Guest Blog: Vanessa D’Egidio on Teaching for Social Justice in Primary School Classrooms

Vanessa D’Egidio teaches for social justice in primary school classrooms (photo courtesy: Vanessa D’Egidio).

The following guest blog by Vanessa D’Egidio is the first in a three-part series on teaching for social justice featuring the work of educators in primary, middle, and high school classrooms.

Vanessa D’Egidio is currently a second grade teacher in New York City. As a graduate of both Barnard College’s Childhood Education Program and the Curriculum and Teaching Master’s Program at Teachers College, Vanessa brings to the classroom a passion for teaching for social justice. Vanessa has gained a diverse wealth of experiences studying and working in Hong Kong,  Italy, and New York and is a member of the Teaching Tolerance advisory board.

“Children, not yet aware that it is dangerous to look too deeply at anything, look at everything, look at each other, and draw their own conclusions.” -James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”

Those who spend time with children know what James Baldwin noted in his 1963 speech to teachers to be true. Young children seem to carry an inherent curiosity and keen eye for observation with them to and from school. They notice the world around them. They ask questions. They notice differences. They notice similarities. They speak what’s on their minds.

Young children have not yet learned the art of self-censorship that comes with age. For some, issues related to diversity can be ignored. For others, this colorblind approach is a privilege they can never have, especially those who are directly impacted by social “–isms” such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. These children do not have the choice to turn a blind eye to bias, stereotyping, and prejudice.

Sometimes, issues related to diversity come up spontaneously in the classroom. A child will make a comment or ask a question. A teacher may overhear a conversation. I have witnessed children make a myriad of comments both inside and outside of school. “Why does she have brown skin?” “You can’t have a family with two mommies. It has to be a mommy and a daddy!” “Pink is a girl’s color!” While it is important to seize these “teachable moments” when they arise, I think it is even more important to design and implement an anti-bias curriculum that integrates culturally relevant teaching and addresses social justice pro-actively.

I believe that an anti-bias curriculum cannot be a superficial add-on to the existing curricula; it must be thoughtfully planned and responsive, as well as pervasive and embedded within all aspects of the teaching-learning process. A huge part of my practice involves building up my students’ critical thinking skills and ability to engage in dialogue around complex social issues. I want them to feel safe in our teaching-learning environment so they can ask questions, make connections, share personal experiences, and talk openly and honestly about who they are and what they observe in the world around them, particularly in regards to the “isms” that continuously impact our communities.

I also encourage my students to be allies—or people who have the courage to stand up and speak out in the face of unfairness—whether it is in the form of a gender-related bullying situation at recess or a larger issue they have observed.

Below are some classroom practices I use to integrate social justice and anti-bias principles into my second grade curriculum. These strategies are not meant to be prescriptive or implemented as “easy” solutions. Anti-bias work in the classroom is inherently complex, messy, and challenging. Keeping this reality in mind though, it can be done, and more importantly, it can be adapted successfully for the primary classroom.

Community Building

At the beginning of the year, a huge part of a primary grade curriculum is establishing a strong sense of classroom community. Community building is a critical and foundational component of anti-bias teaching and learning.

We have regular “community meetings” in which we discuss issues or engage in community building activities. For example, we practice making eye contact, taking turns, building on or connecting to something a classmate has said, and respectfully disagreeing with someone. These are all discussion skills that, for young children, must be modeled and used consistently so that students can effectively dialogue with one another.

In my classroom, social-emotional strategies are explicitly taught and utilized in situations requiring collaboration and cooperation. Conflict resolution and anti-bullying education are also essential. It is important that students learn what to do when confronted with bullying and how they can be allies/upstanders themselves or seek out the help of adult allies. Being an inclusive friend and schoolmate is a daily way that students can connect their own choices to positive social action.

Concept Mapping

To foster a safe, open environment for dialogue and risk-taking, I often engage my students in open-ended brainstorming activities around various social justice or anti-bias topics. One such activity is concept mapping. Throughout the year, I repeatedly concept map to see whether my students’ understandings, questions, and connections are changing. Concept mapping can be done on paper, a board, or with technology using programs such as Webspiration, Kidspirationand many others, some of which are free online.

To dismantle stereotypes and move my students forward in their understandings of identity and justice/injustice, the first step is to gauge their preconceived notions. I write the concept at the center of the paper in a circle. For example, I could write “skin color” if I were engaging my students in a study of race, or “girls and boys” if I were exploring gender.

Ask the students to share everything they know about this concept. Document their thoughts, stopping along the way to ask clarifying questions and allow students to connect to one another’s ideas: “What makes you say that?” or “Why do you think that?” or “How do you know?” or “Put your thumb up/down if you agree/disagree” or “Does anyone want to respond to that?” etc.

While recording students’ thoughts and/or questions, you can link up similar ideas with arrows or lines to show connections between ideas. During these discussions, the students’ responses and questions reveal everything from insightful background knowledge, to students’ interests related to the topic, to personal experiences, to misconceptions and possible biases.

Read-Alouds and Classroom Libraries

Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester (image credit: Harper Collins).

Read-alouds are a standard staple of literacy curricula in the lower grades. Books can be utilized as vehicles to introduce or highlight social justice, anti-bias, or diversity concepts and issues. Our classroom libraries should include a diverse array of characters, stories, and perspectives. There are many picture books available that reflect the multitude of backgrounds and experiences of children, families, and others in our immediate and global communities. Resources include: Lee and LowBusboys and PoetsMulticultural Children’s Literature, and The Children’s Peace Education and Anti-Bias Library.

For instance, two examples of fantastic read-alouds to explore diverse families are In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco and The Family Book by Todd Parr.  The Colors of Us by Karen Katz and Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester are also great resources out of the many invaluable picture books that explore race and racism.

Activities connected to the read-alouds are also crucial. For example, after reading The Colors of Us together, I ask students to name their own unique skin color. We then marvel at our proud work and at the lovely colors and names students have created such as “harvest moon,” “caramel chocolate,” etc. Healthy identity development is critical at a young age, so I always look for books and learning experiences in which students can express who they are and better understand themselves and others.

Critical Media Literacy on Gender

(photo credit: Ottawa Skeptics)

I teach students to look critically at the world around them by identifying unfairness, engaging in problem solving, and taking action. For instance, young children are fully equipped to notice stereotypes and biases in media representations of gender. When I gave my second grade students toy and clothing catalogues as well as commercials to analyze, they were able to notice inconsistencies with the ways children and products are presented in these ads and what they have experienced personally or seen in other children around them.

My students noticed that toys and clothing marketed for girls are overwhelmingly pink and purple. They also noticed that these images focus on dramatic play involving princesses, cooking, fashion and beauty, babies and dolls, while the items “made for boys” are often blue and involve fighting, action figures, cars and trucks, superheroes, and science.

Students made observations, formulated very strong opinions, asked questions, and connected these gender stereotypes to their own lives. “Wait, I’m a boy but I like purple.” “I have a friend who’s a girl and she loves playing with trucks.” “Why do most of these toys care about how girls look?” “Why are only boys supposed to want to play with action figures and fighting toys?” “A girl can be energetic and rough and a boy can be sweet and gentle.”

Students then connected these gender stereotypes to social and emotional issues, as they realized that these stereotypes can make a child feel like they have to fit in or change who they are out of fear of being bullied by their peers. This social-emotional aspect resonated with so many of my students, who shared their own experiences and those of others they know.

When I asked my students what we could do about this unfairness and how we could be allies to make sure children don’t feel like they need to fit into a gender stereotype, they came up with several insightful ideas to take action.  They decided that they wanted to write persuasive letters to toy companies and stores, urging them to address gender stereotyping in their products and spaces.

Ethnic Studies

(photo credit: Feminist Wire)

This year, my second graders and I studied the current situation in the Tucson Unified School District concerning their ethnic studies program, specifically the Mexican-American studies program, which has been dismantled due to the passage of HB2281. Books from Mexican-American and Latino perspectives have been confiscated from Arizona classrooms under this bill, and classes teaching about Mexican-American history and literature have been banned, even though the majority of students in the district are Mexican-American and the program brought about academic improvement and student success.

We discussed why it is important for students to learn about their own and different cultures, as well as why it is fair to include and learn from many voices, perspectives, and stories. We looked through our own classroom library and curriculum, discussing how diversity among the students, in our books and resources, and in how and what we teach and learn, is such a valuable part of our classroom community.

My students began writing letters and making posters in support of the students, teachers, and community activists who are struggling to get their classes and resources back. During these activities, students should genuinely feel that they matter and can make a difference in their communities.

Teaching Tolerance and the Southern Poverty Law Center

I have the honor of serving on the Teaching Tolerance advisory board and strongly encourage readers to check out Teaching Tolerance’s free K-12 resources. Founded in 1991 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Teaching Tolerance is dedicated to reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations and supporting equitable school experiences for our nation’s children. Teachers can order free curriculum kits that will be sent at no cost. I also encourage readers to sign up for their free email newsletter and print magazine.

These resources affirm what I believe: only by collectively recognizing and actively working against bias will social justice take root in our communities.


3 thoughts on “Guest Blog: Vanessa D’Egidio on Teaching for Social Justice in Primary School Classrooms

  1. Well written and extremely pertinent post on the necessity for ALL school districts to include anti bias education in curricula throughout the primary grades in order for profound and positive societal changes to occur, especially regarding the mentioned “isms”.

  2. Nice Job Ms. D’Egidio. This is a difficult challenge that faces our policy makers on Education. Race, Economic Status, Gender Identification, and the effects of Social Policy all effect Education Curriculum and will continue to be a quagmire for grade school teachers to navigate.

  3. Pingback: Selected Work – GSLIS Queens College

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