In BLOG, Teachers Share

Using literature and current events to teach Social Justice issues

by Rachel Sattinger, a 4th-grade teacher at Gateway School

As a white, financially stable, woman teaching in a local independent school I feel honored to be able to guide my students through Social Justice topics. I also feel nervous for a number of reasons. My lived experience could allow me to shy away from these hard topics – worried that my treatment of them might fall short or be somehow wrong – but I take a deep breath and remember that the work has to start somewhere and so I start. I keep in mind that I should listen more than I speak (a lifelong goal!) and understand that intention alone is not enough. I must be willing to own the impact of my words and actions, learning and adjusting as I go. Representation matters, and so I am committed to using diverse literature in my classroom.

As part of Gateway’s 4th-grade literature study, we are reading Kelly Yang’s Front Desk, a relatable, fun read that is packed with Social Justice teachable moments. The main character, 10-year old Mia is a Chinese American who lives and works with her family at the Calivista Motel. The book details the family’s management of the motel including daily occurrences, diversity issues, and the building of community at the motel. Mia has a keen sense of justice. She is spunky, motivated, and takes actions that uphold her ideals throughout the book. I find this to be empowering for young readers to witness. It also gives me ways to help the students take theory into practice.

There are so many important and tough discussions to be had while reading this book. From the description of how Chinese immigrants were subjugated to terribly unfair working conditions, to when Hank, an African American character gets unfairly accused of stealing a car. The author uses a metaphor of two roller coasters for differing sets of opportunities for people depending on their socioeconomic status and ethnicity.

As a resource to lead our discussions and to guide me as vocabulary, concepts, and big ideas arise, I referenced Tiffany Jewell’s book This Book is Anti-Racist. Her book is a vibrant workbook for youth to learn about identity, true history, and anti-racism.

When we discussed the chapter where Mia is doubting whether she should enter an essay contest her friend Lupe tells her “You have to play to win.” This metaphor struck me as being useful on the surface, but harboring a harmful dichotomy that perpetuates racism in our country, and I wanted to unpack this with students. I assigned them the following four questions:

• Do all people have equal access to “play?” In other words, do you believe that life provides equal opportunities for all people?

• What does this have to do with the two roller coasters that Lupe talked about earlier in the book?

• When Lupe tells Mia “You have to play to win”, what does she mean?

• Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Explain your thinking with examples from the book or from your own experience.

The students and I engaged in a lively discussion about these questions and the students came to the conclusion that Mia’s family doesn’t have the same opportunities that others might have. One student found their way to the heart of the matter and was able to express it so clearly.

Student: Well sometimes we try [to give equal opportunities]. Like how there was segregation, and black people and white people were separated from eating together and stores and stuff.

Me: Yes, those Civil Rights leaders fought hard to help people have equal rights.

Student: But it’s still going on, like with George Floyd. He wasn’t doing anything and the police killed him.

Me: (deep breath) That was a horrible event. Was George Floyd given an equal opportunity?

Student: No! He was treated that way because of his skin color.

Me: It seems like we still have a lot of work to do so that things are safe and fair for everyone.

As is often the case when we discuss deep/important issues, we ran out of time. The student then asked, “Can we have more time to write about these questions? Will we have time to share?” In my opinion, when your students want more time to discuss injustice, you make the time. We postponed the next subject on our calendar and a rich conversation ensued!

The next chapters we discussed brought up the topics of socioeconomic inequity. The popular girls in school make fun of Mia because she doesn’t own jeans, which are just too expensive for her family to buy. All kids have been teased at one time or another and while Lupe suggests that Mia “just ignore” the taunts, but I asked my class to rewrite the script; “What could you say or do? What words or actions could you use to help Mia?” My hope is that giving kids a chance to literally rewrite the script not only empowers them to take action in their lives but also prepares them to be upstanders.

When I was getting my M.S. in Education at Indiana University, one of my Professors, Jerome Harste said, “You can teach kids about hard things – about injustice – but you’ve got to also empower them to know they can fight that injustice.” I try to keep this in mind so that no matter what we’re discussing my students know that even their smallest actions can make a big difference. I want them to know themselves as Agents of Change, as one of my inspiring colleagues has dubbed his students. I set forth in the next lesson to empower my students to be Agents of Change in their own lives with the hope that these lessons will ripple outward as they continue to grow and learn.

Gateway School is a co-ed day school in Santa Cruz, CA for students in grades Kindergarten through 8th.

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