Open Minds to Equality

I’ve always loved Rethinking Schools, so I figured that one of their two publications on my reading list would be a good place to start my education reading this year. After devouring Open Minds to Equality this week, I think that I may have already found the most useful book that I will read from my list.

If you are remotely interested in social justice education in the elementary grades, I advise you to go buy this book right away. I cannot believe that it has been sitting on my bookshelf for two years and I’d never so much as opened it. If there was one book that I regret not reading before I started my first year teaching, this is it.

I became passionate about and did a lot of research and reading around social justice education while I was in college and in graduate school. The trouble with many of the excellent publications around social justice education (some of which I will also be reading this year) is that they are often very theoretical or focus on implementing these ideas at a secondary or college level. Open Minds to Equality opens with two quick chapters summarizing why social justice education is worthy of pursuit and then follows with 9 chapters full of brilliant activities for having elementary students explore many different dimensions of discrimination. The chapters build upon one another in complexity and I could imagine my second graders being able to complete many of the lessons with some minor modifications. (The ideal grade range for these lessons is probably 4-6).

I’ve already begun a list of activities from this book that I hope to incorporate this year, but I think that the foundational activities for building trust and classroom community will really set the tone for my classroom next year. (Again, that sense of regret that I didn’t read this book sooner!) Many of the lessons would map well onto any curriculum already in place in an elementary classroom — I know that I found many lessons that will help to amplify the critical lenses that my students bring to my advertising unit and there are several activities about calendars that I plan to use during my holidays unit next year. I also appreciated that many of these ideas could be applied to any content that a teacher might have to cover.

Another excellent feature is the extensive resource section in this book. I have been quite frustrated with my efforts to find non-biased books for my classroom and have worked hard to piece together many of the brief lists that seem to be out there for specific topics. Open Minds to Equality has a lengthy bibliography of fiction, nonfiction, and media resources for supplementing these lessons but which I will also use to continue to build a diverse classroom library.

I feel as though all this praise makes it sound like I’m trying to sell the book to you all — I only wish that I had some affiliation with Rethinking Schools. In the midst of a rough January in my classroom, this book has left me feeling inspired not only about the things that I will put into place next year, but about the lessons that I can use right now to rejuvenate my students and to deepen the sense of trust and community in my classroom.

I think that I’ll end this review here. Next up on my book list — the classic Real Boys by William Pollack, which will likely only inspire me to use the countering-sexism lessons I found and flagged in Open Minds to Equality!

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Fostering the Growth of Worldly Citizens: Classroom “Field Trips”

Here, finally, is a post about my classroom “field trips.” Let me preface this entry by reminding those of you who do not know that I teach in rural Maine. Many of my second graders have never been outside of Maine in all of their young lives. While my students differ tremendously in terms of social class, it is also worth noting that they are all white. Thus, one of my objectives this year has been to increase my students’ awareness of different types of people, places, and cultures. This is no easy task considering that the racial diversity in my school is just above zero and our location in a rural area means that I cannot easily take my students to a diverse metropolis to experience different cultures firsthand. So, one solution that I have come up with is to take my students on monthly, day-long “field trips” where we explore a different country of the world.

In September, my students and I traveled to England — the country where I studied abroad and about which I feel I have the most expertise. I was a little bit worried about whether my students would buy into the field trip — but as they sat making their passports I realized that they really thought we were going to England! (One of my favorite funny moments of the year so far happened when I had to console one of my boys who was sobbing and shaking because he is apparently petrified of airplanes!) When they returned from recess and lined up at the “ticket desk” to board the airplane I’d set up in the room, there was actually some disappointment that we weren’t headed to the airport! By the time we did our second field trip at the end of October, my students were much more sure about what to expect, and were eager to make their way onto the plane to Mexico City.

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During the “flights” on these field trips, I give the students some background information about the country. On the England trip, I showed them maps, told them how many times they’d have to drive to the local pizza parlor to travel the same distance as it is from Maine to England, tried to explain the concept of time zones, and showed them some images of England’s diverse geography. On the Mexico trip, I also showed them maps, told them about Mexican money (money was our math topic of focus in October), and pointed out parts of Mexican culture that have made their way into the US (here I was a little wary of falling into the “food and holidays” multiculturalism trap, but I tried to think outside the box as best as I could.)

On each field trip I also have a “main activity” that we do while we are there. In England, it was a jigsaw where my students learned about three different famous landmarks in England — Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and Stonehenge.

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In Mexico, our major activity was actually three different centers — reading a book all about Mexico, creating their own Day of the Dead altars to honor someone in their lives who had died, and writing a postcard that included at least three Spanish words or phrases.

My students have absolutely loved these trips. After the England trip, my students continued to use the English slang that they learned — they often ask me to say “queue up” instead of “line up,” and they kept talking about the landmarks for quite some time. They also continue to ask me to share more Spanish words with them from time to time and have been making even more connections between their lives and Mexican culture.

While I am always slightly wary of being tokenistic in my representations of other cultures, I think that these field trips — just one component of my attempt to open up the world beyond their small, rural town for my students — are a great way to immerse my students in thinking about ways of being other than their own. It doesn’t hurt that they’re a lot of fun, too!