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Social Justice for Kids

Social Justice for Kids

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The year 2018 has been a lesson in the power of young people to confront a social issue head-on and make their voices heard. We’ve seen walk-outs, demonstrations, marches, interviews, calls for action—teenagers are proving themselves a force to be reckoned with, and it’s an impressive sight, whether or not you agree with their politics.

What can adults do to support them? Besides trying our hardest to ensure their safety, we can also give them context! The United States and much of the rest of the world have a rich history of protest, and by learning about the issues that have been brought to light in the past, kids can better inform themselves of those issues needing light now. The road to a just and equitable global society is a long one, and we all need company—so let’s extend a hand to younger generations.

Critical and creative thinking skills aren’t just for the STEM subjects. Teach them how to apply a discerning eye toward the social issues that affect every facet of their lives. Here are some ideas on how!

 

Using King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech in Your Classroom

What does race mean to you? Do you discuss race in your classroom or library? Do you make sure that the materials you use with your students are reflective of a diverse range of people? The anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a fantastic chance to talk about race with your students.

It can be difficult to keep race and diversity in the forefront when there are so many other aspects of education calling for our attention. But it’s extremely important. The events and rhetoric that our children are witnessing on a daily basis through radio, television, newspaper headlines, and dinner table conversations are evidence that conversations about race are crucial as we strive to become a world in which people of different races, genders, orientations, and cultures are truly equal.

Martin Luther King Jr. waving to crowd during his famous speech

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. joined thousands of others during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and delivered a speech that became one of the most famous in history. In it, he calls for an end to racism and equal civil and economic rights for all.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

That march and King’s speech are considered turning points in the Civil Rights Movement. President Kennedy watched the speech on television and was very impressed with it. His administration was impressed that the march was entirely peaceful—not one arrest was made during the demonstration. The land of equality that King spoke of in his speech began to seem more like a realistic possibility.

You can listen to the speech here. Play the recording for your students and start a discussion using the following questions as a jumping off point.

Classroom discussion questions:

  • What do you think Martin Luther King Jr. would think of the state of race relations in America today?
  • On August 28, 2013, thousands of people gathered in the same place in Washington to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s speech. President Barack Obama made a speech about the significance of the event. How do you think he felt giving that speech as the first African American president of the United States?
  • Do you think race relations are better or worse than they were during the 1960s? Do some research about Rosa Parks, Jim Crow laws, and Malcolm X. How are things different today? How are they the same?
  • What do you think made Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech so powerful? Do you think it has the same power today?

 

Investigate Civil Rights

Even students have the power to change their government, or to protest when they think that their constitutional rights have been violated. This activity will show you how a group of students can make a difference. You can do this activity with a class or a group of young learners.

Research the Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines. Students were able to prove in court that their constitutional rights were violated when they were not allowed to wear black armbands in school to protest the Vietnam War.

Try these sites for more information about the case:

Now, imagine that you and a small group of friends have decided to protest a school policy. For example, imagine you wanted to protest against a policy that does not allow same-sex couples to attend the prom together. You are wearing rainbow ribbons and asking other students to sign a petition supporting your protest. The school’s administration threatens to suspend you if you don’t stop your protest.

Write a letter to the school board in which you present your case. You are arguing why it is within your constitutional rights to protest against the school policy. Can you find and cite section(s) of the Constitution that pertain to your case? Can you find examples of other well-known court cases with similar situations?

Next, imagine that the school board has called you into a meeting to present your case. Write a statement or speech to read in order to convince them to change the policy.

To investigate more, think of other ways you can protest the school’s policy. What can you do to present your objections in a meaningful and noticeable way?

Social Justice activities for kids

Download a free social justice activity ebook!

Illustration of a girl saying, "Here take a rainbow ribbon", another responds, "No thanks! I think I've got it covered" walking away with a rainbow colored dress

Kids Can Save the World! Here’s How

Fostering a spirit of giving can take on many different forms. For younger kids, it can be as simple as drawing pictures to deliver to a hospital, while older students might be interested in raising money for a special cause through a major fundraising event. The important thing is to address the motivation behind the activities—we’re part of a global community and taking care of people in our communities is an important aspect of being part of a community.

Here are some ideas for making giving a part of your classroom culture during this season of gratitude.

  • Make cards for hospice centers, hospitals, and nursing homes. Institutions such as these are often in need of color and cheer, and what serves that need better than artwork and happy messages from your students? They can practice their art and writing skills while producing something that will make people smile.
  • Interview residents of an assisted-living facility. For older students, a great way to learn about history and the role it plays in contemporary life while simultaneously making the world a brighter place for someone is to interact with the elderly. This can be an invaluable experience that resonates long after it’s done, for both the interviewers and the interviewees. Students should think of questions ahead of time, decide where they’d like to conduct interviews, and gain permission and a meeting time. The finished project can be any creative presentations—a book, film, slideshow, oral presentation, or something completely different!
  • Playground cleanup. Every park or playground needs some TLC once in a while. Maybe the grass needs raking, the litter needs picking up, or the swings need a hose down. By encouraging kids to view public spaces as part of their responsibility, we encourage a sense of stewardship for the world around them.
  • Free Library movementBe a part of the little library movement! All across the country, little free libraries are springing up in downtown areas, rural crossroads, and parks. These are small, covered shelves where books can be stocked, free to anyone for the taking. Check with town and city zoning guidelines before erecting the libraries to make sure you aren’t breaking the law. Hold a book drive to make sure your libraries have books! Bonus: this is the kind of project that will help kids who might not otherwise have access to books get reading!
  • Ask the children what problems they see in the world that they can help solve. Often, the best social good projects come from the heart. What do your kids care about? What are they worried about? What would they like to see change? By encouraging them to think about ways they can solve the problems they see, you help them grow a sense of empowerment that might last their entire lives.

 

We Need Diverse NONFiction Books, Too!

If you’ve been paying any attention to the publishing business for the past several years, you’ll know that publishers, writers, illustrators, teachers, librarians, and parents are calling (and answering the call) for more diversity in the books we give to our children. The grassroots organization We Need Diverse Books has been instrumental in getting #WeNeedDiverseBooks into the spotlight and into editorial meetings around the country.

Both kids and adults want to see people who look like them in the books they read. Part of reading is exploring new ways of perceiving the world and using your imagination to be someone else for a while. Another part of reading is feeling less alone. It’s learning how you fit into your community and what you can do to make it better. If a child reads through a dozen books without ever seeing anyone of their own gender, skin color, religion, race, or culture, they’re not going to feel less alone. They might feel more isolated. They might wonder what roles are available to them in the larger world. If they never seen anyone with their features or history, they might not realize that they have their choice of roles.

There has been a surge of children’s literature that features characters of color, and the publishing industry is working hard to make sure teachers, librarians, and parents—the gatekeepers of children’s books—know these books are out there.

What about diversity in children’s nonfiction books, such as the ones we publish here at Nomad Press? Is there a place for diversity in books about plate tectonics, microbes, and Shakespeare?

Yes.

Archaeology book coverHere at Nomad, diversity means publishing an entire series on women working in science. Diversity means making sure the characters in our illustrations reflect the cultural makeup of the real world. Diversity means finding experts to read our books before press, experts who will make sure that not only did we manage to get the science right, but that we also practiced respect and inclusion when talking about different cultures and races, both past and present.

In most of our books, the real characters are the sciences that we’re inviting readers to learn about and explore. But every book features a secondary cast of characters, illustrated kids who do experiments, demonstrate different scientific facts and principles, and act out a story-within-a-story to complement the text. Some of these kids are African American, some are Asian, some are conceivably transgender, some have physical disabilities such as missing limbs and degenerative diseases. We make it a point to populate our illustrations with kids that look like those in the real world—all of them different from each other and all of them curious.

In our science books, we make sure to highlight those discoveries that historically might have been overlooked.

For example, in our forthcoming book about innovators in history, we recognize and celebrate the contributions of women and people of color alongside people whose names are more familiar. Whereas many biographical collections ignore the efforts of scientists such as Daniel Hale Williams, Mae Jemison, and Philip Emeagwali, we strive to make our books inclusive.

In our social studies and language arts books, we make an effort to explore topics and time periods in ways that incorporate the experiences of all involved. Books about the Underground Railroad, the Holocaust, and Native American cultures explore key moments in history with truth, respect, and an unflinching sense of accountability.

ZoologyIs this enough? No. That’s why we continue to find ways to practice inclusion in our books. We look forward to a publishing future in which diversity isn’t something to be practiced, but is the thoughtless normal, where we won’t even need the call, “We need diverse nonfiction.”

 

History Books for Kids—But Whose History?

It’s an interesting time to be publishing history books for the educational market. One of our forthcoming books is about the Oregon Trail. Intrepid settlers braving the wilds of uncharted territory in hopes of forging a new, better life out west—middle grade books about westward expansion have all the ingredients for a sweeping, epic experience!

At the same time, there’s another side to that same historical coin that has to be explored, informed, and engaged with in the same book. You can’t learn about the Oregon Trail without learning about the experience of Native Americans. Tribes across the country had already been displaced, decimated, and devastated because of white people who wanted more land, and the waves of emigrants from the East only worsened an already bad situation. Their experiences can’t be ignored if we want our future leaders to fully comprehend the history of this country.

Illustration of frontier people in the wilderness

Cultural missteps in the publishing world are not new. Back in 2015, McGraw Hill got called out for identifying Africans who were shipped across the ocean to North America as “workers from Africa” instead of “slaves.” After an uproar from parents, students, teachers, and concerned citizens on social media, the publisher apologized and announced it would fix the language to more accurately reflect the fact that the Africans were forced from their homes into slavery. But thousands of books with an inaccurate portrayal of slavery were loosed into the world. Facts matter, and diverse points of view matter, especially when it comes to children’s nonfiction books.

So, how do we make sure our history books are authentic, inclusive, and true? We make sure we research beyond the first few pages of google. We link to primary sources from all affected groups, not just the victors and survivors. We ask essential questions about parallels between way back then and now. We encourage young readers to find themselves in the book, no matter the color of their skin or their gender. And we make sure the mirrors are there.

The year 2018 has been a lesson in the power of young people to confront a social issue head-on and make their voices heard. We’ve seen walk-outs, demonstrations, marches, interviews, calls for action—teenagers are proving themselves a force to be reckoned with, and it’s an impressive sight, whether or not you agree with their politics.

What can adults do to support them? Besides trying our hardest to ensure their safety, we can also give them context! The United States and much of the rest of the world have a rich history of protest, and by learning about the issues that have been brought to light in the past, kids can better inform themselves of those issues needing light now. The road to a just and equitable global society is a long one, and we all need company—so let’s extend a hand to younger generations.

Critical and creative thinking skills aren’t just for the STEM subjects. Teach them how to apply a discerning eye toward the social issues that affect every facet of their lives. Here are some ideas on how!