Elementary School Students Gain a Deeper Understanding of Justice Through Reading

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justice mini unitThe schoolwide Quaker Mini Unit about justice has propelled the elementary school into many rich discussions and thought-provoking activities as students and faculty work together to develop a deeper understanding of justice. Here are a few samples of how justice is being taught in reading groups and in the classroom:

As part of the social justice author study, our reading group is using the works of author Vera B. Williams to explore economically and racially diverse families. Specifically, we have been discussing needs vs. wants as well as the financial decisions that each family makes. In the books, A Chair for My Mother and A Chair for Always, the family saves coins in a jar to purchase a comfortable, cozy armchair because their house burned down in a fire. The students completed a visual chart to help distinguish the difference between a need and a want. Furthermore, the students discussed that given a person or family’s economic status, certain needs or wants may not be attainable. They discussed the impact that this could have on someone. Throughout this unit the students also discussed how Williams chose to include characters of varying races in her beautiful illustrations which depict all different types of people.
~ Taryn Turner, Elementary School Reading Teacher

Our reading group began the year with an author study of Dr. Seuss. The group read five stories by Dr. Seuss and several excerpts from the biography Who Was Dr. Seuss? The group began by reading Dr. Seuss’ second children’s book, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and explored the themes of inequality and imbalance of power through class discussion and focused image analysis of selected illustrations. Students then used dictionaries (real paper dictionaries!) to define the terms justice, injustice, and fairness. Equipped with a lens of inquiry and a taste of Dr. Seuss’ inimitable verbal and visual style, the group set out to consider the justice angle of four more Dr. Seuss stories. In Yertle the Turtle, students identified the characters who benefit from injustice, those who speak up for justice, and the motivations of those turtles who help to perpetuate an unjust system. The Sneetches provided a story of the impact of difference. Students wrestled with the question of treating others differently based on different appearances, and whether and how the choices we make impact how we are treated. Students next explored questions of conflict and violence by reading The Butter Battle Book, a cold war allegory that features an arms race between the Yooks and the Zooks prompted by a disagreement over which side of toast should be buttered. The students considered who was harmed by violence or the threat of violence and what it meant to escalate and drive conflict. The students were interested to learn about the historical context of The Butter Battle Book and spent a lesson exploring the Encyclopedia Britannica elementary edition page on the Cold War to learn about that period of history. Finally, the students read The Lorax. After discussing the concepts of environmental justice and shared resources, students were asked to consider the motivations of the polluting Once-ler and whether there was anything in their own lives that depended on the consumption of natural resources. As a culminating project students will work to identify contemporary instances of injustice of any kind. They will then write a Seuss-style protest in which they will don the mantle of a Lorax-like character and speak up for an injustice that they feel deserves more attention.                                                       ~ Greg Hill-Ries, Elementary School Teacher

The Penn Room has been deeply engaged in its justice mini-unit, exploring the idea of justice both conceptually and historically. After conducting an inquiry-based lesson in which students attempted to define the word, students participated in an activity where they were all provided the same crayon color, types of chairs, and snack. Additionally, they were told they must each participate in the group discussion twice, but could not contribute more than twice. The purpose of this was to illustrate the difference between equality and equity, the latter which was defined as equal access (or “opportunity”). Students began to realize that being given the same amount or type of thing was not always equitable, as some individuals may need more of a particular resource, or a different resource altogether, to achieve the same end.
Furthermore, Penn Room students learned about the injustices that characterized Jim Crow laws, and how these injustices led to blatant discrimination and violence. Through a series of lessons that focused on those who worked tirelessly for justice, they studied Mary “Mother” Jones, Helen Keller, Malala Yousafzai, Martin Luther King Jr., Rachel Carson, and Muhammad Ali, among others. As part of a lesson on Helen Keller, students learned that in addition to being blind and deaf, she was a fierce advocate for human rights. Interweaving aspects of the learning disabilities curriculum, they read The Black Book of Colors by Menena Cottin, a book that uses raised lines, Braille, and descriptions of colors based on imagery to illustrate how someone who is blind might experience color. They then created their own version of the book, using glue to create illustrations that accompany their own written, sensory interpretations of various colors. Going forward, students will identify areas of injustice in which they are interested and produce public service announcements for these, with the aim of raising awareness in their school community.      ~ Luis Betancourt and Dustin Webster, Elementary School Classroom Teachers

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