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Book Activities

Activities for Lower Elementary Students

Tomás and the Second Graders: Using Tomás Rivera Children's Book Award Books to Teach Themes of Social Justice

Presenter: Diana Garcia
DeZavala Elementary
San Marcos CISD
San Marcos, Texas

Why teach themes of social justice?

Teaching from a social justice angle engages all students to have meaningful, purposeful conversations about racism, education, and cultural identity, and many other issues. It creates a space for building empathy, community, and showing students how they can take action to change their lives in positive ways. Social Justice education connects school room learning with real-world applications.

How do students benefit from this style of teaching?

Students feel respected, valued, and enjoy coming to school. They are more willing to help out their peers, set learning goals for themselves, and work on independent projects. Using social justice teaching helps create peaceful, empathetic, self-directed learners; a goal all teachers should have for their students. Social justice teaching promotes academic and personal success for all students. These books help build historical schema. These books show how various ordinary people turned into heroes and affected change by challenging the status quo and/or by organizing for non-violent, peaceful protests. This type of teaching promotes critical-thinking and problem-solving.

Why did you use Tomás Rivera award books?

Last year, on September 26, 2015, the town of San Marcos was gearing up to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Tomás Rivera Children’s Books Award. A children’s parade with schools representing an award-winning book was organized, and I just knew the event would prove to be exciting and dynamic—which it was! But I also wanted my students to think deeply about these award-winning books. Since a doctorate student, Erin Greeter, had asked to come observe in my room (she wanted to record social justice education practices in a bilingual setting), I thought about how I could focus on social justice issues with Tomás Rivera award books in lieu of upcoming anniversary event.

I chose to have students act out scenes from the books to build empathy, help them understand diverse points of view, but also to help develop the skill of making inferences. TEK Figure 19 guided me a lot when thinking on how I could use books that could foster students to “become self-directed, critical readers. C. monitor and adjust comprehension using background knowledge, rereading portions aloud, generating questions. D. Making inferences about text using textual evidence to support understanding. E. Retell important events in stories in logical order. F. Make connections to own experiences, to ideas in other texts, and to the larger community and discuss textual evidence.”

It turned out my students loved acting out the picture books I read to them during the read aloud time. I could have done a lot of Reader’s Theatre, and I did end our school year with that (including having the students create their own Reader’s Theatre texts). But at the beginning, I wanted them to improvise so they could really connect to the characters we read about, so they could generate inferences, create their understandings of why these books had been written and how they could serve as models of social action. For example, in Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh, students came to see and understand how unjust laws can be changed if people organize peacefully for a common cause. When we later read Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull, students made text to text connections between Mr. Mendez and Cesar Chavez. Again they saw how people could peacefully organize to affect change. They made text to self connections; Cesar Chavez was punished for speaking Spanish in school, but thanks to the efforts of bilingual education activists, we could now all speak Spanish in a bilingual classroom. This book relates authentically to the lives of my bilingual students.

When we read Tomás and the Library Lady, by Pat Mora, we closed our eyes and imagined Tomás riding a dinosaur, stroking the beast’s strong neck, and we discussed the importance of reading. All year long the message was we read to learn about our world, to transform our lives, (just as Rivera did), to help change this world into a more just place, to grow our imaginations, and to empower ourselves to become the best, strongest problem-solvers we can become.

Each time I read a picture book, I only read a few pages at a time, 3 to 4 pages. That gave us time to ask questions, discuss possible meanings of the text, and students had opportunities to act out scenes as they imagined the scenes could be played out.

Many other lessons were developed around these award winning books. We filled in Venn diagrams connecting text-to-text, we did an illustrator’s study using Yuyi Morales’ books, and wrote letters to Ms. Morales. We wrote festive odes celebrating our Mexican-American culture after reading Carmen Tafolla’s What Can You Do With A Paleta? We made huge paper mache cat heads to wear at the Children’s Parade.

My favorite activity was watching the children improvise scenes from the books, how they stood up for Sylvia Mendez and her father, how they captured Pancho Rabbit’s sadness and love for his missing father, or how they showed bravery in pretending to be Pancho Rabbit looking for his dad.

Will this all pay off in amazing STAAR tests results in 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade? What I do know is that several Texas State students observed in my room last year, and more than one told me, “I love your students! They are so peaceful! Good energy in here!”

Some successes are hard to measure, but for me, at least,  a classroom full of children with empathy and peace in their hearts meant future success for them all.

Useful Resources:

Useful books to learn about social justice education:

  • For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action
    by Randy and Katherine Bomer
  • Black Ants and Buddhists: Thinking Critically and Teaching Differently in the Primary Grades by Mary Cowhey
  • ChoiceWords: How Our language Affects Children’s Learning by Peter H. Johnston
  • Getting Beyond I Like the Book: Creating Space for Critical Literacy in K-6 Classrooms By Vivian M. Vasquez

More of my lessons can be found on

Great resource for Tomás Rivera books used in immigration issues: