Britt Masback

It is clear COVID-19 has changed education and that schools are being challenged to create new ways of providing educational content.

Yet it may also be the opportunity to enhance that content and create a curriculum that addresses urgent social issues.

So say Kevin Keenan and Britt Masback, who co-authored “Lesson Plans for Justice Reform: A Call to Action for Students and Teachers” in the January issue of the Vera Institute’s Think Justice Blog.

Vera describes itself as an independent, non-partisan, nonprofit center for justice policy and practice. It operates offices in New York City, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.

Keenan is Vera’s executive vice president and special counsel and supervises the Los Angeles and New Orleans offices. His past experiences include serving as COO and general counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and executive director of the ACLU of San Diego.

Vera describes Masback as a high school senior, activist, and peer educator in Portland, Oregon.

He is also an incoming Princeton University freshman and, along with Taji Cheiment, co-founded Youth Educating Police, or YEP, a nonprofit organization designed to reduce animosity and “systematic disconnect between law enforcement and young people.”

YEP’s Portland project has become a model for projects being developed in Chicago and Philadelphia. It was also the topic of a webinar produced by the national online publication dealing with urban affairs and projects, Next City.

“Teachers and students are on the front lines of some of our justice system’s toughest issues —shootings in schools, immigration enforcement, disproportionate disciplining and policing of youth of color, and untreated trauma from being a witness to violence,” Vera and Masback say at the start of their article.

However, they argue, despite a vibrant bipartisan movement for national justice reform, schools generally are not part of the efforts.

The authors say that since some students and teachers are natural leaders, “One obvious way to enlist more students and teachers in the movement is to teach in our schools about the problem and the emerging solutions.”

They also say few justice reform lesson plans, units, or curricula exist or tend to become outdated quickly and are problem-focused rather than solution-focused.

Calling for more and better models, they compiled education references that follow best practices and adhere to curriculum standards (and suggest modifying approaches for different types of learners).

“To adequately introduce justice reform, Vera recommends a unit for ninth to 12th graders with a minimum of three lessons, developed using backwards design (an approach that reinforces desired results from the start), and with reference to your state’s core curriculum standards. “

They then provide two examples: a New York State English Language Arts (ELA) unit for 11th graders “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime” that “teaches building evidence-based arguments” and a Washington State math lesson that “teaches students how to analyze data on police complaints.”

The authors suggest providing a frame for describing and analyzing the entire justice system. “Even lesson plans that tackle only one topic should start with a social and historical context and an overview of the system before digging in.”

As references, they suggest The New York Times’ Learning Network website entry “Justice for All? Teaching about Crime and Justice in America.” The eight point lesson plan covers such topics as “Does America incarcerate too many people?,” “Do policing methods unfairly determine who goes to jail or runs into trouble with the law?,” “Should juveniles receive special protection in the legal system?,” and “Should the death penalty be outlawed?” Each section includes activities and readings.

The also recommend “Teaching The New Jim Crow,” created by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a “catalyst for racial justice in the South and beyond, working in partnership with communities to dismantle white supremacy, strengthen intersectional movements, and advance the human rights of all people.”

Digitally published on the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance website, the 10-point lesson plan uses civil rights lawyer and legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s 2010 award winning “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

In their section that addresses racial disparity, racial discrimination, and intersectional concerns in the justice system, the writers note, “The SPLC has a helpful chapter on talking about race with students. See also the University of Washington’s lesson plan on ‘ (DOC); the Anti-Defamation League’s materials on ‘Privilege, Discrimination, and Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System’; and Seattle Education Association’s Black Lives Matter at School lesson plans.”

They then advise instructors to develop a plan that is easily updated. “Justice reform changes fast. The ideal lesson plan should provide a core foundation for each topic, one that can be built upon with articles and videos about recent or breaking news items.” The authors say they have yet to find models they can share.

One point where Keenan and Masback’s approach differs from some current efforts that bring social problems into the classroom is their focus on reforms and solutions, not just problems. “When seeking to develop engaged civic actors, it is important to convey that progress and change are possible — by showing what is being done to innovate, test, and implement solutions and improvements.”

As an example they point to a publication produced by Street Law, the 40-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan program developed by Georgetown University law department students who created an experimental curriculum to teach Washington, D.C., students about law and legal systems.

The Vera writers say the online lesson plan, “Chasing Gideon: Issues in Public Defense,” “starts with members of the class envisioning an ideal model of legal counsel, then contrasts that with real stories and profiles. It concludes with students poring over possible solutions and next steps.”

The plan is organized around journalist Karen Houppert’s 2013 New Press book “Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice.” It examines the circumstances that led to the United States Supreme court case Gideon v. Wainwright and the judgment that the U.S. Constitution guarantees the provision of an attorney for criminal defendants unable to afford one.

The authors also reference Vera’s annual “State of Justice Reform,” a report that highlights current national reform solutions, although it isn’t a lesson plan.

Concluding the article, the writers offer several more advanced syllabi used in colleges, including “Race and the Criminal Justice System,” Dr. Joao H. Costa Vargas at the University of Texas; “Police Violence and Social Control” Dr. David Correia, University of New Mexico; and The War on Crime: Crime, Criminalization, and Urban America, Dr. Pia Moller, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Bringing the topic back to using the schools as a place to introduce social issues in a manner that conforms to school curricula, the authors conclude their work with a simple and timely statement, “Let’s muster the power of students and teachers to transform the U.S. justice system.”

To read the full report with free links to lesson plans, go to

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