Fair Does Not Necessarily Mean the Same

For the past few weeks, we have been talking about the Quaker value of equality in community meeting. One query that has come up is, “Does equality always mean that people are treated the same? Does everyone have to get the same thing for it to be fair?” At the elementary age, students have a keen awareness of fairness. Oftentimes, they equate fairness with sameness. I have been impressed with the students’ understanding of equality as related to individual needs being met rather than everyone necessarily getting the same thing (though we have also noticed that there are times when receiving the same treatment DOES seem to make things more fair).

In a mixed age classroom, where students are met at their individual academic levels, and instruction is differentiated for individuals and groups, students are faced with different activities, requirements, and expectations daily. For the students who “grew up” at Chicago Friends School and know that these differences are a “way of life” at school, this doesn’t pose much of a problem. I rarely hear, “Why does he get to … ?” or “Why do I have to … ?” statements. And when I do, the other students often answer the questions themselves. For example, if I pull the second graders from choice for a few minutes to finish up a math lesson, once in a while, I may hear, “Why do we have to miss some of choice and the first graders don’t?” Often, another second grader may say something like, “We have some work to catch up on,” or “They’ll miss some choice when they’re in second grade too,” or even “Last year the second graders got even less choice time than us, so we should be happy we have it at all!”

Also, within a school that accepts, celebrates, and accommodates individual differences, you may see students sitting on a special seat that helps them concentrate, working in the hallway where it’s not as noisy, using a pencil grip to improve writing, reading books on different levels, playing different math games, or getting extra help from the teacher. Because they have become so familiar with these aspects of our school (rather than sitting in rows in which every student is working on the exact same thing in the exact same way), the students seem to have a solid understanding that they do not all have to be doing the same thing or be treated the same way for things to be fair. The beauty of this understanding is that all students can be met where they are and benefit from the instructional strategy they need in order to feel supported, confident, and understood.

Melanie Berlin

is a classroom teacher on the K-2 team. Before moving to Chicago, Melanie lived in Philadelphia and worked for five years as lead kindergarten teacher at Mastery Charter Mann Elementary School. Previous to that, Melanie lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and taught at an independent school in Oakland, California. Melanie has her B.A. in psychology with a minor in urban education from the University of Pennsylvania. She earned her teaching degree from San Francisco State University with a focus on social justice in education.

In her free time, Melanie loves playing ultimate Frisbee, drinking coffee, playing board games, and spending time with her husband and baby daughter.

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