Social justice, activism, creativity, and self-identity. These are the driving forces for Kinnery Shah’s 5th grade Nonfiction Studies class at KIPP Academy Middle School in the Bronx. Kinnery’s approach to this this class, which fuses multiple subjects, just earned her an Innovation Award at the recent KIPP NYC Gratitude Ceremony. Kinnery spoke with us about how she pushes the boundaries of learning and incorporates students’ identities into her curriculum.


This class is called “Introduction to the World.” What goals did you have for your students when you started this class?

By bringing together reading, science, and social studies, I wanted to help students expand their understanding of the world around them, as well as their role within it. I wanted to try to harness students’ innate curiosity by giving them the opportunity and ability to create meaning for themselves in school in a way that is relevant and purposeful.

How do you engage your students and enhance their learning experience in your classroom?

I can truly say that my students have the most creative, thoughtful minds and incredibly caring hearts. I consistently find that the most interesting lessons are the ones where students can own their learning and build a greater understanding of how they can positively contribute to their communities. It is through these observations that I have come to believe that curriculum that holds a social justice framework is more meaningful because it allows students to see that their education extends far beyond the confines of the classroom. It ignites the ability and desire to see themselves as leaders of this world.

For this type of transformative education to occur our classrooms must be spaces in which our children feel their voices and experiences are validated, and in which they feel valued and loved. My class promotes a curriculum that values and affirms the experiences and cultural practices of our students, our families, and our community. Too often we misread the cultural gap as an achievement gap, and through my class I attempt to bridge that cultural gap by allowing students to be the experts, the ethnographers, the analysts, and the storytellers.

What are some of the strategies you use to bring the community into your curriculum?

Much of my teaching is in alignment with Gloria Ladson-Billings’ tenets of a classroom grounded in relevance. These tenets helped me develop the vision for my curriculum that in order for our students to learn about the world around them, they must first have an understanding of self and their community; before endeavoring to develop cultural knowledge and awareness about others, our students must first examine their own social and cultural identities.

My class seeks to challenge “traditional disciplinary frameworks,” and instead, looks towards the curriculum that is generated by society and youth themselves. Too often, only traditional literature is validated and valued in the classroom. We must reexamine what we deem as valid nonfiction literature. In marginalized communities, music, poetry, and art are not only forms of nonfiction texts, but are counter-hegemonic tools that should be purposefully included in studies of nonfiction texts. I am of the belief that in order to engage our students and create equity in the classroom, it is of utmost importance that we bring marginalized knowledge to the center of the curriculum.

I also try to center our classroom around models of creativity, investigation, dialogue, empowerment, and revolutionary thinking – and literacy is at the core of all of that. Literacy is a tool for voice and empowerment. Through literacy, can prepare our students to meet the challenges of standards-based, common core curriculum, while simultaneously building love of self and community, and exploring what it means to be critical citizens.

Here are some examples of units I have implemented this year:

Roses and Butterflies:
Taking inspiration from themes embedded in Tupac’s The Rose That Grew From Concrete and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, this unit give our students space to explore their identity in the context of learning about the Bronx community. Students engaged in discussions about identity and community, analyzed the role of music as a form of activism and storytelling for communities of color, and explored the origins of hip hop in the context of the history of the South Bronx.

Environmental Justice:
In this unit, students explored the concept of human-environment interaction by learning about eight different environmental issues. Students chose one environmental issue as a research topic, wrote an independent research paper, and created a visual presentation. Students designed an advocacy t-shirt for their environmental issue. Upon completion, students presented their projects at the Environmental Justice Fair.

Healthy Living:
A science based unit that served to help students better understand their eating habits and choices, and the physical and social-emotional consequences of those choices. We launched this unit by analyzing Bronx health statistics, specifically in the context of the Bronx being ranked the least healthy county in New York for the past six years.

What inspires the ideas for your curriculum and lesson planning?

I am slightly obsessive when it comes to learning more about educational philosophy and pedagogy. I am constantly reading publications by leaders of the progressive education movement. I also frequently attend education conferences and lectures that focus on social justice based education. These resources provide me with the insight and ideas necessary to think about what our students need and want from their education, and challenge me to analyze and explore my own practices in the classroom.

If you were to give advice to another teacher on how they can replicate your approach, what would your advice be?

One of my mentors once told me, “Every teacher has magic within them. It’s about teachers taking the time to figure out what makes them magical.” For me, social justice, activism, and creativity are what make education magical and revolutionary, and so I choose to focus on that in my classroom. My only advice would be for teachers to take time to engage in self-exploration. I’ve had the privilege of being in spaces where I’ve been pushed to engage in self-exploration. The insight I’ve gained from that process has helped me tremendously in developing the understanding that it is of utmost importance that my students are able to take what they learn far beyond the confines of my classroom walls – and that lays at the core of every decision I make as a teacher.