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A lesson in social justice

Teachers strive to create a safe place for students to tackle society's most challenging issues.

Ismael Jimenez
Darryl Murphy

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

As violent images and controversial opinions make their way to the front pages of newspapers and social media, many teachers are working to guide their students through complex feelings and to help give them their own voices. Conversations about topics such as sexism, homophobia, racism, and class are no longer to be avoided. Instead, they are being used to teach and to give students a place to express their concerns about the world around them.

More teachers are bringing questions of social justice into their curriculum. They are demanding more from students than just a correct answer and are pushing them to think critically about society and their role in changing or maintaining it.

The Notebook took a look at how three Philadelphia teachers are helping students deal with issues of inequality.

Ismael Jimenez, Kensington Creative & Performing Arts High School

On a rainy Thursday in late September, Ismael Jimenez, an African American studies teacher at Kensington Creative & Performing Arts High School, conducted a group exercise in which students analyzed the lyrics of two songs and discussed their meaning and symbolism.

The first song was a remix of Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves” by Jasiri X, which samples Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” an eerie ballad about lynchings in the South. Keeping with the theme of the sample, Jasiri raps about the devaluing of Black lives in America with lyrics such as:

1,000 Blacks killed, it’s expected, the more the merrier,

One white child gets murdered, it’s mass hysteria.

The second song, Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage,” released in 2014, is dedicated to those protesting the shooting of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

Jimenez provided a printout of the song lyrics. After students identified the lyrics that stood out to them, Jimenez turned the exercise into an art project where each group of students created a picture that illustrated their interpretation of the songs and the symbolism of the lyrics. For the remainder of the class period, the students huddled at their desks, with one member of each group drawing as the others suggested ideas inspired by the music.

“I use hip-hop because of the way music speaks to students in a way that allows them to get ideas spoken in class in a different way,” said Jimenez, now in his fourth year of teaching at Kensington CAPA. “Good hip-hop can act as a positive force in how students see themselves and their culture.”

Jimenez is one of many teachers in the city and across the country who is using the classroom to address issues of social justice. Discussions about systemic racism, sexism, class, and politics are not shied away from in his classroom. Instead, they are used to encourage students to think critically about the world around them and share their ideas.

“It challenges something in them,” he said. “The students who get As all the time start questioning how smart they really are. And the students who have done bad in school start questioning the idea that they are not smart enough. And I try [to use] that angle [for] them and emphasize intellectual engagement rather than going through the motions and checking off a box.”

Jimenez doesn’t base students’ grades on how well they know the answer, but on how much they consider the question, grading students on “levels of wokeness.” Instead of using letters A through F, he uses Sleep, Drowsy, Disoriented, Awake, and Woke. Just regurgitating the answers isn’t enough to get by in his class.

“It’s question on top of question,” said Deresha Cooper, a junior taking the class. “He’s got you thinking. I don’t think my brain ever stops when I am in this class.”

For the eight years that Jimenez has taught — he was at Germantown High School before Kensington CAPA — students and his faculty peers respect him as an effective teacher. It isn’t abnormal for students to reach out to him long after they’ve graduated to express their gratitude and share their late understanding of his lessons, even the students to whom he gave failing grades, he said.

“That means so much to me,” he said. “It’s bigger than a simple I-was-nice-to-you relationship. It’s more of like ‘I respect what you are bringing.’ And I think over time, students respect that even more.”


Darryl Murphy

Charlie McGeehan, the U School

For the U School humanities teacher Charlie McGeehan, introducing social justice in the classroom can be a challenge. Due to the U School’s teaching strategy, where students are taught to work independently, McGeehan takes a less active role than teachers in traditional schools. This constraint, however, gives him the chance to listen and support, instead of lecture and dictate.

“Listening to students is important here,” said McGeehan, now in his second year at the school. “I’m not positing myself as the expert lecturer in this classroom. I’m building the curriculum.

“I am here to help guide your thoughts and help make sure that you’re getting a clear understanding and you’re doing rigorous, intense work. But I’m not here to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong.”

The U School’s education model allows students to be “self-driven learners” through paced, independent projects. At the beginning of each instructional unit, students, as a group, discuss the material with the instructor to find an aspect that interests them.

Once they’ve decided on an approach, they’re given an assignment to work on independently focusing on that aspect. Each student collaborates with the teacher, as well as his or her peers (peer-reviewing is a requirement), along the way to help develop the project.

This year, students in McGeehan’s class have learned about the election process and voting rights and examined the concept of rags to riches through analysis of the play Hamilton.

“I want to provide a rich learning experience for my students that is life- and interest- and passion-affirming,” he said. “And I think for students in Philadelphia schools, right now, that’s not an experience that is being provided across their education, for whatever reason.”

The U School’s teaching model creates a challenge for teachers looking to introduce students to social justice through lectures or class projects, because much of the dialogue about the material is focused on student interest. But many students choose to focus on those issues, McGeehan said, putting him in the role of a facilitator to develop those ideas.

“I am here to ask questions,” McGeehan said. “I am here to promote dialogue. I am here to bring out and bring up and encourage those conversations. I am not here to hold them back and say that’s as far as we can go.”

Last school year, McGeehan assigned the students a project where they had to write an argumentative letter to the next president of the United States. One of his students, Anthony Rivera, a sophomore in the class, decided to write a poem called “Freeze,” in which he compares the game of freeze tag to a person having a gun aimed at them by police. He recorded a video for the poem, presented it to class, then released it online.

During the summer, Rivera was honored with a Young Heroes award at the National Liberty Museum for his work.

McGeehan’s assignment didn’t require more than an argumentative letter, but he was pleased to see Rivera commit to such rigorous work and take it beyond the class. He hopes to see more students be that diligent.

“All students had to do was turn in an argumentative letter,” he said. “He didn’t have to make a video, he didn’t have to do any of that. And that’s our goal. That’s what we want everybody to do.”

McGeehan recognizes the challenge of teaching this way, where in-depth class discussions aren’t a part of the learning process, making it difficult to present and guide a conversation. Nevertheless, he understands that such work can be done by listening to and supporting student’s endeavors.

“It’s here,” McGeehan said. “But we’re doing it in a different way.”


Darryl Murphy

Gerald Dessus, Mastery Charter’s Shoemaker campus

Gerald Dessus, 27, teaches a class on social justice at Mastery Charter School’s Shoemaker campus, which serves grades 7-12. The class focuses on inequality in America and the activism it has awakened, both past and present. “It’s in your face. You can’t ignore it,” said Dessus. “And that’s for everyone, not just kids.“ Before joining the Shoemaker campus, Dessus taught middle school literature at Mastery’s Pastorius campus. He was looking at other schools, District and charter, in search of development opportunities. When his former principal put him in touch with Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Shoemaker, he decided he didn’t need to look any further. El-Mekki didn’t have any openings for a literature teacher, but he expressed interest in piloting a new social justice class for 8th-grade students to further the school’s mission of developing a sense of positive cultural identity in its students.

“Our whole premise is to help students lead and serve in their communities,” El-Mekki said. “And so, the past couple years we’ve been trying to figure out how do we do that better. So this year, what we wanted to do was couch a lot of it in the actual classroom so it’s not just part of the conversation, it is the conversation.” In the class, Dessus and the students examine youth-activist movements and the social conditions from which they grew. The details of this material can be unsettling for students, he said, but he embraces it as a part of the learning process. For example, when discussing the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who was brutally killed for whistling at a White woman in Mississippi, he showed the gruesome image of the boy’s battered face. Before doing so, he gave students permission to excuse themselves if they needed. “Most of our activities are uncomfortable […],” he said. “My reason behind it is because we don’t talk about it, and they go through their whole middle school experience and high school experience until they get to 12th grade or until they get to college [without talking about it].” What Dessus hopes to accomplish overall is to motivate students to become activists in their communities. At the beginning of the year, the class conducted a survey of 25 people from their community to find what issue was most important to them. After they collect their data, they must come up with a plan of action to address the issue.

“If we’re really going to talk about social justice, then they need to get out there in the community,” he said. “What are students doing that [will] … get them closer to actually getting out there in the community and doing something? Whether that looks like protesting or practicing sit-ins or whatever their issue is, whatever makes the most sense to bring about justice.”

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