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How Do I Teach Social Justice When I Haven’t Experienced Injustice?

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
September 19, 2018

My PD Confession

Last summer, I had the privilege to speak to a room full of teachers about social justice, as the keynote speaker for the CAST Annual Symposium. The conference was focused on the themes of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an educational framework now endorsed by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and social justice: a perfect match.

However, I struggled preparing for the presentation. I have always been on the more favorable side of opportunity and privilege. While I wasn’t raised wealthy, I am white, well-educated, and was born into a family that taught me how to be resourceful, gritty, and work hard. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would be able to offer something genuine to my audience. Since I myself hadn’t experienced any social injustice, what could I say about social justice? When it came down to it, I realized I could say that.

My Own Struggle with Power and Privilege

At the beginning of the presentation, I shared that I struggled with my own identity as I was preparing for the keynote, but that wasn’t because I didn’t know anything about social justice. I have read every book ever written by Jonathan Kozol and bell hooks. I have had the privilege to collaborate with and present on how UDL provides a framework for social justice with Elise Frattura, the co-author of the Integrative Comprehensive System of Equity. I have spent my career fighting for all students to engage in an education that inspires them, challenges them, and prepares them for any life they wish to have. That being said, I constantly grapple with my own privilege and really wanted to explore that more before presenting. I needed help – so I decided to get resourceful.

Beginning almost a year before the keynote, I spent a lot of time researching so that I could fully explore my ideas and form my perspective. I didn’t do the research because I don’t have any background in social justice – it’s because research gets me thinking about problems in new ways and knowing what I already know is never enough. That’s what expert learning – the goal of UDL – is all about. If the answer is out there – if there is a way to inspire more educators to implement UDL so it empowers more students, I need to know about it. The same is true about social justice. The answer is out there, but it’s not stagnant. It continues to flow, and we must continue our own journey until every student and educator develop a positive social identity.

The “Googling” Incident

Admittedly, and this may be disappointing to some, I usually start my research with a Google search. There. I said it. I “Google.” I said it now, and I also said that in the presentation. It was something like, “It’s so difficult to boil down such a huge concept to a definition and yet if we want to understand social justice, we have to unpack it from a simple perspective.” I shared that while “Googling” resources on social justice to inspire the presentation, I found a great tool from Teaching Tolerance to unpack the concept.

The resource unpacks social justice as four constructs: identity, diversity, justice and action. I was able to make connections immediately to my own work in social justice and then tied it together with the UDL framework and the work of Frattura. I developed a theme of “windows and mirrors” (Style, 1988) to provide an analogy for the work we need to do as educators.

Your View Will Always Be a Mirror

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is one built upon a foundation of social justice. The primary goal of UDL is to provide equally authentic options and choices to all students, regardless of variability, so they have equal opportunities for success. As a presenter and a so-called “expert” in UDL, I struggle with my own perspective. It’s not enough for me to use my own ideas and my own understanding of concepts, because my view is a mirror. I have lots of experience and I have done extensive research, but that is never enough. I feverishly read, view, observe, and learn from the work of others in preparation for any presentation I give.

Even with 50+ presentations a year, I research to learn more, see trends, read blogs, and bring in other voices. I research because I want to get it right, because I want to give credit where it is due, and I want to ensure that I’m building integrative thinking while I am doing it. From a UDL perspective, being resourceful is not a weakness – it is a strength.

I have dedicated my career to ensuring all kids have equal opportunities to engage in an innovative, universally designed education, and I will continue to fight and will continue to be resourceful and learn more throughout my journey. I refuse to imagine a world where you only have a voice if you use your own ideas and your own perspective.

Continue Your Learning:

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