Celebrate: A Conversation about Fairness

Because of unforeseen family needs, today’s plan was discarded. This change in plans phenomenon occurs more often than I’d like to admit in my classroom. But this week I promised myself,  my plan would happen.

This conversation has been necessary, but other things kept getting in the way.  This Teaching Tolerances lesson on fairness was my starting point. And the outcome of it startled me. Things I thought would not happen, happened. What was so clearly, at least in my mind, unfair, weren’t perceived as unfair by all students.

The lesson brought out the best and the worst. I tweaked the initial set up a bit. Rather than give pencils to some students and not to others, I sat them down and told them if they were born in July, August or September they had to go to summer school. That got their attention, and it took them quite awhile to get to the point of complaining about the unfairness of this prospect. (That in and of itself made me think about how compliant our children must be in school. If “they” say so, we have to. Hmmm. Yes. Well that is a whole other topic.)

After one student cried out “that’s unfair,” I put them at ease by saying what I told them wasn’t true. They calmed down, and I asked, how did it feel? To be the ones that had to go. To be the ones that didn’t have to go. Students were undisturbed if they weren’t the ones forced to go to summer school. They didn’t see beyond themselves. No thought was given to the people that had to go. Only those who were chosen felt the unfairness of it.

That set the stage for them to think about these situations. Were they fair or unfair? Surprisingly, many boys thought it was fair for the boys to have the answer key to study for a test. Whaaa? How could this obviously unjust scenario be seen as fair? (Hmm. See above.) While I couldn’t help but feel a little disheartened, it set up a great context for discussion around bias and discrimination.

Next, I asked students to determine which situation on the list that was the most unfair.
The majority chose, “It is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves in the world today, many of them children.”  One student raised his hand and disagreed. He felt that “Two of every 100 U.S. children are homeless”  was the most unfair, because, “if you are a slave at least you have food and shelter.” His argument was reasoned and worth thinking about.

But the majority would not hear him.  That moment of intolerance was one that I would bring up the next day when we read a magazine with a lens for unfairness. I reminded them of their actions the day before. How they refused to listen to another point of view. They remembered the effect their actions had on this one brave student. You could feel their shame. They were unfair and intolerant. And more importantly, they saw it.

Every day this week there has been a moment or two or three to filter through the lens of unfairness. Little things like waiting for the same students to get to the carpet or putting away community tools. I have simply needed to ask, “Is this fair?” and students process it through their experiences: When told they would have to go to summer school or when saw that they were, in fact, intolerant of another.

This week I celebrate making myself stick to a plan. I celebrate taking risks with student emotions. I celebrate seeing our biases.  Students’ experiences might help them see the unfairness around them and in them. And maybe do something about it.

Thank you, Ruth Ayers, for the Celebrate This Week link up. Find more celebrations here.