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Unbuzzing social justice: a serious conversation in language education

I know, flipped classroom, 21st-century skills, interculturality, active learning, social justice… these are some of the buzzwords in our area right now. The problem with buzzwords is that everyone seems to have something to say about them, but those people make little or no effort to be understood when doing so. So, we keep referring to these concepts as if everybody has a similar understanding of them and what they entail. In what follows, I present the concept of social justice, its importance in language teaching, and propose some concrete ideas for projects and actions.

What do we mean by social justice?

Our modern idea of social justice comes from two main sources: Alexander Hamilton’s The Federalist (1787) and John Rowls’ A theory of justice (1971). To Hamilton, social justice should be an action focused on the distribution of capital, property, and wealth to combat the high levels of inequality and economic problems resulting from the social structure of Europe. Rowls (1971), on the other hand, proposed the idea of “justice as fairness”. The term social justice is generally used to refer to social, political, and economic institutions, laws, or public policies that ultimately promote this sense of justice and equality and is commonly seen used in movements that seek justice, equity, and inclusion for historically oppressed, exploited, or marginalized groups. Social justice is a far-reaching, but possible goal, based on five principles.

The five principles of social justice

Human Rights: refers to the idea of respect for legal, cultural, political, economic, and civic rights guaranteed to all. There cannot be justice without ensuring that everyone has the same rights.
Access to Resources: involves ensuring equal access to resources such as education, health, leisure, food, and housing for individuals from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Examples, like disparities in preparation for exams among students from private and elite schools in Brazil, highlight existing inequalities.
Equity: focuses on providing tools and means to address the specific needs and difficulties of different groups, aiming to create equal conditions for achieving similar outcomes. It also emphasizes the importance of considering social imbalances to allocate resources and opportunities, as illustrated by the classic drawing by Professor Craig Froehle.
Participation: stresses the right of every individual in society to be heard, voice opinions, and play a role in decision-making processes that collectively affect everyone. It also highlights the injustice in situations where a small group makes decisions impacting the majority without consulting or considering their perspectives.
Diversity: celebrates and values cultural differences among various groups within a community or environment. It emphasizes the need for representation by individuals with the capacity and authority to make decisions, ensuring that diverse voices are considered in the decision-making process.

What does it have to do with language?

Language encompasses everything we do in life, all the time. It is through language that we express beliefs, feelings, and ideas. And it is also through language that we manifest forms of violence, such as racism, sexism, LGBTQIphobia, misogyny, ageism, ableism, etc., because “like desire, language disrupts, refuses to be contained within boundaries. It speaks itself against our will, in words and thoughts that intrude, even violate the most private spaces of mind and body” (bell hooks, 2014). If that is so, we should also find ways to use language to fight against these forms of violence. If language can be used to hurt, it MUST be used to heal; If language can be used to annihilate, it MUST be used to nurture; If language can be used to diminish, it MUST be used to exalt; If language can be used to cast down, it MUST be used to dignify.

What does it have to do with language teaching?

In Brazil, the Base Nacional Comum Curricular (BNCC) presents a list of competencies and skills students need to develop at school. Concerning the area of languages (linguagens), most of them have to do with a critical, ethical, and interdisciplinary view of teaching. How “to explore diverse cultural heritages, both tangible and intangible, disseminated in the English language, with the aim of engaging in appreciation and broadening perspectives when encountering various artistic and cultural expressions” (BRASIL, 2018, p. 246) if not through the perspective of social justice? How to fulfill the requirements of laws 10.639 and 11.645 if not through the lens of social justice? But that must be aligned with some principles, such as the curriculum, the teaching and learning goals, the school’s philosophy and beliefs, the audience, and the approach/method adopted.

How relevant is it?

The answer must come with more questions. In which space in your city is there (if any) a statue honoring a Black woman? Why are most favelas located away from city centers, built on hillsides and slopes? Why do textbooks depict slavery in Brazil as a period of mere subservience, neglecting the scientific, cosmological, and linguistic contributions of enslaved peoples? Why aren’t African languages spoken in Brazil? Why do we not even know the names of indigenous languages in Brazil? Why do we rarely see people who are fat or with disabilities in textbooks? Why do we often see the symbol of elderly individuals with a cane? Whose interests do these pieces of information, or the denial of this knowledge, serve?

I just want to teach English! Is it possible?

During a workshop I was delivering on fostering diversity in ELT classes, a teacher said: “Beautiful, nice. But this is a problem for other areas. I just want to teach English. Is it possible, for God’s sake?”

How and why do we use language in our classrooms, despite preparing people for exams and teaching them what to say at restaurants, reception desks, and job interviews? Mere repetition of senseless sentences and lexis has no place in ELT any longer (as if it ever had!). Approaches and methods like grammar-translation have fewer and fewer advocates, for they do not allow us to view language (and its teaching) beyond structure. Project-Based Learning and Content and Language Integrated Learning, for instance, allow students to, in the words of Toni Morrison, “do language”, and promote social change through language use. So, yes, it is possible to just teach English, but not just teach about the structure of the language.

From buzzwords to meaningful concepts and concrete examplest

Usually, some ideas related to language and social justice are associated with the creation of a list of words to be avoided, or some experiments that, despite being full of good intentions, do not promote meaningful and impactful learning.

So, instead of having students create a crazy cake recipe, why not have them research tamal, check its history, how close it is to Brazilian pamonha, and have them cook it in class? Instead of promoting discourses such as “I don’t see colour/there’s just the human race”, why not promote activities where people could see themselves as diverse and unique? Instead of fostering activities such as blackface and caricature of hairstyles, why not foster learning about different types of hair and their biological adaptation to different environments? Instead of focusing on slavery, slaughter, and suffering through movies like Amistad and 12 Years a Slave, why not present positive examples of indigenous and African influence in science, architecture, cuisine, etc.? Instead of blindfolding students and having them walk around trying to dodge obstacles, why not foster the learning of interpersonal and collaborative skills, BRAILLE, and audio description?

In an attempt to help some educators in the field, here are some effective ideas some colleagues and I have implemented in our lives and classes:

Professional development

Equitable grading:

  • Regularly reflect on potential biases in your grading, such as cultural and linguistic factors (such as accent). Consider using varied assessment methods that could accommodate diverse learning styles and abilities. Be flexible with due dates, especially with students with ADHD and anxiety disorders.

Disability and inclusion:

  • Ensure that all course materials are accessible to students with different abilities. Work closely with your institution’s disability services to understand individual needs and implement personalized accommodations for students with disabilities (like alternative formats of assessment). Sensitize the whole class to the issues related to disability and create a supportive learning community.

Diversity in class:

  • Ensure that the materials reflect the cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity of your students. Encourage students to share their experiences while guaranteeing that the conversation remains constructive. Stay informed about racial issues, cultural sensitivity, microaggressions and inclusivity.
Ideas for the classroom

Power of Words Exercise:

  • Conduct an interactive activity where students explore the impact of certain words and phrases. Discuss how language can empower or marginalize individuals.

Diverse Reading List:

  • Curate a diverse reading list that includes authors from various backgrounds and cultures. Encourage discussions about different perspectives and experiences.

Inclusive Language Guidelines:

  • Collaboratively create a set of inclusive language guidelines with your students. Discuss the importance of using respectful and inclusive language and refer back to these guidelines throughout the year.

Literary Analysis Through a Social Justice Lens:

  • Incorporate social justice themes into literary analysis. Have students examine characters, plotlines, and symbolism through the lens of social justice issues.

Identity and Representation Project:

  • Assign a project where students explore their own identities and how they are represented in literature, media, and society. Discuss how representation shapes perceptions.

Critical Language Analysis:

  • Integrate critical language awareness into the curriculum. Select texts that challenge stereotypes, and guide students to analyze language choices that perpetuate or challenge social norms.

Creative Writing for Advocacy:

  • Encourage students to use creative writing as a form of advocacy. Have them write pieces that address social justice issues, fostering empathy and understanding.

Interactive Classroom Discussions:

  • Facilitate regular discussions on current events and social justice topics. Create a safe space for students to express their thoughts and learn from one another.

Media Literacy and Social Media Campaigns:

  • Teach students to critically evaluate media messages and create their social media campaigns promoting inclusivity and social justice.

Community Engagement Projects:

  • Organize projects that involve students in the community. This could include partnerships with local organizations, writing for a cause, or engaging in service learning to address social issues.

As seen, there are numerous avenues through which we can cultivate social justice in our language classrooms. However, to authentically and substantively achieve this goal, it is imperative to actively and genuinely engage in readings and discussions, exchange ideas with colleagues, and foster collaborative efforts, particularly with our students — the reason for our roles as educators. In the following, I provide valuable suggestions on resources for delving deeper into these topics.

Ideas for the classroom

Avineri, N., Graham, L. R., Johnson, E. J., Riner, R. C., & Rosa, J. (Eds.). (2018). Language and social justice in practice. Routledge.
Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press.
Souza Neto, M.J. (2022). Lingua(gem) e justiça social: saberes, práticas e paradigmas. Vol. 2. Editora Diálogos.
Race and social justice
Santos, J. (2022). Black Matters Matter: teaching
English by teaching about race. EDUFBA.
Souza Neto, M. J. (2021) Por que pensar hoje em uma educação linguística antirracista? Limites, tensões e possibilidades. Revista Paraguaçu, v.1, n.1, p. 168-191.

Assessment and social justice

Feldman, J. (2023). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin Press.
Moss, C. M., & Brookhart, S. M. (2019). Advancing formative assessment in every classroom: A guide for instructional leaders. ASCD. Zerwin, S. M. (2020). Point-less: an English teacher’s guide to more meaningful grading. Heineman.
Geographies, territories and social justice Anzaldúa, G. (2021). Borderlands/La frontera: la nueva mestiza.
Capitán Swing Libros.

  • BRASIL. (2018). Base Nacional Comum Curricular. Ministério da Educação.
  • Hooks, B. (2014). Teaching to transgress. Routledge.
  • Madison, J. (1787). The federalist.
  • Morrison, T. (2009). The Nobel lecture in literature, 1993.
  • Vallin, P. (1960). Aux origines de l’expression “Justice Sociale”. Chronique sociale de France, 68, 379-392.

About author

Mauricio J. Souza Neto holds a Master’s in Language and Culture and is a PhD candidate at Federal University of Bahia. He is a teacher at Instituto Federal de Educação, Ciência e Tecnologia da Bahia (IFBA), holds a CELTA, and is a Fulbright Alumni at University of Arizona. Mauricio develops works on language teaching and learning in a counter-colonial approach, as well as on language, race, culture, and community. He is a member of ALAB, ABRALIN and Braz-Tesol.
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