I recently had the pleasure of attending a performance of The Ugly Duckling by Lightwire Theater on a school field trip. This very original production using music, puppets, and lighting, did an exceptional job of communicating a message of acceptance of differences to our students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The performance ended with the characters dancing to the song “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and this made me think about the Jewish philosophy of Tikkun Olam.
There are many religious and non-religious communities that embrace social justice, but the events in Pittsburgh last Saturday at the Tree of Life Synagogue have been causing me to think about my own Jewish faith as I read and reflect this week. Tikkun Olam refers to individual acts of kindness that are performed to help others as well as acts of social policy that provide safeguards to those who are disadvantaged. Two books that I believe spread this message beautifully are Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson and Pablo and Birdy written by Alison McGhee and illustrated by Ana Juan.
In Pablo and Birdy, a community adopts a child who washes up on the beach in a kiddie pool, guarded by a very unique bird. Issues of immigration and the struggles of refugees are alluded to in this story, but they are not at its center. Instead, Pablo and Birdy reflects a message of love, individuality, and acceptance that is a representation of what our world could become. It also reminds us that sometimes knowing our own story helps us to embrace those of other people (or, in this case, birds). This would be a wonderful book to share as a read aloud and the all bird “Committee” with their limited vocabularies, but oversize personalities will engage many young listeners.
Harbor Me tells the story of six students who make up a class of diverse learners. None of them have been very successful in general education classrooms so they come together to learn in a smaller environment with more individualized attention. However, their time in this classroom is not the focus of the book. Instead, most of the story takes place in the ARTT Room–A Room To Talk–where the six students meet together during the last hour of their school day on Fridays without adult supervision. This is where they share their stories. And each student has an important story to tell.
At my school, students share with their classmates each morning and when they have something in common, they make a sign with their hands. Their thumbs and pinkies point out while the other three fingers are folded in and they rock their wrists toward the person with whom they have made a connection. Near the beginning of Harbor Me, the narrator Haley thinks about making this same sign when she has a connection with Esteban whose father has just been detained by ICE. Except Haley doesn’t want to make the sign because her father is in prison and this is a story that she is not willing to share. At least not yet.
This is a story of what is lost and what is gained among students of different races, ethnicities, socioeconomic status, and experiences, when they come together to tell their stories. The title of the book comes from something that they all share– a message from their teacher:
Ms. Laverne said every day we should ask ourselves, ‘If the worst thing in the world happened, would I help protect someone else? Would I let myself be a harbor for someone who needs it?’ Then she said, ‘I want each of you to say to the other: I will harbor you.’ (Woodson 34)
We often feel differently about issues when they affect those closest to us. Issues of racism, immigration, and justice are not easily resolved and we cannot expect our students to share the same views. Still, the conversations are worth having. It is worth asking ourselves and our students: What world do we want to live in? Will we offer safe harbor to those who need it?
Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:
Identity 2: I know about my family history and culture and about current and past contributions of people in my main identity groups.
Identity 3: I know that all my group identities are part of who I am, but none of them fully describes me and this is true for other people too.
Diversity 6: I like knowing people who are like me and different from me, and I treat each person with respect.
Diversity 10: I know that the way groups of people are treated today, and the way they have been treated in the past, is a part of what makes them who they are.
Justice 13: I know that words, behaviors, rules, and laws that treat people unfairly based on their group identities cause real harm.
Action 19: I will speak up or do something when I see unfairness, and I will not let others convince me to go along with injustice.
Common Core Standards:
RL.3- Describe characters in a story and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.
RL.6- Distinguish their own point of view from that of the narrator or those of characters.
RL.7- Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story. (Pablo and Birdy)
SL.1- Engage in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
SL.3- Identify the reasons and evidence a speaker provides to support particular points.