By Kerry Zagarella
2021 will go down in my teaching history as one of the most inspirational years ever and it was not because of the herculean efforts of adults, it was and is simply because of the true nature of children. I have had the life long privilege of learning from young children; the best folks around. But this year was like no other. Their seemingly effortless courage and citizenship is unmatched by their adult counterparts. My students never once complained about wearing masks. They would forget sometimes to cover their nose and mouth, but when reminded would immediately make adjustments. They reminded each other to put their masks on properly, to not go into the bathroom even if there were empty stalls, because the limit of three people had been reached. They kept each other at arms reach. I contrast their civic investment to some of the “adults” who whined and stomped around the country demanding their right to be free by not wearing a mask, refusing to be vaccinated. My students knew that they probably were not going to get really sick, but that they were wearing masks to keep their community safe. They were being citizens for the greater good, and for their grammys and grampys and their 60 year old teacher, me. There was never one child who fought against mask wearing. I named my class American Heroes, and I stand by that name.
On the second day of school these American Heroes were singing the classic Americana folk song by Woody Guthrie, “This Land is Your Land”. A song, I might add, that I know how to play on the guitar. The only song I really know how to play after 20 years of using a guitar with kids. Sadly, my playing has not improved. As the kids sang, I pointed to the images placed strategically around the large map of the United States to highlight the places mentioned in the chorus, “from California, to the New York Island, from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters, This land was made for you and me”. A young girl raised her hand and asked, “Do you know that black people are getting killed?” A fellow classmate answered, “Yes. That is why we have Black Lives Matter.” I felt a bit unprepared for this conversation, which was completely ok, because the kids didn't need me. The kids discussed this controversial topic like scholars.
Later in the year, when adults across the country lost their minds and took to social media decrying the “cancel culture” of the “Libs” protesting the “boycott” of Dr. Suess books; my class examined the books to see and judge the images for themselves. Ok. First, Dr. Suess is one of my favorite authors. Even more so when his estate, which is run by his family, decided to discontinue publishing some of his picture books due to offensive language and illustrations. How did I miss this? WOW, If I ran the zoo, was one of the books being discontinued. I looked inside and as if for the first time, saw stereotypical and offensive illustrations of Asians and African American people. I read the book to my class and we talked about the images. That day in school I heard 5 and 6 year old children conversing about racial stereotypes with complete respect for each other. That’s critical race theory! They allowed each other space to talk and helped any kids who needed reminders about active listening “rules” and taking turns. I thought about the “arguments” I see on Facebook which have no substance and consist mainly of people swearing at each other, resorting to name calling and threats instead of building any kind of persuasive argument. There is NOTHING substantial in these exchanges, but sadly, this has become the new American Debate Club founded by grandiose antics and ignorance. You do not need to be right to “debate” your side; you just need to be loud and aggressive, over and over again. It is all so pathetic, but there is a light, and as always it is the youth!
Kindergarten was once considered the grade that you learned about how to be a student and a friend. It has become very academic and assessment driven, more than needed I think. We need to focus more on how to be critical thinkers. A student who can analyze information, and engage in civil disagreements is the mark of a successful school system. We need to get back to teaching simple social emotional skills that give kids strategies to confront conflicts and the independence needed to transition to school.
Perhaps, it is the adults who really need the basic lessons. This year my class was genuinely invested in their own personal growth as well as the well being of their community. I couldn’t and didn’t teach them to have this inherent commitment, that came from their families and the collective response to my co-teacher: Covid.
As part of our writing curriculum we ask kids to seek out something in their community that needs changing and then they are assigned to write a persuasive essay. These topics are typically fabricated for our youngest students, because usually they are unaware of any real problems. Not so with Covid. Covid changed their life. The bonding of communities against the virus filtered into every part of their life and became the norm. When the numbers rose we wore double masks, face shields, and stood apart, even behind shields we were far apart. We went remote when the state called for it. I cleaned the surfaces in my house to such an extreme that I had to replace the plastic light switch covers because the corrosive cleaning liquid dissolved the plastic over time.
As teachers, we tend to want to control everything about the school day. We design learning experiences that are fully open for kids to engage in freely; but they are choosing from our list. We couldn’t control this virus and we certainly could not depend on our leadership to bring our country together, to quell our fears and embrace a collective hope. Instead we got messages that the virus was a hoax, etc. I can’t even bear to go into the flood of misinformation that continues to jeopardize our democracy and the stability of the world.
The stakes are so high now, and sometimes it seems like we might never recover from this collective covid trauma. Our country continues to be divided. We are a people that cannot discuss differences, cannot agree on the validity of science or democracy. A country where many Americans feel attacked when they simply hear the words: race and equity.
We need to turn towards the children and embrace their passion for fairness and justice. Kindergarten children walk the line of fiction and non-fiction. That is partly why I love this age group. Their belief in Santa Claus and unicorns empowers them to always be accepting of what could be. They converse with ants. They hug trees. They embrace possibilities.
I certainly am glad that my co-teacher COVID will not be returning in the fall. I am hopeful that our youngest students will retain their dedication to the greater good and finally get the recognition their wisdom deserves.