Teaching Social Justice Through Film - "Zootopia" by Amber Chandler

Don’t you just love when things fall into place? That is exactly what happened to create this mini-unit on social justice using the movie “Zootopia.” I’d watched the movie in the theater and thought, “Hmm … this would be interesting to teach,” and then, like so many interesting ideas, it just got lost in the shuffle. Then, on a snowy weekend in February (they all are in Buffalo), I was finishing my upcoming book on social emotional learning; I had reached the final chapter on social awareness and was having a hard time coming up with a way to address this topic with my homogenous suburban eighth-graders. My book is organized in chapters around CASEL’s competencies (Collaborative for Academic Social, and Emotional Learning) for social emotional learning. Every lesson and idea in this book—just like those in my book The Flexible ELA Classroom: Differentiation Tools for Teachers 4-8—are from experiences in my own project-based classroom, so I was struggling. 

As my son and I surfed Netflix, we were both excited to see “Zootopia,” and decided to watch it again. I casually mentioned to him that I might want to teach the movie so that I could explain social justice to my students—things like inequalities in wealth, opportunities and the everyday experiences people have. Before we’d even finished our buttery bag of popcorn, I had paused the movie and grabbed a notebook to jot down some ideas. It didn’t take long to see that I had the backbone of my chapter on social awareness. I’d been struggling to find an age- and school-appropriate movie to address this topic. When I was a high school teacher, I was known for showing edgy movies to get my point across—“American History X,” Boys Don’t Cry” and “Philadelphia” (it has been a while since I taught older students), but there just hasn’t been a movie that jumped out at me to teach social justice issues that was middle school appropriate—until now! 

The city of Zootopia is loosely based on New York City, or at least that’s what Fandom reports, because NYC is about 211 miles from a fictionalized rural Pennsylvania “burrow” where the protagonist, Judy, comes from. Even before Judy arrives in the big city, the viewer is inundated with biased, stereotypical, racist and sexist references, all of which escalate as Judy faces the diversity that is part of big city life. One of the important things to note is that Judy, our supposedly open-minded do-gooder, the character who early on reminds us that “there are no small dreams, only small minds,” is not as one-dimensional as you might think on first glance. After all, she says one of the first truly loaded lines in the movie: “A bunny can call another bunny cute, but when other animals do it …,” speaking to a stereotyped police officer who, comically, has a donut in the fold of his neck. The movie really hinges on Judy’s evolving idea about social justice, which is exactly why this was a perfect pick for my mini-unit. 

I’m a veteran teacher, so I was clever enough to slide this mini-unit right between state testing and spring break, but I can definitely see moving the unit up next year. This was the first year I’ve taught The Outsiders, and I think that this would be a great introduction to social justice before we read it next year. I’d also really like to address social justice issues earlier in the school year, allowing students to explore issues in each of the projects we do throughout the year (see the Utopia project here and watch the webinar on Passion projects here). 

I’d love to hear about the movies you use to explore social justice! Tell me about them in the comments. If you have any questions or want to chat about lessons you see here, email me through my website flexibleclass.com, and I’ll get in touch. 


Don't forget to check out the mini-unit this blog inspired right here on Share My Lesson CAN A CARTOON TEACH SOCIAL JUSTICE? (YES, ZOOTOPIA CAN!)