Reporter's Notebook

30 Minutes On... Social Justice Education

Myron Long, CAS/MA '05, schools us on his model for molding middle schoolers into changemakers 

By

Myron Long

This spring and summer, the eyes, ears, and hearts of many have been opened to the fight against systemic racism.

This fall, Myron Long, CAS/MA ’05, hopes to open the minds of young people to design better and more just systems. The Social Justice School, a public charter middle school in Northeast Washington of which the veteran educator is founder and executive director, will soon welcome its first class of fifth and sixth grade students with a curriculum that includes projects, texts, and discussions focused on real-world social justice issues.

“We have to have a deep sense of empathy and a critical eye toward the world in order to see those systems of oppression at work and to prepare young people to see those systems as not just systems that were designed, but systems that can be redesigned because they were designed,” Long says.

Long joined the 30 Minutes On… podcast in late June to discuss the lessons he has learned as an educator, the inherent challenges that come with establishing a new school, and the emphasis on creativity, critical thinking, and cohesiveness needed for effective social justice education.

Listen to our latest episode or read the full transcript below:

 

FULL TRANSCRIPT

Andrew Erickson: Hello and welcome to 30 Minutes On… a podcast from American magazine. I’m your host, American magazine staff writer Andrew Erickson.

Today, in our Summer 2020 episode, we’re spending 30 minutes on social justice education.

The events of the last couple months, including nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, have served for many as a late but important wakeup call, and an education on the reality of centuries of systemic racism and inequality in our country.

This fall, the Social Justice School, a new public charter middle school in Northeast DC, opens to its first cohort of fifth -and-sixth-grade students. Myron Long and his colleagues will begin teaching the next generation of changemakers, providing young people the tools to help them analyze and dismantle those systems, and ultimately work to build better ones.

Long is the school’s founder and executive director, a native Washingtonian, and a 2005 graduate of AU’s master’s in philosophy program. In late June, we talked about his background as an educator, the process of formulating a vision for a school and starting it from scratch, and the importance of social justice education right now.

Here’s our interview. We hope you enjoy.

Myron, thank you so much for joining us and for being our guest on the 30 Minutes On… podcast. I wanted to start by asking you about the origins of the school. I’ve seen in a couple articles that you’ve talked about how your daughter inspired you to dig into this idea for the school. How did you go about developing the idea for the Social Justice School? Is there a model or a playbook you worked off of? And what did you initially have in mind?

Myron Long: Yeah, thank you, great question, and I really appreciate the opportunity to be here to talk about the Social Justice School. I’m a native Washingtonian, and I am really proud of my city. Social Justice School, like you mentioned, was really created as an opportunity for my daughter. Because, in the neighborhood in which we live, in the Brentwood neighborhood, unfortunately, not all of the schools are preparing students for college and career, but more importantly, we understand that there is a civic engagement gap in our country, and so I wanted to make sure my daughter had an opportunity to be able to be part of a community where that was the actual focus around civic engagement. And so the social justice school really started as a question. When I was a middle school principal for the last seven years, I always wondered if real-world learning would increase student engagement. That particular question led me to a series of pilots that eventually became the Social Justice School. At the Social Justice School, we see ourselves as a community of designers, and so our first pilot was just an advisory of five young men and myself. We read this fantastic book called All American Boys by Jason Reynolds, a local author. To see the amount of engagement that increased because students saw a text where folks look like them, sound like them, and were engaging with issues that matter to them in a policing and coming of age story between two young gentlemen, I felt like we were onto something. At the school I was working at, we had started to do some work around race inequity with adults, but we hadn’t yet crossed that bridge into the work of race inequity with our children. So, again, another question is, ‘Can we really prepare young people to become racially literate and see their racialized stories as a sense of power and identity, since we know that young people, specially during adolescent time, are just beginning to build identities and construct them, and in some instances internalize identities in a way that can be harmful.

The second pilot was a 16-week seminar with 10 eighth-graders that I led, and we did a race inequity seminar in which they created a podcast called The Realities of Intersectionality on race, gender, and immigration. It was a four-part series, all self-produced. And so I was like, ‘OK, we have these two components. We have this identity work, we have this real-world work, and we have this social justice work, and we know that we want to deal with the middle school population.’ I’m a middle school person through and through. That’s my background. You might say I’m crazy, but that’s the work that I enjoy. And so then we said, ‘If students have this opportunity to create a product that will be displayed publicly and engage in field work where they can actually bring connections to the classroom and to the outside world, will that actually increase student achievement even more?’ And so that led to our largest pilot, which was the Freedom Academy. And so the Freedom Academy was a four-week, one-classroom version of the Social Justice School where we studied mass incarceration and the school to prison pipeline through literacy and data. So we read excerpts from The New Jim Crow and looked at a bunch of discipline statistics from different schools, and we took our students to the Legacy Museum in Alabama as an opportunity for them to make the connection between mass incarceration and mass incarceration as an evolution of slavery. That was the part where it all sort of came together, and those three pilots are what birthed the Social Justice School.

AE: What have you learned about how, when you’re presenting texts, when you’re presenting data like that, how the kids interacted with the text, with the data, and also with each other. How did those discussions happen and what sort of questions did that answer for you as you got to see those [things unfold]?

ML: For one, it answered the question that young people are ready to have these conversations. They’re actually having them already with their peers and they’re looking for guidance from adults to create that safe and inclusive space. Two, it really allowed young people to really begin to understand this concept of intersectionality, which we think is a pretty theoretical concept, but is a concept that I think young people can really understand because they live it every single day. But I think, most importantly, it taught me that doing this kind of work is really hard with children because essentially there’s this notion that the world is unfair and I’m being thrown into it, and it’s kind of like an existential crisis, if you will.

I remember one day our kids in the pilot were just like, ‘Can we just play dodgeball?’ And I was like, ‘Of course you can play dodgeball.’ And I had to reflect on that, and I think what they were saying is that even though this work is important and sometimes serious, we can’t lose this idea of joy in freedom dreaming. That is essentially a part of the work. So we started to do some work around deconstructing systems of oppression, but actually spend the majority of our time having students dream and construct a new world, because that’s the work that actually inspired them and gave them hope.

AE: What led you to want to become an educator? What was your development in that field, and how did you go about learning how to empower kids and provide them information?

ML: Again, native Washingtonian, grew up in the Brightwood neighborhood, and this is kind of a tale of two young men. I’m the first young man, and I, for lack of better words, excelled in school in the traditional ways in which school excels. But I had a really good friend, another young man by the name of Walter, and he was a really stand-up guy, a great artist, and just a really good young brother. However, school wasn’t designed in a way to allow him to show his mastery in different ways. When that happens in schools, especially when you place me going up in DC in the 90s in the heart of mass incarceration, young people get socialized into the streets. I remember skipping school one day to go to Walter’s funeral, unfortunately, when I was 14. I didn’t have the words and knowledge to really grasp what was happening, but what I now understand is that there was a system of white supremacy at play in my school that created low expectations for Walter and some of my other friends. It looked like folks talking to me about college all the time, but not many of my peers.

As I got older, I became committed to ensuring that that wouldn’t happen to young people, and whatever I created in an educational space would be a space for young folks to feel connected to the world and to their teachers and also had high expectations rooted in justice and love and liberation. I started out as a teacher, teaching for several years at a KIPP school here in Anacostia, where I met my wife, and then I transitioned to becoming a principal at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School for seven years, and now I’m the founder of the Social Justice School.

AE: I’ve seen a lot on liberatory design [thinking]. Can you walk me and others through what that is and how that can engage students in conversations about power imbalance, oppression, and patterns of inequity?

ML: So, liberatory design thinking is a remix of traditional design thinking. So, in those steps, you build on an idea, you prototype the idea, et cetera, but liberatory design thinking takes that process and kind of turns it on its head. It’s a series of mindsets and tools that really help people problem-solve. The first process within the liberatory design thinking framework is noticing. The idea is that you have to notice your identity and notice the biases that show up. What often happens when we use these design thinking protocols is sometimes when we don’t check our biases, we end up creating solutions that are actually inherently biased. And so liberatory design process actually tries to turn that on its head, and it builds in intentional equity pauses for young people and designers to really ask themselves, ‘Are there biases showing up in the work?’ And so we took that framework and applied it to a core class that all of our students take, which is our social justice maker space. Our student study real-world issues in the social justice maker space and then they use liberatory design thinking to think of solutions and use technology like 3D printers, podcast stations, photography stations in order to create prototypes of solutions to the issues that they’ve been studying.

AE: I was going to ask you about the curriculum. So, you mentioned the social justice maker space—how does that kind of naturally feed into the other, more traditional subjects you might have in a school, whether that’s social studies or science. Are there lessons within those that can apply to the larger social justice theme and how is that kind of shaped just in a regular school day?

ML: Definitely, so social justice shows up in our texts, topics, and tasks. So the literacy curriculum that we use, for example, is from expeditionary learning, and many of their texts are rooted in real-world learning. And so, I’ll give you a concrete example. Fifth-graders, when they come to our school, the first text that they read is The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and so one of these notions that they may study is, ‘Is land an actual human right?’ And so they might take that question, and they would go into the social justice maker space and begin to think about that question in the context of DC specifically. And so they might begin to ask the question of, ‘Is land a human right? And what does that mean for gentrification and for DC natives in the city?’ The text that they might read accompanying that is a book called The Beat, which is a book on Go-Go music. Then, when they bring that together, after they go through the liberatory design thinking process, their project might be to create a 3D map that actually repurposes parts of the city to make sure that gentrification slows down or doesn’t happen at all. Or their teacher might ask them to create a statue that memorializes Go-Go music in DC as a way to bring the connection between their literacy curriculum, this idea of human rights, and this idea of project creation and makers craft all together.

AE: I know you mentioned that you’ve worked with middle school-aged kids for a long time. What is it about where they are in their development process that makes that age group a good fit for the Social Justice School?

ML: Yeah, so everyone says that middle school brains are crazy, which they are, but there’s a lot of good stuff that’s happening in there as well. We used to think the adolescent brain was solely obsessed with fairness, and that actually is true. But at the Social Justice School, we believe that if young people are obsessed with fairness, in the beginning it does start out with this individualized sense of fairness—‘teachers are not being fair to me.’ But our idea is that we can create community and connections and we can take that obsession with fairness and turn it towards the world and make it be fairness that is rooted in empathy and love. We see the middle school, adolescent brain as really primed for that development, and that’s why we chose middle school.

AE: In the pilot programs you started, how difficult was empathy to teach? We often talk about, that for 12, 13, 14-year-old kids, empathy is learned over time. How do you start to grasp that concept and how do you chip away at [empathy within] that age group?

ML: There were two things. One, the adults needed to model being vulnerable in breaking down some of those barriers. And so all of the exercises that we did around race and gender and class and ethnicity, our teachers actually modeled them first. To hear your teacher unpack their intersectional self in front of a group of strangers at that point, because we hadn’t known each other, is really powerful. And it creates this sense of really deep connection. The second piece is that we really take time in order to build strong relationships, because I think for us, folks can make connections when, or become empathetic when they have connections with people and when people tell their stories. So, storytelling is a really big part of our model as well because in order for people to see the pain and hope that exists within other individuals, they have to understand their stories first.

AE: As we’ve watched over the last few months, how have these events of police killing unarmed black men and the protests around that underscored the importance of this type of education, and the importance of having something like that right now?

ML: Definitely. I remain hopeful and optimistic because the Social Justice School is a space where young people will contribute to the civic engagement that is happening within the country. I think, for a long time, the way in which we thought about civic engagement in school is, ‘Let me teach you the three branches of government.’

AE: Literally, civics class.

ML: Right, exactly. And so now, Social Justice School is remixing that and saying civic engagement, at the heart of it is civic action. We want young people to have the opportunity to participate in a civic democracy, and we see the Social Justice School as an opportunity for them to do that. And we also see Social Justice School as a way to support students’ development in seeing past the more public images of racism that occur every day. There’s a lot of violence that occurs amongst Black, Indigenous, people of color that’s often subtle. We have to have a deep sense of empathy and a critical eye toward the world in order to see those systems of oppression at work and to prepare young people to see those systems as not just systems that were designed, but systems that can be redesigned because they were designed.

AE: I know you mentioned how they’re included, but how are real-world, everyday examples baked into the curriculum, into discussions, into what students are working with on a day-to-day basis?

ML: So, in our model, there’s a model called crew. We have this phrase, ‘we are a crew, not passengers.’ And so the idea is that every young person is going to be known, loved, and valued, and they exist within a crew. And so a crew is a tight-knit family within our school of about 10 to 12 students, and a crew leader stays with their teacher from fifth grade to eighth grade, and so that really becomes their family. That’s really the space where we implement our social justice curriculum and standards, and they meet with them every single day as well. Then, in our social justice maker space and in our social justice literacy class as well is how those real-world, current examples come up in our school each day.

AE: For 10, 11-year-old kids, what do you see as the most important concepts in teaching them about social justice? How do you build on that? And then, by the time they leave for high school, what will they be able to organize, analyze, and do to further that education and what they’ve learned at the Social Justice School?

ML: Yeah, that’s a great question. One important idea that I mentioned earlier is this concept of intersectionality. I think we can’t think critically about the world until we can think critically about ourselves. We need young people to understand how they show up in the world and how the world engages with them as well. I would say that’s concept number one. I think concept number two is this notion that, for us, we don’t see Social Justice as a defined in, and I think often when schools talk about social justice, or when social justice is talked about period, we think about it in terms of redistribution of wealth, or a reform of the criminal system. All those things are true, but we really see social justice at our school as a designed response to systems of inequality. If we can teach young people how to see themselves as designers, then that, for us, us an act of social justice. A designer’s mindset would be the second concept as well. And then I think the third idea is for young people to understand the history of racist ideas, to quote Dr. [Ibram] Kendi. You’ve got to be able to understand the system in order to redesign against it. When our young people leave us, we want them to be prepared to think critically about all types of texts, to engage in mathematical reasoning and problem solving, to have a deep sense of empathy and connection with the world, and to have already had experiences doing the work of social justice. For us, that doesn’t mean that every one of our students will be organizers. Some of our students might go off and become bankers, writers, et cetera. But as long as they would have this ethic of social justice and this deep connection with the world, that’s the kind of young people that we want to see as they leave our school.

AE: I know you come from being a principal in the public charter school system, but what were the first steps in getting a school of the ground, getting going, and just breathing life into this idea?

ML: The first step for us is, again, we really see ourselves as a community of designers, and so the first thing that we did was talk to young people. We did a bunch of student shadow days where we just shadowed students and really tried to understand what is happening in the average day of a middle school person. And talk to families. We really wanted to understand what they were looking for in the school. And so what we found is that students and families wanted a place where, one, they had an opportunity to engage in real-world learning, two, they had an opportunity to create deep connections with one another, and three, they wanted to have the opportunity to research and develop ideas together as well, and then, four, they wanted to be in community with one another. Those principles that we learned became the bedrock for the foundation that led to the questions that eventually led to our pilot that then led to the charter application and is eventually leading to us opening doors in August.

AE: What were some of the biggest challenges? In having to check all of those boxes, get all of those things organized, what would you say were some of the biggest challenges in making that happen?

ML: I often like to use this analogy that within the world there are playbooks that exist for how to do X, right? So there’s a playbook for how to drive. There’s a playbook for how to fix a washing machine. There’s a playbook for how to start a school, but I think oftentimes people of color don’t have access to some of the plays within that playbook, especially when it comes to navigating some of the political landscapes and constructs. As a leader of color, we play the role of politician, prophet, and school leader, and so it is a very difficult space to navigate. That’s one part of the challenge is just access and equity within it.

The second part is that land is really scarce in DC. Acquiring a facility is a very daunting task. Ensuring that we were able to get a facility early was significant. And there’s a lot of choice in DC, and so we have to essentially make a very compelling case to families of why they should [go] with us. Thankfully, we’ve been really fortunate to have families who believe in our mission and our model and our excited to launch and grow our school with us together.

AE: You had had the experience of testing out the model in the pilot programs, but was there a moment over the last couple years when you realized, ‘OK, this is definitely going to happen, people are excited about this, and we have that momentum to get us going forward’?

ML: I made a lot of mistakes in the pilot, and that’s why I love to pilot and test. I really do believe that. And so the first vision of the social justice school was extremely different and innovative. There were going to be, like, no core classes, everything is going to be taught in projects, and I remember I had a young person who was in high school who came to me and said, ‘Mr. Long, the social justice work is cool, but I can’t read. I can grasp some of it, but not all of it.’ And so I have to remind myself that there are parts of teaching like direct instruction that are still needed and so we changed our model and made sure that we had that opportunity for students to get that direct instruction in addition to some of the innovative practices that we were developing and iterating on.

I think the moment in which we knew we were going to push forward was actually when my daughter was born. I literally quit my job at the time before she was born and didn’t have something lined up to be able to provide for my family. When she was born it was like, ‘Yes, this absolutely has to happen because my daughter needs a school that’s going to cultivate the young person that she would become.’

AE: You’re starting off with fifth and sixth graders. Not having all four grades come in at once, does that allow you to test what works with that first cohort of students and then perfect that as they develop in the years?

ML: Definitely. We would be insane if we tried to launch with fifth through eighth grade all at once. It would be crazy. It would be a lot going on. So, yeah, the fifth and sixth grade idea is because we wanted to grow over time, and the founding family culture is really special, and so we wanted it to be really small so that our families could really have a collective input and grow out the school model that we’re building together.

AE: Obviously it’s a big undertaking to start a school from scratch. What would you say, throughout this process, from idea phase to implementation, you’ve learned about yourself as a leader, as an educator, any of that?

ML: Great question. I think the first thing that I learned about myself as an educator is that we often think that our job as educators is to deposit information into young people, but in all actuality, our young people have so much of life and knowledge to teach us. To be a really good educator, first and foremost, just means to listen. I really, really, really believe that. That idea manifested in the design of our school mission and it took us a long time to figure out the right words. Many schools have a, ‘X school will prepare young people to do Y.’ We chose the word ‘catalyze’ in our mission because we believe that young people already have the skills which they need to become scholar activist. We just need to mix it up and bring it forth with them. That led us to our mission, which is to catalyze and integrate a community of scholar activists who are designers of a more just world. That’s the first piece.

I think the second piece I learned about myself is this is a daunting task and our leadership team faced some pretty huge challenges in the writing of the charter application. I lost my mom within that time period as well.

AE: I’m so sorry.

ML: Thank you. And so it really taught me more importance about the value of community and about showing up and leaning in with your folks who are with you in this work and just being your authentic self.

AE: I guess the question that everyone not just in education, but everywhere, is dealing with—obviously coronavirus hasn’t left the picture and it’s still a part of what we’re dealing with, but how do you plan and implement a school knowing that part or all of an education system could be online for the foreseeable future?

ML: It’s interesting. I think it’s absolutely absurd that we’re starting a school during a pandemic and an uprising. This is like the definition of absurdity, I guess, but it’s great, though. We have this really unique opportunity to rethink and redesign education, and so while it will be challenging, we are excited about the opportunity for students not to have to move in lock step with one another and to be able to move at their own pace and for teachers to be able to record their lessons and to create playlists for young people, and so we’re excited that all of our teachers will be recording their lessons and we can build this catalog of great instruction for our teachers and families. We also want to take away some of the burden for our families because we know that our families are great and they’re their child’s first teacher, but we are also their teacher as well. We want them to focus on loving their child and let us do the hard, heavy work around teaching. So our goal is to first make sure that we can connect with young people. People are just experiencing a ton of loss and grief. And then we want to make sure our young people are set up to navigate the online platforms that we’ll use for our virtual and distance learning, and then we’ll start to introduce the content and make sure that young people are able fully engaged in the work.

AE: Is there anything else you wanted to add about the process of getting a school off the ground, your background, anything like that?

ML: Yeah, so I studied philosophy at American University, and what’s interesting is you never really understand the power of ideas and how you internalize them. I remember at AU in Dr. Ellen Feder’s class on race and philosophy and learning about these notions and ideas from W.E.B Du Bois to Anna Julia Cooper, and then studying philosophy of education as well from a pragmatic perspective, particularly from, like, John Dewey. And so Social Justice School is an evolution of many of the ideas that I read as an undergrad and as a grad student at American University. People always say, ‘What do philosophers do with a philosophy degree?’ Well, we build schools, that’s one thing that we do.

AE: There you go, that’s perfect! Well, thank you so much. I know your schedule is insanely packed, so I appreciate you taking the time to join us and to walk us through your process. Best of luck to you and your teachers and your students as you get started this fall.

ML: Thank you so much. Really appreciate it. Thank you so much again. Really humbled to be here.

AE: That was the Summer 2020 episode of the 30 Minutes On… podcast from American magazine. Thank you so much to our guest, Myron Long, for virtually joining us and for telling us more about his work in founding the Social Justice School.

You can find our first episode, with School of Communication professor Saif Shahin, and subscribe to the podcast in the Apple Podcasts App or in the Google Play store. And a full transcript of the show is available on our website at american.edu/magazine.

Keep an eye out for a packed summer 2020 magazine, which hits mailboxes soon, and let us know what you think by emailing magazine@american.edu or chatting with us on Twitter or Instagram at @AU_Americanmag. Thanks for listening, and stay safe! We’ll see you next time.