After the election.

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I don’t have words for what I’m feeling after yesterday’s election results. Or rather, I have too many words for what I’m feeling – confusion, disbelief, frustration, dismay, anger, shame, uncertainty. But mostly, sadness. I’ve never been hugely into presidential politics. Maybe it’s because it’s always felt so far away, so removed from my life and the people I love. Maybe it’s because presidential hopefuls don’t tend to spend much time on topics I’m most passionate about (education, the environment, social justice). Whatever the reason, I don’t tend to have emotional connections to candidates. Barack Obama’s election was exciting and full of hope, but typically, I don’t get emotionally wrapped up in any of the presidential races.

And until yesterday, this presidential race was no different for me. The whole thing was too ridiculous to invest emotional energy in. So many horrifying things were said by Trump and his supporters that I didn’t want to waste my time by paying attention to any of it. I knew who I was voting for. Hillary Clinton, while not my favorite candidate, had so many traits that would make her a qualified and effective president. And there was that added awesomeness of being the first female president.

I knew who I was voting for, and, perhaps naively, I didn’t think Trump had a legitimate chance of getting elected. Looking back, if I thought my country could elect a man who sexually assaults women, vows to ban all Muslims, and is openly supported by the KKK, I might have paid more attention, and done more to stop it.

But I didn’t. And I feel an immense, deep sadness. The sadness seems to be lingering, and it only grows when I hear stories of Muslim students feeling afraid to come to school. When I hear of families fearing that they’ll lose their health insurance.

And when I hear from one of my students’ moms that her daughter, upon hearing that Trump won the election, asked, “Mom, is he going to make it so that people with black skin can’t come to my school anymore?”

What shame. That a kindergartener would be asking that question about her country’s soon-to-be-president. And that her mom had to hesitate before answering, “No,” because she didn’t know with what certainty she could say there is no way something like that could happen.

My sadness lingers, and I will let it for a few more days. But after that, I know, it’s time for action. My personality, which is Type A All the Way, is searching for a plan, an actionable plan for how to move forward. I need to figure out how to talk to my students about these issues, so that they know they’re safe and loved, no matter who they are. I need to become more active in local politics, because the local arena is where we as individuals have the most power.

And I need to become more emotionally involved in the fight to support people of color, immigrants, queer and trans people, low-income families, and other marginalized groups. Part of the reason I’ve been unattached to presidential candidates in the past is because I am sick of the politics, and feel powerless to do anything about it. But I realize that my ability to be unattached also reflects my privileged status as a White woman. Going forward, I want to be more conscious of that fact, and do what I can to support the work that has already been going on in the fight for justice. Here’s a list of some possibilities.

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.

Raising race conscious children: having tough conversations

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I have a new blog obsession, one that was recommended to me by Families for Justice, a local group I started working with to bring conversations about race to our community. The blog is called Raising Race Conscious Children, and is one of the best resources I’ve come across for learning how to talk about race, gender, and sexuality with young children. While I’m not a parent, I do, in a sense, have kids – my kindergarten students, every day for eight hours, all year long. Tough conversations arise when I spend time with my kids, and I’ve started going to this blog for inspiration and advice on how to work through these tough conversations.

The blog authors publish articles on all sorts of topics that arise when you spend time with young children, such as “Momma, why aren’t there more boy teachers?” and “Black is not a bad word: Why I don’t talk in code with my children.

For example, check out this post on what happened when the author’s seven-year-old daughter encountered an act of sexism on her soccer team. A boy cut in front of her in line and said boys should go first. He also later told her it would be embarrassing if a girl beat a boy while playing soccer. Her daughter got upset and told him it wasn’t nice.

On the way home, instead of shying away from the topic, her mom asked her daughter to explain what happened, and told her she was proud of her for standing up for herself. But the mom felt some unease when she realized that she didn’t explain the root cause of this interaction – that the boy wasn’t just being mean, he was being sexist.

So that night, the author “circles back” and brings it up with her daughter again. She does some courageous things in the conversation, including defining the word “sexism” for her daughter, and explaining that this probably won’t be the last time she’ll face a situation like this.

And instead of being fearful or upset, her daughter responds with courage too, and connects it to Rosa Parks standing up for what she believed in.

The author’s experience was a powerful one, and confirms my belief that we need to talk about these issues with our young children, instead of pretending that they’ll go away if we ignore them long enough. The conversations are tough, but necessary, for bringing social justice transformation to our families, classrooms, and communities.

My favorite line from the article:

“I don’t know if I found the right line that day, but I definitely grew. I grew in respect for my daughter and her ability to analyze what’s really going on. And I grew in my clarity that supporting our children in naming the truth of their own experiences isn’t likely to make them small or afraid. It’s much more likely to make large and courageous their capacity to act with agency in the world.”

What happened when I defined sexism for my daughter

On talking about race in kindergarten: Children’s books to read

One of my main goals as a kindergarten teacher is to help my students be comfortable in their own skin (literally and figuratively). Thus, every year we talk about race. To be more accurate, we talk about skin color. I am a big proponent of having this conversation with young children, because as research shows, kids notice it already. While many adults want to pretend that they “don’t see color,” kids already begin to notice differences in skin color when they are infants. I believe it’s important to discuss and explore our differences, instead of focusing only on how we are all the same. So every year, I teach an All About Me unit that includes discussions and explorations of our skin color.

To jumpstart these conversations, I read aloud many of the great children’s books that have been written about race and skin color. I decided to compile a list of the books that I find most helpful, because every year I go back to try to find them. I encourage you to read them with your students, or purchase them for your home! (And for more information on what we do after reading the books, click here or here.)

Books on Race

  1. Happy to Be Nappy by bell hooks
  2. Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children by Sandra Pinkney
  3. Chocolate Me! by Taye Diggs
  4. I Like Myself! by Karen Beaumont
  5. I Love My Hair! by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley
  6. The Colors of Us by Karen Katz
  7. Skin Again by bell hooks
  8. A Rainbow All Around Me by Sandra Pinkney
  9. Shades of People by Shelley Rotner
  10. Black is Brown is Tan by Arnold Adoff
  11. All the Colors We Are by Katie Kissinger
  12. It’s Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr
  13. The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler
  14. Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester
  15. I Am Latino: The Beauty in Me by Sandra Pinkney
  16. Colors of Me by Brynne Barnes

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:

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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:

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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:

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.

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!