This blog is written by SEEC’s Pre-K 3 Koala class teachers, Katie Heimsath and Morgan Powell.
We believe all children are extraordinary everyday change-makers. In our classroom, one student’s inquiry can launch a full-on investigation into a topic, changing the direction of what we’re learning in our classroom. When students learn to take responsibility for their actions and solve problems collaboratively, they are acting as change-makers, supporting and sustaining the culture of care and advocacy within the classroom. Every day we witness and encourage our students to wonder and explore the world around them, advocate for themselves and others, and understand the power of their words and actions. Our preschool class, the Koalas, recently explored how community helpers use their words and actions to benefit their community. To wrap up this unit, the class reflected on how they also use their actions and words to create change.
We started the week with a lesson recapping all that we had learned about community helpers. Our unit spanned over eight weeks, and included a typical line up of helpers like police, firefighters, doctors, as well as other unexpected helpers like bakers, barbers, and DC Metro officers. We recounted the many different kinds of helpers we had met, observed, or read about, including what tools and equipment helped them to do their jobs. It was important for us as educators to note that help comes in many different forms and helpers can look very different than what we might initially picture in our minds. As members of our community, we’re not required to have a specific job to help out, and we don’t need to be a grown-up to be a helper! So with that in mind, Katie asked the class what they could do, as children, to help their community. She wrote down their ideas and posted them in the classroom for others to see. Throughout our discussion we kept coming back to the idea of helping out at clean up time, so we looked at photos of different groups of people doing neighborhood trash clean up. Next, we decided to take our cleaning skills out of our classroom and onto the National Mall. We agreed on some rules for safety, like wearing gloves and checking in before picking up something sharp, and went to work. The class responded really well to this activity. At the end we had tangible evidence of our hard work in the form of two bags of litter from our community.
The following day we shifted our focus to public art, specifically looking at muralists who make their art in public spaces in order to share their creativity and ideas with everyone. We introduced this topic through a book: Maybe Something Beautiful by Isabel F. Campoy and Theresa Howell. Based on the true story of the Urban Art Trail in San Diego, this book celebrates creativity and public art. Centered on a young artist’s experience, Mira inspires a muralist and her neighbors to work together to create murals in her community. As Morgan read, she illustrated parts of the story by using wooden blocks to represent the buildings in a neighborhood, adding colorful blocks when Mira and the muralist started painting, and finally displaying blocks with images of DC murals at the end of the story. We discussed as a class how public art, unlike art inside of someone’s home, is accessible for everyone to see and enjoy. We looked at photos of murals in DC and talked about the ideas, stories, and feelings the artists may have wanted to share. Students then worked together to make a mural of their own, using a white sheet and watercolor paint in spray bottles, an activity we worked on in our classroom as well as during our community visit in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden.
Our next lesson focused directly on the power of words and collective organizing. Again, we chose a book to start our conversation, which turned out to be a fantastic decision since many children in our class were already familiar. Morgan read Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, a story about a group of cows who want electric blankets since their barn is cold. They get their hooves on an old typewriter and write letters expressing their needs to Farmer Brown. When Farmer Brown refuses, the cows go on strike and form a coalition with the hens. Eventually, after much negotiating and lots of letters, the cows and hens get electric blankets. After the book, our students had a spirited discussion about fairness and the power of words.
We discussed how real people use their words to voice their needs, support, or disagreement. Morgan bridged a connection between how the cows used their words to get what they wanted in Click, Clack, Moo and how marchers use their words on posters and signs to create change. Each student had the opportunity to talk with Morgan individually about what they care about and how they can help each other. After our eight-week community helper unit, the students had lots of ideas around community involvement and how they themselves can be helpers. Some of the students had so much to say it could not have fit onto one sign, so Morgan had to pinpoint a few words or one idea. For example, one student shared, “I help people find the books in the classroom and go over the schedule for the day and also count numbers all the way up to one hundred!” So Morgan asked, “It sounds like you care about helping people learn, could your sign say, ‘Help People Learn!’?” If the student agreed, Morgan wrote down their words. If not, we continued our dialogue to ensure the students’ ideas were authentically heard. Once the message was written down, all students had the chance to decorate their signs with paint crayons. Writing down students’ ideas and words demonstrate to them that their words matter, that their ideas are worth writing down and sharing with everyone.
We finished the week by coming together as a class for a march on the National Mall. To kick off our march, we visited the National Museum of American History’s American Democracy exhibit to see the collections of signs from a variety of marches and protests from decades of political engagement. The children were able to see signs that other people have made to express their thoughts and feelings through their words. At the request of the group, we read a few of the signs and guessed at what they might be talking about, keeping in mind that some of the topics might be a little bit complicated for three-year-olds. We offered a simple and true answer, which validated their curiosities and allowed us to draw parallels to the signs they had worked so hard to make the previous day.
After observing the signs, the class sat down and listened to We March by Shane Evans, read by one children’s grandmothers who is an activist herself. We had learned of this connection through the child’s parents, and knew we wanted to include her in this experience. We’re always looking for ways to bring in a home or family connection. The book we chose is an excellent example of how to pare down a large concept for young learners. It identifies the process of a marching experience, in this case the March on Washington which culminated in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historical “I Have a Dream” speech. The book is told from a child’s perspective, uses simple and direct language, and includes lovely illustrations.
When we finished the book, Katie took time to individually read every student’s sign as we passed them out, giving the group a chance to hear what each child was marching for. It was a moment of validation and an easy way to honor the hard work and opinions of our students. The next step was the march itself! We discussed how we would be moving as a group by walking in a “follow the leader line” and explained that they could hold their signs however it felt comfortable. We had seen a short video in the exhibit of people carrying signs, and most of our children replicated what they saw and carried their signs in front of their bodies or over their heads. As we exited the museum and crossed the street to the Mall, we started a chant that went, “We are the Koalas! Listen to our words!” Since each child was marching for a different reason, this chant included everyone. By the end of the march, some of the class had taken this chant and turned it into more of a call and response, and took turns with a partner alternating the phrases. Our students noticed that people were watching them, reading their signs, and waving.
This week was full of big topics and ideas that, when labeled with the words activism or advocacy, might seem too much for three and four-year-olds to grasp, much less actively participate in with the agency our students did. However in our classroom, as well as in our whole program, we strive to weave these concepts into our everyday interactions with one another. We practice concepts like fairness when we take turns or share toys, we work together to clean up and set up areas of our classroom, and we frequently make art for ourselves and others to make our space feel more beautiful. We also do a lot of work identifying and expressing feelings and opinions to others. From the earliest age SEEC students are taught that their words and feelings matter. As they get older, they begin to learn the responsibility of listening to others as well. This communication can look like signing “more” or “all done” in the infant classroom or hearing “my turn next” in the two’s classroom to watching a small group of four’s discussing what is or isn’t inclusive behavior or friendly to their classmates. All of these actions are a type of advocacy, either for oneself or another, and is a skill that can be developed at a very early age. Planning several lessons to highlight how we can be community helpers felt like a natural extension of this work and gave our class an outlet to express their ideas on a larger scale, and they met the challenge with an incredible passion.
Resources we used to prepare for this week and that continue to inform our work:
- Teaching for Change is a non-profit whose goal is to provide teachers and caregivers with the tools to create schools where students learn to read, write, and change the world: https://www.teachingforchange.org/
- Social Justice Books.org is a project of Teaching for Change that selects lists of books for children on a variety of themes, reviews books to bring attention to any potential bias, and promotes books by diverse authors and illustrators: https://socialjusticebooks.org/
- National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) on Anti-Bias Education: https://www.naeyc.org/resources/topics/anti-bias-education/overview
Be on the lookout for a follow up post containing ideas to try in your classroom!