Letter to the Community: Social Justice in the Curriculum

Dear Duke School Community,

This month’s letter is focused on social justice in the curriculum. We can understand social justice to be a state in which everyone is physically and psychologically safe and able to access the resources that they need in order to survive and thrive: a condition in which all individuals can live in their full authenticity. It is also the process of working to achieve such a condition. Social justice in education necessitates that students have the opportunity to both learn and unlearn, as we live in society in which dominant narratives often serve to erase or obfuscate relationships of power and sources of oppression and harm.

Duke School teachers bring social justice into their curriculum in many ways. Students are invited to examine relationships, and as they get older, they can come to understand the social, economic, and political power which shapes these relationships--not only between individuals but between groups and communities.

Below are observations and reflections directly from our faculty about how they have brought diverse perspectives, complex social relationships, and analyses of ideals in practice into their classrooms this year. As you read through these examples of social justice in the curriculum and in the classroom, I invite you to reflect on your own education: Was space made for multiple identities? Did you learn about culture as a dynamic, living thing? Did you come to understand language not as an objective system of rules but something shaped by (and assigned power through) its socio-political context? Whose labor was identified, and whose was invisibilized? What were you taught to see? What were you taught not to see?


Emily Chávez, Director of Equity and Justice

8th Grade Teachers Bob Robinson, Cara Karra, Will Newman and Lauren Hiner:

National Identity Project

Students have finalized their letters to stakeholders proposing an addition to the story told about our nation in the broad landscape of memorials. Proposed additions range from statuary to children's books to the renaming of an aircraft carrier. Collectively, 8th graders are advocating for more robust inclusion of women, African Americans, LGBTQ+ people, and more.

You can view the full National Identity Culmination padlet here.

Below are letters written by a few students to advocate for change in national identity narratives and how we recognize them:

Lauren Hiner, Eighth Grade Language Arts and Project Teacher:

My class is working on the book groups right now. The main goals are to read books that are different American voices. Books include a range of different characters, from a Native American who lives on a reservation, a undocumented Filipino immigrant, an anxious white high school girl from a small town stressing herself out to get into MIT, twin black girls whose town is being gentrified, a black girl from a lower middle class family who attends an elite predominately white private high school and who has a difficult experience with police violence, and more.

What we mainly do is look at traditional American ideals (justice for all, hard work leads to success, grit and sacrifice and individualism leading to success, immigrants having the opportunity to better their lives and succeed in the U.S., etc.) and examine if they are upheld in the books we are reading or if those ideals come into conflict based on the character’s experiences. We work to make sure we are also reading the stories as fictional individual experiences and that we are not making assumptions for entire groups based on the experiences of the characters in the book. I think having the kids look at and see how different people in the U.S. experience live in the U.S. differently, and in most cases differently from how they do it, helps them understand and think about traditional American ideals differently and look past their own experiences to determine whether or not the ideals are “true” today.

Students examine how the books are pieces of social commentary, and they research the real world topics that are discussed in the book. Through this research they are asked to determine what the author’s opinion is on the social issues discussed in the book (and how they craft the story to make their opinion known) and then students are asked to develop their own opinion on the topics.

Student work: Excerpt from a journal letter by student Aiden Caltabiano on The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas:

Dear Lauren,

I wish this book would be considered a sci-fi, because then at least I could take a small bit of comfort in knowing that it is still largely exaggerated, and that real life isn’t that bad. But sadly, it’s not. What I’m trying to get at here is in sci-fi books, you have to glean the meaning out of the book, because it is so otherworldly (noise, non-dreaming, etc.), but with this book, the deep thinking doesn’t lie in what the book is trying to get at, because sadly, that’s obvious. What this book really made me think about wasn’t really Chris, Maverick, Lisa, or even Starr. This book made me think about myself. It really opened my eyes to how lucky I am to not be born into a system that's rigged against you. It makes me realize that even though I thought I understood how hard it was for them, I realize that I probably understand them no more than a sci-fi character. No matter how many people I research, how many documentaries I watch, I really can’t understand what they are going through. It’s crazy how much this system has evolved based solely on the color of our skin. Khalil, my age, has to choose between food and lights, while my biggest problem is choosing between Pikmin 3 Deluxe, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, and Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Furry. Before reading this book, I thought that I was anti-racists because I was anti racists, but now I realize that it’s so much more than that. You have to try to understand, and to put yourself into their [shoes]. You have to go out and speak for what’s right and what you believe in. In my book club, I said my favorite character was Chris, because he tries to understand, but now I realize that he wasn’t my favorite: he was the one I relate to most. I think deep down, without really noticing until now, I have felt uncomfortable reading this book, because it made me realize that I wasn’t trying hard enough to understand this story. I have taken for granted the fact that I can go outside without worrying that I might get shot today because they thought they saw cocaine or a gun in my pocket, when really it was just a candy bar. And sadly, that is probably the most evidence the police have before shooting, if they have any evidence at all. One of Mavericks truest quotes was “If this was out in Riverton Hills and his name was Richie, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” After reading this book, I will definitely try and speak out more about what I believe in if I get the chance.


6th Grade Teachers Ben Felton, Michelle Reich, Dillon Ross, Becca Wooldridge:

What are one or two examples of ways in which you’ve brought topics of social justice into your classroom this year?

  • Explicit conversations around microaggression using the mentor texts Don’t Touch My Hair! By Sharee Miller and The Name Jar, along with expository materials explaining the term, as the basis for discussion.

What are some techniques you use to challenge your students to think about social justice?

  • Building upon background knowledge that students learned in fifth grade around identity and being an upstander

  • Framing many conversations around actions we can take

  • Allowing time for open-ended discussions to process and share thoughts

  • Highlighting marginalized voices when using texts (e.g. in Language Arts)

  • Capitalizing on all the great resources for teaching about social justice (e.g. Teaching Tolerance)

Upstander posters created by students:

4th Grade Teachers Tori Morton and Amy Lau:

What are one or two examples of ways in which you’ve brought topics of social justice into your classroom this year?

With our NC Project, all of our experts were people of color. We had one guest expert, parent Love Anderson, talk to us about differences between rural and urban areas in NC, focusing on access to health care and other health disparities. We also had parent Tiffany Matthews talk to us about the importance of HBCUs in our state. The Heritage Quilters taught us about African American quilters in NC.

When learning about Indigenous People in NC we explored debates: Should we celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day or Columbus Day? Why does that celebration matter more than "marshmallow day"? We also watched videos staring and made by indigenous people expressing their feelings about regalia not being costumes, about appropriation and appreciation, etc. We had students reflect on their stereotypes of indigenous people by directly addressing them and having students write about them.

With our read alouds: we have chosen for all of our read alouds to be written by authors of color and to focus on characters of color. We think highlighting and celebrating black joy in these books is a part of social justice. Additionally, as issues arise in these read alouds we are able to talk about them. For example, Ways to Make Sunshine, which is about a Black girl who is developing a plan for a school talent show, also addresses what goes into maintaining black hair styles. In reading Garvey's Choice, we had conversations about sexism, traditional gender roles, and identity, when a boy was told he shouldn't cook because cooking is a "girl thing."

What are some techniques you use to challenge your students to think about social justice?

  • Asking students questions: Why does something seem "normal"? What do you notice? Why do you think that is? What might that be about?

  • Responding to students’ observations and questions

  • Showing students videos, books, articles and asking what they notice

3rd Grade Teachers Mary Beth Hes and Heather Greene:

Our reading workshop in January has focused on studying biographies of influential people, particularly figures central to promoting social justice. Some of the titles students are reading from the Who Was series include Who Is Sonia Sotomayor, Harriet Tubman, Malala Yousafzai, Frederick Douglass, Barack Obama, and Coretta Scott King. Our conversations provide context for examining difficult periods of American history and important historical movements that move our society towards greater equity. Each biography teaches us important messages that we are bringing into our own lives and demonstrates the power of individuals to be catalysts for change.

Kindergarten Teachers Abby Lyon and Dayna Brill:

In our class, we began discussing MLK Jr. with a book called A Balloon for Isabel by Deborah Underwood. In this book, a porcupine named Isabel is told that her and all of the other porcupines at the school will get a bookmark for graduation instead of a balloon because porcupines will pop the balloon. Isabel is upset because the porcupines get bookmarks for every holiday when the other kids always get balloons. Ms. Quill, her teacher, is also a porcupine; she tells Isabel that it's just the way it's always been. But Isabel doesn't accept this. She's furious with the injustice and tries different ways to protect her quills from popping the balloon. Ultimately, she finds something that works, and the porcupines are allowed to have a graduation balloon. Ms. Quill gets a balloon, too, and is the happiest porcupine at graduation. In an age-appropriate way, this book introduced injustice, being an upstander, and not going along with things just because that's the way it's always been.

Once we felt the students understood these concepts, we read books about Martin Luther King, Jr., introducing him as a real-life upstander who fought against injustice. Then we charted our knowledge: the students told us MLK Jr.'s character traits and things that he did during his lifetime. We drew a picture of MLK Jr. following the directions from Art Hub. Then we asked the kids to write a sentence about MLK Jr. on their drawing, using what we charted together.

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