Teaching Social Justice at Red Oak: A Three-Year Review

Maureen Alley was a founding educator of Red Oak Community School. This reflection on how her goals and objectives for the program have evolved over the past three years reflects not only the ways our school has grown and changed over that time, but society as a whole. As we reevaluate and work towards our mission and values, Maureen’s commitment to social justice and the development of interpersonal skills continue to play a large role in the conversations. - ROCS, 2019


Social justice wasn’t on my radar when we were first envisioning Red Oak.  The original curriculum concept map included “social studies” with “self” and “others” merging into “community.”  I knew that children needed to learn about themselves before branching out to learn about others. I believed that addressing those two elements would lead to the formation of a school community.  This curricular element was easy enough to implement for the first two months or so of school. But then came November 9, 2016.

The day after the 2016 presidential election presented a bit of a crisis; both within myself and within my classroom.  Children whose followed campaigns or listened to the news alongside their parents came to school with Big Questions. Questions I didn’t know how to answer.  I struggled to find a way to leave my own politics and feelings out of the day’s lessons while also honoring the turmoil I could so clearly hear and feel from the children in my care.  

During the first block of unstructured outside time that day I watched and listened. I didn’t know exactly what to do while the students were digging “Trump traps” to protect themselves, or what to say when they told me they cried upon hearing the morning’s news. All the while the words “Choose Love” were on repeat in my mind. So I decided to choose love and care for those children the best way I know how.

We read picturebooks together, did some free-drawing, and we created a repeating line poem. Each student got to add a line to the poem and help write “choose love” on the chart paper. It was cathartic for them and for me. I believe that was the day I started teaching social justice.  

Choose Love 11 9 16.jpg

One of the lines from the poem Choose Love is “when you get food for people who are hungry you Choose Love.”  This line grew into a food drive for the Mid-Ohio Food Bank. We talked about food insecurity using picturebooks as an entry point and we collected dry goods along with gift cards and monetary donations.  The students scoured ads and decided what fresh fruits and vegetables to buy using the funds, practicing using money to budget their purchases. They tracked the donations by weight and by type and learned about the “food rainbow.”

From there I understood that social justice-- the presumption that everyone deserves equal rights and opportunities-- could be integrated into the curriculum in every subject.  It could be as simple as handing out many different people-colored markers for Peace Parade pictures and talking about why I as doing so, or it could be as complex as following young children’s interests as we segued from celebrating Dr. King to the Civil Rights movement in the United States to learning about Nelson Mandela during apartheid to learning about the institution of slavery in our country.  Where the children led I followed, carrying a stack of picturebooks.

books this week 2.jpg

That first year learning about slavery led to learning about refugees which led to a diaper drive benefiting a local organization and a refugee camp in Greece.  Women’s history month saw a collection of books about women scientists and conservationists, including Wangari Maathai-- aka Mama Miti-- who planted forests and saved the soil in Kenya one tree and one woman at a time.  As we were reading about conservation in other countries a student mentioned hearing about Wayne National Forest in southeastern Ohio getting trees cut down for fracking. We explored that and decided to write letters to the Forest Supervisor of Wayne National Forest asking for trees to be preserved.  


Year two of Red Oak saw the addition of our Japanese program.  While the students are certainly learning the language, they are also learning how to interact with the world using a “tomodachi approach,” in other words, approaching everyone as a potential tomodachi (friend).  Being curious about other cultures is a learned skill, and one that we were happy to integrate into our everyday lessons. We folded paper cranes and learned about the Japanese Friendship dolls that survived World War II.  We read a book, The Peace Tree of Hiroshima: The Little Bonsai with a Big Story, about a bonsai tree that survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima and was eventually gifted to the United States.  

The bonsai that became The Peace Tree was a white pine.  The students were delighted to discover that the peace tree in another book, Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, was also a white pine!  That began our deep dive into studying Native American cultures.  During the 2017-2018 school year we focused on pourquoi tales and stories from different tribes.  We located and labeled specific tribes from stories we had read on a map of North America. All but a few of the picture book authors were indigenous people, most writing about the community from which they came.  This became a very important point for me as an educator. I wanted my students to hear Native stories from Native voices, not from white authors who were filling a diversity quotient at their publishers. I also made a point to collect books that portrayed contemporary Native Americans.  It’s a very common misconception, all too often reinforced in schools, that Native Americans are only a part of history, not a part of our modern society. A few of the books we read that might interest readers of this blog included Jingle Dancer, Buffalo Dreams, and Wild Berries in addition to Crossing Bok Chitto and Big Turtle.

In December 2017 we took part in Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC), national transgender allyship Day of Reading. We read I Am Jazz, made ally flags, and hosted guest speaker Chris Rheys-Dupin, a transgender man, who shared his experiences growing up.  We had found out about HRC’s day of action less than a week before it happened, but put plans in place quickly. We invited parents to participate and attend the talk by Mr. Rheys-Dupin, however, the staff decided not ask parents for permission for their children to participate in this learning opportunity, a tactic many other schools across the country were using. Rather, we simply presented this as a part of the curriculum at Red Oak. While we did receive some pointed questions and concerns from a few parents, after sharing our values as a school and outlining how we intended to move forward, they understood and supported our efforts.


By the start of Red Oak’s third year, I had become known as “the social justice” teacher and it was firmly ensconced in our curriculum. We studied civil rights and women’s history. This year we raised money for the local food bank through sales of products students made in related studies of science and Japanese. Parent volunteers helped us make blankets and hats for CRIS, a local refugee service organization. In my classroom I continue to choose books that ensure that what our current student population lacks in diversity we make up for in exposure to other cultures.

I am challenged by parents from time to time about content I bring to the students, like confronting the myth of Christopher Columbus and maintaining a clearly left-leaning political position, but I find that sharing my pedagogical intentions with parents, and talking with them about the content just as I did with the students, helps them understand the learning objectives driving our work.