Teaching Young Students About Rights, Roleplay, and Racism by Exploring Redlining

Image courtesy of theilr via Creative Commons.
One of my favorite books about education is Black Ants and Buddhists, by teacher Mary Cowey. In the book, Cowhey shares some of her experiences teaching 1st and 2nd graders about social justice issues. One of the reasons I'm so in love with this book is because Cowhey doesn't shy away from addressing challenging issues (in age-appropriate ways) with her young students. In fact, she embraces the curiosity and hunger her students have to connect their learning with real life issues.

In the newest issue of Rethinking Schools Magazine, I saw another great example of young students grappling with big ideas. In the article "Why is This the Only Place in Portland I See Black People?" teacher Katharine Johnson outlines her experience wrapping up a unit on Civil Rights by exploring the redlining that occurred in the school's very neighborhood.

Johnson leads her students through this challenging topic -- that's still relevant today -- by asking them to roleplay African American homeowners, African American renters, white homeowners, white real estate agents, white bankers, and a white mayor. Students were so empassioned by what they learned (which included thinking critically about the various roles and why someone, for example, might choose to discriminate against someone else), that they wanted to turn the roleplay into a play. Which they did. And then performed for their families and the principal.

Johnson says: "We generated a series of scenes that showed the dilemma faced by African Americans in redlined Portland and gave voice to justice by acting out how they might have protested. The class agreed to open with an African American family discussing their desire to move and fears of being denied. Subsequent scenes included that family attempting to get help from bankers, realtors, and government officials. The students decided on a sit-in as the action the people would take when no one would help."

How did it end? The children decided that justice should prevail. As Johnson says: "The class decided to end the play with victory. The justice fighters are successful in changing the mind of the mayor first, and then the bankers and realtors. The final scene is a housewarming party at the African American family's new house. And everyone is invited."

Read the complete article.

Of course we must be very careful not to traumatize or disempower students by exposing them to too much too soon. But successful examples like Johnson's experience show just how resilient and insightful students can be with challenging topics when guided by a compassionate and caring teacher.

~ Marsha

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