Many people would say that children at this age are too young to deal with these serious issues. I too had real questions at first about what was actually possible with young children. Can you have "real" conversations with six-year-olds about power, privilege, and racism in our society? Can you make them aware of the effects that racism and injustice have in our lives? Can they really understand their role in the classroom community?
The answer to all of these questions is "yes." Even very young children can explore and understand the attitudes they and their classmates bring to school each day. They have real issues and opinions to share, and many, many questions of their own to ask. In this way they can begin to challenge some of the assumptions that influence their behavior toward classmates who don't look or talk the same way they do.
Children at this age can explore rules and learn about collecting data, making inferences, and forming conclusions. They can compare and contrast the experiences of people and think about what it means. They can, that is, if they are given the opportunity.
At Fratney, which serves 400 students from kindergarten through fifth grade, we discuss issues of social justice with all of our students. During the past several years, those of us teaching first grade have developed a series of activities and projects that help us to discuss issues of race and social justice in a meaningful, age-appropriate way.
We strive to build classroom community by learning about each other's lives and families. We ask our students to collect and share information about their families and ancestry. For example, we might talk about how they got their names, how their families came to live in Milwaukee, which holidays they celebrate and how. And at every step we help the children to explore the nature of racial and cultural differences and to overcome simplistic notions of "who's better" or who is "like us" and who isn't.