Feature Presentation: Leveraging Language for Social Justice

An exciting presentation I participated in with two of my colleagues at the University of Michigan was at the National Council of Teachers of English 2017 Annual Convention. Our goal was to play with the idea of how we as English teachers can use and study language in our classrooms to work towards justice.

Our program proposal was as follows:

High school English classrooms can be, as Kenneth Burke describes them, “imaginative rehearsals” for life, particularly as teachers explore texts and have conversations that give students practice for difficult dialogues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, immigration status, etc. For many reasons, though, we sometimes avoid these difficult themes, speak about them shallowly, or relegate them to texts of the past.

This interactive presentation began from an understanding that we should be having these difficult conversations with our high school students; avoidance of the conversations is unsustainable as the texts we read and the students we teach call for them. From this assumption, we examined our own language use in order to develop a reflective framework for studying language with our students. We then considered pedagogical strategies for teaching social justice content in a socially-just way. We next explored together a unit plan for high school English classrooms that invited students to consider links between language and identity. We closed by engaging participants in conversation about how they could use and modify the perspectives and strategies we presented for their own classroom contexts, analyzing and sharing additional strategies to empower teachers to navigate difficult conversations through thoughtful use and analysis of language.