Young Children as Activists
by Stephen Karmol, Autumn Dobbins, Becky Burgess
From the foundational Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards, early childhood anti-bias education (ABE) is built around four core goals:
Nurture each child’s construction of a knowledgeable, confident self- concept and group identity.
Promote each child’s comfortable, empathetic interaction with people from diverse backgrounds.
Foster each child’s critical thinking about bias in human relationships.
Cultivate each child’s ability to stand up for themselves and others in the face of bias.
This phrasing of the goals of ABE is valuable because it centers the role of teachers; these are active verbs demanding action on the part of early childhood educators. What are our values, and do our practices reflect them?
Over the many years we’ve worked to weave anti-bias education into the fabric of the culture and curriculum of Wild Lilac, the fourth goal often feels most relevant in the context of children’s everyday lives and relationships. Much of our approach to guidance – at its core, a social problem solving model – relies on children learning to recognize and articulate their feelings, their needs and preferences, and to see, hear, and respect those of their peers.
This is a foundation for empathy from which children learn not only to self-advocate in pro-social ways but also begin to speak up on behalf of others in their classroom community.
What might the fourth goal look like when we expand the context? To see children as citizens with rights and support them as they engage in conversations about their shared future in our public schools, the city of Portland, and the world more broadly? And then act for positive social change?
To begin to answer these questions, we’re excited to share documentation from our preschool classrooms related to the “Red for Ed” rally in downtown Portland on May 8th. Children, parents, and teachers from Wild Lilac joined many thousands of people across the state of Oregon to demand increased funding for public education. Below we share interview excerpts with two of Wild Lilac’s preschool teachers, Autumn Dobbins and Becky Burgess, to help tell the story of their classroom’s participation in the event.
How did this project come about?
Becky: I think the idea to actually GO to the protest came from Autumn, who loves and embraces (and isn't afraid of) big bus field trips and who really values getting kids out of the school bubble. And my class had been chewing on some thoughts regarding worker
solidarity movements - namely the Burgerville Worker's Union which is an active union local to Portland and recognizable to them.
Many of them love "workers" and really admire workers that they see out and about - construction workers, firefighters, janitors, food service workers, basically anybody in a uniform. They were excited to think about workers from a place that they recognize working together to stand up for "fairness" - a concept that is huge in any preschool classroom.
I had brought in different examples and pictures of worker protests and movements for them to see, and when news of this upcoming teacher protest came up, I shared it with them. So when Autumn invited us along it seemed like a natural and exciting extension of our in-class discussions.
What were your intentions, hopes, and goals in facilitating the project?
Autumn: That students see how deeply their future teachers care
about them, their education, and their future. That they are important, that their voices matter, that their needs deserve to be met, that together we have the power to make clear that they deserve better. And to empower students with the chance to speak up to stand for students who couldn't be there.
Becky: A lot of the work I try to do with children is about empowering them to be active participants in their community, and active accomplices who support those who have less power than they do. To be rabble-rousing world builders in solidarity with each other instead of passive receivers who accept whatever is handed to them.
I wanted this project to help these kids know that they're not supposed to settle, and that there are teachers and parents and neighbors that want better for them and are willing to go to big lengths to get it.
What did you and the children do?
Autumn:[Leading up to the protest] we had discussions about what they wanted in their schools, made protest signs, told stories about collective action…during our story time, and sang Solidarity Forever (a song popular in our monthly sing-alongs).
Becky: During the protest: we got on a bus! We rode it all the way downtown. We got off and walked a couple blocks down to the waterfront. The kids were really excited seeing other people in red walking ("Hey! Those people are probably going to the protest!").
When we got there, we walked for a little bit into the big milling crowd and then found a grassy space to sit, eat snacks, and work on any signs. So luckily, we even ran into the mom of a student who was on the field trip! It was really exciting for her to see her mom there and to connect her job to the protest we had been talking about in class.
We heard the chants start and saw the crowd start to move and we jumped in and started walking. We asked the kids what they wanted to chant and they said "give the money to the kids! more money for the kids!" and "red for ed! red for ed!" We walked for a while - they were loud and engaged chanters, and extra excited when they saw a person standing to the side was giving out oranges to marchers.
How did you support children's growing understanding of the issue(s) involved?
Autumn: We talked more in broad strokes in this regard. The sort of foundation was that the teachers organizing the march were doing so because they believed that they weren't receiving enough money to live safely and happily and that they schools they're teaching at don't receive enough money to be safe places where children can learn and grow.
From there, instead of focusing on the issue of school funding, we talked with students about what they thought their schools needed to be safe and happy places for them to learn. What were the messages they wanted people to hear?
Becky: Children's understanding of this specific issue was supported
by what was already a continuously discussed and developed foundation in our classroom of fairness, of advocacy, and of workers. The Red for Ed issues were explained simply and broadly: "Portland teachers are saying that schools aren't fair for their kids or their teachers. They say they need more money to make it safer. They told their bosses that they're going to strike for a day to show them that they're powerful enough to change things."
Most importantly, we also had many opportunities for them to reflect, share, discuss, and create art that shared their perspective on what was happening and why.
How did you communicate about the project with families?
Becky: Our pre-field trip discussions and project works were shared in conversation, on our blog, in weekly emails, and with in-classroom documentation of conversations and art. When we decided to go on the field trip, I emailed all the families asking them if they could let me know if they would be comfortable with their child attending the protest. Several parents asked to come as chaperones and were welcome to do so.
During the day of I emailed families before and after the trip to let them know briefly how it went, and then later shared photos and written reflection of it on our blog.
What do you think the lasting impacts of this experience might be for children?
Becky: I still see the kids who went on this trip making connections between this protest and other protests they learn about. Protest is a recognizable concept to them, not a scary one. They see it as a valuable and viable form of engagement with their world. They're also empowered to speak out against authority figures when they think something isn't right (including me).
I think they see themselves as part of a powerful community that extends beyond their home, their school, and their immediate neighborhood.
What have you taken away from the experience?
Autumn: I firmly believe that it is a teacher's responsibility to best prepare their students to build a better society than we have today. Children know so much about how the world works, even if they don't feel comfortable sharing it with adults. They see inequity. And if we don't show them how they can work together to combat it they'll only grow more cynical and disillusioned.
If we are not here to show children how to see the ways adults have broken the world, show them how to create solutions to those breaks, and then show them how to advocate for those changes, then what are we preparing them for?
So I took my class to the protest because I have hope that with guidance they can try their hardest to fight for all of the safety and stability and love that the world deserves.