From the time they are very young, children are exposed to racist, sexist and other derogatory remarks and actions. They see or hear about injustices such as homelessness, unemployment, poverty, discrimination, drugs, and crime. These are social justice issues that pervade our society and cry out for discussion, solutions and action. A classroom that avoids these topics is a classroom divorced from the real world, and one that can be seen as increasingly irrelevant the older children get.
The history of the United States is one long drama of ordinary men and women, low income, racial and ethnic groups struggling for equality and respect, for a chance to live their lives with dignity and security. Native Peoples had and still have to fight heroic battles for the right to survive and to maintain their cultures against a policy of violent discrimination by local, state and federal governments. African-Americans suffered, revolted against and worked to end a most cruel form of slavery, Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation, and have continued to this day to struggle to end racist policies and practices. Other racial and ethnic groups and women, working class people, senior citizens, LGBTQ communities, and physically-challenged people tired of being marginalized and oppressed and lacking opportunity, have organized to improve their lot.
All of these people grappled with the questions “What is fair? What is unfair? What can be done about it?” – questions of intense interest to children and older youth. (Perhaps their relative powerlessness in relation to adults, and to the fact that they often feel oppressed by grown-ups, makes for their interest in these questions.)
With a few exceptions, the groups mentioned above are absent from social studies books, children’s literature and the curriculum in general.
In addition, students are rarely given an appreciation of the absolutely fundamental contributions made by working class people, women, people of color and various ethnic groups, the poor and working people of America to the building of the United States. After a study of U.S. history, children usually erroneously conclude that the major contributors to the development of our country were a relatively few wealthy white males. The standard curriculum portrays a history of these men fighting wars and making bold individualistic decisions which determined the destiny of our country, not a history of ordinary people working hard every day, of poor and working people forming organizations to fight for justice and equality.
As a result, history and social studies usually turn children off. It is often dry, unemotional and boring. It does not provide much hope that ordinary people can cooperate to change their world for the better. It can lead to a sense of powerlessness, of relying on leaders to solve society’s problems, not ourselves.
Our society is in crisis and our leaders have been generally ineffectual in solving the great problems we face. As children grow older, the future looks bleak and they can feel helpless to do anything about it.
However, this does not have to be. Teachers can provide students with a “people’s history” of the U.S., let students hear the traditionally silenced voices of individuals who took risks, and most importantly, groups of people who worked together to create a socially just and equitable society.
Here are three books that embody this focus:
The People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn; there is also an abridged teacher’s edition.
A Young People’s History of the United States: Columbus to the War on Terror by Howard Zinn and Rebecca Stefoff
A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki and Rebecca Stefoff
Studying the past and the present in this way can be disturbing, shocking, and challenging, but also exciting, thought-provoking and inspiring while providing hope. It can enable students to feel empathy for groups other than their own as well as pride in what their own group has accomplished. It will show that problems were solved in the past by ordinary people and can be solved now.
The process of teaching in this way means that the teacher will have to include in her class readings and discussions the reality that our history has been one steeped in conflict from the time Europeans set foot in the Americas. People had to unite together against those who held power over them and work for social, political and economic change because their lives were so difficult and sad. Issues of racism, sexism and other types of discrimination and injustice will inevitably arise as different views of historical events are read and discussed – as the voices, usually silenced in our history books, begin to speak.
However, many teachers feel reluctant to include such issues for fear that they will create arguments and conflicts in their classes. It is easier, they feel, to gloss over or avoid such topics so as to try to keep peace in their rooms.
I would argue the opposite: that including the discussion of controversial topics in the curriculum can, in the short and long run, lead to more excitement and interest in school, and more harmony and understanding among students. As they learn about injustices faced by various groups and what actions people took to change their lives for the better; as they put themselves in others’ shoes; and as they try to understand another point of view, they are less likely to be disruptive or mean to each other.
Crucial to such an achievement, however, is to have developed a classroom environment in which students genuinely listen to each other and respect each other’s right to express opinions without being ridiculed. This is not at all an impossible goal. (See Chapter One, Effective Communication and my article Every Classroom Needs a No Put-Down Rule on my website )
Including social justice themes in the curriculum should not stop with reading, writing and discussion, but go even further to encourage students themselves to take on a project, and decide on an action to help change their world for the better. Taking action together can be exciting and provide a feeling of power and of purpose in life beyond one’s own small circle. It enables their abundant energy to be funneled in positive directions.
The major problem in teaching this way is that most of us don’t know the real history of our country. Much of what we learned was just a list of dates, wars and deeds of “great men,” mostly white. We have to reeducate ourselves by finding books, films and other sources that can fill in the yawning gaps in our understanding of the past and present. We need to demand in-service courses and time off to decide with other teachers how to implement newly-discovered information and resources.
Fortunately, we do not have to begin from scratch. A growing number of teachers have been searching for more meaningful lessons and have been creating new curricula. They have been writing about their experiences which can serve as a guide for others who want to follow in the same direction.
See a suggested list of resources in the Postscript.
In this chapter, I will describe some lessons and role plays I and others have used with our students to develop respect for different cultures and explore the historical questions “What is fair? What is unfair? Why? What was or can be done about it?”
Elementary Students Critiquing Books
Reviewing and critiquing books for stereotypes and omissions was a successful activity for my 3rd/4th and 4th/5th-grade classes in an East Harlem, N.Y. school. (I continued with most of the same children the second year.) We looked at a number of books that were related to what we were studying. After the children had some knowledge of the subject, we would look carefully at library books that I brought in to see if we could recommend them or not.
To explain what a book review was, I started with a simple picture book, This is New York, by Miroslav Sasek. Every one or two pages showed a different part of the city. I explained that to review this book, we would have to see if it accurately described New York City as we knew it, if it was interesting, if the illustrations included various races and if these races were portrayed in a variety of jobs. I told them that just because information was in a book did not make it right; that the author might have made mistakes, and that the reader had to read it carefully to decide whether or not to recommend it to anyone else.
Since our school was in Harlem, I began by turning to the one page labeled “Harlem,” which was a drawing of a street scene. I held it up and said, “All of you are experts on Harlem because you live here. What do you think of the illustrations on this page?”
They looked carefully and found many mistakes: “There is almost no one on the stoops. Lots of people sit outside in the summer.” “Only girls are playing in the street and all of them are jumping rope. Girls play other games and boys play in the street too.” “The girls are only wearing dresses. We don’t wear our best clothes when we play.” “These girls are not looking at each other and they all look alike.” They found other mistakes, and they were angry.
I asked, “Why do you think the artist didn’t draw an accurate picture of your neighborhood?” That was a hard one. Finally, someone said, “Maybe he doesn’t live here.”
The discussion continued as follows:
Teacher: Do you have to live in a neighborhood to draw it?
Child: No, but you should go and look and talk to people.
Teacher: Well, why do you think he didn’t come up here and do that?”
No one could answer for awhile until one child said, “Maybe he didn’t feel like it.”
Teacher: If you are an artist, and your job is to draw New York City, is it your responsibility to have a clear picture of what a neighborhood looks like and how the people look before you draw it?”
I explained how a publishing house works – that an author and illustrator don’t write and draw alone, but that there are editors and artists who look over your work and correct it before it is published.
Teacher: Why do you think that not one editor, artist or the publisher noticed that the section on Harlem was wrong?
Child: Well, maybe they just don’t want to come up here, and maybe they are all white.
Teacher: Do you think a black artist would draw black people the way this artist did?
Teacher: Why not?
Child: Because he is black and he knows how black people look and where they live.”
I told the class that they had made very good points and that as a matter of fact many publishing houses had very few black employees. I put the words “discrimination,” “prejudice” and “racism” on the board. A few knew “prejudice,” but no one knew the other words, so I defined them.
I explained that organizations were working to end this discrimination, so that publishing houses would have not only African-American writers and artists, but Asian, Native American and Hispanic. I congratulated the class on understanding that a person from a group would be more likely to know that group best, a concept many publishing houses did not appreciate. However, we discussed that if someone wanted to write about a group that wasn’t theirs, they would have to do a lot of research and talk to a lot of people before they would be qualified. Even then, their work should be checked by someone who is from that group.
We analyzed the rest of the book and found other errors: The only working African-American was pushing a clothes rack in the garment district; Chinatown had only two children who were yellowish-green with slits for eyes. Everyone else throughout the book was obviously Caucasian, but the children were annoyed that even they were painted orange.
I asked, “Is there anything we can do about this book?” After a discussion, some children decided to write to the author pointing out the book’s flaws. Here are some excerpts:
Dear Mr. Sasek,
Your rude in your book This is New York. I hate your book especially the page of Harlem because all girls are on the block and no boys. All the girls have the same hair style and none of them are looking at each other. All of them are wearing dress. Harlem is mad at this page. Chinatown has a lot of people but only two boys are in Chinatown in your book. You only show white people working and you don’t show black people working.
Dear Mr. Sasek,
I looked at your book and I do not think it is fair because you put a lot of men working but not a lot of women. I live in Harlem and I go outside. I see a lot of women working but in your book there is not a lot of women but a lot of men. I do not like your book.
Nancy Lee Lauriano
Garrick Brown noted:
Look at page 21. It is nothing but girls on that street. Look at the road block. It says Play street closed. That is not the way the road block is in Harlem. There are no boys on the street.
P.S. Write back if you have time.
I sent a cover letter to the author and the editor at Collier Books urging them to respond since the children spent a lot of time writing them, but we never received an answer. I asked the children, “Why do you think we didn’t hear from the author or the editor?” They had all kinds of ideas: “Maybe they were too busy.” “Maybe they don’t care what we think.” “Maybe they do not like black and Puerto Rican people.” They were disappointed.
I said, “I’m disappointed too. You worked hard writing your letters, correcting them, copying them over. It was obvious to anyone that you were serious. Even if the author and editor disagreed with you, the least they could have done was to write back, thanking you for your concern. Even though you didn’t get an answer, you made them think about important things, and maybe in the future they will write and publish better books.”
This whole experience was an important one for the class. It made them begin to think more critically about books they read and to see that their ideas are important, and they have a right to express them. They were amazed to discover that a book could be inaccurate and that they could find the errors.
One day, 4th-grader Kim found a reader with a collection of short stories in our class library. She came over to me and said, “There’s no black people in this book.” “What can you do about it?” I asked. She wrote the following letter to the children’s textbook editor of D.C. Heath & Co.:
My name is Kim. I am reading the book Lost and Found. Why is it there are no black people in this book? I don’t think it is right to have only white people and no black people in this book. I am black and I think you should do your illustrations over.
It wasn’t long before she got a reply:
We thank you very much for your letter of May 20 and for your comments about Lost and Found. You are right in saying that there are no black people in the book you are reading and that is very sad. You must remember, however, that “Lost and Found” is a very old book. In those days, many people were not as knowledgeable as they are now about all of the different peoples that make America such a fascinating place. I guess you would have to say that people’s eyes are open wider now.
I am sending you one of our newer books. and I believe you will find that it includes all kinds of people. I hope you enjoy reading it. Thank you for writing to us.
Brian K. Mclaughlin
Kim showed the class her new book, and we all appreciated the fact that an editor had answered her letter. The children looked carefully at the illustrations and said that this was a better book. However, they did not think that there were enough black and brown faces.
I asked the class: “The editor says that in the past ‘many people were not as knowledgeable as they are now about all of the different peoples that make America such a fascinating place.’ Do you think this is a good reason not to put black people in books?
Child: “No. Everybody should know that there are black people.”
This sentiment was echoed by a number of other children.
Toward the end of the year with the 4th/5th-grade class, I told them that when school was over, I was going to join a group on a three week trip to China. I asked them what they knew about Chinese people. It was very little and some of it stereotyped: “strange eyes,” “talk funny,” “have laundries and restaurants.”
I developed a number of lessons to challenge their inaccurate perceptions, and one of them was to compare “The Five Chinese Brothers,” written and illustrated by two people who were not Chinese, with children’s books from China that were translated into English.
I told the class that “The Five Chinese Brothers” was the only book about Asians I could find in our school, and that this was the case in many other libraries as well.
The children enjoyed the fanciful story, but our discussion brought out that almost all the Chinese people looked alike (we compared that to the book about New York City in which all the Harlem girls looked alike), and that these Chinese were not normal. They had superhuman powers and were able to do weird, impossible things. “If this is the only book you ever read about Chinese, what might you think about them?” I asked. The main points to emerge from our discussion were that you could conclude that they were not like us, they were very yellow, and their eyes were just slits.
We were lucky in that our assistant principal was Chinese. I invited him to talk to the class about China and to teach us how to write and pronounce some Chinese words. The class could see that he was not yellow and that his eyes were not slits. (We discussed how they simply had an extra fold of skin.) He helped the children realize that the Chinese language he spoke was not weird, just different. They enjoyed learning to form some Chinese characters and how to pronounce them. (Their assignment was to teach these to their families.)
I read to the children some books from China in which normal people were portrayed, each looking very different from one another. Even in one book, which was drawn in cartoon style, the people’s features varied.
The children came to understand that just as it is important to have black people involved in creating books about black people, the same is true for Chinese people and any other group.
(They wrote letters to Chinese children which I put in a binder. I added photos of our class in action. When my tour group visited an elementary school in China over the summer, I delivered the binder as a gift to the school. To my surprise, that very night there was a knock on my hotel door with another binder of letters from a class of children in the school we had visited! The following fall, I gathered the students together who had written letters and gave them copies of all of the replies. I showed them slides I had taken while there; they were impressed.)
Our greatest success came while we were learning about Native Americans. After studying about aspects of their lives, customs and their history in relation to European settlers, I asked the class to critique the book “The Cruise of Mr. Christopher Columbus.” The children discovered an appalling succession of stereotypes and misinformation. “What should we do about this?” I asked once again.
They decided to write to the publisher, Scholastic Books, and to our amazement, the children’s editor agreed with their criticisms and had decided not to include this book any more on its recommended list! What a victory! The children cheered! They all got a copy of the Scholastic Book response as a souvenir.
For further discussion of how this unit of study was developed, see on my website: What One Teacher Has Done, Part II: Sensitizing Nine-Year-Olds to Native American Stereotypes
The DVD “Unlearning ‘Indian’ Stereotypes” is a good resource especially because it is narrated by Native American children. It can be found on-line.
Having students critique books is a wonderful way to help sensitize them to racist, sexist and other stereotypes, to discuss how harmful these are and that they, even as children, can take action to try to get authors and publishers to produce better books.
A valuable resource to help teachers critique books is the “Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children’s Books,” which you can find on the Internet.
Even very young children can critique books. A group of 5- and 6-year olds at the Wang Child Care Center in Chelmsford, Mass. looked at books on families. They discovered that one of the books did not have any Asian families in it, which was of particular concern to Asian children in the class. 1
My classes not only wrote letters criticizing inaccurate books, but also wrote to authors of books they enjoyed.
Over a series of days, I read aloud to my 3/4th-grade class the book “Sidewalk Story” by Sharon Bell Mathis. It is a story of an African American child who was angry that her girlfriend and family were evicted from their next-door apartment. She then successfully took action to have them returned to their home.
The children loved the book. They wrote moving letters of appreciation to Ms. Mathis who in turn sent them a tape of herself commenting positively on each child’s letter and on the points they made! In addition, she included a beautiful photo of herself which we immediately hung up in a prominent place. We were overwhelmed.
I pointed out to the children how important it is to show our gratitude to anyone who helps make our lives better; that people feel happier when the good things they do are noticed.
Jackie took this message seriously. She wrote to John Steptoe about how much she enjoyed his book Uptown. Mr. Steptoe sent her a 4-page handwritten letter in response! It gave us all much food for thought and discussion.
It is hard for children to identify with events that happened long ago or other peoples’ experiences that are different from their own. One way to remedy this is to include role plays as a regular part of your classroom curriculum. This enables children to put themselves back in time, to feel what an event might have been like; to put themselves in another’s shoes. History and current events come alive with emotion and drama; excitement builds as children watch their classmates as actors and actresses.
In the role-plays I will describe below, children were not completely on their own. We discussed the story thoroughly, and then I suggested that it be acted out. I listed the characters on the board. I explained that whoever volunteered would have to put themselves in the characters’ shoes and imagine what they would say as the plot unfolded. (Sometimes we acted it out a couple of times to give other children a chance to participate.)
Once the drama began, I would be right there to give a child a line to say if he or she were stumped, suggest where a person could stand, ask a pertinent question if something said didn’t make sense. In other words, it was never a polished work, just a spontaneous exploration of a current or historical event. If the role-play got off track, I would stop it and ask the class what the actors and/or actresses could do instead. These little dramas were never a failure. Children loved them. And they remembered what they learned.
In preparing for them, I anticipated children who would feel frustrated if they weren’t chosen so I did one of the following: picked them to play certain characters, chose them to lead a class discussion when it was over, made an announcement that the skit would be done again, or explained that we would do different ones later so that all would have a chance to participate in some way.
Here is a description of a few role plays to show some of the possibilities for including this teaching technique in the curriculum.
Role-Playing Native Peoples’ History, Past and Present
I once had a job as part of a cultural enrichment program. We invited cultural performers to various elementary schools, and my role was to develop lesson plans for teachers around every event and to teach one or two classes in each school in which the artists performed in order to prepare the classes beforehand and to do follow-up lessons.
The Thunderbird American Indian Dancers was one of the groups, so I had a chance to try out different approaches to helping children understand some of the histories and cultures of Native Americans. One successful technique was role-plays.
A first grade was frightened to hear that Native People were coming to their school. I had not planned on countering the “wild Indian” myth with 5- and 6-year olds, but I changed my plans when I saw how thoroughly they believed that the “Indians’” main occupation was scaring and killing people. Role-playing the cause of a conflict between early settlers and Native Peoples helped dispel this myth. See on my website: What One Teacher Has Done, Part I: Role Play in the Classroom
I also tried to bring the subject of Native Peoples up-to-date. A lot of children thought all of them were dead, so I felt it was wrong to dwell on the past and ignore the present.
I brought in copies of Akwesasne Notes, a publication by the Mohawk Nation in upstate New York (now out of print). I showed them that Native Peoples were still around, many living in ways similar to ours, but also trying to maintain their cultures and to fight against discrimination.
In a fifth-grade class I read aloud a short article about a boy who wore his hair long as was his people’ custom. The principal of his school called him to the office and told him he would have to cut his hair because its length didn’t conform to school rules.
I asked, “What do you think? Should he have to cut his hair? Do you think the principal was right in what he asked? Why or why not?”
After a lively discussion in which most thought that the boy should be allowed to keep his hair long, I suggested we act out the confrontation between the principal and the boy. We discussed what were some possible comments each could make. There were many volunteers. Most wanted to be the boy, not the principal.
I picked Jimmy, the most disruptive boy, to play the Native American child. Another child, “the principal” sat in a chair in front of the room. There was a knock on the door; the “principal” said, “Come in,” and in walked Jimmy in his new role.
He was terrific. He was an angry child anyway, and here was his chance to funnel this anger in a positive direction. He thought of many things to say defending his right to long hair. The “principal” droned on about rules and regulations and issued some threats. Jimmy stood his ground. (He got carried away at one point and said, “You will not turn me into a bald-headed kid!” much to the laughter and applause of his classmates.)
We did this role-play about 3 times, and each one was effective and thought-provoking. By the way, Jimmy’s behavior began to improve after his chance to perform. We had all acknowledged what a good job he had done; he felt recognized and appreciated, which is what he had been wanting all along.
In a 4th-grade class I read aloud excerpts from an article in Akwesasne Notes about how Native Peoples were criticizing the recently-released Tom Sawyer movie. The main objection to it was that only one Native person was portrayed, “Injun Joe,” and he was the total personification of evil. He had absolutely no redeeming qualities. He was scary; he spoke pigeon English; he helped perpetuate the stereotype that Native Peoples are less than human—wild and crazy. Since we already had been studying about Native Peoples for awhile, it was possible to put this movie in historical perspective.
Native Peoples and their allies had decided to picket theaters showing this film. I described what a picket line and boycott were, and how it is one method to express your views about something you feel strongly about.
I asked what they thought of a movie like this: if it was fair to Native People; if they thought people should go to see it or not. I explained that it was based on a famous book by Mark Twain.
Most students thought it was a shame to have a movie like this one; that it might make people “hate” Native Peoples even more; that if they were a Native person, they would feel badly to see a movie that showed their people in such a negative light.
I suggested we role-play a picket line in front of a theater with the picketers confronting movie goers with reasons not to patronize the film. The movie-goers were to be of two types—those who become convinced and those who don’t.
The picketers held up imaginary signs. (They had to decide what theirs said.) I was a reporter covering the event with my tape recorder. I asked questions of the picketers and the movie-goers for my TV newscast.
The children assumed their roles. Their dialogues included the following:
Picketer (to a prospective movie-goer): You shouldn’t go to this movie. It makes fun of Native Americans.
Movie-goer: Well, I got my money, and I want to see this movie. (She buys a ticket and enters the “theater.”)
Picketer #2: (to another child about to buy a ticket): Don’t you know how important Native Americans are? This movie doesn’t show how important they are. Why, if it wasn’t for Native Americans, we wouldn’t have fried chicken!
Movie-goer #2: Well, I didn’t know that. I guess I’ll go to another movie.
Previously we had discussed many of the foods that European settlers had learned about from Native Peoples. In our evaluation of the drama, I pointed out to the class that although we received many foods from Native Peoples, fried chicken wasn’t one of them. They remembered some of the foods: corn, turkey, pumpkin, beans, squash and tomatoes. I congratulated the “picketer” on trying to educate the movie-goer to the fact that our diet is richer because of Native American foods.
The point about this role-play was not to convince the class to boycott the movie. It was to ask questions, to see this movie from the perspective of a Native person, to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, to discuss what type of movie would be able to portray a fair account of lives of Native Peoples.
Generally there isn’t enough questioning of historical or current events – seeing them from different perspectives. Hearing different voices throughout the curriculum, engaging in serious discussions and debates on opposing points of view in a democratic manner (each opinion is given respect, but anyone can agree or disagree with it) enables children to begin building a foundation for understanding the various problems we face today, and developing the ability to listen to often-silenced voices that are critical in the search for solutions.
Role-Playing in the Teaching of African-American History
Here is a detailed description of one role-play I helped a fifth grade create as part of a series of lessons on African-American history.
We were studying about Frederick Douglass. I showed the class his very thick autobiography written late in life, and I read excerpts from it. I gave them handouts to read of various statements he had made. The children were amazed that a former slave could have accomplished so much and then have written about it.
One scene in the book was especially dramatic. In it he describes how he entered a train and deliberately sat in the white car which was more comfortable than the one reserved for Black people. When told to leave, he refused. Police were called, and he was dragged out. He held on so firmly to his seat that it was pulled out with him!
We decided to act out this scene. Philip was the only white child in the class, all the rest were African-American, and he wanted to play the part of Frederick Douglass. Other children said he shouldn’t because he was white. I pointed out that in a skit or play, an actor can qualify for any role.
I chose Philip to be the first child to play Frederick Douglass, one child to play conductor and two to play the police. The latter went out in the hall.
Philip entered the “white car.” The conductor told him to get out. He refused. Philip was eloquent: “I have a right to be here. It’s not fair for Black people to go to a separate car. I don’t care what you do to me. I will never get up!”
The conductor called the police. The classroom door opened and in they came. They also ordered Philip to move. Once again, he refuses, and he and his chair are dragged out into the hall. The class applauded and cheered. In the discussion that followed the children agreed that Philip played his part very well, as did the others. We role-played this scene again with different children, and it, too, was successful.
I was glad to have had a chance to help Philip become more comfortable in school. It is never easy to be the only child of a particular race in a class, and it was clear that Phillip had felt isolated and alienated. This skit helped him to become more accepted by the other children, and to begin to understand the discrimination African-American people have experienced.
There is always the danger that with the pressures of all that has to be covered in a year’s time, teachers who have limited exposure to African-American history will feel satisfied to include only two or three African-American heroes in the course of the year, especially in February—Black History Month.
I used to feel that way. However, that leaves the impression that no one else is worth mentioning and that the two or three are superheroes whose achievements are above and beyond what the average person of any race could do. This can lead children to think that ordinary people are powerless to have any influence over what happens to them.
I believe children need to understand that throughout history there have always been many people and groups who have worked to make our society and the world more just and equitable. When they learn about African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, women and European-Americans who stood up for a just cause, they will see that these individuals and groups were never totally alone or the exception; they will begin to understand that ordinary people have a long history of committing their lives to change their communities to ones that would bring more happiness to greater numbers of people.
In teaching the above-mentioned fifth-grade class about Frederick Douglass, I explained that many other African-Americans were involved in the fight against slavery; that he and Harriet Tubman were not the only ones. I told them that as a matter of fact, hundreds of free African-Americans in the North held conventions to plan how to end slavery and the discrimination they faced as so-called “free people.” I even read excerpts of resolutions carried at one of these conventions which I found in the classic book edited by Herbert Aptheker, A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, Vol.1.
I made sure to explain to the class that there were white people in the abolitionist movement who championed the end of slavery; that African slaves and their descendants did have some allies in the white community who spoke out and took the risk of being ostracized from their communities for taking a stand for justice.
However, it is very important that in our zeal to promote harmony between the races that we do not give European-Americans credit for things they did not do.
Herbert Kohl describes a visit he made to a fourth-grade class which was acting out the story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A boy playing Martin Luther King gave a speech in which he said that African-Americans and European-Americans would boycott the buses until everyone could sit where they wanted. One picket sign a child carried said “Blacks and Whites Together.”
Mr. Kohl pointed out to the teacher that this was a serious misrepresentation of the facts; that whites were not involved in the boycott. It was a highly organized, disciplined movement run by African-Americans only. To portray it as otherwise is to take the power and credit away from the Black community.
The teacher agreed that the play wasn’t faithful to the facts, but because he had an integrated class, he thought it was better to show the movement as integrated. To do otherwise “might lead to racial strife in the classroom.”
Mr. Kohl strongly disagreed. He said, “by showing the power of organized African-Americans, it might lead all of the children to recognize and appreciate the strength oppressed people can show when confronting their oppressors. In addition, the fact that European-Americans joined the struggle later on could lead to very interesting discussions about social change and struggles for justice.” 2
Mr. Kohl’s point is a crucial one. We do our students a great disservice in our social studies lessons if we avoid or misrepresent facts that are essential for understanding the past and present because they make us uncomfortable, or we somehow perceive that they will “stir up” our students.
Students who don’t know the truth about the past will become adults who have no real understanding of how to deal with the present or to prepare for the future of their communities. They will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of their forbears because they will have no real understanding of how their ancestors dealt with their problems, how they organized, what worked and what failed.
As a white teacher, having been taught the traditional, European and American history from a wealthy white male perspective, I was ill-prepared to teach anything else. Realizing this, I made an effort to study the histories of the students I taught – mainly African-American and Puerto Rican – so that I could create more meaningful and interesting lessons.
However, I now believe that the histories of people of color, women, labor, immigrants, as well as the fight against all forms of oppression, is knowledge all students should have regardless of their race. It will enable them to hear a conversation among different voices and help prepare them for the road ahead.
Social Justice Lessons at the Middle and High School Levels
There are many opportunities in grades 7 – 12 to bring in social justice issues past and present – to go beyond the standard, often dull school textbooks through use of DVDs, primary sources gathered on-line and from books, talks by invited guests, and comparison of mass media coverage of an issue with alternative media.
A growing number of teacher organizations and publications are focused on kindling student interest in current events and history related to war, peace, race, health, politics, environmental and other issues as they relate to human relationships and decision-making at community, state and national levels. These topics can be addressed in a variety of ways in English, math, history/social studies, art, music, drama and other classes.
On-line resources are available that can help teachers make their courses more relevant to students’ lives and interests; to develop their questioning and critical thinking skills; to open their minds to a variety of views; to encourage them to become involved citizens rather than bystanders, thereby helping to ensure a truly democratic society. For a list of some, see the Postscript at the end of this book.
Here are four of my essays about bringing justice issues into the high school classroom which you can find on my website:
Implementing a Curriculum on Social Justice for Very Young Children
Teachers who begin implementing a social justice curriculum may feel that it is inappropriate for very young children. However, there are teachers who strongly believe that it should be an essential part of their education, beginning in kindergarten and first grade.
Jaki Williams Florsheim was such a teacher in a New York City private school whose student body was mainly middle- and upper-income white children. Her overriding concern was for her kindergarten pupils to know and feel they could make a difference in the world. This was always a priority as she planned her lessons each week.
“It’s a truism,” she said, “that children form a lot of their values and cognition between ages three and five. So why not respond to what they observe and ask about? They can learn that they don’t have to wait for grown-ups to tackle a problem. They can come to a decision and act too.” 3
A successful approach was to ask her kindergarteners what they would like to change in the world to make it a better place. She listed all of their ideas. Then they chose one at a time to explore. Ms. Florsheim’s question is always, “What would you like to do about this problem?”
One year it was getting rid of drugs. There were two main suggestions on what they could do about it. “Let’s have a parade outside the school and carry signs.” and “Let’s make signs and put them up around our school for the big kids and grown-ups to see.” They decided on the latter, and when this task was completed, they felt pleased that they had played a part in trying to stem the tide of drugs in their city.
Later they wanted to deal with the homeless situation. A speaker from Partnership for the Homeless visited their class to answer their questions. Teenagers who had done service in shelters and soup kitchens shared their experiences. The children decided to cook rice and beans in their classroom each week to donate to a local soup kitchen. This, of course, combined reading and math with social action. One child dictated a letter to the mayor:
Dear Mayor Dinkins,
Did you know there are a lot of homeless people in this city? People go to bed hungry at night, and some people are dying.
This is a dead person. [He drew a picture of a man on the ground.]
You should give everybody a bank card, so they won’t be poor any more.
One year, Ms. Williams Florsheim decided to connect the slavery period with the Montgomery bus boycott. For two weeks she read to her pupils from a book about Harriet Tubman. They discussed the evils of slavery and the efforts of abolitionists, Black and white, to end it through such means as the underground railroad.
She explained that even when slavery ended, there was segregation. To illustrate segregation, Ms. Williams decided to dramatize the Montgomery Bus Boycott – an idea she got from Young Children magazine, a publication of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. She told the story of Rosa Parks up to the point she was arrested. She then set up chairs like a bus. Children got to choose tags which told who they were: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, bus driver, police officer, white person, African American. (One child cheered when his tag said “white person.” Later Ms. Williams brought this up with the class, “Why do you think Billy cheered?”)
After “Rosa Parks” was arrested, she got one phone call which she made to the Montgomery Improvement Association (M.I.A.)
Later in the day, the children held “a meeting of the M.I.A.” Ms. Florsheim explained that they would have to decide what to do about the segregated buses. Since “Martin Luther King” didn’t know what to say to open the meeting, Ms. Williams prompted him, “Say, ‘Brothers and Sisters, the buses are unfair. We want this to change. What should we do?’“
Child #l: “Let’s get a gun and shoot those white people.”
Ms. W.: “I know you are angry, but this is a non-violent movement. Besides the other side has more guns.”
Child #2: “Let’s go to the police and say, “Please let us sit where we want.”
Child #3: “Let’s ride in our cars.”
Ms. W.: “What about people with no cars?”
Ms. Florsheim taught this lesson and skit for three years, and each year was different. One time a child thought of not riding the buses. Other times Ms. Florsheim had to suggest it. She explained, “People walked miles and miles and those with cars gave others rides. The bus company lost money, and finally, after a year, the laws were changed and people could ride anywhere.”
Each year, upon hearing this victory, her students spontaneously yelled “Yea!!” and jumped up and down. Ms. Florsheim would get out her guitar and sing “If You Miss Me From the Back of the Bus,” a freedom song from the Civil Rights Movement, and children quickly caught on and enthusiastically joined in.
Some made a deeper connection: “Martin Luther King wanted people to be free just like Moses and Harriet Tubman did.”
The next day she would go further with another idea from Young Children magazine. She wanted children to experience discrimination first hand. She gathered them together and said, “Today we are going to do things differently. I made new signs for our activity areas. This one says ‘No Buttons’,” and her assistant teacher hangs it up. She then reads other signs: “No tie shoes” and “No collared shirts.” These too are displayed. (Since most children couldn’t read, she put symbols next to each sign.)
As each sign went up, the children’s faces got longer and longer. “Now go play,” says Ms. Williams, “but pay attention to the signs.”
The children, perplexed, began to try to figure out where they could play. This is what happened one year. They began saying, “This is not fair.” A girl became so upset she said, “I’m telling,” and she dictated a letter of protest to the school’s headmaster. Another child started crying, “I’m not going to do anything today.” Other children spent time comforting one another and helping each other find some activity they would qualify for.
After 20 minutes, Ms. Williams called a class meeting. Children discussed how they were feeling. Ms. Williams pointed out that Amy had refused to play at all. “Wasn’t that like the Montgomery Bus Boycott? Didn’t African-Americans refuse to ride the buses which were unfair?” Amy, who had by now stopped crying, now smiled as she realized that she had had her own boycott.
Some children didn’t understand why the signs had been put up, but others did such as the child who said, “Those signs you put up were like the Martin Luther King signs.” Another continued, “They were like the ones that said Black people couldn’t drink at the water fountain.” Then these two children began to explain to the others what had happened, with added comments by their teacher.
Children told their parents about this experience, and reactions were positive. As a mother said, “My daughter was angry, but it helped her to understand what it feels like to be discriminated against.”
During class discussions of these experiences, several white children protested that they would never be like the white people in Montgomery. That led Ms. Florsheim to find books to read on white allies. She read Follow the Drinking Gourd to remind them that whites had helped on the underground railroad. She read Teammates which told how Pee Wee Reese openly befriended Jackie Robinson when he was enduring racial epithets and other hostilities from baseball players and crowds.
Ms. Florsheim found that even very young children are affected by the news they hear on radio and TV, and she kept an ear open for the “teachable” moment. When she overheard children’s conversations or a child asked her a question on a current events topic, she immediately began to think how to address the issues they were concerned about in a way that they could comprehend.
Her school was in session the day the verdict in the Rodney King case was to be reached. (This was the trial of white police officers accused of brutally beating a black motorist, Rodney King.) Some parents, fearing a riot might break out on nearby Brooklyn streets if the police officers were found innocent, took their children home early.
Her students did not understand and asked why. She explained what had happened, and they were very upset that police would injure someone. She encouraged them to tell how they felt: “I’m so mad.” “I wish I had a gun. I’d shoot them.” “I feel sad that happened to one of my people,” said one of two African-American children.
The class talked about their feelings for a long time. Ms. Florsheim told them, “I am upset too, and there are a lot of other grownups who feel as I do. People are looking into what happened to see if anyone else should be punished and to try to see that such a bad thing doesn’t happen again.”
She invited a member of the local police department to class, and he agreed to stress that police officers are not supposed to use their guns indiscriminately or beat people up. One boy asked, “Do police officers ever get put in jail?” “Yes,” was the reply.
It was therapeutic for the children to air freely their fears and concerns over the course of a few days, and to know that there are caring adults, including police, who are against violence and others who were working to see that justice was done in the Rodney King case.
The issue of war and peace also was a part of Jaki Florsheim’s kindergarten curriculum. She, like many other teachers, was influenced by the book Creative Conflict Resolution by William Kreidler. Through a number of its lessons and class activities, her students learned alternatives to fighting: to talk things over when problems arise and to respect each other.
When the war in the Persian Gulf broke out on January 15, 199l, her students brought it up in class. They were puzzled and distressed by it. Some of them were worried that bombs would start falling in their neighborhood. They couldn’t understand why they were told to use words instead of fighting, but the president of the United States, George Bush, and Sadaam Hussein didn’t.
“What do you want to do about this?” she asked. They decided to write to President Bush asking him why he didn’t stop the war and talk to Mr. Hussein instead. They dictated what they wanted to say, and Ms. Florsheim wrote it on a large piece of chart paper. Later she copied it, and mailed it to the White House. They received a reply with photos of Mr. and Mrs. Bush which stated something to the effect that the children may not understand the importance of this war, but it was very important for the security or our country.
Some children said, “He didn’t answer our questions.” “I noticed that,” said their teacher. A few students decided to dictate another letter to him. They received a similar answer this time, but the photo was different: it was his dog. Children wondered why he had sent this photo and still hadn’t answered their questions, but they weren’t upset. One child was philosophical, “I guess he must like this war.”
Since social action was an intrinsic part of their curriculum, students came to understand that you don’t always get results, but you do your best, and then you are proud of yourself for trying. Ms. Florsheim says, “Kids are more realistic than we realize. They can understand that things move slowly and that there is a lot of injustice. They never get tired of writing. It’s a way for them to try to change their environment. Parents and teachers always advise children to tell them if someone is touching them inappropriately, or being mean to them, so it’s not surprising for them to want to ‘tell’ the President or some other person they perceive as powerful if they think something is wrong.”
During this war one child received a letter from his uncle who was a soldier stationed in the Persian Gulf and shared it with the class. It described how difficult the conditions were, how tired, hot and thirsty he was a lot of the time. The child was proud of his uncle and passed around his picture. Ms. Williams was glad that the boy felt comfortable enough to do this, thus bringing a different perspective to the discussion.
John, another student, said, “My parents like this war because the Iraqis are bombing Israel, and we’re Jewish.” Ms. Florsheim thanked him for sharing that information with the class. Although most of the children had thought it was wrong to fight, they were open and interested since they learned early in the year that people do disagree, and that’s O.K. as long as you respect each other’s right to an opinion that may be different from your own.
(Earlier one child had said, “I hate President Bush.”
Ms. F.: Tell us more.
Child: He’s taking money from poor people.
Ms. F.: Is he robbing people?
Child: No, he’s spending money for war instead of helping them.
Ms. F.: Where did you hear this?
Child: My mommy told me.
These remarks were simply part of their discussion, an open floor where children know they can speak freely, knowing they will be listened to and their ideas considered.)
Later John’s mother came to class upset about the letter to the president. “You and I don’t agree on this war,” she said. Ms. Florsheim pointed out that “We may disagree on an adult level, but I think we can agree on the importance of encouraging children to question. The letter was a questioning one generated by the children, and they have the right to answers.”
The mother said, “Well, thank you. I see what you mean, but this is a very emotional issue. My son may have different comments than some of the others.” “That’s O.K.” assured his teacher.
Another parent did not like the fact that her daughter signed the letter. “If my daughter ever wants to sign another letter, I want to see it first.” Ms. Williams’ answer was similar to the one she had given to the other parent, assuring her that “I take what you are saying seriously.” In this way, Ms. Williams did not alienate the parent and kept the channels of communication open.
Believing that this war should be discussed school-wide, Ms. Williams displayed the original dictated letter in the school lobby for all to see – teachers, parents and students. It generated a lot of discussion. Some older students disagreed because they had heard support for the war at home. When one fourth grader said to her, “I don’t like your class letter,” she encouraged the boy to write to the president and gave him his address.
It was a bold move for Ms. Florsheim to put the letter in the school lobby. Although there was a lot of objection in Congress and around the country to U.S. involvement in a Middle East war, after it began, and every evening’s news featured U.S. planes dropping bombs all over Iraq, most of Congress and the country supported it.
However, Ms. Florsheim is also a peace activist, and knowing that a hallmark of any democracy is the right to dissent, she felt that her children’s feelings against fighting should be honored and action taken. Writing a letter together to the president made her pupils feel less helpless and taught them that it is good to take a stand, to act on what you believe.
Another year her class wrote to President Clinton in favor of gun control. He answered with a letter describing what he was doing and asked them to keep on working for change. Children felt encouraged, especially when the Brady (Gun Control) Bill became law. They believed they had helped get it passed.
Ms. Florsheim kept the parents of her students up-to-date on what the class was studying through a bi-weekly letter. At the beginning of the year she explained that her philosophy of education includes teaching children social responsibility, and that in the course of the year, the class might have discussions and take action that parents may question. If this happens, she encouraged them to contact her. “I listened to parents,” she says, “explained that I help children answer their questions in the same way that parents do, told them that I took their concerns seriously and that we would continue to talk.”
In addition to constant communication with parents, Ms. Florsheim was chair of a “Diversity Committee” at her school in which teachers strategized on how to deal with controversial issues in the classroom. This committee decided that listing children’s questions about an issue on chart paper is an effective approach. (Teachers could add theirs too.) Then children picked a question to research. This was done in a variety of ways: inviting a speaker, looking in books, making phone calls to people who may know the answers, going on a trip or a neighborhood walk. In this way the teacher is not imposing her or his political stance, doesn’t have to know everything, and pupils will be taking responsibility for finding answers to questions that really interest them.
If they found different answers to their questions, they learned that issues can be complex and there are not always clear-cut answers.
At Diversity Committee meetings, Jaki Florsheim explained, “Teachers would try out different ways to discuss these issues and report on class discussions. They might come with questions on how to deal with a specific topic or report difficulties, even ‘flops’.
“We began to develop a sense of pride in having tried, having taken a risk to tackle a difficult issue. Naturally it was extremely important to have the support of administrators and parents. The result is that children felt empowered by having worked through and learned from the lessons we created.” *
If, like students in Jaki Florsheim’s school, ours are given practice in listening to and discussing various points of view on historical events, and in the case of current issues of the day, reaching conclusions and sometimes taking action, there will be hope that future generations will have more success in solving our many social problems than we have had.
* Another early childhood teacher, Paula Rogovin, has written books on how she has successfully introduced her students to societal issues: The Research Workshop: Bringing the World into Your Classroom (Heinemann 2001), and Classroom Interviews: A World of Learning (Heinemann, 1998).
1Campbell, Patricia, “Helping Young Readers Become Book Critics: Here’s How,” Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, Vol. 14, Number 15, 1983.
2Kohl, Herbert, “The Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott Revisited,” Should We Burn Babar? Essays on Children’s Literature and the Power of Stories, The New Press, N.Y., 1995, pp.30-33.
3Interview with the author.