Sunday, May 13, 2012

Skills for Welcoming Difference - Part II

Tuesday evening I had the pleasure of speaking with a wonderful group of parents, teachers and community members at the Bush School in Seattle. Following my presentation, "Mirrors and Lenses: A Conversation About Race," we had a question and answer session during which participants shared some tips for navigating difference:

- A kindergarten teacher described the name activity with which the year begins each September. Each day one student is selected to share the story of his or her name, how the name was chosen, and what it means. The name activity is paired with a discussion of skin colors, including sorting through colored papers to find the exact shade of each child's skin.

What a positive and powerful way to start the year! These are just a few of the benefits I imagine as a result:

  • Each child has the experience of being individually welcomed and celebrated.
  • Everyone in the class learns how to pronounce each name correctly.
  • A level playing field - a sense of "all of us"- is set up by having each name, each skin color, treated with equal curiosity. No one is singled out as being the different one.
  • The children have been given permission and language to express their observations about difference, and the teachers have signaled that this exploration will be safe and welcoming.
- A father shared his strategies for expanding his five-year-old son's ideas of who plays which roles, by gender, race, or even species! Joining in his son's games with legos or action figures, he sometimes picks a non-traditional character to be the active one, the rescuer, the hero, the villain, etc. There's no need to impart lessons, but simply to have fun, imagining new possibilities together: "What would happen if ...?" "Wouldn't it be funny if ...?" This kind of play also provides opportunities to discover what ideas children are absorbing about difference.

- A parent who is Sikh talked of the importance of not just sharing diverse books with children, but connecting them with real live difference in the community. Look for stores, libraries, medical offices and playgrounds where children can interact - and observe adults interacting - in everyday ways with people of different races, different religions, different languages, and different cultures.

She described the impact of a presentation on the Sikh religion which she and her husband gave at the school. Previously, their child's classmates didn't make any overtures to these differently-dressed adults, but after the presentation, these middle school students greeted them warmly by name. (The students also visited houses of worship throughout the city where they were welcomed by practicing members of each faith.) This kind of genuine human connection can break down all kinds of barriers.


Michelle Cusolito said...

These are all interesting ideas.

I have one concern about the name assignment... What about the children who were named by a birth parent and later adopted? How do they explain their names?
That could be a painful assignment, not unlike being asked to bring in a baby picture when you were adopted at 2 or 5 or older and none exist.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Great question, Michelle, and thanks for raising it. I forgot to mention that the teachers said that there were adopted children in the class and the teachers knew in advance that those children had information about their names to share. The activity was done in collaboration with the families.

You raise a really important issue: sometimes activities like this - family trees, baby photos, etc. - which are intended to be inclusive, end up emphasizing the difference of and isolating children who've experienced adoption, war, or other family disruption. It's essential that the activity be designed with a particular group of children in mind and tailored to their needs.

Any other tips from your experience about adaptations to make such activities welcoming for children who are adopted?

Michelle Cusolito said...

Oh, I'm so impressed that the teachers considered the adopted children before starting and involved families in the planning. If only all teachers were so aware of these issues. (FYI readers... I'm an educator... this isn't a dig on teachers. I believe it's a matter of not knowing rather a matter of malicious intent).

As you know, Annie, this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, for a variety of reasons. One alternative to "family Trees" is to create "Family Orchards" which remove the implication of biological relationships. Instead of asking students to create a timeline of their entire life starting from birth, they could be asked to create a timeline that focuses on some important aspect if their lives such as "My Life though Sports" or "My life as a violinist" or whatever else a child can dream up.

I blogged about this topic back in January. In that post, I provide links to other blogs of interest and a guide for educators. I hope interested readers will hop over to learn more.

Nicole Tadgell said...

Based on my memories of being the only black kid in my class - sometimes the whole grade - I would have been horrified to see my skin tone picked out as a piece of paper, or being singled out as different based on how I looked in any way.

What I could not explain then, is the feeling that I was being forced to represent something based entirely on something I could not control - my race.

I would have preferred to be singled out by my personality, or what I could do - things I could control such as drawing, running, or spelling. Things that I could control.

When I read "Why Do All The Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria" it was eye-opening for me. It was a relief to know that my discomfort was psychological, not because I was somehow not proud enough of being black.

Thanks again for another thought-provoking post!

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Thanks for this response, Nicole.

It's such an important reminder that there's no one approach that will work for every child and every situation, and that it's essential to always be adapting the work with sensitivity to the particular children involved. 

When there's an "only" child of any race, it's crucial not to increase their sense of difference, visibility and isolation by spotlighting it in an activity like this, essentially asking them - as you note - to be the lone representative of their race. In a classroom with only one child of color, I wouldn't lead with the skin color exercise.