Supporting Young Learners’ Engagement in Action
Supporting students as actors of social transformation involves providing them with access to, and opportunities to co-create, the tools that afford such agency. This transformative activist pedagogy' is possible, as mentioned earlier, when educators see children and families, no matter what their socioeconomic or cultural background, as contributors of knowledge, ideas, and change. Nevertheless, adults’ notions of children and childhood often underestimate children’s abilities to engage in discussions of critical issues, leading to limited expectations about their abilities to participate in and contribute to change efforts (Soto & Swadener, 2002). These limited expectations are often compounded with low expectations for children from minoritized communities. As the previous examples show, teachers who believe in children’s ability to contribute and engage in agentive efforts find many ways to organize curricula around this belief.
Tool 6: Inquiry as Knowledge to Foreground Action
The concept of foregrounding children’s action is used to acknowledge that some children are already engaged in critical readings of their worlds, and that what they need are spaces in the classroom to bring their voices and experiential and political funds of knowledge (Batista-Morales, Slamerón, & DeJulio, 2019).
However, some structures for student participation have more potential than others for supporting and foregrounding children’s transformative actions, such as curriculum that engages children in authentic inquiry processes. Maestra Nydia, one third-grade teacher in Puerto Rico, supported children’s action through an inquiry project designed to address their concerns as well as their academic needs after the hurricanes hit Puerto Rico in September of 2017 (Martínez-Roldán, 2019).The teachers and the principal expressed that their primary concern after the hurricanes was the children’s well-being; however, while the aftermath of the hurricanes represented a devastating experience for many families, once the school restarted, the teachers did not receive the children with a sense of pity. On the contrary, caring for the students involved listening to their concerns and providing learning experiences that could help them academically, as they had lost so much time due to the school’s two-month closure.
When their elementary school reopened, the children found out they had lost the school library where, in addition to books, teachers secured all art materials and musical instruments. Some of the children were used to visiting the library during recess time, while others ran around the schoolyard; however, after the hurricanes, the patio was not in its best condition for the children to run around. In a meeting with their teacher, the children expressed their concerns about the lack of recreational activities they could enjoy during recess: “pero es que aquí no hay nada, y ahora hay menos maestra, no hay biblioteca” [“but there is nothing here, and now there is less, teacher, there is no library”].The children raised concerns about a vital activity which had been seriously impacted by the hurricanes and its aftermath. Maestra Nydia listened to this concern and took it seriously. She asked the children what things they would like to have, creating a conceptual web as they brainstormed. Elevating their discussion via analysis, the teacher did not treat play and academics as separate activities. From the students’ concern regarding free time, the teacher decided to involve the class in an inquiry on the topic of leisure, its definition and benefits, making connections to various content area subjects and different types of texts. The groups concern expanded to include other students in the school community, and as part of their inquiry, they wanted to know whether they also felt the same, so the children surveyed their fellow students about what they would want to see happening during recess. They collected that information and, with the teacher, tabulated the data, made graphs, and analyzed the data in order to propose solutions and make decisions.
This example of third-grade curriculum with Puerto Rican children reflects a transformative activist pedagogy in which both teacher and students engaged in agentive moves that foregrounded children’s action. The academic approach to play led to solutions, so knowledge was tied to action from the start. Driven by the problem the students posed, the students and teacher engaged in research, and the children learned new concepts and vocabulary, but more importantly, they collectively proposed solutions, such as the adaptation of certain areas of the school with blackboard paint where they and students from other classrooms could play, draw, and write. The students developed a sense of agency that cultivated solidarity during a time of crisis while engaging in robust learning. Maestra Nydia trusted that the children could contribute ideas and solutions to a problem that impacted the whole school, incorporating knowledge from texts but also from their lives, while having high expectations for their learning. The students and the teacher imagined together a new future for their local school community that led to the physical—and perhaps emotional—transformation of their environment.
Tool 7: Inquiry as Meaningful Action for Social Justice
In a four-year school-based inquiry, Short (2016) and the teachers of an elementary school designed learning invitations to engage children in authentic and meaningful social justice action. There was a clear commitment to enact a critical pedagogy, as the adults engaged in efforts to support children’s intercultural understanding and their becoming global citizens. Engagements around global literature, in which sometimes the children characters appear taking action, played a major role as the children engaged in a school-wide inquiry on human rights and hunger as global issues. The engagements included read-alouds, independent reading, literature discussions, writing workshops, and inquiry studies in the classrooms. Children explored, for example, the concept of‘power’ as connected to ‘hunger,’ the difference between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ in tight times, and others. After examining root causes for the problem of hunger, the children identified various ways they wanted to take action; some engaged in research action, direct and indirect action, and advocacy for action.
From these efforts, Short and the teachers identified a set of principles to consider in creating a learning environment with the potential to engage children in authentic action. They found that authentic action develops out of children’s inquiry and experiences, no longer completely dependent on adult knowledge. The action project meets a genuine need recognized by children. It builds collaborative relationships; that is, it is not the result of just one leader or student in a protagonist role but occurs with other community members. The action results in mutual exchanges among everyone involved in that action so that it is not a one-way process that could reduce the project to an act of charity between savior and receiver; instead, it is a process in which all participants contribute ideas, skills, information, and knowledge.The project involves not just action but also reflection on what occurs, accepting responsibility for consequences, and acting again. The action invites student voice and choice; no one voice should silence another, and in particular, no adult should silence students in the pursuit of engaging in real dialogue and reflection. Lastly, the action involves civic/ global responsibility for social justice, and questions about power, oppression, and social conditions within local and global communities (Short, 2016). It is clear from these principles that, when engaging students in social action projects or projects that afford them possibilities to engage in activism, it is not the teacher who should select the problem or impose her perspectives on learners. It all starts with listening to students’ concerns. From a transformative activist perspective, through the different actions the children took, they were contributing and daring to create a more just society; they were taking a stand with transformative activist potential.
Transformative pedagogies such as the ones reflected on these two inquiry projects were not adds-on to the curriculum but, asVasquez (2004) asserts regarding critical literacy, they are a critical frame through which to participate in the world; they constitute a perspective that guides the selection and organization of instruction and policymaking in public schools.
CHILDREN'S LITERATURE BOX 11.5
Children and Youth Agency and Activism
Friends from the Other Side/Amigos del otro lado (Anzaldua, 1997)
This Promise of Change: One Girl's Story in the Fight for School Equality (Boyce
& Levy, 2019) (N)
The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora (Cartaya, 2018) (N)
Let the Children March (Clark-Robinson, 2018)
A Good Kind of Trouble (Moore Ramee, 2019) (N)
A is for Activist (Nagara, 201 3)
Between Us and Abuela: A Family Story from the Border (Perkins, 2019)
By Sit-in: How four friends Stood up by Sitting Down (Pinkney, 2010)
Van a tumbar el hucar (Rivera Izcoa, 2004)
That's not fair! Emma Tenayuca's struggle for justice/jNo es justo! La lucha de
Emma Tenayuca por la justicia (Tafolla & Teneyuca, 2008)