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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Penn State's College of Education was forced to pull the plug on its D.C. Social Justice Fellowship in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s back full force this spring with its commitment to promoting diversity, equity and inclusivity as principal elements of higher education.
The Maymester course has a slightly different look — condensed from three weeks to two — but examining how systemic racism that has an adverse effect on society overall and educational institutions in general remains the overarching objective for its students.
Assistant professors Efraín Marimón and Ashley Patterson, and graduate students Carlos Medina and Brenda Martinez, who also is the student advocate specialist in the Office of Education and Social Equity, are accompanying 10 students in Washington, D.C., this week (May 24-29).
The students spent the spring semester creating curriculum based on an area of interest in social justice and this week will apply that in a variety of methods. The students have been teaching virtually in the D.C. Public Schools and will teach in-person — socially distanced in front of students in grades nine through 12 — two days this week.
They’ll stay in a hotel instead of in dorm rooms at Catholic University in Washington. They’ll meet with guest speakers who are fully vaccinated, and they will comply with all health requirements set by Penn State and Georgetown University, which annually hosts this program.
A Community Action Project has been built in, tours of various areas of the city are scheduled to provide a lens about the about the communities with which they are working, and organizations will provide tours that provide an understanding of advocacy and its roots to Black and Brown communities in Washington, D.C., according to Marimón.
“We're excited about that because it'll bring in a different perspective and talk about issues that are also pertinent such as how the community has changed over time, how it's been impacted by the pandemic, how it's responded to the uprisings of June of 2020,” Marimón said. “We really wanted to make sure that we're still thinking about teaching and D.C. as a whole but, as we’re there in person, what does our engagement mean in this new world and context.”
Patterson said at week’s end she’d like to see students leave the class with more questions than answers. “But with a set of analytical tools and critical thinking skills that will help move toward satisfying responses to those questions,” she said. “More specifically in terms of seeing through a social justice lens, I hope students feel more committed to centering individuals’ humanity in the ways they interact with the world — and more confident in their ability to do so.”
Most of the students are enrolled in the College of Education but Marimón takes an interdisciplinary approach to enrollment, and said students from the College of the Liberal Arts and Health and Human Development also are taking part.
“Students are bringing in their own fields and thinking about the different types of issues we're presenting, so that diverse framework really does add a new perspective and some of the issues every year, because we're bringing in students from across the campus,” he said.
One of the guest speakers is Charisma Howell, a professor at Georgetown who directs the D.C. Street Law Program, similar to what Marimón teaches at Penn State. “Over the last five years, she’s (Howell) been the students’ favorite speaker. Not only does she tie in the work that we're doing, but she ties it into the specifics of working with D.C. youth,” Marimón said.
Students also will hear from representatives from the Department of Justice and the Department of Education, and they’ll provide feedback on the students’ ideas as part of the Community Action Project.
Two other speakers are College of Education graduates Rachel Schriver and Krishawna Goins, each of whom was a student in D.C. Social Justice Fellowship course in 2016 and 2017, respectively, and are now teachers and advocates in the DMV, or D.C./Maryland/Virginia area.
Shriver is an ESL teacher at Manassas Park Middle School in Virginia while awaiting her Fulbright Fellowship trip to Colombia; Goins is a first-grade teacher and school-based equity lead is Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia.
Shriver said she enjoys helping current students because she lives by two main mottos: (1) it takes a village, and (2) prioritize social justice at every moment.
“This program embodies both of those sentiments, so of course I want to support students who are currently in this program,” Shriver said. “I was them five years ago. I feel the impact of this program daily in both my personal and professional life, and I am deeply committed to serving its mission in whatever way I can.”
Goins said she believes it is vital that Penn State students of the past stay connected to the students of the present and future.
“We now are the ones out in our professions and using all of the lessons we have learned at Penn State to be the next generation of changemakers. I want to continue to be connected to a school that means so much to me and a program was integral to me becoming the educator I am today,” she said.
“I would not have been empowered to teach and lead in the way I do without this experience and the support of this program. We, as recent graduates, can help current students navigate this unique learning experience and support them in starting to think about how they will use the new skills they have acquired beyond DCSJ into their own careers.”
Shriver said students should know that there’s always more to learn, that honest reflection is powerful and necessary and that they should lean hard into conversations.
Goins said students should stay rooted in their purpose. “Be connected to your community and leverage your skills and networks to create the change you seek,” she said.
Marimón and Patterson have helped the current students create curriculum materials while simultaneously learning about principles of social justice and education.
“They're learning about critical pedagogy and learning about all types of engagement pedagogies. They're thinking about how that relates to how we teach and how we learn, and then they’re translating that into a unit of lesson plans around a specific content area,” Marimón said.
“The specific topics could be things like environmental justice and sustainability. It could be around gender identities and equity. It could be around racial equity and social justice. They all pick a broad topic, and they research them, learn about curriculum and instruction, design these units and then teach them while they’re there in D.C.”
Sessions with community advocates occur in the evenings, Marimón said, and individual meetings with him, Patterson, Martinez and Medina occur frequently.
“They don't just teach alone; we're in the spaces with them. And part of our intentionality with that is to infuse critical reflection into the process,” he said.
After the students deliver a lesson, they are asked to reflect on how what they observed in the lesson ties into their spring-semester discussions.
Marimón said these questions are asked:
— How do we understand the theories we’ve discussed, and what do they look like right now in practice?
— What did theory look like in my interactions with students?
— How do my assumptions play out in these spaces with students and teachers in the communities?
— At what points in my understanding did my biases play a role, consciously or unconsciously?
Marimón stressed that students come with a foundation of working with communities through courses such as Philadelphia Urban Seminar, and Science 20/20 in Hazleton, among others.
“They all bring in very different understandings and backgrounds but we're looking for some type of foundation,” he said. “And then we meet them wherever they are; we're learning with them, too. How to best support them, how to understand what the ways are we can be better supervisors and support them in their growth and development.”
Marimón said the course is designed like that intentionally.
“I think the more common thing is that students realize by the end of the program how challenging it is to incorporate theory into practice and how complex things can get when we're trying to reconcile what we believe in and we'd like to see in a best-case scenario with what do we do when they're tested in practice,” he said.
“And I think the hardest part for them is when they recognize that they are sometimes acting counter to the very things that they see themselves as advocates for," said Marimón. "And that realization requires reflective processing: What were the things we weren't thinking about? What were the things that we need to do as justice-driven educators? How do we put that mirror in front of us ourselves so that we can be better teachers, better educators and better advocates?”
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