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Cicadas and Social Justice

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

I never thought I'd be writing about cicadas. But, alas, here I am.

Recently, I've had my head buried in the books reading various research studies and playing around with possible dissertation topics. One of my favorite ways to de-stress and disconnect from the busyness of work and schoolwork is to strap on my tennis shoes, leash up my dog, and go for a nice late afternoon walk. What was once the beautiful ritual of a walk that consisted of the calming sound of tweeting of birds, is now filled with the endless din of noisy, mating cicadas. And they're everywhere. In the trees, on the ground, smushed on the ground, in the grass, on light pools, and even my doormat (yikes).

If you're like me and live within the MD, DC, VA area, then you've probably been fearfully awaiting the arrival of the Brood X periodical cicadas. This brood stealthily creeps out of the depths of the ground (literally) where they've been stirring for the past 17 years. These creepy crawlers then latch onto anything vertical, shed their exoskeletons, become a new mushy, fleshy mass of white matter, and then eventually mature into their adult forms with black bodies and red eyes. Their main purpose in life is to eat, grow, mate, and die. It definitely has a real YOLO vibe to it.

Over the past few weeks Brood X has taken over the Washington, D.C. area and where I reside in Bethesda, MD. From their nascent stages until their deaths, they've provided one enormous, real-life science lesson for teachers and students around. From drop off to dismissal, students are finding ways to engage with these strange yet fascinating insects that will emerge again when current 3 year-old students turn 20 years-old. I've found, in addition to the natural science classes taking place with cicadas as a focal point, that cicadas are also providing students with excellent opportunities to learn about and engage in discussions about social justice, fairness, and advocacy. I'm sure some of you might be thinking, "How do cicadas and social justice even end up on the same page together? Tianna, you are trying too hard to find something that isn't really there. There's no real way to connect these two things".

It may seem wild, but this is realizing that justice and activism truly do take place in the everyday lives of young children whether we acknowledge it or not.

When you think about justice as an adult, educator, and/or parent, what comes to mind? For many terms such as justice, social justice, activism bring up images of protests or marches––some invoking pain and others heralding joy. As adults, it can be difficult for us to take our associations with these terms and allow them to flourish and have a life of their own for our children. If a concept or word seems "complex" or "taboo" for us to discuss at our current age, we often imagine that it must be incredibly challenging to describe to children in elementary or middle school. Because we make these terms so complex in our own minds, we rarely ever think to have discussions about them with our children and students who are most likely already having discussions about justice with their peers at morning meeting, during free play time at the play kitchen, after finishing the latest graphic novel, or during lunch time in the cafeteria. It may seem wild, but this is realizing that justice and activism truly do take place in the everyday lives of young children whether we acknowledge it or not.

So how do trillions of cicadas fall into the category of justice and how do we have these conversations with our children? First, it's important to note that any conversation regarding justice should be built on the foundation of anti-bias and anti-racist work. The anti-bias framework, developed by anti-bias educators and activists such Louise Derman-Sparks & Julie Olsen Edwards and utilized by the Learning for Justice organization, anchors itself on the pillars of Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action. The book Anti-Bias Education for Young Children & Ourselves (2020) states that the goal of justice "is about building children's innate, budding capacities for empathy and fairness as well as their cognitive skills for thinking critically about what is happening around them" (p. 16). The work of justice in anti-bias education is centered around themes of fairness, kindness, and identifying negative and harmful behavior, practices, and attitudes. Students are working through and processing the themes in the classroom, at lunch, and even at recess. With the cicadas out in full force during daily recess times, students have become warriors, protectors, and activists of their own when it comes to interacting with these insects.

Justice "is about building children's innate, budding capacities for empathy and fairness as well as their cognitive skills for thinking critically about what is happening around them"

Not that the cicadas have been scarce in number, but there often aren't a lot of them hanging around the playground area. And when one child sees a cicada and captures it, it's on. Then the entire class must have their own pet cicada complete with a cicada condominium, pool, bathroom, and kitchen. What starts out as playful creativity among a group of students can sometimes turn into bigger, tougher conversations about fairness and justice.

"He stole my cicada!"

"She said I can't touch cicadas because they're evil!"

"They're squishing all the cicadas and calling for the birds to eat them! That's so cruel, Ms. Butler!"

Now, I can't say I haven't said a few hundred silent prayers for the birds to eat the cicadas too, but statements like these invite discussions about how to respectfully engage others when we don't always see eye to eye. These exclamations usually lead to mini group gatherings where I bring the students together, briefly, during recess to discuss. I say briefly because recess is still a time for children to play and learn. Sometimes my presence is necessary in facilitating these conversations and sometimes it isn't. We shouldn't be giving college-style lectures to students outside when they're in the process of discovery and imagination. But when the moment calls and conversations arise, it's always important to engage and work with students on finding solutions together.

When the issue of stealing cicadas and feeding them to the birds arose in a class of students during recess, one child came to me asking for help. We gathered together in a group (no more than the 5 children who were involved) and talked about what was happening. "We think it's important to capture the cicadas and give them to the birds because what if the birds are hungry?", one child inquired. "Well, that's not fair because the cicadas have a life too and they need to live and we have to protect them!", another shouted in return. "Okay, so friends you both have really important and thoughtful points here. The birds need food to live and these friends were simply trying to make sure they had what they need. And our other friends over here also want to make sure that these insects have what they need to survive, and they believe in giving them the right to a full life", I said in reply.

"Okay, but who's right, Ms. Butler?"

"Well, what do you all think? Are you both wrong?"

"Well, no. Maybe. Um, I actually think we're both right because we want good things for the birds and the insects.

"That's an interesting point. So, what solution could we come to where we're all respecting each other yet still taking care of the birds AND the cicadas?"

"I think they should create a hotel for the cicadas to live in and then they can take care of them. But if the cicada flies away from the cicada hotel then we could capture them and give them to the birds"

"Okay, but you have to give them to the birds where we can't see it. And we're naming our hotel "Cicada Home".

"And we're going to be called the "Pirates!"

"Why the Pirates?"

"I don't know. It just seems like a cool name for a group that captures cicadas"

The students then ran off to play after that brief encounter and recess ran smoothly. I'm sure the Cicada Home and the Pirates play continued several recesses after our discussion, but it goes to show that students are having conversations with each other about what is considered fair, how do we create fair situations for others, ourselves, and even animals, and how can we advocate for these causes? The students may not have known it then, but they discussed issues of justice and what would be fair for two separate beings (one prey and the other the predator). They discussed the right to life for both prey and predator: one deserving the right to live a life to the fullest and the other deserving the right to eat a hearty meal. Then, they both advocated for these rights with each other, respectfully. In the end, after hearing each other out, they developed ways to pursue their respective beliefs while understanding the "fairness" of the agreement. Now, these situations don't always turn out fair, or clean, or perfect. In fact, they can end up messy and full of anger. But it's important to remember that children work out how to navigate the themes of fairness, kindness, justice, activism, and advocacy by trying it over and over again. We as educators and parents can act as external guides, but they must do the internal work themselves. And it starts at a young age.

Just as the students found ways to respect each other and look at new ways of thinking, I too, leaned into some discomfort and found a new way of thinking about cicadas. Instead of thinking of them as weird and strange (which one student respectfully corrected me and said "Ms. Butler, cicadas are not weird. They are beautiful. I don't like when you call them weird. Could you please call them a nicer name?", to which I apologized and immediately corrected myself), I now see cicadas as "neighbors". We inhabit the same earth, and I might as well embrace them because we'll be seeing a lot of each other over the next few weeks. My students even taught me to step out of my comfort zone; sticking by my side and kindly coaxing me as I held my first cicada (they promised they would take it off of me if I screamed). Today, on my usual walk to de-stress, I bent down and actually picked up a cicada all by myself. This picture is proof. If children can talk about justice and advocate respectfully, and I can pick up this cicada on my walk, then truly you as educators and/or parents can do this meaningful work too.


Sparks, L.D., Edwards, J.O., & Goins, C.M. (2020). Anti-Bias Education for Young Children & Ourselves (2nd ed.). National Association for the Education of Young Children.

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