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Equity and Justice in Education: Making Our Internal Work Visible in Our Classroom Practice 

  • 7 MIN READ

The work of equity and justice starts from within. But at some point it must find its way out into the world—here's how to start doing it.

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In the first post in this series, “Equity and Justice in Education: Solitude, Introspection and the Sacred Work of Systems Change”, I asserted that the work of equity and justice starts from within and can only be accomplished through a sustained individual critically reflexive praxis. And while I maintain that solitude and introspection are paramount, at some point all the important work that we are doing within must find its way out into our world. This is the hard part; this is where the rubber meets the road.  

In my own journey toward equity and justice in my professional practice—and in conversations I’ve had with other educators—I have found that there is a tendency to fall into an either-or mindset: We feel that either we promote high academic standards or we promote equity and justice. This is where so many of us get stuck. We become paralyzed and never move forward to align our ideology with our practice. The hard truth is that this dichotomy is false—it is a cop-out that allows us to justify remaining in the safety of the status quo while our students suffer the consequences of our inaction. And while equity and justice certainly require us to question these so-called academic standards, to challenge the current system and ultimately work to change it, we must resist the false perception that we cannot teach students to be successful academically if we prioritize equity and justice in our curricular, pedagogical and assessment decisions. We must find ways to teach for the world that is while simultaneously working toward the equitable and just world that must be. 

That idea prompts a few immediate questions: 

  • How do we move from a place of solitude and introspection and begin to work toward systems change in our classrooms?  
  • How do we make our internal work visible in our professional spaces?  
  • How do we teach in the current system while working toward one that is equitable and just? 

How To Move From a Place of Solitude and Introspection to Systems Change in Our Classrooms    

It is best to think about our work toward equity and justice in the classroom not as something that we do to—or for—our students, but rather as a process of cultivation. Our most urgent task as educators is to create the conditions under which equity and justice can flourish and flow. We need to provide space for students to develop and hone their own critically reflexive praxis within the context of our particular subject areas. We need to provide the knowledge of what equity and justice look like in our respective disciplines. And along with that we must model the discipline-specific habits and dispositions that allow equity and justice to thrive. We do not have to be diversity experts, but we must make space for the cultural ways of knowing, being and doing of all students. 

How To Make Our Internal Work Visible in Professional Spaces   

This is something I have grappled with quite a bit over the past few years. As a writing program administrator and faculty member, I have committed to acknowledging, valuing and making space for the cultural and linguistic diversity of all students. In doing so, I have sought to define what equity and justice look like in postsecondary literacy and to determine which habits and dispositions support the practice of equity and justice within writing as a subject area. I have taken the time to rethink, reimagine and redesign my assignments to give students space to cultivate and rehearse these equity- and justice-focused habits and dispositions and to encourage students’ critically reflexive practice. More importantly, I sought to make these changes in ways that would equip my students to be successful in the current system while still working fervently toward a system that is equitable and just.  

How To Teach in the Current System While Working Toward One That Is Equitable and Just

This work has led to the development of a framework for raciolinguistic justice through which students can demonstrate their critical language awareness and exercise their linguistic dexterity. I encourage you to read the complete framework in “A Framework for Raciolinguistically Just Literacy Instruction.” For a fuller explanation of raciolinguistic justice in general, I encourage you to check out “Raciolinguistic Justice in College Literacy and Learning: A Call for Reflexive Praxis.”  

Taken from this framework, I would like to offer an example of how a traditional prewriting questionnaire can be infused with equity- and justice-focused questions.  

Traditional Prewriting Questions Equity and Justice Focused Prewriting Questions 
• Who is your audience? 
• What is your relationship to your audience? 
• What is the rhetorical situation? 
• What is your position in this specific rhetorical situation? 
• What stance or angle will you take in your writing to convey your message to your audience? 
• What types of support/sources will you use in your writing to prove your stance? 

• What are the linguistic and cultural backgrounds of those in your audience? 
• Given your rhetorical situation and the linguistic and cultural backgrounds of your audience, what are the expectations for language and communication? 
• How do you identify linguistically and culturally? 
• Given who you are linguistically and culturally and the rhetorical situation, what are your goals and expectations for communication? 
• What are your linguistic and rhetorical options and which approach do you feel is most appropriate to convey your message and why? 
• What types of support/sources are most aligned with your linguistic/rhetorical approach? 

When students work through both sets of questions as a unified process, they engage in the kind of rhetorical thinking that is required for writing in academic settings while also considering the important nuances of cultural and linguistic diversity. This process makes space for students’ diverse cultural ways of knowing, being and doing. This process cultivates the habits and dispositions for equity and justice in writing.  

While this example is specific to writing as a subject area, this work is applicable to all disciplines. There is a tendency for those who teach in science, technology, engineering and math to absolve themselves of this duty to promote equity and justice, citing the neutral nature of their disciplines. In response to this tendency, I urge those of us who teach in these areas to consider whose ways of knowing, being and doing are marginalized in the teaching of STEM; to explore what scientific and mathematical thinking look like in Indigenous communities and other cultures; and to determine how the knowledge and practices derived from STEM can be used as a vehicle for equity and justice in health care, in our environment and in solving issues of poverty and economic disparity. By doing so, it becomes clear that enacting equity and justice depends greatly on the contributions of science, technology, engineering and math. 

As you move from a place of solitude and introspection toward making your internal work external, I invite you to consider the following: 

  • What do equity and justice look like in my subject area or discipline? 
  • What habits and dispositions support the practice of equity and justice within my subject area or discipline? 
  • How might I rethink, reimagine and redesign my assignments to give students space to cultivate and rehearse these equity- and justice-focused habits and dispositions? How might my assignments encourage students’ critically reflexive practice? 

These are not easy questions to answer, and they will require you to step outside of the safety of the status quo, to try new things and to periodically return to solitude and introspection. Remember that this work is part of a critically reflexive praxis. The truth is that there are a multitude of ways in which we can cultivate equity and justice in our classrooms. More importantly, the beauty of this work is that we are not in it alone. There are resources and there is community to support us all as we strive to manifest our commitment to equity and justice in our work with students and in our everyday lives. 

Interested in learning more? Catch up with Jeanine Williams’ first post in this series, “Equity and Justice in Education: Solitude, Introspection and the Sacred Work of Systems Change.”