[by PSU MFA WITS Intern Stephanie Wong Ken] How do you educate students on social justice issues in a way that encourages discussion and openness, but still addresses the more deep-rooted history of inequity in America? Last month, writer and educator Renée Watson conducted an informative seminar on Teaching Social Justice for writers who teach in the Writers in the Schools Program. Watson, who is originally from Portland but now resides in New York, is the author of the YA novel This Side of Home, as well as What Momma Left Me, Harlem’s Little Blackbird, and A Place Where Hurricanes Happen.
Watson’s seminar “Happening Yesterday, Happening Today” focused particularly on the issue of police brutality and racial profiling through the poetry of Willie Perdomo and Aracelis Girmay. She also shared the “Six Elements of Social Justice Curriculum Design” (Bree Picower, 2007), which are: Self-love and Knowledge, Respect for Others, Exploring Issues of Social Injustice, Social Movements and Social Change, Raising Awareness, and Taking Social Action.
During the seminar Watson had participants write a poem in response to news articles about the victims of racial profiling, using Perdomo and Girmay’s poems as guides. The discussion then turned to the role of white privilege and some ways educators from all backgrounds can approach racial issues from a place that is supportive and informative for their students.
“People of color need allies who are white,” Watson noted. “It’s important to ask yourself what you can do to add to the discussion.”
Watson also stressed that teaching social justice isn’t just for schools with students of color. “It’s important for all young people to practice empathy,” she said. “We are all on a continuum in terms of race rights, and we still have a long way to go.”