Teenage Inventor Alexis Lewis Thinks That Kids Have the Solutions to the World’s Problems

Watch This Great Video on Alexis

With a patent to her name and more likely on the way, the 15-year-old has made it her mission to inspire young innovators



Benjamin Franklin invented swim flippers when he was 12 years old. Frank Epperson, age 11, conceived of the popsicle, and 16-year-old George Nissen thought up a trampoline.

Just last year, Kiowa Kavovit, then 6, became the youngest to pitch her invention—a liquid bandage called Boo Boo Goo—on ABC’s “Shark Tank.”

In the United States, there is no age requirement for filing a patent.

Alexis Lewis, a 15-year-old inventor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, wants children across the country to know that an inventor isn’t something you have to be when you grow up; they can be one now. Lewis holds a patent for a wheeled travois—a triangular load-carrying device with a bamboo frame and a bed of netting that she designed to serve Somali refugees, who need to transport their children many miles to camps and hospitals. Her patent-pending emergency mask pod is a football-shaped canister with protective gear that firefighters and first responders can throw through a window of a smoke-filled building to those trapped inside.

The two-time winner of the ePals-Smithsonian Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge, a competition for young inventors age 5 to 18, is a vocal advocate for “Inventing 101” courses to be a part of middle school curriculums.

Why should more people invent?

I think not only is it important to tell people that they can invent but it’s important also to tell them that they should be [inventing] because they have their own unique perspective on the world. Everybody has lived a different life, everybody has seen it [the world] slightly differently and I think everybody has a slightly different take on each problem. And I think if we all work together we can solve a tremendous number of problems.

What motivates you to invent?

My inventions are motivated by one of two things usually. One, it’s a humanitarian issue, basically people who aren’t getting the help they need, people who are dying unnecessarily when they could be saved. Another reason that I often invent is that I’ll get myself absolutely buried in a piece of physics, just learning about it obsessively. Then, I start to realize that there are little things that can be done to make technologies revolving around it a little bit more efficient here, a little bit more effective there.


Can you tell us a little bit about the environment you grew up in and how that’s impacted you as an inventor?

My mom would always read to the family about various world issues. When Hurricane Katrina hit [Alexis was 5 years old], we learned all about that—what a hurricane was, how it worked, the effects of Hurricane Katrina itself, what they were doing to help clear out floodwaters, all sorts of fascinating stuff. Being homeschooled, I had a lot of free time in which I was encouraged to basically go and do and build almost anything I wanted. I had access to videos on any subject, so I got to learn about the science of everything, and I read voraciously. I think having those channels of knowledge open to me was completely invaluable.

Do you think you have some advantages as an inventor given the fact that you’ve started young?

I don’t mean to put adults down, but when you’ve grown up and you’ve seen the world for a long time, you think its one way. I’d say that starting young has had an advantage in that I have the ability to look at something and not think, “oh this is a problem that can’t be solved,” but instead think maybe we’ve been looking at it just a little bit wrong. Kids, since they haven’t been told this is something that would never work over and over, have the have the ability to do that.

What is Inventing 101? Where did the idea come from, and why is it important to you?

It’s a class I hope to have administered to middle school students across the country that would basically tell them that they are capable of inventing. It would show them kids who have already invented. If people aren’t told when they’re young that they can invent, it’s going to be much harder to convince them that they can.

I had this idea when I was looking back at the stuff I had done, at my inventions and realizing that these are some simple [designs.] It’s not going to necessarily be the collapsible travois with custom made specially fabricated joints, it’s going to be the simple bamboo one that anybody can make. It’s not necessarily going to be the $700 grenade launcher, it’s going to be a little football-shaped pod that costs all of $4. People are stunned when they hear what I’ve done. But these are things that I know for a fact a lot of people can do. So I thought there’s got to be some way to awaken that self-confidence in people to enable them to do that.

How does your Emergency Mask Pod (EMP) work?

The emergency mask pod is basically a two-part football canister that holds a smoke mask made by Xcaper Industries, a pair of goggles and a little light-emitting device, most likely a LED light strip in the final version. The goggles allow people to concentrate more fully on getting out without having to worry about their eyes burning. The mask gives people the ability to breathe without dealing with the toxic effects of the smoke, and the light strip allows people to more easily locate the pod when it flies into a dark smoky room.

Designing the EMP pod was a process of trial and error. I’m a kid. I like things that go boom and shoot, and so my first thought was let’s just launch it up there. I did a whole bunch of research, and I was looking at a couple of different launcher mechanisms. I had the mascot of a local sports team fire a pneumatic cannon, basically a t-shirt cannon, into an open window from a very close distance, and accuracy was pretty abysmal. I went from a pneumatic cannon, which didn’t work at all, to a couple of so-so throwable devices, and ended up finally with a throwable canister with an accuracy of over 75 percent.

People think that the inventors of the world are the crazy mad scientists and white lab coats working long hours developing crazy new technologies. But that’s not the case. It’s not something reserved for Edison, Graham Bell, all the greats. Inventors are basically anybody and everybody who’s ever tried to solve a problem.


The Power of Performance Assessments: Oakland Unified’s Graduate Capstone Project

Learning Policy Institute

Their Graduate Capstone Projects may be done and graded, but seniors from the Oakland Unified School District say they’ll be reaping the benefits and keeping alive the passions that came with their yearlong graduation requirement as they move on to college and work.

Oakland High School’s Kennedy Russ plans to work for improved reproductive health care for underserved women. Valeria Fernandez, from Fremont High School, has her sights set on a career in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field and plans to be a role model to encourage young women to pursue STEM careers. Marwat Al-Olefi, from Life Academy, wants to combat racial bias in health care. All of these aspirations were honed and deepened as these students worked on the research for their Capstone Projects.

Passion, relevance, in-depth research, control over their own learning, and a desire to create change in their own community are a few of the ways Oakland’s Graduate Capstone Project differs from other assignments and assessments that are often completed and then forgotten.

During the yearlong project, students delve deeply into issues that interest them, designing their own research projects that include analyzing online and print sources and conducting field work. In addition to completing a significant research paper, students share their findings and analysis with peers, teachers, and the broader community in a formal presentation. Throughout the process, they’re honing an array of critical thinking and communications skills that they will need to meet the future challenges of college, work, and civic life.

Video Series: Reflections on Oakland’s Graduate Capstone Project
OUSD students, teachers, and administrators reflect on performance assessments and their impact in these video clips.

OUSD Video Gallery

Teachers, for their part, are learning to shift their practices to function more as coaches, providing support and guidance to students throughout the project. They’re also working with peers in their school and district to create and refine the structure, process, and evaluation of the Graduate Capstone Project.

Preston Thomas, high school network superintendent for Oakland Unified, said the goal of the Capstone Project is to provide students with the challenge and opportunity to solve authentic problems and engage in deep learning that has an impact in the real world. Throughout the process, they have “an opportunity to integrate college- and career-readiness skills.”

As part of the district’s Linked Learning initiative, students explore career pathways through coursework and related internships. For some seniors, Capstone Projects are born out of these work experiences. Others choose to explore a topic that’s relevant to their neighborhood or community or that they’re curious or passionate about. Capstone Projects for the Class of ’17 focused on such diverse topics as the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, sexism in video games, the forced sterilization of incarcerated women, alternative medicine, beekeeping, refusing medical treatment, sex trafficking, lack of access to reproductive health care, and life expectancy differences between minority and white populations.

A Path Toward Equity

Oakland schools have long required senior projects for graduation. In the past, however, instruction, project requirements, and results varied from school to school and from teacher to teacher. “You had some (projects) that were portfolios, some that … almost looked like middle school reports, you had some that were in-depth research papers, you had some that were action projects,” said Young Whan Choi, district manager of performance assessments. “From that incredible diversity of senior projects emerged the sense that there was a lot of inequity, and students and teachers were clamoring for more support and direction,” he added.

In 2014, district administrators began partnering with teachers to fashion a more consistent and equitable system of assessment. Through that process, they created a districtwide rubric that effectively defines skills to be evaluated and creates a more structured and collaborative process so that requirements and assessments are comparable across schools.

It was important, said Choi, that the teachers created a shared vision of what high-quality research, writing, and oral presentations looked like. “What the performance assessment system requires is a high degree of collaboration and everybody being aligned to a common mission and purpose as a school community.”

A Focus on Revision and Growth

Throughout the process, students have opportunities to get feedback and revise their work. Students and educators alike see the emphasis on growth and improvement as integral to the yearlong performance assessment. A low or even failing grade on a paper or presentation is not considered the end of the road, and many students appreciate that the assessment allows for a second or third opportunity for them to incorporate feedback, revise their work, and further hone their knowledge and skills.

 One of the ways I see our young people grow and develop through the senior process is confidence.
—Matin Abdel-Qawi, Principal, Oakland High School

“One of the ways I see our young people grow and develop through the senior process is confidence,” said Matin Abdel-Qawi, principal of Oakland High School. “They don’t believe they can write a paper of that length. They don’t believe they can do that amount of research. They don’t believe they can stand up in front of a group of adults and present their findings and their research. … The beauty is we have such amazing teachers here who continue to remind them and encourage them and watch them go through that productive struggle from ‘I can’ to ‘I did.’”

Teachers find that in teaching the skills that are essential to successful completion of the Capstone Project, they grow, too—both in their ability to support independent student learning and their ability to step back and let the students put their developing skills to work.

“Incorporating performance assessments in my classroom has changed the way I teach,” said Fremont High School English teacher Johanna Paraiso. “I’m a much more courageous teacher, not only in keeping up with new technology, finding ways to incorporate rubric skills throughout the year, and being responsive to students’ questions and dilemmas, but in being part of a teacher team willing to openly assess whether their teaching methods are working and to change direction if they’re not.”

That willingness to continually reassess happens at the administrative level, too. Abdel-Qawi said he and the teachers continue to find ways to make the projects more rigorous, more relevant, and more related to the goals of the Linked Learning Pathways and the school.

The district, for its part, supports teachers and school sites through regular professional development, assistance with changes in the master schedule to allow for more collaboration time, and convening teachers so they can make ongoing revisions to the rubric. Just as students are encouraged to do, Choi says the district is “constantly trying to assess, ‘What can we learn? How can we get better?’”

8 Empowering Middle Grade Novels for Kids Interested in Social Justice

Barnes & Noble

As the United States watches a new administration take over the White House after a contentious election year, a wave of social and political activism has swept the country. For generations, young people all over the world have taken an interest in social justice and found the courage to fight for their own rights and the rights of others. Here are eight inspiring middle grade books that prove you’re never too young to stand up for what you believe in and make a difference.

The Breadwinner Trilogy

Paperback $13.81 | $18.95

The Breadwinner Trilogy, by Deborah Ellis
This series follows 11-year-old Parvana, who lives under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. When her father is arrested and her family is left without someone who can work or even shop for food, Parvana, forbidden to earn money as a girl, disguises herself as a boy to help her family survive. The Breadwinner is an empowering tale with a sharp and brave heroine.

Stella by Starlight

Paperback $7.99

Stella by Starlight, by Sharon M. Draper
Stella lives in the segregated south in 1932. Out, late one night, wandering around, Stella and her brother witness a Klu Klux Klan activity, starting an unwelcome chain of events in her otherwise sleepy town. With a compelling and courageous voice, Stella tells the story of how she and her community ban together against racism and injustice.

A Little Piece of Ground

Paperback $9.95

A Little Piece of Groundby Elizabeth Laird
Living in occupied Palestine, twelve-year-old Karim is trapped in his home by a strict curfew. Wanting to play football with his friends, he decides to clear a rocky plot of land for a soccer field. When Karim is found outside during the next curfew, tensions rise, and his survival is at stake.

One Crazy Summer

Paperback $7.99

One Crazy Summerby Rita Williams Garcia
Set against the backdrop of the Black Panther movement, Delphine and her sisters visit their estranged mother in California, attend a Black Panther day camp, and discover their mother’s dedication to social justice issues. A moving, funny novel with a captivating voice, the sisters learn about their family and their country during one truly crazy summer.

Sylvia & Aki

Paperback $6.99

Sylvia & Akiby Winifred Conkling
Sylvia and Aki never expected to know one another, until their lives intersect on a Southern California farm and change the country forever. Based on true events, this book reveals the remarkable story of Mendez vs. Westminster School District, the California court case that desegregated schools for Latino children.

Operation Redwood

Paperback $9.95

Operation Redwood, by S. Terrell French
When Julian is sent to stay with his disinterested aunt and uncle for four months, he discovers that his Uncle’s corporation plans to cut down a group of redwood trees at Big Tree Grove and decides to take a stand to save the trees. Perfect for the young environmentalists in your life, Operation Redwood is an adventurous and gripping tale as Julian and his friends hatch scheme after scheme to save these giants of nature.

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

Paperback $7.31 | $12.00

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, by Nujood Ali with Dephine Mainoui
For more mature readers, this unforgettable autobiography tells the true story of Nujood Ali, a ten-year-old Yemeni girl married off at a young age, who decides to resist her abusive husband and get a divorce. A moving tale of tragedy, triumph, and courage, Nujood’s brave defiance has inspired generations of women and young girls.

Return to Sender

Paperback $6.99

Return to Sender, by Julia Alverez
After Tyler’s father is injured in a tractor accident, his family hires migrant workers from Mexico to save his Vermont farm. Tyler bonds with one of the worker’s daughters and navigates complicated moral choices in this award-winning novel about friendship, cooperation, and understanding.


A Post-Election Letter to Educators from a High School Senior


My co-agitator, Renea-Harris Peterson, Class of 2018, and I on the day of the rally. Image by Ezra Robinson

On November 14, 2016, thousands of Seattle high school students took to the streets in protest of the presidential election results. The walk-out was an inspiring demonstration of the power that we as students collectively hold. And it was a painful reminder of our powerlessness as disenfranchised people inheriting the results of an election in which we had no voice.

Hours before students met in Capitol Hill and marched down to Westlake Park, a friend and I organized a rally for our own high school. As students of color at a predominantly white, independent school, we felt the need to carve out space and time to process recent incidents of racism in our own community and the ramifications of the election results. We needed to heal.

Students and faculty gathered together in the courtyard hours before the city-wide walkout. Image by Ezra Robinson

I witnessed my peers, teachers, and administrative staff come together in a way I had never seen before at my school. That day, students and adults in the Upper School circled together in the small courtyard as we extended the invitation to gather. Our invitation reached further than we expected, as middle school students filed in to join the crowd. Courageous truths were shared. Sage was burned. Arms were linked in unity. A moment of silence was held. Posters were made. And classes resumed two hours later.

For our small community, the two hour rally was not enough. For my city, one walk-out was not enough. But they both were necessary first-steps toward healing.

As a country we need to start taking second, third, and fourth steps. As people we need to use action as significantly as we do rhetoric. For the next four years, for time indefinitely, I need to know that the adults in my life support me. Below is a letter I shared with the faculty and staff at my school that afternoon, addressing the rally and city-wide walkout, and future plans for peacemaking in our community and the country. I hope that it serves to challenge all educators to act, assist, and grow.

Dear Educator,

I am incredibly grateful for today’s opportunity to organize and create the much needed space for our community to come together and speak their truths. It was humbling to hear the passion with which both students and faculty spoke about the need for action, change, and healing within our community and beyond. The gathering today, and the walk-out that thousands of Seattle high school students participated in, spoke volumes about what this moment in time means to us as young people. I would also like to take this opportunity to reiterate a few of the things stated and to add on to truths shared during our community meeting this morning.

In the past week, I have had multiple adults approach me and ask what they could do to support me and fellow students at this school. As faculty, fellow learners, and the mentors that students look toward for guidance, I would like to ask you to be especially mindful of a few things. Below are a few ways to move forward:

Understand that all students go through the healing process in different ways. As was stated by our Upper School Head this morning, some students take more time to “sit in their emotions.” This is crucial. This is a necessary part of the process. Let anger, sadness, fear, and frustration be. They are legitimate. You need only to look at the rhetoric and actions of emboldened Trump supporters to understand why.

Know that transgressions within our community and the breaches of trust caused by the actions of individual students reflect pain caused on a national scale. It is imperative that we recognize not just the emotional strain caused by recent incidents (i.e. use of racial epithets, micro-aggressions, stereotyping, erasure, etc.) within our community, but also the historical trauma that these incidents can bring up. For students in especially vulnerable positions, with marginalized identities, the election is about so much more than just Trump. It is about centuries of state-sanctioned violence against our bodies. It is about the systematic devaluing of our humanity, the othering of our cultures and differences. For some, it is a matter of life and death — and that is no exaggeration. Our lives outside the classroom are still real. Any attempt to make peace or heal also requires peacemaking and healing on a larger scale.

Acknowledge that this is not a surprise for many students. For white (and/or privileged) faculty members, in the words of Courtney Parker West:

“I get it. It’s awful. It’s terrifying. It’s devastating. But find yourself a white person and complain to them, then get past your feelings because if you really want to be an ally, we don’t need your posts or your shock or even your tearful apologies, but rather your organizing manpower. People of color have always resisted and you can follow us…And to my black and brown brothers and sisters reading this, I won’t tell you to not be discouraged, for I am discouraged. I will not tell you that we shall overcome, for I am tired of overcoming. I will not tell you to keep on keepin’ on like there’s any other option for us. I will only say that I will resist alongside you in love and justice because we come from a tradition of resistance.”

Be mindful of calls for “unity,” “mutual respect,” or “forgiveness.”Please understand that historically, calls for “unity” in the past were used as a subtle silencing tactic. While the current intent of most people calling for “optimism,” “unity,” or “forgiveness” is positive and ultimately necessary, its impact can be a painful reminder of historic, insidious attempts to censor dissent and return to the harmful status quo.

There is a time and place for optimism, for unity, and for forgiveness. Yes, they are necessary components of the healing process. But know that it is immensely difficult to embrace and empathize with someone who uses racial epithets, uses exclusive and hateful rhetoric, condones such rhetoric through their vote, or condones such rhetoric through their complacency. At the very least, unity will not directly follow the moment of abuse or the initial breach of trust. And that moment, or rather, the period of oppression extends far deeper than the night of November, 8th 2016.

Refer back to the first action on this list. Anger is part of the healing process and can take a painfully long time to work through. In the framework of peacemaking and restorative justice, people can only forgive when they are ready to do so. In a community, forgiveness and empathy are reciprocal, continual processes that occurs at different stages for everyone. They are not singular moments, they do not happen unanimously. Forgiveness occurs when the abuser(s) of trust indicate to the victim(s) that they have complied with mutually defined and acknowledged behavioral shifts, which ultimately moves both parties towards healing. That process takes time, is painful, thorough, and involves continuous action.

Acknowledge the necessity of self-care. In addition, someone notably articulated that, ‘“Don’t fight hate with hate’ is also a subtle example of gaslighting, in which our legitimate hurt and anger at the injustices we suffer is equated to the bigotry and abuse of our oppressors. For marginalized people, being angry does not mean you are being hateful, it means you love yourself enough to get upset at your own mistreatment.” In times like these, it is imperative that we prioritize the self-care of students in need, for self-care is inherently revolutionary in a society that fails to care for us.

Know how individual responsibility and identity is related to action. As I mentioned at the rally today, whether or not you chose to wear it, the safety pin symbolizes a promise that can be broken as easily as it is made. It is our collective responsibility to hold each other accountable to that promise. Let me be clear. A piece of metal, no matter how symbolic it is, will not save lives. It will not protect my peers and me from harm, from verbal and physical assault, nor from bullets. Wearing a safety pin is your personal commitment to action, which can actually protect us.

“I will trust actions, nothing more, nothing less.” — Ijeoma Oluo. Image by Ezra Robinson

It is also necessary to examine and confront our own privilege, power, and difference in making that promise. The burden of education, peacemaking, activism, and facilitation, should rest on the shoulders of every single person. These processes are inherently uncomfortable and necessary. However, it was said today as well, that the ‘work’ is being disproportionately distributed. For underprivileged individuals, creating safe spaces, embracing difference, and communicating with the “other side” to dismantle insular bubbles are actions that have been ingrained in our existence. These are necessary skills we use to survive this world, and to ultimately make it a better place. And we have been bearing a weight too heavy, while others in positions to contribute have been slacking for far too long.

Listen. Process. Act. Create a culture that is intolerant of intolerance, both in and outside of the classroom. Check in with your students, give hugs, and listen to us when we need you. Also, understand that hugs can only go so far to provide safety. Listen to our truths. Recognize us and our leadership and know that leadership in inherently a relational process.

Renew your commitment to action daily. Support institutional programs that uplift underrepresented narratives, seek out marginalized voices and promote them in your curriculum. Give your time to student organizations on campus, be a participant and facilitator in safe spaces.

Resist. Fight for your students and their rights. Give your time and money to organizations, support movements like Black Lives Matter and NoDAPL.

Ask yourself what you’re doing. Then, ask yourself what you aren’t. Show up, because your actions speak louder than words, especially as adults in our lives.

I hope this list serves to initiate necessary conversations, help you lean into discomfort, and assist us as students in this fight for our future.

Power to you.

— Brady Huang, Class of 2017

What the Heck Is Service Learning?


Here’s a simple definition for service learning with details and resources for planning a unit.

According to Vanderbilt University, service learning is defined as: “A form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.”

Wikipedia explains service learning as: “An educational approach that combines learning objectives with community service in order to provide a pragmatic, progressive learning experience while meeting societal needs.”

That second definition is easier to comprehend, but it still feels more complicated than it needs to be. How about this: In service learning, students learn educational standards through tackling real-life problems in their community.

What Does Service Learning Look Like?

Community service, as many of us know, has been a part of educational systems for years. But what takes service learning to the next level is that it combines serving the community with the rich academic frontloading, assessment, and reflection typically seen in project-based learning.

In a service-learning unit, goals are clearly defined, and according to The Center for Service Learning and Civic Engagement, there are many kinds of projects that classrooms can adopt. Classes can be involved in direct issues that are more personal and face-to-face, like working with the homeless. Involvement can be indirect where the students are working on broader issues, perhaps an environmental problem that is local. The unit can also include advocacy that centers on educating others about the issues. Additionally, the unit can be research-based where the students act to curate and present on information based on public needs.

Here are several ideas for service-learning units:

  • Work on a Habitat for Humanity building site.
  • Pack up food bags for the homeless.
  • Adopt-a-Highway.
  • Set up a tutoring system or reading buddies with younger students.
  • Clean up a local park or beach.
  • Launch a drought and water awareness campaign.
  • Create a “pen pal” video conferencing group with a senior citizens home.

The Breakdown of a Service-Learning Unit

It’s not enough to help others. Deep service learning isn’t afraid to tackle the rigorous standards along with the service. You might find it helpful to split your unit into four parts:

1. Pre-Reflection: Have your students brainstorm in writing the ways in which they can help their world or their local community. Check out Newsela, CNN Student News, or their local papers for articles on current events and issues of interest to get in informational reading, as well.

2. Research: Guide your students in techniques to help them search wisely and efficiently. They should conduct online polls (crowdsourcing) and create graphs to chart their findings. Students should summarize their findings using embedded images, graphs, and other multimedia elements. (Try an infographic tool likePiktochart.)

3. Presentation: Have your students present their findings to the school, each other, and outside stakeholders. They can develop posters to promote their call to action, write a letter campaign, or develop a simple website using Weebly. Students can “go on the road” with their findings to local schools and organizations or produce screencasts for the school website.

4. Reflection: Ask your students to think back on what they gained from journeying through this project. Have them reflect on the following:

  • What did you learn about the topic?
  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • How do you now think differently?

Assessing Service Learning

Another element that tends to make service learning unique is that multiple stakeholders assess students:

Community assessment: The community partners can get their say as well by assessing the students. They may even get voice in developing the rubric or criteria for evaluating the students.

Teacher assessment: Along with evaluating students on the content, you might additionally assess them on how well they accomplished the writing, graphing, researching, or speaking.

Student assessment: Your students might conduct self-assessment as a form of reflection. They also may assist in developing the rubric that other stakeholders use to assess them.

What we’re talking about here is a form of engagement. It’s about leveraging the need to do something good in the world as a means to help kids hit their learning objectives. It’s about teaching empathy as well as literacy. It’s about teaching compassion as well as composition. It’s about teaching advocacy as well as algebra.

Teaching Young Children About Bias, Diversity, and Social Justice



When my daughter was three years old, I taught her the word “stereotype.” She was just beginning to string words together into sentences, had determined that pink was definitely not her favorite color, and asked (demanded, actually) why all the “girl stuff” was pink and the “boy stuff” was blue. Because there’s no three-year-old version for a word describing why colors are gendered in our society, I figured that planting the seed might yield fruit soon enough. And somewhat surprisingly, I was correct.

Who’s Different and What’s Fair

As a society and within our educational institutions, discussions about bias, diversity, discrimination, and social justice tend to happen in middle and high schools. We’ve somehow decided that little kids can’t understand these complex topics, or we want to delay exposing them to injustices as long as possible (even though not all children have the luxury of being shielded from injustice).

However, young children have a keen awareness of and passion for fairness. They demand right over wrong, just over unjust. And they notice differences without apology or discomfort.

Racial identity and attitudes begin to develop in children at a young age. Two- and three-year-olds become aware of the differences between boys and girls, may begin noticing obvious physical disabilities, become curious about skin color and hair color/texture, and may also be aware of ethnic identity. By the time they’re five and entering kindergarten, children begin to identify with an ethnic group to which they belong and are able to explore the range of differences within and between racial/ethnic groups. In terms of bias, by age three or four, white children in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe show preferences for other white children. Further, current research suggests that children as young as three years old, when exposed to prejudice and racism, tend to embrace and accept it even though they might not understand the feelings.

The good news is that bias can be unlearned or reversed if we’re exposed to diversity in a positive way. Harnessing young children’s desire for fairness and using it as opening to discuss bias and discrimination is not a hard leap, but one that needs to be made explicitly and with instruction. They are also not afraid to comment on observed differences. Decades of research indicate that even if parents and adults are not talking about race or other differences, children still notice differences and prejudice. If we choose not to teach or talk about it, children’s notions about race and differences will go unchecked and likely become further entrenched in their minds.

It’s also important that adults in children’s lives do not perpetuate the idea that we should be “colorblind” to racial differences or shush them when they notice someone with a disability. Sometimes adults do this out of their own discomfort with talking about differences, or because they think noticing differences somehow makes you biased. We want to encourage children to notice differences because they do so naturally, yet at the same time, honor people’s identities without judging or discriminating based on differences. In other words, noticing people’s differences is natural, but when adults assign judgments or value to these differences, bias can develop in young children.

5 Elementary Strategies

Elementary school is a time ripe for these discussions. Provided that teachers have the right tools and resources and use developmentally appropriate language and activities, teaching about these concepts can be rich and engaging for children, laying the groundwork for more sophisticated understanding when they move into the tween and teen years.

Here are five concrete ways of bringing discussions about bias and diversity into the elementary classroom:

1. Use children’s literature.

There’s a wealth of children’s books that can be read aloud and independently to approach the topic of bias, diversity, and social justice. Whether it’s about people who are different than your students (window books), an affirmation of their identity (mirror books), or one that exposes bias or shares stories of people who stood up to injustice, reading books is a core part of the elementary classroom curriculum and therefore a seamless way to address the topic.

2. Use the news media.

Find topics and news stories that bring forth these themes, discuss them in the classroom, and build other reading, writing, social studies, and math lessons around them. Relevant news stories that highlight bias and especially those where someone stood up to it and justice prevailed — like the nine-year-old boy who was banned from bringing his My Little Pony backpack to school because it was the source of bullying, or the story ofMisty Copeland becoming the first African American appointed as a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater in its 75-year history — are terrific teachable moments.

3. Teach anti-bias lessons.

We know that all educators face a plethora of daily demands. But because children’s social and emotional development is a key part of the elementary curriculum and because much of the teasing, name-calling, and bullying is identity-based, it’s helpful for the classroom climate to set aside a time every week for an explicit lesson on this topic. Social and emotional skill development lessons are the foundation, and then teachers can move to lessons on identity, differences, bias, and how bias and bullying can be addressed individually and institutionally.

4. Give familiar examples.

Take advantage of children’s interest in books, TV shows, toys, and video games, and use them as opportunities to explore diversity, bias, and social justice. Whether it’s about toys and gender stereotypes, a New Jersey girlwho was tired of seeing books only about white boys and dogs, or discussing a new line of dolls with disabilities, you can provide openings for children to see how bias takes place in media and the everyday objects that they use.

5. Explore solutions.

Re-think the concept of “helping others” (through service learning projects or other volunteer opportunities) to include discussions with children about the inequities that contribute to the problem and consider actions that can address it. For example, while it’s useful to provide food to homeless people, we want to deepen the conversation to convey a social justice perspective and a wider lens with children. Therefore, discuss the stigma and stereotypes of homeless people, learn about unfair housing policies, and reflect on solutions that will reverse the problem in a lasting way and encourage students to take action.

Start Early

Recently, several prominent national education organizations (including theNEA, AERA, AFT, and NCTE) have called for addressing equity in schools and society, specifically recommending that we need to highlight the “systemic patterns of inequity — racism and educational injustice — that impacts our students,” and that educators and school leaders “receive the tools, training, and support they need to build curricula with substantive exploration of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination.”

We need to begin this process with our youngest hearts and minds in order to have a lasting impact. What are your thoughts? How do you approach social justice issues with elementary students? Please share in the comments section below.