Friday, April 8, 2016

Educating Fifth Graders about Social Justice



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By Naveena Bembry, Fifth Grade Teacher

As a teacher in a Quaker school, I seek ways to empower students to have a voice and give meaning to the Quaker principle, “Let your life speak.” 

In fifth grade, we have actively explored Goal 1 of our Strategic Vision -- which calls upon us to deepen our identity as a Quaker school -- by nurturing Quaker values through the lens of social justice. In that process, we are building the kind of consciousness that will prepare students to fulfill our ultimate goal to educate students "to live lives that make a difference."

Inspired by the “I too am Harvard” campaign and similar movements on college campuses around the country and beyond, it struck me that the voices of young people are powerful and should be lifted up. With our fifth graders, we began the process of finding our voices by having conversations about social justice issues.

We analyzed texts and images that sparked conversations about social justice issues connected to ideas of power imbalances, layers of identity, socioeconomic status, gender roles, environmental stewardship and inequality. Our classroom provided a safe space for us to talk about diverse perspectives, microaggressions, stereotypes and the critical role that language plays in our interactions with each other. 

I shared images from the “I too am Harvard” style campaigns that have spread to many college campuses, and we analyzed the experiences that might have sparked a student to write a particular message like the one above: "Intelligence is not determined by race."

What do you stand for?

I was drawn to the simplicity of using a white board and a dry erase marker to write a deeply rooted belief or a profound message about an experience and so, we embarked on a journey to lift up the voices of fifth graders, asking each: What do you stand for? Each one of their messages was captured in a photo and the photos were displayed together for all to see.

There was quite a buzz when the photos went up, and one student remarked, “Wow, I never knew that my classmates had all of these opinions. These messages tell us so much about who we all are.” In that moment, it was clear to me that this class project provided a window for students to grow from their peers’ perspectives, convictions and personal experiences. With each message, we gained valuable insight into our fifth grade community.                                        


The simplicity of student voices

A sampling of student responses appears below.The beauty of this experience was the way that the simplicity of sharing student voices ignited our learning and expanded our thinking in so many powerful directions.


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