How come almost all of the books we read in school have characters that don’t look like me? The Story Behind Why I Created a Culturally Responsive, Social Justice Curriculum for Elementary Students

Growing up my mother would always tell me, “Yo no soy rica. No te puedo dejar una herencia monetaria. La herencia que si te puedo dejar es la de tu educación y eso nadie te lo puede quitar.” This loosely translates to, “I am not rich. I cannot leave you a wealthy inheritance. The inheritance that I can give you is your education and that is something no one can take away from you.” My relationship to education has always been deep, complex and ever-changing, but it wasn’t until I became a teacher that I recognized its true power and purpose.
After graduating from Smith College, I moved to New York City to teach Kindergarten in Washington Heights, a vibrant, predominantly Dominican neighborhood where blasts of Merengue and the smell of empanadas permeate the air. However, whenever I walked into the charter school where I worked at the time, all traces of the neighborhood’s vibrancy and culture quickly dissipated. We were still located in the Heights, served 99% black and brown students and families, and yet, most of our staff and leadership were white and you couldn’t tell what neighborhood we were in from the school’s white-washed halls touting white-middle class values that told our students they can only be successful when they show more “self-control” and “grit.” At the time, I didn’t realize how absolutely FUCKED UP this was because I was a recent college grad who thought that sharing a common ethnicity and background with my students was enough and somehow good for the community. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My first year of teaching was hard, and I know a lot of teachers say this, but for me it was more than the lack of sleep, never-ending lesson plans and mounting assignments. Having to police tiny black and brown bodies all day with a smile on is fucking exhausting and it eats away at you every day until you become desensitized to it because it becomes your new normal.

After my first year, I decided to start teaching dance, which allowed me more freedom to experiment with curriculum. This is when I started infusing lessons with culturally relevant history about Black and Latinxs art forms. If my students were going to learn the 1,2,3, hip rise steps of Bachata, then they were also going to learn about its African and bolero influences and unofficial censorship by the Dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. During Black History Month, I decided to put on a staged reading of “Now Let Me Fly” by Marcia Cebulska with my 2nd grade students. As we were in the middle of reading the play, one of my black students looks up at me and asks, “Ms. Lebron, how come almost all of the books we read in school have characters that don’t look like me?” I was speechless, angry and frustrated that this bright little boy wasn’t seeing himself reflected in his learning unless it had to do with Slavery or the Civil Rights Era, which were barely glossed over. I knew I owed my students more. That this country, as Gloria Ladson-Billings has put it, owed black and brown children an education debt that has long been overdue. This moment served as the catalyst for what has become my life’s work.

 

Over the past year, I worked as a Social Action Teacher and School Culture Coach. I designed and implemented a culturally responsive, social justice curriculum, which uses history, literacy and art as a means to discuss identity formation and social justice issues like racism and gender equality. Lessons centered on the following social justice elements, as inspired by Brie Picower’s “Six Elements of Social Justice”: Self-love, Love for Others, Social Justice, and Awareness Raising. I strongly believe that when students develop a deep sense of who they are, where the come from, and that they matter, they’re able to develop love and respect for themselves. I couldn’t be prouder of my students for exclaiming things like, “I’m Mexican, my skin is cinnamon-brown and I’m proud,” or “My skin color is milk chocolate, so deal with it. I belong.” From this point of self-love, they are then able to learn about how they are similar and different from others. In acknowledging and celebrating those similarities and differences, they are able to show love and respect for one another.

Moreover, in learning about social justice issues and inequalities, students become informed, critical thinkers and problem-solvers. For example, during our Unit on Breaking Down Gender and Racial Stereotypes, students often engaged in respectful and heated debates, where they discussed their views on questions like “Do all girls like the color pink?” or “Are all Muslims terrorists?” When students learn the skills necessary in order to engage with one another critically and respectfully, they are able to form informed opinions and use their knowledge to raise awareness in their communities about the injustices they wish to combat, while coming up with effective and collaborative solutions to said problems. This is the goal of my curriculum, to provide students with the tools to become caring, socially responsible agents of change who spread awareness and work to tackle the inequities they wish to dismantle in their communities and beyond. 

For those who want to do this work with young children, but may not know how or if they should, I need you to know that it’s not only possible, but it’s incredibly powerful and necessary. Our kids need to know that they are seen, that they matter, that they have the power to change the course of their lives, their communities and the world for the better.

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Kathy Lebron is a former Social Action Teacher and School Culture Coach with a Master’s in Early Childhood Education and Special Education from the Hunter College School of Education. She is a lover of education, social liberation and travel. She developed a social justice and culturally responsive curriculum for elementary students and her goal is to help educators, families and students use education as a vehicle to produce transformational social change for all people.

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