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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

Educating Children for Life-Long Joy and Justice

from the Aug. 17, 2022 Bulletin

race and racism children and youth education reform art and culture

Ann Berlak has been a teacher and teacher educator for over fifty years. Schools, she believes, should be places where children learn to become active creators of a more caring and equitable world. Her bilingual children’s book Joelito's Big Decision: La Gran Decisión de Joelito, beautifully illustrated by Daniel Camacho and translated by José Antonio Galloso, encourages children to consider the effects of their own decisions.


How did you come to write a children’s book focusing on a child of Mexican grape pickers?

I found out about anti-brown racism when I taught elementary school in Goleta, California some fifty years ago. My class included the children of migrant workers who only spoke Spanish. I took for granted that I should focus on these kids who most needed my help. Joel Sanchez became one of my favorites. Joel had been homeless in México until his uncle went down from the US to find and adopt him. 


A University of Santa Barbara parent then protested that I was spending too much time on the Mexicano kids, and the school principal backed her up. But I have ever since carried Joel with me in my heart.


Schools and parents use story books to teach kids to read. But will any story do? 


Just to learn to read? Yes. But content matters in shaping young minds. What books we choose depends on our goals. I asked myself, what should we communicate to the next generation that will reverberate to the eleventh generation? I realized that Joel and all children need to understand that another world is possible, and that they can be part of a movement to make it happen. Shouldn’t the meaning of life and the purpose of education be to create a just and joyful future for all?

Unfortunately, many of the books read in school teach kids — through the “hidden curriculum” — to accept and to reproduce the world we live in, with all its injustices. Our education system contributes to normalizing the bootstrap myth, the idea that if you just work hard, you’ll make it, or even get rich. Many migrant parents believe and reinforce that message, so children “take it for granite!”

Photo: Prodigy

The result: a population that for the most part cannot even imagine there could be a different way to organize society. We’re like the fish that can’t see they swim in water.


But what about privileged kids? How do you get them to question injustice when theyre doing just fine?


In racially and economic diverse classrooms, teachers can provoke social justice learning through the students’ sharing of their own experiences. Children are curious about each other and have an innate sense of justice. I ask them questions that prompt them to think about what they see in their everyday lives.


One example: A mother is standing at the off-ramp of interstate 580 with a baby on her shoulder asking for money to feed her child. Whats she feeling? What has brought her there? What can be done? Just a nudge, a relevant question at the right moment, can spark critical thinking. Teachers can help the fish to see the water they swim in.


But sometimes we lack diversity in the classroom. We lack a “Joelito.” I wrote the book to invite him in. Joelito tells the story of a ten-year-old boy who feels puzzled when his best friend says his family can’t afford to replace his sister’s stolen backpack. Joelito later sees that friend and his father picketing the fast-food restaurant where the father works. They’re carrying signs that shout “Low pay is not OK!” Our economic system, Joelito suddenly realizes, isn’t working fairly. What must he do? 

Can you give an example of how you help elementary school students understand what you call “social justice basics”?


I asked students in one class, “Who pays your teachers? Does your mom send money to school to pay the teacher every week?” Soon we were talking about what “public” education means and what taxes pay for. I knew they were getting the notion of “public” when I asked them to list all the things that should be public, and one boy said, “Wigs.” I hadn’t thought of that! Turned out his grandmother had cancer and couldn’t afford a wig. 

In another class, I gave students Monopoly money and asked them to allocate their taxes” to an array of possibilities: schools, free hospitals, transportation, police, summer camp. Students then lobbied their classmates to use taxes for their own preferred projects. That gave the other students insights into various ways economic status defined their classmates’ lives.


Just about everyone, for instance, turned out to be concerned about going to college. In the third grade! But some kids didn’t have to worry about paying for college.


What kinds of discussions can Joelito facilitate 

Photo: Catherwood Library, Cornell 

Joelito has been used in ESL — English as a Second Language — classes for adults. Once in a PTA meeting I was invited to, we broke into small groups that included both parents and their children. This kind of intergenerational conversation about real-life issues had not happened before in their homes. 


Teachers and parents, children and librarians, all need to engage in community education together.  We need to hear what children think and to challenge our own thinking, as well as theirs, if we’re going to create that just and joyful world. 

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