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Change Maker

The Secret to Teaching Kindergartners About Race

How a Prospect Sierra teacher uses a changemaker lens to teach about difficult topics.

By Laura White

In May 2012, Laura graduated from Tulane University with a B.A. in Political Economy. While at Tulane, Laura brought her Youth Venture project, Swim 4 Success, to New Orleans, LA, and was a founding member of Tulane’s Ashoka U Changemaker Campus team. As a member of the Empathy Initiative, Laura manages the Changemaker Schools network, a group of schools that have given empathy as much priority as math and literacy. Laura is passionate about changemaker education, empathy, and transforming early childhood education.

January 21, 2013

Like many elementary school teachers, Madeleine Rogin found Martin Luther King Day both exciting and intimidating. A progressive educator, Rogin was eager to teach her students about the history of civil rights and empower them to make change. At the same time, race is a challenging issue to cover in a kindergarten classroom. Rogin found that it was difficult for her five and six-year-old students to understand who Martin Luther King was and what he stood for. Instead of finishing the unit with the interest and confidence to make change through peaceful means, students left with a scary image of a person who tried to do good things - but died. Furthermore, Rogin found that the class discussions during the unit made her students of color uncomfortable and unable to speak.
In response to this challenge, Rogin set out to design a new curriculum that would create a safe classroom environment and give her kindergartners the skills to be peaceful changemakers. After hours of research on anti-bias education, she realized that the themes of peace, empathy, courage, and making change needed to be directly and thoroughly integrated into the curriculum. Furthermore, Rogin decided that preparing her students for the study of Martin Luther King needed to be a semester-long commitment, beginning at the start of the school year.

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Rogin started with integrating peace, empathy, courage, and making change into the year-long humanities curriculum, which is centered on stewardship throughout kindergarten. This included a service-learning project in which Rogin’s students restored a nearby watershed by planting trees and native grasses. Rogin used this as an opportunity to talk about environmentalism and introduced her students to Wangari Maathai and her Green Belt Movement. After much discussion about making change, protecting the environment, and Maathai’s story, Rogin’s students decided that she was a changemaker; in the words of the kindergartners, “She educated people to make change and used her words.”

Maathai’s story piqued the students’ interest in changemaking. They wondered:
What problem was Maathai trying to solve? Who was involved? Why was it hard to solve the problem? Was the problem solved and how?

These became the guiding questions forming the background for all of the class’ studies of changemakers. Using this analysis, the students determined that the Lorax and other characters from the books they were reading were changemakers. When Martin Luther King Day neared, Rogin introduced him through the lens of this changemaker analysis. Combined with a letter home to the parents of African American students and a unit on changemaking and skin color, the class’ study of Martin Luther King was much more positive.  By connecting Martin Luther King to the social and emotional curriculum, the humanities curriculum, and to a changemaking perspective, students were able to understand King as a person of courage and justice, rather than someone who died for standing up for his beliefs.