It was sometime in March, when Philip whispered in my car, “Can I read the class this book?” I still remember trying to hide how surprised I felt as I nodded, OK.
As Philip stood there, tall and confident in front of his peers, I couldn’t help feeling proud of the risk he was taking. He had entered my grade 3-4 combination classroom the previous September full of school anxiety. It was clear that he hated school and had difficulty making friends. He regularly neglected or lost assignments, snarled at his classmates, and cried silently when I refused to let him off the hook when work was missing. Philip had strong feelings of inadequacy and was relentless in his efforts to get me to lower my expectations for him.
On that day, Philip, the only African-American student in my class of 27, stood in front of a room of his white classmates to read aloud a story that had touched him. It was a powerful testimony of not only Philip’s improved sense of self-esteem but also the trust, intimacy, and connection that we as a class had managed to build.
I was the first African-American teacher that Philip had had in his five years of schooling. And it was probably the first time since attending this semi-rural, nearly all-white school district in the Hudson Valley region of New York that Philip’s racial identity was mirrored on the walls of his classroom.
Knowing how easy it is for a child of color to be made invisible by white schools, I go to great lengths to create a multicultural physical setting. I display pictures of people with diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, gender roles, and special needs and abilities. This mirrors the families of the children in the class (which despite the racial homogeneity includes many variations of class and culture) and also reflects the broader diversity within the United States.
Yet having the “right” pictures on the wall and my being a teacher of color were not, by themselves, enough to account for the changes in Philip from September to March. Equally important, Philip had grown by being a member of a learning community that respected differences and focused on empowering children.
This activist teaching integrates my interest in multicultural education with my goals of teaching for equality, personal empowerment, and social change. Hence, throughout the school year, I help students to identify their interests, pursue their questions, and collectively address concerns related to curriculum and assignments. I also take time to examine social justice issues as they occur in the context of the school day and the curriculum.
Creating an atmosphere so children feel special, safe, and respected is fundamental to examining more troubling topics and unfair behaviors between children. Helping students learn how to work in groups, develop empathy, and appreciate diversity has taken a lot of hard work. This emphasis on community building affects how my students hear and see each other. In hindsight, I realize the power that positive group pressure had on helping Philip become a more productive and contributing member of the class.
I recall how one classmate, new to the area and living with relatives, shared his grief about his mom’s recent death from cancer and his fear of being abandoned by his distant father. The class sat riveted during the student’s revelation of his loneliness and alienation. For several months afterwards, Philip became this child’s best friend. Perhaps this bonding happened because of Philip’s personal circumstances. He, too, lived with relatives, and until recently, had had minimal contact with his mom and no relationship with his father. Until his classmate shared his grief that day, I don’t believe Philip had ever imagined another child’s suffering to be equal to his own.
One way I teach critically and, at the same time, work to build a democratic classroom is to choose multicultural children’s books dealing with issues pertaining to race, class, gender, or disability. Using such books can be a non-threatening way for children to examine issues of social inequity.
One book, in particular, that mirrored Philip’s progress in my class was Crow Boy, by Yaro Yashima. This book is about Chibi, a boy who for 5 years is made to feel alienated and isolated at school. In sixth grade, he finally has a teacher who takes an interest in him and ultimately learns of his ability to imitate the sound of crows. The teacher marvels at Chibi’s understanding of nature and provides opportunities for his classmates to learn from him. It is a compelling story that underscores what can happen when differences are respected rather than seen as a problem.
A MORE CRITICAL APPROACH
When I first began using Crow Boy some years back, my objectives were merely to develop cross-cultural appreciation and empathy for what it means to be different. Today, my goals are broader and I use the book to try develop empathy with not only Chibi, but among students in the same class whose life experiences might be different from others. I now provide my students with questions and activities that help them to make a deeper connection between the book’s characters and their lives.
Last year, when Philip was in my class, I used Crow Boysoon after school started, in September. To begin, I had a whole group discussion in which students responded to questions that:
- Identify different ways that people reinforce discrimination;
- Consider the power of non-verbal messages;
- Encourage understanding of what it feels like to be excluded based on difference.
These questions include: What happened in the first part of the story that led to Chibi feeling left out and unimportant? What kinds of unspoken messages did the boy get from his classmates and previous teacher that indicated what they thought of him. It’s important that students identify, when possible, the specific behaviors. For example, if students say, “They didn’t like him,” I ask them how they showed it. This leads them to point out how children teased the boy or how his classmates did not play with him at recess.
To get my students to empathize with Chibi, I have them describe how they might feel if they were him. I ask: How was Chibi made to feel? How might you feel if you were Chibi? Why might you feel that way?
To help students examine how prejudice and other bias affect them, I ask questions that help them reflect on their own experience. For example, I ask: Has anyone experienced being left out here at school or in other areas of your life?
Such questions lead to a powerful sharing, because they usually reveal the extent to which students are regularly made to feel left out of groups both in and outside of school. For instance, last year one boy said, with tears in his eyes, “Kids tease me because I’m short, and in gym no one wants me on their team.” Another boy said he wasn’t short, but was regularly teased because he wasn’t good at sports. Embarrassed, he revealed that kids in his neighborhood often called him “sissy” and tried to start fights with him. One girl told how boys teased her when she asked to play basketball with them at recess. She, too, was teary eyed as she turned to the first boy and said, “I’m not picked because I’m a girl.”
By the end of the discussion, many students had spoken about the various verbal and non-verbal ways in which they had been made to feel unpopular or unwanted because they were different in some way. (This discussion has also been a good reference point for a later lesson on put-downs.)
I remember watching Philip’s face the day of that discussion in early September. He seemed surprised by the honesty of emotion of some of his new classmates. Several months later, Philip himself broke down crying when he unexpectedly began talking about an incident in third grade when he was called “black- ie” by another student. To see Philip so upset was troubling for the entire class.
Afterwards, I asked, “What is it about Philip’s hurt that makes it different than the other name calling and put-downs we’ve heard?” It took sometime before the other students understood what I was getting at. Finally, one blue-eyed, blond-haired girl said, “I think I know how Philip might feel. When I went to Jamaica I felt weird because my family looked different than everyone else and people stared at us every where we went. I didn’t like it sometimes because I was afraid that someone would call us a name or hurt us because we were white. It wasn’t fair that Philip was called a name like that because he can’t make his color go away no matter what he does. I wished I wasn’t white when I was in Jamaica. And Philip probably feels that way here.” (Although this white student’s experience in Black Jamaica could not be equivalent to that of Blacks in a white society, the commonality of feeling she expressed was a valid insight and help to build understanding.)
I asked Philip if he felt that way and, with head lowered and face hidden by his hands, he nodded yes. This interaction helped transform Philip’s relationship with his classmates. I recognize that issues of a white tourist in Jamaica are vastly different from those of an African American in this country, but for the children such differences were secondary. What was most important at that time was that many students expressed dis- may at the thought that Philip might always be teased about the color of his skin. Philip, meanwhile, seemed relieved that this issue of race was finally out in the open.
The most important and perhaps most difficult component of an anti-bias teach- ing approach is empowering students to take risks which will help promote social justice. This crucial step is fostered by getting students to envision the kind of classroom they wish to be a part of. To help do so, I build on the discussions of Crow Boy and ask students, “What could the other students in the story have done to better Chibi’s experience at school?” As students offer solutions, I record them on a chart for later use.
Most children have an innate sense of what is fair and unfair. They are eager to learn the words to express the inequities they see and to work with others to solve the inequities. So I ask the students, “How should we go about dealing with these issues raised by the story?” Again, I list student responses on chart paper for later reference.
Afterwards, the children break into small groups to discuss and write down ideas of how they’d like our class to be. Concepts of peace and respect are discussed in conjunction with class rules. My ultimate goal is to get my students to see themselves as social change agents. I usually culminate this activity with having them identify areas for personal change.
For instance, last year, we generated a list of “Mean Things That Kids Do To Other Kids.” We then brainstormed ideas of what children could do to help stop kids from being mean. Many students said they would like to make a personal goal of speaking up when they see people treated unfairly. A few others spoke about trying not to tease kids about their size or what they bring for lunch. One student said he wouldn’t use the word “retarded” anymore. Philip never did say what he was willing to do differently. Yet, over time he ceased teasing kids about the way they dressed and learned to apologize when he treated others unfairly.
Changes in student behavior don’t hap- pen overnight. Philip, like the other students new to my room, benefited from working with students who were with me for a second year. These “experienced” fourth graders demonstrated extreme patience with the newer students’ adjustment to the classroom, while modeling for them how to solve group conflicts. Regular class meetings provided ample opportunity for students to discuss issues and conflicts as they arose.
In addition, the children were exposed to many readings and history lessons that dealt with race, class, and gender inequities. This led to extensive discussions raising issues of fairness and justice in the world at large. These discussions provided another framework through which the class could view its own issues and conflicts. For example, there were class meetings where classmates expressed concerns about Philip’s negative attitude towards girls and his aggressive behavior on the playground. Having a broader understanding of social issues and conflict helped the class to make connections between history and their own lives.
My awakening to Philip’s unfolding was like the barely perceptible return of light in spring. Only in retrospect was I able to identify the changes that he had made. As the year progressed, Philip seemed to become more comfortable with his racial difference. His interest in read- ing changed when he realized he could read what he liked. Nearly every book he chose for his independent reading had to do with an African American or his favorite sport, basketball. I believe that because race issues were dealt with directly in the class, and because Philip had some say in what he could learn at school, he began to become a more responsible learner and leader.
Gradually I began to notice the changes in Philip’s attitude about his schoolwork and his relationships with other students. He readily completed class assignments and was prepared with homework. His contentiousness with classmates eased, and he was able to work cooperatively for longer periods of time. I observed that Philip was friendlier and more responsive to the feelings of the other students and over time he became increasingly popular.
Eventually, Philip had a new surprise for our class. During a talent day in June, Philip confidently performed four very complicated rap songs, as a class of disbelieving students and parents sat mesmerized by his gift to rhyme. It was a scene straight out of Crow Boy,where Chibi astonishes a similar group with his hidden talents.
Philip, like Chibi, had come full circle this last year of his life in grade school. The standing ovation he received con- firmed it.