“Read and be inspired” Courtney Cazden, Harvard Graduate School of Education

From Out of the Classroom and Into the World

The following section from Chapter 1: “Slavery Was a Business,” comes midway into the Brownsville Brooklyn study with third graders.

“You Should be Happy with the Color You Are”

LAURA BEGAN TO NOTICE how these students, who started the year showing little interest in what their peers had to say, "were much more responsive to the people [each other, teachers, and visitors] around them than...students from years past." She realized that they were engaged emotionally as well as intellectually. "They paid attention, they asked meaningful questions, they were respectful, and most importantly, they seemed to enjoy listening"—all very different from the ways in which previous groups responded to their work. Laura also found herself engaged emotionally and seemed to have a heightened sensitivity to the children’s comments and questions. She brought a different kind of investment to her work and felt energized by the visitors and children’s reactions to them. Personally convinced of its importance, she had conceived the study and planned its broad-strokes, yet saw it grow as an interaction between herself, the children, the parents, and other teachers.

Laura realized the impact of the study when right before the winter holiday break, the children—like so many school children—seemed unable to focus on anything except the holiday. Just to keep them busy for a while, she asked them to write in their journals, which they hadn’t done in a while. What they chose to write about surprised her. One child wrote of her sadness at not being able to see her family at Christmas. To this another child said she knew how she felt—her parents had died. Another said she wished she could see her mother for the holiday. A child responded that his mother had forbid him to see his father. From hurt feelings, the children's conversation shifted spontaneously to experiences of name-calling. One child spoke about how his brother’s friend was teased and ostracized because he was light skinned. Another talked about a Jewish friend who wanted to be black and to whom she said, “You shouldn't want to be black, you should be happy with the color that you are.” Others spoke of situations where people were treated badly because they were different and emphasized how they thought this was not right.

Laura realized that, unlike the classes she had taught previously, these children had gotten the message that in school they could speak about what was important to them. This kind of discussion showed that the children had come to know and trust each other. She had never said that they were learning to understand and respect differences among people—it was the curriculum that demonstrated these values.

Read excerpt 2.