Social justice has become one of the biggest topics of discussion in our country as events of racial and economic injustices begin to arise. Although social justice is a topic frequently discussed in collegiate and more adult settings, it is unfortunate that these hard-hitting topics are not being discussed with younger students. It is a common belief that younger students should not be speaking in debt of topics such as marriage equality, race, and gender identity because parents and administrators are often times afraid that students are much too young to understand the seriousness of these topics. I firmly believe that not only are students able to learn about these topics, but these conversations should be encouraged and fostered in the classroom.
In my last blog post, I mention the book “To Kill a Mockingbird”, a novel that details the racial injustices of 1930s Alabama in a case between a Black man and a White woman. This book is one of the only required, or encouraged, readings in classrooms that approach topics of race in a realistic and somber way. It is also important to note that this book is typically not introduced until a student is in high school. Not allowing students to form their own opinions on these topics can be detrimental to their development as citizens. I believe that students at the age of eight, seven, or even six years old have enough maturity to understand what is happening in this world.
I recently found an example of a teacher engaging her students in discussion of race and privilege. In an article entitled “Why is This The Only Place in Portland I See Black People”, a teacher allowed her second grade students to act out the processes of red lining and the effect this had on segregation, race, and poverty in Portland, Oregon. Students were assigned to play hopeful Black families, White real estate agents, loan lenders, and skeptic White families. In the end, the students were able to perform their skit for the parents and administrators while learning about the effects of race and how this impacted Portland as a whole. Redlining was not explicitly mentioned in the curriculum but with Portland’s second grade curriculum including lessons on neighborhoods, the teacher took this as an opportunity to expand on the issue at hand. Although the students were at the age of six or seven, they were able to fully comprehend and place themselves in positions to learn of racial injustices in an active way. The teacher understood that students at this age are capable of learning and understanding harder topics.
By allowing our younger students to engage in the issues of today in a deep and constructive way we can begin to foster these conversations in a safe space and allow our students to become deeper thinkers. Being able to think critically about these issues is a skill that will remain useful for years both in and out of the classroom. Students should be reading more literature on the struggles of Americans, engaging in more conversations, and discussing with each other what it means to be a member of this country in this day and time. Contrary to popular belief, younger students are brilliant and capable minds and it’s important to engage their minds with literature and conversation.