Why and How Educators Can Nurture Friendships Between Kids of Color
Conversations about race and race relations in the US still are often framed in terms of how “White vs. Black” or “White vs. non-White” people interact and experience the world. But children growing up in our multicultural democracy increasingly interact across many different racial and ethnic lines. When relationships among communities of color do draw attention, the focus is typically on the tensions among them. Which is important, but far from the whole picture.
Watch this conversation about how educators can cultivate friendships and solidarity among children of color from an early age. We are excited to welcome first-time guests Liz Kleinrock & Madeleine Rogin. As always, we take your comments and questions.
EmbraceRace: Welcome! We're really excited to have the fourth in a series of conversations about friendships and relationships between communities of color. Tonight, we're talking about why and how educators can nurture friendships between kids of color. Conversations about race and race relations in the US have typically been framed in terms of White and non-White relations, or sometimes White and Black. Which obviously papers over a lot of relationships and other important dimensions.
There are reasons why Whiteness is the frame often, but it does mean that we're often not spending the time or the intention we need to, to nurture those race brave kids in the future. In particular because in multiracial America, our neighborhoods are diversifying, the country's diversifying, schools are more segregated. We see increasingly that there are a lot of neighborhoods or schools where kids of color are brushing up against each, or maybe there are no White kids at their schools, or fewer, or at least they have to know how to relate and know a lot about each other as well as about their White peers.
So we're speaking to you less than a week after the Buffalo massacre, and after there've been just many horrific acts that have left lots of different marginalized communities scared. And so there's a real reason why the conversation when non-White communities or communities of color get together is often vis-a-vis oppression and marginalization. For survival right? But we still think it's important to create the space to think about friendships and solidarity, and the other things we can make space for among communities of color, in particular in schools among kids of color. So we're really excited to have the two folks that we have on today, and we're so grateful that they agreed to have this sort of free-ranging conversation.
We also want to shout out our Color-Brave Community, which is for caregivers, family members, really anyone who wants to or who does care for a child of color, and wants to have an ongoing community of support and exchange and learning over how to do that work as well as we can. So check that link out.
Our first guess is Liz Kleinrock (she/her pronouns.) Liz is a Korean American, queer, Jewish anti-bias and anti-racist educator for both children and adults, who creates curriculum for K-12 students specializing in designing inquiry based units of study. In addition to her work as a classroom teacher, Liz also works with schools and companies to facilitate learning for adults that supports anti-bias and anti-racist practices. She earned a Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2018, delivered a TED Talk called "How to teach kids to Talk About taboo topics" in 2019, and then in 2021, spring last year, released her first book called Start Here, Start Now: A Guide to AntiBias and AntiRacist Work in Your School Community. She teaches and lives in Washington DC with her partner and with two bunnies, whom we met briefly just before we started this conversation. We can verify that Liz indeed has two bunnies. Great to have you here Liz, thank you so much.
And you're joined by Madeleine Rogin, who is a longtime friend of EmbraceRace, a contributor. Madeleine uses she/her pronouns and has been an educator of young children for over 20 years. She's also a change leader for Ashoka's Start Empathy Initiative and Changemaker Schools Network. 15 years she's been a kindergarten and dance teacher in California, but starting in the fall of this year she's making a move. She'll be the Program Director for Step One School, an Early Childhood Education center in Berkeley California. And her book just came out, Change Starts With Me: Talking About Race in the Elementary Classroom literally came out last week.
Obviously two amazing people and educators to have this conversation we're really grateful. Let's start with how you got to this work.
Liz, can you give us a sense of how you got to this place and this deep interest in early childhood and race?
Liz Kleinrock: Oh that's a good question. First of all also hi, don't mean to just jump into things. Thank you so much for having me. I'm so just grateful to be here with all of you this evening. Madeleine, it's so nice to meet you in this setting, and also just wanted to name that this evening I'm coming in from the unceded Nanticoke, Piscataway, and Pamunkey lands otherwise known as Washington DC.
I think a lot of what you said in my introduction, these different intersections that I possess has very much influenced the work that I do, why I am so passionate about anti-bias and anti-racist education for young people. Growing up as the only person of color in my entire family, certainly in my neighborhood. There were other kids of color in my school, but also knowing from a fairly young age that I identified as queer, knowing that there weren't very many Jewish people of color, there was a lot of isolation that I experienced. I definitely had a lot of feelings of wanting to assimilate, to acculturate.
I recall wishing that I was White in a lot of situations growing up, fielding a lot of questions from classmates about my family structure or why I looked the way that I do. Some of these happened in front of teachers and adults, and I don't recall any of them really intervening, providing any sort of language or support, or even just having a conversation with me about my identity and what I was experiencing. Not to say that I didn't have some really phenomenal teachers, because I absolutely did. People who made me feel very, very seen and loved and valued.
I've taught in many different types of schools. I've taught now in public, in charter, and in independent schools, and very different demographics. I've taught in schools where the majority of students identify as Black or Latinx. I've taught in more very White environments, and I've taught in extremely diverse environments too, diverse across the board. And all of these experiences have really just show me the need for this work. I often say that there is no one size fits all for this work, because in order to be responsive to your community, to your students, it's going to have to change a little bit every time. And even the educator that I am, a partner teacher, even if we teach the same grade, we might share a wall in our school building, but this work is going to look really different, just because we are different people and the students in front of us are different as well.
I joke that the goal is to put ourselves out of business. We'd love to not have to do this work anymore. Unfortunately it kind of seems to be the opposite. So there's certainly no end to it, but I think I just went on a very long tangent. That's what brings me to this work. Thank you so much.
EmbraceRace: We hope to be out of business too but it's not happening.
Madeleine, how did you come to this work?
Madeleine Rogin: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I'm so happy to be here, and also really happy to meet you Liz. And I think there's a couple things that first come to mind for me, what brings me to this work. The first is who I am as a mother. So I have two children who are biracial, and I'm raising them pretty much by myself, so it's really me and them. And they're Black and White. They Ghanaian and they're White Jewish American. And I think it's in my life every day. In order for me to be the kind of parent I want to be, I can't opt out. I have to be engaged with this all the time. And so it's a constant process of self-reflection, and I think it's a gift that I have. And so that's one piece of it for me, is supporting them as a mother has to do with engaging in this on a daily basis.
And then I think as an educator, I've always been really intrigued by how young children understand big concepts, and what brought me to writing the book that I wrote and working with you all, writing for EmbraceRace, and really thinking about this on a more systems level and from an educational perspective is I really saw some holes in my students' understanding about race, racism, and many other things, and it had to do with how we were teaching and talking about these topics with young kids. The other part of it for me is thinking a lot about how we can change systems so that we're allowing all children to understand what it means to develop as an anti-racist or an anti-bias person, which is so incredibly important in this moment. And always is. We have to do this. It has to be an opt-in for all educators in order to make the kind of change that we all really want to see.
EmbraceRace: I think anti-bias and anti-racist are used interchangeably by a lot of people. And anti-racism, it seems, is often reduced to issues of bias, right?
Liz, you describe yourself in your bio as an anti-bias and anti-racist educator. How do you understand the distinction between anti-racism and anti-bias?
Liz Kleinrock: Sure. Thank you for that question. Madeleine heard me talk a couple of weeks ago. I have a whole slide when I talk to schools about the language and how a lot of terms are used interchangeably when they really mean different things. When I have more space in my bio, I also to add that I am "aspiring," or "anti-bias anti-racist educator in progress." The expert label makes me deeply uncomfortable, because I think that the constant process of learning and unlearning is so important. And I think it's really dangerous when, I think people in general, but especially educators, get to a point where we say, "Nope, we're good. We know everything there is to know about any particular topic."
So I think about terms like "anti-bias," "DEI," as these really big umbrella terms that all mean really different things, but underneath all of those are so many different identifiers and things that we have to be aware of. It's not just about focusing on race, even though here obviously at EmbraceRace that is the focus, and racial justice. And anti-racism does seem to be the main focus in a lot of schools even when they say we're invested in DEI work. I think it's really important to note that when you're using those really big umbrella terms, if it's around anti-bias or DEI, that you have a responsibility to also include conversations and lessons and centering issues around gender, neurodiversity, body size, language, citizenship, all of those different identities that make our students who they are.
When I talk about anti-bias and anti-racism, I think the most important pieces are to remember that it has to be rooted in action, that there are going to be lots of different things where we have huge awareness gaps, where we naturally are going to intellectualize information, especially around identities and communities and history that we don't have a lot of knowledge about. That's natural. But that our activism can't just stop there. It's really about, what are we doing? What are we saying every single day in order to dismantle White supremacy, in order to make our environments and our schools more inclusive, equitable, safe, and justice oriented for students whose identities have historically been marginalized? So while anti-racism I think is one really important part of anti-bias work, we have to remember that when it comes to biases, if you Google types of biases you're going to get dozens and dozens of different studies, different examples, and so it's a really big commitment that we have to make.
Madeleine Rogin: I love that, and I really resonate with the idea of the discomfort about calling myself an expert. I think part of what I think about a lot as a White educator is, I'm really influenced by Sheryll Cashin's work, she wrote a book called Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy, and she talks a lot about how in order to move away from this norm of Whiteness, it's a constant practice of dismantling systems. And for me, it's a lot of self-reflection and a lot of humility in the work. So I'm so appreciative of you Liz bringing that in, because I think that's essential actually.
And I think even shifting our thinking about this, there are so many of us who are White people in the education system, and I think this is sort of a part of White supremacy culture, is this idea that we are the experts. We have the knowledge, we will deliver the knowledge, and you will receive the knowledge. And shifting away from that is step one. That is such an important essential part of really examining what does it mean to dismantle systems that continue to promote White supremacy culture? So even that deep self-reflection, I think that's a lot of what I think about when I think about anti-racism and anti-bias.
And then just to say, as an early childhood educator, I think a lot of the focus for me is, how do we actually help children dismantle those early learnings about bias, and the idea that by not talking about difference or by shutting the door on the conversations that make us uncomfortable at times, or when young children say things that we don't know how to react, by not addressing that, sometimes we think oh, "We'll just tell everybody they have to be nice. And by saying we believe in being nice or being kind, we've done it." I mean we all, I think so much research has shown us now that that's not how our brains work. We actually need specific teaching about difference and how to communicate across difference with respect, and that is such important teaching that actually has to happen for kids to develop in the ways that we want to, so they can be kind. So I think that's another part of the definition that I like to think about.
EmbraceRace: Thank you. Thank you so much. So you both are long time teachers doing this work for a while and working on yourselves, and you've both written these books recently which I've had the privilege to, Madeleine see your book before it came out, and Liz to read your book as well. And that kind of spirit of humility, and I think Liz at the beginning you sort of said you were going back and re-editing your book, and you had changed your mind on a lot of things two years later from when you started. And Madeleine, you really lay out your process as well of overcoming your own discomfort, or privileging your kids' wellbeing and your students' wellbeing, learning to do that over your discomfort, and your road.
Do you see teachers in schools doing this anti-racist anti-bias work well? Or do you feel like we do, that it's really really teacher to teacher, and there aren't a lot of schools at the administrator level doing this work? Where are teachers at with anti-racist and anti-bias education?
Madeleine Rogin: I think I would love to just shout out my school, and for anyone who's here from Prospect Sierra School, I'm happy you're here. I want to shout out my school for the institutional shifts that I've seen take place there over the last 15 years that I've been there. I think when I first arrived there, there were some things that I really had trouble with, and a lot of it had to do with the invisibility of certain experiences. So I felt that there were voices that weren't included in really important places, decision making tables. I didn't see a diversity of voices, and I often felt I was a troublemaker. I was showing up at meetings and saying things, and leaving the meeting and wondering if that was okay to say. But I just had a lot of questions about the Whiteness that I was really observing.
It has changed dramatically, and I think a lot of that does have to do with the administration. There's a lot of, we call it top down ground up shifts, and the leadership matters so much, and I'll just give you a few examples of some of the shifts that I've seen take place that are pretty incredible. One, in terms of institutional practices, we have a whole anti-bias hiring practice that we do now, and some of our administrators lead that work for other institutions as well. Our school looks a lot different. Our admissions process has changed dramatically. And then with kids, there are things that we do now that it makes me cry actually when it happens at school, because it's what I've been wanting for so long, and now it's just a part of our daily practice.
We have a visibility wall that's up all the time, and it really highlights different community members' stories and different groups of people, and it's a place for people to tell their stories that haven't been told in schools. And then we have moments for kids to meet in affinity groups, we have times when kids stand up and stand proud in front of the school community for certain holidays that they celebrate. We invite family members to come to our assemblies to share their stories. These are all shifts that do have to happen as a system, and that, I've been thinking about that a lot. What are our systems shifts? Because if it's just a teacher in a classroom, I mean so many things can happen that will either burn that one teacher out, or feel isolated or worried, or I mean, how many educators around the country at this very moment are worried that they'll say something and not be protected in their dialogue with kids?
So I think that I would love to highlight that, and then knowing that there are many places where there are lots of teachers who are just trying, and that's also so important and hopefully there are ways that, like what you're offering Andrew and Melissa, for folks to have resource and community. I think it's just so essential for people to feel the strength to keep going even when it's hard.
EmbraceRace: Liz, what are you seeing in schools?
Liz Kleinrock: I'm seeing a lot of really different things. There's no blanket statement that I can make for sure, because not only am I school based, I do consulting work for all different types of schools in the US and abroad, public, private, charter. No matter where I go though I see a desire, and there absolutely is, I think in every school. Even if overall the culture does not seem to support this type of work, there are always a handful of people who really want to push their practice, who want to do better, who want to make sure that their students are safe and supported and loved. But there are, like you said, a number of different barriers that stand in the way.
I think right now also this whole battle, the attack about critical race theory, even labeling things like social emotional learning under critical race theory which is not true, but there is just this climate of fear. We are seeing news stories about teachers who are losing their jobs, their credentialing, for talking about privilege, for talking about race, for just acknowledging the history of our country, and that's scary. Not every teacher works in a place where there are union protections, or have administrators who are willing and ready to go to bat for them if something happens, if something ends up on the internet, or if parents are really angry about something, and it's just a very scary time I think. But going along with that, I feel we also need this so desperately. So it's that constant push and pull, which does put educators in some really difficult positions.
EmbraceRace: Madeleine I'm thinking about the Same/Same/But Different piece that you wrote for EmbraceRace which has been shared and read many times. In the context of thinking about fostering friendships and solidarities among kids of color, because in rereading it in preparation for this I find myself wondering does that play out differently, right?
What might you have noticed in doing that Same/Same/But Different exercises when the kids involved are children of color, versus White children and children of color?
Madeleine Rogin: Thank you. I love that question, and I have been thinking a lot about that article that I wrote, and I have been thinking a lot about how I want to make sure that the activities that I'm doing in my classroom aren't about always helping White children understand what it means to be different than them. I had a conversation with my 14 year old yesterday and a friend of hers who's also biracial. And they were talking about how sometimes they felt that the conversations that teachers lead, and they're not bad conversations, but that the intention behind them are sometimes about helping White children understand what it means to not have bias.
So I love this question, because in the article that I wrote, it was really about how I've approached teaching kids about how to communicate with one another in a respectful way, and we start off by really exploring all the similarities and differences we have, and that's also about providing mirrors and windows for everyone in the class. And when my class hasn't been super diverse, making sure that they see the array of experiences always, whether it's in our books that we read, whether it's in the people we're talking about in our curriculum, and that children are learning, what does it mean to have skin color? Where does skin color come from? Just those very basic lessons that really help children understand similarities and differences. But I think now with the thinking about how to do that in a way where the students of color in the room are prioritized, that their experiences are actually the primary focus, and even that shift in my own thinking as an educator will lead to a different outcome.
So I'm thinking for example, one year I taught that lesson about skin color, and immediately some of the White students were mislabeling students of color in the room, "But they must use the same skin color pencil, because they look exactly the same." So then I had to do some unlearning with these kids. How would I structure this lesson in a way where that actually wouldn't happen? These are the questions that I have as an educator. How do we make sure that, even when we're teaching this topic of how to decrease bias, how do we do it in such a way that the students of color in the room don't have to be subjected to their peers mislabeling or sort of misunderstanding who they are? Because that does take a lot of our attention.
So I think just, it's a question that I have, and I think shifting focus to students of color in the room is the important shift. And maybe that's about doing lessons where you're really focusing on the experiences that students of color are having in the classroom, and not focusing so much on helping White students unlearn bias.
How [do we] teach anti-bias in a way where the students of color in the room are prioritized... [We need to be] really focusing on the experiences that students of color are having in the classroom, and not focusing so much on helping White students unlearn bias.
EmbraceRace: Liz, what have you learned about how to support kids of color to engage each other? What other things would you add to highlight the difference in how you engage as an educator among kids of color, versus a racially mixed group that includes White kids?
Liz Kleinrock: That's a great question. Madeleine, I so appreciate your answer too. I'm actually going to drop a resource in the chat, if you haven't read Paul Gorski's article about avoiding racial equity detours it's fantastic, and one of the first things he talks about is diversity initiatives, multicultural initiatives, who do they really exist for, just like you were saying. Because I often do feel in schools, especially in predominantly White schools, diversity seems to exist to serve White students to teach them about people who aren't White. And I don't know how many White parents or caregivers ever stop to think, what does my White child have to offer to a student of color? As a friend, as an ally, what is my family, my child bringing to this relationship?
Liz Kleinrock: To go back to actually to the very first question you asked about what do I think about anti-bias and anti-racism, I think that this is also so important and something that I talk to my students a lot about, that bias is one of our common denominators, that no one is free from it. And not in a way that's meant to be super depressing or to make kids feel down on themselves, but to recognize that based on what we are exposed to, of course we're forming biases all the time about people who are similar to us and people who are different.
Children are incredibly observant. We teach them to be observant, to categorize, to sort things at a very, very young age, so it makes sense that this is the direction that they're going in. And oftentimes when we talk about the definition of racism, because I know that people do define it in different ways, is it possible for people of color to be racist towards each other? And whether or not you believe that, everyone is certainly capable of holding racial biases and harming other people based on those biases, and so that's the language I usually use when I'm talking to students of color, if they are micro-aggressing one another or harming each other based on their racial or ethnic backgrounds. So understanding first that bias applies to everyone, therefore anti-bias applies to everyone too. That we do have to be really intentional about how we're thinking about relationship and identity in our classrooms, how explicit we're being there, and how we are really also trying to affirm identity whenever possible.
I often talk about how a couple of years ago if I looked at, even just my classroom library, if I was looking at a book on slavery, or Indigenous genocide, or anti-Asian xenophobia, in terms of representation sure, I have a lot of different groups centered here. But none of them actually teach my students about the culture, identity, joy, power, contributions, anything positive. And so I thought a lot about what my students are learning about themselves, but also what are they learning about communities and people who are different from them too? Because we don't want to just portray everybody as the oppressed, even though of course we have experienced oppression, but that doesn't define us. However, when we do highlight these struggles recognizing that we do have so many similarities, that so many of our experiences are tied together, that influence one another.
I think one of the most powerful conversations I had with students this year when we were reading the book Separate is Never Equal, it's about Sylvia Mendez and the fight to desegregate schools in California, was that her family had moved into their farm because the Japanese family that had lived there was sent to an internment camp. And then looking also at their fight in the court, they received so much support from many different communities, from the Black community, the Jewish community, different Asian communities. And those are the stories and the histories that aren't centered. So how can we bring that intersectional solidarity piece to our classrooms at a really young age so it becomes common knowledge that people of color have also worked together towards common goals too?
Is it possible for people of color to be racist towards each other? And whether or not you believe that, everyone is certainly capable of holding racial biases and harming other people based on those biases, and so that's the language I usually use when I'm talking to students of color, if they are micro-aggressing one other... Understanding first, that bias applies to everyone, therefore anti-bias applies to everyone too.... Also, how can we bring that intersectional solidarity piece to our classrooms at a really young age so it becomes common knowledge that people of color have also worked together towards common goals too?
EmbraceRace: I want to say that both Madeleine and Liz have a lot of resources in their books that you can go to, just lots of sites and lesson ideas, and a lot of great penmanship on the anchor charts, Liz. I'm always like, "This is great penmanship."
Both of you have laid out some just general guidelines for teachers. What else would you recommend for educators who are trying to center kids of color in the classroom? What guidelines or specific stories do you want to offer that might spark some inspiration?
Madeleine Rogin: I would love to talk a little bit about family engagement, because I think just because of the age that I'm around all the time, and as kids get older it becomes a little less clear how it's always so important to include families in whatever's happening in a school or learning environment. And when they're five and six it just happens all the time, right? Because parents are in communication with you about, "Oh my kid didn't eat snack today," and "Can you make sure that they're drinking water?" and all of those things. So because of that, I feel like I've had the opportunity over the years to really examine what are the ways we are including families in our learning, and how can we do it better? And I think to this topic, how do we do it in a way that also centers people of color in our community, and how can we not only include everyone in what's happening in our classroom and in our school, but really examine the systems that we use?
So for example, looking at what is the process that you're asking people to sign up to volunteer, or drive on trips, or give their input on learning, and are you doing it in a way that's actually learning together? Are you in a collaborative relationship with the caregivers in your community, and especially the caregivers who aren't White, and how do you do make it better? So I think over the years, I've looked a lot at family presentations and how we're asking people to come and share about their stories, and that's super important. I think it's a keystone of good practice to have families be able to share who they are. But there's so many other places where we ask families or don't to be involved, so I think how we do that in a way that also centers people of color in the community. And I love what you said earlier Liz, about how often are White parents of White kids having the conversation with their children about how they can be supportive and be an ally?
And I think one theme that I'm thinking a lot about right now is, I think there's this cultural fear, we see it a lot around, "Don't talk about privilege. Don't freak the White child out." So because of that cultural fear, in the research that I've done to write the book, I definitely found a level of silence among White parents of White children. So I think what we can do now is really help caregivers understand that helping their White child know the story of resistance and the story of movements, of people coming together that are always so diverse, but movements that are led by people of color, and how do you take a back seat and be quiet and learn. I mean even that shift, those kinds of learnings, that's what I'm really interested in right now is sort of being quieter and helping people of privilege learn how to be a little quieter. And I think that's going to be a big challenge for us, but I think it's important. I think that's a big way to support.
EmbraceRace: I remember reading in your book a bit about calling in, and I'm just thinking one of the dynamics that we've seen a lot in terms of relationships between kids of color is that with teachers, White teachers in particular, is when there's aggressions between kids of color in different racial groups, that the White teachers are afraid to intervene. Whereas it's super clear if a White kid's doing it you intervene on that, but if it's two Black kids calling each other something not nice and racialized, they don't know what to do. And I'm not saying everybody, but we've seen this dynamic over and over.
What advice do you have for teachers who don't know how to step in when there is tension between kids of color in different racial groups?
Liz Kleinrock: Yeah. That's a such a good question, and I've witnessed quite a lot of that this year as well. I think the first thing to do is just to first make sure that you are doing your own personal work, and that can look a lot of different things. If it's reading books or having conversations with your friends and colleagues, but do you have an understanding of your own identity, and also how your identity shows up in your school community and in your classroom?
Myself, being East Asian, being Korean, when I first started teaching in Los Angeles I was teaching in south LA, and getting caught up very quickly on the legacy of Korean and Black tension in Los Angeles from the LA Riots and Rodney King, knowing that my identity was going to very much play a role in how I was interacting with students, how we talked about history, the interactions I was having with their parents and caregivers.
And then moving to another school that was very White dominant, knowing the model minority myth, how White parents might see me, talk to me, view me compared to other colleagues of color. Even though I might stay the same, my environment is constantly changing, and so I have to be aware of all of those different dynamics.
Your question reminds me of actually something that happened earlier this year. Can I give that scenario? This happened in a second grade class. We were talking about Black History Month. There's one girl who is Black, and another boy who is Biracial Black and Asian, and those two kids got into, "Who is Black?" The girl said that the Biracial boy wasn't, that made him incredibly upset. Then there were conversations about, "Well your skin is technically Brown. It's not literally Black, so you're Brown, not Black." But identifying as Black is something that's very important to that girl's identity, so she got very upset. And then we had a South Asian student chime in and say, "Well my skin color is actually darker than both of yours, so does that mean I'm Black?" And so just picture all of this in a class of second graders, and this all took place within a minute and a half span. It happens quickly.
And so to first recognize that I am not Black, so I am also not here to tell anyone how they should or should not identify. And in that moment, one of the few things that I can do. There are conversations that I'm going to have with their other teachers, then I'm going to reach out to their parents and let them know that these conversations are happening, but ultimately to remind them that we're here to uplift and affirm, and not police other people's identities, and just try to support them going forwards knowing that because there was that difference in who we are, there was only so much I could actually do in that situation in a way that I felt wasn't overstepping boundaries or crossing a line there as well.
But it was definitely, I had a little bit of a deer in the headlight moment of, how am I going to respond to this in a way that is going to make sure that every student here is seen and affirmed, to make sure that I'm not just trying to avoid the conversation, I'm here to affirm my students' identities and also validate their feelings, because there were many feelings across this entire emotional spectrum in that moment.
EmbraceRace: Someone wrote in with this question.
As a Chinese European Jewish person, I appreciate that this conversation aims to go beyond the binary. How can we encourage schools and organizations to fundamentally shift from binary to multiracial or intersectional as their primary lens?"
I want to add, especially now, right? When so many people, teachers and managers, as well as kids, are pretty stressed. Teachers are feeling stretched, underappreciated, and feeling this is more to take on, right? Can't afford another kind of challenge and demand to how they spend their time. What would you recommend?
Madeleine Rogin: Well first I just want to say I'm taking that with me, about we are not here to police each other, we are here to affirm and hold up and boost up. I love that. I'm going to say that to my kids tomorrow in my class. I know there'll be opportunities to use that Liz, so thank you.
From an administrative level or from school programming level or curricular level, when we think about what are our goals for this teaching? If our goals are, to Liz's point, to affirm one another and hold up people who have been devalued and are being dehumanized right now, if that's our goal is to hold up everybody obviously, right? Every child in every school should feel valued, seen, loved. It just turns out that the way our system works, not every child ends up feeling that way at school. So if our goal is to make sure that every child is actually feeling seen, valued, loved, and learning what they need to know to be a positive member of our society who's doing good work in the world, if those are our goals... And I can't think of better goals.
I know we're all stretched so thin in education, and if there's ever been a time when we need to focus on what matters, it seems to me post COVID, post everything that's happening in our country and world at this very moment, I can't think of any better goals. And I know that there are so many educators and leaders who believe that. So I think if we're those are our goals, then the natural next step is to ask ourselves how are we getting there and whose stories are we sharing? And if we actually want to do this work then it can't be a binary, because that only includes this tiny fraction of the world, and so we have to be more inclusive.
And I also really appreciate what Liz was saying about the work. Have we done that internal work? And I do think that's so valuable, remembering that if we haven't done the internal work it doesn't really matter what our goals are, because when we deliver the teaching, if we're not aware of who we are and how we're showing up in terms of our identity with kids, then it kind of falls apart. So those two seem so vital that we're doing the internal work, and then that we're actually doing the things that get us to the goals that we want which is about everybody's story, it has to be. There's isn't really another way to get there I think.
EmbraceRace: I'm thinking about the love you show for your school Prospect Sierra the work that they have done over the years right? And you gave really lovely sort of testimony to that. And we know that, I think this is happening right? What you just described, take your institutional mission seriously, take your goals seriously, and you realize you have to do this work, right? So I think lots of institutions are being challenged in one way or another to do exactly that, and we know that for various reasons most do not.
What are two or three drivers that pushed your school to make that transition? And we know this doesn't mean that other institutions can just take them and run with them, but can you offer some insights into what propelled the change that you saw at Prospect Sierra over those years?
Madeleine Rogin: I think first, our mission has always been a good mission, and it was a good mission 15 years ago. It's probably a good mission 30 years ago. So we started off with the mission of cultivating kind, compassionate, intelligent humans, and I think there are a lot of people at my school, everyone really, who believes in that mission. So it had a very strong mission.
And then there were people me and others who were troublemakers, who wouldn't be quiet, who kept saying the thing in the meeting that was awkward to say, that felt scary, that took a risk. There were people who took lots of risks. There were lots of White allies of people of color, who affirmed and supported the voices of the minority. And then I think we just got clearer and clearer about what that mission actually looks like in the daily life of the school, and certain things came out of that. For example, we have now a Diversity, Equity, and Justice mission statement that's one of the first things you see when you visit the school's website. So we're centering the work in a way that makes us have to walk the walk. And I think the process we're in now is figuring out how do you hold people accountable for that within the institution itself, and make sure that people are learning what they need to know to deliver the teaching and be a part of a community in a way that really feels genuine and authentic, and is doing it in a really good way.
So I think there's just, it's a combination I think of, there needs to be individuals within who feel that they can take that risk of questioning and being critical, and the institution has to be strong enough to withstand the self-criticism, to be able to say, I will not present as I have arrived, I am the expert. I will not present like that. I will present as I am learning, and willing to examine my practice. And individuals and the system, are we strong enough to examine our practices and say, that didn't work, let's try this. And whose voices need to be included in those conversations? Who has not been able to say for generations what happens in school, and how do we invite those voices in? Because that's the big change I think that needs to happen now when we think about liberatory education or how we're making change. We really need to listen to people who haven't had those opportunities I think.
And individuals and the system, are we strong enough to examine our practices and say, that didn't work, let's try this. And whose voices need to be included in those conversations? Who has not been able to say for generations what happens in school, and how do we invite those voices in?
EmbraceRace: Someone wrote in: "What can I do as a teacher to better understand each culture within my classroom?" I imagine that can feel pretty overwhelming. So how do you start?
Liz Kleinrock: This might sound basic, but ask. I mean, when I think about the first few weeks of school, what are the types of activities that I'm doing with my students that are not only making space for them to share who they are and about their background and cultures and beliefs and heritage, but what am I also doing to show that's welcomed? Not just for the first two weeks of school as we're getting to know each other, but all year long? How often do we loop back to those introductions, to that community work that we tend to focus on just at the beginning of school?
I'm also a huge fan of having conversations or sending surveys to parents and caregivers before the school year begins or on the first day, not just asking questions, "What are your reading and math goals for your child this year?" But, "Tell me about celebrations in your household. What is a holiday that you celebrate? How do you celebrate that? Is there something that you would like to come in and teach or share with our class?" I think that one of my favorite questions to ask caregivers is, "What was learning like for you when you were the same age as your child?" And that has opened up so many amazing conversations.
And also to learn, to listen. I used to do journaling with my students, every day there was a different prompt. I would try to respond to them in their journals as well, but just pay attention to what they're talking about, what they're excited about. I had a student this year who talked about Holi all the beginning of the year, and I didn't teach her class that day. And then when the holiday finally came around, I didn't see them, but the week after we were able to still read a book together to celebrate, and I know it meant a lot to her that I had remembered, that I was still paying attention, and that I wanted her to have that experience.
If you're able to, and I know prep time is really tough, and especially in public schools, you need your moments to breathe and to relax. But I loved having lunch with students, even just once a week a small group of four or five where we could just get to know each other better outside of academics, and just hear what's going on in their lives as well. One of my grad school advisors had a really great strategy, I think she called it the two by five, but you choose a different child every week and you try to spend two uninterrupted minutes just talking with them for five days in a row, to see what you learn and how your relationship improves. And then the next week, you can choose another child. And I love that strategy. It's so basic, and I think as busy as we are, you can always find two minutes in your day to have a conversation with a kid.
[I ask the families of the children in my classroom:] "Tell me about celebrations in your household?... Is there something that you would like to come in and teach or share with our class?" I think that one of my favorite questions to ask caregivers is, "What was learning like for you when you were the same age as your child?"
EmbraceRace: So thinking about the sort of patchwork of anti-CRT legislation and sentiment across the country, thinking about the further complication of teachers within individual schools getting different levels of support from their peers, from parents, from their administrators, what advice do you have for educators who are facing resistance from administrators?
Let's say in the building or at the district level, some of whom in fairness right, aren't necessarily against the anti-bias or anti-racist work that they're doing, but maybe understandably skittish depending on local circumstances. I'm sure you or the two of you are clearly among the good troublemakers in the various staff that you've been in as teachers.
Madeleine Rogin: I think first do you have an ally? Is there anyone in the school community who will support what you're trying to do? Can you bond with others who are just as invested as you are?
And then I think two, I've had a number of parents and colleagues and administrators over the years who've had questions about what's happening in my classroom. "Is it developmentally appropriate? Do five year old's need to know about race?" Lots of questions. And one thing I've found is, there are a couple things. One is sharing research, very current research that shows what's happening in a child's brain and how important it is for children to actually understand differences, because they see them, they notice them. We know this, that color being colorblind is a myth. That's a proven myth, that kids' research will support the idea that we should be talking and having dialogue with kids.
And then the other thing is sharing kid voices. So when I've had parents who've had questions about what's happening, I'll invite them in and I'll say, "Here's what your student said." And I'll just, I have written down two minutes of a conversation. And I think for administrators this can be helpful too, to hear what's actually happening in the classroom, or you can invite them in if that's a safe place for you to do that. But I think having people actually hear what children are saying really can take away that fear that there's something dangerous happening, because often it's not dangerous. It's kind of funny. It can be a very joyful, humorous, beautiful experience to talk to children about all of these topics. It doesn't have to be heavy. And there are moments of course, but then there are many, many moments of joy and connection that I think people aren't aware of because they're so in their fear brain.
Liz Kleinrock: I have a chapter about this in my book (sorry, shameless plug) of how to work with reluctant administrators. I think the first thing that you want to do, if you feel comfortable doing so, is to sit down and have a conversation face to face, not through email certainly, with either your colleagues or your admin and ask just, "Why, where is the reluctance or resistance coming from?" Because we have a lot of assumptions about administrators, how they spend their time, what they do, and I will tell you that based on all of the administrators I interviewed for my book, I had no idea what they spent their time doing because they wear so many different hats. And depending on the type of school where you're at, you don't know where they're facing pressure. If it's a board, if it's a superintendent, you just don't know. Their hands are tied in a lot of really different ways too, so being able to understand their perspective and cultivate some empathy, have that conversation, is super important.
In my book, I also have a template that I suggest folks use where, if you're at a school that's very standards heavy, can you show how this work connects to what you're doing academically in your classroom? You're not trying to take on this whole extra thing, you're just shifting the lens, that you are doing the things that you're already supposed to be doing. And going forwards, everything that Madeleine said. Identifying allies, the people you're in community with. If it's a coalition of other teachers, and staff members, and students, and parents, and caregivers, the more people you can get onboard the better. And right now we are hearing a lot of very loud voices who oppose this type of work, even though we know that there are probably far more people out there who support it. We have to be just as present and just as loud, and take up more space than they are.
EmbraceRace: Correct. That's a great note to end on. Thank you both so much, and I will second I that these books are great, and both of their books have just a lot of resources and suggestions for dealing with administrators, dealing with sort of early education standards, all of that. So yeah, so check them out. Thank you for doing all the work that generated those insights, and thank you for continuing to do it. It's amazing. We're so appreciative, and appreciative of you coming tonight. Thank you.
Madeleine Rogin: Thank you so much.
Liz Kleinrock: Thank you.
- Start Here, Start Now by Liz Kleinrock
- Change Starts with Me by Madeleine Rogin
- Same/Same/Different: Creating an Inclusive Kindergarten by Madeleine Rogin
- Avoiding Racial Equity Detours by Paul Gorsky