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January 16, 2017

Celebrating Diversity in the Preschool and Making it Meaningful

By Elaine Winter
Grades PreK–K

    This month we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; in February, it’s Black History Month. But how do we translate this commemorative pause into preschool-speak? As a young teacher of 4-year-olds, I did read and discuss Dr. King with my classes; as I did so, I probed for children’s understanding. “He was a king.” “He got shot.” “Somebody shot him.” And when the story of Rosa Parks came up . . . “We like to ride in the back of the bus!”

    Recently, I joined the preschool faculty in a diversity conversation with our school’s developmental consultant. Our question was: how can we help children explore their own identities, questions, and assumptions as we build a foundation for ongoing conversation about diversity? In many ways, preschool is a golden moment. We can talk with our kids about difference before their awareness of discrimination has solidified. It is also a challenge and responsibility.

    As a result of our conversation, the faculty agreed that attention to issues of diversity should take place in the space early childhood educators call “the here and now,” connect to things children can see and know directly, and that it not be static, but evolving — always spiraling back to rekindle earlier learning allowing children to pick up new meaning as their world view expands.

    Defining Diversity: Self-scrutiny is always a good place to begin. How do we teachers define diversity? What presence does it have in our own lives? What roles does it play in the classroom? Do we include in this definition children’s sexual orientation and their parents’, socio/economic diversity, learning styles and needs, racial, gender, cultural and ethnic diversity? With regard to self-awareness, we may be able to call up times when we’ve felt isolated and excluded. What feelings lived there for us?

    Exploring Awareness: Right now, we’re beginning very simply. Our first foray was to probe children’s breadth of understanding. What are some of the ways we are the same? “Both our names start with E.” and “We both have orange scooters.” to “Both our nannies’ speak Tibetan.” What are some of the ways we are different? Differences children might note (with some teacher facilitation) include: hair color, height, family configuration, how we come to school. And, once the groundwork is laid, “My little brother’s skin is white like my Mommy’s. Mine is brown like my daddy’s.” “Nyana and Charlie’s hair is dark and it’s curly; mine is blond.”

    Meeting conversations set the tone and lead the way. We share these with parents, encouraging them to continue these conversations at home. As we continue to investigate, we think together about the fact that each of us is different in so many ways, yet here we are sitting altogether on the same rug!

    Documenting Diversity — Making It Visible and Readable: For children capable of representational drawing, we offer skin-toned markers and the mixing of paint colors for self-portraits. Younger children can choose a skin tone and dab it next to their photos — the beginnings of a graph. Simple graphing activities are a great way to extend the conversation. A graph can contain words and numbers, or simply pictures. It may be on display in the classroom and referred to in future, or limited to a single meeting time activity. Graphs can focus on just about anything. A favorite in urban environments is “How did you come to school today?” Others include, What did you eat for breakfast today? What is your favorite color, animal, fruit? Which holidays do you celebrate?

    From these matter-of-fact data tallies, we move on to more personal probes, such as, “Who is in your family?” Recently, I asked this question of a group of 4-year-olds. They used plastic or unit block people to illustrate their family makeup. “My family is me, my daddy, and papa.” My family is my mommy and daddy and baby Eli.” “I live with my gramma; I don’t have a daddy.” It was one of the most riveting meetings we’ve shared. “So, what is a family then?” a teacher might ask? Most often, the answer is, people who love each other.

    A later conversation on family configurations focused on the question, “Can this (configuration) be a family?” Teachers stood up two figures of women and a small girl and asked, “Can this be a family?” A grandpa and a little boy, a mom and a child, a mom, dad and 3 children, etc. Can these be families?

    Deepening Understandings: Once we’ve asked ourselves questions and documented our findings, once we’ve read from the store of available literature, it’s time to help children extend their understanding by exploring some of the issues that impact respectful interaction. Four-year-olds might learn the words race, of color, and maybe prejudice. We tread carefully, but boldly into these discussions, knowing how easily our levels of comfort translate to our kids.

    We also look for moments to celebrate and learn about diverse cultures, such as Lunar New Year and Cinco de Mayo, both important days in the lives of our families. This year, classroom parents will read to each class and talk about this new Year of the Rooster.

    With older preschoolers, we can talk about fairness: why it is or isn’t it fair for children different from us to battle harder for equitable treatment. What do we do in this classroom to make things fair for all of us? Answers might include: “We take turns.” “We have a job chart.” “We let someone play with us.”

    For young preschoolers, diversity may come under the umbrella of community, or all of us: we’re the same and we’re different. And that’s a good thing! More mature preschoolers examine fairness in the classroom and in the world outside the classroom. Groundwork is laid for an exploration of broader meanings of diversity, of discrimination and activism.

    Diversity conversation is on the table.

    This month we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; in February, it’s Black History Month. But how do we translate this commemorative pause into preschool-speak? As a young teacher of 4-year-olds, I did read and discuss Dr. King with my classes; as I did so, I probed for children’s understanding. “He was a king.” “He got shot.” “Somebody shot him.” And when the story of Rosa Parks came up . . . “We like to ride in the back of the bus!”

    Recently, I joined the preschool faculty in a diversity conversation with our school’s developmental consultant. Our question was: how can we help children explore their own identities, questions, and assumptions as we build a foundation for ongoing conversation about diversity? In many ways, preschool is a golden moment. We can talk with our kids about difference before their awareness of discrimination has solidified. It is also a challenge and responsibility.

    As a result of our conversation, the faculty agreed that attention to issues of diversity should take place in the space early childhood educators call “the here and now,” connect to things children can see and know directly, and that it not be static, but evolving — always spiraling back to rekindle earlier learning allowing children to pick up new meaning as their world view expands.

    Defining Diversity: Self-scrutiny is always a good place to begin. How do we teachers define diversity? What presence does it have in our own lives? What roles does it play in the classroom? Do we include in this definition children’s sexual orientation and their parents’, socio/economic diversity, learning styles and needs, racial, gender, cultural and ethnic diversity? With regard to self-awareness, we may be able to call up times when we’ve felt isolated and excluded. What feelings lived there for us?

    Exploring Awareness: Right now, we’re beginning very simply. Our first foray was to probe children’s breadth of understanding. What are some of the ways we are the same? “Both our names start with E.” and “We both have orange scooters.” to “Both our nannies’ speak Tibetan.” What are some of the ways we are different? Differences children might note (with some teacher facilitation) include: hair color, height, family configuration, how we come to school. And, once the groundwork is laid, “My little brother’s skin is white like my Mommy’s. Mine is brown like my daddy’s.” “Nyana and Charlie’s hair is dark and it’s curly; mine is blond.”

    Meeting conversations set the tone and lead the way. We share these with parents, encouraging them to continue these conversations at home. As we continue to investigate, we think together about the fact that each of us is different in so many ways, yet here we are sitting altogether on the same rug!

    Documenting Diversity — Making It Visible and Readable: For children capable of representational drawing, we offer skin-toned markers and the mixing of paint colors for self-portraits. Younger children can choose a skin tone and dab it next to their photos — the beginnings of a graph. Simple graphing activities are a great way to extend the conversation. A graph can contain words and numbers, or simply pictures. It may be on display in the classroom and referred to in future, or limited to a single meeting time activity. Graphs can focus on just about anything. A favorite in urban environments is “How did you come to school today?” Others include, What did you eat for breakfast today? What is your favorite color, animal, fruit? Which holidays do you celebrate?

    From these matter-of-fact data tallies, we move on to more personal probes, such as, “Who is in your family?” Recently, I asked this question of a group of 4-year-olds. They used plastic or unit block people to illustrate their family makeup. “My family is me, my daddy, and papa.” My family is my mommy and daddy and baby Eli.” “I live with my gramma; I don’t have a daddy.” It was one of the most riveting meetings we’ve shared. “So, what is a family then?” a teacher might ask? Most often, the answer is, people who love each other.

    A later conversation on family configurations focused on the question, “Can this (configuration) be a family?” Teachers stood up two figures of women and a small girl and asked, “Can this be a family?” A grandpa and a little boy, a mom and a child, a mom, dad and 3 children, etc. Can these be families?

    Deepening Understandings: Once we’ve asked ourselves questions and documented our findings, once we’ve read from the store of available literature, it’s time to help children extend their understanding by exploring some of the issues that impact respectful interaction. Four-year-olds might learn the words race, of color, and maybe prejudice. We tread carefully, but boldly into these discussions, knowing how easily our levels of comfort translate to our kids.

    We also look for moments to celebrate and learn about diverse cultures, such as Lunar New Year and Cinco de Mayo, both important days in the lives of our families. This year, classroom parents will read to each class and talk about this new Year of the Rooster.

    With older preschoolers, we can talk about fairness: why it is or isn’t it fair for children different from us to battle harder for equitable treatment. What do we do in this classroom to make things fair for all of us? Answers might include: “We take turns.” “We have a job chart.” “We let someone play with us.”

    For young preschoolers, diversity may come under the umbrella of community, or all of us: we’re the same and we’re different. And that’s a good thing! More mature preschoolers examine fairness in the classroom and in the world outside the classroom. Groundwork is laid for an exploration of broader meanings of diversity, of discrimination and activism.

    Diversity conversation is on the table.

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