Last week in our Reading Street story, the 4th graders and I read "My Brother Martin" by Christine King Farris. This book, of course, is about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was written and narrated by his sister. It was really interesting to read this story with my students. I teach in a very diverse school: most of my students are Hispanic but we have a healthy sprinkling of Caucasian and African American students (plus this year I have an Asian student too). I absolutely LOVE the diversity that we have at our school. It so was not this diverse when I was a student there (it was predominately Caucasian then).
As we listened to the story, I asked my students to keep tracks as we went along. I give them some free reign on how to do this to best suit their own learning but did ask them to focus this time on questioning--what were they wondering about as they listened or what wasn't making sense?
The ensuing conversation was absolutely amazing. See, these kids don't really know anything but diversity. They can't imagine not playing with someone because they were white or black. When we had finished listening, I gave them a few minutes to finish up their tracking in their notebook and then let them share at their tables. What I overheard was mind-blowing. Sometimes, when you just let kids talk, they will come up with things you couldn't have come up with at your best moment.
As I listened, I got inspired and quickly took four pieces of chart paper and put on the top of each one the title: "What would the world be like if we still had segregation?" I gave each of my four table groups a chart, a couple of markers and asked them to write down what they had discussed at their tables.
It was truly amazing how offended my young friends were to realize that if we still had segregation, only four of us in our classroom would be allowed in there (one of them was me so only 3 students) simply because of the color of our skin. I can't show the posters because they reveal student names and things that is isn't easy for me to cover up but wow...I was really impressed with their logic and their compassion. (We had also read about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott last week too as we were practicing our comprehension strategies.)
My students can't imagine telling someone "you can't play with me because you are a Negro" or not playing with someone because their skin was brown or white or yellow or black (or purple with green polka dots as I always tell them). They can't imagine being against someone simply because of their skin color.
Thank God they can't. I told them about my very first year of teaching. I taught on the other side of town from where our school is. I was the only white person in my classroom. It didn't bother me one bit. It was a little intimidating at first but it didn't bother me. I had a young girl, she would be a high school senior now, tell me that she didn't want to be in my classroom because I was white. (Of course she said this solely because she was upset with me about something and said the most hateful and hurtful thing she could think of.) As I explained to my young friends, calling that child's mother and telling her about this is something I will probably never forget. I had a great relationship with her mom and she was absolutely mortified that her child would say something like that. I remember the conversation clearly--her mom was falling all over herself to reassure me that she didn't teach her child to think that way.
I knew she didn't. I also knew the child was angry and was hurting and lashed out. We're all guilty of that in some way, shape or form. Alas, I also remember that year that during Black History Month, someone (I never found out who) had put a paper in all of our mailboxes entitled "If there were no black people in the world". I wanted to read it to my students that year and didn't get past the title before they were exclaiming how racist I was. Once I got them to be quiet and listen, I read it to them and showed them how important African American people are to our country because of the things they have invented.
I look back at that first year, which was not an easy one by any means, and always remember these things. Those kids, now almost grown ups, were so used to anyone who looked like me treating them differently just for being black. I think it really surprised a lot of them that I don't look at them any differently due to their skin color. I'm glad, eight years later, that my current students, for the most part, don't know how it feels to be judged by your skin color. They know its wrong and that's enough.
P.S. I found this story online that is basically what was in the paper we were given that day but ours was not read like a story.