Through the Teaching Tolerance grant, I acquired a large set of different books that kids could take home and read alongside their families. We bought books about voting rights, equal pay, disability, interracial marriage and other social issues.
After reading the books with their families, kids and caregivers conducted written conversations critiquing the story. They asked, “What is being normalized?” “How is normalizing hurting a character in the book?” “Who has the power to decide what was normal?” “Who is taking action to create positive change?” and “What is the outcome of their action?”
The written conversations with the families were so powerful. Families stepped up to have important conversations with their kids.
Then the kids chose different cultures that they wanted to study; most of them chose a culture with a personal connection to their families (e.g., one of my students is from Jordan; another is from South Korea). They all did research projects, collected family stories and shared them with their classes.
In the past when we've studied other cultures, I noticed my students responded with alarm. They judged others by their own norms and ways of being. Then I thought, “If I want kids to explore their cultures, they need to see how they make sense of other people and then listen to their thought processes.” That's where the idea for the family book club started.
I wanted my students to see how they were normalizing themselves and their own ways of being, and—in doing so—othering others. So we developed an inquiry into the notion of normalcy and asked what it means to be normal. Who gets to decide what constitutes normal? How is the idea of normal used to oppress or hurt people?
For this project, I wanted to invite my parents to do the same work alongside their kids. I wanted to bring families’ voices into our classroom. Parents have said to me, “We've never had these discussions at home before because I didn't think my kid was capable. Now I realize they are.”
Adults who haven’t had these discussions with their kids may say, “Well, they're too young.” But I think we lack the imagination to realize that our kids experience these things throughout their lives in many different ways.
Once you create the space for young students to ask questions and share their experiences, they engage with these ideas in deep and meaningful ways. I think too often we underestimate our kids. We underestimate what they know, what they're curious about and what they're worried about.
Two years ago, I had a child from southeast Asia in my class. He brought something up in our morning meeting while we were talking about what gets normalized and what gets pushed aside. He described a holiday he had observed and kept referring to gods. Someone in the group had trouble with that, asking, "Why do you keep saying gods? There's only one God." And the student said, "Oh, no, we have hundreds of them. We have hundreds of goddesses, too." We had a long discussion based on that disagreement.
The student eventually shared that people teased him for the foods he brought in his lunchbox. He also shared that his peers thought that he lived in southeast Asia, even though he told them, "No, I was born here. My family is from there."
Little things like that reveal themselves all the time. But I think that’s largely because we've created a space where kids can ask important questions without feeling judged, attacked or criticized in any way.