On talking about race in kindergarten.

A few weeks ago I went to a community event that was intended to start a conversation about race among teachers and parents. The topic was how children understand race, and I wrote about what I learned here. The biggest thing that stuck out to me was the need to TALK about race. Don’t pretend it’s not there, don’t be “colorblind,” but bring it up, discuss it with kids, make it an issue because it already is an issue in society, whether we like it or not.

This is easier said than done, though. As a parent, I imagine it is super challenging, because you want to get it right the first time, and in a concise and developmentally appropriate manner. And as a public school teacher, it’s challenging because I want to do those things, and also not offend anybody either. The topic of “race” is not built into my sanctioned curriculum, but it is a real-world issue that my kids face on a daily basis. And within my classroom community, I want kids of all colors to feel valued and important. I want them to know that it’s okay to be different, and in fact being different is a good thing. I want them to notice diversity, and talk about it, and learn why it’s important.

Eventually, I want my kids to know that some people don’t think diversity is a good thing, and that we have systems in our communities that are unfair, that racism and prejudice and bigotry exists. They’re going to face it in one form or another, whether we like it or not. And I want them to know that they can, and should, do something about it.

Of course, I teach kindergarten, so I have to figure out a way to fit all of that into lessons that a six-year-old can understand, and remember. I’ve put together some ideas on how to teach these topics over the past few years. I’m not sure how good I am at it, but I’m doing the best that I can, and I thought I would share what I do each year!

(P.S. I don’t claim original credit for any of these ideas. They’re taken from other teachers, books, magazines, and classes. I also follow several Pinterest boards on this topic, here, here, and here.)

Talking about race in kindergarten

We started off by looking at pictures of children from around the world, and sharing our observations. What does their hair look like? What does their skin look like? Can you see where they live? Do they look the same or different from you?

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Then we start a discussion about our skin color. I make sure to stock up my classroom library with tons of books about skin color, hair, and being yourself. There’s a really good list here if you’re searching.

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Several of the books teach that while skin is often called “black” or “white,” we are all actually various shades of brown. For example, we read the book The Colors of Us by Karen Katz. The book talks about a girl whose community is filled with people of many different skin colors. Instead of using the words “black” or “white” to describe their skin color, she uses different words for shades of brown. We compared our skin colors to each other’s, and each kindergarten then picked out a skin-color crayon that most closely matched their skin. (Skin color crayons are available here.)

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After making a list of the colors we are, we use the crayons to draw portraits of ourselves, and hang them in the classroom for all to see. After we take down the posters, I make them into a big book that is a popular choice for Read to Self time.

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We also read a book called It’s Okay to Be Different, by my favorite author Todd Parr. The message in this book is that we are all different, and instead of ignoring this fact, we should celebrate it! Some excerpts from the book:

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I’ve also had the kids do a similar skin color comparison activity using paint chips of various shades of brown.

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Then we share how our beautiful skin made us feel. The kids really enjoy repeating the lesson, and I hope that it contributes to an overall positive sense of who they are.

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We also read the book I Love My Hair by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley and share why we loved our own hair. I then take a picture of each kid’s hair, as well as their faces, to create a matching game. The game is available as an activity throughout the day. This is a great way to help kids pay attention to detail and truly notice the differences among each other.

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That at the end, we take a photo of our beautiful skin.

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This is by no means an exhaustive list of ideas, and I find myself tweaking it each year. There are lots more ideas available online if you want to teach/talk about skin color. I also want to do more reading on how to incorporate anti-bias education in more subtle ways throughout my curriculum, particularly how to teach about social injustices around race and skin color. But this is a start for now!

Here are more resources that I’ve came across:

How children understand race

I was able to be part of a great discussion last night at our local children’s museum on how children understand race. The event was called “Difficult Conversations,” and invited parents, educators, and community members to learn and discuss how children learn about race.

The event started with a speaker, Erin Winkler, who is a professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She had a jam-packed presentation with so much fascinating research on how children learn about race, how stereotypes about race are formed, and what educators can do about it. After the speaker, the audience members broke off into discussion groups to talk about their experiences with race as parents and educators of young children.

I was furiously scribbling notes throughout, since this information is directly relevant to my kindergarten students’ lives. As a matter of fact, it’s directly relevant to ALL children’s lives, and that was one of the main points of the evening – all children develop racial biases, no matter how hard we try to teach them that “everyone is the same on the inside.” Instead of pretending racial bias isn’t an issue, let’s discuss it, and begin the work that is needed to change it.

I want to give you everything that Dr. Winkler shared during her talk, but in the interest of time, space, and respect for her academic work, I’ll stick to a few highlights that really spoke to me. (For more on her research, listen to her interview on how children understand race or read any of her publications.)

We can begin with this:

not all stereotypes are created equal

This idea was fascinating to me. Yes, stereotypes exist about everyone. Even white people. But the stereotypes that are assigned to some groups are more harmful than those assigned to other groups. For example, a stereotype of a white woman might be that she is high-maintenance, or bossy, or lets her children run wild. But a stereotype of a black male might be that he is dangerous, or untrustworthy, or violent. Which of these stereotypes will be more harmful to someone who is trying to get a job, or secure housing? Enough said.

As for when stereotypes begin to appear, there’s this:

children racial bias

I’ve read research on this before. At 3-6 months, infants categorize by race, meaning they stare longer at a person of a different race. At two years old, children use racial categories to explain behaviors. For example, if a child sees a white person doing one thing and a brown person doing another, she may attribute the reason they were doing that action to the color of their skin. It doesn’t mean they have bias towards one race over another yet.

At three to five years old, kids begin to express bias based on race. Now, Dr. Winkler made it clear that this is NOT because kids are hearing it from their parents. So interesting, since many teachers (including me!) believe that their students learn prejudice from their families. Instead, she explained that children at this age are still using race to categorize, and therefore attribute certain behaviors to certain races. This is because their little brains can’t hold on to too many nuanced ideas at the same time. Not much we can do about that.

But – and here’s where a potential solution comes in – kids learn from external factors as well. Society teaches them early on that race is a category that matters, more so than left-handedness or hair color. They see people in society separated by race, and they make assumptions based on this information. Who lives in a certain neighborhood, who appears in Disney movies, who is talked about in school curriculum. And while the ideas kids are forming are still just stereotypes at this point in time, this next part made it clear how we go from stereotypes to racism so quickly in our society:

racism definition

This was such a clear and concise definition of words that are often used interchangeably. While stereotypes and prejudice exist at a personal or social level, racism is a systemic problem that results from prejudice plus certain groups having more power than others. This is both bad news, and good news. The bad news is that racism is a large, system-wide problem. The good news is that we can combat racism by identifying and combating all the levels below it (stereotypes, in-group bias, prejudice, group social power).

The last part of the talk was the one that excited me the most – what we can do to fight against racism. Usually, discussions on racism and social injustice in education are tough, because you leave feeling powerless to make an actual difference. Yes, we can teach multicultural curriculum. But Dr. Winkler, and many others, warn that multicultural curriculum needs to be more than just teaching about “heroes and holidays.” Many teachers (with very good intentions) teach about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Cesar Chavez, but ultimately deliver a message that says “hooray for these heroes, now racism is over.”

In addition, many teachers teach that we should all be colorblind. “We should focus on how deep down we are all the same!” and other such messages are taught in lots of classrooms. I’m guilty of this myself, as I have done the eggs-are-the-same-on-the-inside activity, and many similar lessons in the past.

Instead, teachers need to teach students to value diversity, and identify racial bias when it is present. We learned about a fascinating study called “In blind pursuit of racial equality?” (Apfelbaum et al., 2010). In it, one group of students was taught a central message that downplayed racial distinctions, instead promoting the idea of valuing how similar we all are. (In other words, let’s be colorblind.) The other group of students learned that race is important, because racial differences make us special.

The results? The kids in the first group were much less likely to recognize subtle racism, and explicit racial bias, in a follow-up story.

Conclusion?

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Instead of teaching kids to ignore color, we should instead teach them to value the diversity of all humankind, and celebrate it. To me, this is true anti-bias education, because it doesn’t ignore differences among our students. Instead, it encourages kids to notice differences, and speak up when injustices occur.

I’m very excited to explore how to teach this with my kindergarten students. I have done some teaching on valuing diversity in the past, and plan to post some resources and ideas for how to do it very soon. I am always hoping to strengthen my understanding of anti-racist and anti-bias education. Here are a few quick links that I find really helpful:

Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots

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I work on the side at a local nature center, which is so much fun and such a great way to expand my abilities to teach environmental ed in the classroom. Recently I was asked to help lead a new effort for the nature center to become a Roots & Shoots service learning site. Roots & Shoots is an outreach organization created by Jane Goodall (one of my personal heroes) that encourages schools and community groups to do environmental service projects. Basically any project that helps the environment, wildlife or the human community will count as a service project, everything from clearing invasive species to building a butterfly garden or picking up trash. The nature center is a really easy place to set this up, since we have schools, Scouts and community groups coming to the nature center for earth-related service projects all the time. Now all we have to do is let them know that we are officially a Roots & Shoots service learning site!

I was thinking, though, that I could easily do Roots & Shoots service projects in my classroom as well! Why not? I’ve always wanted to do a large service project with my students as part of the science or social studies curriculum, and this could be an authentic way to carry one out. I could start by teaching about Jane Goodall and other scientists who study wildlife. Then we could brainstorm projects that would help the earth. Then, probably as part of a writing project, the kids could write up what we are doing and submit it to the website!

For more information on how to have your classroom or school become a Roots & Shoots site, click here. There is also a free online course this summer (that I’ll be taking) called Turning Learners into Leaders: Empowering Youth through Service in Education. It’s supposed to help train you on how to carry out service projects with your students. Perfect for my new plan! Here’s the flier for the online course:

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Making room for joy and wonder in the classroom

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As a kindergarten teacher, I find that most people are surprised when I tell them how much is expected of five-year-olds these days. Most of us remember kindergarten as a place for coloring, playing with playdough, and taking naps. The majority of our time was spent running around the recess playground and learning how to make new friends.

Nowadays, the majority of time in kindergarten is spent in academic pursuit. In one seven-hour day, my kindergarteners get exactly 20 minutes of free play and 20 minutes of rest time. That is 40 minutes of unstructured play, out of 420 minutes, each day. The rest of the time is spent on academics – reading, writing, phonics, spelling, math, computer, library, music, art, gym, and a small bit on science and social studies. (That doesn’t include 20 minutes for lunch and 40 minutes for recess each day – but lunch and recess are a chaotic whirl of overcrowded, yelling groups of children, which hardly counts as downtime for a kid.)

While I am a firm believer in the importance of learning throughout the day (I am a teacher, after all, and I love teaching Writers Workshop and Guided Math and everything else), I am also constantly frustrated with how much is demanded of these little guys. By the end of the school day, my students are visibly exhausted, both mentally and physically. And many of them go home to even more structured activities, like gymnastics and soccer practice and piano lessons. I know this is a much lamented problem, but the level of concern doesn’t seem to be changing our expectations of kids in school. As a public school teacher, I can attest to the fact that what is expected of my kindergarteners (from my district administration, from state standardized testing, from Common Core standards) is unreasonable, and is too much.

Think about what you remember most from elementary school. For me, it’s the weeks we spent studying the rainforest in third grade, learning about beautiful animals like quetzals that require our protection. Or the time in sixth grade that we dressed up and acted out the Greek myths, turning over our desks and building props out of cardboard and paint. What will kids remember from my kindergarten class? If I followed the required curriculum to a T, they might remember lots of time spent writing and editing personal narrativesidentifying the number of vertices and sides of a 3D shape, and learning the difference between plywood and particle board.

Don’t get me wrong – these are important endeavors in learning. But I think they need to be balanced with time for free play and exploration. There is so much evidence out there already on how children learn best through play, but play time is decidedly NOT written into the curriculum.

I realize that most of what I’m expected to teach is currently at the whim of politics and corporations. I am fortunate, though, to teach in a school with a very supportive principal who trusts teachers, and gives them room to use their professional judgment on the best way to teach children. Therefore, I have made it my goal this year (and all the years in the future) to make as much room for free play and exploration in my classroom as possible. I’ve decided to start sharing some of my ideas, since there’s not a lot out there on how to bring more joy and wonder into the classroom. I’ll start by listing some of the resources I’ve used when learning how to create space for exploration and guided inquiry in the classroom, and later share lesson ideas, both large and small.

Here are some resources that have inspired me so far:

Websites by Teachers

Books

Pinterest Boards

I’ll end with a quote that has been floating around out there that gives a nod to our need for balance between exploration and structured learning. More ideas for how to find this balance will come!

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How to bring more movement into your classroom (free printable)

So this year my school was told it would be taking on a Master Schedule (I capitalize these words to emphasize the Seriousness of The Master Schedule). It was a really huge deal, and most of the teachers at my school were against it. To be completely honest, at first I didn’t fully understand the gravity of the situation. Mostly, I was glad that we would have specials (gym, art, music) at the same time every day. I have to admit it made scheduling my week easier.

But now that we are two months into the Year of the Master Schedule, I’m beginning to see what everyone was upset about. I could write a whole separate blog post about the issues that come with the higher-ups deciding what’s best for an individual teacher’s classroom schedule. But I’ll just focus on the one that gets me the most so far this year: LESS RECESS!

I teach kindergarten, so that means I have a class of 20 wiggly, energetic, can’t-sit-still-for-more-than-five-minutes, attention-span-of-the-dog-in-Up kids. If they had their choice, they would spend their entire day playing games and running around on the playground. I am of the opinion, actually, that this would be very good for them. Kids learn through play.

But instead of free play, here is a partial list of what I am expected to have them do in one day:

  • Morning alphabet worksheet
  • Calendar math
  • Computer lab
  • Four different math centers
  • Snack
  • Readers workshop minilesson and independent reading
  • Literacy workstations
  • Guided reading
  • Art
  • Science
  • Interactive read-aloud
  • End of the day wrap up

The only things I’m leaving out there are lunch, recess, and free choice.

Now, I think each of these things is important, and my kids are amazing at staying engaged in what I ask them to do. But just look at that list – that is a LOT for a little five-year-old body to handle in one day! And since we need to cram all that in each day, we have very little time for lunch, recess, and free choice. As a matter of fact, my district cut down recess by ten minutes a day, and lunch by five minutes!

I could go on forever about why taking away recess and free time is bad for kids. Childhood obesity, nature-deficit disorder, an increase in ADD diagnoses, proliferation of video games and technology, overscheduling of childhood, lack of unstructured outdoor play at home. All these are reasons why we need MORE recess and unstructured time at school, not less.

But since I know it’ll take forever to get politicians and administrators to give us more recess time, I realized I need to take matters into my own hands. One of my goals this year is to incorporate more movement into my students’ day at school. I’m always looking for an excuse for the kids to get up and get moving, and I’ve accumulated a good bunch of ideas.

So, I wanted to share some of the things I do as a teacher in order to get more movement into my already-jam-packed day at school. Kindergarteners (and kids of all ages) need to move, move, move. It helps them learn, and it helps them stay healthy. Without further ado, here are eight tips for incorporating movement into your classroom. If your district is like many around the country (including mine), recess is an endangered species, so we teachers need to get our students moving whenever we can!

Feel free to download and share with other teachers!

What the new school lunch menus will (hopefully) look like

The USDA put out a proposed before/after menu for schools, comparing what old lunches look like (hot dogs, pizza, tater tots…basically baseball game food) to what the new ones should look like when schools start following the new guidelines. Hooray! The new menu looks fantastic. These are the types of meals I would like my students to be eating. But, like I said in my previous post, now kids need to be taught how and why to eat these new healthy foods. Otherwise they won’t eat them.

Here is some other coverage of the new lunch regulations:

Marion Nestle on Food Politics (who says kids need to be taught where their food comes from for this to work)
NY Times (which says that the potato industry is apparently still upset that “the potato is being downplayed in favor of other vegetables.” Good.)
Fed Up with Lunch (who says kids need more time to eat these healthy lunches…currently they get about 15 minutes at most schools)

Healthy school food needs to come with healthy food education

Today Michelle Obama announced the new nutrition standards for public school lunches. The standards call for doubling the amount of fruits and vegetables, offering only whole-grain foods, and reducing fat and sodium. She had a great quote, saying

When we send our kids to school, we have a right to expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we’re trying to keep from them when they’re at home. We have a right to expect that the food they get at school is the same kind of food that we want to serve at our own kitchen tables.

She is right. Parents do have a right to expect healthy food be served at their kids’ schools. But I don’t think that kids will automatically eat these more nutritious lunches. Kids are very used to the fatty, salty, sugary foods that are so bad for them. Thus, when healthier foods are introduced, they’re less likely to eat them. It’s not just because “kids are picky eaters.” Yes, some kids are picky eaters. But for the most part, kids will eat foods they are familiar with. They are very familiar with pizza, and chicken nuggets, and french fries. Why? Because this is what they are eating at fast food restaurants, at school, and sometimes at home. Most kids are NOT familiar with eggplant, couscous, kale, and garbanzo beans. So they don’t eat them. (Would YOU eat a strange-colored, squishy and/or crunchy food that you had never seen before?)

Fortunately, this is not an insurmountable problem. With healthy lunches should come healthy food education. Kids need to be thinking about healthy food, learning about healthy food, getting excited about healthy food. The earlier a child is introduced to healthy eating habits, the more likely she is to keep these healthy eating habits.

Schools need to bring in chefs, farmers, and nutritionists to talk to their students. They need to model healthy eating habits by eating school lunches (or their own vegetable-packed homemade lunches) right next to their students. They need to make vegetables, fruits, and other unprocessed foods seem more familiar, more appetizing. And last, they need to be teaching kids about food on a regular basis. This means teaching them how to cook it, how to grow it, how to eat it.

Middle school students design a poster
explaining why green foods are so good for you

I have been working with Seven Generations Ahead, the farm-to-school organization in Chicago that I have mentioned before, to help create a food curriculum for teachers of 5th-8th grade students. The curriculum, called Linking Plants and Food, hits on all the important aspects of healthy food education: how to cook it, how to grow it, how to eat it. It also delves into issues of food justice and access and sustainable farming. This curriculum will get students thinking about food and developing healthy eating habits. Our hope is that, while school lunches slowly become healthier, kids will slowly become healthier eaters who understand where their food comes from.

Linking Plants and Food is set to be released in the next few weeks. I am so excited to see it, and use it in my classes. For more information on Linking Plants and Food, see sevengenerationsahead.org or contact act@sevengenerationsahead.org. I will repost as soon as it is officially released!