Melanie Meehan shared this quote on Twitter last week and it has stuck with me. Just like so many others, I’ve been trying to figure out my place in helping to make change-change in our country and our communities. I’ve been part of book clubs, had conversations with friends, family, and colleagues. I’ve even been part in thinking about systematic ways to have conversations with kids about identity and diversity, in hopes of growing more empathetic and accepting members of our world.
Our school community has recently formed a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. Our district has initiated some work around Black History Month and we’ve met as a committee to think about making this work meaningful. I shared some ideas about using literature, really great picture books. We talked about how this work could tie in beautifully with the character studies happening across our school as well as connect to the identity work already happening in so many classrooms. The seeds were planted and our ideas began to grow.
We decided to launch with a whole school read aloud of a book about Martin Luther King Jr. Pre-covid, our school community met monthly in our auditorium for Town Meetings. We haven’t had a whole school gathering since coming back to school in a hybrid model this past fall. This would be our first whole school meeting, via Zoom. I couldn’t think of a greater launch. We chose Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara’s, Martin Luther King Jr. biography, part of the Little People, Big Dreams Series. We kept the prompts simple, mostly focusing on MLK’s character and lessons learned. Our principal bravely facilitated the K-5 read aloud and Zoom Chat, inviting classes and quarantined students to share their thoughts. If you haven’t tried a whole school read aloud recently, I recommend it. There was a lot of positive buzz all day. We’re all craving connection and a read aloud was a perfect bonding experience.
The day before the school wide read aloud, I tested the read aloud out on my virtual class of first graders. I was filled with so much hope after our conversation. From the very first few pages, as the author introduced the idea of segregation, one of my students kept saying, “This is still happening today…”
He said it several times before I said, “Timmy, tell us more about what you’re thinking.”
“This is still happening today, only meaner.”
“There is a word for this. It’s a bad word,” another student chimed in.
I wasn’t sure what word he was thinking of, so I read on, before he again mentioned this “bad word.”
“James, do you want to tell us more about what you’re thinking?” I asked.
“Racism,” he said, practically spitting out the word. “This is racism.”
This lead us into a conversation about this word and the fact, that sadly, there are still people in the world that judge and treat others unfairly, all because of the color of their skin.
The engagement was high and my students were making connections from the read aloud to things they were clearly and seeing, either in the news or in their every day lives. I couldn’t help but think that these were important conversations. These are necessary conversations-not just before MLK’s birthday or in February…but every day.
In both my class read aloud and our school read aloud, we talked about lessons that Martin Luther King Jr. taught us, lessons that when I first read the simple biography, right after the recent attacks at the capital building-left me quiet and thinking-needing the reminder that big problems can be solved in peaceful ways.
Here are some of the things kids said:
Spread love and peace equally among all.
Never have hate always have love.
Don’t judge others. Stand up for others.
If you know something isn’t right…do something about it (peacefully).
Life can push you down but keep moving forward.
We could change the world.
I was so encouraged and proud of our community for coming together to have these conversations. In beginning this work together, even in just this simple way, I feel like we took a step forward, as a community. Hopefully, this will just be the beginning…especially since we followed up our MLK read aloud by delivering brand new biographies to each classroom, to continue the work throughout the month of February.
I’m filled with hope for all the ways our community might grow because we’re in this together. So there it is…a little late-my One Little Word for 2021. Grow. I want to keep growing alongside others. At a recent faculty meeting, I shared Melanie Meehan’s words from a recent Two Writing Teachers post, “There is so much to learn in this work, and there are so many mistakes to make.” We all know what they say about mistakes… they’re how we grow.