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San Juan Unified teachers participate in Social Justice Institute

Social Justice Insitute Maribel Rosendo-Servin stood in front of the class and spoke from the heart about her life’s journey: crossing the border from Mexico, starting elementary school in Stockton and struggling to learn English, crying in fear of “la migra,” the immigration police — and eventually heading to college and becoming a teacher at San Juan High School.

Before she instructed her students to share their own “educational journey,” Rosendo-Servin felt it was important to share her own story of struggle and triumph, and to open up to her students in a vulnerable and very real way. The lesson stemmed from her participation in the Social Justice Institute, a yearlong collaborative learning experience between San Juan Unified and Sacramento State.

As part of the program, 25 San Juan Unified teachers from five different high schools attended a summer institute consisting of five days of training on the concept of social justice teaching, as well as curriculum development.

Then, they entered into a yearlong coaching and mentoring phase, in which they work alongside student teachers from Sacramento State and receive guidance from university professors.

Click here to watch a video about the Social Justice Institute.

The partnership is a rare opportunity to explore social justice issues — race, sexuality, income inequality and beyond — and make lessons more relevant to students by acknowledging the realities of their lives.

“These are social issues that [students are] always dealing with, but not always given an opportunity to deal with ... in an academic space, integrated into the things that they need to learn,” said Dale Allender, a Sacramento State professor and mentor in the program. “For a district to say, look, we want to deal with this and we want to have a long-term commitment to servicing these issues … that's rare.”

It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. The student teachers from Sacramento State gain valuable classroom experience as they earn their credential, while San Juan Unified teachers deepen their practice and understanding. As the district faces a teacher shortage, organizers are also excited to develop a “pipeline” of incoming teachers from Sacramento State already versed in culturally responsive teaching practices.

“To have our student teachers matched with those teachers creates a real social justice culture in the district and it strengthens what we are doing back at the university as well,” Allender said.

Student teacher Elvira Alonso said she loves seeing the way students engage with curriculum infused with social justice concepts.

“Being like, ‘Oh, I see that like every day, after school, it happens this way,’ or, ‘I see this in the news.’ It's kind of like connecting the dots,” she said.

Organizers of the event added that social justice threads could be woven into any subject. In physical education, students could be asked to think of ways to make an activity more inclusive for students with special needs. In math, students could learn about ratios and proportionality by exploring data on world hunger and food production.

A week after Rosendo-Servin shared her own “educational journey,” students in her ethnic studies class followed suit. Senior Artan Kaviani spoke of migrating from Iran and his passion for South Korean film. Hashneert Ghuman spoke of coming to America from India and struggling to keep up in school while working full time to earn money.

“Finding similarities and differences … goes to break down stereotypes,” Rosendo-Servin said.

“Students are having conversations about things adults can't even have conversations about,” said San Juan Unified Director of Equity and Student Achievement Gloria Ervin.

In an English class at El Camino Fundamental High School, students were asked to present about a social justice issue that was meaningful to them. Kiran Dunning, a sophomore, chose to discuss rape culture.

“We spend so much time teaching young girls not to show their shoulders because it'll be a distraction to guys, when we have taken zero time teaching guys that women are not sexual objects,” she told the class.

She later expressed appreciation for the opportunity to explore these themes in class.

Her teacher, Kurtis Roddewig, said he’d been nervous about touching on social justice issues before, not wanting to alienate or offend anyone — even as topics such as Black Lives Matter and gender gaps permeate national conversations.

“I was interested in finding a way to have those important conversations in a public institution in a way that's safe and allows for voice,” he said.

He worked on the lesson in collaboration with Allender, the mentor at El Camino. Each of the five participating high schools has a different Sacramento State mentor, and they connect with teachers each month.

For Rosendo-Servin, the program has strengthened her teaching ability and her classroom community.

“I think that's what you want to build — a school education that is responsive to the community needs,” she said.

The program, which is paid, will continue next year. San Juan Unified is currently seeking new applicants.

“What I would like to see is that the schools and the district become an example for how to tackle these issues and how to empower their students,” Allender said. “And [to] build a very strong and vibrant community that's not tolerant of injustice of any sort.”