Comprehensive Support & Programs for World Language Educators

Educating the Educators to Foster a Social Justice Mindset: Teacher Professional Development to Enhance Student Global Awareness

Written by Michael Orlando, Ed.D and Mellissia Walles

The students who sit in our classrooms today represent a variety of experiences - cultures, languages, learning preferences, socio-economic status, and unique family dynamics.  These experiences define the students we work with on a daily basis while simultaneously helping or hindering these young people from reaching personal goals and academic achievement.  As their World Languages teachers, we need to ponder an important question as we develop unit, lesson, and assessment plans: How do incorporate and expose all of our students to the critical societal issues - the issues of social justice - that have (or will have) affected these young people at some point in their lives?

As World Languages educators, we could spend an inordinate amount of time reflecting on how to address issues of social justice in our classrooms and departments.  In part, a promising first step begins with our own reflective inquiry into and development around the topic of social justice education.  The ACTFL Standards call us to promote language learning with the hope to foster life-long learning on the part of our students (The National Standards Collaborative Board, 2015).  Additionally, we understand the intrinsic connection between linguistic development and cultural competence as the underlying factors that allow students to effectively communicate in another language (Byram, 1997).  If we hope to encourage our students to be the life-long learners we seek to shape, we must model this idea of life-long learning for our students through our own professional development.   

At Idioma Education and Consulting, we pride ourselves on the idea that the graduate courses, institutes, workshops, and consulting services we offer assist World Languages teachers with social justice curriculum development.  We help in-service language educators develop pedagogical approaches for social justice work in order to create a partnership with their students resulting in problem-posing education.  This concept, as described by Pablo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972) allows “people to develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality but as a reality in process, in transformation” (Chapter 2).  Both educators and students live in a world today that requires this critical viewpoint to understand those we live, work, and study with on a daily basis.  As we strive to help our students become global citizens sharing cultural perspectives, we must engage in our own learning as a way to help broaden our students ability to exist in a multicultural world.   Therefore, the instructors at Idioma use this critical lens to help teachers examine a variety of seminal works, the ideas of proficiency, and project-based learning that they in turn can adapt for their classroom contexts.  

In a variety of courses offered through Idioma Education and Consulting, we encourage our in-service teachers to challenge their own thinking as they examine the critical issues that confront our students today.  We have designed courses like Teaching World Languages through the Lens of Social Justice, Gender Identity in the World Language Classroom, and Cultural Integration in the World Languages Classroom.  These courses present topics on race, gender, class, intersectionality, and intercultural competence that help our educators think of ways to enhance their units of study around social justice education.  As important, both teachers and students will reflect on ways to ensure that we approach all people with fairness, respect, and dignity that all humans deserve. Using the construct of social justice education presented by Socia Nieto (2010), Idioma courses work to engage the in-service teacher and in turn promote student engagement around social justice issues:

  • We challenge teachers (and therefore our students) to understand misconceptions of truth and stereotypes that plague our society.
  • We provide teachers (and therefore our students) with a variety of resources to examine these critical issues while better understanding their biases and beliefs. 
  • We ask teachers to use their own cultural wealth and experiences to engage the students in work around social justice issues, which in turn draw on students’ cultural wealth and knowledge.
  • We create an adult learning atmosphere that asks teachers to be critical thinkers and problem solvers modeling ideas and activities that can be adapted to promote this same thinking in their classrooms.      

At the heart of this work, we encourage our in-service teachers to develop their own critical thinking on issues of social justice education while reimagining their own curricular practices.  As all of our courses at Idioma focus on the ACTFL 5 Cs of language learning, and our coursework relating to social justice education pays particular attention to the Cultures, Comparisons, and Communities strands of the framework (The National Standards Collaborative Board, 2015).  Course material allows participants to look creatively at how authentic resources can enhance interpretation skills while simultaneously allowing students to compare products, practices, and perspectives of the target language and their own culture.  This work and reflective process allows our teachers and their students to think about human interaction, relationships, and attitudes with the hope of building strong interpersonal relationships in our society. 

Idioma Coursework 

In Idioma’s online course, Gender Identity in the World Language Classroom, participants begin with a self-reflection on the development of their own gender identity and how they perceive the role of language shaping their identity.  This first unit delves into the vocabulary related to biological sex, gender identy, and gender expression.  Participants must think critically about the resources available within the school and how they can adapt their own lessons on a daily basis to be inclusive of all students.  Following this discovery phase, the second unit uncovers why inclusive and gender neutral language matter and the impact it has on society.  Participants create and respond to a series of dialogues based on hypothetical situations found within the school context and reflect on their own interpersonal relationships with students in their classrooms.  Within the third unit, participants read articles related to the challenges that language change can pose and how countries and communities respond and consider the possibility of media being involved in processes of linguistic change (Maeggard, 2013).  As a final project, participants demonstrate an understanding of the themes related to gender inclusion and language instruction, by creating a lesson plan in which they describe how they will implement a gender-inclusive strategy during a lesson relating to gendered language.  These lessons are compiled, shared, and available for all participants to use and implement within their own classrooms.    

As a way to further develop a critical lens of educating for social justice in the World Languages classroom, Idioma offers Teaching World Languages through the Lens of Social Justice.  This course helps educators utilize the resources available and develop the necessary skills to integrate a social justice perspective into any language classroom.  The course materials are based on the work of Glynn, Wesely, and Wassell (2018), who challenge teachers to plan units of study with language learning objectives and social justice objectives. Additionally, these authors encourage us to contemplate the idea of reflection in action and on action while addressing the rich diversity of our students’ lives in our curriculum.  This work finds additional support in the 2017 ACTFL Board of Directors statement reminding members that “teaching students to value the rich diversity in our classrooms and throughout our society can be challenging, but it is more important than ever” and suggested that our organization would be “...united with the entire language community in rejecting intolerance and hate and...working our classrooms with our students.”  The statement serves as a focal point for this course enhancing teachers’ capacity to design thematic units with social justice objectives in mind.  Additionally, the topic seeks to instill empathy and compassion in all learners as we as a profession strive to build our student intercultural competence.  Finally, as a capstone learning project, participants in this course have a chance to design their own unit of study based on their context utilizing the principles of social justice education and proficiency-based language teaching. This course offers educators a chance to pause and reflect on their practice with the hope of developing a critical awareness of the social issues that affect all people (Parodi-Brown, Course Syllabus).  


ACTFL. (2016, Nov. 22). The role of language learning in valuing diversity and promoting unity. 

Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence.          Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Maegaard, M. , Jensen, T. J., Kristiansen, T. and Jørgensen, J. N. (2013), Diffusion of language change: Accommodation to a moving target. J Sociolinguistics, 17: 3-36. doi:10.1111/josl.12002

Nieto, S. (2010). Language, culture, and teaching: Critical perspectives. New York: Routledge.

Parodi-Brown, J. (2018). Teaching World Languages Through the Lens of Social Justice.  Course Syllabus. 

The National Standards Collaborative Board. (2015). World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages. 4th ed. Alexandria, VA: Author.

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