They Understand

If you had to buy all of your groceries at CVS, what would you be able to eat? What wouldn’t you be able to eat? These are questions that we pose to our second graders to get them to think, not only about food insecurity but also about food access. Washington, DC has inequitable access to fresh food/full service grocery stores in certain areas of the city. Second graders can understand Food Justice. 

I am an equity, diversity, and inclusion practitioner at a Nursery-Grade 8 school and am sometimes asked what it means to lean into social justice with such young students. Practicing social justice in an elementary school to foster ethical citizens involves creating an environment that promotes children liking and loving each other for the people they are. Young children learn through experiences, observations, and experimentation. As they go through school and life, children start to form their knowledge and thoughts about different kinds of people based on who and how they see people from various backgrounds represented.

Here are some ways that we help students lean in:

Inclusive Curriculum: Ensure the curriculum reflects diverse perspectives, cultures, and identities. Incorporate materials that celebrate various backgrounds and experiences to encourage empathy and understanding among students. One example is our third grade unit on The Jamestown Settlement which we have revamped over the years to make sure we are giving equal time to understanding the three groups that were involved, the Powhatan Indians, the Angolans, and the English. 

Encourage Identity Development: Allow students to celebrate similarities and differences amongst themselves, including skin color, religious traditions, family structure, etc. Nursery and PK students have one day a week where they focus on one area of their identity and build a “Book of Me” over the course of the year. 

Promote Equity: Provide equal opportunities for all students regardless of their background, but also be mindful of the difference between equality and equity. Differentiation of needs means giving students what they need based on who they are and how they learn. This might mean a neurodiverse student in Grade One needs a special writing utensil or a student in Grade Eight needs an online planner. 

Foster Understanding of Social Issues/Make Connections: Help students understand social issues and empower them to think critically about how to address these problems. Our students learn persuasive letter-writing techniques and choose an organization to send the letter to based on an interest or concern they have. Grade Four students make connections between environmental pollution sites and the number of Black and Brown people in those areas.

Service Learning/Questioning: We not only work with organizations to provide resources but also question why there is a need. For example, our Grade Two students participate in a canned food drive for a food pantry after learning about the lack of grocery stores in certain areas of our city. 

By integrating these practices, elementary schools can help shape ethical citizens who value fairness, empathy, and inclusivity, contributing positively to society.

Erica Thompson is Assistant Head of School for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School in Washington, DC.