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Tiny Talk - Young Children as Social Justice Leaders: More than Just Cute

A "tiny talk" by Nadia Jaboneta, Pedagogical Leader at Pacific Primary Preschool

This Tiny Talk was given at the first EmbraceRace Early Childhood Summit on December 3, 2022. Watch more of the Summit and find out more about the contributors here. The transcript of this talk follows.

Christina Rucinski, EmbraceRace: All right, I now have the pleasure of introducing our final individual speaker today before our panel session that will follow.

Nadia Jaboneta is a pedagogical leader at Pacific Primary Preschool in San Francisco, California. She has 25 years of experience in early childhood education, teaching young children, training teachers, consulting and facilitating workshops.

She is passionate about social justice and is proud to have immigrant parents from Lima, Peru.

She has written numerous articles for the magazine, Teaching Young Children, is the author of the book, You Can’t Celebrate That: Navigating the Deep Waters of Social Justice Teaching, and co-author of Children's Lively Minds: Schema Theory Made Visible. Most recently, Nadia was one of the featured teachers in the film Reflecting on Anti-bias Education in Action: The Early Years, which is a great film, highly recommended. Nadia's talk today is sponsored by Indigo Cultural Center, and her talk is titled, "Young Children as Social Justice Leaders: More Than Just Cute". Nadia, the floor is yours.

Nadia Jaboneta: Thank you, Christina, for the introduction and thank you to Nicol and everyone at EmbraceRace for including me in this conversation. I feel completely honored to be here and I've learned so much from the other speakers here today. Thanks again everyone for joining us here in San Francisco, is this morning but afternoon for some of you on a different time zone. As I was listening to the amazing speakers, I was thinking to myself, what am I doing here? What am I going to bring to the table today? I'm really here not to say I am an expert in how to do this work, but I'm here to share my journey, to share my passion, to share what I have learned, and really to share the voices of early childhood teachers, educators who are in the classroom every day doing this work with young children. I'm also here, I've been sent by the children who are constant, constantly telling me, "Nadia, spread the word. Do the people know we have to spread the word?"

That's what I'm doing here today, to share some stories with you, to really think about the role of young children and how they are more than just cute. They are competent individuals, competent young humans who can make change in this world. A little bit more about myself. I have found that it's really important to think about our journeys and think about what brought us here today, think about our ancestors. I'm constantly thinking about my family and our social justice journey. Even though I didn't know what social justice was as a young child, I didn't know about the anti-bias schools, I've really been on this journey of being a social justice leader with my family my whole life.

They came here specifically to San Francisco, California 55 years ago because they had friends who had moved here and told them, "Come live here with us. It's such a diverse city with people from all over the world, all kinds of different languages, different food, opportunities for jobs, opportunities for education, opportunities to raise a family." I'm always very grateful of my mom, my dad, my grandmother who moved with us to help raise me and my sister, and how they have influenced the person that I am today. My identity influences everything that I do every day, whether it's my interactions with the children, my conversations with families, my collaboration with my colleagues and other educators. I'm constantly thinking of my role as not only an educator, but also as a parent. I have three children and I'm constantly thinking about my role just as a human on this earth. As my colleague, Veronica, from the film says, "What kind of human do I want to be? What kind of humans do we all want to be?"

Part of my journey as an educator has been really thinking about what it means to be a reflective practitioner and thinking about how can I really show the young children, that I'm working with every day, my deep and true commitment to social justice? What does that look like every day to use the anti-bias schools? What does it look like to use this as a lens, not only, again, with young children, but using it as a lens every day in our lives? If you're not familiar with the anti-bias schools, there's four of them. The way that I think about them is really thinking about how young children demonstrate self-awareness, how they demonstrate confidence, family pride, positive social identities. What is our role in supporting that? How do we as educators, how do we as parents create environments where children can express comfort and joy with human diversity, use accurate language for human differences, and most importantly, form really deep caring connections across all dimensions of human diversity?

How can we support the children and how can we be proactive as well in also learning what the language that we can use to describe unfairness and to really understand that unfairness hurts. One of the things that I have been really thinking about these last two years is also how do we empower the children to act -- with others or alone -- to really act against prejudice, to act against discriminatory actions. It's more than just activities. As teachers of young children, of course, there's many activities that we can have. There's materials we can have in our classroom environments, but you can't just do these activities and set up these materials without doing the self-work, without reflecting, and without forming caring relationships with these young children. Going deeper into my role, I think about how do I show children that I respect them and that their words matter.

A tool that I often use and has become something really powerful in all the classrooms at the school that I work at in San Francisco has been dictation. The children have really taken this on that when they have important words, let's write it down. Let's write a letter. "I miss my mom, I miss my dad." Let's write a letter to them. "I miss my family." You have this really great idea, or you have this really big feeling, let's write down your words. They've really taken this on as a way to express their feelings, but also as a way to communicate and know that their words matter. Their words are important. It's no surprise, to me at least, that when we're talking about things that are unfair, things that are happening in our community, in our country, in our world, that the children, the first thing that they wanted to do was, "We need to write a letter. We need to write these important words down."

We decided that we would have a clipboard in our classroom because it was just such an important tool that we called children's... Well, our classroom's actually called The Coyotes, so we called it The Coyotes' Important Words. I could just see them every time they wanted us to write them down, I could see the sense of pride in their face, in their bodies, in their relationships with their friends. They were using this clipboard to write their friends a note, to tell them that they love them, again, to write their families a note. "I love you, mommy, and I miss you. I want you to come back." When we learned about the tragedies that were going on, for example, when they learned about people being treated unfairly at the border, when they learned about Trump. They're hearing stories at home, they were bringing these to the classroom.

The children said to people, "No, we need to write these words down. We need to tell people. Do our parents know? Do other parents know? We should make signs and make copies on the machine and put them on everyone's cars in our neighborhood. People need to know that people are not being treated fairly and we need to do something about it. We should write a letter to the boss. We should write a letter to the president. We need to take a plane to the White House." All of these ideas were really supported by the teachers, by the parents. This is just a very short story I'm sharing with you, but this is years of work of the teachers and the families collaborating and really learning together on how to create an environment where we're embracing not just similarities, but we're embracing differences. We're talking about, again, what is fair, what is not fair, and is it fair to be treated differently because of the color of our skin, because of our religion, because we speak a different language?

Taking it to the next step, well, what can we do about it? What is the action that we can take as young children, as a community? Again, writing, dictation became a really powerful tool for all the early childhood educators out there. I'm sure you get this as well, but when I tell people what I do that I work with preschoolers, I usually get, "Oh, how cute. That's so cute." I've taken on these last two years as I've been given this platform to share these stories, to really show everyone that it's more than just cute and young children, yes, they are our future, but young children are here now and they can make change now. Again, it's just more than just cute. Really sharing these connections that children are making with fair and unfair, that young children see differences, young children see race, and how can we empower them to make this world a better place, whether it's an infant, a toddler, preschooler, this is going to look different in all our settings. These specific group of children, they wanted to take action with their words.

On the next slide, you'll see some photos of some stories from the last few years from this group of children. We really wanted to hear more about what the children's ideas were with making these signs. One of the dictations was me asking them, "Well, why do we make signs? What can we tell people of what the reason is?" The children said, "Our signs are important because we are social justice leaders. Our words matter because we are trying to make the world better. We are trying to make the world more kind. We are trying to make this world a better place." I said to them, "Well, what would you say if people said your signs were cute?" Some children said, "If you don't care about our signs, then you basically don't care about the Earth. We are using our brain to make good choices and fight for good. This work is so important. We are also feeling mad and we want to do something about it."

"We need to let everyone know that we care. When people see our signs, they will know that we care about Black lives, we care about Brown lives too. They can tell other people and spread the word. We are like a rainbow, and a rainbow should have all skin colors. Dr. King died, but we can continue his work. We can take Dr. King's place." What we did, in listening to the children and collaborating with the families, is that they wanted to write the president a letter and tell him that he needed to be kind, that he needed to treat people fairly. We wrote down all the children's words, we made these signs, and we listened to the children. We made copies of them, and we put them in an envelope, and we took a field trip to our local mailbox. Here, you see on the top right photo, we're putting it in the mailbox straight to the White House to let the president know that he was not making good choices.

In the children's words, he needed to be kind. When the children learned about George Floyd and Brianna Taylor and their murder, again, what was the first thing they went to? "We need to tell everybody. We need to spread the word that this is not okay." Unfortunately, we couldn't take a plane to the White House, but we started with our community. We made signs telling everyone that these children care, that Black Lives matter. They made signs saying, "Hear our voices." Our first step was to let our immediate community know. We these signs, we made copies to pass them out to the different classrooms around our school. When we were done spreading the word at our school, we made more copies, and we went on field trip to the school across the street and passed out copies there and letting them know how important this work is and how we all need to work together to make change.

We weren't done. We reflected with the children and we thought together about what are next steps? We need to go into our neighborhood. We need to go to those cars and put signs on those cars. We decided we weren't going to touch people's cars, but we said, "What if we put them in people's mailboxes at their doors?" We did that. We walked around their neighborhood and put copies of their signs with a note in people's mailboxes and invited our neighbors to put these signs up on their windows. We did that for several weeks. After we did many, many blocks in our neighborhood, again, we had a circle time. We reflected together the work that we were doing and talked about, well, what are some next steps? What are we thinking? Are we done? Is there more work to do?

The children said, "Well, no. We need to go to more places. We need people to see our signs. We should put it on a stick so we could hold it up really high for everyone to see." We made more signs, we put them on these big sticks. Coincidentally, that week that we were working on them, there was also a early childhood rally coming up at city hall. We thought it was a perfect time to take the children on a field trip and have the community in San Francisco, particularly the early childhood community, the mayor, see how important these children's words are and that they can also make change. Here, in the middle picture, you see us walking to city hall. I'm going to keep quoting five-year-olds, "Spread the word and how important it is to spread the word." Excuse me. Then again, we reflected again, what are some next steps? What can we keep doing?

Children wanted to write letters and send signs to their families that lived in different cities and different states and different countries. We did a whole mailing project of mailing these out to different family members. The work just continued. It was an important reminder of how capable young children are, how they can have these conversations, and how we, as the important adults in their lives, whether it's educators, whether it's parents, how we need to collaborate with young children to really help them take action and how that's really going to help make change in the world, not just when they're adults, but starting now. As they go into the older grades, they'll start school with a foundation and really thinking about how to embrace difference, and also how to take action when they see that something is unfair, when they see that someone is being treated unfairly.

I also wanted to share that our collaboration with the other teachers at the school is really... Again, we don't claim to be experts at our school. We've been doing this work for a long time and it's not easy. It can be hard and we're continuously working on growing and being learners. We, also, we make mistakes. How can we continue to move forward? How can we repair those mistakes that we've made? How do we continue to spread the word? How do we continue to listen to each other? It's been a great learning experience, and we continue to learn from folks like all of you today and really collaborating, and just remembering that this work is going to look different for all of us. We are all in such a different place in our journeys, but knowing that we all need to do this work together. Again, thank you so much all of you for joining us today, and I'm excited to hear the rest of the summit today.

Andrea Huang, EmbraceRace: Wow. Thank you so much, Nadia, for sharing these stories about your students and your incredible pedagogy. I think one of my favorite parts listening to you talk was how you empowered children to use their voices to recognize their authority and agency. But then also, I thought it was amazing that you asked children if they were done yet, is there more to do, and then you followed their lead. Thank you for that, for that story. It's definitely inspiring me to continue to think about how I parent my own young children at home and what it looks like to follow their lead and include them in that. Well, thank you all who are with us. That brings an end to the first part of today of our four tiny talks. A huge thank you to Dennis, Trisha, Nicole, Nadia, for these amazing, amazing and inspiring talks.

Check out other contributors and talks from the EmbraceRace Early Childhood Virtual Summit 2022 here.

Nadia Jaboneta

Nadia Jaboneta is Pedagogical Leader at Pacific Primary Preschool in San Francisco, California. She has 25 years of experience in early childhood education, teaching young children, training teachers, consulting, and facilitating workshops. She is… More about Nadia >
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