MORRISTOWN, NJ - In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, many schools in America are scrambling for resources to tackle anti-racism and social justice with their students. Many schools are looking to make curricular changes as protesters and social justice organizations call for an overhaul of the current curriculum that uses a myopic view of our nation’s history and excludes diverse voices. Teachers are turning to one another for support and advice regarding having difficult and at times, uncomfortable, conversations with their students about racism, white supremacy and police brutality. For the students and teachers at Unity Charter School, discourse about the injustices of our society and promotion of solutions to those issues have been a staple in classrooms.
Unity students leading a moment of silence for their peers for the victims of the shooting in Parkland, Florida in 2018
Beginning as early as Kindergarten, students at Unity are exposed to classroom libraries filled with diverse characters and storylines that reflect themselves and their communities. Lower school teachers used Edutopia’s “Bookshelf Bingo” to audit their classroom libraries and prioritized ordering books with characters of all backgrounds.
(https://www.edutopia.org/article/how-audit-your-classroom-library-diversity) The elementary level Social Studies curriculum revolves around a sense of self, family and families around the world, exposing children to various cultures and celebrating their differences. They are encouraged to learn from one another and gain multiple perspectives at a young age.
Unity’s middle school provides students with a large array of opportunities to engage in discourse and take action regarding social justice issues. Middle schoolers have attended the Global Engagement Summit at the United Nations, participated in the March For Our Lives National School Walkout with support and supervision of staff and have made their voices heard at two climate strikes in Morristown. Those who take a special interest were able to join an elective called, “Student Led Activism,” where they identified injustices or problems within the community and developed action plans. Students in grades K- 8 are introduced to other perspectives and cultures through a variety of field trips and experiences.
Unity students at the United Nations Global Engagement Summit in 2019
Unity students on a field trip to the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, NJ.
Unity also offers “S.A.F.E club,” which stands for “students advocating for equality.” The club, composed of students in grades 6-8, meets weekly to discuss current events, racism, sexism, homophobia and a variety of other topics. They engage in respectful dialogue and discuss rather than debate. An elementary school teacher loved the idea and started “S.A.F.E JV” which promotes equality, inclusion, acceptance and open conversation between peers for our younger students.
The reason that these clubs can thrive at Unity is because of the foundation created during class meetings beginning in kindergarten. Students at Unity meet in mixed age learning groups daily to learn social emotional skills, advocate for themselves and others, problem solve and build community. These meetings foster a feeling of safety and belonging which in turn allow students to feel comfortable sharing opinions, asking questions and expressing themselves.
Students tackled social issues by creating collages.
In alignment with Unity Charter School’s mission for sustainability, middle school students completed a trimester long project on “multiple perspectives.” The project was launched with students viewing the documentary, “Class Divide.” Using census data, students identified problems around the country in cities that they were assigned at random. They conducted research and developed action plans using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals such as “no poverty,” “quality education,” and “clean water and sanitation.” Students recognized that with crumbling infrastructures and lack of basic needs, many cities in America do not provide sustainable futures for their residents. The project concluded in a personal reflection piece where students expressed the ways in which they empathized with the residents of these cities.
An “issues collage” on racism created by a 7th grade student at Unity.
8th grade students read “I am Malala” and used quotes from the memoir to summarize the theme of the book.
In Social Studies, middle school students begin each class with open discussion and have spent years learning how to effectively communicate their opinions and respectfully engage with others. Students have examined social issues through creative projects, demonstrated the difference between equality and equity, written letters to their state representatives and analyzed important historical events through the perspectives of those who often don’t get to write the story. In ELA, students are exposed to diverse literature such as, Monster by Walter Dean, which tells the story of Steve Harmon, a sixteen-year-old African American teenager on trial for his alleged complicity in a robbery-turned-murder.
Unity students at the Youth Climate Strike in 2019
Students at Shaun Boothe’s performance of his original show, “The Biography Series” which highlights the lives of historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malala Yousafzai through rap.
Unity also served as a pilot school for Garden State Equality’s LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum this year. For many schools across America, the current state of affairs may seem like a daunting and tricky terrain to approach with students. For Unity, it’s another day in the classroom. Instead of viewing the civil unrest and mass protests as a controversial topic, we encourage educators to see it as an opportunity. It is our job to tackle the “tough” issues and provide our students with the critical thinking skills they need to shape a more equal and just future. Take this time to teach students about their Constitutional rights, the various civil rights movements that have taken place in the United States and the true meaning of “justice for ALL.” Don’t shy away from this moment. Lean into it and your students will rise to the occasion. We will all walk away
better for it.
The administration and teachers at Unity Charter School encourage you to reach out for resources and lesson plans regarding social issues. Contact Executive Director Connie Sanchez at email@example.com.
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