‘You’re Not Too Young to Learn How Your Country Works’
Young people know more than you might think about contentious public policy debates, such as the one raging around immigration. A South Texas teacher helps her students express their hopes and fears in letters to an elected leader. As the semester ends, the teacher writes her own letter – this one to her students encouraging them to keep learning how to be engaged and informed citizens.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Last year in her fourth-grade class in a Texas, elementary-school teacher Charlotte Parker had her students write letters to the governor of Texas about the border wall, which, if constructed, would run three miles from their school.
Some might think 10-year-olds weren’t ready for such an assignment. Parker didn’t believe it. Her students were already following national debates, especially the rhetoric that made them wonder whether the new president was going to “kick out” every American who had come from Mexico. Parker taught them skills to help develop their civic voices to participate in that discussion.
For the last day of class this past spring, which was also her last day as a teacher, Parker wrote her students a letter of her own. In it, she expressed her hopes for their futures. That letter appears below.
The school where Parker taught is in the Las Milpas community. Students there experience many things that might make them think that their voices aren’t important, Parker said. All but a handful of her students were categorized as economically distressed. Most spoke Spanish at home but were expected to learn only in English. A handful of Parker’s students would spend the night in Mexico and go through the border checkpoint each day on their way to school.
“These students have two cultures. They eat Mexican candy (paletas, cachetadas) and watch American YouTubers (Jake Paul, the Martinez twins),” Parker told the Daily Yonder in an email. “Like most American kids, they love soccer, fidget spinners, bottle-flipping, and musicall.y (an app that lets you make music videos), but they may aspire to be like their older brothers and sisters and play in the award-winning high school mariachi band.”
Parker’s hopes for her students are articulated below. Her hopes for herself, at present, are to use her two years’ experience in Las Milpas to do work in community development or education technology that would help students like the ones she taught in Texas.
We’ve talked a lot, this year about our voices. Not just our voice levels in class or in the hallway, but our words and opinions, what we say and why it matters.
Some of you have grabbed the idea and run. You have investigated election issues and shared your suggestions. We believe that protecting the environment should be a priority for the next president; we should have fewer tests in schools so we have more time to learn. You have come to me at recess because you think something at school is unfair. We should have recess every day! We’re kids! You have shared with me your own ideas and worries about the news. Is Donald Trump really going to kick every Mexican person out of the country?
Others of you have been less sure that you, 10-year-olds, need to learn and express your opinions about current events. We wrote letters to Governor Greg Abbott about the border wall, which sits three miles from school. A few of you stared at your papers.
“We’re too young for this, Miss!” you yelled.
If I can teach you one thing this whole year, I want it to be that you’re not too young. You’re not too young to learn how your country works. You’re not too young to learn what’s going on in our country and in our world. You’re not too young to express your opinions to me, and you’re not too young to learn how to do it respectfully. And you’re not too young to try to understand the opinions of others, especially when grown ups in our country need some help doing the same thing.
Remember the water bottle? How it looked different when we looked at it from different sides of the classroom? Your perspective changes what you see or understand. I want you to understand that you have a unique perspective. Many of you have two countries. You wake up and go to sleep in Mexico, but you spend your day in the United States. For you, alla, over there means across the border. (For me, when I was 10, it meant across the room or to the supermarket in my little town). You speak two languages so fluently that sometimes you forget which is which. You live in a place where speaking Spanish and eating menudo on Sunday is American. Our whole country is wondering right now: what does “American” mean? Your voices would add a lot of ideas to that discussion. You might persuade some people to change their minds.
You know that champion readers read a little and write a little. They circle key words and underline actions. They use their strategies on multiple-choice questions. But the most important thing that good readers do is listen. They read the author’s words carefully, and then they respond to add their own voices to the discussion.
I’m curious to know what you think about all this. I will be listening.