“How can we help a place like Flint, Michigan, and what do the people of Flint, Michigan, need right now?”
That’s a question that policymakers and activists have grappled with since the water crisis in Flint received widespread attention in 2016, but it’s also one that Asher S., a third-grader at ECFS, posed to visiting speaker Chelsea Clinton on Wednesday, October 3.
As Vice Chair of the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, Ms. Clinton leads many of the foundation’s initiatives on climate change, women’s rights, economic development, and global health. To our students, she is perhaps best known as the author of the bestselling picture books She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World and She Persisted Around the World: 13 Women Who Changed History, which sit in our ethics classrooms and on the shelves of bookstores and libraries across the country. Both books celebrate women who, in spite of personal hardship and cultural pushback, persevered and made a lasting impact on society.
Ms. Clinton visited Ethical Culture this Wednesday to share her new book, Start Now! You Can Make a Difference, with students in our lower divisions. Written for seven- to ten-year-olds, Start Now! encourages children to be activists in their communities. In chapters devoted to topics from environmentalism to public health to anti-bullying, the book recounts the stories of young activists like seven-year-old Isiah, who collected hand sanitizer to donate to schools affected by the contaminated water in Flint, and ten-year-old Christian, who launched a program of “buddy benches” to help students looking to make friends.
That students as young as Isiah and Christian would take the initiative to effect change in their communities is impressive, but at ECFS, civic engagement is second nature. As Kai S., a fifth-grader in Fieldston Lower explains, “That’s kind of a general thing that everybody understands.”
Ethics classes introduce students to the idea of activism in 1st Grade at Fieldston Lower and in 2nd Grade at Ethical Culture and continue to be a core component of students’ educations up until they graduate from the Upper School. According to Laura Stewart, ethics teacher at Fieldston Lower, “We may not use the actual word ‘activist,’ but we’re using the language of activism.” *Click, Clack, Moo*, a picture book about cows who go on strike to demand electric blankets for their barn, serves as a template for talking about the protests of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Publications like She Persisted or Click, Clack, Moo are favorite pedagogical tools in our classrooms because they ground our ethical curriculum in role models and characters our students can relate to. For a student who may be adopted, for example, or one who may be struggling with their gender or racial identity, a book also serves as a proxy to talk about these issues without needing to bring in their personal story.
“A lot of our ethics classes are literacy-based,” says Blair Bizzell-Hatcher, ethics teacher at Ethical Culture. “Seeing things from other characters’ perspectives helps them to reflect on themselves and others.”
That ability to reflect on others no doubt spurred some of the questions students asked Ms. Clinton. “How do we help a bully to not be a bully anymore?” asked one fourth grader; “What was it like for you during the election when your mom was running for President?”, asked another.
Ms. Clinton herself was impressed with the insightfulness of our students. “Their questions were so thoughtful, pointed, specific, clear, and from the heart,” she remarked. “I loved how many kids came up in groups of two or three to ask questions. That really struck me, that they were physically supporting each other.”
In response to Ms. Clinton’s assertion that “you’re never too young to make a difference,” our students are already thinking of ways to improve their community. Immediately after the event, three students had already asked their principal about starting a buddy bench. Another class was brainstorming ways to reuse plastic bags instead of dumping them in landfills.
“Even if it’s little things like not wasting stuff,” says Kai S., “those little things can make a difference if everybody does it, too.”