s (2016) pessimistic learning technologist does, “expect nothing in particular from technology”, “start from a position of no expectation of success or improvement.” (p.553) Technology is not inherently good or inherently bad – it just is. As Chapman (2016) points out, technology has become ubiquitous and students expect technology integration in classrooms. (p. 287) It is no longer a question of if culturally responsive classrooms will integrate technology, it is a question of how.
3.) a forward lean: Selwyn’s (2016) pessimism is in line with Gramsci’s optimism in that it results as “an active engagement with continuous alternatives.” (p. 553) I will stay focused on the goals of social and environmental justice. If a learning technology seems to be suitable to meet those ends, I will plan to implement it. I will be active in assessing its effectiveness and when it fails, I will be flexible in changing my plans.
Connect students to each other and their communities
In describing his Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), Vygotsky (1978) claims that “learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his [sic] environment and in cooperation with his [sic] peers.” (p. 35) Students are often best equipped to teach each other within their respective ZPDs, due to their shared experiences and common linguistic abilities. First though, a student must take ownership of their learning environment and accept their peers.
In using learning technology, Chapman (2016) argues, “The learner’s experience of a technology will be influenced by whatever cultural assumptions influenced the design of the technology.” (p. 289) In which case, if we are to create classroom environments that are culturally relevant to todays students, they will connect students to each other and to the outside world.
For Emdin (2016), students’ “dense networks with each other are strengthened by their shared frustration with the structure of traditional classrooms and the difference between the context of the classroom and that of the world outside of school.” (p. 131) Students should be encouraged to be critical of their learning process and learning technology in particular. Students should ask, “how is this technology helping me or holding me back?” and “if I were to have designed this technology, what would I have done differently and why?”
So, if we are to create and implement effective learning technologies, they will need to act like networks through which students can share ideas easily, they will need to have more windows than walls, more open doors than ones that are closed or locked, and they will need to offer students authorship, not only in creating content within the environment, but also in creating the environment itself.
Bullard, R. D. (2000). Dumping in dixie: Race, class, and environmental quality. 3rd Edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Chapman, R. (2016). Diversity and inclusion in the learning enterprise: Implications for learning technologies. The Wiley Handbook of Learning Technology. 287-300. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.
Coates, T. (2015). Between the world and me. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau.
Davis, A. J. “In Search of Racial Justice: The Role of the Prosecutor,” Journal of Legislation and Public Policy, 16, no. 4 (2013) p. 821, www.nyujlpp.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Davis-In-Search-of-Racial-Justice-16nyujlpp821.pdf.
Emdin, C. (2016). For white folks who teach in the hood… and the rest of y’all too: Reality pedagogy and urban education. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Jost, J., & Kay, A. C. (2010). Social justice: History, theory, and research. In S. T. Fiske, D. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (5th ed., Vol. 2, pp. 1122-1165). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Mauer, M. (2011), Addressing racial disparities in incarceration. The Prison Journal Supplement, 91 (3). 88S-90S.
Moyers, B. (2011), Bill Moyers on his legendary journalism career: Democracy should be a brake on unbridled greed and power. Democracy Now! New York, NY. Retrieved from https://www.democracynow.org/2011/6/8/bill_moyers_on_his_legendary_journalism
National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. (2017). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2017. Special Report NSF 17-310. Arlington, VA. Retrieved from www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/.
Palmer, P. (2007). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass
Purdy, J. (2016). Environmentalism was once a social-justice movement: It can be again. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/12/how-the-environmental-movement-can-recover-its-soul/509831/
Seattle Public Schools. (2017) School Reports. Retrieved from http://www.seattleschools.org/cms/One.aspx?portalId=627&pageId=6369011
Selwyn, N. (2016) The Dystopian Futures. The Wiley Handbook of Learning Technology. 542-556. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.