by Jane Yoo, BFS Pre-K Advisor
Every year at Brooklyn Free School, the entire school engages in a spring study about a social justice issue. This year, our spring study was about “class”. We usually start each study by collecting information about what we, as a group, already know about the subject.
Teacher: “What is work? What do you know about work?
Students: “Work is when you have to build stuff--building houses, making things.”
“It’s a job and jobs are something you do.”
“It’s when people use tables and laptops.”
“Superheroes’ jobs are to battle bad guys and save people. If bad guys take candy from the factory, superheroes give it back.”
One morning, students arrived and noticed that we had a new floor installed with colorful tiles. They wondered how it happened, when it happened, and who did it. When we learned that it was our Mike, the Building Manager, we decided to invite him to our class to interview him about his work at our school. Students prepared questions beforehand and asked them during the interview.
Student A: “Why do you work so much?
Mike: “If I don’t work, I can’t feed my family and I can’t pay my bills.”
Student A: “What are bills?”
Mike: Bills are when you pay for food, rent, light, gas. Even your clothes is a bill.”
Student B: “What do you like about your job?”
Mike: I love it because it’s fun and I’m helping people out. And they like my work and it makes me feel good.”
After interviewing Mike together, we gathered more information about work by going home and interviewing their parents then watching videos of them at school. We learned about various jobs, such as architect, musician, and more.
“What is your work? Why do you work? What do you like about your work? What is hard about your work?”
We also spent some time learning about workers’ rights by reading stories, watching videos, and discussing about what all workers need.
Students: “Workers have the right to have rights!” “All workers need money for their work.” “Workers need to be safe.”
In the next part of the study, we used what we learned to take action. One day we received a letter from a mystery boss who decided to hire us as candy workers in his/her candy factory. The job was to be paid one quarter to make five (salt clay) candies each day. (Our class had been part of a school musical of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory earlier in the year.) We decided to take the job. Also, we agreed that the day we make twenty-five quarters, we would have an ice-cream party.
We received a letter from our mystery boss every day, with our pay inside the letter. Then one day, our mystery boss wrote to us that there is a problem at the factory, so he/she will not be able to pay us for an indefinite amount of time. But he/she said that we need to keep doing our work and making candies or we would lose our jobs.
Student A: “I thought the boss was nice! He’s mean!” Student B: “Oh, no! That means no ice-cream!”
Teacher: “How do you feel?” Student C: “Sad! It’s not fair!” Student D: “Angry!”
Teacher: “What should we do?
Student E: “We should ask him what the problem is!”
Student F: “We should ask if we can help him solve the problem, so he can pay us.”
Letter to the Boss:
“Dear Mystery Boss. Why are you not sending the quarters. P.S. What is the problem? We can help you.”
The next day, we a received letter from our mystery boss once again, which wrote that he/she cannot tell us what the problem is and that we need to keep working. Students continued to feel confused, sad, angry, and some even afraid. This was when we learned about strikes! We watched videos of the Chicago Teachers Strike and Verizon Strike, and discussed what we saw.
Teacher: “What do you see?”
Students: “Lots of people!” “They’re chanting.” “They’re holding signs.” “Wait, where’s the boss?”
We discussed whether or not we should strike. One student in particular felt worried about upsetting the boss and not giving the boss what he/she needs, and did not want to strike.
Afterwards, we read a book called Swimmy, which is a story about a little fish named Swimmy who helps protect a school of other little fish from a big fish trying to eat them. Swimmy inspires them to practice swimming in the shape of a bigger fish to scare the other big fish. After reading, we discussed who has the power in this story.
Teacher: “Who has the power--the big fish or little fish?”
Students: “The little fish!”
Teacher: “Who has the power--us or the boss?”
Students: “We do!”
The worried student changed her mind and decided to strike with us.
On the last day of the spring study was an all-school L.A.R.P. (live action role play) of a town in the 1910’s. In the morning, we had older students (some who were union organizers) come in and out our classroom to dissuade or encourage us to strike. Then, we attended a secret union hall meeting with the bread factory workers next door to learn union chants and songs, and hear several speakers. Afterwards, we walked out from the meeting on strike and marched around the neighborhood with our picket signs.
“Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power! What kind of power? Union power!”
We ended the day by picketing in front of the school, when we finally confronted our boss about how things have been very unfair. After some serious conversations, the boss decided to pay us for our work.
The L.A.R.P officially ended the study, but students continued to incorporate things that remained with them after the study. For example, they built houses around the classroom, marched and chanted around the playground, and sing the union songs while they draw.