"...all kids benefit from reading books that represent people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and social situations. “The world is diverse and even white kids, who are most represented in books, need to read books about children of other cultures and other races..." (Andrea Janus, locallove.ca)
This is the 28th blog post entry of the 2019-20 school year. Last blog entry we explored some of the experiences families are encountering through this stay-at-home phase of the pandemic as the routines and experiences that once framed our lives shift and change dramatically, influencing our experiences with reading at home as well. This blog entry has been framed by a week of social unrest following the untimely deaths of both an American citizen at the hands of police, and a Canadian citizen in the presence of police, that have caused great social chaos and turmoil. While most of our students are young enough they will not understand fully these situations or their implications, they have caused me to reflect on the roles of Peace Education and reading as pro-active, critically important elements for raising children with a clear sense of both social justice and compassion.
I am not quite sure how, but it appears to me there is a strong resurgence in the world just now of 'right' and 'wrong' thinking, with apparently limited evidence of awareness of the vast continuum of possibility of thought that actually exists across every society in every corner of our planet.
This is not a new phenomena - I believe it could be argued that the concept of a spectrum of opinion, thought and action is as old as mankind, to be honest. However, throughout history the need to loudly proclaim 'right' or 'wrong' thinking within any society does seem to ebb and flow, often as reflection of political actions such as wars, invasions, natural disasters or significant international events. And perhaps what seems to be this latest swell of intense public reaction is a typical, cyclical trend - one that may be exacerbated by the current pandemic and the tragedies that have resulted from the spread of COVID-19 in the world.
Whatever the reason, it has highlighted, for me, the absolute necessity of preparing our children from earliest ages for understanding the vast diversities of experience human beings might encounter in this world, so they are able to respond with the greatest levels of respect for human life and embrace the need for humans to care for each other with kindness and honour. One certainty in life is that there is no way a human being can survive without experiencing a whole realm of encounters with nature, with each other, with the social structures other humans have created, and it is, in my opinion, imperative we all understand the uniqueness of each other's human experience as we strive to survive successfully together on this small planet. This is what empathy is; empathy is what we need to thrive together.
Empathy is not necessarily, however, a naturally acquired ability for every person; for most of us, empathetic thinking must be fostered and developed fully over time and through experience. Empathy builds capacities for understanding the actions of each other and helps us respond from a position of support rather than judgment. Empathy does not excuse inexcusable behaviours but it does help us understand the reasons for behaviours and actions, and encourages the offer of proactive solutions that will most likely result in more positive outcomes for everyone.
Peace Education does not have all the answers to the world's ills, including racism - but it is rooted in kindness, care, believing every human has value and helping each other. This is a hopeful beginning for children and why we teach 'building peaceful communities together' as the foundation of our school's learning.
At our school, we champion Peace Education as a loose set of strategies that promote kindness, care and value for all the differences that exist across human experiences. We include the Roots of Empathy program as part of our approach to Peace Education, embracing that program's emphasis on how humans literally cannot survive without care, attention, kindness and support from birth forward. Understanding these essential relationships from early ages emphasizes the critical importance of engaging with each other with attitudes of helpfulness, acceptance and care - qualities essential to advancing Peace Education.
From this essential foundation of humans needing to care for each other, our goal with Peace Education in elementary schools is to foster values of empathy that support children with developing positive actions, attitudes and skills to be able to live harmoniously with others and the environment, as well as with themselves. Included in this development are conflict resolution skills and a deep respect for human rights and freedoms. As children become aware of the vast diversities of background experiences, cultures and perspectives, they also build confidence in their abilities to successfully and safely navigate the world as they promote and support joyous living for all humans.
We gain these awarenesses of diversity through literature, through shared experiences, through stories, through encounters with multiple aspects of culture, events, thoughtfulness and perspectives. With young children we are able to expand ideas of possibility while their neural pathways of perception and judgment are still developing, before they become entrenched and closed to other opportunities. Acceptance, understanding, possibilities for proactive change become their empathetic, automatic responses and assist children from very young ages to be able to envision different responses that result in greater fairness and positive outcomes during interactions with others - particularly in instances of disagreement or unexpected disruption.
We know from many years of experience, research and anecdotal stories that Peace Education has a profound and long-lasting impact on children as they grow into adulthood, with continued influence on opinions and actions later in life. We know, too, that the stories ture with the greatest influence on children's perceptions of the world are often encountered in children's stories from their very early years. An example of how, as a school, we access literature to help children build empathetic understanding of the authentic human condition is reflected in our school's approach to our design thinking challenge "Rise of the Super Student!' developed around the UN online picture book, "My Hero is You" located on our school YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMG4wles_2I&feature=push-sd&attr_tag=UGggypL1Hxm0bOCR%3A6
The overlap of promoting understanding of Peace Education principles with home reading is easily recognizable, as literature offers a simply accessible platform for helping children begin to appreciate and understand diversities within the human experience.
Home Reading Connections
Depending on the age of your child, there are numerous and beautiful stories that can be shared through the home reading experience - both as a read aloud opportunity as well as occasions where children are able to attempt to read independently. Why parents might choose specific titles to share with their children through home reading with a focus on developing deeper appreciations for the human experience with children is clear: this strategy encourages the development of empathy while promoting self-confidence in approaching challenging situations with care and positive intentions. It enhances the home reading experience, promotes conversations, shapes opinions and support the development of flexible neural pathways in a child's brain development. Home reading takes on purpose beyond building reading skills to provoke thinking and reflection. These connections between peace education, literature and the home reading experience are significant and profoundly meaningful for children.
For the remainder of this blog entry, I am going to offer some suggestions for beginning to promote appreciation of diverse human experiences with children through home reading, including literature ideas that offer read aloud opportunities as well as prospects for building independent reading skills and strategies. These suggestions are all choices I have used many times myself and feel confident in recommending to provoke thinking as well as strategic independent reading.
1. Whoever You Are by Mem Fox - a beautiful, simple example of considering how children are alike everywhere in the world with simple, predictable text for beginning readers.
2. Happy to be Nappy by Bell Hooks - another simple, rhyming-style story about being happy with the features that are unique to ourselves with easy, repetitive text.
3. Full, Full, Full of Love by Trish Cooke - a lovely story of extended family embracing a child, especially the grandmother - slightly more challenging text for early readers.
4. A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara - for more advanced young readers to try independently, or for a rhyming, introductory read aloud for younger children. Introduces terms discussing ways to address social justice issues with alliteration and rhyme.
5. Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story by Arun Gandhi, Bethany Hegedus & Evan Turk - a heartfelt story of Gandhi's village and the negative impact of wastefulness as seen through the eyes of a young child, confirming Gandhi's words to 'be the change you wish to see in the world'. An accessible read for mid-level readers and an engaging read aloud.
6. I Have the Right To Be A Child by Alain Serres - a more advanced text with beautiful illustrations summarizing the United Nations' Declaration of the Rights of a Child.
7. It Takes a Village by Hilary Rodham Clinton & Marla Frazee - detailed, rich illustrations depict a multicultural world where people care for and work with each other.
8. Malala's Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai - a whimsical story of Malala's childhood where she imagines ways to change the world; Malala won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for her activist work on behalf of universal quality education for the children of the world following a violent attack in her home country. This story will make an excellent read aloud for young children and a readable text for more skilled elementary readers.
9. My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald - a heartwarming story of moving to a new country and making a new friend and finding comfort in similar ways. Perfect for reading aloud or for more skilled elementary readers.
10. Listening With My Heart: A Story of Kindness and Self-Compassion by Gabi Garcia - building emotional resilience and self-acceptance can be a difficult topic to discuss with children - this story explores the benefits of kindness and compassion for ourselves. Excellent for reading aloud, a strong book choice for more skilled elementary readers.
11. A is for Awesome! by Eva Chen - An alphabet-style book introducing 23 women who impacted the world in a wide variety of ways - from athletes to artists, scientists to activists. An easy-to-read introductory text to provoke interest in the many ways people can influence social structures and events. A strong read aloud, an accessible read for early readers with building skills.
Home reading offers a seamless way to bring in interesting and provocative topics for your child, including literature that encourages thinking about social issues and ways even young children might help each other and themselves to make the world kinder and more peaceful. And perhaps to make the world a more congenial and accepting place in our children's future.
Lorraine Kinsman, Principal
Eric Harvie School