Kids Say the Darnedest Things…

“If I was the supervisor, I’d call Child Protective Services and tell them these parents are unfit to raise a child!”

How do you respond when a student says this about a character in a book? A character whose parents’ only flaws are that they were beat up by robbers, don’t have health insurance, and are undocumented immigrants?

Welcome to my classroom’s read aloud journey with Kelly Yang’s Front Desk. 

LUCKILY! I’ve been engaging in some personal professional development via Teaching Tolerance, and a number of Instagram accounts mentioned here. So when my student shouted that pretty awful statement in class, I had a way to call him into a conversation, instead of just saying, “Don’t say that!” (Or, as the students like to squeal, “That’s racist!”)

“Wait a second, what do you mean?” I asked the student, who we’ll call Joel. “Mia’s mom just got beat up by robbers! What you said doesn’t make sense to me.”

“Well they’re too poor to raise a kid,” Joel shrugged.

I tried not to be appalled and upset at the suggestion that poverty requires your child be taken away from you. Taking a deep breath, I rephrased Joel’s recommendation:

“So you’d suggest, because her parents are poor, Mia should be taken away from them and raised by strangers?” I confirm.

“Well, not strangers…”

“Let me stop you there.” I wasn’t in the mood to debate the finer points of the foster care system, so we took a step back.

“Joel brings up a point,” I address the class, trying to turn this train wreck into a lesson that fits within our Social Issues Book Club unit (a la Liz Kleinrock’s TED Talk). “The supervisor in this story has a lot of power, and it is within his power to do something crazy horrible like call Child Protective Services. But… does he?”

“No.” The class responds tentatively (They can probably tell I’m wound up).

“No, but he does want to make Mia’s family pay the whole $6,800 emergency room fee, even though he knows they only makes $9,000 a year. He doesn’t consider using his power to waive the fee, like the doctor in the story suggests.”

I jot some words on the board: Role & Effect of Power, supervisor, doctor, positive, negative.

“Turn and talk to your shoulder partner. In this chapter, what character is using their power to have a positive impact on Mia’s family, and who is using their power negatively?”

Conversations were over pretty quickly. I write the students’ answers as I overhear: The doctor is using his power positively, to waive the fee. The supervisor is using his power to uphold the rules, and doesn’t want to make exceptions… even though it has a negative impact on Mia’s family, financially.

“This fits with our unit on Social Issues because, as we start learning more about issues not only in our books, but in the real world, we will start to notice power: and how people can use their power to create change and make the world better, or use it to do something negative.

“We’ll start to see systems of power, too, like a government, or capitalism, or, in this scene of our book, the health care system. Those systems can sometimes have power to hold people down instead of helping them reaching their potential – whether they intend to or not.”

I turn to Joel. “So in this case, I think the question you might want to be asking is not, ‘Why allow Mia to live with her parents?’ but, ‘ What systems of power stop Mia’s family from living a better life together?'”

Will 6th graders get anything out of the teaching point for the day? I honestly don’t know. But I do know that when kids say “the darnedest things” like Joel did today, I think it’s an opportunity for us to call them into a conversation, and do a different kind of teaching.

(How to Start a Call-In Conversation, from Teaching Tolerance. Also, front and back covers of Front Desk. The kids LOVE noticing well-loved characters featured on the back!)

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