Posted in Early Childhood Education, preschool, Uncategorized

Race, Color, and Childhood 

I’ve had some experiences in the classroom lately that have me thinking about skin color, children, and my role as a teacher.

The thing is, I’ve always been unusually color blind. My father is Mexican and my Mother is Caucasian, so maybe that’s a piece of why. When I was very young I became attached to a baby doll, as many young girls do.Unlike most girls dolls, mine was a beautifully dark chocolaty brown color. I called her my black baby.  I’m not sure where I got the term “black” at age 3 years old or less, but the name stuck. I kept, loved, and slept with her till my dog chewed her to pieces when I was a young teenager.

My life was fairly free of racial tension land prejudice until I hit upper elementary school age while living in Arizona, where immigration tensions were high. People didn’t believe me when I told them my dad was Mexican because I had red hair and freckles. Kids at my elementary school would say things like, “You sure your mom didn’t sleep with the mailman?” Apparently half Mexican babies are supposed to be brown, and I was never dark enough for that part of me to be accepted by anyone outside my family, not even other Mexicans.

Luckily, I spent my childhood moving around the western side of the country, and I was exposed to many different people and perspectives.

My first encounter with another type of prejudice came in the 7th grade, when Jeremy, an African American boy, admitted between classes that he had a crush on me. My friends all wanted to know what I thought. When I told them I was flattered but too young to date, they were flabbergasted!

“So you like him?”

“He’s nice. I’d go on a date with him if I were older.”

“But he’s black!” one of them said to me.

“And my dad’s Mexican,” I reminded her. “He’s a nice guy and he’s my friend.” That’s really all that mattered to me. I remember trying to understand why my friends cared about his skin color, but I couldn’t.

I don’t know exactly where I missed the memo on skin color. I’ve made many a blunder over the years as a result (Do not touch kinky hair, no matter how cool it looks! And don’t even get me started on stereotypical food references. Fried chicken, mayo, oreos… Only have very trusted friends explain those to you!!!).

For some reason, my 305 year old students are so much more aware than I was. They don’t say anything outright, but I see it in their behavior, their preferences, and their comments. The thing is, I’m seeing a pattern where racial naivete in the younger ones progresses into shame and prejudice in the space of 2-3 short years.

Take my 3 year old daughter, Tutu (I’m using code names to protect my student’s privacy). She’s three – aware of different skin colors, but unaware of the baggage we older folk tend to attach to them. For example, one sunny day I took my class to sit under the tree in front of the school to read a story. In the distance, one of the children saw a man walking up the sidewalk. “Look! It’s Derek” she excitedly announced. Derek is the afternoon teacher. I observed the man as he approached. He wore a hoodie, sweats, and even had a beard like Derek’s, but it was not him. I informed them of the sad fact just as he came within earshot. Tutu yelled, “But he’s black and Derek is black!”. Thankfully, the man had earbuds in and didn’t seem to hear. It turned into a discussion about the similarities and differences between this man and Derek, but in the end we all agreed it wasn’t him.

Over the next few days I noticed the children pointing out their skin and eye colors, so I read them the story, ” The Colors of Us” by Karen Katz. It tells of a girl who takes a walk around town and puts beautiful names such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and honey to the skin colors of the people she sees. It wasn’t long before the children began looking for the names of their skin colors. One boy in my class, we”ll call him Sunshine, has skin that’s chocolate brown.

One of the other children said, “Look Sunshine! That’s your color!” when we came to that page in the book.

“No! I’m this color!” he said as turned the page to a significantly lighter skinned person.

The other children tried to disagree, but I could see Sunshine was getting upset, and not wanting to sour the experience for him, I told them not to bother Sunshine. The subject was dropped and we continued the story. Two pages later we reached a color similar to sunshine’s chocolate brown, though slightly darker. The girl in the book calls it bronze and amber, “like a beautiful jewel”. Acting on a hunch, I told the children that this had always been one of my favorite colors (and it really has!). Sunshine got a little smile in the corner of his mouth. When we reached the end of the book, the children all announced the color closest to their skin. Sunshine pointed to the girl with the chocolate brown skin and proudly said, “This is my color!”

Ever since this experience, I’ve pondered why he reacted the way he did to this book. Why did he think lighter skin was better before I said something? I’ve seen this in other children in my class too.

On one occasion we had only 4 children come to class. Spiderman’s usual friends were all gone, so he played with Tornado, a boy who looks like he could be Dominican and who has a speech delay. Spiderman, who is a tall caucasian boy, told me he didn’t used to like Tornado, because he has “fuzzy hair”. Then he said, “But Tornado is actually pretty funny. Like when you were digging with us and he put sand on your pants for a joke, that was funny”. He said this ponderously, as though processing something significant. He’s been kinder to Tornado, even under peer pressure from friends, ever since.

Tornado will only play with the light skinned baby dolls at school, despite the many darker shades we have available. Why is that?

How do we go from Tutu’s ignorance, to Sunshine’s, Spiderman’s, and Tornado’s preference for light skin and smooth hair? My guess is that the answer is all around us in conversations and in our media – our society.

But I am not concerned with pointing out every negative influence. That’s beyond the scope of what I can write just now. I think it’s more important to focus on what we can do to combat those influences.

In this age of political correctness, many people like to just avoid the subject of skin, stereotypes, and racism because it’s safer. But skin color can’t be taboo. Its a part of all of us, and silence doesn’t make it go away or turn us color blind. Rather, silence allows the existing racist messages bedded in society to continue on to the next generation, perpetuating the problem.

I used to think that if we stopped talking about racism, it would go away. I was wrong. The concept of different races is false. There is only the human race. But racism is so built into our history, our culture, and our institutions that it’s going to take continued conscious effort to get ride of it.

As I think back on the experiences of my childhood that shaped my beliefs on the issues of diversity, color, race, and prejudice, I remember interacting with people who were different from myself. I remember reading books that promote diversity, and having meaningful discussions about those books. I remember taking a whole class in high school called Cultural Diversity, where we learned about the negative impacts of prejudice and stereotyping, and how to speak assertively on issues like homelessness, sexual orientation, immigration, religion, and race. First and foremost though, I remember knowing at a very young age that all people on earth are children of God and that he loves them no matter what.

The relationship between all of these experiences is that in each one, barriers were explicitly broken down. It didn’t happen by itself. Teachers, friends and family went out of their way to shape my view of the world. Discussions about diversity were never taboo, and they were often emphasized.

So let’s break down some barriers for our children. Let’s undemonize the word “brown”. And while we’re at it, though this may make waves, I’d love to forget the terms “black” and “white” altogether. As Jerry Spinelli puts it in his book, “Maniac Magee”,

“For the life of him, [Maniac] couldn’t figure out why the East enders called themselves black. He kept looking and looking, and the colors he found were gingersnap and light fudge and dark fudge and acorn and butter rum and burnt orange. But never licorice, which, to him, was real black.”

And again,

“Maniac kept trying, but he still couldn’t see it, this color business. He didn’t figured he wasn’t white any more than the East enders were black. He looked himself over pretty hard and he came up with at least seven different shades and colors, right on his own skin, not one of them being what he would call white (except his eyeballs which were not any whiter than the eyeballs of the kids in the East end).”

So why continue this black and white business when there is so much negativety attached, and when none of us is really black or white anyway?

I’d rather send the message loud and clear that we must embrace our diversity like we embrace the many colors in a bouquet of mixed flowers. There is no right or wrong color for flowers. They are just different. All are beautiful, and we call them the color that they are.

I think we can, and should, teach that concept early, in the moments like those I’ve been having with my young students. These are the teaching moments that can turn color from a source of shame and prejudice into a bouquet of beauty.

Because no child should feel like they are less than.

No child should feel less than beautiful.

No child should feel less than intelligent.

No child should feel less than capable.

No child should feel less than confident.

No child should feel less than loved and wanted.

And as I, my students, and others speak for the beauty of diversity, we may in time change the voice of society. I can only hope.

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Posted in Early Childhood Education

Planning For Play: Lesson Plans in a Child Led Preschool

I shared last week that the school where I work fully believes in the concept of play-based, child-led education. To the extent that we teachers are required to document what we do at the end of each day, rather than turn in lesson plans before hand. The supporting idea is that if we are truly “child led” then lesson plans are pointless because we’re following the children’s lead every day anyway. I’m totally with that. In fact, I used to feel kind of stupid writing meticulous lesson plans that I knew I probably wouldn’t follow through on.

The thing is, this method relies solely on a good environment and concept development conversations. One play scenario can go down a hundred different learning rabbit holes depending on what the teacher says and does. For example, picture a child building a tower using small colored blocks. He excitedly calls the teacher over to see.

As a teacher I could respond with, “Wow! How many blocks did you use to build that tower?” We’re developing number sense.

Or I could ask, “How tall is that tower?” Now we’re exploring measurement.

“What is this piece that sticks out for? It’s a canon! Oh, I can’t remember what letter that starts with. Do you?” Now we’re into symbolic thinking, pretend play, and literacy.

Say the tower falls over as the child is building. “I wonder why those blocks fell down!” We’re talking science and engineering.

I could go on, but you see my point. It is like teacher/blogger Misha, from Without Windows, explained to me, “… in a child led environment, the child controls the lens, but the teacher controls the content”.

Yes, a teacher can help children explore all the concepts they need to know through the environment and curriculum development, but there is a heck of a lot of content! How is a teacher supposed to keep track of what has and hasn’t been explored? Art and Literacy are fun, so I do those all the time without even thinking. Life science is a breeze when we spend so much time outside. But what about everything else? It’s not fair to the kids to focus only on what I enjoy. That’s where the planning comes in.

I’ve spent the last 3 weeks figuring out a system that helps me focus on what children need to know without dominating them. The result so far is surprisingly simple, but I find that simple is usually better.

I have assigned myself a daily emphasis for parts of the curriculum that I believe to be especially important. It is not a theme for the kids! They don’t even know my about my cunningly hidden planning (Mwahahaha!). This is simply the content which I try to present through the kid’s lense. My schedule is as follows:

Mon. – Social/Emotional

Tues – Literacy

Wed – Math

Thurs – The Arts

Fri – Science

It’s not strict, and I don’t stick exclusively to the daily emphasis. If the kids are super focused on figuring out who’s tallest on literacy Tuesday, I’m going to follow them wholeheartedly down that rabbit hole. In fact, I still set up materials at the centers and tables that lend themselves toward each area every day. The plan is more of a guideline to help me ensure I’m providing exposure to all of the basics throughout the week. It also helps me focus my observations, so that I am being sure to observe the many ways children develop and not just focusing on a particular strength or weakness.

I made a weekly planning sheet for myself that covers each developmental domain plus some others I think are important: Social/Emotional, Language/Literacy, Math, Science, Gross Motor, Fine Motor, Sensory, and The Arts. I thought about putting Cognitive on there, but I feel like that development is something that happens as the others develop and as children face daily problems. It’s not something that I would normally consciously plan. If you do, I’d love to hear about it!

For each domain, I write down broad learning goals and ways I might incorporate them during the week. For example, in literacy for next week I’ve planned to read, “The D Book”, set up a phonics/alphabet matching game at one of the tables, and then I have some ideas for how I could bring up literacy concepts at the sensory, car, and block areas. I also made a note about adding some literacy materials to the pretend area. I might not get to use all of it, but at least I’m ready and I have some idea of the content I want to introduce.

Domains that aren’t assigned a day are things I incorporate every day into the environment. I always have at least one sensory and at least one fine motor experience set up inside. Sometimes I’ll set something up outside just for a change of pace. Gross motor is built into our outside time, but I like to have some games or experiences available to encourage and challenge the kids. Riding bikes and playing tag get boring if that’s all you ever do! And who says you can’t do gross motor inside as a group?

So that’s how I’ve tackled planning. Truth be told, it feels good to let go and be loose. It means so much more time to be with the kids. I’m getting to play with and know them in ways that I never had time to before. That also means more time for meaningful observations, which leads to better assessing and informed planning. I love the cyclical nature of those three! It’s just managing the timing that’s tricky 😉

I’m nowhere near perfect, but this has been helping me and hopefully it helps those of you also making the journey into truly child led education. I’d love to hear how those of you already practicing child led curriculum handle this too! Are you planners? Or do you wing it?

Posted in Early Childhood Education

The Journey into Play Based Education

As an early education major, it was drilled into my head that play is what young children should be doing. I heard things like, “It is the work of children to play,” and, “Play is the child’s best teacher”. All. The. Time.

As a student of education, I thought it was great! I bought into it completely. Still do, in fact. I’ve sung the praises of play in school for years now. But the truth is that it’s so easy to talk. It sounds so easy to pull off. Just follow the kids lead. The learning will happen. Let them experiment! Explore!

I had no idea what I was talking about.

I completed 600+ hours worth of student internship time. Both of my placement sites claimed to be “play based”, and I thought they were too, at the time. I’ve since learned that there’s a whole spectrum of what’s accepted as “play based education” by the early education community.

On one end of the spectrum is teacher-led “themes”, where the teacher plans a weeks worth of play activities they think the children will be interested in. The best teachers observe the children to actually learn their interests and plan with them in mind. Others plan themes out for the year in advance regardless of the children’s personal interests.

At the other end of the spectrum is child-led curriculum, where teachers provide a rich environment and then observe children’s play and ask thought-provoking or concept development questions to help children learn and grow. Through my own research and limited experience, I had determined that this is the direction I lean in as a teacher; The research says that the best learning happens when children are interested and engaged, and they will never be as interested or engaged when the teacher is calling all the shots. Project learning and Reggio Emilia are favorite philosophies of mine for that reason.

Both my internship sites leaned in varying levels toward the theme direction, however my current teaching position falls at the very far end of the child led side. There are no teacher directed lesson plans here. Or any lesson plans at all really. Every piece of the day holds learning opportunities, and every child discovers them at their own pace. Sounds great! Right?

I was So. Not. Ready.

Concept development, the main teaching tool in this kind of setting, is like an art form. I used to watch in awe as my internship teacher interacted with children. She could take literally anything they were already doing, and turn it into a learning experience. It was amazing. I’d think, “When I grow up, I want to be that kind of teacher!”

Well I passed her class with a 4.0. I graduated with a BA in early childhood…. It’s time to start being that teacher.

The thing is, I’m a structure person. Lists are my best friend. I was bullet journaling before I even knew it was a thing. I can wing it, but that’s not where my best teaching happens. Not to mention, lesson  planning and intentional teaching are two more concepts that were pounded into me in every single early ed class I took. I can’t imagine a life without some kind of planning.

That said, I believe that even child-led education should be intentional. My challenge as a new teacher is figuring out how to marry these concepts that seem so opposite on the surface, and yet so important. Perhaps if I worked at a more structured center, there would be policies and procedures that would help me through this process. But I don’t, and there aren’t.

I want to be the best teacher I can be, and these kids deserve the best, so I am tackling the challenge myself.

I’ll be documenting my efforts toward that aim here. Concept development methods, lesson planning, and assessment are all issues I’ll be incorporating. In the mean time, does anyone else struggle with this? Or have you got it all figured out? I’d love to hear of your experiences with play based, child led education!