It’s December and already the chill in the air makes us yearn for books, fires, and cozy spaces to sleep!*
The alarm of a teacher who is feeling this tired when it is only December is real. The exhaustion of our profession, as well as keeping up with our own lives, and the news, has taken a toll on many of us.
Nevertheless, we know our fight marches on, and it’s a marathon. Of course, there is no easy answer. The work of raising thoughtful, caring humans and working towards a better world for all is an ongoing process woven into everything we do. From the content we teach to the way we model interacting with others, to the conversations we have with students in order to counterbalance internalized messages or institutions that oppress, we need to be at work, always.
That being said, sometimes it is difficult and we’re just too fried to come up with how to do this work, or to refresh our classroom communities with justice-oriented resources. Below are a few small tips or reminders about ways to incorporate social justice into a classroom.
*This year for winter-related holidays I wish for all teachers to get cozy fireplaces in their homes!
If you are a snuggly, cozy, introverted person like me, reading some of the many great books for your students’ age group is a great way to do ‘work’ while still enjoying yourself. Put that magical library card to use (and use that great ‘hold’ feature online!), pick up a few books, and try them out without committing your money or your classroom budget (if you have one).
Goodreads.com is my favorite place to look for inspiration (I’m always available for recs!) and once you read a solid book, it’s a beautiful way to give your students justice-oriented thinking space without doing the talking.
The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown, The Arrival, and Little Leaders: Bold Black Women in Black History are all books I ended up recently passing along to students that have enriched their thinking and conversations about identities and perspectives—all from some reading on my own that I couldn’t help but share!
Maps, maps, and more maps!
No matter what we are talking about in the classroom, we discuss maps.
Just this semester, we used maps to find very different regions. We were lucky enough to see Me, Jane at the Kennedy Center last week (meet one of the stars here!). The play gave us a great foundation for conversations about maps—Tanzania, Kenya, England! In our current class read-aloud, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, we have been looking at maps to better understand references like “bayou.”
In this day and age, a projector and Google Maps make it incredibly simple to provide the perspective that there are so many places, cultures, humans, and communities in this big world! We turn to maps daily, and I love the way it has become commonplace for students to understand that other humans exist… which is a concept they now can zoom out from and understand and that there could be (and most likely are!) multiple perspectives to a conversation.
I’m going to take a moment here to plug the book This is How We Do It, which I stumbled upon during one of my winter doldrum reading moods. The book follows seven kids from around the world, and how they do different basic things in their lives—like get dressed for school or what they eat for breakfast. We are now reading it as a ‘treat’ when we are packed up and ready to go. We are having a blast with it, and of course, we always look at a map!
Students even within a somewhat monolithic community are all still very different humans.
We often have shares and encourage sharing, with prompts like “who makes us feel supported” or “who we are grateful for”—we pick these types of shares instead of “what did you do over the break?” to be mindful of $$$ differences and the overabundance of shares of a certain fiscal status that we were starting to have.
When we have these shares, we are reminded how different our students are, and we get to actively celebrate this. When multiple adults are in the room, we intentionally share different perspectives on something, or share the aspects of our own school break that are very different from one another. We do this partially because these are part of our own truths, but also so that students can see how different we all are, and that all of these differences can be welcome and celebrated in our room.
A student might share about a nanny getting citizenship, while another might talk about having their nieces and nephews visit, while another might share about grandparents who live with them. The space to share and have your voice heard, as well as the little connections you might get to make as individuals share pieces of their lives are what bind our little classroom community together. And truly, even the teensiest things—like having a mutual favorite animal—can feel like such a huge connection or make a student feel seen or heard sometimes!
Guide some “Hmm, let’s talk this out” moments
This works for so many things. “Talking something out” can take many forms, of course, from pair shares, to journaling, to silent conversations on poster paper around the room, but the result is usually the same—intentional thinking and learning.
No matter how it begins, at some point it is important to come back to sharing with the whole class while a teacher guides the conversation (sometimes we take notes or make a poster based off of the conversation, too). These moments can be chosen for many reasons—in elementary classrooms, for example, the moments to pause to talk about gender are endless.
One “talk it out” moment I remember fondly is a time in which we made a guide for how to ask someone what their ethnic background was. We talked through how someone might not want to answer that question and how the onus for wanting that information falls on the person asking. The conversation led us to questions like “What is ethnicity?” “What is race?”* “Does someone else have to share that information with you?” “How might it feel to be asked a question like that all of the time?” “How can we ask if we are sincerely curious but still give someone the space to say, ‘No’ that that wasn’t information they felt like sharing?”
Conversations like these are the ones you hear in an interaction between students—and you grab hold and follow it for a moment. I usually hear myself starting these talk-it-out moments with, “What an interesting predicament!” or “Ah, why don’t we all think this out together!”
Modeling that there are so many things to investigate, especially concerning our words and actions with others, have been some of my favorite moments of teaching and learning.
While it would be ideal to be able to do this all of the time, most of us can’t really delve into these conversations for long. That being said, this is around the time of year where I remind myself how important following these threads and making time for these moments are.
*Naturally, this question led to a larger, yearlong investigation! It resulted in a timeline of the United States from a few different ethnic points of view, as well as a poster that had definitions of racism and bias etc..
Celebrate kindness, join in an act (or prank!) of kindness
We don’t all have the luxury to speak on our beliefs or against hateful or oppressive actions in our communities while at school. Or on the contrary, sometimes we think doing the ‘work’ means we are only sharing heavy stories, the ongoing news, the pain and struggle. One way we work against being singularly heavy is to highlight and share being moved by kindness, courage, and brilliance we see around our community and world.
Celebrating people who welcomed refugees, cheering on students when they demonstrate a characteristic in our classroom community rules, and writing thank-you notes to people who have supported us every Thursday (this is morning work during arrival and we oh so cleverly call it, “Thank You Thursdays”) all perpetuate lifting one another up.
We also simply tell the kids that they are kind. We name their generosity. Our morning message frequently begins, “Good morning caring 3rd graders…” or some other compassionate description, which both holds them to that standard and lets them know the adults in their lives see how they are. While naming is powerful and can sometimes be harmful, naming the tenderheartedness in our students affirms the positivity they are spreading. We celebrate that they worked hard, we say, “Thank you for making me laugh“, or “I appreciated that high five“—we name that they bring us joy.
We need that too especially in times like this, and they will need it in the work they have now, and ahead of them in life. And also, quite frankly, they really do bring us heaps of joy, and we are grateful.
What is Teach Pluralism? First and foremost we are educators, and we love what we do! We are constantly trying to push ourselves, our students, and conversations about education to be as socially just as possible. Find us at Teach Pluralism, and on Twitter @teachpluralism.