By teaching our students to think, care, and act, we empower them to build a peaceful future.

Welcome to Think, Care, Act, where teachers and students can find rationales and resources to infuse required curricula with peace, character, global, and multicultural concepts throughout the year.

To act in a world whose problems seem overwhelming requires being able to use the powers of critical and creative thinking and compassionate and inclusive care. Employing these tools, adults and youth alike can work effectively and conscientiously to solve problems big and small, global and local.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016


How can we build caring classroom environments in which students feel safe to tackle unsafe topics?  I work hard to make our sixth grade English class curriculum and class procedures conducive to building a caring environment.  I am hopeful that the following steps contribute to building an increasingly caring classroom community throughout the school year: co-creating class goals and rules, writing about ourselves as treasures, sharing family stories, reading and discussing books about school environments and difference (Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper, and Schooled, by Gordon Korman, for example) and my open declaration of my hopes to both challenge and nurture students (in the words of our school mission statement).

By January, we begin research and pre-reading activities to help us better understand the historical fiction novel Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor.  My colleague, Matt Newcomb, and I evaluate the book each year, and teacher, student, and family feedback corroborates our judgment that the 1970s book set in 1930s Mississippi leads to literary, societal, and personal discoveries that remain timely and valuable. The book is difficult, as it raises issues of racism and violence only mitigated by the strong bonds of a loving Black family and the occasional acts of conscience of White neighbors. 


To try to make our class environment a caring place for daring conversations I begin the unit with the “Circles of Culture” exercise.  I adapted this exercise from one I experienced in a peace education workshop in Denmark.  I have expanded the exercise to include both social identifiers that might elicit pride and/or discomfort as well as hobbies and “cultures” participants might find safe or relaxing to consider. 

In a forty-minute middle school class, time pressure is a constant.  Yet, I deem this exploration time well spent, and I will devote two class periods for this exercise.  Often, I preview the exercise with Sylvia Boorstein’s seven-minute lovingkindness meditation, in which the Buddhist-Jewish-grandmother-psychoanalyst leads participants to ever-expanding circles of care and well wishing.  The children have previously enjoyed this meditation as part of our reading of Schooled, and many feel comfortable and relaxed when participating, especially when I remind them that this is not a religious exercise, but more a mental and emotional one open to their personal interpretation.

Following the meditation as class begins on Day 1, and continuing the quiet, take-your-time pace, I invite students to complete both sides of the “Circles of Culture page” silently, adding categories and circles as they wish.  Some students finish quickly, while others consider at length.  The silent writing period that follows allows students to privately consider aspects about their identities they may or may not have considered deeply before.

Next, I ask them to write three paragraphs to identify the following:

Circles of Culture:
1.     In which of your circles of culture do you find safety/refuge?  Why?
2.     In which of your circles of culture do you find discomfort or lack of safety?  Why?
3.     Related topic: What do you hope, fear, or think about our upcoming reading of Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry?

This part of the lesson easily transfers to homework, and students are relieved to be able to continue writing.  In fact, as they enter class then next day, I invite them to re-read and continue their writing, revising, adding, and reflecting.  I let them know I will read their writing, but they may choose which parts of their writing (if any) they will share aloud with their classmates and partners.  They are happy to have this choice, and their writing (and subsequent sharing) is the more honest for it.


For sources of safety, variety abounds.   Students find refuge in family, heritage, and sports, for example.  “I find safety and refuge with family…. We may argue sometimes, but we know we still and always will love each other….”  “My entire family is Irish…. I find refuge when we visit there.  Ireland is one of my favorite places in the world, and it is the place I feel safe in.”   “I find safety and refuge when I am playing basketball because I feel calm and relaxed when I dribble the basketball….”

Discomfort varies as well, and there is visible relief on students’ faces as they listen to their peers express their discomforts.  As Claude M. Steele explains in Whistling Vivaldi (How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do), there is benefit for students (some reprieve from stereotype threat) to see they are not the “only one” experiencing feelings of difference, fear, or discomfort. 

Here are several examples students shared: “One thing that I don’t really like about my circles is my ‘so-called’ wealth.  It is very uncomfortable when kids who go to different schools are constantly calling me ‘rich’ and saying that I’m snobby….”   “I do not feel safe or comforted when I meet new kids.  I feel they might think I’m weird, or not be like them, and they are better than me.  When I share these feelings with my dad, I take a deep breath and feel relaxed….”  “Sometimes I feel discomfort talking about racial issues because I am a White person and all of my backgrounds are backgrounds where people are White, so people of color think I don’t understand….”  “Something that makes me feel discomfort is that I have family that I don’t know about in Ghana.  A long time ago, my ancestors were taken away from each other during slavery, and now I don’t even know if they exist.  Another thing that makes feel discomfort is reading about how Whites treated my Black brothers and sisters.  There were shootings and haters like the Ku Klux Klan….” 

And what are our hopes and fears about reading the book?  “I hope this book will teach me interesting facts about culture and race and what not to do and what to do.  I hope that it will show me how I can make an impact on the world….”  “I’m going to be honest, and I am worried.  I feel some of the situations might be very harsh….”   “I am afraid that some kids may not be respectful of other people while reading this book.”  And finally, “What I fear about reading Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry is scary and upsetting things happening to people just like me.  I hope to read this book to teach other classmates how hard things were back than and how lucky we are that it isn’t like that anymore.”  This is helpful to me as a teacher, because I also bring up parallels in current events that challenge that notion that “it isn’t like that anymore.” We discuss Ferguson, police profiling of racial and ethnic group members, and more, aiming to avoid the complacency that can arise if we don’t remain vigilant and active. 


Sometimes before student sharing, but usually after, I explain my Jewish upbringing and discomfort in my school career reading World War II Holocaust books.  “I was a little Jewish kid like Anne Frank,” I tell them.  “I would worry, ‘Well, if they did that to her, they might do that to me.’  These books scared me.  I wished a teacher would have explained that we were reading such books to understand history, so that moving forward we can make improvements, avoiding past mistakes and tragedies.”

Reading Roll of Thunder is comparable in some ways.  As a White teacher and as a caring teacher for all of my students, I work to alleviate stereotype threat.  I want to assure my students I will not ask them to to speak for their race.  I want to assure my White students we will not hold them accountable for the racist actions of White characters in the book.  I want to assure Asian and Latino students that we will draw parallels to their histories in ways that will include them in the explorations meaningfully.  We all will, I explain, be called to bring the lessons of the reading into connection with current events and our roles in them. 

Exploring and sharing our “Circles of Culture,” alleviating some of our stereotype threats, and building our caring community help build a strong foundation on which we can explore Jim Crow laws in Mississippi, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and face the events in a book such as Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry.   

And year after year, we get feedback like this from students.  From a Black girl: “This was the first time I thought my classmates really understand some of the things I have to go through every day.  It made me angry, but after we discussed it, I felt better.  I think students should read this book in sixth grade.”  From a White boy: “Children can’t change the past, but they can surely change the future, and the sorrow and sadness that the kids share will make the children reading the book unite and ban racial cruelty forever.  Thank you for having us read it.”   

Taking time to create a caring place for daring conversations makes all the difference in the student (and teacher) experience.  These shared high expectations further forge our bonds as a community of readers, writers, and upstanders, ready to build a welcoming and inclusive community in and out of school.

-Susan Gelber Cannon

1. “Let’s Talk: DiscussingRace, Racism, and other Difficult Topics with Students” (Teaching Tolerance )  This worksheet allows teachers to plan ahead for emotions such as anger, pain, blame, shame, and denial that may arise as we discuss difficult topics.  Many more resources are helpful on the deep website including the following:
  • ·    Speak up at School: How to Respond to Everyday Prejudice, Bias and Stereotypes, a Guide for Teachers
  • ·      Responding to Hate and Bias at School: A Guide for Administrators, Counselors, and Teachers
  • ·      Teaching Tolerance is an outstanding and FREE print magazine (also found on website) for teachers.  

In 2016, we hosted a visit by filmmaker Katrina Browne, whose definitions of racism and prejudice are included here.   Katrina Browne spoke about feeling guilt upon learning about her Rhode Island family’s complicity and deep involvement in America’s trans-Atlantic slave trade.  As she explored her family history, she realized she was not personally culpable, but she was personally responsible to dig into the history.  She has gone on to uncover the connections between her family history and her White privileges compared to families of enslaved Africans, for example.  In addition to making a film (that we use in our sixth grade history classrooms: Traces of the Trade) she speaks to school groups to help students discover that in the American colonies, townspeople and craftspeople in geographically diverse areas benefitted from the slave trade.  (Her yarn-web exercise demonstrating a small town and all craftspeople and gardeners supplying slave ships is useful to students, for example).

3. “Creating a Caring a Classroom Community with Circles of Culture-Handouts
·      “Circles of Culture Worksheet” (Sue Cannon
·      “Family Introduction Letter to Roll of Thunder (Sue Cannon, Matt Newcomb)
o   This assignment is allows us to continue to build a caring community.  By interviewing family elders and writing their stories, students bring their photos and stories into the classroom in a way that honors multiple heritages and cultures, recognizes similarities and differences, and builds common bonds.

4. “What White Children Need to Know About Race” (Ali Michael and Eleanora Bartoli, Independent School Magazine, Summer 2014)
Rationales and skills are well explained in this article that will ring true for many teachers in NAIS schools.  “Because many white families generally do not consider racial competencies among the skills their children will need when they grow up, they tend to socialize passively and reactively. This strategy leads to silence about race in many white households. Because U.S. society is already structured racially, silence leaves unchallenged the many racial messages children receive from a number of socializing agents, which consistently place whites at the top of the racial hierarchy. Silence is thus hardly a passive stance….”
5. “Ferguson is About Us Too: A Call to Explore our Communities” (Alexander Cuenca and Joseph R. Nichols, Jr., Social Education, 78/5, National Council for Social Studies, 2014. NOTE: article is accessible to NCSS members.  Link leads to ERIC abstract.) 
The authors provide historical data and classroom discussion questions in this article that reflects on the death of Michael Brown, the responses of the Ferguson community, the connection to race and justice issues in all of our communities, and the opportunities for building understanding.
6. Sylvia Boorstein Leads Lovingkindness Meditation (7-minute video from On Being, APR Radio)  Useful in calming a group and helping people of all ages focus on the people who are truly meaningful in their lives, this meditation moves participants from themselves to the wider world of "known and unknown strangers."  Sixth graders routinely run into class and ask, "Can we do the meditation today?"

7. HANDOUT for PAIS Workshop: October 2016-Build Caring Environments to Share Daring Conversations: Tackling Unsafe Topics in a Safe Atmosphere

Additional Suggested Readings

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