For the better part of a decade, I’ve been exploring the idea of social justice education. While not a new idea, it’s picked up steam over the last couple of years with the Black Lives Matter movements, ethnic studies initiatives, and the need for diversifying the teaching profession. In the crossroads of these different movements stand a subset of educators who identify as social justice educators, thinking through their pedagogy and curriculum in the hopes of pointing their content towards making students into change agents for a better world.
Even though most people push social justice curricula in the middle and high school grades, not much has been said in the way of early childhood education (ECE). Whereas most assume that children won’t get concepts about social change in their pre-teen years, there’s been evidence from a plethora of teachers who’ve undertaken this work that this is possible and necessary. Rather than waiting for children to get activated in their teenage years, social justice ECE do masterful work with our youth through inquiry and passion.
Recently, I asked good friend and social justice educator Marylin Zuniga her thoughts on what social justice means and why we need social justice in the early childhood education. She now teaches children in Oakland, CA. Also, y’all probably recognize her from these pieces here.
Jose Vilson: Who are you, how do you identify, and what brought you into this work?
Marylin Zuniga: I am a daughter of two beautiful human beings, and a sister to many. I am an educator who grew up hating every minute of my schooling. That’s what brought me to this work. I never connected to the curriculum, teachers, or students in my schools. Being a Latina growing up in a Peruvian immigrant household amid white, wealthy suburbia exposed me to inequality at an early age. However, it wasn’t until my college years that I connected my experiential knowledge to my profession. It was in a classroom at Montclair State University that I learned about social justice in the classroom.
JV: What does social justice mean?
MZ: In a larger context, social justice is a communal practice that holds principles of love, equity, and self-discipline. In a classroom social justice requires pedagogy to centralize culturally responsive teaching, and student-centered learning. Social justice teachers are invested in getting to know their students and the communities they serve and hold their students to the highest of standards. This pedagogy requires teachers to build relationships and community beyond the confines of the four walls they teach, or even the school building that employs them. It requires stubborn love, and immeasurable care, and a great deal of self-reflection. It requires teachers to let go of the belief that their role is to save children out of poverty and struggle. The focus is equity and communal healing through practices of love and community building.
What does this look like? The reality is that there is no blueprint for social justice teachers to follow. This pedagogy looks different for every classroom depending on the student population, the teacher, and the surrounding community, as well as other factors. This may look like a teacher researching the historical and contemporary context of the community they serve. This may look like a student-led community action project around an injustice plaguing the community they teach in. This may mean that teachers use their precious prep time, or lunchtime to sit down with students and ask questions that allow for relationship building. But, perhaps most importantly, it always looks like love.
JV: Why does social justice matter for elementary school-aged students?
MZ: Elementary-aged students experience injustice; they experience racism, sexism, queerphobia, and classism. Insofar as they experience injustice, social justice needs to be central to our pedagogical approach as elementary teachers. If a child’s reality is completely absent from the classroom, how will that child ever feel safe enough to learn, to grow, to soar? This is why building a safe space in the classroom is critical. Any learning space should always have safe space guidelines that are co-created by the community occupying that space. For students who experience injustice because of their race, class, gender, and/or sexuality the role of social justice teaching plays an even more urgent role because of their proximity to injustice and recurring trauma.
JV: What resources were most helpful in your growth as a teacher?
MZ: Teaching. You learn from experience, from your mistakes and from your successes. I cannot stress how important it is to be self-reflective and keep fellow-educators and mentors around you that will hold you accountable for your praxis and ideologies. If no one around you is making you feel like you need to do better for the sake of your students, it’s nearly impossible for you to grow as a teacher. You have to be a student of your work; reading and experiencing the work of other educators who hold similar principles helps a lot. But, to be completely honest, my students have played a critical role in my growth. I have taught elementary students and I taught high school girls in a leadership program.
No matter their age, they never hesitate to challenge me, or my pedagogy.