Planting Seeds of Solidarity

In discussing global issues, how can a teacher nurture student empathy and caring, yet avoid the trap of an "us versus them" dichotomy?

By Bob Peterson

My fifth-grade students love stories. Almost every day after lunch I light a candle, turn off the lights, and read or tell a story. If something interferes with story time, I receive a chorus of complaints.

One of the stories I use to start my students’ study of globalization issues is from my own teenage experience when I lived in Cairo, Egypt in the mid 1960s. I tell them that I lived in Cairo among pyramids and sphinxes, close to the world’s longest river, the Nile. I attended a middle school with kids from all over the world, in an old palace of former King Farouk of Egypt. Because my family was from the United States and my father had a good job as a soil scientist, we lived comfortably in a suburban home south of Cairo.

I had many adventures – riding horses and camels by the Great Pyramids of Cheops, visiting Tutan-khamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, swimming in the Red Sea – but one incident stands out in my memory.

One sunny afternoon my family got into our blue 1965 Ford station wagon and drove 20 kilometers south of Cairo to climb a lesser known pyramid called the Red Pyramid. My mother had packed a lunch in our cooler, including some cans of imported diet soda for my diabetic brother, Don.

We picnicked in an isolated spot in the desert a ways from the Red Pyramid. By the time we finished, a small group of children had gathered around our car and they called out in Arabic, “baksheesh! baksheesh!” They wanted a tip – money. Their little hands poked through the open car windows, begging.

We did not give money to the kids (U.S. tourists were “not encouraged” to do so) – but we did “give” them something. As we were leaving we threw out the window my brother’s two empty aluminum cans. “They want them for a toy,” my father said as we drove away. The children screamed with joy. I looked out the back window as we slowly drove toward the pyramid. The children were piled on top of the cans, fighting to be owner of their newly found play things.

We hiked to the top of the pyramid’s peak, but my thoughts remained focused on the children fighting over what I had thrown away. Why was I destined to be the one in the car tossing junk to poor kids, instead of the one who was begging for a penny or an empty can?


Using simple stories to raise profound questions is among the oldest and best of teaching techniques. It is also an essential strategy in my teaching about globalization issues.

I view teaching about globalization and world justice issues much as I view issues of multicultural education. They need to be both woven throughout the curriculum and highlighted in specific lessons. This approach is necessary in part to find the time to teach about the issues, given all that elementary teachers are expected to cover. But also I find that an integrated approach helps motivate students and teaches them that these are central issues that cannot be dealt with in one or two activities. As a result, my lessons in math, science, social studies, writing, reading, current events – even discipline discussions – all have a world justice and multicultural theme woven throughout.

Teaching about global issues is not the norm in U.S. classrooms and I have struggled with how best to approach the topic. One of the dilemmas I have encountered is that I don’t want to negate my students’ instinctive feelings of empathy and caring, yet I want them to move beyond what in this country is often an “us versus them” dichotomy. I have found that discussions of globalization can feed into the inherently condescending attitude that people in the United States have all the answers, that people in “developing” countries are somehow inferior or less than human, and that assumes that the role of those in the United States is to “help the less fortunate.”

This article focuses on activities that attempt to move beyond the “us versus them” dichotomy and instead engender feelings of solidarity with others around the world. This by no means encompasses my teaching about globalization and there are other important issues, such as how I approach colonialism, world economics, environmental issues, social activism, and building solidarity and community within my own classroom. For a fuller discussion of these issues see Bill Bigelow’s and my forthcoming book, Rethinking Globali-zation: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World.

The story of my year in Egypt provokes thoughtful comments and questions among students. They express surprise that some children have so little and they wonder what life is like for children around the world. “I can’t believe kids actually wanted just an old can,” I recall a student saying. A response from another student stressed our commonalty: “I believe it. Every kid wants to play!”


Throughout my classroom discussions on globalization, I pose more questions, not so much in search of a specific answer, but for all of us to think about: How are our lives different from theirs? How are they similar? What do people in this country have to learn from people in other countries? Why does chance allow for some to live a life of relative luxury while others don’t know where their next meal is coming from? And what might we do about such things?

There’s no doubt that global problems are complex. However, even with elementary children there is no reason to unnecessarily simplify things. Questioning or problem posing is an effective means to keep discussions both interesting and complicated.

Early in the year, I use Tracy Chapman’s song Why? to pose questions. Chapman asks, for example, “Why do the babies starve when there is enough food to feed the world?” I give my students a copy of the lyrics (as I do with dozens of songs and poems we use in the classroom) to keep in a special three-ring binder, so that they might refer to them throughout the year.

Needless to say, we don’t answer Chapman’s question of “Why?” We note it, sometimes adding it to the spiral note book hanging on the wall entitled “Questions We Have.” I ask students what they think might be answers to her question and we note them as well. Ideas usually include a range of possibilities: lack of food, no jobs, too many people, war, drugs, and lazy people. I tell my students that this is but one example of the important questions we will ponder in 5th grade.

In the beginning weeks, I also share a few basic statistics from UNICEF, including the fact that about 30,000 children die daily from malnutrition and preventable illness. I ask my class, “How many schools with the same student population as ours would it take to equal the number of children who die each day?” This helps make the large number meaningful, and usually surprises the students at the depth of the problem. I also might share statistics such as approximately 130 million children do not attend elementary school, 1.1 billion people have no access to safe drinking water, and 3 billion lack adequate sanitation facilities.

I tell the students that we are going to try to not just feel sorry or sympathy for those people, but to develop “solidarity.” I have a student look up the word “solidarity” in the dictionary and they find that it means “unity, based on a community of interests.” We discuss what unity means and I ask, “What do you have in common with the kids who we’re talking about?”

“We all need to eat,” a student might respond. “We have to breathe!” So it goes, with kids usually identifying basic needs. I ask, “What are the basic needs of all humans, particularly children?” Working sometimes in small groups and sometimes as the entire class, students come up with food, shelter, clothes, water, schools, doctors, and toys. We discuss whether items are a basic need or a “desire.” For example, some classes have decided that while toys may not be a basic need for children, the right to play is. Out of such a discussion comes more questions, such as: “What would it feel like if your basic needs were not met?” “How many kids don’t have their basic needs met?” “Is anyone doing something to help kids who don’t have their basic needs met?” I encourage students to look up “children’s rights” and “human rights” in our school library and on the Internet. One book that kids find is A Children’s Chorus published by UNICEF. This beautifully illustrated book goes through the 10 principles contained in the 1959 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of a Child.

One challenge is to make sure that from the very start that such immense problems are not seen as “foreign,” only occurring among “others.” Thus I like to start my in-depth study of world justice issues at home. Some of my students bring to class certain stereotypes about the rest of the world, especially stereotypes they have gotten from TV and the media. Starting with problems in this country acts to counter stereotypes of “poor” Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It also centers the children in something that is familiar to many of them: poverty and homelessness in the United States.

One of my first reading/language arts units is on homelessness in the United States. I begin by displaying on my overhead projector a photo of a snowy scene in front of the White House. Before showing the caption I ask students to make observations. They ultimately are surprised that what they guessed were snow-covered rocks or garbage are actually sleeping homeless people (the photo is reproduced on p. 32 of Rethinking Our Classrooms). As with other photos I use, we make observations, talk about how we feel, connect it to what we already know, ask why the situation exists, and think about what might be done.


After this introduction, we take a few days to read Sharon Bell Mathis’s Sidewalk Story, which tells of a family being evicted from their apartment and the role of a nine-year old neighbor girl in fighting the eviction. We also read Langston Hughes’s Ballad of the Landlord and Lucille Clifton’s poem Eviction and write some of our own poems.

I also share news stories that talk of the continuing poverty in the United States and the intense poverty in some places overseas. I find it beneficial to begin with discussion of U.S. poverty because it is close to home and virtually all my students have stories to tell about homeless people who are relatives, or who they encounter in their neighborhoods or when they travel.

During these discussions, I occasionally find that some of my own students or members of their families are homeless. Because the stories and poetry I use portray homelessness as mainly a social problem – and not something to be ashamed of, my homeless students are usually willing to describe their situation; their classmates listen with respectful curiosity.

One year a student explained that during summer his house burned down and he was living in a motel room with several other family members. Once he shared the story, his classmates were more sensitive to some of his moods and needs. One student assisted him in co-writing a dialogue poem between a small home, the motel room, and a big home, the apartment where his family finally relocated. In a dialogue poem, two characters talk to each other; the dialogue poem is particularly effective in getting kids to understand how things are similar yet different. (An example is on p. 28, the Student Page; for teaching ideas see p. 42 of Rethinking Our Classrooms.)

With the children having some basic background about conditions in the United States, I feel more comfortable exploring poverty and injustice in other countries. Helping the students recognize there is a commonality to such problems helps lays the groundwork for developing attitudes of solidarity that go beyond mere charity. In other words, I want students to recognize patterns in world problems and how those patterns are connected to problems in our own communities and country. Then students are more likely to begin to understand that working for global justice also involves changing “our” world as well, and that when we help to change conditions for “others” we are helping to change them for ourselves.

I try to help my students develop a feeling of solidarity through understanding the often-expressed notion that “no person is an island” or, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it so eloquently, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This is no simple task in a culture that glorifies individual consumption as a vehicle to personal satisfaction. My students are little different than many U.S. youth, – 65% of whom have TVs in their bedrooms and who watch on average nearly 25 hours of TV a week and more than 20,000 television commercials a year. I regularly challenge my students on what I label “TV addiction” and ask them to think about what they see, think, and buy.

In one activity, I place a shopping bag in front of the class and ask the students to guess what is inside. As their guesses get more accurate I take out a T-shirt, a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy, and a Nike shoe. I then ask how far these items have traveled. Initial responses are, “from McDonald’s” or “from the store.” As I question students, it becomes clear to them that the items were made somewhere else.

I have a student come up and read where each item is from; we then locate the country on the world map. We talk about where other things are from as we examine backpacks, shoes and clothing. For homework, students do a “Where Are My Things From?” activity, in which they list 10 household items, the brand name, and where they are made. The next day students share lists and label and color maps indicating the origin of their common things.


Along with this activity I show the video When Children Do the Work, which graphically portrays the harsh conditions of sweatshops and how some children are robbed of their childhood. The first segment of the video is an excerpt from the National Labor Committee’s Zoned for Slavery video which describes sweat shop conditions in garment factories in El Salvador and Honduras. The video’s narrator explains that a Gap shirt made in El Salvador sells in the U.S. for $20, but the workers receive just 12 cents. “Who gets the other $19.88?” the narrator demands. I later use these and other statistics for story problems in math.

The second segment of the video examines child workers in Pakistan. A carpet factory manager explains that he has 40 looms worked by 100 children and that “we chain them three or four hours a day to teach them not to run away.” He adds that the children also sleep chained to their looms. My students are repelled by scenes of such oppression, but inspired by the story of Iqbal Masih, a child worker who became an activist with the Bonded Labor Liberation Front and who was killed under suspicious circumstances.

The final segment shows the Women’s Network of the United Food and Commercial Workers union leafleting a WalMart store, protesting the sale of products made by eight- to 12-year-olds in Bangladesh. The workers explain why they think that such practices are both morally wrong and an attack on working people in this country. I remind my students of newspaper articles we’ve read about area companies moving to places of cheap labor, putting area workers out of work. This reinforces my emphasis on building a sense of solidarity with others around the world who are fighting economic oppression.

To further deepen children’s understanding of their interconnectedness to conditions around the world, I use Bernice Reagon’s song Are My Hands Clean? The song tells the story of a blouse that is created from the labor and resources of El Salvador, Venezuela, Trinidad, Haiti, South Carolina, and New Jersey. The children trace the route of the blouse and its raw materials on a map, and contrast the wages of the workers that are described in the song.

When I first used this song I assumed that children would easily get the message of connectedness and potential responsibility as the title implies. No such luck. After playing the song I ask, “What does ‘Are my hands clean?’ really mean?” I receive a range of responses including “the workers’ hands get dirty in those sweatshops,” “all those chemicals in the shirts must dirty our hands,” “because it’s been everywhere we should wash the shirts before we wear them or our hands will get dirty,” and “maybe we’re responsible for how those people have to work so hard because we buy the clothing.” I tell students that the expression “to wash ones hands of something” means to take no responsibility and I ask “what would it mean to make our hands clean?”

I have also found that poetry is particularly useful in helping children understand comparisons and contrasts – to reinforce similarities between people and yet highlight inequalities that need to be explored. The dialogue poem is an especially good model. Sometimes, I use photos of child workers or sweatshop employees to spark the poetry writing. Working in pairs, students examine the pictures and then write a dialogue poem – between a boss and a worker, for example, or between a child worker and child student, a poor child and a rich child. Later the students share their poems with each other or with 4th grade students during our bi-weekly “sharing” process. Some are included on our “Stop Child Labor and Sweat Shops” bulletin board.


I do various class activities to help students place child labor and sweat shops in the context of broader economic issues. As part of math class, I have students graph and demonstrate the disparities of wealth between continents of the world (See Rethinking Our Classrooms, p. 92 ). In one activity, I have each of my 25 students represent 240 million people and then spread out to assigned continents on the global map that is painted onto our school’s playground. I then distribute 25 “treats” (usually cookies) according to the distribution of the world’s wealth; the continents of Europe and North America get nearly two-thirds of the wealth, or 17 of the 25 cookies. At times this leads to considerable dissension and cookie robbery, but also to an emotional learning experience that begins to unveil aspects of the great disparities in the distribution of wealth around the world.

Afterwards, I have students write and reflect on this activity. They invariably express disbelief and outrage at, as one student put it, “how come Asia has so many people and so few cookies, I mean resources.” Often the students representing North America and Europe refuse to share their treats, and this is seen as the highest form of selfishness. I then ask, “What would it mean in the real world for North America and Europe to share?”

I also want to show children that even within a country, wealth is not evenly divided. To do so, I use the “Ten Chairs of Inequality” simulation from the United for Fair Economy (see Rethinking Schools Vol. 12.3). In this exercise, the U.S. population is divided into tenths and represented by 10 students. The wealth in the United States is represented by 10 chairs in the front of the classroom. We start off with each of the 10 students sitting on one chair – how the country would be if wealth were evenly distributed. I then explain that, according to U.S. government statistics, a mere 10% of the population (represented by one person) occupied five chairs in 1976 and seven chairs as of 1996.

This activity elicits considerable conversation. I draw connections to earlier activities of the world distribution of resources and of sweatshops and child labor. This helps students realize that the issue isn’t just disparities in wealth between different countries but disparities within countries as well, in particular the United States. By recognizing that great divisions of wealth exist both within our country and throughout the world, students begin to see that problems can have common roots, thus further nourishing the seeds of solidarity.

They can begin to see that the problem is not so much a division of wealth and power between countries as it is a division of wealth and power between social classes.

One year students were so interested in pursuing these issues that they asked to set up what became the “No Child Labor Club” which ultimately included 3rd, 4th and 5th graders. The club did additional research, made posters, circulated a petition, and eventually participated in a local march sponsored by labor organizations against NAFTA and sweatshops. A couple of my students spoke at the rally which started at our school and marched to a nearby factory that had moved its operations to Mexico. Even though my students focused almost exclusively on the issue of child labor, they were amongst the most warmly received speakers.

Keshia Hernandez, a fifth grade student at the time, told the crowd of about 150 people that she hated child labor. “I will spread my feelings around the world,” she promised.

Keshia had heard my story about my experience in Egypt. How much of it she remembered I don’t know. I do know, however, that while the question of “why” that flows from that story may never be adequately answered, there are other important questions that elementary students can wrestle with and begin to answer. Questions like, “Why is the world the way it is?” and, “What can we do to make it a more just place?” Through such questioning, the seeds of solidarity will hopefully take hold and begin to flourish.

Bob Peterson ( teaches 5th grade at La Escuela Fratney and is an editor of Rethinking Schools. He and Bill Bigelow are co-editors of the forthcoming book, Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World.