Upset the setup: exploring the curricula, pedagogy, and student empowerment strategies of critical social justice educators

This phenomenological study examined the narratives of seven high school critical social justice educators in Northern California. The study explored each educator’s social justice paradigm development, curricula choices, pedagogical approach, strategies for student self-empowerment, processes for challenging traditional schooling, and their future outlook on public education during “the 45 era.” Critical Theory (Horkheimer, 1982) and Critical Pedagogy (Duncan-Andrade and Morrell, 2008; Freire, 1972; Giroux, 2001; 2010; 2011) served as the main theoretical framework of this research. Rich qualitative data was taken from in-depth interviews and multiple classroom observations with each educator. The research concluded with the discovery of seven important findings: 1) Each critical social justice educator’s paradigm has been shaped, influenced, and informed by critical mentors, politicized past experiences, and interactions with their own students 2) The educators navigated three types of curricula in providing a critical social justice education: the institutionalized standards, the counter-curricula, and the protective curricula, 3) building strong relationships with students and fostering environments that built critical consciousness and opportunities for critical praxis were key pedagogical strategies for these educators 4) critical social justice educators alter the physical environment of the classroom, affirm student voice and identity, and offer invaluable tools for the future to aid their students in self-empowerment 5) these educators combat traditional schooling by embodying and promoting the critical social justice educator paradigm 6) the advancement of a critical social justice educator paradigm has forced these educators to experience distinct forms of alienation, stigmatization, and discrimination at their school sites 6) these educators acknowledge that the 45 era has created a troubling socio-political landscape for many communities and has prompted an aggressive degradation of public education; however, they offer words of critical hope, challenging all educators to stay grounded in their resistance work towards social justice.