By Allison Raven
Of the many abstract nouns in the world, “injustice” is perhaps the one best suited for seventh graders. Middle schoolers in general have very profound senses of justice, and certainly know when they are experiencing an injustice in school. Homework: injustice. Uniforms: injustice. Ms. Raven counting them tardy when they intended to be in class on time: extreme injustice.
In my second year of teaching middle school in Houston, Texas, I wanted build on that strong sense of moral certitude as part of my course goals. The seventh grade social studies curriculum in Texas focuses on Texas history. A native Texan myself, I can readily admit that Texas history is all too full of examples of injustice. I wanted to make sure my students recognized those injustices and did not leave my class convinced of the Battle of the Alamo’s righteousness. So I set a goal: “Historians will become critical thinkers who recognize injustice.”
This especially mattered to me because of my students’ backgrounds. I taught 147 seventh graders. 85% of my students qualified for free and reduced lunch; 90% identified as Latinx/Hispanic; and 60% of my students began sixth grade the previous year labeled as limited English proficiency. Students rightly questioned the significance to their lives of history classes that focused on dead white men.
I spent much of the first month trying to convince students of the importance of history. We discussed how history can be used as a weapon against people of color, how history can feel cyclical, and having to understand history to understand the present. After a month of school, I wanted to see whether students understood the goal we’d been talking around for weeks. I asked them to write down an answer to the question: “Why is it important to recognize injustice?”
Many students wrote great answers, drawing upon their own connections to history and seeing themselves in the past. Ava’s* answer stopped me in my tracks. “It is important to recognize injustice because every time an unfairness goes unnoticed, the world loses balance.”
Unfairness ran throughout my students’ educational experiences. Each of them went to underserved and underperforming elementary schools. Their parents had chosen the system of charter schools that I worked for, which guarantees college admission but has an average teacher tenure of less than two years, as the better option for them.
Moreover, they were students in a segregated school system, and I didn’t fully understand why. I’d done research on desegregation as an undergraduate, so I understood all of the complicated logistics that had gone into implementing Brown v. Board of Education. But I was teaching a segregated classroom 60 years after Brown, in a district divided into white students south of the highway and Black and Latinx students north of it. Those schools south of the highway are some of the highest-performing in the Houston area. How did my students not have access to those resources in the same district? Why was it going unnoticed?
Ava’s words did not instantly lead me to apply to graduate school, but they stayed in the back of my mind. I was part of an unfair system, and no one was noticing. Could I be doing something to help the world not lose its balance? There are many paths down which that question could have taken me, but it ultimately landed me in a PhD program in history, where I am writing a dissertation about the end of desegregation as a policy choice.
I carry Ava with me in my attempt to notice injustice in my research, but throughout my work in the academy I find so many lessons my middle schoolers taught me. They have made me a more effective teacher and allowed me to confidently walk into my graduate teaching assignments with ample ideas for activities. (Teaching techniques that worked for middle schoolers are more applicable for undergraduates than you might expect.) I think about my seventh graders when one of my undergraduates is struggling to feel comfortable speaking in class, and try to bring the same compassion to them that I did to my English language learners.
Outside of teaching, too, I carry my students into my practices as a scholar. I am constantly signing onto projects that allow me to translate academic research and resources for K-12 classrooms, remembering my own confusion about how to teach certain topics – which contributed to my students’ lack of understanding. I try to find the voices of students in the archives and in oral histories to understand the end of desegregation, knowing from my students that they will always provide a different story from their parents.
I think it’s unlikely, though not impossible, that I would be a historian if Ava had never written what she did. But I know, without question, that I would not be the scholar I am today without continuing to think of my seventh graders in everything that I do.
Allison Raven is a PhD Candidate in History at Duke University, writing a dissertation tentatively titled “Separate but Equitable: Race, Liberalism, and Abandoning Desegregation in Austin, Texas.” Prior to beginning her PhD, she taught middle school in Houston, Texas.
Featured image (at top): Warren K. Leffler, “Integration in D.C. Schools,” 1964, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
* Name changed to protect student privacy.