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Engaging School Administrators in Social Justice Activism

Martin Urbach, New York, NY


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Talking about themes of social justice activism with students can be a challenging and scary conversation for us educators and for our school administrators. These topics are complex and thus I understand why school administrators might be hesitant about this work. I recognize the humanity in them just as I recognize when I am scared about something. In this short post, I would like to share with you the ways in which I have been successful in implementing themes of oppression and freedom through the focusing and engaging my students in Human Rights based inquiry and project based learning.

Social Justice has been at the core of my practice as a music educator for the better part of the past six years. In that time, I have found that there are four main principles to getting our school administrators less hesitant and dare I say it; excited about doing and supporting this work.

1) Creating meaningful, transformational (as opposed to transactional) relationships with school administrators, staff, students and families.

This is paramount. When a school principal or assistant principal knows that one as a teacher is invested in the well-being of the community as a whole, and that one means well, (not to say that one might not err) and that one has the best interest of the students in mind, administrators begin? to deposit more and more trust in one. When a principal and I have been able to develop a professional relationship that is based on personal connections, we’ve both been able to enter into dialogue with more open minds, open ears and open hearts. This is not to say that is the end all or be all of the issue. To the contrary, this is just the beginning. I have been able to do more and more social justice work with the youth I serve, by developing well cared for, professional relationships with my school administrators, and by engaging them in the conversation.

2) Building a culture of activism and social consciousness in the school and try to tap into whatever seeds of activism are already in the environment.

Even if those seeds have been dormant, with a little water and care, they will come back strong!

I always suggest starting small and easy; with a low stakes project. There are many issues that one can “work into” the curriculum that promote social consciousness, critical thinking and that awaken the activism “bug.” Here I will share with you some issues that various communities of learners I have taught came up with:

· “People don’t clean up after their dog” ,

· “High Sugar Content in School Snacks”,

· “Why is the MTA always so late?” ,

· “Clean up the parks”,

· “ We don’t have access to basketball courts”,

· “How can we help the homeless during winter?”.

Such projects can be empowering not just for the learners, but for the community as whole. These projects also provide plenty of opportunities for field trips, inviting in guest speakers, and bringing the community into the schoolhouse and the schoolhouse out of the community.

3) I work tirelessly and with love, to put my community of school administrators at ease by reassuring them the following five truths about the work I am engaging in with the students:

A) This work is Human Rights work , not partisan or political work.

B) This work is about promoting the self-realization of each individual students, while fostering strong and meaningful interpersonal connections between them.

C) This work is student centered, developmentally appropriate and culturally responsive.

D) This work is rooted in educational philosophies, theories and research that support the planning for instruction as well as the design, implementation and assessment of all instructional and assessment materials involved in the process and/or product.

E) Everything that has to do with this work is fully in compliance with what the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers deem appropriate and/or legal.

In doing so, I invite my administrators into our classroom as often as I can. I talk about it with them when I am copying student materials, and I make sure they know that I am always in search of their ideas and expertise. In reassuring them, I also make sure that they know for sure, that I have a deep level of knowledge about the topics that we will be engaging in, and that I am constantly thinking about possible misconceptions that the students might have. If an administrator continues to push back on the work, I try my hardest to see if we can talk about specific things that might be making them uneasy, and then I offer to find adjustments or adaptations that will put them at ease. I deeply believe that showing them that I care about what they have to say when I design my lessons, helps us break down the barriers and be more supportive of each other’s work. I am very intentional about highlighting the focus on human rights quality of the work, and I am also intentional in not doing partisan work. For example, when we talk about issues such as Stop & Frisk, we explore such questions as: “Should every human expect to walk safely from point A to point B in their community?” We don’t talk about “Does President X or Politician Y support Stop & Frisk”. I try my best to facilitate conversations with my students that focus on the human rights. When the conversation goes elsewhere, I try to redirect the back to the original aim, while holding space for the students to process the material in ways that are appropriate to and desired by them.

4) The Planning for Instruction has to be robust, accurate, and beyond amazing; it has to be better than any other lesson plans one does.

This is one case in which hard data is extremely useful. Through hard data, I have been able to rationalize the work I do with the people that need the rationalizing. Time and time again, I have “talked” and administrator into letting me do a project and even into being excited about it! Some of the techniques I use to help turn things around are: cross cultural connections, peer to peer coaching, meaningful essential questions, cross curricular connections, targeted academic language, engaging (and free or low cost) field trips and more. Here is a check list that I use as part of my unit plans:


• Long Term Learning Outcomes

• Short Term Learning Outcomes

• Unit Goals

• Unit Plan

• SWAT’s

• Do Nows / Exit Tickets

• Detailed Lesson Plans (with Calendar)

• Essential Questions

• Enduring Understandings

• Possible Misconceptions

• Common Core Learning Standards

• National Arts Standards

• NYS Blueprint for the Arts

• Project Based Learning

• Instructional Methodology

• Possible Questions (open ended, direct)

• Universal Design for Learning

• Adaptive Technology

• Learning Differentiation

• Learning Extensions

• Peer to Peer Coaching

• Cross Curricular Connection (Co-Teaching)

• Targeted Academic Language

• Evidence of Student Voice

• Student Work Portfolio

• Socratic Dialogue

• Reading Materials

• Research Materials

• Multi Media Pieces; powerpoints, videos, songs, interviews, etc.

• Heterogenous Small Group Assignments

• Homework Pieces

• Assessment Pieces (formative and summative), Pre Assessments and Rubrics.

• Possible Field Trips

• Possible Final Project(s)


I know it looks exhausting. I can be. It also gets easier the more one does it. I also deeply believe that producing hard data like this, promotes good teaching. I believe that when done well, all of the above-mentioned items work to support the instruction rather than to be paperwork. I have found that the more complete and robust my instructional plans are, the less room for miscommunications there is, and the more trust my administration deposits in me. Everything needs to be intentional, meaning every piece of the experience is designed with the students’ best interest in mind.

Engaging youth in themes of social justice that they care about can be transformational inside the classroom. I have witnessed students make deeper connections to each other, to their communities and most importantly; to themselves. I have witnessed students analyze, critique, synthesize, prove, connect and create work that brought upon change to their own communities and to themselves. Throughout the past six years, I have witnessed young students get excited about coming to school to work on their projects. I have experienced how this work engages youth in thinking critically and standing up for our collective liberation. This is not only transformational work inside the classroom, but it is transformational work outside the school house. I am a changed human because of it. I am a better human being because of the work we do together. I wish that upon you as teachers. I wish that upon your students. I wish that same sense of purpose upon everyone.

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