Dr. Seuss books have long been held up as parables. For years, we’ve celebrated when Sam-I-Am’s persistence pays off and felt our hearts grow three sizes right along with the Grinch. But in February 2019, a groundbreaking study pinpointed in depth what people had been saying for years: White supremacy lurks in the pages of many Seuss books. The foundation of the easy-to-spot morals of the stories were disturbing depictions of people of color and racialized nonhuman characters. The study led a number of educators to wonder, How could these racist ideas exist alongside such valuable lessons? Alongside such kindness?
Educators, particularly elementary educators like me, are good at talking and teaching about kindness. It’s at the core of elementary pedagogy, after all: those lessons and teachable moments related to being a good friend, being generous and acting thoughtfully. But when being considerate, nice and friendly is all children learn about how to treat one another, we risk losing something fundamental.
Young children are not only developing a sense of morality; they are developing a sense of who they are. This includes their race, gender, class and more. These identities have never been treated or represented equally in our society, so when we teach about love, acceptance and kindness without addressing this inequity, we gloss over crucial differences in the ways our students experience the world.
The harm done by long-term exposure to injustice—to the kind of imagery found in racist books, microaggressions and discrimination—calls for more than a simple understanding of kindness. It demands that kindness be interwoven with substantial notions of true justice. That’s why, in my first-grade classroom, my goal was to guide students’ thinking in terms of real justice. I used a set of principles that went beyond kindness and moved toward specific actions students could take to counter bias and stereotypes and work for a more equitable future.
Building a More Just Curriculum
The first step was making space in my curriculum for the difficult realities of systemic injustice.
It’s easy, for example, to study the civil rights movement and cherry-pick quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King that focus on everyone getting along. But we can also show students that his famous speech imagining a world where children are judged “by the content of their character” is also the one in which he refuses half-measures toward equity, saying, “No, no, we are not satisfied. And we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Focusing on the dream of an equitable future without teaching the reality of an inequitable present ignores the radical anti-racism work that King and his contemporaries undertook at great risk and greater cost. It paints the false narrative that kindness is all we need to make social progress. And worse, it suggests that kindness has already won.
In my classes, instead of whitewashing these heroes, I wanted to paint a more detailed picture: They were flawed, human, ambitious, organized. Students deserve fuller stories of King, Gandhi, Rigoberta Menchú and others who practiced nonviolence while working for justice. They deserve tales told with nuance and complexities so they can learn what it really means to be an ally rather than a sanitized idol. Allowing students access to a fuller story helps them see that, even with healthy doses of love and compassion, kindness alone rarely brings about change. Change requires a real understanding of what injustice looks like—and a plan to combat it.
But building a just curriculum isn’t only about teaching history in a responsible way. It’s also about ensuring that all of our students are represented in our studies and that all are respected in our classrooms. Many schools make use of social emotional learning (SEL) curricula. Audits of SEL curricula and practices can make sure that the end result isn’t simply a more emotionally literate version of kindness.
I’ve used a variety of programs that aim to increase emotional intelligence, but they sometimes fall short of truly honoring children’s feelings, where they come from and how they’re treated. A just SEL curriculum honors differences and recognizes that emotions don’t exist in a vacuum. It also accounts for the history of pathologizing emotional expression by women and people of color and corrects for it.
When being considerate, nice and friendly is all children learn about how to treat one another, we risk losing something fundamental.
One year, a student asked me, “Is it OK for me to be really ticked off that all our presidents have been men?”
I told her that yes, of course it was—and she then wrote a long, furious letter to “the president’s house” demanding change. When we teach young people that their feelings are valid, we are recognizing that they are important too, and sometimes anger may well be the starting point in a fight for justice.
“The letter isn’t very nice,” she told me as I read it, “but it’s what I feel.”
Creating a Culture of Justice
Moving away from simple kindness and toward real justice begins with building an identity-safe classroom: a place where everyone’s story is not only recognized but honored, studied and loved. This means moving beyond a curricular focus to make justice part of a class’s daily culture.
In my elementary classes, I attempted to do this in a wide variety of ways—and my students always responded. Recently, I was working with a small group of first-graders on a reading assignment; partway through an old, dated book, the protagonist tells a friend he doesn’t want to play baseball with her because she “throws like a girl.” Without hesitation, a student slammed his fist down on the page and bellowed, “Microaggression alert!”
Every eye in the class turned to him. He was right, of course: This was no mere unkindness. This slight was rooted in identity and stereotypes. I recalled our earlier discussions about microaggressions. Students had discussed how that pain felt worse than other unkindness, how it was a different kind of hurt that demanded a different kind of intervention.
We paused to discuss why this insult might necessitate a different course of action than a simple “sorry.” We role-played the parts of—and brainstormed specific language for—the target (“I actually like the way I throw” and “Yes, I do: I’m a girl who throws”) and a bystander (“I’ll play catch with you. I like how you throw and how kids of all genders throw”).
We talked about the protagonist, and how he could apologize afterward: “I think I said that because I heard somewhere that girls can’t throw well. But I know that’s not true, and I’m sorry.” In looking for language that goes beyond the placations of typical apologies, students were able to explore what justice might look like in action.
What I tried to ensure in my classroom—frequently, intentionally and with care—was a viable, usable understanding of justice. Young people need to know what is (and isn’t) equitable, inclusive and just so they can begin to wrestle with systemic and institutional injustice, which affects them all in different ways. If I shirk the inclusion of justice in favor of a facile definition of being kind, I—intentionally or not—pave the way for students to believe they “shouldn’t see color” or find other ways to preserve their ignorance about marginalization, privilege and the often-complex reality of the world we live in.
With that end in mind, I didn’t just encourage students to engage with justice; I codified it. Like many other teachers, I worked with children to make rules and agreements at the beginning of the year. Agreements like “Be kind,” “Make wise choices” and “Respect all people” commonly adorn classroom walls, but too often they lack teeth.
Setting classroom agreements offers an opportunity to challenge our young ones to do more. We can guide students toward true allyship by encouraging them to think carefully about justice and our responsibility to it. What do we agree to do if one of us is misgendered or called a slur? How will we react if one of us is excluded because of skin color, accent or body shape? Heftier agreements like “Speak up when we see microaggressions” and “Fix the mistakes that really hurt our classmates” are more than pieces of a charter to hang on a wall—they’re daily reminders that kindness must be paired with justice.
In the end, as much as I planned ways to incorporate justice alongside kindness in my classroom, the biggest impact likely comes from the everyday moments: the times a child is excluded for their gender, made fun of for their weight, told their accent sounds funny or that they’re a terrorist. Superficial notions of kindness and unkindness don’t suffice here—the response has to be specific, direct and sensitive.
Young people need language to combat microaggressions, and they also need to know that their teachers care about it. They need to know their trusted adults will speak up, facilitate and engage. There’s nothing wrong with taking a moment to think, to say, “That didn’t feel right, and I need to circle back to this.” But there is something wrong with answering injustice with easy reassurances like, “We just need to be kind to one another.” Even if they can’t yet articulate why, our students know that’s not enough.
Turner is a writer and former elementary school teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area.