How can we talk about child hunger without pity, stereotypes, or making students uncomfortable?
Our food drive is going strong this week (check it out here!), and students in the Lower School are excited. But in my work with kids, I’ve realized that they don’t always know who or what they’re helping, or why people might need that help. Hunger is a big topic that I couldn’t possibly cover in just one library class, but I wanted to spend a little bit of extra time talking with readers about why we work as a team to collect food, and where that food goes when it leaves our school.
Our fantastic Coordinator of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion gave me some pointers to make sure that our time in the library had the right tone and focus.
Here’s what I used to plan:
Start with a story
Whatever I want to discuss, a great picture book is always my first step. They get kids engage, teach with empathy, and kickstart curiosity. This week we’re using Maddi’s Fridge, by Lois Brandt, and it’s the perfect tool to get classes thinking and talking.
Here’s the summary, from Amazon: “Best friends Sofia and Maddi live in the same neighborhood, go to the same school, and play in the same park, but while Sofia’s fridge at home is full of nutritious food, the fridge at Maddi’s house is empty. Sofia learns that Maddi’s family doesn’t have enough money to fill their fridge and promises Maddi she’ll keep this discovery a secret. But because Sofia wants to help her friend, she’s faced with a difficult decision: to keep her promise or tell her parents about Maddi’s empty fridge.”
The text is kid-friendly, totally relatable, and just the right mix of poignant and funny. I highly suggest it if you’re looking for a good conversation starter for your classroom or library.
Use Person-First Language
Person-first language effortlessly humanizes, and reminds learners of all ages that people are more than their current situation. For example, saying “people experiencing food insecurity” instead of “hungry people” or “poor people” (this is where most kids tend to go first) makes a big difference. If a class doesn’t automatically mirror my language, which they almost always do, I’ll stop and tell them why I’m using the words I do, and ask them to speak that way too.
Ask Questions and Challenge Stereotypes
How do you feel when you haven’t eaten enough? Can you tell if someone is hungry just by looking at them? Can a family experience hunger if members of the family have jobs? If Maddi’s fridge is empty, does it mean that she or her family have done something wrong? Why doesn’t Maddi just ask for help? If a family needs help to fill their fridge once, will they need to do it forever? If they do need help more than once, is that okay? The right questions can change everything. I ask tons of questions, and try to give the kids the space to wonder, too. And I never, ever answer a question with “That’s not an appropriate question” or “We don’t ask that here“. Once kids know that your classroom or library is a safe place to ask big questions, conversations become deeper, more vulnerable, and more meaningful.
Let Students Lead
It’s hard to know what kids understand or are ready for, and how deep you can go with a discussion. To get a feel for the direction a discussion should take, I let students lead. Where does the conversation go if I’m not the one directing it? What do kids already know, and what do they want to know? What assumptions are they making, and what words are they using? Talking less and listening more means that every group gets the unique discussion and experience that they’re ready for and that they need. Letting students lead doesn’t work all the time – they’re just kids, after all! – but I try to follow them as much as possible.
Use Existing Resources
I don’t know very much about child hunger yet. And luckily, I don’t need to reinvent the wheel to find a great lesson. Finding resources that already exist, that are designed for teachers to print and use, is not only a great time saver but also ensures that I’m getting a high quality lesson created by an expert. This is not the kind of topic that I would search Teachers Pay Teachers or Instagram for. Instead, I search for resources that come from an organization directly linked to the cause or issue like Feeding America, Kid World Citizen, or the Power of Education Program.
Teaching is an Iterative process
Our Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion left me with one final preparation – it won’t go perfectly every time. In fact, it probably won’t go perfectly at all. But she reminded me that if things don’t go exactly as planned, that doesn’t mean it’s time to give up and throw in the towel – you can always try again next time. Go easy on yourself, and use what you learn to move forward. Admitting that you don’t know the answer, that you’ve made a mistake, or that you wish you could do something differently can go a long way with a kid. Every time students are exposed to an issue or conversation, it normalizes it for them. As long as these discussions are handled respectfully with perspective and empathy, they’re doing good.