Building Bridges with Bilingual Books

By Amadee Ricketts, author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning

Building Bridges with Bilingual Books

Bilingual books can help children from all backgrounds discover the richness and diversity of language. They can serve as mirrors, giving children who are dual-language learners a chance to see themselves and their families represented in books. Of course, they can also be valuable windows, helping children learn about and appreciate families and cultures very different from their own.

So, it stands to reason that bilingual books can be a wonderful resource at home, in the library, or in the classroom (whatever classrooms may look like in the near future). Read on for more about why bilingual books matter, selection tips unique to this category, and ideas for incorporating bilingual texts into your reading routines.

Building Bridges

When I think about bilingual books, I am reminded of a long-ago storytime when I was a fairly new librarian in a small, rural library. A new family had started attending my weekly preschool program, and the mother and little boy were both very quiet and shy. It seemed likely that they were not fluent in English, but it was hard to tell because they just nodded and smiled, never saying a word to me or even to each other.

The second or third week they came to the library, I, guessing their home language was Spanish, read a story with some Spanish phrases (Abuela by Arthur Dorros), and put several Spanish-language picture books front and center in my book display. The young mom lit up at the very first Spanish word, which happened to be the first word of the book, and she and her little guy both paid rapt attention for the rest of the program. After we wrapped up, she felt comfortable enough to talk to me a little and fill out the form to get a library card so that she could check out Abuela and several other books.

Even though her English was limited, and my Spanish all but nonexistent, hearing her home language included in storytime was enough to help this mom feel welcome, included, and comfortable speaking up. When her little boy saw that his mom was comfortable, he relaxed enough to talk a mile a minute to her and, soon, to anyone nearby.

That was a small thing in the grand scheme, but it certainly felt momentous at the time. In the years since then, that experience has served as a reminder of the importance of inclusive book collections and programs, in libraries and beyond. Along with offering mirrors and windows for children, bilingual books can build bridges.

Another example that sticks with me is not from my own career, but from that of a teacher named George Feldman. Mr. Feldman was teaching elementary school in Watsonville, California, and learned that about a quarter of the children in his class were from Mexico but not fluent in English or Spanish. They spoke Mixteco, a Mexican indigenous language, and were isolated even in a community rich in Mexican heritage and resources. Working with other school staff, including the school district’s only Mixteco-speaking staff member, Natalia Gracida-Cruz, Mr. Feldman helped write the first-ever picture book in English, Spanish, and Mixteco.

The book is called I Am Proud of My Family, Estoy Orgulloso de mi Familia, Iyi Cusiji’ini Shi’in Na Ta’in: My Family Feeds California, and it features photographs of local Mixtec families. I first learned about this book through a radio story on Latino USA in 2014 and loved the idea of it so much that I bought a copy for my library the same day. As Mr. Feldman said in the radio story, “One of the most basic steps is to fundamentally acknowledge that the kids are there . . . and in many ways we are just getting to that point.”

Of course, it is also important to note that for dual-language learners, the home language provides crucial building blocks for other language skills and for learning to read. Although “English-Only” laws have been repealed or relaxed across the United States in recent years, the policy fight is ongoing in many states. This highlights the importance of sharing the evidence-based benefits of bilingual education and bilingual materials and of supporting parents reading to and interacting with their children in the language most comfortable for them.

What Counts as a Bilingual Book?

As you start looking at bilingual books, you will notice that they come in several different forms, and in as many languages as you can think of, though in the United States it is easiest to find books in languages that are commonly spoken here, like Spanish and Chinese.

The bilingual category includes books that contain the whole text in two languages, presented side by side or in different sections of each page. There are also lots of books that are mostly in English, with words and phrases in a second language sprinkled throughout the text. Finally, there are books which are published in separate editions for each language. Each of these types of book can be fun and useful in a variety of settings. You will find a brief listing of recommended titles by type in the NCCLR Quick Guide for Teachers: How to Use Bilingual Books.

Tips for Selecting Good Bilingual Books

If you have tried reading translated books aloud with kids, even if you are comfortable with the language of the text, you may have found that some types of books just don’t work well in translation. Books with rhyming text, alphabet books, and books with puns or wordplay tend to fall flat, although for older or more sophisticated students, they can make for interesting discussions about language and the challenges of translation.

In a 2017 article for Teaching Tolerance, Delia Berlin highlights these pitfalls and notes that dual-language picture dictionaries and chapter books can be particularly useful. For young learners, I also recommend picture books with minimal text, where the languages are presented side by side. For teachers, caregivers, and library staff who are not confident in a second or third language, books that are mostly in English with words and phrases in another language offer an approachable starting place.

For help selecting books that are just right for your classroom, family, or group, reach out to your local library.

Let’s Get Reading!

If you’re feeling ready to incorporate bilingual books (or more bilingual books) in your reading routine, great!

For early childhood classrooms, you will find some great tips for getting started in the NCCLR Quick Guide for Teachers: How to Use Bilingual Books and Supporting Emergent Bilingual Children in Early Learning. These tips include prereading the text in the home language and discussing the book one-on-one or in small groups before reading aloud. One suggestion from the latter source, which may not be as important in nonclassroom settings, is to use a single language per activity, unless you are teaching cognates (words with similar sounds and meanings across languages). The idea is that if you mix languages, children will only tune in to the familiar. This is a good point, but its relevance depends on the purpose of the activity.

Whatever the setting, I recommend selecting brief, lively texts, and practicing enough to feel confident reading the language that may be less familiar. In classrooms and libraries, this can also be a great occasion to invite parents or community members to be guest readers or presenters who can share songs or activities in a new language.

For older students, it can be fun to share bilingual books for independent reading, especially if they are paired with discussion or activities highlighting similarities and differences between the languages.

You will find more useful resources listed below. Happy reading!

Berlin, Delia. “Early-Grades Bilingual Books: What Works and What Doesn’t.” Teaching Tolerance, February 15, 2017.

Education Development Center. Supporting Emergent Bilingual Children in Early Learning. Accessed July 8, 2020.

Genesee, Fred. “The Home Language: An English Language Learner’s Most Valuable Resource.” Colorín Colorado, accessed July 8, 2020.

Gerety, Rowan Moore. “Learning Mixteco in Schools.” Latino USA, June 20, 2014.

Mitchell, Corey. “‘English-Only’ Laws in Education on Verge of Extinction.” Education Week, October 23, 2019.

National Center for Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness. NCCLR Quick Guide for Teachers: How to Use Bilingual Books. Bank Street College, accessed July 8, 2020.

Rodriguez, Jodie. “Why It’s Important for Kids to See Themselves in Books.” Scholastic Parents, March 1, 2018.

Amadee RickettsAmadee Ricketts received her MLS degree from the College of St. Catherine and has been a librarian since 2002. She is currently the library director at the Cochise County Library District in Arizona. When not working or writing, she enjoys taking photos of insects and other tiny things. She lives with her husband, who is a photographer, and their cat.

Gentle HandsAmadee is the author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

Posted in Parenting, Teaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Motivation to Write: Ideas for Developing Better Writers

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Motivation to Write: Ideas for Developing Better Writers

For many of us, the act of writing can be scary, dangerous, difficult, and frustrating. I remember that when I started to write my first book, I was apprehensive about putting words to paper for fear that others who read my thoughts would judge me harshly because I wasn’t skilled at all the nuances of “proper” or “good” writing.

Since that time, I’ve studied why some kids are hesitant, and even afraid, to write. For many decades, educational researchers have studied the writing process—the structures of writing. Researchers have also studied what motivates and demotivates people to engage in learning. Within the past two decades, researchers have begun to link writing and motivation—or motivation to write.

Our motivation to accomplish a task is affected by three factors:

  1. Motives—an intrinsic or extrinsic reward, a need, or something we value and are interested in
  2. Self-belief and self-efficacy—a belief in ourselves and in our skills to accomplish the activity
  3. Self-regulation skills—our ability to manage ourselves in the learning activity

There are three types of writing prescribed in schools. Transactional writing is considered that which is used to persuade, record, and convey information. Upwards of 65 percent of all writing done in school is transactional writing. Poetic or imaginative writing encompasses story writing and playwriting as well as poetry. Little of this type of writing happens beyond elementary school. Expressive or personal writing is based on student interests or writing about feelings. Typically, very little expressive writing is done in school.

Research finds that students are more inhibited by transactional writing and are far more engaged when doing expressive or personal writing. As Pietro Boscolo and Suzanne Hidi say in their essay “The Multiple Meanings of Motivation to Write”: “Students in schools are seldom aware that writing is a powerful tool for fixing, using, changing, and re-elaborating their ideas and knowledge as well as for collaborating with other people, schoolmates, for instance, and/or others outside the classroom, as partners in the construction and negotiation of meaning through discourse.”

Writing and motivation research indicate several ways we can get students to be more motivated to write:

  • Adjust the instructional focus of writing from purely an academic task to a tool to communicate interests and relevant information.
  • Increase enjoyment in writing by having students write about topics they are interested in, keeping the focus on the communication of ideas rather than the formality of the writing process.
  • When assigning writing tasks, have students work collaboratively on the planning and writing.
  • Make sure students have an authentic (real) audience for their writing—the writing should be read by those who will find it useful or interesting.
  • Be sure that students know enough about what they are being asked to write about and that they have the self-efficacy (writing skills) to complete the task.

Another way to increase students’ motivation to write is through developing their skills of self-regulation. Based on my investigations into self-regulation for learning (SRL), I’ve determined that for students to be successful they must be able to balance their affect (beliefs and feelings), behaviors (strategies for planning, execution, resource procurement, etc.), and cognition (critical reasoning, creative thinking, and problem-solving). Here are some tips to increase students’ SRL for better writing:

  • Encourage them to think positively about themselves and their abilities to write.
  • Daily, have students write about something they are interested in, have an abundance of knowledge about, or are excited to share with others.
  • Use supportive descriptive feedback throughout the writing process, focusing on what students are doing well and being specific about how they can get better.
  • Provide students with graphic organizers to assist them in planning and executing writing.
  • Have students take pictures of something of interest to them. Then, using the picture, have them write details, descriptions, and other ways to explain the item or scene.
  • Give students fun sentence stems (such as, “If I ran the school, I would . . .” or, “When I daydream, I think about . . .”) to help get them started on writing.
  • Model how you write—verbally express how to develop and organize the idea you will write about.
  • Demonstrate how rough drafts are necessary to refining and sharpening thoughts.
  • Have students set goals for their writing—from what they intend to say, to who they want to read their work, to how they want to feel about their final product.
  • Using a piece of quality writing, together with your students construct rubrics for students to follow as they develop their own writing.

Writing is a time-consuming process. We need time to develop ideas, plan the format, write, and rewrite/refine. Unfortunately, in our hurried days, we often don’t allow students time think, plan, collaborate, and refine ideas. Using writing as a daily event, where students can take the time to draw or doodle pictures of ideas, discuss with peers what they are writing about, and reflect on what they have written, can increase our students’ motivation to write.

Pietro Boscolo and Suzanne Hidi, “The Multiple Meanings of Motivation to Write,” Studies in Writing and Motivation, (Eds. Hidi, S & P. Boscolo), 2007. Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Elsevier. Pg 4.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition

Differentiation For Gifted Learners

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

Posted in Teaching Strategies | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kids Need “People Smarts” Now More Than Ever

By Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., author of Smarts! Everybody’s Got Them

Kids Need “People Smarts” Now More Than EverThe COVID-19 pandemic currently ravaging the country and the world has made the issue of community and social responsibility a focal point of concern. Health experts strongly recommend wearing masks and practicing social distancing not just to protect ourselves, but more importantly to protect others from the virus we may be carrying. While the emphasis has been placed on changing behaviors, what is also crucial is a fundamental change in the way we think—a change from thinking primarily about ourselves to thinking about others.

Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard University, has suggested that an important function of the human mind is the ability to deploy what he calls “interpersonal intelligence” (which I call for simplicity’s sake “People Smarts”). This is the skill to empathize, organize, and socialize. It focuses on the ability of a person to understand the intentions, moods, and aims of other people. It is one of eight distinct intelligences Gardner has proposed in his theory of multiple intelligences. The others include (my terms are used here): Word Smarts, Number/Logic Smarts, Picture Smarts, Music Smarts, Body Smarts, Self Smarts, and Nature Smarts.

Thankfully, after years of focus on academics and standardized testing, our schools seem to be doing a better job of developing social and emotional skills. Universities and foundations have created kindness programs for early childhood development. Kids in elementary and secondary school are engaging in activities around compassion and mindfulness that can help them become aware of their role as part of a greater whole. While these schools aren’t necessarily using the terminology of Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, they have increasingly woken up to the shortcomings of focusing purely on academic achievement. It is of crucial importance to the survival of our society that we continue these efforts to help our kids develop their People Smarts (along with the other seven intelligences), so that the needs of others will be honored and attended to as future generations of Americans mature into adulthood.

As parents, you are your child’s first teacher, so you have the opportunity to help your child develop People Smarts in the course of your daily activities. Simple actions such as sharing a toy, giving words of encouragement to a sad friend, or engaging in volunteer efforts that benefit the community are all ways in which kids can turn their focus from their own needs to the needs of others.

The pandemic has placed limitations on your child’s access to interaction with other kids, but here are some pandemic-proof ways in which you can help strengthen your child’s People Smarts:

  • Play board games with your child that promote cooperation, such as those available through the Peaceable Kingdom brand of
  • Encourage your child to stay in contact with friends during the pandemic using child-friendly social networks such as GoBubble or ChatFOSS.
  • Suggest that your child teach a younger sibling a skill they know (for example, riding bicycle, learning to read, the rules to a game).
  • Practice role-playing different social situations that your child might otherwise have difficulty with (for example, asking someone to be friends, resolving a conflict with a peer, responding to a bully).

Finally, make sure to let your child know that the pandemic we’re going through is an opportunity for all of us to come together, and that we can help accomplish this by wearing masks in public and maintaining social distance to protect others as well as ourselves. Following these guidelines will help to instill a feeling of “we-ness” in your child. With parental support, and with schools focusing more attention on developing social and emotional skills, we can usher in a new generation of compassionate individuals who will help our society deal with whatever adversities might come in the future.

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., is an award-winning author and speaker with 47 years of teaching experience and over one million copies of his books in print. He has authored 15 books, including Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom; written numerous articles for Parenting, Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, and other periodicals; and appeared on several national and international television and radio programs, from NBC’s Today show to the BBC.

Free Spirit books by Thomas Armstrong:

Smarts Everybodys Got ThemYoure Smarter Than You Think

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

Posted in Parenting, Social & Emotional Learning | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Talking About Racism to Build Stronger School Communities

By Isaiah Moore

Talking About Racism to Build Stronger School CommunitiesI think it’s safe to say that, so far, 2020 is the year of the mask. It’s become somewhat of a popular item in recent months, even blurring the barrier between healthcare and fashion wear for most teens. In fact, some students have gone as far as coordinating their outfits with matching face coverups. And it’s not just in real life! They’ve taken this trend virtual. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing half a student’s face ever since we let out—sort of like a reverse Batman mask. So, I’ve become pretty adept at distinguishing students by eyes and forehead alone as they prefer to wear masks even on our calls.

But, when mid-June was approaching, I fully expected kids to ditch the mask routines, and, no, I don’t mean the physical face covering. I fully expected them not to mask their feelings about school officially letting out. I thought they’d completely ignore the many messages I’d send in preparation for the school year’s end. However, there was a weird twist of irony. When I opened my computer one morning, I actually had a message from a student, and we were less than a week from school ending. Feeling as if I were being set up or were stepping into the twilight zone, I briefly hesitated. It was from a student who, during the days of “normal school,” was reliable, but she had missed the last two assignments. I read her message headline entitled, “Sorry,” and then with some skepticism clicked it.

I immediately noticed its length. Feeling the angst of students reaching out to me instead of vice versa, I thought this would be her attempt at unmasking her end-of-year excitement. But when I started reading, that angst took a new form: “Hi, Mr. Moore. I haven’t really been in the best mindset lately because of everything that’s happening, but I also don’t want to use that as an excuse for all the work that I’m not doing.” I began to worry as my mental roads became congested with questions: “Is she referring to THOSE events?” “Can she even handle a conversation about Mr. George Floyd’s unacceptable treatment?” “Does she see that she and young Tamir Rice share an age bracket and affinity to play at the park and wonder if they could share a fate?” “Is she wondering whether the protests these atrocities have sparked are even beneficial?” “Can I handle a conversation like this?” “What do I even say?”

It was this moment that showed me that not only was my initial assumption wrong, but my student was open. She proverbially took her mask off, and with these events being national news, I am quite sure she is not the only student doing so. So how do we, as educators, respond?

A few of the educators at our school responded by preparing a round table discussion, which acted as a platform for students to speak not only with educators but also with peers about issues of racism and injustice in our community. In debriefing, here are some takeaways from that discussion for fostering tough conversations to strengthen communities and schools.

Educators Should Foster an Open Classroom from Day One

“It may seem simple, but the tough conversations are had in the beginning of the year.”

Tough conversations like those about race and injustice are not had unless students feel comfortable. From day one, we must present ourselves and the spaces we oversee as ones where open dialogue is welcomed. Acknowledging relationship-building as the means to this end is key. This ultimately allows students to feel cared for and valued. As a result, they are more likely to feel comfortable having these conversations. Regularly allow students time in class to reflect and debrief.

Educators Need to Be Knowledgeable

“There’s more to education than showing how to place a comma.”

There are two reasons for this. First, knowing a variety of topics allows educators to engage students on multiple levels, helping them reach more children as no two are the same. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, said, “You have to go much deeper than that [casual familiarity] and actually start to engage with students around their curiosity, their interests, their habits of mind through understanding and approaching material.” When kids are engaged in topics that interest them, they develop a sense of comfort with the person and environment.

Second, broad knowledge equips teachers to be proactive. Because you have your finger on the pulse of what happens outside the classroom, you’re able to make more informed decisions about the topics that will, without a doubt, be brought into your classroom, distinguish which can be used for educational purposes, and anticipate ways members of your class may take the subject. How you use this knowledge to respond to the feelings of students will cause them to feel safe in class.

Educators Need to Take Off Their Masks

“Because they didn’t mention it [police brutality], I was thinking it didn’t matter to them.”

Sometimes educators subconsciously create barriers, ones that relegate kids to human and elevates teachers to nonhuman. Kids are so unaware of their teachers’ personalities outside of school that we’re not seen as normal. Sometimes we’re so quick not to let them know our own passions outside of education that our students still have Santa-sized fantasies of us; just as they believe that Santa lives at the North Pole, they believe that we live in our classrooms. That is dangerous. Without divulging too much information, we can give our students information about us that strengthens teacher-student bonds. For example, I have an insatiable infatuation with a certain breakfast cereal that will not be named. I love it so much, I start every year telling my kids the story of the first time I tried it. And every year, it becomes a year-long topic of discussion in my classroom of cereal-eating teenagers! This little information about my life outside the classroom allows me to be vulnerable, and my students feel as if they’re getting to know the person they are about to spend an average of 1,000 hours with.

Of course, we should be able to share less trivial matters with students as well. Without losing our cool, we can speak to them about how our days are going or if something made us feel less than our best selves. In this instance, it is perfectly acceptable to let kids know that these events troubled us and that we’ll work toward bettering them.

Educators Need to Listen

“We actually just want you to listen.”

This may be a repeat of one of the aforementioned, but it is essential that we create spaces for students to sift through their thoughts and feelings. This should be a weekly practice in class, whether it’s allowing students designated time to talk toward the end of lessons, setting up a suggestion/thought box, giving them time for journaling, or offering an ear to listen to their thoughts. According to Dr. Carl Pickhardt, the author of Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, “Adolescence can be a highly emotionally charged time of life.”

It is imperative that educators remember that though students are not new to feelings, they are new to managing feelings. So, as adults, we must model and give kids opportunities to practice—practice being the operative word. Such highly charged topics as racism and injustice are better served under your care, if not with parents. The majority of the kids who participated in our school’s round table mentioned feeling respected and even thanked us for allowing them to “vent.” Some of them were the same kids that took my pencils every day without a single expression of gratitude. Our listening to them allowed for growth in their characters, evidenced by their thanks.

Educators Need to Give Students Tools of Empowerment

“As kids, there’s not much we can do.”

Our students are young, but they fully understand the detrimental effects of discrimination and injustice. Because of their youth, they often demote themselves to “just kids” instead of “current change-makers.” As educators, we must create an educational experience interwoven with skills and real-world applications of said skills, especially around advocacy. Yes, students cannot vote, but tell them what they can do! The round table we held actually became “lit” (as the young kids say) when they heard we were going to give them ways they could be heard now.

We talked about after-school book club studies, such as the one we plan to do with Ibram Kendi and Jason Reynolds’s Stamped Remix. We encouraged students to research their local city council members and write to them about their concerns. We even told them we’d proofread the letters. Last, we brought the issue closer to home: “It’s okay even to demand more of us. If there is something you feel you are not learning in my class that may better equip you to be a productive citizen in society, please let me know.” As an educator, I am not above criticism, nor should students think I am. This is truly what it means to take off the mask. We need to eliminate all hurdles possible to properly educate all students.

At this present moment, that hurdle is bigotry and racism. I had only one request, however: “Your proposal for new content to be taught must use proper punctuation, specifically commas.” See, we can definitely teach lessons through social change.

Isaiah MooreIsaiah Moore is an eighth-grade English teacher in Virginia Beach who’s had the pleasure of speaking to crowds of over 1,000 but still becomes nervous when conducting a 45 minute session for 30 students. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t show it.) An Albert Einstein quote guides his life: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather a man of value.” Through word and action, this quote was taught to him by four Black male teachers in high school. Because of their impact, he decided to pursue education in hopes of impacting others the same way. To do so, he attended Morehouse College and became an Oprah Scholar while receiving his undergraduate degree in English. Afterward, he obtained his Master’s of Arts in Education from the College of William and Mary’s School of Education. Isaiah believes that education should be relevant, so he prides himself on developing lessons that incorporate real-world topics. This shows students their education extends beyond the four walls of his classroom. When Isaiah’s students apply these concepts to their daily lives, it is at this point that he sees his value. Here is where he becomes a man of success. Isaiah writes about his daily life in the classroom at his blog, Running Thoughts . . . Can’t Let Them Get Away.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Facilitating Respectful Conversations About Politics with Kids

By Jean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., author of Get Gifted Students Talking: 76 Ready-to-Use Group Discussions About Identity, Stress, Relationships, and More (Grades 6–12)

Facilitating Respectful Conversations About Politics with KidsOur world is currently colored by bleak pandemic data, racial and cultural tensions, economic hurt, long lines at food banks, working and schooling from home, new kinds of school arrangements, social constraints, uncertainty about “life as we knew it,” and cabin fever. The global reach of COVID-19 means we can’t just “go somewhere different.” Financial security, mental health, physical health, relationships, familiar rituals, development of young talent, and much, much more feel threatened.

Kids’ antennae are tuned in to our adult tensions. They wonder and worry—and have questions that aren’t easily answered. We may visibly wince when they ask them. The gray fog of uncertainty tempts us to sweep the questions about health threats and politics aside—or respond with a hard-edged tone, reflecting our feelings of frustration with the big picture.

General Guidelines for Discussion with Kids

In general, I encourage you to remove the “answering burden” from your shoulders. Arranging a genuine discussion with kids is one way to do that. The beauty of a family or classroom discussion about complicated topics is that no one needs to be the “expert.” Most of the content can actually come from children and/or teens themselves—a “bottom-up” conversation instead of a “top-down” one. No test will follow, but more discussion probably will.

The value is in the process, in the discussing itself—not in a certain result or a specific understanding or “the right view.” Call attention to kids’ poise, patience, listening skills, respect, ability to pay attention to the speakers, and ability to both stay objective and express feelings. Offer facts if you have them, but only after hearing what the kids know, think, or feel. What follows here are some general guidelines.

Find out what kids already know. Ask, “So what do you know about the pandemic? What have you heard about it?” In a family, each member may have something to say, but it’s wise to start with the youngest school-age kids so that their comments are heard and respected. Those comments may generate discussion. You can also say, “If you tell us what you already know, we’ll all understand more together. We’re going to just talk—and whatever you say is okay.” COVID-19 is still a mystery. No one understands everything about it yet, so there aren’t any dumb questions or comments. But scientists are learning more about it every day and helping us understand it.

After all in the group, including the adults, have offered brief information, ask kids if they have questions. In discussions, wise adults use language appropriate for kids’ ages. After all, the discussion is for the kids, not the adults. If there are kids at many age levels in the group, the language level can vary, respectfully, but should be geared to the youngest now and then.

Though any raised question can be a “teachable moment,” you don’t need to teach—or be an expert. It’s good for kids to feel like respected contributors to an important discussion. If you do have some pertinent expertise, pause after a question. Model thoughtfulness. If you don’t know what to say, and don’t understand something, just say, “I don’t know.” That can take the pressure off—for you and for kids.

As you pause, think about “facilitating,” not teaching. Think about listening (“Yeah, that makes sense,” or, “So you’ve heard a reporter say we’ll probably need to wear masks for even more than a year.”) and helping move the discussion along (“Anyone else want to say something about that?” or, “You looked like you wanted to say something a few minutes ago.”).

Try to avoid telling kids what to believe or how to think. That’s not your job in this kind of discussion. Focus on listening. Give away most of your adult power and control.

Keep an open mind. Try to avoid thinking that there is a “totally right way” to think about the complicated topic.

Listen hard. Rather than asking questions, try to make nonjudgmental (accepting what was said) or nonevaluative (no indication of “right” or “wrong”) statements instead: “That shows you have compassion,” or, “I can tell you’ve been thinking hard about this,” or, “It makes sense that it’s scary for you.”

Encourage kids to elaborate. “I’d like to hear more about what you said,” or, “Tell us more about that.”

Compliment kids when they’re “making sense” of a complicated topic. “It’s complicated, and you’re making sense of it.” Compliment them when they ask a thought-provoking question: “Wow, I’ll have to think about it before I answer.”

Ask for clarification—as a way of showing interest and “punctuating” what was said. “So you’re thinking that staying home has actually been good for our family? What do you think, guys?” Or, “You’re saying that the protests made good things happen—am I understanding you okay?”

Talking About Politics

We also are living in an increasingly polarized and politicized world, and any complicated topic can quickly become political. Opposing views are routinely separated and amplified by commentators. To counter that, a family or classroom discussion might include the consideration that complicated situations are probably not purely right or wrong and that people’s views reflect their experiences. Kids can be told that if people learned to talk together and not fight over opinions, they might be able to make good things happen. Better than telling, however, is kids being able to talk about thorny concerns with nonjudgmental adults and offer their own young wisdom. That’s what “facilitation” can do.

To start, ask kids what they’ve heard about a controversial topic or if they have an opinion about something else they’d like to discuss. A family discussion might go something like this:

Teen 1: “I feel sorry for the people who have to decide—like governors and mayors. I think it’s more important to control the virus than it is to loosen the rules and get everybody shopping and partying again.”

Teen 2: “What about the people who lost their jobs—and need restaurants and bars and stores to open up and make money so they have a place to work?”

Child: “But what about the people in the meat factories who are getting sick?”

Teen 1: “Or the nursing homes where elderly people can’t see their relatives?”

Child: “Or Uncle Gerry—with COPD? That’s a preexisting condition, right?”

Adult (commenting on the process): “You guys are offering different views without raising your voices. That’s impressive.”

Adult (asking an open-ended question that invites elaboration): “If you had a small business, what would help you decide whether to follow the new, looser rules or stay closed?”

When we facilitate respectful discussion of complicated political topics, we can encourage kids to “listen hard.” We might even invite two teens to defend either a “for” or “against” position, then switch roles, and then reflect on the experience. There’s a lot we don’t know for sure, or don’t know all aspects of, these days. Helping kids listen carefully and respectfully without “pouncing” might help them navigate complicated political discussions throughout their lives.

To close a discussion, an adult might say, “If I said that a good mantra for living in this complicated world is ‘Embrace complexity,’ how would you interpret that?”

jean petersonJean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., is professor emerita and former director of school counselor preparation at Purdue University. A licensed mental health counselor with considerable clinical experience with children and families, she conducts workshops on academic underachievement, high-ability students’ social and emotional development, prevention- and development-oriented group work with children and adolescents, bullying, listening skills for teachers and parents, and more. Dr. Peterson has authored more than 130 books, journal articles, and invited chapters, and her articles have appeared in journals such as Journal of Counseling & Development, Gifted Child Quarterly, Professional School Counseling, and International Journal of Educational Reform. She has received 10 national awards for scholarship, as well as numerous awards at Purdue for teaching, research, or service, and was a state teacher of the year in her first career as a classroom teacher. She lives in Indiana.

Free Spirit books by Jean Sunde Peterson:

Get Gifted Students Talkinghow and why to get students talking

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

Posted in Parenting, Teaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment