Our fourth graders are preparing for a Socratic Seminar on Sonia Sotomayor, and so this week guided reading groups are dedicated to discussing her and encouraging them to develop deeper questions and connections about the text, A Judge Grows in Brooklyn. It's an absolutely beautiful book, written in English and Spanish, and lends itself to so many discussions.
As we read it yesterday I watched the faces of the four students in my reading group. Three speak Spanish and are the first generation Americans. One just came into the country from an African country a few months ago. They are an engaging, energetic, and generally happy bunch. I suddenly desperately wanted them to connect with the Sotomayor's story. I wanted them to hold on to the message that your background and other people's prejudice does not mean your life story is already written.
"It says here that Sonia understood how Latino people felt. What does Latino mean?" I asked. Blank stares. Nothing. So I'm left with the ultimate teacher question- understanding that Sotomayor is Latino is a fairly important element in the book. Three of the four students sitting in front of me could be classified as Latino. Do I have to be the one to put that label on them for the first time? Do I need to tell them that the world has words that separate who we are based on where we come from? As I stumbled through describing what Latino meant I felt strange because I realized I'm not even sure how we use the word. They looked at me like I was crazy when I applied it to them and they pointed out that they are all 1) from America and 2) their families are from different countries so they are absolutely NOT the same.
OK, good point. Do I have to tell them that they will meet people in their lives that just don't care and will group them all into the same category because of the color of their skin?
Do they have to have a deep and meaningful connection with this book because I- a white, middle class teacher- have decided they should?
Next page in the book.
"What's prejudice?" I asked, immediately wishing I hadn't based on our discussion of what Latino. I was met with shrugs and a series of "I don't knows."
"People can judge you for where you came from," I started, and had one student nodding vigorously.
"Yeah," he piped in, "Like you have to know where someone came from- were they at school, or home, or the mall? And what country are they from? Otherwise how will you know to speak Spanish to them?"
OK, different angle-
"You know Martin Luther King? What did he teach us?"
"That people should be nice to him. He didn't have enough friends. OH! and it doesn't matter where you sit on the bus. You get what you get and you don't get upset." Another one contributed, "OH yeah... didn't he want us to be nice to everyone?" Deep breath- how are they in fourth grade and have missed the whole idea of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.
"Sonia grew up poor, but she ended up being a judge on the Supreme Court. Is that surprising to you?"
"No. My dad is from El Salvador. He had one bed for his whole family. But now we're here."
"Oh yeah, my family in Bolivia has a tiny house. Being poor doesn't matter."
I was met with a love for my community, childhood innocents, and the unbelievable unfair nature of our culture. These are fourth graders. Eight and nine year olds. Right now they don't see the lines our society has drawn. They are living the American Dream for their families, and do not even know that debates rage about whether or not children like them should be allowed to go to college. They don't understand why they are lumped into one group simply because of the color of their skin and the language they speak. They see people, not labels. They believe us when we say they can work hard and go to college, that being poor doesn't matter, and that they can be anything they want.
How soon will they start to feel racism? When will they realize they don't have the opportunities their classmates have? How important is my role in drawing their attention to what's different about them? What happens if we just let them go on believing that Sonia Sotomayor's story is typical, and they too can achieve it if they just work hard, set goals, and believe in themselves?