Teaching for Social Justice Using an Activist Approach

Terezia Zoric

Their rationale for engaging children in activism is clear. Social justice activism:

  • Nurtures learners’ self-esteem
  • Develops empathy and appreciation for differences
  • Facilitates critical thinking and problem solving
  • Provides a mental model for learners at risk of bias and discrimination
  • Provides a mental model of equity and justice for privileged, dominant-culture kids
  • Contributes to community building across diversity.

When are children ready to learn social justice activism? According to Pelo and Davidson, learners need to be able to:

  • Notice and (begin to) accept differences
  • Be willing to collaborate, e.g., play together
  • Pay attention to other people’s ideas, feelings, needs
  • Express ideas about fairness and (in)justice
  • Take responsibility for trying to solve problems and begin to offer ideas for action.

Finally, teachers wary of the term  activism might be surprised by how normal social justice activism can be, and to what extent it already resembles what we think of when we think about good teaching. Pelo and Davidson identify four steps to social justice activist teaching:

  1. Listen to and observe your students and their communities (receptive role).
  2. Acknowledge feelings.
  3. Support critical thinking.
  4. Facilitate action (active role).

I would add two others:

  1. Continue learning, and providing and cultivating support for social justice work in your school, union, and wider communities.
  2. Remember that (social justice) education is a marathon, not a sprint, and that you can’t possibly do everything at once. At each step, focus attention on what you can do.

If we help our students understand the interconnections, similarities, and differences among different forms of social, economic, and environmental injustice and we enable them to move from understanding to action, we can and will build a more socially just world.

Terezia Zoric is a senior lecturer in Social Diversity in Schooling at OISE and chair of the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) Equity Committee. Terezia is also a co-founder of The Grove Community School, a former inner-city high school teacher, and the past head of the Toronto District School Board’s Equity Department. 


1 The Tale of a T-Shirt is written and directed by Lisa Marie DiLiberto. For a review of the play, see Westhead, R. (2014, March 8), Toronto Star. Retrieved from thestar.com.

2 Style, E. (1998). Curriculum as window and mirror. In Cathy L. Nelson & Kim A. Wilson (Eds.), Seeding the Process of Multicultural Education, 149-56. St. Paul: Minnesota Inclusiveness Program.

3 See, for example, the CLC Working Voices website clcworkingvoices.ca/mobile ; ETFO’s Social Justice Begins with Me; and Zoric, T. et al. (2005). Challenging Class Bias. Toronto District School Board and Centre for the Study of Education and Work (CSEW) at OISE/UT.

4 Pelo, A., & Davidson, F. (2000). That’s Not Fair! A Teacher’s Guide to Activism with Young Children.  St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.


Velvet singing and dancing with class

Velvet Lacasse shows us how music can be a powerful tool for teaching social justice.