Education, inquiry, learning, race, social justice

These Lessons Are Good. But They’re Not Enough.

Over the past several weeks, my colleague and I have engaged our fifth and sixth grade students in an inquiry about “single stories” and stereotypes with a particular focus on race, gender, and ability. This isn’t our first time facilitating such an inquiry; earlier in the year, she and I engaged a different group of fifth and sixth graders in another “single stories” inquiry, and two years prior, we–along with another colleague–conducted a much broader exploration with another group of students around stereotypes, each time having been inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s widely-celebrated “Danger of a Single Story” TED Talk. (We also, of course, are not the only educators to have ever facilitated such an inquiry; both Jessica LifshitzAlex Shervin, and many others have tweeted about developing curricula and lessons that were inspired by the same talk.)

With this particular group of students, it has been necessary to assure them over and over again that talking about race is not, itself, a racist act. This is a common misconception, even among grown-ups, and my colleague and I felt it was important to find a way to help our students understand this–or at least, think more flexibly about it.

Below are the lessons we developed to address this. However, a caveat: borrowing these lessons and “doing” them with your own students will almost certainly lead to wildly different results. (If you’re not sure why, you may want to stop reading now.)

The first lesson we facilitated was itself borrowed from one we found through The Anti-Defamation League’s online collection of lesson plans designed to teach children about inclusion, bias, and social justice. In short, the lesson, which we heavily modified to suit our students’ needs and interests, suggested we use lemons to help start a conversation about differences and why it can be important to acknowledge them–particularly when engaging in conversations around social justice.

The lesson encouraged students to “get to know their lemon” by making note of its color, shape, size, and identifying markers. They were then instructed to return their lemons to a shared basket and, after the lemons had been mixed up, to try to find their lemon from among the bunch.

What happened next was pretty amazing. Not only was every student able to identify his or her individual lemon from the class basket of lemons, but the conversation that resulted from students sharing how each of them “got to know” their lemon accomplished exactly what we hoped it would. From that point forward, the vast majority of students seemed much more comfortable talking about race as we continued to explore the concept of single stories and stereotypes over the next several days.


A week or so later, my colleague and I decided that students were ready to begin to explore the concept of social privilege. Because this can be such a complex concept for even many adults to understand, we decided to return to the idea of using lemons as a way to make the concept more approachable.

We began by conducting a brief poll with faculty, staff, family and friends in which we asked this question: Which lemon are you most likely to purchase at a grocery store? The choices were shared on social media (for family & friends) and displayed on a table on the faculty room (for faculty & staff):


We asked our students the same question and shared the results with them. Overwhelmingly, respondents chose “A” as the lemon they would most likely purchase at the grocery store, followed by “D,” “C,” and “B,” respectively. Below were some of the students’ [paraphrased] responses to these results, along with some follow-up questions we asked (in italics):

  • “‘A’ and ‘D’ look like normal lemons.”
    • Hmm. ‘Normal.’ Say more about that?
  • “We don’t know what’s on the inside.”
    • Why might that matter?
  • “‘A’ looks how a lemon is supposed to look.”
    • Can you tell me more?
  • “I see more lemons that look like ‘D’ that my mom buys, so….”
    • How does that affect which one you’d buy?
  • “You aren’t using the outside of the lemon, so why should [what it looks like] matter?”

We then asked students to consider:

  1. Which lemon would you purchase if you were using it for a decoration?
  2. Which would you purchase if you were going to make a pie?
  3. Which would you purchase if you were using the juice as a cleaning agent? (One of the students had brought this particular use up earlier.)
  4. What about if you wanted to make lemonade?

These questions, and their responses, were not only helping us unpack the idea of single stories and stereotypes, but also explore issues around accessrepresentation, and bias. Heavy stuff.

Who knew using lemons as a metaphor could be so…fruitful?

The following day, we brought the lemons back in and decided to take a look at the inside of each lemon. We reminded ourselves of the data that we collected the previous day as well as of our conversation surrounding that data.

I cut open the first lemon (A), the one that–by far–people were the most likely to purchase. It looked nice inside, although it had a lot of seeds. It gave us just under 1/3 of a cup of juice.

I cut open the second lemon (B), the one that people were least likely to purchase.The students literally gasped, they were so taken aback. It looked absolutely pristine inside–like something you’d see in a cooking magazine. It gave us a solid 1/3 of a cup of juice.

I cut open the third lemon (C). It looked nice inside, but the pulp was a little mushy-looking. No seeds. Like Lemon “A,” it gave us just under 1/3 of a cup of juice.

I tapped my knife on the fourth lemon (D), which, if you recall, came in a distant second in our poll. As soon as I did so, students realized that it was fake–a decorative piece made of plastic!

We then asked the students, “What are you thinking right now? How might this relate to our inquiry about single stories and stereotypes?”

Their responses, as you can imagine, were everything we’d hoped they’d be.

We know–or at least, I’d like to think we know–how essential it is to talk to children about race. What I’ve described here are three useful lessons that teachers are more than welcome to borrow. We do that a lot in education, don’t we?–we read about others’ powerful lessons and make plans to use them, hoping our students might experience the same incredible learning. It’s important to understand, though, why not a single group of students will experience the exact same results that ours did–and why so many of the lessons we try to duplicate fall short when we attempt to use them in our own classrooms.

Our job is not simply to teach lessons–if it were, then the so-called “edu-preneurs” who constantly tout the benefits of “personalized learning” in schools would understand why such models, once implemented, are doomed to fail. As everyone reading this post well knows, our job is to teach students.

And your students are different from my students. Your students, as compared to my students, may have different gender identities; their socio-economic status may be different. They may have acquired different background knowledge or may live in a town or city that is vastly different from mine. They may identify with different races, ethnicities, religions, or nationalities. They may possess different abilities.

So why bother to share lessons at all? Why share these lessons? I share them here in the hope that they may offer other educators a “doorway into” important discussions around race. But I also share them to emphasize an indisputable truth, no matter who our students are, no matter where they live, and no matter how they identify: kids can thoughtfully engage around difficult topics far better than we give them credit for. Kids, no matter what their age, are “ready” to talk about complex issues–even about race. This series of lessons resulted in the incredible conversations we had as a class not because the lessons themselves were exceptional, but because the best instruction we can offer our students–no matter what concept or skill we are trying to teach–is the kind that is meaningful, authentic, and student-responsive. Responsive to the very students who are sitting in front of us.

Despite what some folks may lead us to believe, no lesson, unit, tool, or program is going to magically teach students what we want them to learn. And no lesson that is shared, no matter how meticulously it’s duplicated by another teacher, is going to lead to the same kind of learning.

The best we can hope for is to be inspired by others’ success and to use that inspiration as fuel to develop something that reflects our particular students’ needs and our particular students’ interests. Lessons alone are simply not enough–our kids need more. They need us.

So I’m interested to know: how might you modify the lessons here to fit your students’ particular needs when it comes to talking about race?

If you need someone to bounce ideas off of, I’m happy to help. You know where to find me.

Like what you’ve read here? Check out my debut book from Stenhouse PublishersRenew! Become a Better–and More Authentic–Writing Teacher, which you can preview in its entirety here. I am donating 50% of my royalties for the first year of publication to 826 National, a wonderful organization that provides opportunities for children who live in traditionally underserved populations to explore their creativity and improve their writing skills.  


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