What I could have said: Addressing racial stereotypes in kindergarten

Happy October! Last week I had the privilege of guest-posting on one of my favorite blogs, Raising Race Conscious Children. You can check out the original article here, and then spend some time browsing their other articles. It was an immense pleasure to contribute to the knowledge they have there, for parents, educators and others who are interested in talking about race with children!

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It was just another moment in kindergarten, when the teacher (me) is ushering, begging, pleading that all the energetic and excited little bodies stop what they’re doing and come to the carpet for a story. There was a lot going on, including a little girl asking for a bandaid for a non-existent wound, a little boy getting his snack out when I had clearly just asked everyone to come to the rug for storytime, and a dozen other conversations among five-year-olds. When I looked over at one group of boys, they were pulling the corners of their eyes up into little slits, and saying “Hahaha!” and “You look Chinese!”

Two other boys, including one fifth-grade mentor who helps in my classroom, started to do it too. When you’re little, it’s fun to make your body contort in different shapes and show other people what it looks like. And if it makes someone laugh, chances are other children will join in too.

But an innocent moment between friends was tainted with racist undertones – and I didn’t know what to do.

I like to think of myself as well-read and well-intentioned when it comes to talking about race with children. Race, skin color, and culture is something we talk about often in my kindergarten classroom, and I even recently started working with a racial justice group who leads conversations about race with local parent groups. But in the moment, when I was worried about a million other things, including getting my class to the carpet in a somewhat efficient manner so we could move on to the next lesson, I wasn’t sure what to say to my little group of boys who were unknowingly making stereotypical comments about a group of people.

Here’s what I said: “I see what you’re doing with your eyes to make them that shape. There are many things that make a person Chinese, and the shape of their eyes is just one aspect of being Chinese-American.”

Not a terrible answer. I’m glad I didn’t say “Don’t do that!” or “[gasp] What a mean thing to do!” without giving any explanation about why such a gesture is harmful towards others.

I’m also glad I didn’t ignore it, telling myself that “kids will be kids.”

But I wondered, what would I have done differently if I had more time, or had made more time, to address the encounter? If I would have stopped, taken a breath, and decided to make it a teachable moment?

Because these teachable moments, the chances that we as teachers have to notice racism, call out stereotypes, and teach our children how to be more accepting and honoring of all others, are more important than any math lesson we need to teach, or tests we need to give.

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As quoted in this New York Times article, “It’s the children whose parents [or teachers] do directly address race — and directly means far more than vaguely declaring everyone to be equal — who are less likely to make assumptions about people based on the color of our skin.”

If I would have prioritized it, maybe I would have said “Let’s stop and talk about this.” And then held a conversation with my small group of boys, or perhaps with my whole class, about the meaning of the word “stereotype,” and the cultural and historical context of how Asian Americans have been treated in our country – including using the shape of (some) people’s eyes to belittle or dehumanize them.

Or we could have read several books with protagonists from Asian countries, and discussed the fact that people whose ancestors come from many Eastern countries can have many different physical features.

Or maybe I could talk about how pretending to “be” someone of another race or ethnicity by changing one small thing about your body, temporarily, is dishonoring of who that person is as a whole human being.

No matter how I moved forward with the conversation, it would have been better to spend more time on it, to help my young students really understand the power of their actions, and to help them learn to navigate our world of race and racism with grace and acceptance. But I forgive myself, and all other parents and teachers who don’t know what to say, because these moments are teachable moments for me too – and I’ll use this one to better inform what I can do next time.

50 Ways to Wonder: Educate families on how to connect with nature

50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the ClassroomIn an effort to bring curiosity and joy back into the elementary school classroom, I decided to start a series called 50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom. I hope to keep these ideas simple and easy to implement for the time-crunched teacher. Most of these ideas come from other teachers, blogs, and books – so I don’t claim credit for them! Click here to see previous posts in the series. And without further ado, here is the next idea!

9. Educate your students’ families on how to connect with nature.

One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from Rachel Carson, when she says “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder… he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”

The quote inspires me to be that adult, the one with whom my students can explore the world and marvel at its mysteries. I do everything I can to make room for joy and wonder in the classroom. But let’s be real – there isn’t enough time in the school day to do it right. The pressures of academic expectations in kindergarten (or any grade) are way too high to really let my students spend the optimal amount of time exploring the outdoors. I am lucky if I get in 30 minutes a day of unstructured time for my students, plus a few science lessons outside each week.

But this is where I turn to my students’ families – after all, they are the ones who spend the most significant amount of time with their children, long after the kindergarten year is over. Why not help them learn to bring joy and wonder into their children’s lives? Yes, families are busy, and many may not be receptive to pushes from their child’s teacher to find time for playing outside. But I believe strongly in the importance of connecting children with nature, so it’s worth every attempt at involving my students’ families to do just that.

There are lots of ways to involve families. I run the garden committee at my school, which has parents and community members on board for planting and growing the garden. We also encourage parents to adopt the garden for a week in the summer, bringing their children with them to weed and harvest during the non-school season.

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If you don’t have a garden, consider purchasing books that parents can borrow. I recently read How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature by Scott D. Sampson, and LOVED it. It’s filled with ideas for how parents can help their children at each stage of growth (early childhood, middle childhood and adolescence) become enamored by the natural world. He gives ideas for how parents can become “nature mentors” (like Rachel Carson advises), addresses the paradox of technology and the outdoors, and lists tons of other resources for parents and caregivers.

Another good resource is the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. He outlines the research behind the dramatic drop in time spent outdoors, and why it’s bad for children’s health and futures. This one is a little gloomier than How to Raise a Wild Child, but it’s become a classic for parents and teachers who are worried about their children’s connection to nature.

There are also TONS of resources available online, and I sometimes print this and attach them to my weekly family newsletter. Here are just a few you could include:

These conversations might be hard to have at first, since parents are often worried about a myriad of things besides getting their kids outdoors more. But I believe it will help enormously to encourage parents in your mission to bring more joy and wonder into the lives of your students. Make sure to tell parents that they don’t need to be nature experts to take their kids outdoors – it’s less important to name all the plants on your hike, and more important that you are going on a hike together.

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:

Why I don’t talk about test scores at parent-teacher conferences

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I’m home sick today because of a grueling week of parent-teacher conferences that put my body over the edge. Parent-teacher conference weeks are simultaneously my favorite and least favorite weeks of the year. Almost all of my kids’ parents show up for conferences, and I get to talk to them about all kinds of things that we don’t have time to discuss in the craziness of after-school dismissal. I love connecting with families during these weeks.

But I also dread this time of year, because my days at work become longer and more intense, rushing around to do more assessments on my students, putting together 20 or more student portfolios to share with parents, and working 10 to 12-hour days (conferences go until 8pm two days during the week, and this is on top of teaching normal school days).

But the biggest reason that I get stressed during parent-teacher conferences is because they force me to confront an ongoing battle I have about what’s important in teaching kindergarten. What do I share with parents? I have 15 minutes, and what I think my district wants me to share is all the data I have compiled on each student. After all, next to my desk I have a giant “student data” binder, which makes me feel both proud of how productive and organized I am, and ashamed of how I spend so much time making checklists and spreadsheets about my students.

If I used this student data binder at parent-teacher conferences, I could report the following to Mom and Dad about their five-year-old:

  • Whether or not they are considered Tier 1, Tier 2, or Tier 3 in reading right now. Tier 2 and 3 means they are “struggling readers,” even though they are only five and have just barely learned how to hold a book rightside up.
  • What score out of 102 they got on their state-mandated phonological literacy screening test.
  • What grade they got on three math unit tests so far this year
  • What grade they received on four reading unit tests that I have given them
  • How well they are doing on the scale of writing development during their most recent writing assessment, which was an informational non-fiction piece
  • The letter that represents the reading level at which they are reading right now – and how far away from the end-of-the-year goal they are on this scale
  • How they are scoring on any of the 30+ items that I will be assessing for upcoming report cards

The list could go on, but these are the most basic data items I am required to gather for each of my kindergarten students. And do you know how much of this I share with my students’ parents? Almost none.

Instead, I tell parents how much their child loves reading, and what types of books he likes to have read to him. I share what games she likes to play during math time, and how many friends she is making on the playground. I share what stories he tells at morning meeting, and how much he loves to draw Ninja Turtles.

I don’t use any numbers or letters to describe their child. I don’t use phrases like “Your child is a D on a scale of A to Z.” Instead, I try to describe their child using words like “curious,” “helpful,” “empathetic,” and “creative.”

If a student is having major struggles in any areas of learning, I will for sure delve into what I am noticing. I will also share the many academic successes that students are having in school. But I do not want parents to walk away from parent-teacher conferences thinking that their child is a number on a scale to me. I want them to realize how much I love their child, and how much their child loves to learn and do and create.

I want parents to know that I know their children for who they are as individuals, not how they measure on a standardized test.

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50 Ways to Bring Wonder: Visit a “Sit Spot” every season.

50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the ClassroomIn an effort to bring curiosity and joy back into the elementary school classroom, I decided to start a series called 50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom. I hope to keep these ideas simple and easy to implement for the time-crunched teacher. Most of these ideas come from other teachers, blogs, and books – so I don’t claim credit for them! Click here to see previous posts in the series. And without further ado, here is the next idea!

5. Visit a Sit Spot every season.

The idea of a “Sit Spot” came directly from the Cultivating Joy and Wonder curriculum from Shelburne Farms (which is free to download – such a great resource). I used it this year for the first time, and I really liked it because it can be done no matter what type of schoolyard you have – concrete, prairie, garden, playground.

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Talk to the class ahead of time about how many scientists make observations of the same place over time, in order to have a better understanding of what goes on in their environment. By visiting the same spot every week, month, or year, they can observe what has changed, what has gone missing, what has grown or been replaced.

Explain that you’ll be doing the same thing at school. Go out into the yard, parking lot, or other surrounding area and help kids choose their own Sit Spot. They will be returning to this spot again and again. They should take careful notes (or drawings, depending on the age) on what they see, smell, hear and feel.

Be sure to return to the same Sit Spots at least once a season, and make time for the students to share after each Sit Spot period. They can use previous entries to compare and contrast their spot in each season. Ask probing questions like “Why do you think there are no flowers in your spot anymore?” and “What has stayed the same in your spot?”

This short activity takes only about twenty minutes, tops, and really encourages students of all ages to notice patterns and changes in their environment. Plus it brings in just a little bit more questioning and wonder to the classroom!

50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom

As I mentioned before, I am continually frustrated with the lack of space for curiosity and creativity in the classroom. Teachers are pressured to fill every minute with minilessons, assessments and benchmark objectives – at the expense of real, engaging education. This means that elementary students spend more time with their butts glued to their desks, writing a “readers response” and making “text-to-self” connections, instead of talking about books they love. They spend more time deciphering specific directions for how a science experiment should be done, instead of being allowed time to experiment with hands-on science materials.

I could go on and on, but I won’t, since I did so in a previous post. Instead, I’ve decided to start sharing some resources for how busy teachers can fit in small ideas that bring curiosity and wonder back into the classroom. I call it my “50 Ways to Wonder” project.

Each week I’ll share a different resource or idea that is both easy and inexpensive for teachers to implement in the classroom. I’ll try to make the ideas for all ages (at least K-5), and something that is feasible. For as much as we would all love to build a school garden from scratch, those types of projects are just not feasible for elementary teachers who are juggling six subjects, 30 students, and an inordinate amount of meetings and paperwork.

Thus, I’ll try to keep these ideas short and simple. Hopefully a few teachers can use these ways to bring joy and wonder back into the classroom, encouraging kids to have fun, be curious, and love to learn!

50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom

So without further ado, here is the first way to bring wonder into the classroom!

1. Have a Wonder Wall.

Kids are naturally curious, which leads to lots of questions throughout the day. Teachers don’t always have time to answer every question, particularly if they are ones that we aren’t equipped to answer without a little research! A Wonder Wall serves as a great place to store these questions until you can find time to answer them. Writing them down gives your students the message that you do take their curiosity seriously – and further encourages kids to ask more questions!

A Wonder Wall can be as simple or as fancy as you’d like. I just stick a blank piece of chart paper on the wall and title it “Wonder Wall.” Then, whenever a child asks a question that I can’t answer (perhaps because I’m reading a book out loud, it’s in the middle of an unrelated activity, or because I just don’t know the answer!), I write their question on the chart paper.

Here is my current Wonder Wall. Just search “Wonder Wall” on Pinterest to see much prettier versions of this same idea. 🙂

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When the paper is filled up, I dedicate one Writers Workshop period to investigating the answers to these questions. Finding the answers can take many forms – including looking for related books in the library, interviewing someone in the school who might know (like the music teacher or the librarian), or searching on the internet (with my help, of course). In the future, I think I’ll incorporate more writing into the research part of the Wonder Wall, encouraging my kindergarteners to write a letter to a community member who might know more about the subject. (For example, our town is right next to a major university, so I could foresee writing a letter to a professor who studies the topic.)

I hope you find these ideas helpful… Happy wondering!

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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The way human beings learn.

Another wonderful tidbit I learned from the book Number Sense Routines by Jessica Shumway is the importance of math talk! Teachers often encourage quiet during math time, in order to allow little math brains to work. But so much of learning, especially in the primary grades, comes from talking and thinking aloud! Math learning is no exception. The book included this quote, from Ralph Peterson, author of Life in a Crowded Place (another book on my to-read list!). I’m going to print this and put it up in my classroom!

 

Nourish: Food curriculum for upper elementary and middle school teachers

A friend of mine showed me a new food curriculum called Nourish. It looks fantastic. It’s geared towards upper elementary and middle schoolers, so I won’t be able to use it this fall (I’m teaching kindergarten). But it has some really great ideas for teaching about where food comes from, eating in season, food advertising, and other important food literacy concepts. It also has a bunch of graphics called Food Tools that are perfect for teaching about food systems. Here’s one graphic I love and might actually print out to put in my classroom…

The curriculum also has a half-hour video that goes with it. Seems pretty awesome!

Being active in nature makes kids healthier

By now you’ve probably figured out how much I love infographics. But this one is the best I’ve seen in a while! It’s called Children and Nature: Being active in nature makes kids healthier. As a teacher who works at an environmental education center (for one more week!), the facts in here are great. I printed a copy and laminated it, to put up in my new classroom!

The two most stunning facts:

  • Kids spend more than 7 hours a day with various electronic media.
  • Children have lost 50% of unstructured outdoor activity over recent decades. 

But fortunately:

  • Children living within 2/3 mile of a park with a playground can be 5 times more likely to have a healthy weight.
  • Children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to be overweight by 27-41%.

The link to the printable pdf is here.