Kids are talking about race right now. Many of them are scared. Many are repeating things they’ve heard on TV and at home. As teachers, we should bring those conversations into the classroom to provide a safe place to discuss and learn. Let’s work to build a welcoming classroom community.
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Why Should Teachers Lead Discussions About Race?
Wednesday I overheard this conversation between primary students while I was on yard duty:
“I’m not Mexican, but my dad is.”
His African American friend nodded and said, “I’m not Mexican. Not even one little tiny little bit.”
Kids are talking about race. The election has brought up strong feelings about race. They are hearing it brought up on the news. They are hearing family members discuss it. It is on their mind. They are talking about it and they are a bit confused.
Some adults may hear that conversation and think it is cute and the kids are just confused. As a teacher, I hear that and realize this child and many others are experiencing anxiety. Someone in his family clearly told him he is an American citizen and doesn’t have to worry about being deported. He is still worried his dad will be. Whatever your political leaning, I think we all can agree that we don’t want children to be left to deal with anxiety on their own.
How Do We Begin?
Creating a classroom culture where students can talk about their feelings and fears is essential.
One of the things I miss most about being a homeroom teacher is having class meetings. Whether it was a first grade homeroom or fifth grade homeroom, it was important for me that we supported each other. A simple half hour once a week helped to build a culture of respect.
Class meetings can be formal or informal. They can have assigned topics or be an opportunity for students to bring up their own concerns.
Here is an example:
Earlier in the week, I’d have each student in the class pick a random stick with a classmates name on it. Each person would fill out a bucket filler for the student they picked saying something positive. To start the class meeting, I’d pull the bucket fillers and kids would read them while heading to sit in a circle on the carpet. I liked to do it during the transition from desks because it gave kids a chance to say thank you to the person who wrote something to them or to show their friends their bucket fillers.
I’d start with a class compliment. I would compliment the class on something they were doing well and tell them how proud I was of them. Then, we’d set a class goal. I’d ask if there was something we thought we could improve. Students would provide suggestions and we’d set a behavioral goal.
Then, I’d ask if anyone had any problems they needed help with. Kids would share something that was bothering them. If it was involving another student, the child would use an I message (I feel… when you… I would like ….). Kids would bring up issues at home often. A student might tell us that their older brother was mean to him. The kids and I would ask questions to get specifics. Then, the child would call on a couple of people for suggestions. The following week we’d check in and see if the suggestions helped.
These meeting were about the kids. I was there to lead and moderate discussion, but the kids were the main voice. Of course, at the beginning of the year, I’d have to guide and model how to ask questions, how to offer suggestions, how to express a problem respectfully, and how to apologize. These skills helped students learn to have difficult conversations.
If you haven’t had a class meeting yet, give it a try. I know it is hard to carve away time in your schedule but the sense of community created is worth it. I also found that spending this time helped the rest of our time together be more productive because there were less behavior interruptions when students felt they had a voice.
A Book to Set the Tone: Whoever You Are by Mem Fox
My absolute favorite book is a brief picture book that sparks powerful conversations.
Whoever You Are by Mem Fox is a beautifully illustrated poem.
“Little One, whoever you are, where ever you are, there are little ones just like you all over the world.”
It talks about how their skin, homes and words may be different than yours but “inside their hearts are just like yours”.
I suggest reading it through one time for the beauty of the poetry and then going back page by page. Ask questions and allow comments. Every time I’ve read this book to a new group of students, the beautiful comments from the kids make me tear up.
When I was fresh out of college and subbing, I carried that book for moments when there wasn’t enough in the sub plans. I had a 5th grade girl write me a long note about how this was the first time anyone had said these things and how much it meant to her.
This is a great book to introduce compassion and respecting differences.
Great Books to Continue the Conversation
Once you’ve set tone, these books help to continue the dialogue.
I love this book, The Color of Us, about a little girl who learns to love and paint all the beautiful shades of skin color in her neighborhood.
In this book, Everybody Eats Rice, a little boy is introduced to many cultures through food.
During our conversations with our kids, it is important to help students understand that we all have a variety of backgrounds. I love how the book, Jalapeno Bagel, tells the story of a boy who wants to bring something to school for multicultural day that represents both of his parents who have different backgrounds.
I learned so much from Sesame Street when I was a child about how to be kind and respectful.
The best concerts I’ve ever been to have been Michael Franti concerts. He has a wonderful positive spirit. He also has an open giving heart. When we had a big earthquake in Napa, he played a concert to raise money to help rebuild. He and his wife, Sara, have started the Do It for the Love Foundation. I also love seeing him bring up kids onto the stage to give them once in a life time experiences during his concerts. Notice all the kids on stage in my Instagram post below.
Say Hey is one of his best known songs:
My husband and I had this song played as soon as we said, “I do.”
Why am I talking about a musician? He has brought his positivity to children’s books.
What I Be by Michael Franti is about self-acceptance.
Another powerful book that leads to amazing discussions is the Story of Ruby Bridges. There are many books about her, but this book is fantastic. Kids really react when she is being shouted at on her way to first grade. They talk about how that doesn’t happen to them.
Beginning a dialogue about race can seem like a daunting task, but honestly, if you read one of these books, kids will share and listen to one another.
Do you know of books that should be added to the list?