What Malala taught my two-year-olds
I am a classroom teacher in a pre-school in Brooklyn, NY. I am Vietnamese-American—my parents are from Vietnam. For most of the children in my class, this is their first time in a school environment. In my classroom, we nurture positive social and emotional growth through play, creativity, literature, and high quality conversations. Self, family, community, diversity, and the natural world are at the core foundation of my school’s philosophy.
Every year, the children’s’ needs and interests combine with that of the teachers and, together, we develop a unique curriculum. This year, my students’ early interest in things nocturnal led to a reading of Kitten’s First Full Moon in which the kitty mistakes the moon’s reflection in a pond as a bowl of milk. This led to an exploration of our own reflections and creating self-portraits in the style of Andy Warhol.
Then, we began introducing portraits of iconic figures both in history and contemporary times. We introduced each person and what had done in life. This opened an opportunity to explore race and diversity as we included historical figures who have showed courage, individuality, and activism in their lives such as Gandhi, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, Barack Obama, Walt Whitman, Eddie Aikau, and The Go Go’s. We put each portrait up on our classroom Wall of Fame.
Everyday, in Morning Circle, we’d have conversations about our portrait friends. One day, the class was psyched to see a new friend on our Wall of Fame.
“This is Malala [Yousafzai], from Pakistan.” (A student’s father had suggested we include Malala on our Wall of Fame). “She is at 17-years-old, our youngest person to go up on our Wall of Fame.”
Straight away her name rolls like the first notes of a song and the children eagerly sing her name. We look at her closely because it’s OK to stare at a portrait.
“Sita!” a classmate says, and we notice that she looks a little bit like a classmate Sita with black hair, dark eyes, and coffee-colored skin.
“Like me!” Sita says.
Then we get down to business. I say with great import,
“Malala is courageous. Why?”
Pause. The children ask, “Why?”
“Well one day she was told that girls cannot go to school and she got very sad.” I show my sadness on my own face. I could see the look of concern on the children’s faces. I continue:
“What if someone said Robin, Zara, Katrine, Sita, Lee, Rose, and Amanda must leave the school right now? What if someone said, ‘Go. You can’t come back to school.’ How would you feel?” Some of the class laughs uncomfortably but, truly, most of the class looks worried and moved.
Then, I ask, “Should girls be allowed to go to school?”
A resounding “Yes!!!!” comes from the choir, though I can see that a couple of children are confused by the question and say, “No,” some with certainty and some without.
“Well Malala was not allowed to go to school because she was a girl.” Some of the children frown, some laugh. “First she was sad. Then she got mad. And decided to speak up about it (I stand up) and fight for girl power.” I pump my fist in the air as I say this and immediately I am greeted with echoes of “Girl power!”
The conversation ends with chants of “Girl power. Go Malala.” I’m inspired and see an opportunity to create a chant in honor of our new young friend.
I write about our Malala episode in the narrative of the day (for children’s families) and later that day, a parent emails me and tells me that on the way home she asked her daughter about Malala.
My student informed her mom: “She was a girl who wasn’t allowed to go to school.”
When mom asks, “Is this fair?” my student answers, “No!”
Click here to read the full text of Malala’s moving and inspirational speech to the United Nations. There is so much that children of many ages can take away from Malala’s story.
Melissa Le is a teacher at pre-school in Brooklyn, NY. She has a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Creative Writing and a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education.