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Open Secrets in First-Grade Math: Teaching About White Supremacy on American Currency

Studying money is a staple of first-grade math. This teacher used it as an opportunity to educate about—and push back against—sexism, racism and white supremacy.

First-graders are, as a rule, quite adept at making connections. When given context and space, they can draw clear lines between different social movements, between issues facing their local community and those affecting the broader world around them, and between their current political reality and the history that came before them. So when I asked my students to look for patterns on past and current American currency—both paper bills and coins—it didn’t take long for a child to declare, “Wait. Everyone looks the same.”

 

Laying the Groundwork

Prior to these lessons, it was vital to lay significant groundwork. Knowing we’d face difficult issues of racism, sexism, systemic exclusion, slavery and violence, we’d be relying heavily on our beginning-of-year work on equity and inclusion—particularly on how to have difficult conversations. In an election year, with media saturation easily reaching the 6-year-olds in my class, this work was likely even more crucial than ever before. Not only did we delve into working definitions of race, gender, bigotry and white supremacy, but we also discussed representation in the world around us: Who do we see in books, movies, TV shows, music, ads and government? Whose faces and voices are missing, and whose are overrepresented? Why?

Starting the school year off with regular, challenging, scaffolded social justice work is a necessity for many reasons, but some are subtler than others. Supporting kids on their journeys to knowing who they are and how they identify is the heart of elementary education. That journey, however, can encounter unforeseen obstacles within standard American curricula. 

 

The Intersection of Math and Discrimination

Examining the intersection of math and discrimination works only if a classroom environment has been built with trust, information, love and a core, basic understanding of the inequities that we are constantly working to dismantle.

Enter our discussion of U.S. currency. Studying money is a staple of first-grade math: counting coins, using and understanding correct notation, making change, solving word problems. Its immediate relevance to the real world makes it particularly enticing for kids. But therein lies a close proximity, at times an uncomfortable one, to our government’s legacy of commemorating, almost exclusively, white men. For some of us, particularly white folks, ignoring the faces on our money is pretty easy; what’s more, actively noticing who we’ve chosen to memorialize may be the bigger challenge. Fun facts like “Washington is on the dollar bill and the quarter, and he was our first president” conveniently omit his legacy as an enslaver, for instance. Each bill and each coin in our wallets serve as blunt—but strangely subtle—reminders that the diversity of our country is not represented on some of our most visible memorials, and that we canonize only the powerful.

Kids notice a lot when they’re invited to look closely. They note that some of the men look forward, while some face left and others face right. They see hairstyles that are drastically different from modern ones. They recognize the men enough to know that none are still alive. They observe that no one is smiling, and they can plainly see that the story of our currency is the story of wealthy, white, male America.

My students were enraged to learn that only twice have women been featured on paper money in the United States: Pocahontas in the 1860s and Martha Washington at the end of the 19th century. Neither of those bills lasted long, and both are largely forgotten outside of the world of numismatists (those who study currency). Women have appeared slightly more often on coins, including Susan B. Anthony, Sacagawea, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Helen Keller. People of color—including Pocahontas and Sacagawea—have fared similarly, with only a handful making appearances. Duke Ellington was on a special Washington, D.C. quarter, Crispus Attucks featured on a different commemorative quarter, and the image of a Native American man graced nickels—though he wasn’t a real person but rather based on a composite of different faces. And that Harriet Tubman $20 bill? It’s still in limbo.

 

Representation Matters

Representation, as we know, is one of the most crucial ways of building community and fostering equity. Kids need to learn how to manipulate money, how to count and spend, how to identify different pieces of currency—but they shouldn’t be expected to do so while ignoring the uncomfortable truths it’s all drenched in. Most of the students in my class—and indeed across the country—are not able to see themselves on these instruments of wealth, class, capitalism and opportunity. 

My first-graders grew furious at the severe inequity of it all, and as we searched for answers, one of them asked, “Can’t we put someone else on our money?”

After getting into the story of the planned $20 featuring Tubman (and the controversy over a woman who spent her life fighting against capitalism being used as its face), the kids started suggesting new possibilities: Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, Jackie Robinson, “a Jewish girl doctor,” “someone from Mexico” and some of their relatives. Later on, many kids created their own paper money with images of mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters: They were filling in our missing stories.

For many of my students, the very thing they’re promised will give them a better life—money—reflects the story of American imperialism and oppression: The dime is a reminder of Japanese internment, the quarter a reminder of slavery, the $20 bill a reminder of Native genocide. 

America’s habit of memorializing problematic people is sometimes challenged but remains steadfast: racist sports mascots, statues of Confederate leaders, cities and schools named after oppressors. As 6- and 7-year-olds, first-graders may not have the power to enact this type of change, but they can question whose story is on display and tell the stories of those who have fought back against oppression, those in their families, those who look like them. 

Opportunities to challenge the status quo lie in every corner of school. Sometimes, knowing where to look—like a lesson about money—is only the first step. 

Turner is a first-grade teacher at an independent school in Oakland, California.