Fairness First

Martin Luther King,Jr.and Ruby Bridges help set the stage for learning about injustice

By Stephanie Walters

Illustrator: Diana Craft

illustration: Diana Craft

It was story time and my first graders and I were reading the book Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys. Set in the South shortly after the Civil War, it is about a young girl whose parents do not want to send her to school. One of my students raised her hand and asked, “Ms. Walters, how can they do that? We know that isn’t fair.”

I explained that Virgie’s parents did not think she was ready to make the long trek to school and that a century ago, many people believed girls would not benefit from learning in the same way as boys. And I felt cautiously optimistic that this student was transferring her understanding from a unit we had done on “fairness” to our everyday shared reading.

When I decided to teach a social studies unit on “fairness” as a jumping-off point for talking about justice, I was conflicted.

On the one hand, I believe it is important for young children to understand they have a role in creating a more just society—and that children have been present in movements to stamp out injustice, with the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa being just two examples.

On the other hand, I lacked confidence that the unit could be a success. Although I had good rapport with my 16 students, all of them African Americans like myself, I was new to teaching first grade. I was not convinced I could convey the concepts that would get across my two key goals. My first goal was to help my students understand that children can work for change despite their ages. My second goal was to underscore that fairness and justice are not just global concepts, but that students can take action in their own corner of the world to right wrongs.

I was also nervous because my social studies curriculum and teacher’s guide had nothing whatsoever on this topic; I knew I would have to develop all the materials myself. It would have been so much easier to have done a unit on “goods and services,” since all the materials I needed were in the teacher’s guide.

After reflection, I decided to go ahead with the unit on fairness and justice. I kept reminding myself that it’s okay to stray from the pre-packaged curriculum.

Classroom Community

Since the beginning of the school year, I had tried to build a sense of community in our classroom. For example, we held daily meetings where we shared what was going on in our lives. The students paired up and told each other what they did the night before and what they planned to do after school. We then wrote a summary of these “news” reports, with each person reporting on their partner’s news. (I modeled several times for my students what it would look and sound like to be eager, respectful listeners.) We had also done lessons about friendship and had begun a reading buddy program with a fourth-grade classroom.

In addition, we often talked openly in class about why some people are treated differently than others. I didn’t pretend to know why, but I think it is important to be honest about the fact, since my students will face prejudice and racism during their lives.

I knew my students were aware of the ideas “fair” and “unfair” and decided to start the two-week unit with those concepts rather than the words “justice” and “injustice.”

In our first lesson, we discussed what it meant to be fair. I wrote their answers on a piece of chart paper labeled, “Fairness.”

“Letting everyone get a turn,” was Tammy’s example.

“Sharing your toys with your friends,” was Bryan’s idea.

Andre’s contribution was that we have to make sure everyone has room in the circle.

I took down more of their examples, but I was a little concerned. My students were not giving the answers I wanted, which were answers dealing with the concept of “justice” in a broader social context. I took a step back and realized my expectations were unrealistic, and that my student’s answers were important because they were from their own experiences and set the stage for deeper understandings as they mature.

We repeated the exercise with a paper headed, “Unfairness.”

“Not letting someone play with your favorite game,” Quincy said.

“Pushing in front of somebody in line,” was Nathaniel’s suggestion.

“Not letting other children play with you or sit or come to your birthday party with you because of the way they look,” said Inez.

While I appreciated all the responses, Inez’s answer excited me. It began to get at the idea that whether people are treated “fairly” is not necessarily random or arbitrary, but may be related to something about the person’s identity. And because I did not have to explain what she meant to the other students, I was hopeful that my students might intuitively have a deeper understanding of the concept of “fairness” than I had originally credited them for.

At the end of this first lesson I asked my students, “Are people always fair? What should we do when we see people treated unfairly?”

They were stumped by the questions but I was encouraged enough overall to move on.

Young Martin Luther King Jr.

I then tried to make the bridge from “fair” and “unfair” to “justice” and “injustice”—which, even for older students, is somewhat of a stretch. Although the transition was not always smooth, I wanted to move beyond “unfair” in the individual sense of being pushed around on the playground, to issues such as discrimination and prejudice on a social level.

I proceeded to do two lessons on Martin Luther King Jr. Immediately, I had doubts. Was King the right choice? Would it be better to focus on a leader who does not get such attention? Still, I forged ahead. For one thing, I had several high-quality, age-appropriate books about King. Second, because they were only first graders, I didn’t think my students had been exposed that much to King.

I also wanted to look at King’s life from the perspective of his early years, when he was not much older than my students, and explore how those experiences might have helped make him a warrior for justice and peace.

I asked students what they knew about Dr. King. In essence, they knew he was a black man who worked for peace and that he had died. They knew nothing of King’s childhood days in Atlanta, Ga., and were excited as I read to them from The Young Martin Luther King Jr.: “I Have a Dream.” One story, for example, told of young Martin riding the city bus in Atlanta when a white woman boarded the bus and demanded his seat. When he stood up for his rights and refused, she slapped him. My students were appalled.

“How could she do that?” one of them wanted to know.

I asked, “That wasn’t fair, was it?” All emphatically said no.

I asked them to draw a picture showing what would have been fair, and they were eager to share their drawings.

“This is Martin Luther King sitting down and this is that lady standing up, because he should not have to get up just because she is white,” Stephan said in explaining his picture.

Some students were able to write down by themselves what their picture said to them. For students who had not yet reached this level, I wrote what they said on a note card.

I asked my students what they would have done if they had been in young Martin’s shoes. It was a difficult question for them. I also explained to them it was not until King became a grownup that he began to work to change things for African Americans in the United States.

Then I posed a question that was key to my goal for the unit: “Do you think that young children can help to change things in our world that are not fair?”

Only two of my students answered yes. This surprised me, since we had just discussed the story of young Martin. When I pressed them on why they felt that way, one student said that kids were just too young to do anything. They did not know enough to change things that were unfair.

“Even if they knew they were unfair?” I asked.

“Yes,” they replied.

Ruby Bridges

Then we read The Story of Ruby Bridges and Through My Eyes (the autobiography of Ruby Bridges).

In 1960, Ruby Bridges became the first African American to attend William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, following court-ordered desegregation. In reading the books, my students heard about a six-year-old girl (the same age as many of them) who stared down angry white mobs in order to help desegregate the New Orleans public schools. They saw illustrations and photographs of this tiny little girl walking to school surrounded by U.S. marshals. They were amazed.

After reading and discussing the books, we talked about the meaning of Ruby Bridges. What did we learn from her efforts? What did her story say about the role of children in helping to create change? As a class, we brainstormed words that described Ruby.

Right away, James came up with the word “brave.”

“She showed us that kids can do something to change unfair things,” he said.

Nathaniel drew a picture of Ruby when she was praying over the group of white people who stood outside her elementary school everyday. “This is Ruby Bridges,” he wrote. “She prayed for the people who didn’t like her.”

Tammy drew a “before and after” picture. In the “before” side, she had a picture of Ruby going to a school labeled “black.” On the other side, she had Ruby outside a different school she labeled “black and white.”

“Ruby Bridges helped to change laws so black and white (children) could go to school together,” Tammy wrote.

When I saw Tammy’s picture, I felt a sense of accomplishment. Somehow the unit had helped at least some of my students make that bridge from “unfair” on an individual level to “injustice” on a social level. I also felt clear progress toward one of my goals: that my students understand that young children can make a difference.

However, this is where I worked myself into a corner of sorts. Upon further reflection, I realized that the way I had approached the unit made it difficult to accomplish another key goal: to convey to my students that they could take actions in our own classroom and school community to change our environment for the better.

By emphasizing “brave” and “historical” figures such as Ruby Bridges and Martin Luther King Jr., I inadvertently gave my students the impression that only larger-than-life heroes can work for change. Yet I had wanted to convince my students that any action they take to improve our community—no matter how small—is significant. In the future, I know I must create lessons that allow students to decide on what is necessary to make changes in their own lives, and what steps they can take to facilitate those changes.

After I finished this unit, I realized how much more I would have liked to do. I wanted to bring the unit to more contemporary times and study issues of unfairness that the children face in their lives today. I also wanted to study other peoples’ struggles for justice throughout the world.

Despite its shortcomings, I was pleased I did the unit on “fairness.”

For the students, I believe the discussions provided background for even more meaningful lessons on “fairness” and “unfairness,” “justice” and “injustice,” as they get older. For myself, I now have some curriculum materials on “fairness” and some experience in how to approach the topic.

I also overcame my fear that I was doing something wrong. I learned that it can be worthwhile to deviate from the standard curriculum, especially when it involves an important concept that my students face every day.

This year, my students learned of young people who played a role in changing unfairness. Next year, I want my students to consider how they can play a role in changing today’s unfairness.

I don’t expect a perfect unit, but that won’t stop me. I have learned that progress in teaching, as in social justice, often comes slowly.

Stephanie Walters is a Rethinking Schools editor and a former second-grade teacher at Hartford University School for Urban Explorations in Milwaukee.

Stephanie Walters is a Rethinking Schools editor and a former second-grade teacher at Hartford University School for Urban Explorations in Milwaukee.