Yes, Kindergartner's Can Talk About Race.
This past school year, I took a leap. Now this leap may seem small to many, but it was a jump for me. It was eye opening, beneficial for all, exhilarating, and important work. Work that I need to continually improve on, check myself, re-check myself, unlearn, and discuss.
I wanted to celebrate Black History Month by spending way more time discussing important black people in our country, how black people were and are treated differently, and our own views about people of different races. I also wanted to celebrate Black History Month for longer than just in February. It's work we need to constantly be talking about, and I need to constantly be learning about. Did I mention, I wanted to do this work with 5 and 6 year olds?
A little back story. My school district has been putting in a lot of work on undoing racism and identifying our own biases. We have amazing leaders at the district level and within our own buildings having important conversations and pushing back on our beliefs we were raised with, and ones we are not even aware of. Now, we have a long way to go, this includes me, but the work has started and has been so beneficial to me. Which is what sparked my desire to discuss these issues with my kindergartner's. My thought was, let's start discussing these things now, to help our future later. Many people underestimate 5 and 6 year olds. I use to. Now, I see their full potential and their dreams, desires, and honesty as a powerful tool to engage with.
I started by finding many books and pictures that would open dialogue about what we read, saw, and noticed. I follow @thetututeacher and @diversereads on instagram and gather so many amazing diverse books! Many of the books we read about were from her suggestions. We predicted, read, discussed, questioned, looked closely and more. We slowed down, and took time to have meaningful conversations, wherever they led us. I was nervous for these conversations, because I often cannot find the words to what I am feeling. I was nervous to say the wrong thing or not have the correct information. I was nervous as to how my parents would feel. As in my true educator fashion, I just went for it.
We started by reading a few books that the children could relate to. Books about kids. The two books below were great books to discuss and learn from. We wrote about what we learned from the character, things we noticed, how the characters felt, how we felt, questions we had and more. This was a great starting point for us because my students felt like they could relate.
I took a picture from the book Let the Children March, and we examined what we saw, felt, etc. The picture shows children being beaten, sprayed with a hose, and dogs biting them. I was nervous, but knew this picture had to be discussed. This was one of the most powerful days we had. What they noticed, felt, and questioned was amazing to me. How could these 5 and 6 year olds understand race and discuss the issues our world struggles with? Take a look at their findings in the picture below.
They couldn't imagine kids the same age as them, being beaten, for no reason, bitten by dogs, yelled at, AND taken to jail! They were scared and mad that this happened. They didn't understand why people would do that. We talked about why the kids were marching. We talked about how brave this was, and why this was so important. These kids were standing up for injustice and using their voices for change. We talked about how these kids didn't use violence, but the white people did.
After we examined this picture closely I had an idea for doing this same thing, but with other pictures from around the time when MLK was alive. We read and studied MLK so we had a connection and background with his story. I simply printed off 4-5 pictures, left some sticky notes on the tables, and asked my students to write what they saw, read, and what questions they had. Their work and words will amaze you.
Some phrases they wrote:
"I see him in jail."
"I see Martin."
"He was sad."
"Black people can't use it." (white and black drinking fountains)
"Martin is in a white area."
"I see lots of people marching."
Discussions and questions these above prompted:
-"Why was Martin in jail? He didn't nothing wrong!"
-"Why are there different drinking fountains?"
-"Why were there white areas?"
You can imagine the discussions these brought up. These were amazing days discussing these hard truths. I often didn't have answers. We often just had to sit in the horribleness we saw and read.
You can never underestimate kids! They see, hear, and notice these things. They notice what we read. What we spend our time on. The looks we give. The body language we use. Talking about it is the best we can do. Starting with our youngest kids, so we can build a better future.
This also sparked a student to check out a book from the library, go home to read, and research. She then share with the class. She was so proud of what she learned and I am so glad our discussions sparked this curiosity in her! She taught us all about skin tones and why we all look different.
As we continued this work, we enjoyed learning about important stories of black people, like Ethel Payne, Wilma Rudolph, Jackie Robinson, and more. We learned from them, and were inspired by them. We discovered we were like them, and they are important.
The reason I share all of this is because 5 and 6 year old are capable of having these tough conversations. They are ready to discuss the injustices. They are honest. They are inspiring. I wish adults could learn a lesson from my kids. Because if 5 and 6 year olds can have honest and hard conversations respectfully, adults should be able too. They will change the world.