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School of Education faculty, alumnae help teachers put social justice into practice with new book

The idea for a book started in a carpool.

The four UNC School of Education doctoral candidates — Alison LaGarry, Summer Pennell, Ashley Boyd and Hillary Parkhouse — carpooled to UNC-Greensboro to take a course, “Teaching Social Justice,” taught by School of Education alumna Silvia Bettez (M.A. ’03, Ph.D. ’07).

The students were studying different disciplines and trying to apply what they were learning about social justice in those disciplines. Pennell and Boyd were English educators, while Parkhouse was a history educator, and LaGarry a music educator. They thought they could help teachers in training who were also interested in social justice but weren’t sure how it could be integrated into their classrooms.

“Possibilities in Practice: Social Justice Teaching in the Disciplines,” was born. The book, published in September, shares stories from educators and teachers in training of how lessons about social justice can be put into practice inside the classroom.

LaGarry, Pennell, Boyd and Parkhouse – now all alumnae of the School of Education’s Ph.D. program – are the co-editors of the book. In it they share their own research and other writings about how teachers can incorporate lessons of equity and inclusion into their courses.

“We wanted to provide really clear, actual examples of teachers that were doing it, so every chapter in the book is empirical research — primarily qualitative — about how this is actually being done,” said LaGarry (Ph.D. ’16), now a clinical assistant professor in the School of Education.

Pennell (Ph.D. ’16), who was lead editor on the book, was moved to explore social justice in education while working in an eastern North Carolina high school after completing her master’s degree. She said there were some issues of racial discrimination and homophobia at the school, so she pursued her doctorate to work more closely on those issues.

Social justice for all classes

She said social justice isn’t something that should be relegated to one day, or only to classes such as English or social studies, where it’s perceived as easier to include it.

Pennell, along with School of Education doctoral student Bryan Fede, wrote a chapter in the book about a middle school math course they designed, Math for a Cause. Students read articles about social justice issues, such as marriage equality, and created math problems related to those issues. In one lesson, students were asked to estimate the number of same-sex couples who were applying for marriage licenses in their local area. Students also compared data on the topic, such as the percentage of people who think gay couples should be allowed to adopt versus those who think they should not.

“Our world isn’t split into disciplines, and issues of social justice affect us from multiple angles, all at once,” said Pennell, an assistant professor of English education at Truman State University in Missouri. “If students are taught about social justice issues, and taught in a way that infuses social justice into teaching practices, they can more easily make the connections between subjects, and between the subjects and the world.”

LaGarry said social justice in music education is not prevalent in teacher education. “A lot of music educators tend to assume that our field is already socially just,” she said. “It’s open to everyone. Everybody can sing. Everybody can play an instrument. It’s already seen as a bit of a universal. We all share music.

“But at the same time, we’re learning European music primarily. We’re using pedagogies that are primarily associated with the white European classical music culture, and at the same time saying, ‘Let’s bring in some multicultural music,’ which ends up being cultural appropriation, if we’re not looking at the context of that music.”

Another problem, LaGarry said, is that arts programs are disproportionately cut in schools that are underfunded. “So we’re seeing that a lot of arts education becomes only for the middle class, only for certain types of students,” she said.

LaGarry’s experiences teaching in middle and high schools led her to question how schools are preparing teachers for diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, and how teachers’ pedagogies affect what they are trying to teach.

And she wondered how she could use a more culturally-relevant pedagogy in her own classroom. As a middle school teacher in Boston, she co-taught a health class. The course taught students how to use the arts to think about their general well-being. LaGarry said she and her co-teacher opened the class with a “Zumba like” dance party. She applied to the School of Education following her second year at the school, where George Noblit was her advisor. Noblit, who has done research in arts and race in education, encouraged the foursome to publish a book on what they had learned.

Project involved many from School of Education

The project involved four student colleagues who worked closely together while going through the doctoral program in Culture, Curriculum and Change. Boyd (B.A. ’04, MAT ’05, Ph.D. ’14) now teaches as an assistant professor of English at Washington State University. Parkhouse (Ph.D. ’16) is an assistant professor at the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The book also features chapters written by School of Education faculty members Brian Gibbs, Martinette Horner, Janice Anderson; current doctoral students Ronda Taylor Bullock and Lana Minshew; and, alumna Jessica Powell (Ph.D. ’13).

LaGarry said the examples in the book aren’t meant to portray that social justice education is simple to put into practice.

“We’re not presenting them as easy solutions,” she said. “That’s not our goal. But we’re hoping to show that teachers are living this world of social justice education despite lots of challenges.”

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By Jonnelle Davis