Penn State students turn spring social justice course into successful venture

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The inaugural D.C. Social Justice Fellowship — a new course that provides Penn State students with the skill set necessary for leadership in educational equity and social justice — proved a success and prompted a request for a repeat performance for next year by officials at Georgetown University and the District of Columbia Public Schools.

Course developer Efrain Marimon, an instructor of education in curriculum and instruction, and Ashley Patterson, an assistant professor in language, culture and society, led 13 students through C I 497 D.C. Social Justice in the spring semester, while the duration of the two-week Maymester was spent at Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C.

The coursework provided civic leadership pedagogical training that examined issues of inequity affecting marginalized communities and modeled the development of varied, engaging curriculum materials in preparation for a social justice teaching experience. It infused diversity issues, topics and perspectives to enable undergraduate students to work with diverse, underserved communities in the District of Columbia.

“The response to the program by teachers, students and administrators was overwhelmingly positive, prompting an invitation to return again next year by both Georgetown and D.C. Public Schools,’’ Marimon said.

“Through a community-embedded experience, students learn to thrive as leaders in multicultural settings that integrate theory, service, leadership, research and community engagement,’’ he said. “Another primary interest of this project is to establish a program that yields education- and community-based leadership with a commitment to social justice.

“Through academic discourse, action research, workshops, mentor conferences and stakeholder meetings, students learn to critically examine issues in education, law, policy and social structures toward the goal of formulating cooperative solutions.’’

Patterson said students overwhelmingly described the course as a formative, life-changing experience. They called it a “unique classroom experience that challenged them to confront biases, think critically, analyze different sides of an argument and embrace diversity and growing pains,’’ she said.

The course design, Patterson said, facilitates rich opportunities for research on civically engaged pedagogical training in university settings and youth activism education. She added that the effectiveness of the course’s pedagogical approach could revolutionize the way educators around the country employ participatory pedagogies in secondary and postsecondary institutions.

When the students interacted with the youth in the District of Columbia high schools, the focus was on the intersection of social justice identities, institutional inequities and how to move toward a more just society. Students were divided into five groups, each focusing on an issue ranging from race, gender/sexuality, socio-economic status, ability and criminal justice, and those five groups intersected among each other.

Students not only looked at both historical and contemporary influences, but they also examined how personal and societal decisions are made based upon actual and perceived identities. They guided the high school students to unpack their own privileges and biases and identify how privilege and bias have helped shape laws and policies. High school students were also challenged to brainstorm solutions that help effectuate micro- and macro-level change.

Penn State students used discovery-based, democratic learning to hook their D.C. high school students and create a space that welcomed ideas, thought and critical reflection, according to Marimon. “Students were drawn into the lesson by an approach that allows high school students’ lived experiences to serve as the catalyst for learning,’’ he said.

“Rather than leading with the content, the Penn State students allowed the content to emerge through cleverly designed simulations and activities.’’ One such activity, Marimon said, was students playing the role of members of society re-entering society after incarceration.

“Built into the simulation were controversial, but important, factors that led to outcomes that support statistics (correlation between recidivism rates and persons of color),’’ Marimon said. “After high school students encountered institutional barriers, the Penn State student teachers skillfully tease out substantive issues in society and policies to help students to propose policy solutions (suggested laws or community initiatives) that addressed the challenges they encountered.’’

Patterson noted that the Penn State students were able to draw from their teaching experiences, learning forum discussions with civic leaders or stakeholder meetings, all of which were part of their course requirements.

And Marimon said students continued discussions beyond the classroom and lesson plans. “Students called their own meetings to meet among themselves (all program participants) to continue the discussion examining the relationships between systems, identities and their role as social justice advocates,’’ he said.

The fellowship was funded in large part by a grant from the Equal Opportunity Planning Committee and the College of Education, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and the Office of Multicultural Programs. Next year, the fellowship will receive additional funding from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence.

College of Education students participated in the C I 497 D.C. Social Justice course in Washington, D.C., during the two-week Maymester.  Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated August 03, 2016