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Social justice in the elementary classroom

by Theresa Insalaco-DeCicco, M.Ed. NBCT - CTUF quest center  |  01/06/2017

In alignment with the Chicago Teachers Union Foundation's mission to ensure equity, equality and fairness in public education, the Quest Center is offering a new, unique, special project that focuses on providing teachers with long-term support in developing instructional units that incorporate social justice related topics into every day elementary level instruction. Social Justice in the Elementary Classroom—An Action Lab is a six-month professional learning opportunity worth 36 Illinois State Board of Education professional development hours that promotes actions that address school and community issues students have identified as impacting their learning, personal and group well-being or social-emotional growth, and daily life in their community. The Action Lab also supports teachers as they plan units of instruction that lead their students to take ownership of their own learning and determine how that learning impacts their daily lives. 

The Action Lab will begin with a three-week intensive survey and planning period in which participants become familiar with the needs, interests and concerns their students have about issues in their schools and communities. They will address teaching for diversity in their classrooms and plan accordingly.

Once the students determine an area of focus, teachers return to the Action Lab to learn strategies and techniques for supporting their students in decision-making processes that lead to an action for improvement. For each school and community, this action for improvement will vary, and might be related to issues such as setting up a recycling program or garden at the school, designing and starting a community garden, or reaching out to local businesses and resources to set up a program for parents or community members. Whatever need or issue students identify, elementary teachers will collaborate through the Action Lab to plan ways to support their students' success. They learn how to be facilitators of conversations in the classroom that are sometimes difficult but need to occur in order to meet a need or identify a true problem. 

Participants will also read and discuss research and articles about teaching for social justice and addressing diversity to inform and support their facilitation of the instructional unit with their students. 

The Action Lab is also unique because it is the inaugural hybrid professional learning opportunity of the Quest Center. Participants hold online discussions between class meetings to collaborate, analyze videos of students working together and holding discussions about social justice-related topics and the unit of instruction leading to the action, and reflect on the process of the social justice unit they are teaching. They also access videos about social justice education, related articles and other resources, and participate in an online forum about the development of their unit and student action. 

As a catalyst for instructional planning in social justice topics, the Quest Center looks forward to seeing the long term impact of the Action Lab in elementary schools throughout the district.


Theresa Insalaco-DeCicco, M.Ed. NBCT, is a CTUF Quest Center professional development facilitator and the Social Justice in the Elementary Classroom—An Action Lab instructor. The Action Lab begins January 17, 2017. Participants may earn 36 ISBE PD Hours and/or two Lane Placement Credits for completion of the entire project. To learn more and register online go to or contact Insalaco-DeCicco at 312-329-6270 or

Chicago Teachers Union