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Black ants and Buddhists: Thinking critically and teaching differently in the primary grades

The title of the book Black ants and Buddhists: Thinking critically and teaching differently in the primary grades may raise some curiosity – it certainly did with me. The author, Mary Cowhey, who has roots as a community activist, tells stories of striving to create a social justice classroom with her grade ones. Her aim is to use language and literacy to teach about the world in a way that engages and empowers children.

Cowhey’s introduction describes a scenario that is likely familiar to many classroom teachers. A student is dismayed when she sees some black ants in the classroom. This instigates quite a commotion where some students are eager to step on and kill the ants and others plead for them to stop because they are living creatures and do not bite people. Now some of us would try to calm the students by attempting to revert their attention back to their activities; some of us would call the janitor and let him/her solve this issue; some of us might even join the war against the ants. Cowhey, however, sees this as an opportunity. Through a process of finding out what her students already know or think they know about black ants, they discover that Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims have rules about killing living things. They problem solve together and come up with solutions such as making sure that they clean up their snack and lunches so that black ants have nothing to attract them, and sprinkling black pepper to discourage, but not kill the ants. Although the problem is instigated by a group of black ants and the children’s questions and responses to them, it is really the discussions that will benefit the children in the long run. They learn about concepts such as fairness and justice and use the vocabulary and language to engage in conversations about these concepts. This language can be further explored through children’s literature and real life events around them, and, as Cowhey believes, can change student behavior at school and at home and make the world a little better.

I believe this has real implications for peacebuilding in our very diverse classrooms. A further scenario that Cowhey describes is about her English speaking students not appreciating the hard work of those in the classroom whose first language is not English and who impulsively answer for those students who need more time to respond. “You can’t step on someone else’s words,” becomes a class rule.

At times there may be the idea that young children cannot handle complex issues, but if we listen to their questions and sometimes a single thought or sentence, I believe we find out that they are capable of much more than is often thought. Cowhey presents very practical ways of dealing with this in a caring, sensitive and hopeful way.

Cowhey, Mary (2006).  Portland, Maine:  Stenhouse Publishers.



2 thoughts on “Black ants and Buddhists: Thinking critically and teaching differently in the primary grades

  1. This sounds like a really interesting read! I’ve been thinking about how Restorative Practice can be used effectively in language classrooms, and I like that idea of not “stepping on anyone’s words.” It’s actually something I need to be careful of myself as a teacher. not to rush a student who is taking a little while to get a thought out.


    Posted by abigailjlong | February 8, 2016, 2:52 pm
    • Yes, I think as teachers, we all need to remind ourselves of that. Ellin Keene, who has written books such as Mosaic of Thought, To Understand, and Talk about Understanding to name a few, really stresses giving kids time to think and respond.


      Posted by margepp | February 8, 2016, 4:44 pm

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Contributing Author

Marg Epp (MEd, University of Saskatchewan) has over 30 years of teaching preschool to middle years and undergraduate education students. She continues to work with teacher candidates and professional development opportunities for K-12 classroom teachers. She is particularly interested in the area of students and teachers creating caring classroom environments conducive to learning and peacebuilding.

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