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EmbraceRace

Using Books to Engage Young Children in Talk about Race & Justice

If we are serious about raising inclusive, empathetic children who are able to think critically and compassionately about race and racial justice, the conversations have to start early. Our guests Aija Simmons, Sara Rizik-Baer, and Savitha Moorthy describe Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors, a community-focused effort from Tandem, Partners in Early Learning that uses children’s books as a departure point for expanding the capacity of families with children under 5 to engage in critical conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice.  (The concept of "Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Glass Doors" in children's literature was developed by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop in her paper by the same name.) 

Our guests pull back the curtain on the project as it gets off the ground - the factors that led to its creation, how it continues to evolve, the questions the working group is actively grappling with, and what they hope to accomplish. 

The transcript follows. Also check out Savitha Moorthy's list of favorite books for young readers:

EmbraceRace:  One of the things we just love about these folks at Tandem and the work that they're doing is their willingness to come and share it with us when it's in formation. This is not one of those deals where they've been doing it for five years or 10 or 15 and they've worked it all out and they're presenting to us in all its perfection. They're allowing us to see it as it's being developed, as they're actively thinking through, really appreciate that.

Aija Simmons is a passionate educator mom, come on in Aija. She currently serves as Program Manager in the Department of Social and Emotional Learning at the Oakland Unified School District. Drawing on her experience as an educator and instructional coach, Aija supports leaders in creating the optimal conditions for adult professional learning that can lead to transformational learning spaces for students. Central to Aija’s work, is an emphasis on equity, identity, critical literacy and social -motional awareness. Welcome, Aija. Great to have you here.

Aija Simmons: Thank you. It's good to be here.

EmbraceRace: Also, I want to introduce you to Sara Rizik-Baer, who believes in the power of children's books to foster critical thinking and the life-long pursuit of knowledge. She currently serves as Director of Curriculum and Learning at Tandem, a Bay Area non-profit dedicated to closing the opportunity gap for young children through the power of meaningful early learning experiences. Sara's holistic view of the urban education landscape is informed by multiple roles. She's assumed in the field as a trainer, literacy coach, and bilingual teacher. Welcome, Sara.

Sara Rizik-Baer: Hi, thank you so much. I'm excited to be here today.

EmbraceRace: Also, we're joined by Savitha Moorthy, who's a fierce advocate for equity, especially in early childhood education. Savitha is the Executive Director of Tandem, a job that offers her the opportunity and privilege to work with a diverse, talented team on the systemic challenges facing families with young children. Her work is shaped by her training as a teacher and researcher and by her experiences as an immigrant, a woman of color, a member of a multiracial family and the mother of a four-year-old son. Really great to have all of you,

What do we need to know about you to understand why you came to this work? Aija, I'll shall start with you.

Aija Simmons: All right. I think first and foremost, I'm an educator, I've been an elementary school teacher for the last 16 years. I'm a mom. I have one daughter, she's five years old. What I realized when she got ready to leave the care of my mother and go to preschool, was that there was a lot of anxiety. Not about what was going to happen for her, but about how I was going to parent her in a diverse preschool environment. Us being darker skinned African American people and often her being the darkest kid in the classroom. I had a lot of feelings around that. I still have a lot of feelings around how to keep her young, how to keep her innocent, but also how to make her aware and be proud. This work was really exciting for me, because I realized I need to do this in partnership with other parents. I can't do it alone. When this opportunity came up, I was like, "Yeah, this has everything involved in it that I want to be a part of."

EmbraceRace: That's awesome. Look forward to hearing more about that.

Sara, what brought you to this work?

Sara Rizik-Baer: Yeah, hi, thanks. Well, I'll just say that, as my bio said, I very much believe in the power of children’s books to spark amazing conversations. Tandem has always been an organization dedicated to equity. When Savitha Moorthy came on as our Executive Director, I think we even had more of a focus on racial justice as well. Back in May, when there was a resurgence of this conversation around race, especially in the wake of George Floyd and all of the protests that happened, Savitha and I had a conversation and we thought, we need to use the tools that Tandem does best, which is using storybooks to have these critical conversations with very young children.

We thought we couldn't just make a workshop and give it to teachers and different folks that work with families. But we really felt it was important that we work with parents to take it out of the theory and really uncover what's actually happening with these conversations on the ground. Together, we decided that we wanted to create this experience with parents, where not only are we going to discover some wonderful research, but then it's coming up that we're creating a community with the parents to have these conversations with each other. Like Aija said, support one another in these really important but difficult conversations.

EmbraceRace: Thank you.

Savitha, what brings you to this work?

Savitha Moorthy: Andrew, Melissa, Embrace Race community, thank you so much for having us and giving us the chance to explore and talk about very nascent project as it is coming into being. We're so thrilled to be here. Thank you to everybody who's joining us. Things you need to know about me, I think are all the things Andrew you said in the introduction. I'm a mom. I'm a member of a multi-race family. There's three of us in my little family, but there are five ethnicities among the three of us. I'm also a person of color. I'm a non-Black person of color, raising a Black son. I feel the importance of standing beside him as his ally and as his parent as he navigates the world. So, we can navigate the world together.

I feel like my role in stewarding some of the experiences that he's going to have is critical. Like Sara says, we bring a lot of books, and we bring a lot of books as starting points for conversation. This is something that we've talked about often at Tandem, is that we're coming to this work not as experts, we're coming to this work as people who can hold a space for a community of parents who can explore this topic together. We're excited about all the things that we're going to learn together. We're coming to this work recognizing that the conversations we have in our group are going to be incomplete and imperfect. But we need there to be lots and lots of these conversations happening everywhere. We're excited to be part of that movement.

We're coming to this work not as experts, we're coming to this work as people who can hold a space for a community of parents who can explore this topic together. We're excited about all the things that we're going to learn together. We're coming to this work recognizing that the conversations we have in our group are going to be incomplete and imperfect. But we need there to be lots and lots of these conversations happening everywhere.

Savitha Moorthy, ED at Tandem, Partners in Early Learning

EmbraceRace: It's great to have you here. I just want to note that all three of you are educators, two of you are moms. Those two roles are clear to people why that would be important. I just want to note that Sara, from previous conversations, I know you're an aunt, right?

Sara Rizik-Baer: Yeah. I have many friends with children that I consider to be my nieces. [laughs]

EmbraceRace: That's the way you put it. I just want to note that those are incredibly important roles as well.

Sara Rizik-Baer: Yeah.

EmbraceRace: By no means are we only about parents, guardians, et cetera, and educators. Savitha, we had a conversation the other day and you talked about this work being, you said, “incomplete,” “imperfect,” and you also said “iterative.” Which I just love, because what's so great about coming early in a program is that actually, even if we came late, it's always iterative, right. It's not going to just arrive and become this perfect thing. It's how do we do the work and stay in the work together? So, we really appreciate you're digging into that question with us.

Could you tell us more about where you are at with the program? What families you are talking to, and who do you expect to participate?

Sara Rizik-Baer: For this initial cohort, we've recruited an initial cohort of eight parents, seven families. We do have one couple that's participating together. For this initial cohort, we wanted to work with people that we already were pretty familiar with. We were talking to folks that I had some kind of connection with and I think we wanted to do that because, for this initial thing where we are trying a lot of different things out, and really experimenting with this format. We wanted to make sure it was folks that trust us and that we trust, so that we can really experiment and have some leeway with that. With that being said, we also wanted to make sure it was a group that was representative of the folks in the communities in which we serve.

We decided for this particular cohort that we wanted to focus on families that identified as Black, Latinx or mixed race. I myself am mixed race. I'm Latina and Jewish. I wanted to bring that, because I often feel like these conversations, we try to box things. As I wanted to make sure that that was very much represented. Also, within our Oakland community, families identify as Black and Latinx, are really the majority of the folks that we serve and so we decided to keep it with folks like that.

Given that this group is actually pretty small, we wanted to balance that need for diversity and inclusion with the opportunity for people to have common ground. The folks in the group could have some common overlapping experiences, while at the same time, we're recognizing that our experiences are also very diverse. With that being said, what ended up happening was the majority of the families that ended up joining this group are actually multiracial families that are navigating two or more cultures in their home. They're raising bi or multiracial children.

For example, we have one family where it's a Mexican mother who's married to a White man and they’re raising a biracial child. We have another family in which the father is mixed race, he's Venezuelan and Norwegian and his wife is Indian. They're also raising a multi-racial child. It's actually pretty interesting that, that is what ended up happening, I think it speaks pretty well to the communities that we are. I think it's harder and harder and harder to say that we're all one identity all of the time. Yeah, those are the folks that we have for this initial cohort.

EmbraceRace: What's the age range for kids in these families?

Sara Rizik-Baer: Two to five [years old].

EmbraceRace: Aija I want to come to you. You talked a little about some of the anxieties you had for your daughter going out. That when you came across this program you knew you wanted to get involved in that program.

Can you say more about raising your daughter and about what success would look like for you in this program?

Aija Simmons: Just a really quick story just about the anxiety around being a parent in general. But being a parent of a Black child has raised a lot of questions for me about the way I move in the world. Early in her preschool experience, she loved school, she was having a wonderful preschool experience and they were exploring emotions and feelings. She came home and she was growling. She would get angry at me and growl. I was like, "What is this growling? What are you doing?" But at school, they were exploring different ways that you could express your emotions. She was fine. Me as a parent, I was totally freaked out. Here's my dark-skinned Black daughter growling when she's angry. I was completely nervous about the potential of what could happen to her at school.

I started calling people like, "I need help. I don't know what to do. Is this something that I talk to the school about?" After a lot of reflection, I realized that I'm not going to be able to do this alone. When this opportunity came up [to be in the program], it was already in my mind, lots of little things that had happened between two and five, that let me know that I need to be doing this in conversation with other people. Even in our first meeting and in our first talk, I was like, "Yes, this is a relief." Other people are feeling this anxiety. Couples are grappling with, how do we handle this conversation? Facing our own past, our own childhood experiences and everything going on in the media. So, it felt safe. It’s like, "Yes, we want to support our children, but if the truth be told, we need help! We need help navigating our own emotions.”

I work in the social emotional learning department in my district. Being a person who is always thinking about social and emotional awareness, I'm very aware that conversations about race require attention to our own social and emotional wellbeing, wellness, ability to process and slow down. When I talked to Sara and Savitha about this work, the fact that it was equity and SEL (Social Emotional Learning) was going to be at the center, we really wanted to lead from there. I knew that I needed the support in order to start really helping my daughter figure out who she is and have a strong identity.

Couples are grappling with, how do we handle this conversation? Facing our own past, our own childhood experiences and everything going on in the media. So, it felt safe. It’s like, "Yes, we want to support our children, but if the truth be told, we need help! We need help navigating our own emotions.

Aija Simmons, SEL educator and Tandem parent

EmbraceRace: Savitha, how are you forming the program together with parents and alongside educators in a community that you know really well?  What's the process?

Savitha Moorthy: The process is evolving. I'll tell you where we are in the process. And I'll tell you a little bit more about our origin story if you will. When this project was born, it was born out of Tandem as an organization wanting to respond to the anti-Black racism that we were seeing in the United States that came from the murders of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor. As an organization, we asked ourselves, how do we do this work? How do we take on the challenge of systemic racism and how do we do that in a mission aligned way? How do we integrate this anti-racist stance explicitly into all of our programming?

It's important, like many organizations, we have a statement of solidarity with the Black families and the Black communities that we work with. But in addition to that, we wanted to think about how to integrate that very meaningfully and completely into the work that we do and to the day to day work that we do. At Tandem, there are a few big pillars of our work. One pillar is the Rudine Sims Bishop framework of talking about books as mirrors and windows and sliding glass doors. These are books that reflect our lived experiences, books where we can learn about the lived experiences of other children and other families. And then books that sort of reflect our lived experiences. And then we can get there in our imagination, if not in our reality. That's one of our pillars.

Another pillar is our book collection. We have an incredible book collection. We have 1,300 titles in our collection. They're in 21 different languages. We prioritize books that feature diverse and affirming representations of Black, Indigenous People of Color, children and their families. We prioritize books that are written and illustrated by authors and artists of color. We have this incredible resource in our book collection.

Then the third pillar is our enduring belief that when a child and a grown up gather around a book together, magic happens, and it's the starting point for these incredibly rich conversations. Building around these resources, what we want to do is to create a community of parents that can explore, how can children's books support conversations about race and racial justice and families with children under five?

Because we often think about kids under five and quickly say, "Oh, these topics are too abstract, too complex, too hard." We want to protect our children from some of these difficult topics, difficult conversations. We wanted to really explore this topic of, how can we have age appropriate conversations with young children, around race and racial justice. For us, it's all about the process. It's about collectively building our capacity to have these courageous conversations. And then for those parents that are not directly involved in our community, we're hoping to create certain resources that can become useful to them. Whether it's lists of books or ideas for how you can talk about the books.

But really, what we're hoping is that seeing our example, imperfect, incomplete, iterative, is something that's going to maybe propel other people, other groups in the world to have these conversations. Because, we need lots of people having lots of these conversations, for our world to become fundamentally different. Also important to our work is creating a safe space.

We wanted to really explore this topic of, how can we have age appropriate conversations with young children, around race and racial justice. For us, it's all about the process. It's about collectively building our capacity to have these courageous conversations... What we're hoping is that seeing our example, imperfect, incomplete, iterative, is something that's going to maybe propel other people, other groups in the world to have these conversations.

Savitha Moorthy, ED at Tandem, Partners in Early Learning

EmbraceRace: What’s the curriculum on the shelf, that I can buy for kids under five? I want to ask you, was there a curriculum you could find that would do this perfectly or why do it so organically?

Savitha Moorthy: Because, I think, we really wanted to center the expertise of parents. I just spoke about this a little bit, and I feel this as a parent that parenting is one of those places where it's easy to get quickly isolated. It's easy to feel inadequate and it's unfortunately easy to feel that you're failing. But the truth is, as parents, we are the experts of what is going to work for our children and for our families. As an organization, we didn't feel that it was right for Tandem to come in and say to parents, "We're going to tell you how to parent your children and we're going to tell you how you can have these conversations with children." What we wanted to do was to create a safe space where parents could come together and share ideas and support one another.

We wanted to create a safe space where people could come and talk about conversations that went well or conversations that didn't go the way they planned. Really, support one another. This is the type of topic where one size doesn't fit all and isn't going to fit all. It seems to do a disservice to the idea, the kind of change and transformation the world needs, for us to begin with pretending that this is a tidy and resolved question.

EmbraceRace: Because your kids are your kids in your classroom. It would be different, there's no “off the shelf” that would work as well, which means you have to do the hard work.

Savitha Moorthy: Not just for parents. To your point, Andrew, we're doing this work as parents. But I'm also doing this work as an aunt, and I'm doing this work as a preschool teacher. I'm doing this work as a community member that hangs out with other children in my neighborhood.

EmbraceRace: You talk about all the hats that you wear. We have a lot of questions that came in during registration. Some of them speak to exactly this. It's one thing to be a parent at home, engaging your own child one on one, where you pretty much can do what you want to do. We have a question from a pre-school teacher who is also a mom, and she says, "I can have these conversations. I'm pretty comfortable doing that at home. But then I'm going in and I'm dealing with 10 kids and their 20 guardians or however many, that's a completely different context.”

Sara you've told us, two to five. Well, of course, there's a difference between a two-year-old and a five-year-old. All the racial, ethnic, all the diversity you have, just among the eight of you. The eight parents and then the two of you and perhaps other Tandem staff. I mean, people are situated differently, of course, and might be looking for somewhat different things.

Sara, can you say a little bit about, what are some of the specific challenges that arise from the “one size does not fit all” approach pose for you?

Sara Rizik-Baer: Yeah, I mean, I think as a professional in general and someone who used to be a teacher, that's absolutely a challenge. I have no idea necessarily, well somewhat of an idea, what conversations children are having at home. I've always felt that, personally me when I'm working with kids, it's important to draw on, what are they noticing? That's where I like to start there. But for this particular project, I mean, it's exactly that. We have an incredibly diverse set of parents that are going to come at these conversations very differently. I think Tandem’s role isn't necessarily to answer that question neatly and I think Savitha touched on that too. But it's really our role to just facilitate what those conversations are and having parents talk to each other about the challenges that they're facing with it.

Actually, a good example of that is, whereas everyone might be on the same page about celebrating children of all races. There's actually a really different spectrum of opinion in the group about introducing children to the idea of racism itself. Or the fact that children and families are at the receiving end of racism. I think that in itself is really important and that's where we started the conversation with the parents in the first session. Aija was very helpful in helping us think that through is, what are your fears when you're having these conversations with kids?

I think some parents are going to take a very different approach. Some parents are worried about, “Do I want to expose my child to these topics, they're only five years old, they have the whole life ahead of them to worry about this?” Some parents will say, "My kids are noticing this already. So, I want to make sure I'm having the conversation so that they can talk about it and express themselves in a healthy way." Again, there's no real answer there. I think it's really just about facilitating that conversation and finding out what we're finding out. Understanding that every single parent’s feeling about this and the way they want to talk to their kids is right! It's providing the space to talk about it with each other. That's definitely one of our tensions...

Another one of our tensions is how can we experience the expertise of the parent community and dissenter ourselves as the expert. Without making it burdensome for parents. We want to create this experience where the parents are talking more than I’m talking, more than whoever's facilitating is talking. But I think we also understand too, that sometimes parents have really busy lives and they just might want to receive some information. So, how do we make sure this is a group in which parents are very active and there's things that they're doing so that it's coming from them, but also not making it so it's a large burden on them? I think that's definitely a tension that we have.

I'll just lastly talk about the last tension that we're feeling or that we were recognizing is really honoring this duality between process and product. Savitha mentioned earlier that we were thinking, okay, maybe we'll have a book list that comes out of this. Honestly, that was when we had talked about it, in my head that was like, "Yep, I want a book list for parents by parents. I want conversation catalysts." But what it's really turning out to be, and I'm very appreciative of Savitha's help, our thought process on this together. Because, we're really thinking about, okay, we want these things, but really, it's this process that's turning out to be more important than those products themselves. Opening up to the possibilities of what's going to come out of these. We're not planning the full sessions out. We're doing it session by session as we're thinking about, what are we getting out of this?

EmbraceRace: I want to make sure I'm understanding what you expect to happen when the program is in place. What I'm hearing is, it's clear there's a group process and you're getting huge amounts of benefit and value out of the community piece, sharing with each other, the safe space. But right now, you are, Aija you and the others are creating essentially this program. Clearly, you have adults reading with children?

Sara Rizik-Baer: Yes.

EmbraceRace: But is it also true that, in the program itself, you'll be encouraging spaces for adults to engage each other around the stuff?

Sara Rizik-Baer: Yeah, definitely. As I said, my thinking has evolved. Really this can be something that we want to continue on, as Tandem, having multiple cohorts that are creating this space in community for parents to have these conversations. Absolutely, we do hope eventually, one day that folks do value this and will want to recreate these conversations and communities amongst each other. I think honestly, from parents themselves, that might be the most powerful piece. But I would like to invite Aija or Savitha to add anything else to that if you have anything more to say?

Aija Simmons: Sara brought me in partially because of my background in social and emotional learning. When we were thinking through this first group and bringing people together, the first thing I thought was, as a parent I have fears. Identity is a thing. We need to get into deep community if we're going to really talk about what comes up for us as we process books. A diverse body of books and how we're engaging our children, and if you know anything about young children, they'll say anything [laughs]! How do we even not feel shame when we want to bring up something that one of our children said in response to something that we read to them?

We thought a lot about how to build the community really, really quickly. We wanted to set up a space where deep listening was at the center of what we did, that we talked about race right away. And we said, let's say who we are. Let's say the person that's present today, what are you present with? Nothing is off limits. What do we need to know? Everybody is welcome. All is welcome. There are not many spaces like that. Where we say, make the invisible things about you visible, the visible things that you go into spaces and try to hide or trying to have people not see. Let's do that work tonight. Let's show up.

We dived in quickly, we did. I started it off completely vulnerable. Who I am, where I'm from, what things that are a part of my life, that are part of my identity that I don't typically share. But need to share because they raise issues when it comes to my parenting. We just listened to each other and people shared so many things about their hopes and fears and dreams. Then when we went into smaller breakout rooms, we unpacked our fears. We talked right away, what are you scared about when you think about talking to your children about race? Many of us talked about my first worry is that I'm going to “rob them of their childhood innocence” too fast. Or I'm worried about their own positive self-image. Before we introduced the idea of racism, we want our children to be flooded with positive imagery.

People talked about, “Me and my partner or other members of my family, we kind of not on the same page about this way we talk about race to our children. That's an issue, talking about race to our children in one way and our family members taking a different approach.” It made space for us to say a lot of these things are issues, but let's talk about them together, and then building that into the conversations over time. Frankly, the number of times my daughter has said something and I've gone, "What? Where did that come?" It's been like, okay, this is a space where I can figure out what to do other than go, what. Have a plan in place to be able to help her work through some of those things. I think we really did that early on. It's like, let's go deep community, let's make an asset-based environment and let's just talk about race and fear from the beginning.

We thought a lot about how to build the community really, really quickly. We wanted to set up a space where deep listening was at the center of what we did, that we talked about race right away... let's go deep community, let's make an asset-based environment and let's just talk about race and fear from the beginning.

Aija Simmons, SEL educator and Tandem parent

EmbraceRace: You're working on this first cohort, and have you planned how many cohorts or you're really going to see how it goes with the first?

Savitha Moorthy: I would love it. I think it would be wonderful for us to host many many many of these cohorts at Tandem. We're hopeful that this is the first. We're going to learn from this experience, and it's going to inspire us to create future cohorts. This is the beginning of a wonderful adventure.

EmbraceRace: That cohort model is super interesting. You might group people by interests. In this case, the ages of their children maybe. You could group by race, ethnicity, by any number of things. Some people want to be with others who are like them along any of these dimensions. Others actually want to be with others who are unlike them.

Moving forward, how would you cluster people into cohorts?

Sara Rizik-Baer: It's a great question. Again, as I said, this is just the beginning of this project. I don't think we've gotten quite there yet. I think when we initially were thinking about this initial cohort, that was definitely a question that I had. We were trying to decide, well, should it be that anybody that's interested can join? Again, as I stated, why we recruited the folks we recruited, was we really wanted to make sure folks had some overlapping and common experiences and felt safe being there with one another. But yeah, I think just initially, and Savitha if you have different thoughts please add on. Ideally, I think we'd love to work with parents in the classrooms in the communities that we're very much serving. We work right now with a lot of Headstart classrooms, a lot of different family, friends and neighbors. Folks that do that kind of care. I would love to and hope this could expand and see if we can get those groups. How they will be put together, I think that is definitely a question that we still have.

EmbraceRace: Okay.

Savitha Moorthy: There are a couple of things that I think are really important as we consider our future cohorts or bringing together future communities of parents in this way. One is, and Aija just spoke about this, we want it to be a safe space where tough conversations can happen, where we can explore difficult questions together. What to me that suggests is that, it's important to have a community of parents where there is enough common ground, what that common ground is can look different. It can be either, we're all teachers, or it can be common ground along race and ethnicity lines, or it can be common ground around language, or immigrant experiences.

But I think it's really important that communities have some amount of common ground and we have a shared understanding of what that common dimension is and what those experiences are that we share. So, that we can use that as a foundation to then talk perhaps about our differences. Because where those differences are, are where the tough conversations might happen, within maybe differences of opinion. Holding both those things in balance, how do we create a safe space where we can talk about topics that don't get talked about often. I think that's an important consideration for us.

EmbraceRace: Aija, what is your advice for using books to engage kids in these conversations? Because it's really not enough to buy the list of books or get it at the library.

Aija Simmons: From reading with my daughter, which is different from reading to my students, on a lot of levels. But one principle that carries over is multiple reads. It's important, especially if there's a purpose behind the read, and there's something that I want her to pick up. It also appeals to her nature. She likes to go over things over and over again. So, multiple reads is really important. Then following her lead. Before I ask a leading question, I like to just see what she noticed. “What did you notice in the book? What did you pick up?” What is she paying attention to? What comes up for her has been just really powerful. Don't just read the book, because it's story time and as far as bedtime, it’s our routine and we're going to read the book and close it.

Linger on the pictures. Give her a moment to take a closer look, ask open ended questions like, "What do you notice?" Just sort of see what she's picking up at her developmental level, and what she's interested in, and then come back to the book and add additional layers as we go through it together. If there are things that are powerful in a book, some of the things I won't point out right away, because I'm really trying to build a strong relationship with my daughter and be able to talk to her about issues. I'm not in the classroom teaching the standards-based curriculum and I got to get to, "Let's talk about this powerful thing on page three." No, “Let’s take our time. Let's do this in a developmental way, that actually builds our relationship, to have these kinds of conversations over time and kind of go slow with it and follow her lead.”

I know that there's something we're working through, like when we started working through skin color, and different kind of hair ???. Talk about those things a little bit more, because that's something that she may be picking up at school or maybe noticing. So, we maybe linger around those topics in the book. Those are my two, be ready to read things a bunch of times and open it up. Don't just do it like it's a routine and you got to hurry up and get done. Actually, linger and follow your children's lead and they'll open up the door to a lot of conversations for you.

EmbraceRace: Sara, what's your advice about engaging children with these texts?

Sara Rizik-Baer: Definitely what Aija said. I think I would add, make connections. I think this is a common strategy that we use when we're teaching or reading to children, but it really works in this context too. When you can relate what the children are seeing in a book to their lives and then have conversations relating back to them, then all of a sudden, the abstract becomes more concrete. That's a huge way to do it and do that by asking questions. For example, if you're reading a book and it has a character that looks like your child or that might look like one of their friends, you can say, "Oh, who does that look like? What makes you think that?  Do you also like to do whatever activity that the character is doing in the book?" Then you can have a whole discussion where the child's going to bring up what they're noticing.

Sometimes they're not going to bring up what you're hoping they're going to notice either. So, that happens too and with that, that's okay. That's why I agree with Aija, have multiple readings, because what you really want to do is talk about what the child is noticing. You might bring in subtle clues of, "Oh, I noticed this! Did you notice that?" And see if they're going to have that conversation with you. I wouldn't recommend forcing it upon kids. I think these conversations happen over time and they're not going to happen in one moment. I think being patient is really important.

My second tip would just really be, if you're going to read a book that has some difficult content or content that you think could raise some interesting questions, definitely read it before sharing it with your child, so that you're ready to answer the questions or the things that might come up as they're reading it. That goes for teachers and parents, I think. As a teacher, I definitely made the mistake of reading a book that I didn't necessarily know what was inside and then some interesting questions came up. I think that can very much be avoided, if you just simply read it through and do a little thinking yourself ahead of time.

EmbraceRace: A lesson we learn over and over. [laughs] Indeed, yes. Savitha, I wonder if you wanted to come in. I'm thinking too, your son is four? Your son was two, not so long ago.

So, what about those younger children, the two-year old’s, in the case of your program. How has it moved, the kinds of reads that you do with him over these last couple of years?

Savitha Moorthy: That is a great question. I think one big aspect that is different is the choosing of the books. I think he has a lot more agency around selecting the books we read at bed time, now at four, than he did a two. But I've also noticed that it's really important for me and my husband, as parents who do the bedtime reading routine, to bring our energy and our excitement about books into that reading routine. Because he's excited about the books we're excited about. And it's reciprocal. We're excited about the books he's excited about as well. But I think it's really important to come into the conversation saying, "Hey, look." Because part of my job involves vetting books for our book collection. I often bring home books to read with him, to see what does it feel like to read this book with a three-year-old and now four-year-old?

I often bring a book come and say, "Hey, this is really great book that I want to check out with you. Do you want to come hang out?" In some ways, that energy and excitement drives our conversation. And Andrew, you asked what's different. And this speaks to what Aija said about the iterative reads, or the multiple reads of a book. There're books we've been reading and we've been reading since the time he was two that are still part of our collection. I think anybody who's spent time reading with a young child knows that multiple reads are just part of the territory, once they like a book, you're reading it always and forever.

EmbraceRace: We know something about that.

Savitha Moorthy: There's the opportunity then to layer new ideas every time you're reading the book. There's a book we have read, Please, Baby, Please and Please, Puppy, Please, those are two of our all-time favorite books. When we began reading them, we were focusing on the very simple and the very descriptive, so naming the skin tones. He has a vocabulary now for naming different types of skin tones. And then layering on to that, like Sara said, the most subsequent reads are connecting what's happening in the book with what's happening in our lives and our experiences. As he's gotten older, I think I've become more courageous about acknowledging places when we read, where I don't know something.

Where I'm acknowledging my confusion, or I'm positioning myself as, "Oh, I don't know that and let's be learning this together." A lot of that I think is just shifting the landscape from, I'm going to be doing a lot of labeling and telling, because a two they're just... Fact is, they're just less verbal than they are at four. When they're at two, you're doing a lot of labeling, you're doing a lot of scaffolding and you're doing a lot of describing of what's happening in the page. Then at four it's a little bit more interactive, where you can ask a question and there's a response and you can build on one another's responses.

EmbraceRace, Andrew: Aija, it struck me when you were talking about what your daughter notices. It was clear to me, the way you're speaking about it, of course pictures are a really important part of that. It's easy for adults to lose. We become so text focus. We're reading and we're thinking about the plot line and what's happening. Very often, I mean, I remember when our kids were younger, having our girls make observations at three, at two, that I hadn't noticed. Because I'm not inclined until she they taught me to read in a different way. To read the pictures. I love the idea that they really can make contributions very early to what's going on.

EmbraceRace, Melissa: I was speaking before the program a bit about the book, I Too America, the Langston Hughes poem that Bryan Collier interpreted through his illustrations. We're talking to the librarian, Jessica Bratt, who starts to use it with toddler but uses it with older kids, too. What you get out of this book as a toddler is really different. People might say, “Toddler?” But it's a poem, and like many good children's books are just poems that the words stay with you. And you go, huh, and you remember the picture. I too, I'm the darker brother, what does that mean? You comment on it differently at different ages, right. But it's asking the questions and reading the book isn't inappropriate. Because your kid can't express verbally, right. Or because they don't get certain concepts, because of exactly what you guys are talking about. It's a long game.

Savitha Moorthy: Melissa, can I add a couple of things that are part of the Tandem approach? It's a very big belief at Tandem, we talk about it as a book sharing experience, we never talk about it as a reading experience. Because we talk about it as sharing a book. So, reading is not important. It's really the opportunity for an adult, for a grown up and a child to gather around the book and make up that experience whatever they will. Often, we encourage our family members who're reading with their children to ignore the words altogether and just talk about the books and talk about what they're seeing in the books. I think that's a very important thing to keep in mind.

The other thing is just, as parents and as people who read with children, it's easy to think about interactive reading or think about serve and return interactions where you're offering something and the child gives you something in return. To think about those as verbal interactions, but at two they're not verbal. It's important to still have that interactivity with a child. But think about what would a nonverbal response from the child look like? It can mean pointing. Sometimes when my son was little, I would say, "Hey, there's a little boy in this page who reminds me a lot of you, can you point to him?" He would point and sometimes I would ask yes or no questions, he could either nod or shake his head or offer like one or two words in response. I think it's important to think of interactivity not always as verbal interactivity, but building that connection with the child.

Aija Simmons: When we think about “reading.” If we think even bigger, what we're trying to do is discover the ways that our children are reading the world. Sometimes less important than the words is, when my child looks at this book, what is the story that they're constructing? What is the story that they're telling themselves? What have they picked up? Because as you said earlier, Melissa, my daughter told me women didn't barbecue. I was like, "What? How did you come to that conclusion?" But when I think about the images that she sees most of the time, in books, and on TV, there's a man at the barbecue pit.

I need her to say that to me, which means sometimes I need her to read the book, so that I can understand what's there and the ways in which I need to support her to read the world. And make sure that she has the counterbalance to all of the imagery that's out there, that's flooding our children, that sometimes we have forgotten that we saw. I think the other piece is, making space for them to let us know what they've picked up and how they're reading the world, so that we can support that.

When we think about “reading.” If we think even bigger, what we're trying to do is discover the ways that our children are reading the world. Sometimes less important than the words is, when my child looks at this book, what is the story that they're constructing? What is the story that they're telling themselves? What have they picked up?

Aija Simmons, SEL educator and Tandem parent

EmbraceRace: Absolutely. This is good stuff. We have another big cluster of questions from educators. Again, you're all educators around essentially how to engage parents in this work. They range from things like just passive, “how to make it okay, palatable at least, for the parent to let me do what I'm doing, because I think this work is important as an educator working with young children on race issues.”  To questions about, “Well, it needs to be more than that. They need to be actively proactively engaged and parents aren't all in the same place with respect to all the things that you've said already and know so well. When do we start talking? When can we start talking about race and identity with young children? How do we talk about those things?”

Just any general wisdom on, essentially, engaging parents as allies in this work from an educator perspective? What are the mechanisms for this engagement?

Sara Rizik-Baer: I think, just number one, is making sure that the experience for the parent is just as fun as it is for the kid. We do have books we can recommend. But it's like, I'm going to show this book, this is a great one. This is a wordless book and it's beautiful, it features a young girl of color and there's no words in this book. But it's super fun, because there's two layers to it, parent doesn't have to read it, the kids going to explore it, but the parents going to get all sorts of fun things happening. I just always tell parents, have fun with your child, follow what they're interested in, that's hugely important.

Also, really helping parents to see that, "Hey, what you're doing with your child, having any kind of meaningful interaction and building on what your child's saying and thinking about, is the most important thing you can do for your child." Research will show that when parents know, just the simple fact of knowing, that talking and having these back and forth conversations and interactions with their child, just them knowing that has shown huge gains in a child's language and literacy levels later on. With that being said, also their ability to talk about race and identity and difference. And they're never going to be able to talk about that unless they start in a very safe space with you. That would be my tip and recommendation for that.

Savitha Moorthy: Andrew in our conversation, a few days ago, you talked about building joy. I think it's very important for these to be joyful experiences and for us as a community to think about joy as an act of resistance.

EmbraceRace: Absolutely.

How do you deal with a child being scared and having really racially traumatic experiences in the classroom? How you deal with it if you're a parent?

There's a parent who says, "How do I make my son, my younger son, feel safe walking down the street?" There's a teacher who asked, "How do we make sure that we don't induce trauma, especially as a White teacher?" Those questions about maybe not the joyful part, but the fear that you're targeted. That is something that a lot of people and adults and kids feel right now. Especially Black kids and Black adults.

Another question from Denise who runs an agency, a childcare agency. ??? on families in the neighborhood where the protests took place after George Floyd was murdered? It's really, literally immediate for those families.

Savitha Moorthy: I can tell you what we have in our curriculum. We also have a curriculum around trauma and trauma informed practices for families and educators. There are two important concepts in our trauma curriculum. We talk about emotion coaching and emotion support. And we talk about recognizing the emotions of your child and recognizing when emotions support. Which is validating the emotions, providing them with physical strategies for lowering their affective filters. Things like belly breathing, we practice with educators, where you lay down on the floor and put a stuffed animal on your belly and your animal rises and falls. We have a variety of strategies for doing that, just bringing down the emotional impact of the moment and lowering the affective filter.

Then we talk about emotion coaching, which is identifying strategies that you can use that help you counter those emotions. Whether it's remembering a joyful experience that you had in that same neighborhood. Where maybe you took a walk with a parent or an uncle, really replacing negative experiences with more positive experiences or providing the child that repertoire of strategies they can draw from themselves to lower their affective filter. Those are a couple of the ways we talk about it in our work. We're also very careful about our book list. When we put out book lists, we either avoid or we identify books that parents might want to preview and not introduce to children in case they contain triggering topics.

EmbraceRace: We have one minute. I always caution us both against doing this, but there's one more question I'm going to try to squeeze in. Unfortunately, I have to keep it short. I can imagine folks listening and thinking, especially when you talked about the community building. That clearly there is a lot, and Aija you spoke so well about, race and the feelings around race. There's a multi-racial group of people, and they're bringing their stuff, and you're encouraging folks to share that. Even from the very beginning. There's a community piece and then there's a set of skills, resources, books, etcetera piece. 

I could imagine someone saying, "Well, gosh, so much of what I've heard on the latter front, right around the skills, the books, and how to engage, is just really good practice around book sharing in general. As opposed to book share in the context of racial learning in particular." I just wonder if you have just any thoughts to the people who are wondering, "Okay, but I want to talk to my three-year-old about race and racial justice." Again, you said a lot here, but if you want to say one thing in closing? Too hard.

Savitha Moorthy: Hard to say one thing and to squeeze it in without a minute. But I would offer that talking about race and racial justice is good book sharing experience. We want to embrace everything, all of our humanity in the book sharing experience.

EmbraceRace: Thank you so much. I want to note to folks that, we expect as our expectation, that this will be the first of at least two visits. That you all will come back and share with us when you're rolling out the program. Hopefully you have a cohort or two going, you have more experiences. You can tell us actually what's happened and what more you've learned, and any surprises and all of that. This is not the end but the beginning and we're so glad you could share the space with us.

Savitha Moorthy

Savitha Moorthy is a fierce advocate for equity, especially in early childhood education. She is the Executive Director of Tandem, Partners in Early Learning -- a job that offers her the opportunity and privilege to work with a diverse, talented team on the systemic challenges facing families with young children. Savitha’s work is shaped by her training as a teacher and researcher and by her experiences as an immigrant, woman of color, member of a multi-racial family, and the mother of a four-year-old son.

Sara Rizik-Baer

Sara Rizik-Baer believes in the power of children’s books to foster critical thinking and the life-long pursuit of knowledge. She currently serves as Director of Curriculum and Learning at Tandem, Partners in Early Learning, a Bay Area non-profit dedicated to closing the opportunity gap for young children through the power of meaningful early learning experiences. Sara’s holistic view of the urban education landscape is informed by multiple roles she has assumed in the field as a trainer, literacy coach, and bilingual teacher.

Aija Simmons

Aija Simmons is a passionate educator mom. She currently serves as Program Manager in the Department of Social and Emotional Learning in the Oakland Unified School District. Drawing from her experience as an educator and instructional coach, Aija supports leaders in creating the optimal conditions for adult professional learning that can lead to transformational learning spaces for students. Central to Aija's work is an emphasis on equity, identity, critical literacy, and social-emotional awareness.
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