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Social Justice in K-12 Education: Working Online and in the Community for Educational Equity
Social Justice in K-12 Education: Working Online and in the Community for Educational Equity

“Our greatest hope was to impact the community around us by building authentic relationships, redistributing power, and learning to be agents of social change. We hoped our actions would positively affect the teacher, but even more so, the students. It is their educational equity for which we strive. Their success is our success.”  —Reading Is Resistance Online Project Team, Fall 2017

The Social Justice in K-12 Education Capstone is a noteworthy example of a longstanding partnership between PSU, local schools, and education-focused organizations. Initially taught in 2002 by Mary Seitz as the Enhancing Youth Literacy Capstone (in partnership with Martin Luther King Jr. School in Northeast Portland), this course and its community partnerships have evolved but remain rooted in the social justice movement for educational equity over the last 16 years. 

The course has transformed in myriad ways: (a) from using a traditional service learning model to a critical service-learning model, (b) from an in-person course to an online offering, and (c) from a singular partnership to multiple education partnerships. Despite these shifts, we have recently come full circle back to the initial goal of supporting youth literacy—now with a much stronger focus on social justice, inclusion, and diversity in curriculum through the Reading Is Resistance Project. Even with the diversification of partnerships (we now also partner with James John School and Community Partners for Affordable Housing), a core partnership with North and Northeast Portland schools remains, as does the specific partnership with King School. These schools have social justice missions in alignment with the objectives of the teaching and learning in this course. This alignment is vital to the work we can do together.

Critical Service Learning Model: Using Dr. Tania Mitchell’s Traditional vs. Critical Service Learning model (2008) with transparency and as a touchstone throughout the term gives rigor to our work and presents an opportunity for deeper social justice learning. Three concepts: (a) building authentic relationships, (b) working in a social justice perspective, and (c) redistributing power, are woven throughout the coursework and used to assess and analyze everything from individual actions in work with the community partner to teamwork. These frameworks are not only applied in hands-on settings but to the online work that we do as well.

Virtual Volunteer Project Management Positions: The development of virtual volunteer positions for students taking classes from a distance or unable to be on campus for various reasons has been critical to this course and the online teaching for social justice model. Students working virtually serve as project managers (5 hours a week) for our group projects which serve our community partners in more profound ways via projects addressing community needs such as field trip support, classroom library diversity, healthcare partnerships, and more.

Continued Participation in Community Team Projects: In collaboration with our community partners, we have developed two models for the central team project: (a) single term projects and (b) year-long projects. By designating virtual volunteers as project managers, we now have point people who can lead team project work and collaborate with the next term’s project managers to have seamless continuation of year-long projects for a more substantial impact on site. For a description of the team project, see this The Participating in Community (PIC) Team Project Toolkit. The following are examples of team projects from the last academic year.

Reading Is Resistance Project: In addition to continuing to partner with our site-based community partners, the Capstone students and professor have developed a community-based project supporting increased diversity and inclusion in Little Free Libraries, classroom libraries, and read alouds for kids.  We now have three little free libraries near schools in North Portland and partnerships with three local public schools for classroom library diversification: Martin Luther King, Jr., School and Portland Village School. Teacher Liz McCarthy, a 3rd/4th teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. School describes the partnership: “This project has been vital for many reasons. Students should have access to material that is not only at their reading level, but also that teaches them about new cultures and ways of life, as well as represents who they are. This project allowed our classroom library to grow in ways that promote diversity, tolerance, and empowerment among our young readers.”

The mutual learning and growth that has taken place as part of this long-term partnership with King School and other local education organizations is invaluable. It is this work that promotes the same “diversity, tolerance, and empowerment” in our university students to continue this work beyond PSU and into the community as teachers, parents, and community members.

By Zapoura Newton-Calvert