Teachers Learn Social Justice At NIU's Summer Camp

Jun 23, 2017

For some kids, summer means packing your shorts and bug spray and heading off to camp. For some local teachers, camp means early morning lectures and late night discussions about race, gender, and privilege. At least it did last week at Northern Illinois University. WNIJ’s Susan Stephens stopped by Social Justice Summer Camp for this week’s Friday Forum.

They dropped off their suitcases in the rooms they’d been assigned in NIU’s New Residence Hall, packed with everything they’d need for three nights away from home. They ate dinner together in the cafeteria. And then it was time to get to work.

One by one, about 60 teachers and administrators from the DeKalb and Elgin School Districts introduced themselves to each other and the three professors who would guide them through Social Justice Summer Camp.

It was Joseph Flynn’s idea, and his College of Education colleagues James Cohen and Mike Manderino enthusiastically signed on.

“We will talk about race, we will talk about socioeconomic class, we will talk about gender, we will talk about gender identity, we will talk about disabilities,” said Flynn.

“We aren’t bashing white people for four days. But that doesn’t mean that various identities that are privileged won’t be challenged, because they have to be," he added. "But that challenge comes with research and historical analysis as well as a lot of best practices on how to deal with these issues in classrooms today. We’re trying to be pretty broad. Hopefully, that will spur our campers to come up with their own more specific questions.”

But those are heavy subjects for children. Should teachers really be expected to talk about race, gender identity, and socioeconomics to kids? “It absolutely belongs at the K-12 level," Flynn said. "We can’t keep assuming because a kid is 6, 7, 10 years old they don’t understand what is happening to them. They are very understanding of the notion of justice. When we decide to withhold this from them and wait 'til college, that ship has sailed already.”

Left to right: James Cohen, Beatriz Maldonado, Joseph Flynn, Mike Manderino
Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ

James Cohen, a bilingual education professor, says another important aspect of Social Justice Summer Camp is not just classroom teachers attend. They brought along their school administrators. And that, according to Cohen, is ideal, because teachers and their bosses are spending their days from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. watching films, discussing, and learning together.  Cohen calls it “wonderful.”

Cohen says that, right from the camp’s start, he knew they would have to commit to continuing it. “This work is so important,” he said. “There are so many families and students who don’t have people advocating for them. They don’t have the social or linguistic capital to advocate for themselves. All of these educators here are going to be advocates for these families. That’s a beautiful thing.”

Also a beautiful thing: the connections the teachers are making, even outside their own schools. Beatriz Maldonado is Director of Language Acquisition in the Berwyn South School District. As the only representative from her district, she expected to feel awkward and alone. Until she was “adopted” by four teachers from Elgin. “They saw me,” she recounted, “and they said, ‘Have dinner with us! Join us for breakfast! Sit at our table!’ You could tell the inclusive nature of the entire group. I really appreciate that.”

Yvette Gonzales-Collins is a new principal in the Elgin School District and has high hopes for Social Justice Camp. She said, “I want to use this information to take back to my staff and provide support and empower them with information for conversations we have already started about social justice and looking for different ways we can support our students.”

Flynn admits these can be really uncomfortable discussions, “but if you are a kid in a classroom having struggles that are based on your identity, that’s a hard question to ask."

"That’s a pretty insensitive question to ask," he continued, "so for folks out there who think all this stuff is just a bunch of liberal hogwash, I can respect that; but I also respectfully say you are absolutely wrong.”

The camp isn’t without its detractors. A number of conservative-leaning websites shared stories about it, with comments ranging from mockery to threats. That message was even more direct for Cohen.

“I got an email saying I was a typical white racist professor teaching teachers how to be racist, too," he said. "And, obviously, he doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. We are not blaming people. There’s not one judgmental word we’ve used in this conference. We are all talking about not being racist.

"How do we deal with these institutional and structural systems in place to favor certain people over others? How do we make education more equitable? I’m not talking about individual racism really. We are talking about institutional and structural racism. If people don’t want to buy into that, they have their head in the sand, to be frank.”

Flynn says he wants the teachers to understand there’s something more important than whether someone has made a racist or sexist remark: it’s the follow-up. “Do you immediately turn to defense mode,” he asked, “and try to explain why what you said is not what someone interpreted it as? Which is a dismissal of the ways in which other people hear what you are saying.

"If someone says, ‘Hey, that was offensive,’ just say, ‘I’m sorry, thanks for letting me know!’ That’s how you defuse that situation. That’s where problems come in. It doesn’t take much," Flynn explained.

"People just want their concerns and issues heard and recognized. Once you get into the habit of recognizing that idea, it becomes that much easier to hear more complicated issues like Black Lives Matter," he continued. "It’s not an attack on white folks or blue lives. It’s a statement unique of itself. Your next question shouldn’t be, ‘Don’t all lives matter?’ It should be, ‘Why do you say that? Help me understand that.’”  

DeKalb School District teachers and administrators discuss their plans to work what they learned into the classroom.
Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ

Social Justice Summer “campers” heard from education experts, activists, and colleagues. They watched and discussed powerful films together each night. They even had the tables flipped on them one afternoon and learned from high school students. Three members of DeKalb High School’s Gay Straight Alliance told the teachers their stories -- what it was like to be bullied, what it was like to feel alone and unsupported -- and then gave them tips to help their own students.

Lesley Calderone, who teaches fifth grade in Elgin, said, “What I really feel like I learned is that kids in fifth grade know what they’re talking about and where they’re going with this. I have to accept they can make those decisions that early in their lifetime. As  a mom, I didn’t think I wanted my ten-year-old thinking about her sexuality at ten, but if it’s really happening, I have to be ready for that.”

Calderone says the students were brave and honest -- and taught her that every student needs to be treated with respect.

Maldonado, from the Berwyn district, says she liked the way information was presented overall, especially for the film series. “The fact they were in a casual setting, the fact that the content was so heavy, the fact that we had the opportunity to debrief at the end was very powerful," she said. "Seeing those images, seeing historical images in context, definitely helped us learn and will give us things to take back to our districts.”

Brainstorming at Social Justice Summer Camp
Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ

For the final day of Social Justice Summer Camp, campers had to answer the question, “Now what are you going to do?” DeKalb School District members huddled and brainstormed: They discussed yard signs, a film series, curriculum tune-ups, and mission statements. Tyler Elementary School teacher Alvena Ivy says they’ll support their students and their students’ families to the best of their abilities.

Does she think all this time and effort is needed in the classroom? “Yes, yes, and yes. It’s the right thing, the ethical thing, the moral thing to do,” Ivy said.

Professor and camp co-leader Mike Manderino says campers left wanting more. “This three days is like half a step toward where they want to go,” he said, “We need a whole lot more of this. That’s why we have to think about grants, scaling up.

"People say there are other big issues, like the budget, to deal with. But it’s very clear that this is at the forefront of teachers' and administrators' minds. We have to think about how to support this in September, October, February," Manderino said. "People are hungry to talk about it, but other things get pushed to the forefront.”

Flynn says that, above all, people need to remember that teachers play a role in our society with some strong obligations. “There are legalities related to that role,” he points out.

“So you personally may have a problem with the LGBT community," he said, "but, if you are a teacher, you have to take care of that kid, whether you like it or not. People out there need to understand. It’s not just someone trying to push a liberal agenda. Some of this is law.

"It’s our responsibility to take care of the children that come into our classes. And we can’t teach them effectively if we are dismissing part of who they are," Flynn asserted. "When we talk about social justice, we are not trying to make this into a political issue. This is an educational and pedagogical issue and, if we don’t tend to these issues, we are shortchanging your children all the way around.”