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. Continue reading