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“An Innate Sense of Justice": Social Justice for Small Humans

By Christina Torres — August 31, 2018 3 min read

How young is too young?

I think, as teachers, this is a question we ask ourselves a lot. We know it’s our job to face down tough topics, but I know I’ve asked when is it appropriate to broach these topics-- not so much out of a need to “coddle” students, but because it feels hard to willing break their innocence about a world that is far harsher for them than I’d like.

Fortunately, there are some amazing teachers out there who are doing this work with students who we often worry are “too young” for these discussions. By approaching them less as “little kids” and perhaps more as “small humans,” they are having some fantastic and important conversations with students around these important issues.

Jess is one of those teachers. A fifth-grade literacy teacher and writer based near Chicago, IL, she recently put out a question on Twitter about picture books to help teach her students about the power of questioning the system. Below is a brief interview, as well as a list of the books she was recommended.


What inspired you to ask for these resources?

Over the summer, I read the book Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby as a part of the #CleartheAir discussions that are run by Val Brown. After reading the book, I did a lot of thinking about compliance and I realized that I wanted to start my year with a different kind of conversation about rules. I wrote up a blog post about my thinking and my plans that gives a detailed explanation of the work that I wanted to do.

Reading Troublemakers helped me to see that too often we send messages to kids that I think end up hurting our communities, society and world later on. We tell kids to follow rules. To accept authority without question. We punish kids when they push back. We see it as disrespectful when they question us.

And then, when you look at what is happening in today’s world, we see so many people accepting rules that feel so unjust. We see people willing to go along with the way things are, even when the way things are deny people their right to freedom and full humanity. And we wonder why adults are so willing to accept injustice.

But I think we can tie that right back to what we teach kids in school. So, I wanted to try to do better. I wanted to try to help my students to see that there are rules that keep us all safe and it is important to follow those rules even if it stops us from doing something we think might be fun. However, there are also rules that are written that deny people justice. Those rules needed to be changed. So I want to help kids to read rules as critically as we ask them to read other texts. I want them to know how to identify rules that are unfair and how to work together to get those rules changed.

What sort of discussions are you hoping to have with these books?

Once I knew that I wanted to do this work, I knew that I would need texts to help me. So I asked for recommendations of books that would act as a roadmap for kids in doing this work. I wanted books that showed examples of people who stood up against unfair rules and took action to see that those rules were changed.

As we look at these books together, I hope to work to identify the unfair rules and then identify the specific actions that people took in order to get those rules changed. I want to also work to point out the resistance that people faced when doing the work to change these rules. Many of my kids still believe that if you ask for a change, it is either going to happen right away or it is never going to happen and you should just give up. I want to help them to see that people who work to create more just societies have to persevere against a lot of resistance. I want to help them see the ways that they do this.

After looking at examples, then we can start to identify rules in our own lives and in our own world that feel unjust and unfair. Together, we can learn how to learn more about those rules and start to plan our own ways to push back against those rules and ask for change.

Any recommendations for other teachers looking to use texts like these?

Kids have a natural and innate sense of justice. They will show us where to go with these conversations. Do not worry to much about having every discussion point planned out. Know the big ideas you want to bring to them, inspire them with inspiring people and inspiring texts and then follow them where they lead you.

Picture Books Recommended

Photo via Pixabay


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The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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