Uncomfortable - Teaching Social Justice to Middle School Students

July 12, 2023

Heidi Parker

Novel Study Bundle: The First Rule of Punk and Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom

“Do you feel comfortable discussing social justice issues in your classroom?” The question on the survey my union sent out caused me to pause. 

Over the years, I have had discussions with my middle school students about World War II and the concentration camps. Most of what I know I learned from movies and books like Schindler's List and Anne Frank’s Diary, but many years ago I had my most impactful lesson. My district sent several teachers to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, California for training. Part of our stay included a speech by a survivor of the concentration camps. The elegant older woman told us as a child she was taken from her home by the Nazis, and her sister and she were separated from her deaf parents and her brother. They never saw their parents again, and in his unimaginable suffering, her brother committed suicide. Like a thick fog, the pain that she still carried poured out over the audience. She retold stories of her horrific journey in and out of work camps, and after the war, immigrating to the United States with her sister. She told us about her children and grandchildren, and her blessed life in America. She ended her talk with these powerful words, “I will never forgive the Germans. I hate them.”  One audience member asked, “How can you say that? I, a person of German heritage, certainly am not to blame?” And the gracious woman replied. “After what was done to my family, I simply can never forgive.” How can that pain ever be comfortable? 

After the turmoil in our own country during the Black Lives Matter movement, I began a journey of reading and educating myself. I watched videos and took online classes. I talked to my friends that are people of color. I traveled to Atlanta, Georgia on a college tour with my son and daughter during this time. We visited the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park. As I stood honoring Dr. and Mrs. King at their burial site, I saw many families from the black community doing the same, but the look on their faces was different than mine. They were visiting the childhood home and burial site of one of their own - a man who had given his life to draw attention to the suffering and pain in their community. How can that pain ever be comfortable? 

My classroom is filled every day with middle school students from different cultural backgrounds than my own. None of them look at me and see themselves. My place isn’t to attempt to be an expert on social justice nor is it to use my “white privilege” to make change as I heard one teacher say. I can’t even begin to relate to their stories of hardships. I have an obligation to do whatever I can to allow my students to hear the voice of people of color. I have posters and quotes representing people of color on the walls of my classroom. Reading books like The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez and Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom by Lynda Blackmon Lowery provides opportunities for my students to see themselves in literature. Instead of hearing me read the book to them, I’ve been able to find audiobooks recorded by people of color. I continue my own education so the words I speak and my actions don’t add to the pain. I challenged the union to call the school district to employ more teachers of color. I do and will continue to include such a curriculum in my teaching and seek to be an ally to the black community and other people of color.  But, no, dear union, I don’t feel comfortable. And honestly, I hope I never do.