Throw-Back Thursday: Slowing Down and Taking Ownership

This Throw-back Thursday post is from November 23, 2011. I’m very happy to report that during the past three years our district has been able to add more than 1000 iPad minis to our preschool and kindergarten classrooms, thanks to grants and the hard work of our fabulous accountant, director, and office manager who all recognized the need for teachers to have the right materials to document student work quickly and easily.

I’ve been fortunate to be in more classrooms over the past few weeks, so I’ve been taking lots of pictures.  I carry my iPhone with me, and use it to capture photos, videos, and sometimes voice recordings.  There are two things that I’ve noticed, when I ask a child if I can photograph what they’re working on – most children begin to slow down and many children seem to take more ownership of the project.

As soon as I snap a photo, I ask the child if he’d like to see the picture.  Every child I’ve worked with is very eager to see the results.  The child looks closely at the photo, and then returns to play.  Most of the time, if I’m still nearby, the child will ask me to take subsequent pictures, as the work progresses.  I’ve noticed children who were rushing, begin to slow their play/work down a little.  They’ll make a change in the configuration, then ask for another photo, in order to see the subtle change captured.

The project seems to become more valued by the child, and I don’t know whether this is because an outsider has noticed the project, or whether it’s because it’s been captured on ‘film’.  Or, maybe the project would have been just as valued, regardless of the camera or outside influence – it’s difficult to know.

I wish there was a way for me to quickly and easily print out photos in the classroom, in order to leave the documentation with the child.  I know that I can send them to the teacher later, but it’s the immediacy of seeing the photos during centers, that seems more powerful.

My favorite sequence came from a small group of boys, who were experimenting with ramps and cars.  One boy in particular, M., wanted me to capture the cars in motion on the ramp.  I would love to get more cameras, for kids in our classrooms to use – I know M. would’ve been very interested in trying to capture the images himself.

Who do you see in your books?

I'm in this book!

I love the days that I get to be in classrooms with kids. Today I visited with a quartet of kindergarten boys that were working on their independent reading. They were SO excited to be reading, but they became ecstatic when one guy noticed that a character in his book resembled him.

The boys went on to search through each book in the bin, finding their doppelgängers (as well as the long lost twins of many of their classmates). One of my new friends, Anthony, was temporarily crestfallen when he couldn’t find himself. In a few minutes he victoriously showed me a book called My Family which included ‘himself’ and his grandfather.

The photo search led the boys to briefly discuss race and ethnicity. Their statements were so matter-of-fact:

That boy is Chinese, and so are you, right?

Amir, that boy looks like your brother, because he has brown skin and hair like yours, but he’s shorter than you.

I don’t know if any of these guys are Mexican, like me…Oh! This one is for sure! 

And then they moved on with their day. That short but important conversation wouldn’t have happened if the boys hadn’t been able to see themselves in the illustrations and photos.

We use a tool to rate our district preschool classrooms called the ECERS-R (Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale – Revised), and it includes sections about diversity in the visual environment, as well as in classroom books. I’ve seen teachers put out extra photos and books before their rating month, but diversity should be part of the environment and children’s book choices every month. I hope that we can consistently provide diverse materials not to gain points on a rating scale, but because it’s the right thing to do.  For Anthony, Amir, and countless other students, thoughtful book choices could make all the difference in their engagement and motivation as they learn to read.

Who do you see in your books?

In early readers and in higher level books without illustrations, can students ‘see’ kids they can relate to, in addition to kids who are different from them?

Even if you’re not working with or raising kids right now, who do you see in your adult fiction choices?

Text: Children, Race and Racism: How Race Awareness Develops

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From Children, Race and Racism: How Race Awareness Develops
By Louise Derman-Sparks, Carol Tanaka Higa, Bill Sparks

Adults are generally extremely uncomfortable when children comment
or ask directly about race and racism. They feel embarrassment, anxiety,
anger, sadness, and confusion about what to say. As one educator and
activist states: “One thing adults do – white, brown, Black, red and yellow –
is to lie to children about racism.” Delaying tactics are also used.
Sometimes this is done to protect children, but in most cases, adults are
trying to protect themselves as well. Therefore, a significant factor in
encouraging children’s anti-racist development is to face one’s own feelings,
knowledge and behavior. A statement by James Baldwin is pertinent here:
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed
until it is faced.” In addition, we cannot explain racial identity and racism to
children unless we know something about both areas.

Materials: Book Power

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My starter question yesterday was about race and racism. How do we talk about race with kids, when it’s a subject that we often avoid as adults?

This piece on race by Katherine Fritz got me thinking about my little corner of the world, both at home and in the urban school district where I work. What do I do to increase my awareness of my own white privilege? What do I do to create change in a society steeped in inequality? Or maybe the better question is, what do I not do?

Because to be honest, I don’t do much. I zero in on in my own tiny family circle, and our own tiny problems. We face the universal problem of how to do good work that will pay for our food, housing, and clothing, but we have the privilege of facing the challenge with so many advantages. I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, but I’ve always been comfortably swimming in the water of white privilege. I want to be more aware of that water, and I hope that my kids will be too.

I remember a conversation with Sam when he was about six, about slavery, which resulted from a book we were reading. I gave him a very incomplete summary of the Civil War, and then he asked, “Mom, am I black?” The question surprised me, and I answered, “No, you’d be called white, why?”

“Well, white people were bad for making black people slaves. And they were bad for not letting everyone go to good schools and keeping people separate. I really don’t want to be a bad guy, so I don’t want to be white. I’d rather be black.”

Then we talked about how people of any race could do bad things and good things, and that many white people fought against slavery during the Civil War. That satisfied him for the day, but I know we need to keep revisiting the subject.

When he was six, the words black and white in that context weren’t referencing skin color; for him the words were categorizing people according to their beliefs about equality. Black described a person who believed in racial equality and white described a person who supported slavery.

Now he’s eight, and we haven’t talked directly about race or racism for a long time. The events in Ferguson have (finally) reminded me that we need to be having those conversations.

One relatively simple way for me to do that right now as a parent, is to provide more diverse book choices for both of my kids. We discuss what we read, so if we’re only choosing Percy Jackson and Fancy Nancy from the library, we’re basically swimming safely in our white privilege waters (not to take away any greatness from Rick Riordan or Jane O’Connor). At the same time, I don’t want to just choose books that are about people of different races and ethnicities as sort of a library borrowing quota system. As Fritz highlighted, “That would actually be racist.”

As I sift through book lists and our own book shelves, I’ve noticed a few categories of diversity in books. There are those like Lola Plants a Garden by Anna McQuinn that feature a protagonist that happens to be a race other than caucasian. The text doesn’t communicate an overt message about race; it’s more a slice of life book, which many children can identify with.lola

The next category are those books that show protagonists who are directly affected by race and racism. I Am Rosa Parks by Brad Meltzer is a great example.rosa

The final category is a mix of the first two – a slice of life, that also touches on themes of equality. Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman fits here. Grace is a girl who loves stories, and she’s a girl who takes a stand against racial and gender stereotypes.amazing grace

If you want to expand your own book repertoire in any of the above categories, this list compiled by Marsha Rakestraw at the Institute for Humane Education is an excellent starting point.

I read both Lola Plants a Garden and I Am Rosa Parks to Isabel tonight. She enjoyed both books immensely, but when I asked her later which she preferred she immediately answered I Am Rosa Parks. When asked why she replied, “Because…well, more stuff happened, and Rosa wanted to make a change, even though she was very little, and she was kind of old.” I love it that she saw the difference between the two books, and that she enjoyed both types.

If you do rush to your local library tomorrow to find some of these titles, please also remember this from Fritz’s article:

Because here is the thing, fellow white people. Racism isn’t over because Barack Obama is president. Racism isn’t over because Beyoncé. Racism isn’t over because Oprah. Racism didn’t end when we all read To Kill a Mockingbird in tenth-grade English class, and it’s not over now.

Racism is when you reduce a human being to a series of beliefs, stereotypes, or cultural identities that remove their ability to be seen as a unique individual.

Reading diverse literature is a great start, but it sort of stalls out if you don’t take the time to talk about the books and how they relate (or don’t relate) to your everyday life.

What are some of your favorite children’s or adult books that address themes of race and racism? Why?

Sharing Saturdays: Will the real American childhood please stand up?

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Over the past eight-or-so years of parenting, I’ve overheard or been involved in some version of the following conversation, countless times:

Kids these days…It’s so different from when we were growing up.

Oh, I know! When I was a kid my parents sent us outside in the morning and didn’t expect us back until dinner (or ‘until the street lights came on’).

Yeah, me too! We didn’t play video games all day like kids do today. If we were bored, we had to find something to do!

The exchange goes back and forth a few more times, with the nostalgic air of grandparents who walked to and from school in snow storms, uphill both ways. One parent will inevitably mention that it’s just not safe outside anymore, bemoaning the decline of civilization in general. Another may interject that it’s also because kids are so darn over-scheduled by helicopter parents (or neglected in front of the television, take your pick, but either way it’s always an extreme situation, isn’t it?).

The conversationalists nod, sigh, and move on with their own overscheduled days, but they leave with smug, self-satisfied auras; they’re clearly reaping the rewards of their own idyllic childhoods. And at least their parents weren’t complete screw ups, like the parents of today seem to be.

I have to admit to nodding in agreement, throwing in some of my own memories of growing up in the country, and consequently helping maintain the hallowed institution of The Perfect 20th Century Childhood.

Only recently, I’ve begun to question this idealized version of the past, as well as the plugged-in-lazy-kids-indulgent-or-negligent parents version of the present. I can trace my questioning back to seeing a few too many Facebook memes like this:

childhood nostalgia

It struck me as strange that the wording of the memes and the overheard snippets of conversations consistently followed such similar patterns of syntax and vocabulary. A black and white retelling, with the past playing the hero and the present playing the villain. Like an instructive story, passed from generation to generation. Like…a myth.

If you hang out with real kids (as opposed to those mythological ones), and observe their actions and interests, you might be pleasantly surprised. These are some of the interactions I’ve observed recently:

  • Kids gathering on playgrounds, before, during, and after school to invent and play games that are intricate, social, and creative.
  • Kids in our neighborhood running freely up and down the block, often barefoot, in search of a pick-up Nerf battle or some fort building action. Climbing and balancing on the tree house pictured above.
  • Kids hanging out sans-parents, at local parks, libraries, playgrounds, and recreational centers. Seriously. And they’ve been making safe decisions and having a lot of fun.

What are your real-time observations? Is childhood really lost, or are we buying into nostalgic mythology?