The author, Mary Cowhey, started a career in teaching after having served fourteen years as a community organizer and activist. The passion she developed for social justice propels her in the classroom as well. This book is an inspiring tale of how one teacher has influenced one child at a time to live a peaceful co-existence in a global world through dialogue with children.
Cowhey weaves beautiful story telling with practical ideas. This book will make you experience a range of emotions and walk into your classroom with a new perspective and resolve. After reading this book, you will not be able to “just perfunctorily teach” curriculum for test taking, instead you will be called to give some thought to what philosophical opportunities might be embedded in each day’s school experience.
Black Ants and Buddhists is a well-written series of stories that outline Mary Cowhey’s Peace Classroom in Massachusetts. Mary has won teaching numerous awards and now awards for this book, Black Ants and Buddhists. Mary was encouraged to tell her stories of inspiration by a professor, Sonia Nieto at UM Amherst. Sonia Nieto is a significant contributor to the field of teacher education and multi-cultural education. Nieto contributed to this book by writing a forward, a poignant quote from the forward, “describes teacher’s dedication to forging a nurturing and caring environment where children can learn to become socially responsible and critical.”
This author offers progressive, some might say radical, teaching techniques that can open up incredibly complex and abstract concepts to children as young as first grade. Cowhey references her beliefs about education to Freire, in this way she offers them learning as empowerment. Her students are able to comprehend global information without “dumping down” the realities of the world. These children embrace what they learn and revere personal responsibility as a tool for cohesive group operations.
The title “black ants and buddhists” comes from a story in the introduction of the book. This story reflects the theme of so many lessons to come throughout the reading. A beautiful element this classroom has is it seems to have an array of cultures and races together as a learning community. They each pull from one another’s experiences for growth and learning.
As the children enjoy an afternoon snack, one of them spies black ants. A small group of the children begin to stomp on the ants, until a Buddhists classmate stands up to verbally reject the behavior of his classmates. He tells the stomping group to stop killing ants, and that they are here to clean up a mess, they have a job to do and will not bite anyone. The children begin to protest allowing the ants to remain among them and through dialogue they come to a consensus of what steps need to be taken to discourage the ants from moving into the classroom while removing them and placing them in the school yard when they do come in. Two central components of the discussion and facilitation were the class’s stated values of kindness and personal responsibility, while one main question the children and the teacher continued with is why is it “okay” to kill some things, some of the time, for some of the people, such as in war or bugs. The class spent some time exploring the differences in culture as to why some believe black ants should not be killed. They had visitors to their class from different culture perspectives and learned to be sensitive to each other’s cultural needs while still getting their own needs met. The author tells this story in an elaborately weaved tale of details and heart, and finishes the story with, “we planned to keep searching and asking. On the way to finding answers, we knew we would find more questions.”
Cowhey remarks on the teachings of the lesson from the black ants dialogue, “Teaching critically listens to and affirms a minority voice that challenges the status quo. Instead of forcing assimilation and acceptance of the dominant culture, it reexamines cultural assumptions and values and considers their larger ramifications. “
If learning is an active process that happens within cultural context (Nieto, 1996), then who we are will also in part shaped proficiently by our experiences. Without our being aware of it, we grow as children experiencing telling moments that will leave an impact on our perspectives for the rest of time. This book does an expert job of explaining how to interject and connect the experiences of everyday life into learning opportunities that empower children in deep ways. She is able to have young children think and discuss complex ideas such as, poverty, genocide and colonialism.
Cowhey’s young students are engaged in activism projects that their families also become involved in sometimes. The families comment to her how they feel the mayor is accessible to them after having participated in class projects that involved the city government. Families also appreciated the inclusive, diverse community that they were a part of. Cowhey was able to work through the differences and fears of the families involved, and build the foundation of a truly diverse and embracing learning community.
For local information on Diversity events check out CSU event calendars and World Peace Cafe.