Too often in an effort to build community, we tell young students not to talk about the racial differences around them. Then, when they learn that these differences mean something important—like in January when we learn about Dr. Martin Luther King—we are surprised by their misconceptions or misunderstandings. Imagine the confusion that would erupt if we did not engage in explicit math instruction and then suddenly, in January, we introduced a complex idea such as fractions or multiplication. Most of our students would not be able to grasp this lesson, and the ones that do get it would most likely have had exposure to the ideas outside of the classroom.
We wouldn't blame our students for being confused, or decide that teaching math was too messy and uncomfortable. We wouldn't stop teaching math because many of our students did not perform well. Instead, we would develop a scope and sequence to our math instruction, beginning in September, in order to provide the foundation and support necessary for our students to succeed in math.
What if we approached teaching and learning around race, skin color, and racism according to this same thoughtful, skill based approach?
Recently, a parent of a six-year-old mixed race child described her child's discomfort during a classroom discussion about Dr. King. "Because we discuss her heritage as mixed," the parent told me, "she was really angry when a white girl in her class told her she wouldn’t have been allowed to go to her current school because she was black."
As a kindergarten teacher, I set out to transform the way I taught about Dr. King because of comments like the one this parent describes, when white students would, after learning about bus or school segregation policies, point to a student of color in the room, and say, "That's like ___. He/She is black!" My white students were engaged in the process of labeling—or mislabeling—non-white students, which made me uncomfortable given the context of our history around who gets to say who belongs and who doesn't.
I also worried that they were beginning to associate brown or black skin with a sense of pity, and that my students of color were not being empowered or included in the conversation. I thought of my own young daughters, who are bi-racial (I am white and their father is Ghanaian) and how in many situations, other people are choosing how to identify them, and this is information they need to have in order to confront racism. At the same time, I want my children to be empowered to "name their own skin" in communities that honor each individual's sense of their racial identity.
In order to teach the reality of racism and how it affects all of us—including its false constructs and how they’re used to put other people down—and also empower all children in the discussion of race and racism as they are building their own racial identities, in my classroom, we begin the year with a unit on skin color awareness and appreciation. It includes answering students' questions about where skin color comes from, reading books and opening up conversations about our differences and similarities, and giving them the opportunity to explore these issues through art and poetry activities centered on the color brown, a color often left out of children's songs and poems.
When I first started this unit, I wondered if I was pointing out differences that my students hadn’t been paying attention to, but I learned that children notice difference all the time, and are busy sorting their environments according to same and different attributes. When a white student hears the story of segregation for the first time and points out a brown or black child in the room, this is the not the first time she has noticed these skin color differences, but it may be the first time she has associated this difference with our shared history around racism—which is why, throughout this instruction, we give our students language around how to be inclusive with one another.
We also prepare our students for discussions about societal and institutional racism months before they learn about Dr. King. Without time to explore the topics of social justice and courage, it can be difficult for young children to grasp the significance of the Civil Rights movement, and to see its relevance to today. We learn about other people who work to bring about big, societal changes, including fictional characters, famous people, and people from the students’ families and communities. The focus of our class discussions is on the big ideas around solving problems through peaceful means, why this can be difficult and often requires courage, and why it is important.
This inquiry into teaching has led my students to engage with themes of justice and courage. After hearing a story that described a time that Dr. King was arrested, one of my students, who recently learned about Dr. Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan scientist who was also arrested for her work replanting trees in Kenya, spoke up. She said, "But the people who put him in jail were not right. Just because you are police and can put someone in jail does not make you right."
The student's classmates agreed as another student said, "That's like when they put Wangari Maathai in jail but all the people still planted trees." And another student offered, "Martin Luther King was right because he was trying to change those unfair laws." These students are engaged together in a conversation about who has real, legitimate power, and who is right and wrong, fair and unfair, in the context of Civil Rights. Rather than singling each other out as they try to make sense of new information, they are identifying with the "changemakers" in the story, putting this story into the context of making peaceful change, and comparing Dr. King to other changemakers they know.
As our children grow into a new global reality where, as President Obama told the University of Michigan graduating class of 2010, they will live and work with people who don't look like them or "come from the same neighborhoods," all of our students need to gain skills around communicating across differences, which includes instruction on skin color awareness and an integrated approach to learning about hard topics like racism. This teaching retains its relevance in new and important ways in the 21st century.
In his book, 5 Minds for the Future, Howard Gardner writes about fulfilling one's obligation as a global citizen and communicating effectively across difference. In terms of preparing our students for success, ethical and respectful minds must be cultivated so that we can communicate successfully with people from all over the globe. And, one of Tony Wagner‘s "7 Survival Skills" in his book The Global Achievement Gap is the skill to understand cultural, ethnic, and racial differences, not only for the benefit of common understanding and mutual respect, but as an essential core academic skill as we transition to an economy where in order to succeed one must have a set of intellectual skills (rather than the manual skills of the past). This is an economy in which one must, as Wagner calls it, "collaborate across networks" and across the globe.
I teach about Dr. King to my students—and my children—so they learn the truth about our history around racism and, through this teaching, gain the necessary tools and understanding to fight against injustices themselves. I want them to identify with people who stand up against unfair laws and situations, the "changemakers," as models of courage, power, and integrity.
If we want to change the experience in the classroom for children—like the mixed race first grader who feels angry and mislabeled after her classroom discussion about Dr. King—we must give teaching about race and racism the same time and attention we give to other core subjects. If we listen, our children are asking us to help them develop a better understanding of why we are the way we are, why people would put others down because of these differences, and what we can do about it.
Click here to add reading Why Do All the Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria to your GOOD "to-do" list.
Black and white pencils image via Shutterstock