Children thrive in classrooms where they feel “known”, where their experiences and voices are valued. These classrooms become safe spaces for children to take risks and challenge themselves as they learn to think critically about the world around them and learn the skills necessary to succeed both in and out of the classroom. As teachers work to set up classrooms, plan curriculum over various units of study, design newsletters or other communication home to families, and choose the books that will fill our classroom libraries, we ask ourselves how can we create an inclusive and safe community of learners?
To this end, many schools have become devoted to social and emotional literacy, to creating curriculum and school wide experiences that take into consideration the emotional lives of children and how to help them navigate through conflicts, learn language to be inclusive with one another, and help to name and regulate difficult emotions that arise. Often this work on social and emotional health does not include explicit teaching about race, skin color differences, and racism. Too often we, as teachers, assume that, in our general teaching of how to be inclusive, our students will know how to communicate effectively across racial and ethnic differences. We avoid talking about race for many reasons: because we, many of us white teachers, did not grow up in homes where talking about race was a frequent occurrence, because we are afraid of saying or doing something wrong, or because we worry that calling attention to the diversity in our classrooms will divide our communities rather than unite them. Often our students pick up on an internalized taboo against talking about race, and are left without the skills and language necessary to truly be inclusive with one another.
Acknowledging that giving students language to understand race and skin color differences, and that this endeavor is key to building a truly inclusive and safe environment for all of our students is an important step in our desire to improve the lived experience of our students in the classrooms.
For me, this was not an easy realization. As a white teacher, I had often chosen not to talk explicitly about race with my students, as I was unsure how to do this in a developmentally appropriate way and in a way that would include all the voices in my room. I worried that pointing out differences would actually cause my classroom to be less unified. For years, I struggled with my own discomfort that arose when students would make comments that showed their lack of information, misguided ideas, and beginning patterns of bias. I learned that, by avoiding the conversation, I was contributing to patterns of prejudice and ignorance that I could no longer tolerate. This, combined with listening to other teachers and parents share stories that were similar to what was happening in my classroom, led me to make real changes in my teaching.
Young children naturally notice all the differences around them and are busy sorting their environment by a single attribute, or putting “like” with “like”. Once I opened my eyes to this developmental process, and recognized that I was encouraging them to do exactly that by having them sort and categorize every day in Math, I became less uncomfortable when I observed them sorting and categorizing by race. As I became more and more comfortable with the fact that my students noticed differences and were trying to make sense of them, I realized I wanted to give my students information that would help them understand these differences and language that would help interrupt bias and prejudice and create greater opportunities for deeper understanding.
The first step was to build a classroom library that included books about children of all different skin colors and types of hair, as well as books that teach children how we get the skin color we have: e.g. The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler and David Lee Csicsko and All the Colors We Are: Todos los colores de nuestra piel/The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color (Spanish Edition) by Katie Kissinger and Wernher Krutein. Now, I begin the year reading these books and leading open conversations about skin color, in which I answer many questions my students have about why we are the way we are. Once I open up the conversation, I am amazed by how curious and eager my kindergarteners are to gain a better understanding of their own racial identity and the racial identity of their classmates.
The next step was to integrate this unit on skin color into other aspects of our curriculum, including Art, Writing, and Humanities. We mix paint to find our skin tones, use paint chips to compare these colors and come up with interesting and poetic names for our skin, and write poems about our skin. Together with the kindergarten team of teachers at my school, we developed an Art/Poetry Unit on the color brown, in an effort to give students new and positive associations with a color that is often left out of poems and songs for children. We give our students coffee, nutmeg, chai, cinnamon, and cloves and have them touch and smell the spices and then write poems about the color brown.
The conversation about race and skin color cannot be divorced from the conversation about racism, even though talking about racism can be even more challenging and uncomfortable for teachers. For me, this realization came about when it came time to talk about Martin Luther King Jr. in my classroom. For years I tried to tell my students about his ideas and contributions to social justice and inclusion without also telling them about the reality of racism in our country. I didn’t know how much to say to young children, and, again, I worried that learning this information would create divisions in my room rather than lead to greater unity. But I came to realize that without the story of racism, the themes I wanted my students to understand, themes of social justice, inclusion, and peaceful change, had no real meaning. And so I had to face my resistance to telling the “ugly truth” of racism to my students.
I did this by first integrating the themes of peaceful change and standing up for a community into our Humanities Unit on native trees and environmentalism. We studied people who made change by protecting habitats and replanting trees and gave our students key questions to consider as they thought about these “changemakers.” By the time it came time to talk about Dr. King and the problems he faced, my students had had months of practice exploring the ideas around change making through peaceful means. This, combined, with their deeper understanding of skin color and race, led to a more inclusive and unified experience discussing Dr. King than had ever happened in my 13 years of teaching young children.
The enduring understandings I want my students to have when they leave my classroom is that we are all different in some ways and alike in others and that by understanding and recognizing our differences and similarities we are participating in an essential part of building a just, inclusive and safe environment. I want my students to leave my classroom empowered to recognize bias and prejudice when they see it and to have the language to interrupt these patterns, even as five and six year olds. I want them to understand that anyone can be a changemaker, no matter how young or how old, of any skin color or race, and that every changemaker has one thing in common: the courage to speak out against injustice and work toward a better world.