“Dear Andre’s Dad: I think it would be sad living in a hotel. I’m sorry that you don’t have a home,” reads a letter, printed in a child’s handwriting, hanging on a bulletin board outside Gwen Struble’s first-grade classroom.
The bulletin board, tucked in a corner of Mesa’s Zaharis Elementary School, displays dozens of letters that Struble’s students wrote to characters in the books they’re reading about homelessness.
Like her colleagues at Zaharis, Struble meets issues of social justice head-on, through carefully selected literature — in this case, books about poverty and the civil rights movement.
Simply reading the district’s adopted textbooks isn’t enough, said Principal Mike Oliver, as he thumbed through the Mesa Unified School District’s fifth-grade American history book.
The unit about equal rights has fewer than five pages.
“If our kids read this unit every day of their lives, they wouldn’t have a clue what the struggle for equal rights was about,” Oliver said, pointing out there were only two paragraphs about women’s rights in the material. “We try to teach kids to read through a critical lens. Who is writing this? We try to teach them whose voice is present and whose voice has been silenced or marginalized.”
Miles away in central Phoenix, Brophy College Preparatory has a similar focus.
“We really are bombarded with social justice issues. I’ve never really come into a class where we didn’t talk about some sort of one,” said Cody Churchill, 18, of Mesa.
The school has an entire office devoted to “faith and justice,” and juniors are required to complete a hands-on “justice project,” through which they meet and help people living on the margins of society.
As a Jesuit institution, one of the school’s main goals is to help students become committed to justice and create a more peaceful world.
So while most schools, both public and private, have service learning programs, Brophy goes above and beyond that, said Principal Bob Ryan.
“There’s a pretty big distinction between community service and social justice,” he said. “When we think of service, we often think we have something to offer people. At Brophy, we try to reframe it and understand the people we meet ... we want to look at the social system through a different lens.”
To do this, teachers help students analyze the situations in which they volunteer, he said. “Working at a child crisis center, we don’t want the kids to come away saying it was fun to help the kids; we want them to say, ‘Now I have a better understanding of how Child Protective Services is or isn’t funded,’ for example,” he said.
This means that Brophy students learn about topics that generally aren’t introduced until college, such as human rights abuses in El Salvador in the 1980s or how the North American Free Trade Agreement displaces traditional weavers in rural Mexico.
In November, Jesuit volunteer Joe Cussen led 19 students to Fort Benning, Ga., to peacefully protest the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, a military-run training facility. Protesters say the school has been instrumental in training Latin American soldiers in counter-insurgency techniques that leads to human rights violations and death squads.
As a religious school, Brophy has more flexibility than a public school does to take on controversial issues like abortion, immigration and human rights. Faith is at the center of the social justice teaching, Cussen said.
“You could (teach social justice) without it, but it would look a lot different than what it looks like here,” he said.
John Goodie, chairman of the Mesa Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade, said teaching social justice is necessary so children make sure past injustices don’t repeat themselves.
“People should talk about Japanese internments, and slavery — of course, lots of schools don’t like to harp on that too long, but it happened — the Holocaust, these are things that when a kid gets to a certain age, I think they should be aware of,” he said.
Westwood High School teacher Andrea Murphy won the Mesa MLK Committee’s annual award for teaching social justice this year by helping her students save the MLK Day Parade.
A few months ago, when she explained to some of her students in an after-school club that the parade was being cut because of budget constraints, some students were “absolutely outraged,” she said.
Murphy told them to make some noise, and they did. After holding a school meeting and soliciting donations, the teenagers raised enough money to save the parade.
“This showed them you can go about making change in society, and this is how it’s done,” Murphy said.
At Zaharis, children learn about making changes by reading specific literature.
Oliver has a huge collection in his office, with books like “White Socks Only,” which Oliver said is about “a little girl who struck a blow against hatred and bigotry.” Another book tells the story of an immigrant family that returns to Mexico to visit relatives.
“We’ll put value judgments aside and just talk about immigration,” he said. “It helps us to ask, ‘What would you do if you worked in Mexico for a combined total of $18 a day?’ After reading this book, we would say, ‘What would you do? Would you leave your country to come here for a better opportunity? Would you cross the border illegally?’ ”
Zaharis students also act out the characters from books, or write about the topics with their parents in journals. Last week, for instance, Marci Lang’s sixth-graders took King’s “I Have a Dream,” speech home to read and discuss with their parents.
Friday morning in Struble’s first-grade classroom, children paired up with one another to make sense of the book “Ruby Bridges,” the true story of a 6-year-old girl who became the first black child in an elementary school.
“All the people took the white kids home so she was the only kid there,” said McKenna Owen, 6. “She was really brave.”
Oliver said the increased focus on standardized tests can take away from teaching these kinds of lessons, but he refuses to let that happen.
“If education is reduced to simply preparing for standardized tests, then social justice issues will rarely make it to the surface,” Oliver said. “But here in this school, we have bigger fish to fry.”