Teaching Civil Rights to Kindergarteners: Research and Information Writing

Two weeks ago, Laurie Schultz invited me to coach in her kindergarten writing workshop at John T. Waugh Elementary School in Lake Shore. I’m always grateful to work with Laurie. Her energy is incredible, and she sustains her compassion for even the most challenging kids in her care. She also maintains a high bar for her students, regardless of any label that’s been imposed on them.

My Rationale: 

When we met to discuss the mini-unit that I would be teaching, I introduced the concept of differentiated learning targets. It informs my instructional approach each time I teach, ensuring that I don’t allow my assumptions about what students can or cannot do to drive the lesson.

I began by sharing not one, but three learning targets. Each came from the same standard, but they scaffolds across grade levels. I explained that all of the students in the class would be able to meet the grade level standard for kindergarten by the end of each of our lessons, while some would be able to meet the first grade targets, and just a few would be able to meet the second grade standards. Another important shift: I taught to the highest targets each day while providing plenty of scaffolding and support for those who needed it.

Our work together focused on research and information writing, with the intention to deepen students’ knowledge of civil rights in the process.

Our Plan:

Our plan was written at the kindergarten level, but these targets established a mere foundation for our learning. We directed our instruction toward the second grade standards, hopeful that at least a few students might be able reach them. Doing so would not create unrealistic expectations or result in unproductive levels of frustration, either. Students were invited to study multiple civil rights, share their thinking about several, and add facts and details that revealed their understanding of what they were. They were also invited to write across multiple pages, and we hoped that some would be able to conceptualize integration and segregation in the process.

This is What Happened: 

On the first day, students talked about personal experiences that were fair and others that were unfair. They used this lens to explore the images in these slides, zooming in on small but meaningful details that helped them interpret what was happening in each. I also told the story of Ruby Bridges, and the narrative provided greater context for these images. Writers wrote about one of the two civil rights that we explored through our mini-lesson: the right to free speech, and the right to an equal education.

On the second day, writers gathered facts about the right to vote by watching The Berenstein Bears Big Election. This also provided ample opportunity for us to revisit the right to free speech. They used these facts to write another page of their personal books.

On the third day, we used this Sesame Street video to begin exploring religious diversity and freedom. Writers gathered facts, and then they applied them to the third page of their books.

Throughout this process, Laurie was reading other rich texts with her students. They learned about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and other heroes of the civil rights movement. Many of these additional facts showed up in the details of their drawings, their drafts, and their conversations with one another.

For instance: when I asked Evelyn to tell me about the writing sample above, she explained that she drew a photo of Ruby Bridges “as a grown up lady.” She pointed to the podium, and then she explained, “She’s making speeches, just like Martin Luther King Jr. She was such a good girl, that Ruby Bridges! But here, she’s grown now.” In the bottom left corner, the speech bubble indicates where one of the characters in her story is practicing resistance, just as Rosa Parks did. She made this distinction very clear.

Students drafted four pages of information writing on days 4 and 5. Then, they began choosing which page they wanted to contribute to a class book.

We also explored a variety of powerful vocabulary words during our study, using imagery and movement to build meaning. Children spread their arms wide and wiggled their fingers as they modeled what segregation was. Then, they brought their hands together and clasped them tight, modeling what integration looked like. As they did, they used a choral response to define each of these terms. As I conferred with writers about their work, they used each in different contexts, connecting the words to their photos and the text they were producing.

This is What I Noticed and Wondered:

  • I noticed that these children came to the unit with background knowledge that Laurie previously built by reading. They understood who Martin Luther King Jr. was, they had a good grasp of what fair and unfair meant, and they had solid visual literacy skills that enabled them to analyze the photos and the videos that we were using.
  • They understood the right to free speech, equal education, and voting very clearly. They also understood why religious freedom was important, but most likened it to the right to pick their own church. I was impressed when some of the Native American children in the group proudly shared their heritage and the important role that the Longhouse Religion played in their lives.
  • I noticed that all learners could describe what civil rights were, why they were important, and the four civil rights that we studied. Most could write complete sentences about these rights, and most created detailed pictures. Some needed sentence frames in order to meet these goals. A few were only able to write about two or three of the rights we studied instead of all four.
  • And then, there was J. Each time we sat to write, he flung himself on the table. He wrote quickly, scribbled his images even faster, and begged to be “done” with the work. When I asked him what he would rather be doing other than writing, he told me he loved playing with magnet tiles. I wondered: why didn’t I just let him use those to show his understanding instead of expecting all of the kids to draw?
  • I also wondered, not for the first time, how often we’re holding kids back by designing lower level lessons simply because we assume they “can’t” meet higher targets. This is something that continues to trouble me more and more, as I use differentiated learning targets and find many if not most of the students in the room meeting them–including those who have been classified with learning disabilities.

Conclusion: 

I was surprised by how many children achieved the second grade standards that we aimed for. I was astounded by how well they could explain integration and segregation to me as well. I do wonder how this unit may have unfolded differently if I’d relied on more text and used fewer videos and images. I also wonder how students’ final pieces evolved, and how Laurie felt about the rubric that we used to assess students and their work. More on the need for quality rubrics in the future post.

In the mean time, I’m eager for your feedback, questions, and push back, friends. Drop me a line or find me on Twitter or Facebook, if you’d like.

 

 

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