Critical Pedagogy in Classrooms and Communities: Notes on Teaching Social Justice

Working in poor regions where residents experience internalized oppression, I learned that a good educator first provides opportunities for people to believe that their lives, voices, and perspectives matter. I learned how being told how to fit into someone else’s mold – through schooling, social welfare institutions, criminal justice systems, immigration law and policing, the media, industrial economic abandonment – often prevents people from believing in their own creative and intellectual capacity.


“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

-Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed


The seeds of my teaching philosophy were planted during my time as a community development practitioner in coal mining towns in Appalachia, immigrant and farmworker organizations across California’s Central Valley, urban public schools, and in diverse international settings such as Southern Africa and the Outer Hebrides Islands of Scotland. Working in poor regions where residents experience internalized oppression, I learned that a good educator first provides opportunities for people to believe that their lives, voices, and perspectives matter. I learned how being told how to fit into someone else’s mold – through schooling, social welfare institutions, criminal justice systems, immigration law and policing, the media, industrial economic abandonment – often prevents people from believing in their own creative and intellectual capacity. Without belief in one’s own voice and inherent human wisdom it is difficult to imagine oneself as a creative thinker, a change agent, an active citizen – all human capacities strongly emphasized at The New School. I agree with the late Paulo Freire that to be human is to create and act upon the world, and that the main cause of enduring oppression is our competitive culture, ever focused on narrow definitions of mobility and success, that through entrenched systems of political, social, and economic inequality deprives many people of this fuller sense of human creativity. Only some children can afford an education free of tracking and standardized testing, with teachers and mentors that tell them that the world is theirs to change. Some young adults are encouraged to follow their dreams, while others feel overwhelmed helping their parents take care of siblings and pay the bills. I’ve learned at The New School that not all college students feel entitled to speak up, critique readings, approach professors, and carve their own path.


In order to value one’s own voice and experiences when they do not match up to the institutions and competitive mainstream society one must first believe that the world can be different. That life is not static and predictable, and everyday people can make significant change. As a teacher I learned that the first step a student often takes towards believing that the world is open to them is finding their own voice, agency, and self-determination. So how does a student discover their own voice? How do they discover their own agency? As simple as it sounds, I have seen this happen when students are listened to and believed in. My main approach to teaching is being a good questioner and an excellent listener. For me personally, the two most important characteristics of teaching towards social justice are to be curious about one’s students, and truly believe in their capacity to create knowledge and change in the world. If you are curious about your students then the act of teaching becomes less about you as a ‘teacher’ and more about listening and drawing out the mysteries, wisdom, lived experiences, struggles and abilities of your students. This is not always easy because it involves risking your own ‘power’ as the sole keeper of knowledge. Suddenly everything you have ‘power’ over (the syllabus, the assigned readings, the community projects) is under question as you engage in the classroom as a co-learner. If you believe in their capacity to create new knowledge then you must be open to the possibility that you do not have all of the answers, and that in fact your own thinking is incomplete. Asking the right questions becomes the greatest skill to master – and prompting dialogue and critical analysis among students the most important task. Ultimately, a student is finally heard, and takes control of their education, when they trust that you are listening.


As a teacher I use questioning and listening skills to bring people together, build confidence and trust, foster a sense of group identity and solidarity, and engage people in dialogue and critical analysis of the issues that most concern them. Using a variety of interactive methodologies including participatory action research, story circles, problem posing activities, and projects with nonprofit organizations, I aim to prompt critical analysis, personal development and thoughtful action in the world. I re-organize the classroom into a circle of chairs, with no desks or tables in front of us. This brings people out from behind the computers, books, ipads etc. It also helps students learn how to see and listen to one another. The competitive instinct to wait eagerly for spaces to jump in to speak often prevents students from engaging in dialogue–and leaves large numbers of students out. I slow down the pace of a discussion and push people to listen and respond to others. Sometimes films, guest speakers, graphic recording on flip charts, or other prompts bring students to a shared point of analysis and away from their individualist notions of knowledge production and consumption. Introducing a wide variety of complex situations pushes the learning beyond intellectual exercise by asking students to make hard decisions that have real life consequences. This is where community partnerships, paired with reading of theoretical and empirical texts, become central to the learning experience.


An example from my Participatory Community Engagement course reveals the opportunities and inherent challenges presented by my pedagogy. This course has two primary goals. First, students gain an understanding of the theory behind participatory community development and popular education. Second, in class and through partnerships with local organizations students practice participatory facilitation strategies. The goal is to enable students to become critically aware practitioners prepared to address social and economic inequality with not for communities most impacted.


In the Spring of 2013, we worked with the Midtown Community Court (Center for Court Innovation), which invited us to engage staff and defendants of the court in a participatory evaluation of their ‘procedural justice’ work. In order to gain a deeper understanding of our partnership context we read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow as well as a number of texts on liberatory pedagogy used within prison populations. Instead of beginning with an academic analysis of the text I designed an opening activity to draw out the experiences of the class. I prepared a set of questions and asked the class to take 10 minutes of silence to seriously consider them, writing down only what they felt comfortable sharing. I then called for a show of hands in response to each question. The first question was, “Have you ever broken a law?”, all hands went up in the air. The second question was, “Have you ever consumed drugs or alcohol illegally?”, again, all hands went up in the air including mine (I believe that a teacher must always be prepared to do everything he/she asked her class to do). For the third question asked, “Have you ever been caught by law enforcement for breaking the law?”, fewer hands were raised -about one third of the class. In response to the final question, “Were you or anyone close to you incarcerated for breaking the law?”, only two hands remained in the air. The two hands raised were of the only Black students in the class. We had all broken the law, only two were punished.


This opening activity launched us into a deep and sometimes painful dialogue about race, class, privilege, and eventually the specific structural inequalities and racism that created The New Jim Crow. We talked about how classmates were treated differentially by race when they walked into the building of our partnering organization, The Midtown Community Court; white students thought to be from The New School, students of color often thought to be present for mandated drug or shoplifting counseling. We talked about our own near misses with the law, and we talked about the uncomfortable weight in the room regarding the inequality in our midst. Yet, one of the students who raised his hand to having experience with incarceration did not speak. Instead he sat with his head lowered, tears in his eyes. I did not push this student for he was the only one in the room with this experience and did not wish to reveal any more at this specific moment. I respected his choice.


This example represents an important teaching challenge: how to raise questions of structural racism, inequality, and privilege when the few students of color (a foundational issue of course being diversity in higher education) in the room will inevitably bear a disproportionate burden of pain and anguish. A teaching principle that I take very seriously is to not humiliate students. In these contexts I manage the delicate balance of inviting students into the necessarily uncomfortable space of confronting and analyzing their own lived experiences, both their own oppression and for many for their privilege and unintentional oppressive behavior, while not humiliating people. My firm stance against humiliation applies equally to my students from marginalized groups and those of privilege, as well as for the community partners we engage. A student (or partner) who feels uncomfortable will push himself or herself to understand and analyze what is going on –will think about perspectives different from their own. A student who feels humiliated will retreat from learning. For example, we did make our partner, The Midtown Community Court, uncomfortable by sharing our students’ experiences with differential treatment in the courthouse but worked very hard to not humiliate court staff, many of whom come from poor and working class Black and Latino communities themselves.


After the class session described above, I approached the student who sat silently. On that day he quietly told me that his older brother has been incarcerated for over ten years and that he misses him every day, and thanked me for understanding. Towards the end of the semester he told me that this class was hard but that he learned a lot about himself and about the inequalities embedded in the criminal justice system, and built deep relationships with classmates who learned from him as he became an excellent facilitator. He also told me to not worry about every session being easy or perfect because learning does not end at the classroom door, reminding me that the questions raised are carried across the community projects, readings, writing assignments, personal reflections, office chats, and the relationships one builds along the way. The comments made by this student on that day exemplify my teaching philosophy and practice: listen well enough to ask questions that will create a spark within and beyond the classroom, and put people in positions to answer them for themselves. Personally I am motivated to do this work because I love it, and learn from my students every semester. Despite the serious content addressed we have fun and laugh a lot in my classes –also an important characteristic of social justice teaching.


Author: Erica Kohl-Arenas, Formerly Associate Professor, Milano School of Management, Policy and International Affairs; Faculty Director, Imagining America, University of California, Davis; Asociate Professor, Department of American Studies.

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