Support children to identify, explore, and take action on race-related issues

shira bookby guest blogger Shira Eve Epstein, Ed.D

How can children be supported to talk about and take action on civic issues that are deeply entangled with race and racism? How can we engage them on public matters like the accessibility of healthy food, protests in Ferguson, and school quality? I have pondered these questions as a classroom teacher, as a researcher, as a parent, and most recently as a book author.

Teaching Civic Literacy Projects: Student Engagement with Social Problems, my first book, illustrates how educators can guide youth to take-up civic issues in deep and meaningful ways. It portrays students talking about race as they grapple with social problems, pursuing conversations that are all-to-often absent in schools. And, it shows the power of youth to engage in change-making processes where they do something about the problems that they see.

Take this conversation that occurred with a multiracial group of fourth- and fifth-graders working with an educator named Valerie on a civic project about de facto segregation. They were looking at a map of their city that labeled each neighborhood in the city with its racial demographics. (All names used are pseudonyms to ensure anonymity.)

Barry (Black student): The map says there’s a lot of Spanish people here (pointing to an area of the map).

Valerie (Latina educator): Where are most of the White people living?

Barry (Black student): In this area.

Rachel (White student): I think it’s saying that White people live with people like them.

Maria (Latina student): I think this shows the separation of White and Black people…I don’t want to get mad.

Charlie (Latino student):  It’s okay to get mad.  Everybody gets mad.

A map—and simple questions regarding what the map shows—prompted students to name the racial segregation in their city. As students name things that make them “mad,” as Maria said above, teachers can design opportunities for them to explore the social problems from different perspectives and acknowledge and analyze the role that race and other factors play.

After spending weeks building their understanding of racial segregation, the students took action by creating a video public service announcement calling for greater racial mixing in schools and neighborhoods. It was aired to an audience of parents and other community members.

Other possible action steps include writing persuasive letters to be sent to public officials, composing murals to be displayed in public spaces, or reciting poetry at community events. The letters, murals, and poetry can contain students’ messages for change regarding public housing and schooling, police accountability, and many other issues.

Teaching Civic Literacy Projects: Student Engagement with Social Problems describes how to enact such action-oriented projects.  It presents a do-able, three-phase, model for civic learning for upper-elementary, middle, and high school students:

1) Problem identification (naming social problems),

2) Problem exploration (studying social problem), and

3) Action (taking action to ameliorate social problems).

In the book, I tell stories about four groups of students – one of which is the fourth- and fifth-graders who tackled the problem of racial segregation in their city – to illustrate these phases.  Ultimately, the model provides a structure for children from various age-groups to build civic knowledge and skill.

While the book explicitly speaks to teachers, I have met many parents who are excited to talk with their children’s teachers about the ideas in the book and how the school can support youth civic engagement.

Parents might use this model to examine the way they talk with their children about social problems. For example, parents might realize that they do a lot of “problem identification” with their children and less “problem exploration” and “action.” In turn, parents can commit to trying to engage in all three phases. This is what I hope to do as my children – a baby and a toddler – get older.

Children who have parents and teachers that are committed to engagement in civic life can build meaningful analyses of race and come to see themselves as activists. I am heartened by this vision. And it can all start with a map.


Shira Eve Epstein, an assistant professor at City College’s School of Education, has observed and guided civic projects with upper elementary, middle, and high school students. She is White and, when busy in K-12 schools, primarily works with students of color. 

Click here for more information on participating in a Raising Race Conscious Children interactive workshop/webinar or small group workshop series.