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TU alumna fights for social justice in the classroom

The fight for social justice is not always in the form of protest signs or marches. Tucked away in her eighth-grade reading classroom at East Central Junior High School, TU alumna Maria Copp (BA ‘12) chips away at education inequity. Copp’s fervor against injustice was first stirred in her sociology classes at The University of Tulsa. The curriculum “opened my eyes to the world, and I started to see that the world was not the bubble I grew up in; it was fascinating to me,” she said.

Sociology encourages students to shed previous assumptions and explore society from diverse perspectives. Mere discussion was not enough for Copp. “I knew I needed to get out into the trenches. Instead of just reading about poverty, I wanted to see what poverty looked like in the real world,” she said.

Maria CoppOriginally, Copp did not consider a role as an educator, but explained: “When Teach for America (TFA) started recruiting, that was the first time teaching was presented to me as a fight for justice.” Copp’s first major was French; and while at TU, she studied abroad in France and Cameroon. When a TFA French teaching position opened in San Antonio, Copp answered the call. “By being a teacher, I could help fight this myth that we all have equal opportunity in our country, which is just not true because our schools don’t offer equal opportunities,” Copp said.

Her service in TFA put her sociology theories to the test. When students act disobediently or appeared apathetic, Copp uses the phrase, “get curious, not furious,” she said. “Because of my sociology classes, I can think maybe their parents are working a second job, or maybe their parents got deported, or maybe their parents are incarcerated.” By teaching with patience and understanding, Copp developed stronger relationships with her students and parents.

After TFA, Copp continued to seek opportunities to spread social justice through education. She completed a degree as a reading specialist at Vanderbilt University and returned to her roots in Tulsa. At East Central, Copp’s colorful classroom is a reader’s delight. Bookcases overflowing with modern teenage fiction encourage students to discover their own passion in between the pages. “My favorite part is matching up the perfect book with the right kid,” she said. One student who never read an entire book, finished 30 books in a year.  Stepping away from the traditional novels, Copp ensures her students are studying a variety of reading material. On Tuesdays, they read and discuss a news article; and on Fridays, they listen to a song and analyze the lyrics.

Social justice reform starts in communities. Copp not only creates community in her classroom, but also, she purchased her first house directly behind East Central.

“At the foundation of teaching is relationships, and this can be a way for me to build relationships with my students and their families,” Copp explained.

Authentic and permanent progress is all too often in the everyday moments. Sociology expanded her idea of promoting social justice. “Instead of saying, ‘Let me help people,’ I want to empower people who live in the margins to lift their voices,” Copp said.