I'm thinking this afternoon with Mary Cowhey through her amazing book, Black Ants and Buddhists. This book has been an inspiration to me for years, since I picked it up because I was intrigued by the title. This is the book that push on just about every teacher I meet who has any interest in critical teaching, or workshop classrooms or teaching for social justice.
I dug it out today wanting to re-read Cowhey's story of what she and her first graders did instead of the traditional Thanksgiving can drive. She writes of participating in canned food drives as a child and wondering who "the poor people" were. In the next line, she writes of having bologna for Christmas dinner and thinking it a huge treat because they usually had peanut butter and jelly. When she asked her parents about the treat, she learned that she and her family were "the poor people." Activities like this serve to further stigmatize the low-income children in our classrooms. On the other hand, Cowhey's mother would not allow the family to use the words "poor people" instead, they talked about those who are "less fortunate than us at this time" and they packed up their outgrown hand-me-downs for "those less fortunate than us at this time." (pg. 26)
Cowhey's book reminds me of the stereotypes propagated by things like canned food drives and even my children's penchant for tomato gleaning. Having one's mom pick up cans for the school can drive so that the class can win the competition has more to do with the amount of disposable income in the class than it does compassion and caring Cowhey reminds us. "It makes 'poor people' seem like a predestined, anonymous group. It makes poverty seem like a permanent, almost genetic condition." "It stereo-types low-income people as passively 'in need'. "It fails to acknowledge the creative problem solving, resourcefulness, resilience, persistence, and enduring spirit of people who take nothing for granted." (pg. 26)
She and her students baked pies from pumpkins grown in her garden, then walked to deliver them for a Thanksgiving Dinner for the homeless in boxes donated by a local bakery. They also met with local advocates for the homeless where they learned about the circumstances that could make a person homeless, and what life is really like for the homeless. She tells her own stories, focusing on the creativity and resourcefulness of her parents.
So Cowhey's got me wondering, how can we make "helping" something available to ALL of the children in our classes. When I look at her Thanksgiving project, I see that no money was needed from the children. It was all action. And as the Dalai Lama says (and Cowhey' reminds me) "It is not enough to be compassionate. You must also act."
Acting doesn't mean token gestures of charity. So, I'm trying to imagine more about how this can look, thinking particularly about the reading program I'm working with in my children's school. How can we shift our program so that ALL students have access to "help" with reading, in our school and in our communities? If I think about it, that's what The Fire Cat is about. Pickles finds his place in the firehouse, where he can use his big paws, teach children about fire safety, and help kittens get out of trees. He doesn't do all of this himself, no boot strapping for Pickles. He finds this place with the help of Mrs. GoodKind, the fire chief, and the other firemen.
Still thinking on this one.