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How to Teach Social Justice to a 3rd Grader

At KIPP NYC, we have five guiding principles that support our “commitment to excellence,” and our overall mission of preparing students to go to and through college. One principle is our commitment to social justice, ensuring we continually combat the racism and injustices our students of color face every day and to make sure our staff can truly understand the challenges of our students and their families. Addressing social justice is critical as our students navigate social, political, and economic roadblocks on their journey to and through college.

Each KIPP NYC school has its own approach. Lamar Ok is in his third year as a 3rd grade teacher at KIPP Infinity Elementary School and serves as the campus social justice lead. Lamar took some time to tell us how his school is supporting staff and students to dig into this complex and important topic.

At your campus, all staff members teach a social justice class every two weeks. How do you develop lessons for teachers to implement?

Kids start to understand and perceive race as early as three years old, so I knew we needed to talk about it in elementary school. The structure for my class is based on the strategies detailed in Storytelling for Social Justice: Connecting Narrative and the Arts in Antiracist Teaching. My aim was to find a way to discuss social justice at an elementary level. I took these strategies and built lessons in response to what the kids were discussing every day.

When I say “social justice curriculum,” I’m not talking about the typical ELA or math curriculum most people think about. It’s not pre-built. I create foundational lessons, choosing topics based on what students are speaking about and allowing the class to go in different directions based on the students’ responses. Right now we are talking about racism, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump. Students are interested in how the election impacts them and their families. Last year, our students were talking about gender and asking questions such as why there weren’t many female scientists and why there aren’t a lot of male teachers. As teachers, we respond to their interest and create a discussion space for them in our social justice class. We facilitate these conversations, letting students answer the critical questions without imposing our own beliefs on them.

What is your ultimate goal as the social justice lead?

My ultimate goal is for kids to understand their social location in the world and to critique their world. I grew up thinking I was born poor and that’s just the way life worked. I saw a lot of people of color working as custodians and in fast food. I want my students to question that. I don’t want them to internalize any of the oppression that I internalized growing up.

When I went to college at a predominantly a white school in Connecticut, I was shocked. I did not know how to navigate a world with white people. I want my kids to thrive in different environments and I want them to feel empowered to make social change. I always pose this question to my students, “if you were born into a world you consider to be ugly, how beautiful can you make it?”. My ultimate goal is for kids to make their world beautiful.

How do you prepare other teachers to facilitate these conversations?

We go through the lesson together and I scaffold the questions each teacher should pose to their class. We then try to predict student reactions and practice responses for each particular scenario. Essentially, I am training teachers how to facilitate social justice lessons.

I also hold a Social Justice book club for staff. If you want to learn more about social justice, then you are welcome to join us every Thursday after school. Right now we are reading two books, Feeling White and the Mis-Education of the Negro. We slowly dissect these texts and think about the big questions. Who am I as an educator? Who am I as a person? And how does that impact working with black and brown kids?

How do you structure the time and space for social justice work in your classrooms?

In kindergarten through second grade, we read-aloud from multicultural texts, sharing stories of the untold. In 3rd and 4th grade, the focus is on peer-led discussions. I pose a whole class question, students do a quick activity, and then they debrief as a class. They then have homework assignments where they need to discuss these topics with their families. A recent homework assignment was for students to interview their family members about their experiences with racism.

What advice would you give to someone else who is trying to incorporate social justice classes at their school?

I would recommend starting a book club because reading and engaging in a dialogue with staff is where it all begins. My push is for teachers to start reading with each other and to start talking with each other. In order to take action you have talk about it as a staff and you can’t be afraid. It will be uncomfortable, but you can’t be afraid of it.

You also need to communicate with families. Send letters home to let families know their child will have a social justice class. I send a letter every August to all 3rd and 4th grade families telling them that social justice class is a place where kids critique the world and explore their identities without teachers imposing their beliefs. I invite families to come into the classroom and watch the lessons. I’ve never had a negative response, and I think more importantly, these social justice conversations have actually helped parents to have open conversations with kids that maybe they didn’t know how to have before.