“What matters isn’t how a person’s inner life finally puts together the alphabet and numbers of his outer life. What really matters is whether he uses the alphabet for the declaration of a war or the descriptions of a sunrise — his numbers for the final count at Buchenwald or the specifics of a brand-new bridge.”
There are many reasons why a person would choose to become a teacher, but for me, being an elementary school teacher is all about hope. Spending my days with children who are still piecing it all together, still shaping their views on the world and how to navigate their way through life, is a privilege I don’t take lightly. In a society where there is so much hate and violence, teaching is an act of hope that the world can and should be better. When you teach from a social justice perspective, you are always looking for ways to help children understand, empathize, recognize when something is unfair and ultimately take action to make changes. The very best way I know how to do this is through reading books aloud and discussing them.
Last year, my third grade class listened as I read aloud Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. Based on a true story about a gorilla who lived in a shopping mall for 27 years, The One and Only Ivan raised questions that third graders might not have wondered on their own. The book includes Stella and Ruby, two elephants who are also part of the shopping mall circus. At the time we were reading the book, Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus announced they would no longer use elephants in the circus, beginning in 2019. Some of the questions that students raised included:
- “Is it right for humans to take animals from their habitats for our entertainment?”
- “Should there be circuses?”
- “Are zoos a better place for animals than the circus?”
- “Does it matter how we treat animals?”
One way we discussed these issues was through a Quaker Circle, a technique first introduced to me by Gina Sipley at the Long Island Writing Project. The class sat in a circle where everyone could see each other. Students were given a red card and a blue card. The red card, when put in the middle of the circle, allowed students to make a statement. The blue card was for a question. Each student could only make one statement and ask one question. As the teacher, I also took a red card and a blue card and became a member of the group instead of the facilitator. This format promoted listening and more thoughtful responding. It also allowed quieter students the chance to say something while encouraging the vocal students to really think before speaking. Through these discussions, and our read aloud of The One and Only Ivan, many students came to the conclusion that circuses might not be good for animals and animals need protection.
After we finished the book, we watched footage on Youtube of the real Ivan in his cage at the mall and then later at the zoo. The students wanted to do more to help other gorillas who need protection from poachers. We decided as a class to “adopt” a gorilla through the World Wildlife Fund. To raise the money for the adoption fee, our class collected cans and bottles to be recycled. This coincided with Earth Day and discussions about our responsibility to take care of the earth. Later in the year, as we worked on persuasive writing, several students wrote speeches about protecting animals and taking care of the environment. This is an example of how one book can inspire new thoughts and questions about something students took for granted as acceptable- treatment of animals in the circus. Students cared deeply about the characters and this translated to real life, discovering more about how animals are taken from their habitats. Reading aloud The One and Only Ivan resulted in a class project to recycle, raise money, and take action to protect gorillas. It challenged students to think critically about the ethics of taking animals from nature for the sake of entertainment.
More than any worksheet or multiple choice question, reading high-quality literature to students promotes critical thinking. Every book I read to my students is a chance to talk about fairness, justice and empathy. When we read, A Day’s Work by Eve Bunting, students put themselves in the shoes of day laborers. When we read Goin’ Someplace Special, students imagined what it would be like to have to ride in the back of the bus and not use a certain water fountain because of the color of your skin. When we read The Hundred Dresses, we talked about being a bystander and the need to say something when a person being mistreated. When we read Each Kindness, we learned that all your actions count and create ripples in the lives of those around you.
Edward Everett Hale said, “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.” When I think of all that is wrong with the world, I try to remember this quote. I can’t right all the wrongs, but I can plant the seeds of love, justice, respect, and compassion in my students, one book at a time. I wake up each day with purpose and hope that the seeds I’m planting might very well bloom into something beautiful.
Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski is a third-grade teacher at Saltzman East Memorial Elementary School in Farmingdale, NY. Certified in Elementary Education, Special Education, and Literacy Studies, Kathleen has experience in general and special education, previously working with sixth grade and kindergarten. A teacher-consultant for the Long Island Writing Project, Kathleen has facilitated the Summer Institute, book clubs, workshops, and writing retreats for teachers. She is a wife and mother, residing in Wantagh, New York. Kathleen shares stories from the classroom and life at her blog, Courage Doesn’t Always Roar, and tweets @MrsSokolowski.