December 2017
TESOL HOME Convention Jobs Book Store TESOL Community

Janna L. Corn, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma, USA

Social Justice is an elective course that is part of the curriculum at the University of Oklahoma's Center for English as Second Language (CESL). This course delves into social justice issues while fortifying English proficiency through the four domains of language learning, and it has a service learning component in which students volunteer in organizations throughout the community that serve marginalized individuals, which immerses them in American culture and the community. It is an 8-week, 2-hour afternoon elective course for advanced students. The content objectives of the Social Justice course are for students to

  • define social justice and recognize the impacts of privilege;

  • distinguish social injustices and investigate their origins, causes, and effects;

  • analyze and compare/contrast cultural perspectives and assumptions;

  • explore alternative patterns of thought that do not support oppression, discrimination, marginalization, or exploitation;

  • participate in advocacy and community service learning projects; and

  • develop a social consciousness and inclusive mindfulness.

These goals are achieved through a variety of language objectives concentrated in reading, writing, speaking, listening, vocabulary, and American culture.

This course grew out of an established Leadership through Service Learning course that focused on social justice. When I began teaching the course, I changed the name of the course to be more representational and created content objectives based on pedagogical research I conducted. I added new components to the course and built relationships with organizations in the community. In addition to the Social Justice class, my colleague and I created Ecojustice, a course that concentrates on environmental concerns and eco-ethical consciousness while developing language skills. It incorporates a service learning component geared toward grassroots organizations that serve the environment. Both classes are part of CESL’s Global Citizenship series and rotate from session to session.

The Social Justice course begins by exploring privilege, which is essential to understanding disparity within any society. Johnson (2013) offers this critical background knowledge and a deeper understanding of privilege and how it is displayed in the United States in a piece entitled “The Social Construction of Difference.” Students also begin to analyze how this privilege contributes to oppression and how it affects their own countries. The reflections are shared via online discussion posts where peers read and respond to each other’s ideas.

Next, students view the comic strip “On a Plate: A Short Story About Privilege,” which illustrates the lives of two people who grew up in different backgrounds and circumstances that greatly affect their opportunities. This very powerful selection encourages students to think about how the situation in the comic strip would differ in their own countries. These discussions have profound impacts on the students as they begin to realize how prevalent privilege is and how it results in discrimination, oppression, and inequity.

Then students explore the three ways discrimination reveals itself. This is then discussed further in the article “Discrimination Comes in Many Forms: Individual, Institutional, and Structural” (Pincus, 1996), which informs students about the depth of discrimination through the various ways it can be perpetuated whether they be internalized by individuals, present in institutions, or engrained within the systematic structure of a society. Students also have a discussion about how oppression can manifest through perceptions, practices, and products (Glynn, Wesely, & Wassell, 2014).

Furthermore, students are introduced to respectful ways to refer to people by using People’s First Language particularly when referring to people with disabilities. They are encouraged to utilize this terminology throughout the session. These initial lessons establish the framework for the course and the need for social justice.

The rest of the class is divided into five units on racism (including cultural racism), classism, ableism, ageism, and sexism (which includes sexual orientation and gender). Vocabulary lists are introduced at the beginning of each unit for students to use as a reference and scaffolding device along with an article or video providing background information on each topic. Additional materials, including audios, songs, narratives, poems, images, documentaries, and lectures on campus, are incorporated into each unit. These change from session to session to focus on current and local issues as well as relevant matters that occur in students’ countries of origin. The assignments that accompany them include reaction papers, jigsaw presentations, comprehension questions, discussion posts/responses, debates, and letters to local council members or politicians. These materials and assignments explore the issues in more depth, confront the stereotypes, and address what individuals can do to advocate for people who are discriminated against or to alleviate these injustices. Students are always encouraged to bring in materials or suggest assignments as well. Afterward, students make connections to the forms of discrimination mentioned earlier (Pincus, 1996; Glynn, Wesely, & Wassell, 2014).

Moreover, students continuously examine how each of these topics occurs within their countries and how they contribute to social change. The class also celebrates social justice victories that take place around the world, such as women being permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia or gay rights progress in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In addition, guest speakers from various local organizations are invited to come to speak on these issues, and students are required to take notes and ask questions.

Each unit culminates with students volunteering at local organizations. Here are a few examples of what different groups of students have participated in throughout the years: they have collected clothing, toiletries, and food donations and served and distributed food at local food pantries and nonprofits that serve people in need for the classism unit; visited an organization that provides assistance to people with mental illnesses by cleaning their kitchen and organizing their office for the ableism unit; and entertained older adults with games and conversation at a senior day facility for the ageism unit.

The final assessment for each unit is a reflective paper in which students contemplate what they have learned or experienced, how they can help, and their thoughts and feelings using the vocabulary introduced at the beginning of the unit.

At the end of the session, students brainstorm their final project and, upon approval of their proposal, direct its progress. These projects vary from session to session, and some past projects from students from different sessions include collecting donations for one of the organizations they visited or that came and spoke to them. One group chose to research social justice leaders and activists and presented them to their peers through PowerPoint presentations. Another project was a poster session in which each student acted as an advocate for one of the units from the course, presented a poster to all CESL students, and educated their peers on that issue and what they could do to assist. One class created a documentary featuring each organization that they visited or that came to speak to them; they interviewed directors of organizations about the resources they offer to the community and how people can support the organizations. The final project empowers students to be leaders and gives them the opportunity to participate in project-based, student-centered learning by planning, organizing, and implementing actions that will help others and make a difference.

My advice to teachers planning to implement these ideas is to keep topics current and relevant. Developing partnerships with community organizations and planning need to take place in advance, and teachers should always have students create, sign, and send thank you cards to show appreciation to these organizations and to maintain these relationships. Instructors also need to consider transportation to and from organizations, whether it is school-funded vehicles or public transportation.

This course provides students with more than just a combination of language and content instruction. It is a truly transformative experience that prepares students to be active, responsible participants in societies where there is notable injustice. For some, it is the first time that they have freely analyzed and critiqued their own societies, as many of the topics discussed in this course may not be tolerated or may be considered taboo in their countries. The class provides a comfortable platform for students to question these beliefs as well as their own assumptions. It prepares students to think critically, consider diverse perspectives, and participate in the mature discussions that they will encounter at universities, and it provides them with the language they will need to engage in such deliberations.

Moreover, because these students make connections with local organizations and leaders, they participate in place-based education, which helps them to navigate their new community and culture and raises their awareness of the resources within it. The class fosters conscientious character building in which students create lasting bonds and appreciate the difference and diversity among themselves. After the exploration of the course topics, students have a better understanding of rights and expectations in American society.

As Glynn, Wesely, and Wassell (2014) say, social justice and language learning are compatible because they promote global and intercultural communicative competency, and the social justice content provides students with an authentic purpose, a real-life context, and motivation for language learning. This course influences students to move beyond simple tolerance and toward empathy, understanding, sensitivity, and respect for humankind while being immersed in the English language through both productive and receptive skills.


Glynn, C., Wesely, P., & Wassell, B. (2014). Words and actions: Teaching languages through the lens of social justice. Alexandria, VA: ACTFL.

Johnson, A. G. (2013). The social construction of difference. In M. Adams, W. J. Blumenfield, C. Castaneda, H. W. Hackman, M. L. Peters, & X. Zuniga (Eds.), Readings for social justice (pp. 15–21). New York, NY: Routledge.

Pincus, F. L. (1996). Discrimination comes in many forms: Individual, institutional, and structural. The American Behavioral Scientist, 40(2), 186–194. Retrieved from

Janna L. Corn is an ESL instructor at the University of Oklahoma’s Center for English as a Second Language. She has a bachelor’s in English literature and elementary education and a master’s in urban education with a concentration in ESL and has been teaching ESL for 15 years in a variety of venues. She believes that by incorporating social and environmental justice into the classroom, it will inevitably make the world a better place.

« Previous Newsletter Home Print Article Next »
Post a CommentView Comments
 Rate This Article
Share LinkedIn Twitter Facebook
In This Issue
Search Back Issues
Forward to a Friend
Print Issue
RSS Feed
SRIS Strand Survey
The 4 SRIS strands are EL Advocacy, Intersections of Identity and Language Teaching, Professional Learning, and Global Issues in Education. Please take the follow up survey to choose your primary strand or volunteer as a strand leader!
Next Issue's Theme: Social Responsibility in the Current Political Climate
How does the current political environment affect you and your students? How do you address political issues in the classroom? Share your ideas in our pre-convention issue and extend the conversation. Submissions due 15 January.