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?

value diversity

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:

50 Ways to Bring Wonder: Keep a nature journal

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!

6. Keep a nature journal.

Nature journals are a quick, easy way to get kids outside, grow their observation skills, and connect them to the place where they are. I was reading an article from Community Works Journal called “Nature Journals: An Enduring Marriage of Art and Literature,” and came across this passage, which perfectly describes why nature journals are so beneficial for the classroom:

Out of concern for increasing problems among today’s children, including attention deficit disorder, obesity and depression, there is research supporting the idea that alienation from the natural world could be a factor. A malady called “Nature Deficit Disorder” has been described by author Richard Louv in his book, The Last Child in the Woods…Louv’s recommendation is to change the education of young children from the current emphasis on technology, and instead encourage more direct exploration of the outdoors. I believe that Louv would agree that nature journaling offers an important avenue to help introduce children in a very personal way to the natural world that seems foreign to so many of them.

Nature journaling is a perfect aesthetic activity for children at school, whether they are kindergarteners sketching flowers in the school yard, middle school science students observing and recording various species of leaves and bark, or high school AP Studio Art students deriving inspiration from nature to design a beautiful journal page. Allowing children to experience the commitment to a nature journal as a labor of love should be a common opportunity for each child.

And to put it more concisely:

The natural extension of visually studying nature is to feel appreciation for it and then seek to learn more about it.

Exactly what I want for my students!

I created a simple nature journal for kids to use, which is available to download here or by clicking the picture below. But any old notebook or sketchbook would work just as well!

naturejournal

Scientist of the Month!

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Seriously, how did teachers do it before the invention of Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers? If you are a teacher that has not discovered the wonders of these two websites, I urge you to go explore them! You will probably develop a ruthless addiction to both sites, because they offer endless ideas and teacher-made resources, often for free!  There have been so many times that I think “man, it would be so cool if I had {insert awesome idea} for my classroom, but I’ll never have time to make it!” And then, I type the words into Pinterest and voila! Another brilliant teacher has already made the exact thing I was hoping to have. Amazing.

Here’s an example. This spring I talked to my kindergarteners a lot about being a scientist when they grow up, but I realized that I never really explained what that meant. So in a frantic attempt to give them a better understanding of what it means to “be a scientist,” I read them a book by Jane Goodall. Well then for several weeks they thought that being a scientist meant living in the jungle with chimpanzees! While that is certainly one option for scientists, there are obviously many more routes that science-inclined people can take.

So, I decided the best thing to do next year would be to have a featured “Scientist of the Month.” During the first week of each month, we could read books and watch clips about this scientist. This will be a great way to get more nonfiction books in my kids’ hands (you’re welcome, Common Core) as well as get them exposed to all kinds of scientists – including female ones!

Well, it’s not enough to have a brilliant idea like Scientist of the Month. Turns out you actually have to make a plan for which scientists will be featured, and put together some info for the kids on each one. Thus, “make Scientist of the Month packet” got added to the bottom of my supremely long list of summer projects.

But wait! Thanks to the miracle that is Pinterest, I learned that another teacher had the same brilliant idea, and is giving away her Scientist of the Month stuff for free! She did all the work of choosing scientists, finding pictures of them, and putting together biographical information on each one. So awesome.

Scientist bios

So if you want to do the Scientist of the Month idea too, go on over to The Teacher Garden to get pictures and bios on each scientist. And for a lovely title poster for your bulletin board, click on the image below to download it (or click here if the link doesn’t work). Hooray for the internet, and teachers who make my workload easier!

Scientist of Month

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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50 Ways to Bring Wonder: Use science journals

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!

2. Use science journals

Science journals are a cheap and easy way to give your students somewhere to write down all their questions, observations, and thoughts about the world, without you having to manage lots of papers or activities. I just bought cheap notebooks and used rubber cement to glue these covers on the front. They have lasted all year. You can have students use science journals for all kinds of science-related activities, including:

  • making KWL charts at the beginning of a unit
  • recording observations about animals or plants
  • drawing what they see on a nature walk
  • writing down questions they have
  • recording results from science experiments
  • writing new facts from non-fiction books
  • reflecting on what they learned at the end of a unit

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I keep my students’ science journals where they can easily access them , and encourage them to use them however they see fit! Some teachers do very involved science journaling, which I admire and wish I had time for! I keep it simple, though, and basically use them for my students to record what they observe about the world.

Here are some places to find more info on science journaling (also called science notebooks).

The Science Penguin
Science Notebooking
Kristen’s Kindergarten
Little Miss Hypothesis
Kindergarten Kindergarten

Celebrating MLK Day in kindergarten (and teaching tolerance throughout the year)

Tomorrow we have off school to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Kindergarten is often the first time that students are introduced to him and the movement he helped start in our country. Learning about MLK and other heroes of the civil rights movement is a great time to discuss concepts of tolerance and diversity, both in and out of the classroom. It’s also a great time to discuss discrimination and injustice in the world – which many think are concepts too heavy for a kindergarten classroom. But these are ideas that kids will encounter constantly as they grow up. I firmly believe that kids have an innate sense of “fairness,” and when given the chance, they have lots to share about the things that are unfair in our world.

I also think it’s extremely important to teach tolerance throughout the year, rather than isolating it during MLK week or Black History Month. This unit began in the beginning of the year, as part of my effort to build community in the classroom. We continued the second half of the unit this month.

During one of the first weeks of school, 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 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. Here are their matches:

Then we used the crayons to color in portraits of ourselves, and hung them in the hallway for all to see! After we took down the posters, I made them into a big book that is a popular choice for Read to Self time.

We took a photo of our beautiful skin!

When January began, we revisited this book and again discussed how our skin colors can be all different – but we have much in common! We read several books on Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight for equal rights for people of all skin colors. You can see some of the videos we watched: this one and this one (made by a kindergartener)! We also read the excellent book The Skin You Live In by Michael Taylor, which talks about how skin is for running, jumping, and playing in, not separating people.

We then listened to an excerpt of MLK’s I Have a Dream speech. I explained that it wasn’t a dream like we have at night while we’re sleeping, but instead a hope or wish that he had for the world. Then each kindergartener came up with their own dream for the world. We drew pictures of that dream and hung them up in the classroom for all to see.

To finish the unit, we met with our third grade reading buddies who are also studying Martin Luther King Jr. and how skin colors can be different. As a group, we looked at two eggs, a brown one and a white one. We talked about what was the same and what was different about each, then cracked them both open to see what they looked like on the inside. They were the same! We talked about the lesson this teaches us about how skin color may make us look different on the outside, but we have many things in common on the inside.

a journal entry on what we saw inside each egg
P.S. I put together this unit myself but I got lots of ideas from amazing teachers on Pinterest and other blogs. I also downloaded this excellent free MLK unit from Eberhart’s Explorers.