By Barbara Gruener
You’ve probably heard cries of, “That’s not fair!” a time or two in the recent past. Let’s face it: Life doesn’t always seem fair, especially to our young people. Once they adjust their thinking, however, and can understand and appreciate the simple fact that fair doesn’t always mean equal, it doesn’t seem as insurmountable an issue.
But, how do we effectively concretize that abstract concept?
Start by using the eye-opening example of wearing prescription eyewear. After asking students if fair means equal (their typical response is a resounding, “yes!”), respectfully demand that everyone with glasses remove them because it’s not “fair” if some have glasses while the rest of the class doesn’t. This will challenge their thinking about fair meaning we’re all the same.
Then, use the one-size-fits-all bandage metaphor. Ask students to share aloud the most serious injury they can think of: a broken leg, a concussion, a laceration that requires stitches. As they share their answers, hand each of them a small bandage to fix their injury, no matter how big it is.
Finally, announce that you’re giving a WOW Award. Watch how straight and tall students sit as you contemplate who the recipient will be. Select someone who has something like you, maybe blue eyes, brown hair, or a white shirt. Explain to them how you chose that person and expect shouts of, “That’s not fair!” Let students explain why it’s not and what they think would be a fair way to determine criteria for an award.
Unpack each of these examples to check for understanding before asking again if fair means equal. It’s likely that their thinking will have changed a little bit.
In all fairness, we must teach students two key words and their definitions from Merriam-Webster to better understand the idea of fairness:
Equality: the quality or state of being equal; the quality or state of having the same rights, social status, etc.
Equity: fairness or justice in the way people are treated
Younger students will likely need your help understanding the difference. Simply put, fairness isn’t about everything being equal, but about leveling the playing field so that people get what they need when they need it.
Once students understand and can discern between equality and equity, glean examples from their everyday life and use them as prompts in a game of “Fair or Foul?” Do these scenarios hit a fair ball or a foul ball in the game of life? If foul, how can they be changed to make the situation fair? Some scenarios you can use are:
- Your older sister gets to stay up later than you.
- Your brother got money for his birthday and you didn’t.
- Your friend brings her ball to school but won’t let you play with it.
- Nick always gets to be the line leader.
- You save a seat for someone in the cafeteria.
- Your friend lets you cut in line in front of him at the drinking fountain.
Once you’ve played a few rounds, let your students supply the next few prompts to get a sneak peek into their world. Then, turn to literature to find more models for what’s fair and what’s not. Use the following titles to help students reflect on how the characters in these stories resolved their fairness frustrations:
- Based on the true account of the life of astronaut Ron McNair, Ron’s Big Mission by Rose Blue and Corinne J. Naden finds a young Ron discriminated against because of his skin color at the library when he wants to check out a book.
- In A Taste of Colored Water, author Matt Faulkner teaches a civil rights lesson from the historical example of segregation at the water fountain.
- Use Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney to help students find out what fairness issues they might consider resolving with a peaceful protest.
- Looking after Louis by Lesley Ely finds Louis, a child with autism, getting extra recess. Will his friend understand that it’s fair because it’s what he needed when he needed it?
A few more strong titles include:
- It’s Not Fair! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
- Mine! by Kevin Luthardt
- Not Fair, Won’t Share by Sue Graves
- Rotten and Rascal: The Two Terrible Pterosaur Twins by Paul Geraghty
- Share with Brother by Steven Layne
- Squirrel’s New Year’s Resolution by Pat Miller
Finally, keep the lines of communication open and give students permission to discuss their thoughts and feelings when life doesn’t seem fair. Ask them what they want or need to resolve their conflicts. Help them become problem solvers by listening to their concerns and offering equitable options to help strengthen their voices and choices as they work to negotiate life so that it feels fair for everyone.
Currently in her 32nd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.
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