They have a lot of love. See, mom, they really get it. Did you hear their words? They are full of that love thing you’re always trying to do in schools – almost ten years old
These words floored me today, they truly left me speechless. This is so personal for me tonight. I’m okay with that, though. I hope you will be, too. These were words uttered to me this morning from my child, my own flesh and blood. My eyes swelled when he spoke those words to me. And here’s why: this is one of the first times he has expressed the compassion he’s beginning to see in his classmate’s words and hearts. These words were spoken to me by my son, a person who is beginning to realize the way the world works and the ways of a country eternally flawed, violent, and hostile toward folks that inhabit the identity he wears visibly; that of a transgender person.
Honestly, as I sit in this coffee shop tonight, I was really intent on writing for the myriad deadlines I have coming up for other important things in my life’s work, but I cannot get my mind off the words he spoke to me this morning. They are just so much more important than the things of my life that I label “important.” So, I’m going to scrap what I was supposed to be writing tonight in favor of this: to explain to you why it is critical that we, as educators and influential adults in the daily lives of children, get out of the way of their unbelievably wise minds and create the conditions within which they can uninhibitedly express their innately expansive, innovative, and fresh thinking to peers, to adults, and to the world at large. Because really, the creative minds of youth are where we’re going to find the answers to everything, in the end.
Let me be explicit in my thinking by naming my argument to you, providing a bit of context for how my child’s words came about today, and then suggest something for you to consider. The consideration may be controversial, resulting in me sitting upon a proverbial limb by myself. But, here’s a truth I hold: I welcome occupying this limb by myself because I believe in what I’m about to present to you. I don’t really mind the solace of being out on that limb alone. Such is life. But maybe, just maybe, you might crawl out onto that limb with me and join me in my evolving thinking. You never know. Only one way to find out…
In our attempt to create the conditions within which children see their hopes and dreams realized, we often stand in the way by silencing these hopes and dreams before they are fully realized, voiced, or even explored, by youth. This seems like a bold or even assertive statement to make, and yes, I acknowledge it may be a bit unclear to you for now, but give me a chance to expand upon the why behind it. And, here’s a full disclosure: I was completely guilty of exactly what I’m about to argue against, for so many unknowing years as an elementary classroom teacher with my students and as a staff developer with the teachers I worked alongside. But, as I choose to live my life in daily revision of thought and action, I hope with all my power the shifts I write about tonight express my evolving thinking as an educator and as a human of this world.
Essentially, my argument is this: as we frame the work of writing with our students in such a constricted prepackaged box, even as writing workshop teachers intent on creating a world of choice and independence within which our writers can thrive, even as we religiously follow along with thoughtfully written units of study from many resources, and even as we adhere to the tenants of process writing, we inexcusably limit our students’ ability to dream the biggest dreams they can. This sometimes happens explicitly by our actions, but more often, I think it happens subtly through our words. It’s something I’m going to boldly label as microaggressions we assault upon our students’ expansive curiosity, completely without intent, but as the definition of a microaggression would suggest unintentionally, it’s an assault on their ideas nonetheless. Here’s what I mean more explicitly: as an educator for nearly twenty years, one that is a faithful believer in the power of a workshop classroom and process approach to the teaching of writing with young people, I think we do a disservice to students when we try to proactively set boundaries for their ideas in an attempt to support meaningful, focused, and tangible writing pieces. Let me build my argument to you here with some concreteness from today and then see if you agree with me. It’s worth an attempt. Here’s why: to have a trans child, who has been navigating the world visibly for nearly two years now, in a time of our country’s unraveling before his very eyes, speak these words of hope to me today, ones that suggest the growing compassion he feels from the classmates that occupy his very learning spaces, it’s remarkable, truly so.
Let me make concrete what happened today, in one amazing fourth grade classroom, to support the notion I’m going to argue for tonight. The teacher is creating a speech writing unit of study from scratch, using some ideas borrowed from various resources, but attempting to create something anew. As she wanted to immerse her students in stellar mentors of breathtaking speeches, she had her students listen to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous I Have a Dream speech from 1963. She wanted her students to take a constructive approach to unpacking the beauty of speech writing instead of naming all the moves speechwriters make; she wanted them to cultivate a growing knowledge of why folks write and deliver speeches. After listening to the seventeen minutes of Dr. King’s poignant words yesterday, she asked her students to name what impacted them from his speech. She asked me how I might suggest recording what her students named out, as I often support her in the classroom with her writing workshop. I suggested we jot their ideas in categories that reflected the qualities of writing (meaning, focus, structure, elaboration, voice, and conventions), without naming each category for her students upfront, but merely jotting the ideas down in distinct spaces of the whiteboard as they shared their ideas. She loved the idea, so I became her scribe for this inquiry lesson.
As her students reflected upon what moved them about Dr. King’s speech, two really big realizations emerged: first, just how moved her students were about the meaning behind what Dr. King spoke of; the want of freedom and justice for all people in the future, especially for children. Second, just how impactful the craft moves or elaboration techniques Dr. King employed as a writer were. After her students shared their reflections from hearing his speech which I scribed on the board, I named out how I categorized the various ideas they shared. You can see how their ideas reflected the qualities of writing.
To make this experience more concrete, I named this notion: one critical reason Dr. King’s speech resonated so powerfully with them seemed to be because of the meaning behind his words: the message he was communicating was critical for our collective humanity. It is the notion that we write to say something important, important to us, but more critically, important to others around us. Meaning is paramount as writers. Building upon this, to create a space for her writers to reflect upon their own lives, the teacher presented an opportunity for her writers to engage in a quick write to reflect upon their growing thoughts, centering what their hopes were in our world.
This is where things got very interesting. As her students began their quick write in their writing notebooks, she and I walked around to confer with writers and check-in to research what they were writing about. I conferred with two writers that wrote these profound statements.
The first writer: North Korea and South Korea uniting.
The second writer: Gender doesn’t matter.
I literally ran back over to where the teacher was researching other writers and communicated what I had read from these two writer’s notebooks. The teacher then turned to me and asked this question, “Oh wow. But, aren’t we supposed to help them write about making changes they want to see happen more concrete and tangible, like things they can see change in their local space. Like what the unit of study suggests.” And friends, that’s where I just kind of went for it (we have a really trusting relationship) and I told her what was on my mind, my argument I’m building for you tonight, essentially. Here’s what I said, in paraphrases of course…
Me: You know what? I’m tired of opinion units, speech units, persuasive writing (whatever you want to label this type of writing these days…) focused on this: changes to the lunch menu, changes to the playground rules, changes to the littering kids see on a school campus, changes to the hours in a school day, or the time the school day starts, etc., etc., etc. When I taught similar units of study when I was in the classroom, I did this same exact thing that the unit of study you’re using as a resource suggested to do: something like “Make sure students choose topics that are in their local school campus, or community, or space so they can see tangible change. Try to support them in picking a thing to change that is close enough to their immediate world that it has a chance of changing. Make is closer to home, smaller in nature.” So, in my classroom for years and years and years, I got the thesis statements or claims from my students that centered change around lunch menus, school hours, litter on campus, start time to school, etc. etc. etc. And yes, perhaps these kinds of topics are worthy of needing some change and yes they effect kid’s immediate lives and yes, I’m all for healthier school food and yes, for more balls on the playground, or a longer recess and yes, I’m not a proponent of litter and yes, kiddos, I’m not a supporter of homework, long school hours, early start times, etc. etc. etc.
Me (still talking to the teacher): But really, this thinking is boxed in. These ideas that kids gravitate to when we, as adults, try to frame writing as centering around only local ideas from the beginning in an attempt that their writing stays focused on things they can tangibly change, limits their expansive thinking. And truthfully, how many times have you successfully followed up this kind of writing with having kids deliver their writing to the intended audience? I always did, right, but then thinking back, did kids ever get a tangible response from their audience and see change happen because of their writing? Maybe, kinda sorta, but actually, not really, not often. This reality was communicated to my students, to many students experiencing this phenomenon, that this writing we were doing was more of an academic exercise in writing in this genre than a true attempt to really change the hearts, minds, and actions of others.
Me (yep, still talking to her): What if we ignored what the unit suggested we do, namely, steer writers to choose topics that were more local to begin with (e.g. debating shorter school days and longer recesses?), and go with what was already in their hearts and minds, go for those big, expansive, innovative, worldly dreams and hopes from the beginning? What if we never mentioned that suggestion of making their topic something local to them (school, classroom, campus) and instead created a space for them to dream big, dream lofty, dream expansively? What would they want to see change about life, the country, the world?
Me (yeah, I know, still talking to her): What if we sent the message that their dreams and hopes for our collective humanity are the most important in the world because they will one day inhabit the world and their thinking should be centered starting now, perhaps, starting like yesterday? And frankly, I want to know what solutions they have to the issues of the world because as adults, we’ve failed miserably in being innovative enough to come up with solutions of our own. And then, once her students centered their big dreams, big hopes, big ideas, we could support them in finding tangible local ways of offering solutions that might work toward these big goals. Local, concrete, and actionable ways of supporting this change. And that’s essentially what I think units of study or other resources argue for, right? Kids seeing tangible ways of seeing their hopes of change actually having a chance to take hold. But I’d argue boxing in kid thinking by making it local from the beginning is not the way to do this. Reversely, it’s supporting their big, innovative, expansive hopes and dreams for our world that needs to be centered first, and then, and only then, we can support them in finding local solutions and offering local tangible ways of approaching these big worldly problems. And when we do this, I’d argue, we’ll learn immensely from kids’ innate fresh, expansive, innovative thinking.
The teacher’s response, eyes wide after I finally took a breath and stopped speaking my mind to her, was this: okay, let’s see what happens, let’s do this. (Yesssss, that’s reason #3,675 why I adore her, truly).
Here’s what fourth graders want for our world, when afforded the space to dream big, expansively, and honestly, free from boxed in adult parameters and what lead my son to notice the love and compassion in the hearts and words of his peers. Here are some of ideas that reflect their expansive, honest hopes and some things they wanted to change in the world:
North Korea and South Korea uniting. This means a lot to me because my ancestors come from South Korea. And if they do not unite, more death will happen to so many people.
Gender doesn’t and shouldn’t matter.
Gender equality. Some people think boys are better than girls, but they shouldn’t; they are equal.
World War III not happening.
No more smoking or doing drugs.
Walking instead of using the car because gas pollutes the air.
Not hunting endangered animals.
No more killing animals that are wild.
Not wasting electricity and water.
Don’t be racist.
No more war.
No more crimes.
For Your Consideration.
Yes, I want all these things, too, and I hope that you do as well. And you know something, I don’t know how to see these things come to reality. So, I want to hear what kid’s ideas are, what they suggest we do about these majorly critical hopes for the world, for us all. Don’t you?
Racism. I want to know what some of their solutions are local, things we can begin to do in our communities, for the global idea of “don’t be racist” so people like my best friend, whose children are biracial, don’t have the daily worry that she will not see her husband or two young boys return home due to the grave systemic racism experienced in the brutal form of police violence against black men and boys that has resulted in so many murders in our country.
Bullying. I want to know what kids suggest we do locally about the global systemic problem of bullying. Bullying that results in so much aggression, assaults, and discriminatory acts against some of the most vulnerable members of our communities: transphobia against my trans son and his peers, who are twice as likely to consider suicide as an option due to school-based discrimination and assaults; religious intolerance against people like my dear friend’s husband, a Muslim man who is not yet a citizen of our country; classist judgment against children like my own, who receive government assistance in the form of free lunch because, despite how hard we work, being a single mother solely supporting my boys in our grossly expensive society today, I choose to center my life’s work around educational justice, and that often does not help our financial ends to meet.
Gender Identity and Gender Equity. I want to know what kids’ local solutions are to the global issue of the myth of the binary and the inequity experienced by people identifying a female across this world, in our country, and in our local communities, from the discrimination experienced in the workplace as a woman to the assaults upon the women of this nation, this world, from patriarchal systems of sexism and abuse. What would a nation of children growing up with the belief that gender binary is a myth, pushing back against socialized notions of gender, and fighting against discrimination and assault based on perceived gender be like? I want to know, don’t you?
Weapons. I want to know kids’ local solutions that we can begin to work toward to the idea of “no weapons” so senseless gun violence, especially in the schools of our nation, is eradicated for good, and no more innocent lives are lost.
War. I want to know what we can do to change the hearts and minds when it comes to the hope of “no more war” “no wars” “World War III not happening.” I want to know what kind of expansive thinking kids have to convince adults that war is not the answer to conflict and dissent; that peaceful measures should always center first.
Environmental Catastrophe. I want to know what kids’ suggestions are for reversing the catastrophic effects humans are having on the planet, what we can do in our local communities to combat this assault on our planet that provides life for us, and what we can do to combat environmental racism. This reminds me of the young eleven-year-old, Gitanjali Rao (link here), who created a device to test the lead levels of water, to lend help to the Flint Water Crisis; an example of environmental racism in our nation that pervades so many other communities across our nation, too.
These expansive ideas, things children want to explore and hope to change in the world, that were expressed by my son’s peers, are what lead him to pull me aside after they shared out and tell me this (again, I want his words to resonate here): They have a lot of love. See, mom, they really get it. Did you hear their words? They are full of that love thing you’re always trying to do in schools. Yes, my dear child, children in your class, in your community, across this nation, are full of “that love thing” so many revolutionary, equity-and educational justice-seeking educators are trying to work toward in all the realms of their influence. Working for love justice is really the crux of my personhood and my argument, that in our attempt to create the conditions within which children see their hopes and dreams realized, we often stand in the way by silencing these hopes and dreams before they are fully realized, voiced, or even explored, by youth. So, one thing we can do to work toward love justice with the children in our lives? Create the conditions where children dream big, dream expansively, dream globally, and then have the space to innovate local solutions that work toward seeing these big dreams become a reality. I seek to create the conditions where a generation of children are big global dreamers who seek local solutions, so they work toward peace for all of our collective humanity, as children now and adults one day soon.
Published with permission from an educator and parent in our advocacy network- C