Starting #USvsHate: San Diego Stories

We talked recently with a team of teachers in the Chula Vista Elementary School District about how they’ve started their participation in #USvsHate this 2019-20 school year. One teacher has already submitted her first entries at http://usvshate.org!

Eight teachers from 3rd-6th grade joined an #USvsHate San Diego gathering of interested educators October 30. The principal came along, too. As the team noted, she “wanted this to take off at our school.”

After going back to school, the team launched #USvsHate “in conjunction with World Kindness Day.” They decided to “get some feedback about where the kids have heard kindness before and the opposite–where they’ve seen hate before.” And as Teaching Tolerance itself suggests, these teachers went way beyond “kindness” to explore issues of identity and justice.

They started with “Identity lessons through the Teaching Tolerance site,” including the K5 lesson “It’s OK to Feel Different”. (Teachers modified the lesson to engage all elementary grades.) Teacher Rachel explained: “It’s a good starting point for us; they apply to all grade levels. To get a sense of feelings about where our kids are.”

All of the 4th grade classrooms and one out of three 5th grade classrooms also did a Chalk Talk, “to do an informal survey about where students see or hear hate and where they see or hear kindness.” “The hope is for the remaining upper grade classrooms to participate, in order to get a broad view of all students’ voices,” said a teacher.

Teachers noted that in the Chalk Talks, students shared examples of “hate” from school and elsewhere, including at home and in the world. “They mentioned a lot of instances on the playground or at home with siblings or cousins. Things they see on the TV every day. We asked ‘Where do you see hate?’ and one of the comments was ‘Every day! On TV!’ They said the playground, and at home, social media, people say mean things about each other, posting about things.” As victims and as observers, students said they had heard “Playground slurs. There were a lot of comments on ‘oh, I still get teased and called ethnic, but I’m not even that kind. I get teased that I’m Chinese, but I’m not even Asian.’ ‘Someone used the n-word with me.’ It probably could have gone on and on and filled out these papers.”

In the Chalk Talk, teachers noted, students then could respond to one another’s experiences. “One child wrote a message that they experienced trauma, and another child put the message ‘I want my classmates to know I have your back’. It was eye opening for us that these kids need a place to talk about these things and they need to know there are opportunities for kindness to be there, too.”

In an “OK/not OK” activity, one teacher added, students got specific about what was “OK” behavior and “not OK” behavior. For example, “A student wrote ‘It’s OK to love other genders’ or ‘it’s OK to want to be a different gender,’” the teacher noted. “They almost looked at us like, ‘is it OK that we put this out there?’ And for some kids that may have been the first time they wrote that down in a public forum.” Teachers then started to put up the students’ takes around the classrooms and the school. “Kids put around their ‘it’s OK’ and ‘it’s not OK’ statements, and now we are opening up a really big dialogue about feeling OK about yourself and your identity.”

“Our next step is we’re going to post all our Chalk Talk posters, and peruse the posters and see common threads of hate in terms of put downs, stereotypes, and racial slurs,” a teacher said. “We are getting to the point of getting to lessons that will help us focus up some dialogue with the students. Our goal with the Chalk Talks is for the kids to see the common trends and see if we can inspire some ‘I don’t want to see this at my school. What can we do about this?’ reactions. It’s to really get them to be part of the process.”

There has been minimal pushback to their activity. One set of parents was concerned about the gender messages and said that they did not want their child exposed to messages that they disagreed with. The teacher had offered to dialogue about it and the parent never followed up. As another teacher added, “the beauty of it” is that all anti-hate statements are “from the kids’ hearts and minds,” such that individual statements are heard alongside many other peer voices against hate. “And one can sense loud and clear that these kids want their voices to be heard.”

A colleague summed up the impact on the classroom environment: “They’re realizing that their classrooms are safe places to come to talk about these issues. I had a couple students come to me before we started the Chalk Talk process. They asked, ‘What if there’s something I want to say, but I don’t want to put it on the chart?’ I said, ‘You can always talk to me about it.’ They’re starting to trust that school can be a safe place.”

“Some kids waited for others to communicate first, but that was it,” added one teacher. “And I think that had to do with trust. Trusting it was a safe environment for kids to voice their thoughts.”

Teachers noted too that they let students define “hate” for themselves. “As a group, we didn’t have any pre-discussion on the question whole-class. We, the teachers, didn’t interject any comments. We wanted to see where they went first. We wanted a little survey of what we’d get.” Students initially tended to define “hate” as verbal “word choices”; a few also described “hate being displayed in physical forms.” “Especially at the 4th grade,” one teacher noted, “it was hate as some form of put-down, whether through cultural religion, orientation. We have a couple kids who get teased that I’m a boy, but I’m a girl. There was a little of that, too, on the paper. But mostly as some sort of verbal put-down.”

But then, one teacher added, students took it deeper: “Afterwards we did a drawing activity and three kids drew a wall. When I asked what it was, they said it represented hate and how hate divides people.”

Kids now “want to do more,” teachers said. “It was amazing how many kids want to share things with their peers. Some kids are asking ‘what do certain words mean?’” said one teacher, including “Calling other people gay or tranny” or what it means to be “a racist.” Kids are “Talking about words and the power of words. They are screaming for an open dialogue. They are saying ‘please talk to me because I don’t know what I’m saying or doing.’”

The next move of the group is to go deeper with next #USvsHate lessons and anti-hate messaging. One class plans to create an iMovie with all of the “I’m OK” statements, while other students “are thinking they want to do poetry with it.”

Teachers also want to entice more colleagues to join the work, and they’re doing it with some creative messaging of their own. “What’s the best way to market it to the rest of our teachers? T-SHIRTS!” said one teacher. “We just emailed staff this week saying ‘heyyy, if you want a shirt, too…!’ We are slowly trying to get the whole staff in.”

“We are just taking charge and doing it and we’re just going to go from there,” a teacher concluded.

The key, they said, is letting youth voice lead — and letting other students see their work on the walls. “Look at what the kids are saying. That’s where we should go. The kids are our lead,” said one teacher. “Once the kids see the other kids’ responses, I feel like the movement could be pushed even more forward.”

“Our goal by the end of the year,” they noted, is “100% on board.”