Always Consider Yourself a Student

An interview with classroom teacher Bisse Bowman

Students in Bisse Bowman’s third-grade class.

Many educators do not consider it developmentally appropriate to talk with six-, seven-, and eight-year-old children about issues of social justice. Bisse Bowman disagrees.

Bowman has been a teacher for 35 years and currently teaches third grade at Young Achievers School of Math and Science, a pilot public school in Boston. Bowman also teaches the course Multicultural Teaching and Learning at Wheelock College, and has served on a number of multicultural assessment teams for the National Association of Independent Schools.

In the following conversation, Bowman describes her curriculum and her development as a teacher committed to social justice. She was interviewed by Margaret Leitch Copeland and Susan Harris-Sharples. Copeland is an associate professor of early childhood education at Wheelock College and Harris-Sharples is a professor of education at Wheelock.

How would you describe your curriculum?

I’ve made an effort to base my curriculum on multiculturalism and on integrating across disciplines. When I talk about curriculum, I mean not just the instructional aspects but also the social aspects of the “hidden curriculum.” I look at everyday interactions from a variety of viewpoints and help the children to do the same.

How do you do this?

I try to train the children not to give lip service to important concepts such as “fairness.” And I bring up pertinent examples from the world outside. For example, several years ago, the 50th anniversary issue of Ebony presented “50 who changed America,” with photos accompanied by brief texts. I cut out, mounted and laminated pages and hung them up in the classroom. I didn’t say anything. When the children came in, they were very interested and started talking to each other saying, “I know who that is.” Then somebody said, “Well, there are more than 50 people!” Which of course there were, since some examples were of single individuals and some were groups of people such as the four students at the Woolworth counter at Greensboro. This gave rise to many good discussions.

I also put up a sign that said, “Who would you like to add to this list?” One child wanted to add Faith Ringgold. So, we got out her book, Dinner at Aunt Connie’s House, and read it so that everybody would be on the same page about who Faith Ringgold is. Then I asked, “Why would you like to add her to the list?” Here are a couple of quotes from the children:

“Her book, Dinner at Aunt Connie’s House, teaches all of us about Black history and about Black women.”

“She is a very, very, very good writer. She’s a good artist.”

“Her book, Tar Beach, taught us that you can believe in things; that you can imagine whatever you want, and it honors the people who built the bridge in New York City.”

“She teaches kids, but she also teaches the grown-ups who read the books aloud.”

I try to make room in the teaching schedule to do these types of activities, which have equal value with teaching children to form numerals correctly. It means bringing the level of discussion and thinking to examining how you see the world and how you are in it.

What type of thinking goes into creating multicultural curriculum infused with social justice?

It’s a kind of thinking that one has to do before doing anything, even before picking up any book to read to a class, regardless of the culture or ethnic focus of the study. I always try to consult with people who come from that particular culture or ethnic group and check my materials. I think it’s important to be willing to be questioned and to be told not to proceed, not to use certain materials.

One of the things you have to do is take off your northern European white lens and recognize the bias and prejudice you were taught and grew up with.

I once found a t-shirt at a store in Harvard Square, Dancing Spirits, that has a quotation I keep in the back of my mind: “Art—not crafts; Literature—not folk tales; Religion—not mythology; History—not legends. The language we use defines who we are.”

Could you give an example of how you do this?

It is presumptuous of me, a white person, to attempt to teach about the First Peoples of this continent, Native Americans. Years ago, I “taught” about Native American folklore. Now, when I pick up a book that says, “Native American Myth,” I usually end up putting it back down again. I have learned to look and see who wrote it, who illustrated it. Is this something that should be shared with people not of that Nation? There are some things I’m comfortable doing — such as learning about the natural history of the landscape of a particular area. Teaching someone else’s culture through artifacts and inanimate objects is a trap some teachers fall into. I make every effort to find as authentic material as possible, and consult with people of that culture to try to ensure that my approach to designing and implementing the curriculum is as accurate, authentic, and sensitive as possible.

When we were learning about the Dine (Navajo) some years ago, we explored the flora, the fauna, and the formation of the landscape. The wonderful mountain shapes in Monument Valley, for instance, are the remnants of ancient volcanoes, volcanic plugs. That year, we kept track of the weather during the month of March. I called the weather station in Flagstaff every day. (Now, it can be done on the Internet!) And we made comparisons with the weather here. It’s a high desert climate there, and the children were surprised that it would snow there and be cold.

I also feel fairly comfortable with teaching about what happened during the white conquests and the genocide that took place. For instance, very few white people seem to know that at the time the Cherokee people were forcibly removed from their land and submitted to the horrors of the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee were a literate, well-educated people with their own sophisticated form of government and judicial system. In fact, the Cherokee people were on the whole more “civilized” than the people who moved into the Western mountains in the quest for gold. Should our children not know this? Should they not learn about Sequoia, who single-handedly did something nobody else has ever done: creating a syllabary for his language Cherokee?

Why do you talk about difficult issues such as genocide with primary age children?

These are hard pieces of American history. But I think we desperately need to move away from the Pocahontas fantasies, the “tomahawk chop” with the Atlanta Braves, and so on. Who are we protecting if we are not telling the truth?

The only parallel I can draw from personal experience is from growing up in Scandinavia. The First People of Scandinavia are the Sami. The parallels are striking concerning what is happening to the Sami people and what has and is happening to the Indigenous Peoples of the United States: the clash over land, forced conversion to another religion, children taken away and put into boarding schools and forbidden to speak their own language, the suppression of who people are, the mining and how it has devastated the landscape, closing off and changing the course of rivers to provide hydroelectric power.

When I grew up, I wasn’t taught any of this. When I became a teenager, I began discovering pieces of the true history of what we as Swedes had done. I remember the angerI felt at having been miseducated and lied to.

How do you help children understand and deal with these difficult issues?

I’ve seen young children go through a stage when they ask if white people have done any good. And yes, of course white people have done good things. I give them examples of white people who have made a difference, so there are people white children can identify with and people who children of color can find to counterbalance with. I try to give children the tools to change the future so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated yet again.

To give an example of the depth of understanding that even young children gain: The year we were learning about Mexican America, I showed the children a couple of maps. One showed what was thought of as United States territory and Mexican territory at one point in time. Another was a map of 20 years later. In the latter map, the United States territory was suddenly much larger. I just said to the children, “What do you think happened?”

These six-and seven-year-olds said, “Oh, there must have been a war!” So I asked, “What do you think the war was about?” And they looked at me and said, “Land. Must have been!” I asked, “Who won?” They answered, “Here. The United States.” I next said, “So now, if you were a Mexican family living here,” I pointed to the map, “and then suddenly now you’re not Mexican anymore, then what?” They responded, “Whoa! How could you? Who would you be? How would people treat you? I bet they didn’t treat you too well!” Suddenly there was a conversation going on among the children. And they asked, “Did they lose their lands?” So they know. If you give children the chance to have that kind of discussion, they see a lot of things. Our children are much wiser than we think.

Later on, we watched a brief documentary film of Mexican-American community leaders in California who talked of their childhoods and of their struggles as immigrants today. One leader, talking about undocumented immigrants, said that they have a saying, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” Three hands went up and simultaneously I heard them say, “Guadalupe!” And so, yes, it does make sense.

Does your perspective ever get challenged by parents?

Yes. For instance, once we talked in class about the film, Pocahontas.I felt we had to. I had nightmares when the film first came out, nightmare visions of little girls going out at Halloween dressed up as Pocahontas – a real person. After you’ve been around long enough, you can see it coming.

So I thought, let’s just start talking about it early. There were some children who said, “I’m going to be Pocahontas.” And I said, “You can’t be Pocahontas any more than you can be – give me some examples of some real people that you can’t be.” So that is what we began with. That there is a difference. You can dress up as a robot, or dress up as whatever, but you can’t be.

At the same time, for some of the girls of color, finally there was someone in the movies who, as the children say, “looks like I do!” There is so little of that. It makes sense that in this popular culture where there are so few that “look like I do” that here was someone to take to heart. There’s a seductiveness to the film – in the artwork and the way it looks – that pulls in everybody.

One parent said, “But that’s my daughter’s Cinderella! It’s just a story.” It is so much more than that, and it is hard to talk to children about it. At the same time, I couldn’t live with myself and not say that Pocahontas had a very tragic life. If she ever met John Smith, she was just a child at the time. Essentially, the whole film is a lie. So, sure, you get challenged.

Have there been particular themes that have supported this generative quality of your curriculum?

One such theme is, “The Sky.” Teaching science around the sky is pretty obvious. We kept track of the outdoor temperature and worked math into it, comparing morning and afternoon temperatures. For two weeks, we figured out the difference in degrees and asked if there were patterns there. For a month, we recorded different types of weather using bar graphs. We learned about cloud types.

But that’s all “straight” science — science as seen from a Euro-American perspective.

So we also looked at stories from different cultures about the sky and it’s phenomena, and at poetry. One of the poems we learned, “Winter Moon,” was by Langston Hughes. The children also wrote their own poems about the moon. The literature is very rich from all the world, but you have to hunt. I taught the children a Swedish lullaby about stars. And of course, they painted, drew, and looked at the work of artists. So you work art and music into this theme as well. There’s no end to literature, music, and artwork you can integrate into a study of the sky.

I’d like to add that there are numerous ways in which you can integrate a multi-cultural approach with both math and science. For instance, while learning about place value in base 10, you also ought to explore other number bases as they were historically used in African or Asian cultures.

How do you find resources?

Ask the children in your class and their parents. Use those brief conversations at pick-up and at drop-off times. When you talk to parents at parent-teacher conferences, the conversation may wander off in that direction as well. I’ve often begun by asking parents, “Who do you know? What skills, interests, and talents can you share?” Parents can make short presentations. They might bring in slides of places they’re from that feeds into the curriculum. They might share a family holiday. Your curriculum can take off in different directions depending on who is in your class and what the resources are.

I also spend time outside of the school rustling up resources. That’s not very difficult. You can go plant yourself on a park bench and just talk to people who come by. You can go to the community garden and watch people work there and ask them, “How long have you lived in this city?” People resources are great.

How do you learn the information you need to teach such themes?

You have to be a student. You educate yourself first. I always check the books with the people the books are about. And I do some critical screening myself. For instance, I have been looking at some of the new geography books. The first thing I do is to flip open to Sweden, since I know what to look for there. If I see inaccuracies there, why should I trust the rest of the book?

When you find an authentic resource for adults, you cut out pieces that would be appropriate for children. One example would be the selections of a book we read when we learned about Mexican America. It is titled, I Will Always Stay Me: Writings of Migrant Children, edited by Sherry Kafka and Robert Coles. Children talking about their lives is very powerful. When children hear voices of other children, that’s when you have the connection.

This year, I’m going to build on this concept to develop my Black History Month curriculum. I’ve just found two new books, which feature the voices of children and adolescents who were active in the Civil Rights Movement (Freedom’s Children and Witnesses to Freedom).

Another example of making connections occurred just the other day. The children in my present school (a pilot school in Boston) are fortunate enough to be learning a second language, French, beginning in kindergarten. So, while watching a beautiful film with aerial views of New England landscapes, the children were struck by the lushness of the Green Mountains in the summer. I asked them if they knew what the French word “vert” meant. They promptly answered, “Green!” What about “mont?” “Mountain,” somebody ventured. “Now think about the name Vermont,” I said.

They all thought for a while, and several children volunteered, “It must mean Green Mountain!” We talked about the curiosity of Vermont being a French name for a state in the United States, and I asked, “What does that tell you?” After another thoughtful silence, a girl whose family had immigrated from Haiti, spoke up. “It must have been named by people who spoke French!” Clearly, she was making a cognitive connection, going beyond mere memorization to applying knowledge to new situations.

Poetry written by children connects with children in the same way. I have built up quite a collection of poetry and stories written by children over the years. There’s a great book from South Africa called, Two Dogs and Freedom– a little paperback. Stories and books like that, those childhood memories, they’re indelible.

What changes do you recognize in yourself since 1962? Where did you begin? What kinds of questions were you asking then?

The first year you teach, you barely keep your head above water; let’s be perfectly honest about this.

I was blessed. I worked in a little country school in Sweden where I taught for five years before I came to the United States. That first year, I had a mixed first/ second grade with 20 children. There were two other teachers. The third/fourth grade teacher had been there for 30 years and knew everybody. I spent a lot of time with her.

I moved to the United States in 1968, which was the year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and then Robert Kennedy. Just being here, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, and seeing people weeping, was the beginning of gaining awareness. I knew who Martin Luther King, Jr. was, but I didn’t have a clue about the depth of what he meant, what he still does mean, for this country and for the whole Civil Rights movement. That was like a door opening. I knew that if I was going to be a teacher here, if I was going to stay here and live here, I had to step through that door, and that meant a whole lot of work that I had to do.

If you were to give advice to a young teacher, what would it be?

For the first couple years of teaching, find somebody who’s been around the block a few times that you feel comfortable with, so that you have a shoulder to cry on and someone to ask for advice. You need somebody to hold your hand. And go out and have a beer, or whatever it is that you like to do, just for reality checks. Look for someone who is all of those things, but also be sure to ask to visit her/his classroom. Look for evidence of a multicultural curriculum infused with social justice.

That’s the first thing I would say to a young teacher because that’s what you need to do the first two, maybe even three years. And then — just always consider yourself a student.

To contact Bisse Bowman: e-mail