Using photography in a social justice curriculum


This photograph is from the John Mosely collection and was taken in 1962. The demonstration took place at the construction site for the public school at Strawberry Mansion, and the people in the neighborhood were protesting because all of the construction workers were white – the construction took place in an African American community and the protesters wanted black workers to be at least a part of the work force that raised the school building.

                I am writing this blog entry for a number of reasons: it is black history month (although I did my best as a teacher to thread black history and literature throughout the school year); I recently saw a Mosely collection of photographs at the Woodmere Art Museum at which Charles Blockson gave a talk about Mosely and the power of his photography; public education is under attack by the Trump administration and the selection of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education is a key part of that assault; I wanted to illustrate the power of oral history as part of a social justice curriculum.

                I begin with a teacher story about how the above photograph became a part of my classroom practice at Strawberry Mansion. I was introduced to John Mosely’s photography when I went to a show featuring his work at the Philadelphia African American Museum. A few months later, when I was teaching at Strawberry Mansion, there was a small display of his work placed in the entrance hall to that school. I do not know who was responsible for this display, but I would like to thank them. All of the photographs in the entrance hall documented the protests that the neighborhood people had begun to bring attention to the fact that black workers were not being hired for this school construction. All of the workers were white and the companies that were hired to manage the work were white owned.

                Sometimes teaching moments happen at opportune times, and I sensed that I could use these photographs with my students. I quickly put together some background readings for my classes (these documents were not so easy to find and were expensive to reproduce so that all of the students could read them). We then went down to the entrance lobby and talked and took notes relating to the photographs. A couple of the students thought that they recognized some of their own relatives in the photos and this spurred the next stage of this classroom work in progress when the students went home and talked about the photos with their families and neighbors. I was able to get in contact with some people who actually were in the photos and they graciously consented to come into my classroom and deliver an oral history of their participation in the protests. This was followed by a lot of conversation and writing about the value of social protest and the feelings it stirred in my students.

                Moving to the present day – Trump has made comments that public schools are ‘flush with cash’, which is just another of his alternative facts. I can attest that during my approximately 25 years of teaching in Philadelphia that the public schools have never been flush with cash. The money for public education has lessened with the advent of charter schools. Now we have a Secretary of Education who is definitely not a friend of public schools. Her entire focus has been to champion vouchers, religious and charter schools at the expense of public schools. I will write more about this as DeVos’s agenda is revealed. She has demolished the public schools in Detroit and is wholly unqualified to be Secretary of Education.

                I believe that equity and social justice should be a part of a school’s curriculum. That kind of teaching and learning would most favorably be situated in a public school. It would be difficult to find this type of curriculum in a charter school that is preoccupied with the metrics of standardized test results. I hope that readers will actively support the fundamental fairness of equitable funding for public schools.


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