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! raising-race-conscious-children-og

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.


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.

Mindfulness in the classroom: a six-week unit

mindfulness in the classroom: a six week unitI've talked before about teaching mindfulness in the classroom - I started it this year with my students, and LOVED it. My kindergarteners are young and energetic and emotional and impulsive, there's no denying it - but learning the components of mindfulness, including mindful breathing and finding a quiet space to calm down, really made a difference in how they interacted with each other and with themselves. I found students reminding others to be mindful, utilizing our Peace Table to calm themselves down, even referencing mindfulness during math lessons! Since this year was my first year teaching it, I was kind of pulling together resources in a haphazard way, throwing in a mindful moment here and there. While my favorite time to teach it was Morning Meeting, I didn't always have time (or remember) to practice it with my students every day. But that's the life of a teacher! If it's not in the curriculum, it's hard to prioritize it. Sooooo....

I decided to make a mindfulness unit! I wrote up a formal unit that lays out the lessons I did with my students more explicitly, and I plan to use it during the first month of school this year. You can find it here on my TPT store!

Mindfulness Moments in the ClassroomThe unit is designed to last for six weeks, with each lesson introducing a new mindfulness technique that you can teach all week long. Like I said, I tend to do my mindful moments during Morning Meeting, but there are lots of other times that would work as well. See my post on mindful moments during transitions! The unit includes a lesson on introducing the Peace Table, which I HIGHLY recommend using in classrooms for any elementary age. The Peace Table is a concept adopted from Montessori education, and is an amazing resource for teaching emotional intelligence, cooperation and problem-solving for young students.

The unit also includes lots of resources on where to learn more about mindfulness education. See also my post on learning to practice mindfulness in your own life!

And if you have ANY questions about teaching mindfulness or meditation in the classroom, just send me a message! Namaste :)

A few words on the importance of play

importance of playIn my grad class we've been doing some readings about the importance of Socratic questioning in education. While I was initially turned off by the topic (what does Socrates have to do with teaching five-year-olds?), it turns out to be really relevant to teaching kindergarten. Socrates viewed inquiry and investigation as the best way to learn, as opposed to passive accumulation of skills and knowledge. I've long been an advocate for more play in the classroom, and it turns out that even 300 years ago, educators saw play as the best way for young children to learn. Check this out, from Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (emphasis my own):

German educator Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) conducted reforms of early education...that have changed the way young children in virtually all of the world's countries begin their schooling. For Froebel was the founder and theorist of the "kindergarten," the year before "regular" schooling begins in which children are gently encouraged to expand their cognitive faculties in an atmosphere of play and affection, and one that, in a Socratic spirit, emphasizes children's own activity as the source of their learning.

Froebel intensely disliked traditional models of education that viewed children as passive vessels into which the wisdom of the ages would be poured. He believed that education should focus on eliciting and cultivating the child's natural abilities through supportive play. The idea of the kindergarten is just this idea of a place where one learns and unfolds through play.

Modern kindergartens...[retain] the core idea that children learn to unfold themselves by active thought, reciprocity, and the active manipulation of objects...Children all over the world today owe much to his contribution, since the idea of a type of early education through play in an environment of sympathy and love has created kindergartens more or less everywhere.

So awesome! Kindergarten should still be about playing! Except the author goes on to say...

This healthy idea is under pressure in our world, as children are pressed to drill at skills earlier and earlier in life, often losing opportunities to learn through relaxed playing.

It's true. So much of my kindergarteners' day is NOT playing, and is instead structured learning experiences to make sure they acquire a set of skills that in order to be "college and career ready" (at age six!). Ugh.

What that means for me is that I'm going to cling to that 30 minutes of free play time in my schedule every day, and not feel guilty if I expand it.

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

Sun & Moon partners in the classroom: a freebie

Just posted a new freebie over at my TPT store! I use partners in my classroom for lots of things, including turn & talks on the carpet and buddy reading in Reader's Workshop. In my effort to bring more nature into my classroom (even in the form of clipart), I made up a list for Sun & Moon partners. You can print it out and post it somewhere. Then when you ask your kiddos to turn and talk to their partner, you can say "Sun partners go first," or vice versa! Click on the image below to download the freebie, or find it at my TPT store here.

Sun Moon partners

What I want kindergarten parents to know.

K parents Dear kindergarten parents,

A new school year is starting! For some of you, this is the first time you'll be sending your sweet, sensitive, singular five-year-old anywhere on his own. For others, you have done the whole preschool thing, so you're not hyperventilating, but you also know that real, big-kid school is a whole other ball game.

And now, in late August, you're meeting with me, the kindergarten teacher, and as you bring your little kiddo into this giant classroom with an overwhelming number of tables and long hallways that look prime for getting lost in, you can't stop thinking about how nervous you are.

I want you to know, I'm just as nervous.

I'm not nervous because I don't know what I'm doing. I've been in the classroom for a number of years now, and while I don't consider myself an expert, I do my damn well best to teach things right, and with passion.

No, I'm nervous that you won't know how much I care about your child.

Throughout the year, I will do my best to communicate how much I care about your child, through conferences and little notes home and hopefully many conversations. But I only have so much time in the day, and there are so many kiddos in my class, that I know I will fail at really showing you how much I care. So please, accept my apology for that ahead of time, and allow me a chance to explain it to you now. Here's what I want you to know.

I want you to know that I believe your child is beautiful, and very, very special. I will try to tell him that every day, but if I forget, I'll make sure to tell him tomorrow.

I want you to know that my classroom is a safe place for him. I don't allow kids to be mean to each other, but when they do, I stop what I'm doing to teach them how to be kind.

I want you to know I will do my absolute best to meet her needs: her need to wiggle while I read aloud, her need to go to the bathroom sixteen times a day, her need for a hug when she first walks in the room. Most of my energy is dedicated to making sure I meet the needs of all my kids. And I don't mean just their academic needs. I mean all of them.

I want you to know that my goal is for your child to love school, as much as I loved school when I was little, as much as I love school today. I want him to look forward to coming each day, so that learning is something he will happily do for the rest of his life.

I want you to know that I won't let the testing craze prevent me from giving her time to play, and have fun, and interact with her friends.

I want you to know that her reading level is less important to me than whether or not she is happy at school.

And last, I want you to know that I will let your child be herself. I won't judge her for what she can and can't do, and I will make sure she knows that it's okay to be exactly as she is.

Thank you for sharing your child with me. I hope I can show you how much I care.

Sincerely, your child's kindergarten teacher

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.


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:

Why I don't talk about test scores at parent-teacher conferences

testing_children I'm home sick today because of a grueling week of parent-teacher conferences that put my body over the edge. Parent-teacher conference weeks are simultaneously my favorite and least favorite weeks of the year. Almost all of my kids' parents show up for conferences, and I get to talk to them about all kinds of things that we don't have time to discuss in the craziness of after-school dismissal. I love connecting with families during these weeks.

But I also dread this time of year, because my days at work become longer and more intense, rushing around to do more assessments on my students, putting together 20 or more student portfolios to share with parents, and working 10 to 12-hour days (conferences go until 8pm two days during the week, and this is on top of teaching normal school days).

But the biggest reason that I get stressed during parent-teacher conferences is because they force me to confront an ongoing battle I have about what's important in teaching kindergarten. What do I share with parents? I have 15 minutes, and what I think my district wants me to share is all the data I have compiled on each student. After all, next to my desk I have a giant "student data" binder, which makes me feel both proud of how productive and organized I am, and ashamed of how I spend so much time making checklists and spreadsheets about my students.

If I used this student data binder at parent-teacher conferences, I could report the following to Mom and Dad about their five-year-old:

  • Whether or not they are considered Tier 1, Tier 2, or Tier 3 in reading right now. Tier 2 and 3 means they are "struggling readers," even though they are only five and have just barely learned how to hold a book rightside up.
  • What score out of 102 they got on their state-mandated phonological literacy screening test.
  • What grade they got on three math unit tests so far this year
  • What grade they received on four reading unit tests that I have given them
  • How well they are doing on the scale of writing development during their most recent writing assessment, which was an informational non-fiction piece
  • The letter that represents the reading level at which they are reading right now - and how far away from the end-of-the-year goal they are on this scale
  • How they are scoring on any of the 30+ items that I will be assessing for upcoming report cards

The list could go on, but these are the most basic data items I am required to gather for each of my kindergarten students. And do you know how much of this I share with my students' parents? Almost none.

Instead, I tell parents how much their child loves reading, and what types of books he likes to have read to him. I share what games she likes to play during math time, and how many friends she is making on the playground. I share what stories he tells at morning meeting, and how much he loves to draw Ninja Turtles.

I don't use any numbers or letters to describe their child. I don't use phrases like "Your child is a D on a scale of A to Z." Instead, I try to describe their child using words like "curious," "helpful," "empathetic," and "creative."

If a student is having major struggles in any areas of learning, I will for sure delve into what I am noticing. I will also share the many academic successes that students are having in school. But I do not want parents to walk away from parent-teacher conferences thinking that their child is a number on a scale to me. I want them to realize how much I love their child, and how much their child loves to learn and do and create.

I want parents to know that I know their children for who they are as individuals, not how they measure on a standardized test.


Homework checklist for kindergarten {editable}

Homework in kindergarten! As strongly as I feel that we are already overworking our kindergarteners, I have parents asking me every year for what they can do at home. For a few years, I tried just telling parents that they shouldn't worry about homework this year - the amount their kids would receive in older grades would be enough for a lifetime! But inevitably parents would beg for homework, and I would put together makeshift math packets or sight word worksheets. This was time consuming and inconsistent, since I didn't have a time to put together a new packet every week, and the stress it caused for me was not worth the gains the kids made (or more likely didn't make). But this year I finally found a solution that works - the Homework Checklist! I learned about the Homework Checklist from the phenomenal book Cultivating Joy and Wonder. The teacher-authors of this book use the checklist to disguise playing outside as "homework," an idea that was right up my alley. Here's how it works:

  1. Every Friday I send home the checklist. I ask that families choose five items to complete with their child, and bring it back by the following Friday.
  2. The first four items on the list are always the same. In my opinion, these are the five most important things that developing kindergarteners should be doing on a weekly (if not daily) basis:
    • Read a book to yourself.
    • Read a book with someone.
    • Exercise or play outside for 30 minutes.
    • Help someone in your family cook a meal.
  3. The rest of the items on the list change each week according to what we have been studying. I use this for all kinds of ideas, including but not limited to:
    • doing a shape hunt around the house during our shape unit
    • writing "how to" books with a family member during our How To Writer's Workshop unit
    • assigning a sight word scavenger hunt in magazines at home
    • walking around the yard looking for signs of spring
    • practicing counting to 100 independently

Homework Checklist from teachruneat.com

I am so excited to have found a way to incorporate homework that is kid-friendly and developmentally appropriate. I make sure to let parents know that they are not required to do any of the items, and can in fact add their own ideas. I like to think that this encourages families to spend time working on fun and engaging tasks together with their kindergarten child, rather than just helping them complete worksheets in the traditional homework format.

If you'd like a copy of the checklist, I just posted an editable version on my Teachers Pay Teachers store! You can also click on the image above. I hope

When work becomes more important than play in kindergarten

importance of play This will be my third year teaching kindergarten (and seventh year teaching overall), and every day I become more frustrated with the demands we are making on kindergarten students. Research overwhelming states that children need to play to learn. Just read this and this and this and this.

I know how important play is, and I make every effort I can to put it into my classroom. But the urgency with which we are required to fit in so much curriculum and testing sometimes leaves me feeling powerless to do what I feel is best for my kids.

Sadly, this was a week in which I hardly let my students play. There were too many other things that they HAD to do.

In place of playing, here are a few things I asked my five- and six-year-olds to do this week:

  1. Complete 7 math worksheets.
  2. Write a personal narrative.
  3. Edit and revise their personal narrative.
  4. Sort spelling words according to their letter pattern.
  5. Read silently for twenty minutes each day.
  6. Take a state-mandated test on their "reading level."
  7. Memorize flashcards of high-frequency words, and participate in a daily song drilling these words.
  8. Write using a "graphic organizer" to demonstrate what they learned in science.
  9. Complete four math homework sheets.
  10. Summarize and retell a book each day, as well as tell me the title, setting, main character, problem and solution.

This isn't what kindergarteners should be doing in school. Third graders, maybe. But not kids who are still learning the most basic of life skills, including taking turns, having empathy, asking questions, and making observations.

To learn these skills, kids need unstructured play, small group interactions, movement, exploration, free time. I will continue to create pockets of time for these vital learning experiences. But it's an uphill battle.