Social Justice Can’t Start Too Soon

The concept of teaching social justice in schools has gained traction in the past few years, particularly in high school-aged classrooms, as we encourage our students to register to vote and let their voices be heard. However, as Ms. Gowin shows us, it is never too early to teach your children about social justice.

Gowin, a 3rd-grade teacher at Uplift Ascend Primary, tells us that the idea for a more formal social justice curriculum started in 2017 when she had the opportunity to get involved with an interest group in the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The group consists of adults interested in diversity and equity and providing that kind of education, or training, for teachers. The decision to include social justice as part of the Uplift Ascend curriculum in 3rd, 4th and 5th-grade came this summer following the rise of anti-racist statements and protests nationwide.

Gowin has two sons who attend Uplift Ascend and was excited about knowing that her children would have the opportunity to learn about social justice.

“I just thought that it would be a really fantastic opportunity for them to be exposed to it in a formal setting,” Gowin said. “With me as their mom, they’ve been into it for the last couple of years, they’ll tell stories about how I had them making protest signs at the anti-white supremacy march in Dallas a couple of years ago, so they kind of had that background, but they haven’t had anything in terms of their school curriculum.”

Gowin gathered resources and reached out to people in the DFW area who provided training for teachers on anti-racist education. Due to the unusual start to the school year, Gowin decided to wait before implementing her new curriculum; however, once students returned to in-person learning, it was showtime.

“We started with essential agreements in our classroom, and it fit perfectly with our big push for social-emotional learning,” Gowin said.

Using lessons from the Second Step Program, a program rooted in social-emotional learning (SEL) that helps transform schools into supportive, successful learning environments, Gowin was able to have her students center around the theme of ‘empathy.’

“What does it mean to be a respectful listener? A respectful learner? How do we address differences with younger children not coming from a color-blind standpoint?” Gowin said as she mentions questions that were key towards deciding what the curriculum would look like. 

“It worked for us because when coming back on campus, we kind of had to re-establish classroom culture,” Gowin said.

The first lesson they did was around community norms and how to speak with each other and have conversations where they may not agree, but the purpose is not to agree. This helps everyone voice their opinions.

“We did an activity with identity webs,” Gowin said. “Each scholar created an identity web about who they see themselves as, what are the things that stick out to them from their own perspective.”

More and more, we are seeing a push for this kind of curriculum and conversations to take place with younger aged children. This summer, the beloved children’s show, Sesame Street, teamed up with CNN to produce a town hall for children and families called Coming Together: Standing Up to Racism. In the special, Big Bird, Elmo and others discuss prejudice, white privilege, and ways to combat racism. Similarly, Arthur produced a short clip in which Arthur, Buster, and Mrs. MacGraddy have a conversation about racism and what they can do as kids to raise awareness of the issue.

“It goes back to the idea of culturally-relevant pedagogy, and one of the tenets is the development of children’s critical consciousness. We have the research that shows that children from a very young age notice things such as race, differences, and have questions about gender or racial identity. So, how do we move from silencing those conversations and then help them frame them in more constructive ways?” Gowin said.

“We do children a disservice when we have this idea of, oh if we talk about it, it’s going to have a negative effect. If we talk about racism or being anti-racist, it’s going to push racism forward. That’s not how racism works. We can’t really address these systemic issues unless we start looking at it from the perspective of the people that are living in it.”

In the training that Gowin did with her fellow Uplift Ascend 3rd, 4th, and 5th-grade teachers, she provides them an example of how parents might respond to those kinds of conversations. She tells a story of a scholar who wanted to buy a particularly colorful journal at their book fair, and because the scholar identified as a boy, there was some concern amongst staff as to whether or not they should let him purchase it. Gowin went ahead and called the scholar’s mom, and she was very supportive of her scholar buying the journal regardless of what it looked like.

“It was just an example of how sometimes the hesitancy comes from adults, rather than children,” Gowin said. “Children are curious, they are capable of expressing themselves, they may not always have the vocabulary to say ‘I want to be an upstander and stand against racism!’ but they may say ‘one time someone wasn’t really nice to me because of the color of my skin, and I didn’t understand why that was.’”

Gowin recommends that parents start by opening the door by having those courageous conversations. If your child approaches you with something they are wondering about, it’s important not to shut them down but instead engage them in that conversation.

“Something that is a part of our social justice curriculum has been the use of read-alouds, and it’s been inspired by the fact that our literacy program as part of our existing curriculum already opens the doors for those conversations. Reading a book to your child can open the door to having those conversations,” Gowin said.

Should teachers experience some sort of push back or hesitancy from parents, students, or even their own administration, Gowin has some advice.

“Depending on what the challenge is, if it’s an admin challenge, arm yourself with research. Everyone responds well with research-based findings; that’s a great way to start,” Gowin said.

“From the scholar perspective, I think it really goes back to relationship building. If you have a scholar who is not as on board with having the discussions, it’s really important to develop a relationship with them and, along with that, learn to take their perspective. Making those real-world connections with them will help them to broaden their perspectives.”

“For parents, I think for me, I always have the connection of trying to make connections to parents as a parent,” Gowin said. “I take off my teacher hat, and I step into a fellow parent role, and I tell them about how I understand how this can be a frightening thing, and how it can be perceived as a disruption to their innocence.”

Gowin recalls a story she tells parents about her youngest son when he was in pre-school.

“He came home and was like, well, mommy, one of my friends told me that they didn’t want to play with me because I was black. I didn’t understand why he didn’t want to play with me because I had black hair.” Gowin says as she elaborates about how it didn’t necessarily click for her son right away.

Gowin goes on to talk about her time when she went back home to teach for 3 years in southern Louisiana. 

“That was probably the context where there was the most hesitancy with parents,” Gowin said. “We did not necessarily share a lot of commonalities in terms of intersections of identity, but we were still able to make that connection with empathy. If we take it all the way back to those traits of social-emotional learning, through empathy, we can connect with each other on this human level. What exactly might I be exposing your child to on that very basic empathy level?”

Gowin, a doctoral student in Curriculum and Instruction with a specialization in Early Childhood Education at Texas A & M University-Commerce, advises teachers to start small.

“If it is just incorporating more questions that push forward the critical consciousness of students during a read-aloud discussion, giving students the opportunity to express themselves either verbally or drawing, depending on the age level are two great ways to do so,” Gowin said.

“Listen to your students, listen to the conversations that are already going on in your classrooms, and then build off from there.”

Gowin hopes to one day see this kind of curriculum infused within the current teaching standards.

“Just like we have TEKS for other content areas, I would love for us to have TEKS that incorporate social justice standards, and for that to be infused throughout our curriculum and for it to be less about a sense of cultural tourism, where we celebrate one culture’s heritage month and move on to the next, and it being more about encouraging students to have those courageous conversations and helping them develop their sense of agency.”

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