My Fledgling Social Justice Summer School

Sometimes I think that I should have been a teacher. And then I remember all the reasons that I know it’d be a bad fit, and consequently, why I’ve always been an entrepreneur.

1.     I tend to be anti-institution and anti-authority. If I think something should be done better I really can’t let it go. Every school I was a part of bothered me in ways that are still with me today.

2.     I hate being told what to do and how to do it. This may sound like the same as above, but it’s not. I not only disagree with the way that the organization is run but I also don’t want my success defined for me. Standardized testing in theory makes sense to me but the abstract thought of it being tied to my performance leaves me sleepless, mulling over a long list of theoretical asterisks and caveats about how else I would/could deliver value.

3.     I gloss over details. Ideas, concepts, outlines are really motivating to and energizing for me. I go for the gist of things and promptly forget all the facts.

4.     I’m not patient enough. I loved the idea of being a therapist until I realized that I could still claim (financial) success if I had patients who wanted to talk about their mother every week for a year and whose lives were only incrementally different from when I met them. Suffocating, for me.

I was really satisfied with my decision to not be a teacher (despite my degrees in education and psychology) until I had kids. Well, until my daughter started showing her own interest in things. As soon as she started displayed even slight signs of preferences for certain books or toys over others I felt the irrepressible desire to meet her curiosity – and still do. For me it is so much fun to engage with them around learning. I love to teach them and even more I love them to teach me. I love the idea of helping them foster and nurture their interests. I love giving them educational resources and opening worlds of wonder and novelty. If I ever go bankrupt it will surely be because I’ve bought too many children’s books. Libraries are the most wonderful community institutions, but I treat our books like treasure, hoarding the knowledge, imagination, messages and beautiful pictures. I’m unashamed to say that I want to own these resources so that they can discover, rediscover, remember and relish all that they have to offer.

I have no desire to homeschool my kids all year, but summer has become my parenting highpoint. It is (almost) a total gift. No carpool and no time constraints- lots of time for fun activities, adventures and excursions. Most of my best memories with my kids come from the last two summers.

This year, emboldened by my kids increased attention span and their great schools’ in-depth educational themes (and also some ribbing from my daughter about why she wasn’t going to all these cool summer camps she was hearing about), I decided to formalize our learning a little more and create our own summer school of sorts. To get buy in from the kids I decided to let them each pick three topics and I’d pick three as well. Not surprisingly they generated a list of things that I wasn’t that excited about, including: Dragons, Flying/Driving, Princesses (damn!), and Fancy Clothes/ Costumes. They had two ideas that didn’t make me immediately roll my eyes: Decorated Indian Elephants and Space. I chose Pioneers (first people to do things), Fancy Shapes and Patterns, and Journalism/Media/Storytelling.

Do not mistake this for being a humble brag. Actually this whole scheme is equal parts self-inspiration and self-preservation. Long bouts of unstructured time make me sweat - instantly. There are many parts of parenting where I completely fall down on the job or lack interest. Sports for example. I will floss my kids’ teeth 350/365 days of the year but something about soccer and dance classes just make me want to poke my eyes out. I also hate pretend play. I’m terrible at it. And 0-18 months are really, really hard for me. (Like, why are you throwing a fit for getting exactly what you wanted? And how many times do we need to knock down the tower of blocks before you take your next nap?) I firmly believe that the parenting life cycle gives each parent unique opportunities to suffer and shine. Based on my own assessment of my skills and interests I figure I have a quickly waning sweet spot where my kids are intrinsically motivated and curious and still willing to spend time with me.  So preschool summer school it is.

But in order to make this experiment really interesting for me, I knew it was going to have to connect to deeper learning and issues of social justice. At first I thought about their topics as fluff topics that we’d kind of cruise through before getting to the “meat” of what I wanted to talk about. Instead I’ve found (in a make-it-up as you-go-along kind of way) how many natural opportunities there are to create meaningful dialog and address issues of equity and justice in most any topic at all, even dragons and fancy costumes.

For example our conversations about dragons so far have not only included mythology and rituals of the Chinese New Year, learning about the Chinese zodiac and our own signs, traditional dances, but also a conversation about Chinatowns in the US and how the Chinatown in St. Louis was destroyed to make room for the baseball stadium. We coincidentally went to a baseball game the week we really dug into dragons. The connection occurred to me when we were at the game. My details were fuzzy (no surprise) and so after I mentioned it, I quickly confirmed on Wikipedia to make sure I wasn’t making the whole thing up. I bumbled different comments about it while we were at the game but definitely could have done much better.

Now that I’ve had the chance to think about it, here's how I might address it again at the stadium: Here is where a lot of Chinese American people used to live and have lots of restaurants and stores. This is where there would have been the place where they had the Chinese New Year celebration each year. But all the homes and businesses were destroyed to make space for the baseball stadium. It feels sad that there isn’t an easy way to see and experience Chinese culture in our city. I wonder how the people who used to live here felt about it? Maybe they feel more alone or more different in other communities now. Maybe they are also sad to not be able to share their culture with the rest of St. Louis.

The next day we started some of our Chinese New Year celebration activities (decorating the house with lanterns and performing the dragon dance with friends). We are also planning on the Chinese Lantern Festival at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, which will provide me the opportunity to talk about the Chinatown stadium connection again - this time with a little research under my belt. (Also I now know for future games.)

We also started touching on the fancy costume theme, which I sort of backed into. We had tickets to a great event, Circus Flora, whose theme this year is the Jazz Age. I used that connection (Circus-> Jazz Age -> Josephine Baker -> Costumes) as a way to talk about an important time in our country where white people started listening to a lot of musicians and artists who were black. Before that it was very segregated (a word they are now becoming familiar with) – white people listened to white musicians, and black people listened to black musicians. But during the Jazz Age, white folks started recognizing the talented singers, musicians, dancers, and artists who didn’t look like them. I was “happy” to pimp the costume theme to cover that message. But actually the conversation provided so many more opportunities. Not only did my daughter love the costumes (of course), but with the aid of two great books (Josephine and Jazz Age Josephine) we learned that Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis and that she left St. Louis and then America because white Americans were still not ready for change and still judged her because of the color of her skin. Sometimes that happens when you’re a pioneer, people aren’t ready for your talent and wisdom and courage (score one for my summer theme).

We also learned that sometimes dancing and making jokes are good ways to deal with anger and frustration about a situation. We also learned that sometimes even dancing and making jokes isn’t enough to make you feel better about something you can’t change. We then learned that she found a new home in France, where people (with all different skin colors and cultures) loved her and she became very famous. We learned that she became a hero she did dangerous things to help her country (France) when it was in a war. We learned that she became a mom and created a family that represented lots of different countries and cultures and religions around the world. We also learned that white people in America and St. Louis didn’t embrace her for a long time, close to the end of her career. We have since talked about what a loss that was for St. Louis and America. We talked about how brave Josephine was to keep trying even though she had had bad experiences in the past. Then, later that day when we went to the circus, we coincidentally parked within sight shot of the “Josephine Baker Blvd.” street sign (!!), which for those that don’t know is only an unassuming 4 blocks long. We wondered if this is near where she might have lived. We wondered if the area would have looked the same then, since most of the houses around there look new. Seeing the street sign gave me the idea to visit her star on the walk of fame on Delmar Blvd with the kids and do a tracing.

Our Josephine Baker exploration also gave me the opportunity to pass over content I was unsure of how to present. One of the books accurately quoted naysayers who called Josephine a “negro wench”. I don’t want them at ages 3 and 4 to have those words so I skipped that paragraph. On our second read I summarized by saying that people were disrespecting her for having dark skin and for being a woman.

Learning as I go…

My so-far brief experiment has already left me thinking about a lot and given me a good foundation to keep building on as I become more experienced with this. So…note to self in trying to infuse social justice curriculum into our lives and my kids’ education:

1.     Be committed. It’s easy to keep “simple” topics discreet and superficial. Our dragon exploration could have started and ended with construction paper if I wasn’t in the social justice mindset.

2.     Speak it. It sometimes feels hard to complicate what could be a discreet and superficial topic. I find myself wondering “when’s a good time to drop such and such social justice bomb?” everyday. And sometimes have to take a deep breath as I ask myself, “do I really have to say this?” The fluidity and integration of social justice issues is the point. It’s life, not a one-semester college class. It’s not an esoteric topic of interest to be dialed down when it’s convenient. Talking about it shows that it matters and is real.

3.     Circle back to missed opportunities. I don’t have to know everything in advance. I am not an expert. Teaching moments may pass but they aren’t gone forever. There are ample ways to reinvigorate or (re)set the stage a conversation. And if there doesn’t seem to be a good opportunity a good ol’ “hey guys, remember when we saw/read/talked/went….” will do.

4.     Seize upon coincidences. Coincidences are powerful. They underscore the ubiquity of important topics and discussions. Identify them as such.

5.     Embrace my own new learning and student role. Identifying coincidences is a great way to demonstrate that I’m not an expert and that I’m learning too. I keep using the phrase “let’s do more research on that” as a way to further underscore this and also demonstrate how to pursue an interest or curiosity.

6.     Connect the content to my kids. I want them to feel personally connected to what we are talking about. Maybe it’s just saying something like: Wow, Josephine had a job cleaning houses when she was only 8. That’s only 3 years older than you.

7.     Connect the content to our geography. Ultimately I want this to help broaden and enrich my kids understanding of our community and city, their personal experience and world. I want to keep asking, what relationship does this have to St. Louis. It may have happened here, or I can talk about it in relation to St. Louis. For example we read a book about the author of The Little Prince. For a time he lived in Saint-Louis, Senegal. We did “research” to find out if there was a connection (I had no clue – it is a sister city of ours by the way) and then talked about a couple ways that Saint Louis, Senegal is different from Saint Louis, Missouri.

8.     Encourage further questioning and research. Ask more questions myself, saying “I wonder…” and refrain from using answers like “just because” (a hard one for me sometimes). Point out and use different ways to find an answer – research online, research in a book, imagine, ask someone, etc.

9.     Highlight the connectivity. Both amongst the topics and between our topics and our life. Each connection gives an opportunity for reinforcement. And demonstrates the intricate weave of life.

10. Model natural inspiration.  Use the connections and research to model natural inspiration versus a scripted path. “This is giving me an idea!” “What if…”


As with everything, it’s a work in progress…and I’ll share as we move along!