Using Literature to Teach Social Justice

Social justceI came across a community post a few days ago that was inquiring about ways to teach students about social justice in english class. I feel very passionate about connecting the discussions in my english class to issues that have a social and cultural impact. As a teacher, I think this is how we can advocate for students to think critically about issues that concern many of us in real life, and to give them an opportunity to form their own opinions about these issues.

Here is a very short list of some of my students’ and my own favourite short stories to teach in the class. The stories below discuss social, cultural, and racial issues. These stories are relevant to everyday issues that concern all of us and therefore when discussed in class, discussions were lively, interesting and engaging.

Lawrence Hill – So What Are You Anyway?: This story discusses the theme of racism and social perception of bi-racial ethnicities. In this reading I steer students to focus on the tone through analyzing the narration. Other literary devices such as the metaphor of the setting (airplane) allows students to dig deep into character analysis of the main characters.

Kate Chopin – The Story of An Hour: This is a classic for short stories, and often times many of my students have encountered it before my class. It is still a good read, because we focus on analyzing the main character’s intentions and motivations. This allows us to talk about gender roles, gender identity and gender in/equality in our society.

Eudora Welty – A Worn Path: This short story is a perfect piece to teach students about literary devices. It is rich with metaphors, imagery, vivid setting and strong characterization. All these components, when discussed and analyzed, will often guide students to talk about the underlying themes of the story: racism, ageism, sacrifice and hope.

Kate Chopin – Desiree’s Baby: Another one of Chopin’s classics, but this one is vastly different from “The Story of An Hour”. While discussing issues of racism slavery, it also works to discuss gender roles implicitly through the representation of the main character’s marriage. In fact, many of my students really liked to compare and contrast the two stories when it comes to its discussion of gender issues. Note, that it has elements of a gothic genre so it might be fun to discuss those elements with students first.

Jamaica Kincaid – Girl: Although a very short read, this story is a little different than a traditional short story in that it’s written as a dramatic monologue – from the perspective of one speaker only. This strategy is of course used with the purpose of highlighting the theme of the story and other elements in the story, which is the silencing of the girl. The focus here, while it’s mainly gender, is the impact culture has on the shaping of our identities and our gender roles. If you’re thinking of assigning this story, do so with high school seniors, not younger. It’s important that students understand the nuances of what shapes social and cultural identities, while being mindful of criticizing cultural practices and traditions.

What are your favourite pieces of short fiction that inspire discussions on social/cultural issues in your classroom?

This post was originally published on Edutopia

One thought on “Using Literature to Teach Social Justice

  1. Dear Rusul:
    You have a gift and you are sharing it so well! I´d like to Thank you for inspiring me and confirming me that what I´ve been doing in my EFL/ESL classes for many years is worth it. My students beg for classroom discussion once they experience one of my classes: they will never stop asking me for the same. It is really hard for me to teach Grammar and Vocabulary for the international exams they take at the end of the year, but all my students have agreed and confessed that they have learned much more by discussing and participating in class than completing workbook activities. Unfortunately, I have been questioned by some colleagues and even my heads, but so much praised by students and those educators that integrate culture and updated contents like the ones you just mentioned in this post. Thank you Rusul! From the heart! Greetings from Buenos Aires!

    Liked by 1 person

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