Crisis in the Classroom

I was alone with my students for 75 minutes at the end of the day, and calling it trying doesn’t really cover it. Traumatic, terrorizing, and terrible all seem more appropriate (and those are just the ‘t’ words!).

The 75 minutes after PE is usually not the best. Often my students are checked out, exhausted, or complaining of belly aches. But sometimes, the competition (real or perceived) has created drama that doesn’t get left on the fields. This is how my ordeal began.

Several of my boys were in a heated argument over who won a race and how “the losers” were treated afterwards. There were all sorts of claims about what happened, including teasing, mocking, cursing, and gesturing. Naturally, the students wanted to take a few minutes to step outside and discuss, but with only one teacher in the room, this became extremely challenging. I am fortunate to have an adjoining classroom and so I called in another assistant to watch the rest of my class while I a) tried to ascertain what happened and b) convinced one child to calm down enough to come inside.

The assistant improvised an activity with ease and her support was invaluable, but the uncertainty of the situation combined with the drama had the kids even more riled up than usual. The next hour was a battle of constant requests for attention, which I lost so badly that we barely made it out the door on time. With five minutes left in the day, my teacher returned to a classroom that looked like a tornado had whipped through, with students doing anything but what I was asking them to do, and three boys clamoring for her to mediate this situation.

This type of drama is not new to my class, and normally we have multiple adults in the room so we can maintain the majority of class activity while simultaneously launching an investigation. But alone, I was flummoxed. I considered sending the boys to the guidance counselor, but had no idea if she was available or if the three of them could get there without starting a physical fight. I debated asking the other assistant to continue watching the class while I tried to mediate; but knowing these particular boys, I doubted my ability to manage their conversation in a way that didn’t make it worse. Ultimately, I decided my best approach was to ignore the issue until I could get support. My teacher and I discussed it briefly, so she’d have my take on the facts, and she dealt with it.

This incident, and the others like them, have convinced me of several things. First, teachers need support in the classroom on a day-to-day basis. It could be an assistant, or a “panic” button that calls someone in. But if they are expected to manage the social and emotional development of their students, they need room to do so, and that requires more bodies. Many schools train teachers to send these students to the guidance counselor or the behavior resource teacher, but I don’t think this is the best solution. Taking the time to manage these issues, while trying for the teacher at times, is a powerful relationship and community builder. Our students trust that we will help them work through their issues and treat them fairly, which makes for a stronger learning environment overall.

Second, new teachers need mentor teachers, and badly. After this experience, I wanted nothing more than to explain what happened and hear ways I could have handled it better. I was primed for learning but had little opportunity to engage in it. Daily, I am faced with a hundred decisions that I’m not sure about, and I’m not even in charge! Plus, I have the enormous benefit of a teacher in the room to learn from through discussion, observation, and direct guidance. I cannot fathom how overwhelming and lonely the first year of teaching would be for a teacher without another adult in their room at all times. I recognize that it seems unrealistic to provide two full-time professionals in every classroom, and so I offer that providing a formal mentor, who is available for consult after experiences like these could be a strong alternative.

Detour

“But then, what the heck am I doing with my life?”

This thought slapped me across the face as I struggled with an unexpected decision. After a trying admissions process, wrought with confusion and frustration, I learned that my plan of completing a Masters degree would cost me three times what I had anticipated. Suddenly, instead of the steal that originally caught my attention, I was faced with taking on significant student loans for a degree that provided me no new educational credentials.

While the value of the degree is certainly debatable, that’s not what gave me pause. Instead, it was the fact that I was overwhelmed with a feeling of uselessness. For the last five months, I had taken every possible opportunity to tell myself and others that, not only was this degree valuable, but that it was my imminent mechanism of forward progress. The actual program was relatively easy to let go; the sense of progress that I had been counting on was not so easy to abandon.

Faced with the possibility of doing nothing but my current work and reading on my own, I was hugely disappointed. All I could think was: “What am I doing with my life?” Yet again, I found that my sense of self-worth was tightly tied to conventional productivity. I can appreciate the value of the experience I’m getting in my current work, conceptually. But the reality of my day-to-day, which seems less than productive, makes it challenging for me to feel the value as well.

My relaxed life has been going well. On a daily basis, I don’t feel useless or unproductive. But I feel like I’m waiting for “the next thing,” so my life can keep moving. As uncomfortable as it is to wait for my life to start, or know that I’m primarily fulfilled by work, I’m not sure how to disentangle these feelings. I’m not even sure that I want to. I hope to be happy no matter what I’m doing, but I also sense great power in letting my prime motivator be work, even if it’s work I haven’t found yet.

So for now, I’m looking at quite a bit of free time between now and what I hope to be the start of a PhD. If anyone has any ideas about how to prepare for that adventure or things you wish you would have done, I’d certainly love to hear them!

What Makes a Good Day?

When I read “What do I expect from my children’s elementary school? Certainly not this“, I was immediately struck by one thing: it does not describe the school I work at. This was especially true this week, my first week back after Winter Break, when teachers seemed reenergized and eager to pull out some of their best material to share with their charges. Despite my frustrations with my school and the overarching system, this mom’s reflections helped me to identify some of the best things that my current school is doing.

For my elementary-school-aged children, I care more about whether or not they love going to school than their academic progress.I am clever enough to know that if they are enjoying themselves at school, they will learn.

I cannot more appreciate this particular sentiment. Of all the reflections from this piece, this is the one I wish my school had more of. I imagine many of my students’ parents would espouse a similar view, but when pressed (and even through their interactions with their children) most of them are highly concerned with academics. We have students who were not allowed to watch TV for months over AR points. One was threatened with Christmas being cancelled for the same reason. Multiple parents have grasped casual moments with the teacher to ask, “where does my third grader rank in this class?” Some parents do homework for their kids or apply generous pressure regarding grades. And of all the third grade classes at my school, we have the least involved parents. If more parents were talking to the school about how to make their child’s day phenomenal, I think they might be surprised by how their academic progress soared.

Just because students may have to sit in an office for eight hours a day when they are adults, doesn’t mean that they should have to start practicing it now as children. It is like saying to a 10-year-old, “One day you’re going to pay taxes, so I’m going to keep 50 percent of your birthday money from Grandma because I want you to get used to it.”

I absolutely love this analogy and my school has plusses and minuses in this department. On the downside, the elementary day is exceptionally long — two full hours longer than the public schools in town. And we expect students to spend an awful lot of time sitting in chairs, standing in line, or just generally suppressing play during that extended time. On the upside, all of our students go to PE four times a week. We have recess two, sometimes three, times a day. It is common practice to not only extend recess, but to offer additional playtime if the students need it. Our school recognizes that a good lap around the playground is more effective than a mark on a behavior chart could ever be.

Elementary school should be about exploration and exposure to vast amounts of very well-written books. Writing should be an opportunity to capture observations and imagination in a tangible form. Elementary education should include learning about history through storytelling, art and music. It should be about dancing and singing and playing while developing social skills, communication skills and interpersonal awareness…Elementary school science should be about questions and wonders, experiments and all things messy.

This week in reading class, we started Charlotte’s Web. I promptly re-read the classic and was impressed by its language, depth, and simple ability to engage. The kids love it, and all want baby pigs of their own; most importantly, it’s a stretch book for many of their skill levels and they are learning from it.

In library class, every student was given the outline of a book, spine included, and told to design a cover of a book they would write. They got to create, design, decorate, and shelve their own “stories,” empowering future authors in a half-hour.

In Spanish class, we spent half of the class watching videos and dancing to learn prepositions. Students got to walk like an Egyptian, waddle like a penguin, and swim their way through vocabulary. Before the break, the students learned about Los Tres Reyes Magos and how the holidays are celebrated in many Spanish speaking countries — in Spanish!

Our science project of the week? Dissecting owl pellets. Students spent a full hour working in small teams to discover what their owl ate and identify the tiny bones they found. A bit gross? Sure. A touch messy? Certainly. Engaging? As good as it gets. The kids were set loose with instructions and the tools they needed to learn, and they succeeded. While they were absorbed in this project, social strife between teammates dissolved instantly, students built structures to make sure everyone would have equal opportunity with the tools, teams worked together to not only find the bones, but to identify them and share their discoveries. They even forgot it was lunch time!

Music class kicked off our drama unit. What will they do? But of course, Pirates! The Musical! The entire third grade spent three hours of their week singing, dancing, and auditioning for a production that they will put on in March. Every grade does this, committing hours upon hours for two-plus months so that the kiddos can perform. And after seeing them engage with it this week, I could not be more inspired by the power of the arts to teach and engage.

Perhaps our success is proven by the fact that most of our students would say, “I had a good day” when they leave. Despite day-to-day frustrations and imperfect lessons, our students are happy overall and enjoying school.

The Lost Subject

In high school, my English class partnered with our U.S. history teacher to do a huge project on World War II. I distinctly remember my gregarious English teacher presenting this project with even more enthusiasm than normal. I also distinctly remember my classmates and I rolling our eyes at her effusive presentation of the “cross-subject” project. Now, as a teacher, not only do I understand her energy, but I applaud her efforts.

If nothing else, the fact that I remember this project is a testament to its power. I think this is due to the sheer extent of the project: we researched for weeks in two separate classes, visited a nursing home to speak with individuals who lived during the war, and presented our projects to outsiders. The amount of work involved allowed the project to be fairly immersive. On top of this, I think there was something unique about the study that overlapped two usually distinct subjects.

Given the structure of schools in our country, even Montessori schools, these types of projects are extremely hard to pull off. This is true at all levels — I have had plenty of conversations with higher education colleagues about the dearth of cross-functional work and classes available to students. I remember the frustration I felt in my public school days from being pulled away from one subject and shoved into another whether my brain was ready for it or not. And now I see this everyday in our classroom. Collectively, as educators, we treat every subject like its own distinct thing, despite the fact that they are deeply interconnected.

This separation has stuck out to me particularly with social studies this year. It seems commonplace in elementary schools to focus primarily on math and reading, and my school is no exception. In my class, which seems to take a bit longer than their peers to complete its work, we never seem to have enough time for social studies. We do a little bit of map work every morning, but otherwise we’re lucky if we work on social studies once a week. As much as I disliked the subject for most of my own education, and as much as I never imagined that I would mourn its absence in our curriculum, I’ve come to see this limited focus as a real loss.

First, social studies provides a unique opportunity for students to learn empathy. As they learn about other people and places, they are better able to understand the feelings of both their peers and people they haven’t met. Second, when we do find time for it, social studies is fairly boring. The students read a section of the textbook, answer some workbook questions, and then forget about it. I understand that detailed, engaging social studies lessons may be just one thing too many in the lives of an overextended teacher. But I think we are missing opportunities to tie social studies into the rest of the day to make it infinitely more interesting without much extra work.

What if, acknowledging that social studies seems to be a “lost subject” of elementary school, that doesn’t get a lot of attention in the core curriculum, we worked to incorporate social studies concepts in a very intentional way? We could read stories set in new places or simply examine the place and people in each story alongside the content. This would increase understanding of both the story and the social studies related to it. Maybe some of our math lessons could calculate the distance between places, like where we are and wherever a given story takes place. We could practice multiplication and division by calculating populations. Some of our writing assignments could focus on social studies concepts, like we did one morning this week. My class wrote a fiction piece about whether they would participate in 1848’s Gold Rush. This is a great example of how to overlap the two subjects, but I think it could be strengthened by sharing the explicit connection between the subjects so the students could associate the positive experience of writing their story with something other than reading.

Hardly anything we do in the real world is divided into discrete chunks like the subjects in school, so why not work to integrate all the subjects in more concrete ways throughout the educational process? If nothing else, maybe we could recover one or two of our “lost subjects.”

The Cooptation of Imagination

Walking out of a movie theater after viewing a movie based on a book, I’m among the first to share my love of the original. Rarely do I find the movie better than the book it’s based on. I know many feel this way, but I’ve narrowed my reasons down and decided it’s because I lack visual acuity. When I read, I create the world I’m reading about in my head, complete with voices, colors, etc. It’s relatively subconscious and I couldn’t describe it or recreate it with my own artistic skills, but it exists. When a movie depicts that world, it takes over my own mental images. Someone else’s creation and interpretation of the story eliminates my own — to the point that if I read the same story again, my vision has changed.

I don’t like having my imagination hacked, but I still have trouble avoiding it. There is no story this is more true for than Harry Potter.

I was the first in my small elementary school to read and enjoy the first Harry Potter book. It spread quickly after that, and I attended more than one Harry Potter themed birthday party. I grew up with the books, finishing the newest the day it came out and waiting impatiently for the next to be released. I loved them so much that I got excited and reread the whole series before each movie premiere. I can’t imagine a better way to ensure I would be disappointed with each film, but I persisted. Though at the time my disappointment stemmed from congruency errors, as I reflect back on the experience, much more of it could have come from the loss of my personal wizarding world.

The books taught me about good and evil and how to care for people who are different from yourself. The brilliant story takes place in a world that parallels our Muggle reality closer than we might think. I truly believe that this series laid a foundation for my social justice education and empowers young people across the globe. I own the complete set in two languages and regularly consider how I will introduce them to my future family.

But each movie robbed a little bit of my experience. From obliterating my original pronunciation of Hermione, to ascribing solid images to almost every moment of the book, every detail the producers included pushed one that I created from my mind. I’m currently re-reading the series aloud with my partner (who had seen the movies, but never read past book three, gasp!) and though I’m still uncovering new details, the picture in my brain is one created by Warner Brothers.

When J.K. Rowling released Pottermore, I was sorted into Hufflepuff, which took me longer than expected to embrace. Again, external forces were hacking my world. Though my love for the books runs deep, and I always felt my heart warming at Facebook posts from friends “waiting for their letters”, I remained grounded in the Muggle world, focused more on the allegory than the reality of being a wizard. Within a month of moving to Florida, I visited Universal’s Wizarding World for the first time, with the friend who best understands my love of Harry Potter. By this time I recognized that seeing the park would forever change the books. Despite my hesitance, finding myself in that world was magical in and of itself.

It became a love-hate relationship, but I found myself in this park over and over again in the last year. The two Harry Potter areas are easily Universal’s busiest and I was saddened that this might be the closest that many people come to the books. In many ways, we’ve made Harry Potter a consumable that requires no understanding of the actual story. Despite this, each time we visit, we spend more time in the Potter areas than anywhere else in the park. I resisted buying a wand or wizards robes, especially once they became so popular; I always felt odd buying a character’s wand and the sheer number of Gryffindor robes running around took away the authenticity for me. But the parks are beautiful and truly magical in their ability to transport you to another place, even when surrounded by thousands of Muggles.

Before our most recent visit we knew our annual Universal passes would expire and that we probably wouldn’t return to the parks soon. I spent some time in Ollivander’s and stumbled upon wands that had no characters associated with them. Instead they are based on the Celtic tree calendar and each wood is associated with different characteristics. I found the one I most identified with, hemmed and hawed, and then left to visit Florean Fortescue’s. For the rest of the afternoon, I couldn’t get the wand out of my head. I did some more research and learned that they were loosely based on birth month, and that J.K. Rowling happened upon this long after she gave Harry his wand. His holly wand just happened to fit his birthday.

When we left Diagon Alley that afternoon I became overwhelmed by the idea that I might never be in the Wizarding World again. Tears sprang to my eyes; as much as I am saddened by the cooptation of my imagination by the gigantic enterprise, my Harry Potter experience is now completely entwined with Warner Brothers and Universal Studios. Walking away was as bad as having my (non-existent) wand snapped in half.

My wonderful partner, catching on to my distress, encouraged me to embrace my inner wizard. With an hour left before closing, we rushed back to Ollivander’s and asked which wand matched my August birthday. The helpful staff member said hazel, and I was sold. We checked out, bought a butterbeer, and began studying the map of all the places we could use the wand to cast magic spells. We raced around Diagon Alley, making water shoot from fountains, lights illuminate the night, eyeballs stare you down, and feathers fly, and I have never felt so magical. It helped that the wand worked better for me than it did my partner, solidifying that the wand did indeed choose me.

I can’t change the impact that the commercialization of Harry Potter had on me and my inner vision. But that hazel wand has brought me joyfully back to the days when my own imagination led the way through the series, so I suppose I’ve come full circle.

For now, wand in one hand, book in the other, I say, “Always.”

Controversy with Civility

Take a moment and consider your political leanings that inform how you believe the world could be a better place. Do you have them fully-pictured in your head? Perfect. Now, think about people who disagree with your notions. Perhaps they espouse a different party’s views, or oppose one of your staunchly held positions. You’re probably feeling annoyed even at the mere thought of their ideas. But, take another moment and consider this: do you believe that they are out to ruin the world? That making the world worse is their inherent goal?

When I do this exercise with college students, to teach about the meaning of “controversy with civility”, nearly all of them take pause at the final questions. They chuckle, shake their heads, and murmur, “no, probably not.” We then discuss how remembering that most of society is working to better the world, just with different approaches, can help us tolerate and work with those we disagree with.

I was reminded of this exercise when I read this article from The Atlantic positing that we are not far from the ideal world that conservatives envision, and that rather than the distaste for social welfare that oft defines the party, the real aversion is for the idea of “utopia” that liberals are striving for. As a liberal, I argue that this incorrectly characterizes us, as I believe we stand more for equality of opportunity than the utopia itself, but I can see how that finer point is missed in the mainstream rhetoric. I found this piece interesting, frustrating, and above-all informative to my understanding of a position I typically disagree with.

This article stayed with me as I read about the turmoil at Yale. To summarize the events: administrators sent a campus-wide email asking that students be considerate of other cultures when choosing costumes; a faculty member countered with the opinion that perhaps the administration should expect more of Yale students, even if that meant a few costumes offending others; students protested, citing that questioning the original email made them feel unsafe in their Yale home. The article is well-written, reasoned, and provides a perspective that, as someone who usually defaults to supporting students, I was surprised to agree with.

The first article I offer as an example of seeking to understand differing views; the second as an example of what happens when we don’t have the skills to do so. What’s most fascinating to me is how relevant these skills are in my third grade classroom.

My students disagree with each other daily, usually because of a playground incident, or because someone hurt their feelings. As teachers, we initially encourage them to work it out on their own, whether they “agree to disagree” or find common ground. When an argument escalates to a level that needs our intervention, we encourage each student to share their perspective and then we facilitate a resolution, which sometimes equates to simply avoiding each other for the rest of recess. We teach students to apologize when necessary, but also push back against students who demand apologies for their own bad luck or unhappiness.

Sometimes we put students in a bubble. As adults concerned for children’s “safety”, we implement new rules in their lives all the time. As of this week, our students are only allowed to play one specific type of tag under a certain teacher’s supervision and facilitation. We constantly regulate what they can and cannot do on the playground (and everywhere, really), primarily to avoid situations that lead to disagreements.

Overall, I think we are doing well at teaching our students to interact with each other and work out (or accept) their differences. Many college students and adults could learn a thing or two from the nine-year-olds who recognize that playing together is far more important than whatever disagreement they have. But teaching empathy and fostering a zest for challenges is hard work, in and out of the classroom. Though it’s developmentally appropriate for our students to focus on themselves without recognizing the feelings of others, they are on the tail end of that stage.

Nevertheless, adults and students still struggle to have their views challenged, especially the kids in my class. And this makes me concerned that we will continue to see students who, despite their extensive social practice, can’t bear a civil conversation with someone who disagrees with them. Daily, I work with students who respond to an academic challenge with, “this makes no sense” or devolve into tears because they don’t immediately understand a new concept. Teaching them the all-important grit, resilience, and self-confidence in the face of challenge is the most difficult thing I do everyday. But I fear that our students come to us with these struggles because they lack the same lessons in other areas of their lives, and the effects of that will last longer than my insistence that working hard for understanding is a good thing.

Friendly Feedback

In college, I took a class that required us to write five papers — one every two weeks. Our professor offered us a deal: if we turn in the paper a week early, he would give us feedback that we could use on our final version. The offer was valid for every paper and he told us about it on day one. To me and the two other people in the class who took him up on the offer, this seemed like a no-brainer. I simply wrote down the due dates in my planner as though they were a week earlier. I never understood why so few of the students used this service; it was an excellent way to improve our grade and, more importantly, our writing skills and understanding of the content.

I saw this behavior again as a professor. I learned quickly that it was futile to provide feedback on assignments that didn’t include a graded opportunity for improvement. Though it irked me, I adapted to this reality and strove to always include rough drafts as part of grades — or when that wasn’t feasible, offer an opportunity for students to turn in their work for feedback prior to the official due date. I typically wrote-off this behavior as laziness, but after my experiences in third grade, I’m wondering if it’s more confusion and ingrained habit.

At our school, students receive very little feedback directly from the teachers. Sure, we give them feedback when working with them one-on-one or in a small group, but all of their grade information is filtered through another entity: their parents. The process goes something like this:

  • Student submits assignment
  • Teacher or Assistant grades assignment
  • Teacher inputs score into grade book
  • Assistant files papers into student folders
  • Assistant packs up student’s folder with all the work from that week stapled together
  • Assistant sends the student’s folder home to parents
  • Parents return folder with initials to indicate that they’ve seen the work
  • Assistant files signed papers into filing cabinet

Somehow, once the paper leaves the student’s hands, they never see it again. I have to hope (if only because I spend hours each week providing feedback on their assignments) that at least some of the parents are reviewing these packets with their children. But evidence proves otherwise: most packets are returned seemingly untouched; students repeat the same procedural mistakes on similar assignments; and I have yet to hear a student mention anything about a previous assignment.

I will grant that this procedure could be unique to private schools, my school, or even my class; I have no idea if this is widespread throughout the third grade community in the US. Plus, some of my students are already so stressed about their ability that I wonder if they could actually handle getting grade feedback without cracking completely. As a positive, the procedure includes parents, some of whom likely demanded the process in the first place. But despite this benefit, I can’t help but be distraught at this approach.

If students can’t see feedback on their assignments, they can’t learn how to use or appreciate it. They never get to ask what a teacher meant by a comment, or file-away mental notes for how to improve. If this is common across elementary schools, it’s no wonder students skip opportunities for “free” feedback as college students. In our world of instant gratification where everyone is a winner, feedback is hard enough to handle when the stakes are high. Why not do more when the stakes are low to make feedback a friend instead of a foe?

That Was Easy: Early Lessons on Diversity

That-Was-Easy-Button

Hearing these words come out of my students’ mouths is as bad as hearing nails on a chalkboard for me. From the moment the kids arrived in our classroom, every utterance of this phrase provoked a visceral reaction that leaves me needing a cool-down moment. My early educational experience taught me that saying “that was easy” aloud to a friend or to the class without an additional modifier, like “for me,” was as bad as any curse word we hadn’t learned yet. Even the qualified version was looked down upon; we were encouraged to find another way to express our feelings out of respect for classmates who didn’t find the same task quite as understandable.

Yet, at my current school, I seem to be alone in my discomfort with this phrase. There may be others who don’t like it, but I have yet to see anyone correct a student for using it, or to offer an alternative. On the contrary, students’ comfort with whatever task they are describing is celebrated, and only occasionally followed by a placation for those who are struggling.

I imagine some readers may be thinking something along the lines of, “what ridiculous millennial crap! Stuff doesn’t come easy to everyone, why are we so worried about their feelings? Kids have to learn this sometime!” I can sympathize; I certainly see a plethora of attitudes and behaviors along the lines of this criticism that we are using with our children that could be harming them. But, I would like to offer an example to illustrate why I don’t think this is one of them.

This week, my students started Stone Fox, a novel published in 1980 that tells the story of a young boy and his dog fighting to save his grandfather’s farm. The family was near losing the farm to the government as a result of not paying taxes on the land for a decade. In a surprisingly complex twist, the author introduces the title character as a Native American man competing in sled dog races to earn money to buy back land that was taken from his tribe, and who hasn’t spoken to a white man since being forced from his home.

This proved to be a startlingly challenging concept for several of my students. They simply could not grapple with the idea that Stone Fox would blame more than one individual for his plight. Many of them considered his decision not to talk to white men unreasonable and argued with great passion that they would simply work to buy back the land without holding any grudges. One of the questions on their worksheet about the chapter asked them to detail the reasons that Stone Fox didn’t talk to white men. One student quickly wrote down, “because he was black.” I tried to contain my shudder, then told her that was incorrect and that we needed to look at it again. We discussed what it meant to be Native American and how he was upset over the loss of his people’s land before she told me her new answer, “because he was Native American and everyone else was regular American.” Despite the incredible seriousness infused in my voice as I explained that there a) is no such thing as a regular American, and b) if there was Native Americans would be included in that group, I’m afraid she walked away from my desk with no increased understanding.

The kids in my class operate, for the most part, in an extremely homogeneous world. The school is overwhelmingly white, affluent, and able-bodied. There are students from other backgrounds, but they are few and far between. So, in fairness to the child who poked my patience with her “regular American” stance, she has likely had little opportunity to learn about people from other backgrounds, or to practice empathy for them, as she must pick it up on her own from whatever goes on at school and at home.

This is where my aversion to “that was easy” comes into play. I grew up in a very similar environment; my hometown is 83% white, and my private school classmates and I all came from extremely comfortable backgrounds. We also had limited opportunities to actively learn understanding of others from a young age. But a refusal to accept “that was easy” as a universal truth (and a variety of other rules along the same vein), coupled with a full explanation of why those words were problematic, taught us open-mindedness from the very beginning. This basic tenant showed us that others could be different without being bad or wrong or hurting us in any way, which we would later be able to apply to more complex situations.

Stone Fox ends tragically, in several ways. First, the main character’s dog dies just shy of the finish line that would have won them the race and the money to save the farm. Second, Stone Fox, presumably acting with empathy toward the boy due to the dog’s death or his overall situation, pulls up his own sled and forces everyone behind him to stop so that the boy can carry his dog over the finish line and win the money. Once this ending stops pulling at heartstrings, it’s easier to see a bizarre, yet subtle, lesson we are teaching: no cause is as important as a young white boy’s determination to dig out of a hole of 10 years of mistakes, including justice for a wronged people. For the social justice minded of you, I grant that it’s possible that Little Willy’s grandfather didn’t have the money to pay the taxes for the last decade due to other systematic trials, which certainly complicates the story, but I’m confident my third graders will miss that subtlety when we reach the conclusion of the story next week.

Certainly, these are complex issues for young children to understand, but the message is still there. If we don’t start teaching understanding earlier through our book choices, how we talk to our kids about diversity issues, and things as simple as banning “that was easy” we will continue to struggle to find understanding as adults.