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What is Fair? Building Community & Social Justice in Elementary Classrooms

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Show Notes:

For elementary teachers, a big focus at the beginning of every school year is on how we can build a safe and loving classroom community.

We focus on fairness, on establishing rules that help our kiddos to feel safe while they’re in our care, and we choose books like Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes to help children celebrate their uniqueness.

Although we’ve been having some conversations inside our private Beginning Teacher Talk Facebook Group to extend this conversation in talking more specifically about social justice and race in our classrooms, I have really resisted doing a podcast episode about this topic because I don’t want to talk about race and social justice just because it’s trending in the news right now.

I don’t want to just talk about social justice while we are in the midst of protests – I want this to be an ongoing conversation, a meaningful conversation, that we have with our students ongoing about larger topics of “What is fair?”

How can we ensure that every one of our students feels safe and valued and respected in our classrooms and in our world, regardless of the color of our skin or where we come from or how much money we have?

And it’s so interesting to me because again, as elementary teachers, we have been having these conversations in our classrooms for years. We featured books like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas long before it was trending on social media to talk about social justice.

We already spend a great deal of our time focused on how to ensure that children feel safe and valued and respected while on our watch. We have been champions of the anti-bullying movement for years because we know, firsthand, the impact that unkindness has on a child’s heart and confidence and feelings of safety in the world.

However, I think that in light of the Black Lives Matter movement that is currently taking place in our nation, it’s helpful to think more specifically about how we can help children to think more critically about what is fair and what is right.

I think it's valuable to consider how we can be more conscious about making these lessons more accessible for children as we establish our classroom communities at the beginning of the school year because they’re hearing so much more about this.

It’s being talked about in their homes and their parents are likely having conversations about this around the dinner table, so I think it’s helpful to find ways to bring those conversations into our classrooms in age-appropriate ways.

How do we help children to become critical thinkers of what they have already started learning thus far in their lives about fairness and social justice?

  1. When Creating a Classroom Community:

    What you do at the beginning of the school year in terms of creating a caring classroom community, whether that be online or in person, can set the tone for “the way of being” in your classroom.

    It isn’t as much about the activities that you choose, though of course this can also make an impact, as much as it is about helping children to think critically in everything you do in your classroom in terms of “what’s fair?” because that’s something that every child can relate to.

    One of the most natural ways to build awareness of race and social justice into your classroom from the beginning of the year is to choose books that kids can see themselves in. When you’re choosing books for your classroom, think in terms of not only how these books can help set the tone for the year in terms of lessons, but also that help children to see themselves represented.

    When kids see themselves in books, they see characters who look just like them who have overcome challenges, who have faced obstacles, and who have made a difference in the world.

    I have been having so much fun researching different books to tell you about, and there are so many great ones out there that I would be using at the beginning of the school year with my students. Be sure to click here or on the pic below to access a fantastic list of books that will help you to teach diversity more explicitly in your classroom.

As you’re reading these books with your students, invite them to think critically about the content by asking questions like:

 - What was your reaction to this story?

 - How did it make you feel? Why?

 - Have you ever felt like (one of the characters)?

 - Who wants to share about a time when you felt that way? What happened?

 - What’s one way that you are similar to this character?

Getting kids thinking and talking about what they’re feeling when they hear these stories and creating connections with their own lives, even when the lives of the characters might be so different than their own, can create a community of acceptance and compassion for each other’s experiences, and can help to create an inclusive classroom community where everyone begins to understand, accept, and eventually celebrate differences, instead of expecting everyone to be more like them.

By the way, I’m going to be holding some GiveAway contests inside my Beginning Teacher Talk FB group and on my Instagram page (including some great books that will help you to teach diversity in your classroom), so if we aren’t connected on Instagram, come connect with me so you can be entered into these fantastic Give Aways & win some awesome resources for your classroom!

  1. Consider a Student-Led Social Justice Project:

    The second way we can encourage understanding of race and social justice is by organizing a student-led social justice project.

    Now you might be thinking, “Hold on Lori, there is no way that I have the time to do that with all of the standards we need to teach, OR, how the heck are we supposed to do that when we’re teaching online?”

    I get it. However, We Are Teachers just recently put together an awesome list of 21 Free Resources for Teachers for Teaching Social Justice in the Classroom. Inside this list are some incredible resources for lesson plans that you can share and collaborate with other teachers on virtually, and provide an entire range of ideas for both quick and extended lessons and projects you can do with your students, whether you are teaching online or in person.

    However, although classroom lessons can begin the conversation about social justice, finding ways for kids to actually take action and make a difference in their own communities is when the real magic can happen.

    I’ve said this before, and to quote Brendon Burchard, “People support what they create,” meaning that when kids come up with an idea themselves and then we lead them in the process to help them to take action on that idea, amazing things can happen. These meaningful experiences can begin to make a genuine impact on children’s hearts and on their view of the world because when they do, they remember, right?

To get started, brainstorm lots of ideas with your students for social justice projects. For example, kids might decide that they want more books in their school or your classroom library that represent a wider range of kids who look like them, or who are different than them.

They could work together with you to create an Amazon Wishlist of books and then create a social media post with you to ask if people would like to donate a book to their class so they can learn more from these books.

Or, maybe kids can write about what they’re learning about social justice issues in the classroom and each contribute one page to a class book to teach other kids about issues of race and social justice.

They could even record themselves in short videos talking about what they wrote and put them together in a video to show to other classes, or even, with parent permission, to share online, maybe to raise money for a local charity that’s committed to social justice issues in their neighborhood.

Finally, because many schools are online right now, this is a wonderful opportunity to put their letter-writing skills to work and write a collaborative letter with you to affect change in their own communities – from asking for more funding and support for a local shelter or food bank, or they could even organize a fund-raiser to support a local charity involved in social justice issues.

You and your students could even start your own Kickstarter campaign to raise money and awareness about a particular cause or issue that your students feel passionate about.

When we show students that what they do matters outside of the classroom, that their voices and their actions matter, we will be able to begin to make the kind of impact we need to in order to see societal change outside the protected communities of our classrooms.

I look forward to continuing this conversation with you as we talk about ways that we might be able to meaningfully infuse social justice into our classrooms. Be sure to comment below if you have ideas to share!

πŸ’› Lori

P.S. Are you beginning the school year online? Your kiddos are going to love this! πŸ‘‡


Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor

Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at and at

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