Helping Elementary-School Children Address Unjust Systems in Their School
Children have a keen sense of justice. They’ve negotiated with their grown-ups, siblings, and friends about their wants and needs or what’s fair thousands of times before walking into the classroom. They write small-moment stories about times they didn’t get what they wanted, and they empathize with characters in their books when they’re treated unkindly. As educators, we have the opportunity to nurture that sense of justice and to give students opportunities to act on it in real, meaningful ways — all within the context of our daily schedules and our required curriculum. Kids’ energy and excitement are contagious. They don’t need hypotheticals or fictitious problems to engage with; there are enough issues in their immediate lives to engage with, situations in which they can affect real change. Once they’re given the space and language to help them deal with a problem, they are the most creative problem solvers. This is one example of presenting an issue in the broader world, giving kids tools and skill sets to analyze the problem on a local level, and how they were then able to solve it.
Identify and Discuss an Injustice in Your School
While the magnitude of injustices may differ among schools, it’s unlikely that any school is completely free of injustice. Decide — or help students to decide — where they will focus their efforts.
When I taught third grade at a public school in the East Village of New York City, I realized that even though my students were actively interested in growing identities as anti-racist global citizens, the classroom library we read from each day was lacking in racial diversity. This was an issue I knew my students could take on if I gave them the opportunity.
I began by sharing Rudine Sims Bishop’s famous distinction between books as windows, as mirrors, and as sliding glass doors:
Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.
The kids had sensitive, open-minded reactions to this. They said things like, “If it was just mirrors, it wouldn’t be that creative because then you could only relate to yourself . . . there wouldn’t be different stories for you to read” and “They should only be windows because you already have memories of mirror books you don’t need to get that memory again” and “You can look at other people’s perspectives of things, and you could also look at your perspectives of things.”
Framed with this notion that books should function in multiple ways for readers, I shared an info-graphic that showed that in children’s books with human protagonists, the overwhelming majority of the protagonists are white. Then, I invited students to consider how this related to books being windows and mirrors.
They had visceral reactions. They turned and talked to one another about how unfair this is, how they couldn’t believe the disparity of representation in books.
They concluded that we had to conduct our own study. We were constantly working to be an anti-racist classroom, but did our library reflect that?
Use Academic Skills to Better Understand the Issue
Understanding systemic injustice requires not only empathy and fortitude but also a host of interpersonal, logical, and critical skills. Consider how your students can use their own academic abilities in the service of bringing clarity to this issue.
The day after our initial discussion, we made predictions about our classroom library and thought about what kind of racial representation there might be. We talked as a community about how best to collect this data and avoid predictable errors, and we came up with the following guidelines:
● Work mindfully and kindly in our partnerships.
● Write neatly on our worksheets.
● Take one bin to a table or to the rug, count the total number of books in the bin first, then sort through them to see the racial identity of main characters.
● If we have a question about how to categorize something, check with another partnership or ask student experts.
● When a bin is complete, mark it with a post-it.
● Then grab another sheet and another bin!
Kids decided to use the same racial categories as the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC). There were some conversations around this, particularly about Latinx not being a race, but the class decided that this was a group that is disproportionately represented and they honored the setup the CCBC had. Once the sheet was made, enough copies were produced for every bin in our library, partnerships were set, and we began.
We used our entire math period that day, and once we put our counts together we had this:
Kids were shocked. They could not believe it. This jarring data matched the problematic statistics we saw on national levels, but we thought we were an anti-racist community. What was this doing to aid our biases? What was this doing to contribute to racism as a whole? Students agreed this showed a lack of commitment to diverse voices and they had big feelings about it. They were surprised, sad, frustrated.
This began as a community discussion on the rug, but it became evident mathematicians wanted to reflect on this more, so they wrote up responses to two questions.
Using the lens of race, kids responded to the question “Why should books be windows and mirrors?” They said things like, “Books should be windows and mirrors because it isn’t fair that only white people can see themselves as kings, astronauts, and more. All kinds of people should see themselves!” and “Books should be windows and mirrors because then you can share your feelings with a mirror book. You can also learn about others with a window book.”
They responded to how this data made them feel. Many students said this data made them sad because they consider themselves to be anti-racist, and the library is a sign of racism. One child said, “This data makes me feel conflicted because in other classrooms, they have more white MC than other people of color as MCs and I’m also shocked because I thought that our classroom had more books with people of color than we actually have.”
What the latter student shared about being surprised by the lack of protagonists of color in our classroom was a common sentiment. Kids were confused. Hadn’t all our read-alouds featured main characters of color? Didn’t we always focus on issues of identity and oppression?
One thing was certain: now that they had the data, students knew something had to be done, and they knew it wasn’t asking too much to want multiple perspectives in their room.
Take Action to Improve the Situation
The data students have collected becomes a valuable tool in making change: it further invests the students in the work; it pinpoints where change needs to happen; and it can be used to convince parents, guardians, administrators, and community members to assist students in their efforts.
As the third graders reviewed the data they’d collected, they asked themselves what could be done and what should be done. The next week, as a result of the work being shared with families, some parents donated books to our library. We made a live data chart in our library and continued to add to it when new books were brought in.
We posted our work outside in the hallway, which generated a lot of talk around our school. Students came in to ask about the data and asked if our third graders could go to their rooms to collect the same data.
In addition to our math work, it was important to post the other parts of our project: the national data on diversity in children’s literature we began with, our feelings about the data, and, to reflect our framework, why books should be windows and mirrors. We wanted to share our whole process with the school to collaborate on thinking of a solution.
We’d succeeded in raising awareness, but my class wanted more than conversation. They wanted change. They talked to their parents and the administration about this issue. Eventually, the PTA agreed to allocate funding specifically for diverse literature for our classrooms. Our principal let the third- and fourth-grade teams pick lists of books we wanted for our classrooms. He decided we would be the first grades to get this started, then it would trickle out to other grades.
While a particular campaign may wind down as an issue is resolved, the work of fighting injustice is never finished. Our work is not about fixing a single issue neatly in a marking period; it’s about instilling a sense of responsibility and agency in our students so that when they meet injustice in the world, their reaction is to stand up to it. While my students are proud of the work they did as third graders, and while later classes of third graders in that school have followed in their footsteps to ensure that their classroom libraries continued to include a wide range of voices and went further than this study, I realize that diversifying classroom libraries can be a band-aid of sorts. It’s tangible and important — both qualities that make it seem like a step in the right direction — but if the work stops with a single experience, it’s not teaching kids what they need to know. Kids see injustice all the time. We need to continually give them the space, time, and language to point to the problems they see, consider the actions required, and ask for what they need.
Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom 6 (3).
Noelle Mapes is an educator, speaker, and writer who aims to bring equity work into the classroom. Follow her on Twitter @noeycat