The Challenge of Justice
In a recent move, I unearthed a box of keepsakes from college. This time capsule held many gems—dozens of photos and letters—but I was most excited to find my old notes from a class called “The Challenge of Justice.” Looking through these notes takes me back to my 19-year-old consciousness about the world around me. The notes reflect a youthful curiosity along with a feverish need to document my education.
Now over two decades later, the phrase “the challenge of justice” moves me as an educator. I often recognize a version of my younger self in the compassionate students who enter my classroom ready to change the world. I see them hungry for knowledge and seeking tools to better understand injustice. Their urgent need to complement their compassion with knowledge feels familiar to me.
Likewise, social science research has highlighted the essential role of emotions in promoting positive intergroup relations. The work of SPSSI members studying intergroup emotions suggests important links between identity, emotion, and behavior. This work informs my intentions to design classroom experiences that resonate emotionally with students.
My SPSSI Innovative Teaching submission “Meet the Greens” is one of those attempts to couple emotion and knowledge. The activity requires students to assume the role of the Green family for two months, making a series of realistic life choices (e.g. Food, Transportation, Bills) that are presented in carefully marked envelopes. Students must mark the opportunity cost of each choice, balance the family checkbook, and accept the irrevocability of their decisions. Along the way, students must account for some random life events in their finances.
The activity is uncomfortable. The family clearly has trouble making ends meet and difficult choices must be made. It’s hard, as one of my students revealed, to not feel for the Green family’s struggle. The word compassion—as my college notes reminded me—literally means “to suffer with.” As a teacher, I embrace moments in the classroom where that compassion is outwardly expressed. It reflects a willingness of learners to turn towards, rather than away from, discomfort.
While the activity itself elicits emotion, the debriefing creates the knowledge. Post-activity, students discuss whether the Green family is poor. Looking at their checkbook registers, they conclude that the two-parent dual-income family is clearly struggling and that many of the family’s challenges could be alleviated by aid programs. It is at this point where I provide them with the necessary evidence on poverty guidelines and eligibility. Students learn that the family earns almost double the threshold for aid. Students feel the frustration of learning that in the eyes of the government, this family is economically healthy. It’s one small moment of ‘suffering with.’
Reflecting back, I feel confident that asking students to lean into discomfort results in meaningful learning. My own challenge of justice inside the classroom is creating enough small moments of “suffering with” and hoping that these experiences propel students to fight for justice outside of the classroom.