Planting the Seeds of Social Justice at Little Calhoun

At Little Calhoun, social justice is infused into the curriculum. “One of the most exciting areas of our curriculum development is the ways in which we infuse concepts of justice, equity and inclusion into our work with young children – not as an additional piece of programming, but as an essential element of each of our curriculum units,” says Alison Rothschild ’85, Director of the Lower School. From an early age, Calhoun students begin to explore the diversity of communities both small and large, and delve into the layered topics of fairness and kindness. By seeing how these issues play out in their classrooms and communities, they lay the foundation for identifying actions they can take to create a more fair and just world.

For young Calhoun students, learning about social justice begins with self-reflection. Little Calhouners take a deeper look at their own identities and the diversity of their classroom community. For example, 3’s students worked on a family study that consisted of examining their own families and identifying the qualities — from cultural to physical to structural — that make them unique. The class collaborated to create a book about family, and while each child had their own page in the book dedicated to their family, the theme was clear: all families share love.

At the earliest ages students are also challenged to think about their personal responsibility to be caring community members. Little Calhouners work together to discuss the elements that make a harmonious classroom community. Together they decide on a set of rules for their cluster. When each student participates in creating these guidelines, they take on the responsibility of supporting their peers.

hand prints made by 3's students

During their time together young Calhouners discover how coming together each day, with each student’s unique culture and life experience, enriches all of their lives. This is manifested in both tactile and symbolic ways in the classroom. For example, as part of an art activity, preschoolers painted their hands with a primary color; then, partnering with a friend, they rubbed their hands together to reveal a new color; showcasing the beauty of their differences and what can happen when they come together in harmony.

Students also read the book Have You Filled a Bucket Today?: A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids by Carol McCloud to bring this idea to life. In the book, McCloud describes a bucket filler “as a loving and caring person who says and does nice things to make others feel special.” Children then share who and what fills their own personal buckets, such as hugs, play time with a friend or sharing materials. Then, they reflect on their own actions and the ways they fill the buckets of their classmates.

In another example of exploring social justice through literature, classes read the book Say Something by Peggy Moss to spark discussion about fairness. In the book, a child witnesses unkind acts, but does not feel the responsibility to act until they themselves are treated unkindly. With the book as an aid, children discuss what it means to be a bystander versus an “upstander,” or someone who speaks out against injustice. Teachers then pinpoint acts of kindness that take place in their rooms, allowing children to reflect on things they do each day to be kind classmates and friends. Together, young Calhouners begin to understand what it means to be good members of a community.

Students play a ball toss game

As Little Calhouners become more familiar with the concept of fairness, rich classroom conversations arise. Teachers facilitate these discussions with concrete examples and experiences that children can draw from. For instance, as part of one kindergarten class’ study of games last year, teachers sat children in rows and asked them to toss a ball into a basket. Students soon realized that the game wasn’t fair, since sitting in a row further from the basket meant they had less chance of dunking the ball. The class then worked together to determine a new set of rules, changing the rows of chairs into a circle so that each kindergartner would have the same opportunity. Through activities like this, Calhouners practice cooperation and place value on promoting fairness in the classroom.  

As they get older, Little Calhouners start to work on projects that broaden their view of the world around them and what it means to be a responsible global citizen. Through their specialist classes, students look beyond their immediate peers as they explore the rich diversity of the world. In World Music, children discover music from various cultures, many of which speak to themes such as fairness, peace and justice. A song like “No Easy Walk to Freedom,” with its lyrics, “No easy walk to freedom/ Keep on walkin’ and we shall be free/ That’s how we’re gonna make history,” perfectly complements the work taking place in the classroom. In Español, children are exposed to the cultures of Spanish-speaking countries and famous latinx figures, such as Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and Aida de Acosta, the first woman to pilot a powered aircraft solo.

Student Portrait of Malala

Starting in kindergarten, Little Calhouners study global heroes of social justice such as Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa and Malala Yousafzai. As they learn about the injustices these heroes faced, children draw meaningful connections to current events and issues that they identify in their own communities and beyond. Last year as part of this study, each second grader selected an icon whose beliefs and work spoke to them, then created both a portrait and a written piece dedicated to that activist. Reflecting on the past inspires children to think about what they can do to ensure that the work of these changemakers is never forgotten.

The seeds of social justice take root in these early years, which is evident in the rich curriculum that students engage in throughout their time at Little Calhoun. As children work, play and make connections, they see firsthand the progress that can be made when they come together each day and strive to make their communities better. Through their shared experiences, they learn to honor the differences of those around them and to promote fairness in their own lives.