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‘Kids aren't as naive as you might think’: Cassie J. Brownell creates the space for children to talk about serious issues

November 29, 2019

By Perry King
 

Photo of Cassie Brownell

“I’m always trying to push people to understand that kids have really valuable opinions and are oftentimes better at asking questions than we are. They are way smarter than we, as adults, are,” says Professor Cassie Brownell (photo by Perry King).



While teaching second graders in post-Katrina New Orleans, Dr. Cassie J. Brownell knew how important it was to create space for children to discuss critical social issues.

In her first years in New Orleans, her young students encountered calls to evacuate their homes again due to impending hurricanes. Those evacuations would fall around the same time as the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina – a time commemorated by many adults in the city, but with fewer opportunities for children to engage. In her own class, Brownell helped her children to reflect on the event through their drawings and chat.

And following the devastation of the Sandy Hook school shootings in 2012, Brownell created a space for kids to talk about that, too.

“The school leadership had said, ‘Don’t talk about this with your students,’ but my students showed up, and they asked questions,” said Brownell, about the school shootings. “I wasn’t going to stop them from doing that.”

Those experiences now drive Brownell’s research. The assistant professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) continues to challenge adults to understand children are not only capable of discussing critical social issues, but they are interested in it too.

In her current project funded by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Brownell is engaging Toronto primary school-aged children in those conversations. She is examining how a classroom makerspace – that is, where students design, experiment, build and invent – opens new avenues for children to grapple with social issues and fosters their critical digital literacies and development as global citizens.

Arriving at OISE’s Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning in July 2018, her current project stems from the research she engaged in while a PhD student at Michigan State University. In this work, she worked alongside classroom teachers to create spaces that were both more inclusive of children’s multiple cultural, linguistic and modal ways of knowing and of children’s concerns related to social issues.

The latter became particularly important to Brownell because her studies coincided with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The election results worried the children in the urban school that was her research site, she said.

“There were a lot of concerns among the kids about what the election could mean for their families moving forward,” Brownell recalled.

In response, Brownell worked with a partner teacher to plan and implement a unit that integrated literacies and social studies with a particular focus on critical issues such as the #MuslimBan and the proposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Children in the class learned about the issues, asked questions, and voiced their opinions through letters to their congressional representatives. Children then used tools like stop-motion animation and Legos to show their arguments in a new way.

“For me, it has always been ‘Can we create a safe enough space that kids feel confident enough to ask critical questions?” said Brownell. “Within the integrated unit, we wanted to do just that. We wanted to allow for them to talk about civic issues while also considering how policies might impact them or their communities.”

As part of the department’s language and literacies education program, Brownell teaches graduate courses focused on issues related to her scholarship, including classes in critical literacies, digital literacies, and literacies in elementary and early childhood classrooms. In her graduate-level classes, like in her research, she grounds them in current events and critical social issues. She challenges her adult learners to consider how their identities inform their opinions and reasoning, and encourages them to consider how children’s identities also inform their learning, talk, and play.

“We talk sometimes about sheltering kids but not all kids get to be sheltered by circumstance – by their class, their race, their gender, their home circumstances, whatever that might be,” she said.

To Brownell, children have a lot to say, but they are rarely heard. “I’m always trying to push people [adults] to understand that kids have really valuable opinions and are oftentimes better at asking questions than we are. They are way smarter than we, as adults, are.”

Brownell hopes to remind adults to have fun with children too.

“We might get too caught up in the heaviness of the world that is happening, as teachers or parents, in our daily lives,” she added. “We have to remember to breathe and just have some joy and enjoy the time that we have with kids.”

Ultimately, in her work at OISE, Brownell wants to amplify the voices and experiences of children in ways that shift how adults understand them to be – which is often apolitical and naïve. “Kids aren’t necessarily as naive as you might think,” Brownell stated.


To learn more about Brownell, visit her website and follow @brownellcassie on Twitter. She can be reached at cassie.brownell@utoronto.ca.

 

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