Classrooms as a Sphere of Possibility: Workshopping Pedagogy and Social Justice

On September 13, The Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York hosted a public event entitled, Classroom and Social Justice: Why Start with Pedagogy. As an exit ticket, we asked the audience to briefly write about why they were interested in this topic. We received critical and impressive responses that were related to the participants’ personal experiences as students or teachers or that pertained to their expectation to learn teaching and learning methods by employing critical pedagogy. Participants were from a range of backgrounds including college students, graduate students, adjunct instructors at community colleges, future and current K-12 teachers, a high school counselor, administrators, and a former lecturer at a university.

Among the over 30 participants, 10 people mentioned the significance of classrooms as a critical public sphere of possibility, where the unjust and unequal social system and relations could be contested.  First, five participants pointed out that classrooms are not only a space where unjust disparities of ethnicity and socio-economic status affect teaching and learning, but that classrooms are also a sphere of possibility where teachers and students can freely share their concerns about the discriminatory and unjust racial, gender, sexuality and class issues—and contest unjust social structures and practices. Indeed, fostering safe and open spaces to share and critique social norms is a powerful way to empower critical democratic citizens to defy unjust, undemocratic, and oppressive social and political conditions.

As many participants pointed out, students and teachers often struggle with intense social, political, and economic circumstances that often reinforce economic disparity, racism, xenophobia, sexism and U.S. imperialism. Regarding these aspects, the participants wrote:

“I feel let down by my education. I feel like my education wasn’t centered on me, what I needed, consequently I want to center my teaching now that I’m a teacher on my students and their needs.”

“Education has not erased the inequalities for marginalized groups.”

“I want to hear more about how racial/ethnic/SES disparities show up in the classroom.”

“As an educator and student, I find the classroom to be a perfect place to expose minds to issues involving race, gender, sexuality, class and more. When I was teaching 10th grade Honors English I used these topics in a lesson and it FUELED their brains. I even had a parent email me because the lesson excited their student/child so much…”

“I’m interested in this because I see NYC classrooms as potential spaces for radicalizing students + faculty and want to know how to do this through radical pedagogy.”

“Classroom should be a place to challenge unjust social structures, not to replicate them.”

In addition, seven participants expressed their views and/or desires to learn how to concretely embody critical pedagogy in our teaching and learning. As one participant noted, “Teaching must be a practice with social justice at its core.” Another respondent shared her observation of the lack of critical dialogues with students about the ways in which instructors employ social justice in their classes or leadership programs. She mentioned,

“I have worked at different schools—they all have social justice mission statements. They are all equity projects. [Yet] this information/this perspective is not shared with students. Then I thought, “No…I can’t”… I told students I was holding on giving a syllabus until the next week. I collected the info and got to know them…”

In her comment, the educator shared her struggle to build a syllabus based on students’ real situations and to build a syllabus and class activities built on active dialogue and how to design these based on social justice and equity with her students.

As if reflecting the educator’s comment, a current college student commented on the disjuncture between the discussions of critical pedagogy and social justice and the real dynamics that are practiced in the classrooms and in the community. He wrote, “I’m interested in what often seems like the disconnectedness between what we learn or talk about in the classroom (and “in the community”) vs the actual dynamics in classrooms and existing systems we participate in as part of our university, etc.”

Another teacher, who is aware of the difference between teachers and students in terms of social, cultural and economic backgrounds, expressed a strong interest in how to teach students from different backgrounds:

“I’m curious about learning how to teach students from different backgrounds and from backgrounds different from ours. I want to see examples of how to embody social justice in the classroom.”

The teacher highlighted the significance of a type of teaching that guides students to practice social justice principles in their work after graduation. The teacher further wrote, “I want to see how we can teach students in a way that will let them bring social justice principles to the jobs they go into after school.”

A digital humanities student indicated the expectation to materialize equity and empowerment in community college contexts especially through utilizing innovative technological tools for students of color. She went on to write,

“As a digital humanities student, I’m seeking to understand equity and empowerment in community college spaces, especially learning how to facilitate collaboration between students and faculty in connection with innovative technological tools to transform spaces of learning for students of color.”

In her response to the exit question, the digital humanities student indicated the possibility and hope that learning involves collaborative interactions between students and faculty, and stressed that such a supportive partnership and innovative way of utilizing technologies can transform classrooms as a sphere where both students and instructors can be empowered and equity is materialized.

After the panel’s presentations and follow-up discussions, some participants seemed to change their perspectives by viewing social justice as a separate activity from class activities or critical pedagogy as a theoretical terminology. The participant commented, “I wanted to understand how this topic would be defined. I don’t tend to think of social justice as a pedagogical method but as an activity in a student activity or theoretical concept.”

Yet, not only in the definition of critical pedagogy, but also in the arenas that critical pedagogy can be applied, one participant’s comment expanded our views beyond school/college settings and also in decolonized ways. Another participant said,

“I’m here today seeking strategies I can apply to the gender training work I could do with healthcare providers. I’m specifically interested in tactics for explaining/relaying the exigency of providing quality gender-related care to doctors who do not understand what’s at stake for LGBTQ+GNC patients.”

This participant’s comment reminded us that not only school teachers, but that other practitioners in different institutions and settings are also interested in employing critical pedagogy. This mirrors the broader interests of critical pedagogy as a critical public pedagogy in broader perspectives. Furthermore, the participants’ comments posed further questions and possibilities related to critical pedagogy for us.

Overall, the event was a very meaningful opportunity for the Futures Initiative team and the participants to meet together and practice critical public pedagogy through which the audience was not positioned as passive and isolated individuals from other participants who just listened to the panel’s presentations. Instead they were active participants who had conversations with other participants in which they shared their own stories and collaborated to advance the meaning of critical pedagogies, to propose further questions and related issues, and to create a sphere where participants built a sense of solidarity for social justice in classrooms and teaching and learning for social justice with other participants, and the panelists.




The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309