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Thinking about school as a privilege

As our year in second grade began last fall, my students and I spent some time thinking about why we go to school. In our first few weeks together, I tried to help my students understand that going to school is a privilege that has not always been (and is still not) available to everyone.

Because my students are growing up in rural Maine, they do not have a lot of exposure to racial, ethnic, or religious diversity and do not often have much of a sense of the broader world around them. During our unit called “Being Good Learners,” I am hoping to start to raise their awareness of their privileges in access to schooling and also of the responsibilities that come with those privileges.

During our studies about whether school is a privilege or a right, a number of books have been tremendously helpful at illuminating what education has looked like over time and in the diverse world in which we live.

Virgie Goes to School with Us BoysVirgie Goes to School with Us Boys by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard, illus. by E. B. Lewis
In this story, based on true events and set not long after the Civil War, Virgie is an African-American girl who finally receives her parents’ permission to go to school. Readers learn much about school long ago through the narration of one of Virgie’s brothers – including that students had to walk to school, pack their own food, and stay there for the duration of the week. With its strong-willed main character, the story provides a great starting point for discussions of educational opportunity for both women and for people of color.

asim_fiftycents_178x30050 Cents and a Dream by Jabari Asim, illus. by Bryan Collier
This chronicling of the early days of Booker T. Washington reads like an ode to the value and purpose of education. Initially denied access to an education, young Booker fixates on the idea of enrolling at a school called Hampton Institute and perseveres in the face of numerous hardships to finally make his dream a reality. This book, which also has fantastic illustrations, prompted a great discussion amongst my students about what education and schooling is all about and how privileged they are to have access to a free, public education.

The Day of Ahmed's SecretThe Day of Ahmed’s Secret by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland, illus. by Ted Lewin
On the surface, this story set in Cairo, Egypt may not seem to have much to do with school. It follows a day in the life of a young boy who must work delivering gas to city residents. Ahmed, however, has a big secret that he must keep all day long — he has learned how to write his name in Arabic. My students were quick to pick up on the fact that if Ahmed works all day, going to a traditional school is not a possibility for him. Additionally, the incorporation of Ahmed’s name in Arabic also began a conversation about world languages, communication, and education.

Our reading of these books culminated in an “Old Fashioned Day,” where we transformed our classroom into a “one-room schoolhouse.” The depth of conversation sparked by these books and by this activity indicates that my students are starting to be more aware of the power of education and some of the inequities present within it.


Nicole Hewes About Nicole Hewes

Nicole Hewes is currently serving as an impact manager at a public elementary school with City Year New Hampshire. She previously taught second grade in rural Maine for two years and received an M.Ed in language and literacy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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