This school year Keisha Hirlinger, Lower School music teacher, transitioned to co-teach a class of fourth-grade students with colleague Michelle Podulka. Michelle is the Technology and Library Specialist for the Lower School. The pair are a dynamic duo and display a mutual respect, gained from working closely together for several years in their roles as diversity clerks in the Lower School. When given the opportunity to spend a year working (virtually) side-by-side as educators, it presented a chance they’d been waiting for—time and space to build an intentional, skill-building, social justice curriculum for the youngest students at AFS.
The basic core of the plan was to teach their class, who all learned from home this school year, about social justice four times a week, every week for the entire school year in 30 to 40 minute lessons. But building this curriculum was far more complex. As an on-going wave of unrest and activism spread across the nation and the world, students naturally brought social justice topics to class and Keisha and Michelle delved into discussions in ways that furthered student engagement and learning. All subjects in the classroom were taught through a sophisticated DEI lens, from social studies to language arts and science. Keisha explained, “Speaking about groups that have been traditionally marginalized from a place of power was really important to us,” with Michelle adding, “We wanted to make sure that [our class knew] black people did not show up in the world as enslaved people because that’s so important for them and for us all.”
Several writing assignments throughout the year explored topics that connected to social justice and activism and built student’s research, writing and editing skills. In one assignment the class read and analyzed Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb” line-by-line. Every student selected a line of the poem that resonated with them and explored its theme, then they wrote papers about that theme, including supporting arguments. Keisha notes that students were able to use language from and make connections to their social justice studies for this and many other assignments.
Keisha questioned students about what they have learned from their social justice curriculum and many of them expressed that they had no idea that black people were kings and had kingdoms and armies and whole militaries with strategy. She said, “This was a surprise to them and it would have been for me at that age, too.”
In spring conferences with parents, the co-teachers found that almost every family expressed their appreciation for the social justice component of their child’s learning and noted that their child took great pride in everything they have gained over the course of the school year.
Keisha and Michelle’s class capped off the year with year-end projects (shown in the YouTube Video above) that explore a social justice topic or issue. Projects were presented in a wide variety of ways—through song, a podcast and slideshow presentations.
Keisha and Michelle are continuing to collaborate on this work and plan to finalize and formalize an overarching social justice curriculum for all ages of lower school children.