Social Justice in the Primary Classroom

She slipped her hand into mine while keeping her eyes fixed on the group of children building signs in the school yard. We had just had an invigorating social studies discussion on unionization and my students had decided to picket the refugee crisis. Dust blew across the yard as she looked up, "Ms. Smith why is our class so different?" 

I felt cornered by a six year old and by my rather unique teaching style, "Oh... uh... what do you mean sweetie?"

"We get to learn about real people! All the babies and mamas dying in that /g/ /g/ you know that country far away..."

I smiled at her as she tried to come up with the name for Germany and as a I listened to her discuss the numerous things she perceived as setting our classroom apart. Yet, she didn't mention the things that I thought really set us apart. the alternative seating, daily 5, our focus on song, Waldorf and Montessori influences at every corner. No, this little one thought that our focus on social justice set us apart, which made me wonder, are we as a society failing to introduce out students to concepts that will help them fight for a more just world?

In all fairness, I attended a Jesuit University that focused on social justice, my college career was steeped in what could be done to create a more just and humane world and I wanted to carry that over to my first graders.

So here are 5 ways I introduce social justice into my classroom-
  1. I start every day with a major news headline, bringing it down to a first grade level. In the fall we largely focused on the refugee crisis. Since children are not economically minded they truly move on the side of compassion. 
  2. I let children direct the conversation. Every day my students bring in 50 cents for snack at lunch. One day I showed my students pictures of mommas trying to carry their babies to safety through Eastern Europe. I wanted to discuss perseverance with them. Without a beat my students wanted to send their 50 cents to those mommas right now so they could buy slings.
  3. I tell students my feelings. This year some students at my college held a sit in to demand change within the college. It was a complicated issue that I had mixed feelings about. So I told my kids that some friends of mine were having a sit in because they wanted to be able to learn about more people that look like them. One of my students called out, "But Ms. Smith they just wants a good education like you wants for me!" Wow, never thought of it that way, maybe I don't have the same reservations when I look at it that way... When I am honest with my students and show them shades of gray as well as my own thinking, they are then able to think critically about issues around them. 
  4. I allow my students room to learn about education. They know our society has stacked every card possible against black children and therefore against them. They know that education is power, education makes you free, education makes you think. They know what society has done to cause this race and education crisis and they know that it is not okay. This is reality folks and my students live the reality of underfunded education due to their race and class every single day. They deserve to know this reality and they deserve to know it is unfair, they also deserve to know that there are big people that will fight for them all their days until they walk through those high school doors.
  5. I make room for feelings. Life is hard and feelings are valid, all feelings. My students hear a lot of things at home that they have no words for and that they are not ready for. Sometimes life is hard and scary. Imagine being a black six-year old growing up in a world where every night the news if filled with children just like you being killed by gun violence and police brutality? Ouch. Make room for feelings teachers, make room for feelings.
How do you integrate social justice intro you classroom? Would love more ideas!

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