College of Education's social justice instruction continues to advance

Jim Carlson
July 22, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Social justice issues the past few months have prompted countless conversations among all ages, and a pair of Penn State faculty members will enable that dialogue to continue among even more students in the fall.

Ashley Patterson, assistant professor of education (language, culture and society) in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and Efraín Marimón, assistant professor of education and director of the Restorative Justice Initiative, will offer a second CI185 class, Principles of Social Justice. The class also is part of a six-course Social Justice in Education minor available in the College of Education.

“I absolutely think that courses like this are going to be more and more in demand and that the demand is going to be coming from both students and from administration,” Patterson said. “The only reason I can say this with fair confidence is because as part of our social justice minor, we did an audit of basically every class that the University offers to see if there were any classes that could count as part of our minor. There are not a lot of classes that explicitly address social justice … there are not a lot of courses that that are tackling things through an equity lens.”

Patterson said that after the country’s racial unrest in late May and early June, sparked by the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd by one of the city’s police officers, that Penn State President Eric Barron and College of Education Dean Kim Lawless expressed interest in making available more social justice coursework to students across the University — specifically courses that are going to deal with race. 

“I don't know if that's a matter of people not having have the expertise, or if that's just because it hasn't been a priority of our curricular thinking, but it doesn't exist, widely, right now,” Patterson said. “So, it will either have to be created by people who have those skills who just haven't been maybe writing them into their course descriptions explicitly, or we're going to have to find ways to educate people so we have to be able to do this work.”

Patterson hasn’t altered her overall message that centers equity, justice and humanity in educational work and thinking, but what has changed, she said, is that a much more diverse group of people seem to be wanting to receive the message.

“I will say before the end of May, the beginning of June, most of the people I was engaging in social-justice types of conversations with were people who all also had a deep interest in social justice so we can start conversations up here,” she said, raising her arm above her head. “Now, so many people are interested and so many people are saying things like, ‘I have no idea how to start this conversation; I just know that it needs to happen … I know I need to be a part of it.’ Maybe I'm having to filter my message to make sure that it's accessible at the level where people are entering the conversation. But my message is still pretty much the same.”

She said she begins by listening because that helps her understand a person’s frame of mind. “I have found there are a lot of different ways to have social justice conversations. I can be rattling off stats. I can be giving a lot of personal stories. I can be quoting a lot of theory,” she explained. “And each of those can be two or three totally different conversations. So, listening to someone ask for specific things can help me to streamline, meet them where they are, and not be overwhelming them with information they’re really not looking for.

“Sometimes people honestly just want to know that someone else is hearing them, that someone knows they're trying. Another thing that I think is different is I'm having more continued conversations with people instead of just a one-time conversation. And I think that’s positive because this work cannot be completed in any single conversation.”

Patterson and Marimón, along with all Penn State faculty, had to adjust to remote learning in mid-March once COVID-19 forced the University’s temporary building closures. Typically, CI185 thrives on student engagement. For instance, students are presented with situations and they’re asked to move to one side of the room if they strongly agree and another if they strongly disagree. Based on where people stand, they’d be asked why they are standing where they are. “That's obviously something you can't do in Zoom, at least not in that way,” Patterson said.

“So, one of the things we've done is create avatars where students have a picture of their face on a Google slide, which everyone can see in real time, and we’ll ask a question and people will move their icon. It serves the same purpose as in the face-to-face class. Online, though, students could be so precise and intentional about where on the continuum they wanted their icon to fall. That's a thing that we didn't anticipate as being a bonus of this space.”

They also used breakout rooms in Zoom and encouraged students to add thoughts to the chat box. “Sometimes there'll be a whole, separate parallel conversation happening in the chat,” she said. “I think initially we were thinking of it as a detractor, but as time has gone on, we see that sometimes really poignant conversations happen in the chat and sometimes among people who are not typically hand-raisers.” 

Patterson said one of the things the pandemic taught her is to be able to do the things she needs to do today without being as worried about tomorrow as she typically is. “I am a planner and I am a person who likes to know that every puzzle piece I'm putting in place is helping with the overall big picture. That's just really not possible when the big picture is changing minute to minute,” she said.

She also said the second section of the course is available for students at Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses to take remotely, an unanticipated benefit of the move to remote delivery. Both sections are available for registration via LionPath and any commonwealth student interested in registering for the second section of the course should contact Jen Glasgow at

In addition, Patterson is part of the faculty learning committee within the elementary group of curriculum and instruction people to construct a redesign of the curriculum for the preK-4 teacher education preparation program. “This is for everyone, whether you’re doing PDS or traditional student teaching. Everyone will be a part of this new curriculum,” she said.

She also noted that Elizabeth Smolcic, Alicia McDyre and Seria Chatters are leading a group of faculty and graduate students including faculty from other campuses as well. “Part of what we have been asked to do, and doing this extra training, is to be the guides leading the infusion of an equity lens into our curricular redesign,” Patterson explained. 

Based on early planning discussions, Patterson believes that many instructors are not yet comfortable teaching social justice issues. “And that's going to be an issue that we have to figure out how to tackle. Just getting instructors and faculty to be comfortable with discomfort,” she said. “Because it's going to be (uncomfortable) in the beginning before it becomes something you're just more practiced with. I certainly don't think that we have a critical mass of people who would be ready to do this work from day one, but people want to learn and that is of paramount importance.”

Patterson said Dean Lawless is committed to providing the necessary training and resources that people are going to need to be able to shift toward an equity standpoint. “I find that to be encouraging,” Patterson said. “I think it would be disingenuous to have a leader who is saying, ‘you have to do this new thing that I already know many of you don't have a skillset in, and you're going to have to figure it out yourself.’ But that's not the case, and I’m hopeful for the steps forward we’re going to be making as a college.”

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Last Updated September 03, 2020