February 11, 2020 | Abby Liu
The study of a play brings issues of race, culture, and diversity to the forefront in second and third grade
A passion for spiritual development infuses the work of teacher Heather Welesko. It’s what prompted her to pull the play “Sitting Down with Dr. King” off the library shelves. She used the script as a tool to explore issues of race, culture, and diversity with her second and third grade students. The play dramatizes the sit-ins in Wellsboro, NC, in 1960. It was an uncomfortable learning experience for students, but Ms. Welesko believes that’s a good thing. “If you’re uncomfortable,” she says, “you’re probably growing.”
By creating a safe space for students to engage with the themes of the play, Ms. Welesko made room for their discomfort and acknowledged that it’s okay to not know what to do. To not have all of the answers. She encouraged students to grapple with what they would do in the face of an unjust law. To embody the tension of knowing something is wrong but not knowing how to make it right. She challenged students to think about action as a form of morality—that doing nothing is in itself unjust.
Through reading and role playing, students considered how the point of view matters. Ms. Welesko wanted her students to understand that the story would have been told differently if the playwright had been a person of color. If the main character had been a person of color. She asked them to consider the perspectives of different characters and what might motivate them.
These questions and ideas helped students to think deeply and critically. As they became aware of other people’s perspectives, they learned to examine their own. They learned to create space for other people. And these, Ms. Welesko believes, are the skills of the soul. “It’s where being a good learner and being a whole, abundant person connects,” she says, “it’s living out our school philosophy: educating the whole child: mind, body, and spirit.”