Homelessness might sound like a topic too complicated, too fraught, or too wide-spread to discuss with 1st graders. Yet these are the exact reasons teachers Debra Carr and Bret Turner devoted their classrooms to its full and detailed exploration. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, “The best way to change negative stereotypes about people experiencing homelessness and ultimately end homelessness is to teach young people how to be compassionate advocates.”
Six- and seven-year-olds living in the Bay Area know homelessness exists; they encounter homeless people in their daily routines and, at this developmental stage, are curious knowledge-seekers, interested in fairness. It’s an important time to foster empathy.
“Having a sense that others are struggling and holding them in their hearts is everything,” says Debra Carr. “We hope real change can begin there: through seeing and feeling and acknowledging the experience of others."
Honesty about what 1st graders notice and overhear is also vital. In a recent lesson, Bret Turner asked his class to close their eyes and picture a homeless person. “What might they look like?” he asked, guiding the students. “What might they be feeling?”
After a few minutes, students opened their eyes and raised their hands. The whiteboard soon filled with words like: “sad,” “scared,” and “nervous”––a telling indication of their compassion––alongside physical descriptors like “old, ripped clothes,” “maybe smell bad,” and “dirty.” Students suggested the homeless are “more likely to be sick because they can’t see a doctor” or have “less food than HRS students.”
Rather than judging one another for their thoughts, they acknowledged when they felt differently or noticed stereotypes. One student reminded classmates of a book they’d read together, pointing out that some homeless people have nice, clean clothes and some live in shelters. Another student suggested a person might prefer to have their own space, even if that space is a tent on the street, rather than sleep in a shelter, where it might be “noisy” or “feel uncomfortable.”
"Exploring homelessness and poverty from a place of relative privilege is sometimes tricky,” admits Bret Turner, “but our students have done an amazing job of showing empathy and tackling tough questions about inequity, poverty, racism, class, and visibility.”
These 1st graders are also becoming skilled at forming connections across subjects. “They can speak quite articulately on how the Changemakers we’ve studied in social studies might feel or interact with homeless people,” says Debra Carr. “Listening to them link how Gandhi treated untouchables/ Dalits in India and how Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for the rights of all people is inspiring.”
To share what they’ve explored this year, the two classrooms presented a multi-disciplinary performance—weaving in poetry, art, music, tech, and role-playing skits—asking their peers and parents to think about “how it feels to be invisible.”
Incorporating these many angles served to reinforce their message. In the skits and PowerPoints, students presented well-researched facts on homelessness in Oakland and beyond. The poems and skits showed compassion in action. One highlight was an especially catchy song, written by Bret Turner. Its lyrics serve as an important reminder to us all:
What does it cost you to say hi?
To give a little wave as you’re passing by?
What does it cost you to show that you see
The people you pass by on the street?
“Helping them get away from thinking that giving money is the only way to help [the homeless] has been the biggest piece of our teaching and learning,” says Debra Carr.
To fully illustrate their message, the 1st graders tore down their set––the word "invisible"––to reveal beautiful, nuanced portraits of homeless people they’d researched. The students then thanked each person for allowing them to tell their story.
This physical action of rendering the invisible visible was a powerful way to ask their audience, once again: What does it cost you to say hi?, reminding us all that compassion is key. To watch the full performance, click here.