This election season has brought a whole new slew of questions, many without answers. Many of our students do not know how to comprehend or even have the prior knowledge or experiential basis to start to form their own ideas on what they think is “right” or issues that they agree or disagree with. Thus the need to teach, explicitly teach, social justice is paramount in order to help students shape their beliefs, values, and contributions to our society. Without the basic tools of literacy, students will not be able to advocate for themselves and their beliefs in a way that is meaningful and purposeful to their futures.
Social justice can be simply defined, although it is not a “simple” term in any regards, as any oppressing social condition to a group of people. This is included but not limited to race, ethnicity, sex, gender identification, religious beliefs, poverty, and much more.
Picture books can be a critical resource in order to build upon students’ knowledge base on what social justice and social oppression looks like, feels like, and the repercussions that follow. Picture books can and should be used with all ages, including at the middle and high school level. These books have the ability to increase student engagement and allow students to make multimodal connections with the text. The study below details the importance of utilizing picture books with students in the upper grades.
Reiker, M. (2011). The Use of Picture Books in a High School Classroom: A Qualitative Case Study. Masters Thesis. Rollins College.
I have used the following picture books to varying degrees in order to teach on social justice and engage my students in conversations surrounding oppression, the scope of authority, and when we should “rise up” and advocate for what we believe in.
Baseball Saved Us Ken Mochizuki
This book is wonderfully illustrated and centers around the children living in the Japanese Internment camps during World War II. This topic is rarely talked about in schools and is very eye-opening for students. Generally, students are saddened at the camp living conditions and empathetically align themselves with the children at the forefront of this text.
Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation Duncan Tonatiuh
This text is a poignant reminder of the segregation that was present in schools prior to Desegregation. This text provides a new lens for many students when thinking about segregation due to the protagonist being of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage. This book leads to rich discussions regarding race and the oppression that minority groups have faced in the past and are still facing today.
How Many Days to America? A Thanksgiving Story Eve Bunting
Eve Bunting is a wonderful author who writes striking books that cover a variety of social topics. I often use these texts as discussion starters or to provide some background knowledge for particular themes, projects, or novels. I also love her text Fly Away Home, which is such a heartbreaking story of poverty that rings true with so many students.
This particular text follows the journey of a family, possibly from the Caribbean area, in a small fishing boat to America. This book paints such a tragic picture of a refugee and opens my students’ eyes to the gravity of reality and what real people and families have to go through to find a better life. This text could provide as a starting point to talking about the events in Syria and the current immigration conversations happening nationally.
What books are you using with your children or students? What kinds of conversations are you having? As always, I would love suggestions!
In the following weeks, I will be posting about novels, non-fiction, and memoirs that can be used as a lens into social justice topics. Stay tuned!