Teaching is a powerful tool, and a way to gain insight into yourself and society. Five days a week I wake up and go to work raising the upcoming generation from 9:00am until 3:45pm. It is a huge responsibility. Most days I am the one teaching them lessons, this week it was very different.
During our language arts comprehension lesson there is a portion called “listening comprehension”. During this time we practice comprehension strategies like retelling, asking questions, and making predictions. The stories connect to an essential question to go along with the week. Our question this week is: How do people help out in the community?
To connect to this essential question we read this: The Story of Martin Luther King Jr by Johnny Ray Moore. I pulled it up on the smartboard and I took a deep breath and braced myself. I thought it was bold that they were addressing the subject of race as boldly as they did in this story at such a young age. I had never taught the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr to my first graders in depth. In years pass it was usually a quick summary about his life before we had a day off in his remembrance.
I guess I never felt confident teaching such a touchy subject. Maybe it wasn’t my place as a teacher, I thought. Maybe this is something parents are suppose to instill in their children. Mostly because 6 year olds minds are unpredictable. Like a few years ago when one of my kids commented “a law is something that means you can’t marry your mom.” So true bud.
I was also worried that some of their comments would include attitudes passed on from their parents. No, I am not proud of these fears, but read on, it gets better. I was incredibly humbled today. And I realized that my fears and timidness in teaching good character should not be something I fear to teach.
My class is made up of 17 lively and beautiful 6 years olds. The ethnic ratio is predominately Latin American, with two Caucasian, one African American, and one Tongan. As I looked at each of their faces I couldn’t help but say a quick prayer that this lesson would go smoothly. I also couldn’t help my curiosity at what some of their comments would be as we dove into the childhood of Martin Luther King Jr.
The story began with Martin as a young child. The pictures showed him playing at a school that had playground equipment that was falling apart, separate restaurants for whites, and even separate drinking fountains. In all the pictures Martin’s face was depicted as confused or sad. I paused at this point and modeled retelling the different reasons Martin was upset. After modeling this strategy I asked my students a question: “Why would these three things make Martin feel sad?” I had them turn and talk with their partners to generate ideas.
When I called them back I asked a few students to share why Martin would be upset with these scenarios. One little girl raised her hand and said, “His family needs to eat like everyone else, if they can’t go into the restaurant then they can’t eat together as a family.”
Another child said, “He just wants to get a drink from the drinking fountain.”
A third child responded, “He wants to be able to play with other kids. He doesn’t care if they have a different color than him.”
I was floored. The smile on my face could not be denied as I watched my sweet littles answer this question as if it was so obvious–which it should have been back then, and now.
The story continued and explained that Martin grew up and became a preacher. He preached to over 200,000 people. The children’s eyes grew wide at hearing this number that they could barely comprehend. It could easily have equated to infinity in their minds.
The story came to the speech, where it touched on Martin’s infamous phrase, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin […].” The illustration showed Martin at the podium with a large crowd surrounding him.
As we talked about Martin’s dream I asked them another question, “So boys and girls, did Martin’s dream come true?”
They gave me a thumbs up. I asked another question, “How do you know his dream came true?”
They talked with their partners and then turned back to me. Their comments left me nearly speechless.
A little girl raised her hand and said, “I am friends with lots of kids who have different colors than me!”
Another child said, “I play with friends at my house that have different colors and it doesn’t matter to me.”
And probably my personal favorite:”Look at all of us in this class” and he indicates this by waving his chubby hand around the room, “we are all in the same class now even though our skins are different colors.”
Their response tones were so obvious. It was as if the discussion to them seemed silly because the idea of skin color never crossed their minds. Sitting together in a very diverse classroom they saw each other as children first and foremost, not as skin colors.
I wrapped up the lesson, realizing they had taught me more in 20 minutes than I could have ever taught them. As I reflected on the lesson I couldn’t help but wonder: if six year olds have it figured out, why don’t the adults?
I also wondered what would happen if this upcoming generation was raised to see each other as people first? Would our country’s struggle with racism improve? Would our culture change?
I also wondered if a vast majority of people don’t have a problem with the different ethnicities in our country, where is all this hatred coming from? Where is it starting? At what age? Will my littles sweet thoughts soon be tainted? And by who?
If 17 kids can see each other for who they are, then the generation above them (their parents) is doing something right. Can that continue up through the generations?
With all of the racism turmoil in the news and on social media lately my heart has been heavy with how to put my feelings on this subject into words. Yesterday I realized I didn’t need to. The upcoming generation did explained it better than I ever could.