No Fair! An Afternoon with the Social Justice in Early Childhood Study Group

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #14 in April 2014]

One sunny September Saturday afternoon, I threw a few apples in my backpack and left my apartment. The crisp air seemed to wash away the worries of the week as I walked a few blocks south to meet up with a small group of friends and colleagues, the Social Justice in Early Childhood Study Group. My arrival was met with a warm greeting and the offer of tea. I accepted and placed my apples, picked recently on a field trip with my three-to-six year-old students, on the table. As other group members arrived, we took turns descending the two flights of stairs to open the door, and soon the table was loaded with food. We are a group that puts ideas into action, and we take sharing and snack time very seriously.

I’ve been coming to these meetings about once a month since 2010. The group began as the Early Childhood Inquiry to Action Group (ItAG), sponsored by Teachers for Social Justice. After six weeks of intense study, reflection and discussion, we decided to continue meeting on a monthly basis. Over the past three years, group members have included teachers and administrators from public and private schools in Chicago and the suburbs. Once a month we gather to share food and ideas. Discussing readings, classroom experiences, and education policy is the work that brings us together. These conversations have grown into a sense of community that keeps us coming back.

What is social justice in early childhood?

We believe that the early childhood years directly and indirectly shape a young person’s growing sense of themselves and the world around them. The following excerpt from a chapter by Aurora Levins Morales continues to come up at group meetings: “Childhood is the one political condition, the one disenfranchised group through which all people pass. The one constituency of the oppressed in which all surviving members eventually stop being members and have the option of becoming administrators of the same conditions for new members. . . . At the same time because it is not permanent, because we pass through it and know we will, some of us are able to make and keep commitments to remember what we know about childhood, and make it different for the next generation”[1]. For us, social justice in early childhood includes a broad set of strategies and ideas that includes policy, collaborating with families, curriculum, and responding to the emotional and social needs of students.

The September meeting was dedicated to reflecting on the past year and planning for the new one. One group member, a teacher at a private school, told the story of one of her four year old students who suggested a change in the daily classroom routine: “We took it to the group and they voted on it and we changed it. It may seem small, but the children are realizing that things aren’t set in stone, and that you can choose, you can have a voice, and develop that.” We work hard to create experiences like this for our students, in the hope that they will become adults who seek out and build communities where all voices are valued and respected.

Educators need each other’s support. The social justice classroom doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Creating a classroom community founded on the values of justice, equity and collaboration takes skill and practice, and the opportunity to share resources and get feedback from colleagues is invaluable. In whatever setting we work, whatever population we serve, and no matter what curriculum we offer, teachers concerned with social justice pay close attention to developing the social climate of the classroom. Early experiences of social interactions, power, and conflict resolution can ripple and resonate into adulthood. Teachers have little control over the impressions that children have collected from popular culture or family dynamics. Our goal is to create a framework that will help our students recognize injustice and give them the tools to respond. It’s often best to start by working with children to construct a shared understanding of their lived experience. The common childhood cry, “No fair!” becomes an invitation, a jumping off point for defining fairness and exploring different ways of living in community. One group member summed it up this way, “Trusted teachers are culture filters. You’re not just a teacher, you’re an embodiment of what an adult can be, and children pay close attention to that.”

Why a study group?

There are many who might criticize our focus on developing social skills, agency, and expression. Indeed, many early childhood classrooms in Chicago are so driven by the pressures of standardized testing that there are few, if any such experiences being offered in the classroom. Another group member, a Head Start teacher, said she values the meetings because, “It keeps me grounded. In the midst of all the requirements and policies and everything, coming to this group reminds me what I actually want for my class, and how can I still be subversive and do that anyway.”

Despite the complexity and importance of their work, many early childhood educators have little time for reflection and discussion, and teachers who see their work in the context of social justice face the additional challenge of explaining the political aspects of their work. When the topic was raised at the meeting, one group member said, “There’s very few places for early childhood educators to go to talk about social justice, or even define what these issues look like in our classrooms.” Colleagues may not understand how early childhood education relates to social justice, but it’s central to what we do. Young children are interested in issues of fairness, and spend a lot of time discussing and practicing how to get along, how to be part of a group, and what’s fair as opposed to what’s equal. These experiences are the foundations of a social justice worldview.

Isolation can lead to burnout, and causes many teachers to abandon the very ideals that led them to the profession. One group member shared the following reflection, “How many people go into teaching thinking, ‘I want to train kids to take a test?’ There have been many times that I feel like I’m alone. I look at things differently, from an anti-bias, social justice mindset, and they can’t understand why I’m horrified at the idea of doing ‘Pilgrims and Indians’ for Thanksgiving. To me it’s obvious why you wouldn’t do this, but it doesn’t bug them.” It is incredibly challenging to create a meaningful social justice classroom without some kind of support network.

It is natural to feel surprise, discomfort, and doubt when confronted by a bias expressed by a child, or behavior that is unfair or hurtful. With experience, and the support of a group of trusted colleagues, teachers can learn to be proactive. Educators must help each other to reflect upon uncomfortable experiences, rather than simply wish they did not happen. When a pink mirror was donated to one group member’s classroom, she found that the boys in her class were more interested in playing with it than the girls. They loved sitting around pretending to comb each other’s hair, and she realized that many of them were being raised single-handedly by their mothers. An administrator told her the toy was for girls, but she continued letting the boys play with it. By discussing classroom interactions, such as the pink mirror, through a social justice lens, the members of the group hone their approaches to teaching in accordance with their anti-oppression values.

What’s Next?

If we are fearful we become isolated, stressed, and eventually disillusioned. We cannot allow this to continue to happen to teachers. The work that we can do with children and their families is too important and it can affect a positive and lasting change in culture. The study group is currently seeking to expand and diversify in the hopes of amplifying our impact. “I see my classroom with new eyes after these meetings,” said one group member as we wrapped up the meeting. We want to share this support system and sense of community with as many teachers as possible. Our structure is informal and focuses on building relationships between educators. Participation in the study group is completely voluntary, and members have free range to define readings, activities, and topics of discussion.

Recently there was some discussion of starting a blog or website for networking and resource sharing. There was also some excitement about the idea of students from different schools visiting each other’s classes or going on field trips together. No matter what we take on next, we are committed to continuing to meet to learn with and from one another. “This group is so revitalizing,” one group member commented as she helped clear the table after the meeting, “I feel energized and inspired.”

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[1] Aurora Levins Morales, Medicine Stories, South End Press (Cambridge), 1999, p. 51–52

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