Box 1

Box 1

Box 2

Box 2
Character Education

Box 3

Box 3
Digital Learning

Race and Culture in Our Classrooms

Turning to a more serious topic today, teachers, that of race and cultural identity and how they affect the students in our classrooms. I know. You're colorblind, and so are your students. Yeah. Me too. While we like to say (and believe) that we don't see color when we look at our students, deep down we know that this can't possibly be true. Not really. We see gender (identified or born), hair color, height, and body type pretty easily on first glance. Why would we not notice skin tones? Of course we do. We notice, and whether we admit it or not, our brains and prior experience set us up to think and act in certain predetermined ways if we don't directly address the issue.

I began my career long ago in an inner city school. The population was ninety-five per cent African American, coming from a public housing project. Five percent of the students were children of University staff, as our school sat on the northern edge of the campus of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. As the only caucasian face in the room, I was in for a major culture shock on the first day of school. The first day of a teaching career can be shocking all by itself, but my fifth grade classroom on Day One was quite an experience for my students and for me! It started with a sweet looking little girl who, when I asked her to please take a seat, yelled at me that she didn't have to do "nothin' but stay black and die!". And we were off...

Many years later, sitting behind this computer screen as a recently (How long will I continue to say recently - third year on the outside now!) retired teacher, I do have some thoughts about how race has been a factor in both teaching and learning throughout my career. I hope to make you squirm just a little, and think about how race is present in your classroom, and how it is addressed. Although science has proven that race doesn't exist, just a difference in levels of melanin in our skin, hair, and eyes, humans have continued to find ways to group and classify and label each other for various purposes (not always for good).

Day One of my career definitely made me squirm, think, and retool. I had arrived at work in my most teacherish (IMO) dress, heels, and pearls. (Yes pearls. Cue Donna Reed. Look her up!) That prepared me for what I thought teaching was: standing before a sea of lovely little faces, and sharing the knowledge. Ha! You know! I went home, put the pearls away, got out my flat shoes and sneakers, and invented a teacher uniform. We had no yoga pants in those days, and female teachers were not permitted to wear pants to work, sooo.... I created outfits of dresses (all my dresses at the time were mini and could easily identify as tunics) and pants worn together with flat shoes. This combination allowed me to move freely about the room, squat or sit on the floor, and forget about my appearance in general. When challenged by administration about the pants, I simply offered to remove them. (No thank you. Uh, I guess they're ok.) I began to see myself as a facilitator rather than an entertainer.

I made it my mission in those early days to do whatever it took to get close to and reach my students. Each day after school, you could find me in the projects knocking on doors and inviting myself in for a chat. (I did always try to call first, making those calls upon returning home after each day's visit.) Most parents, even those who would not come to school for conferences, invited me in, and served me tea and snacks or whatever they had to offer. Yeah, I used to be thin. Sigh.... The point is that they were for the most part welcoming and anxious to discuss their child.

As I began to understand the baggage that each child brought to my class, I found that I could reach each one and help them to learn. This certainly did not happen overnight. It was a slow and ongoing process. I did have to recognize that my students were of a cultural group different from my own, with different traditions, speech patterns, family organization, and as so many of them lived in poverty, had that also to bear as they came to school each day. I brought Black History to them throughout the year, in the form of historical leaders and examples from literature. Even as a novice teacher, it seemed important to me that children see themselves in the material that they study.

I continued my career after moving to Michigan in a private Jewish Day School, where I taught third grade secular subjects and Art to grades K-6. As a conservative Jew, teaching in an Orthodox school was again a cultural difference that I couldn't help but be aware of. I now know that males and females worship separately in Orthodox Judaism, the females often on the other side of a curtain called a mechitza. I caused quite a stir that first week when I led my class to morning prayers. The girls went behind the curtain while I was trying to get everyone in and seated. I went in after them and tried to get them to sit with their class (aka the boys). Giant embarrassment for sure! During the three years I spent in that learning environment, I absorbed so much that I didn't know about my own religion, and tried to weave those beliefs and ideas into the lessons I planned, especially in Art. We studied Jewish artists among the usual ones in every art curriculum, and created some art for each holiday celebration.

On to public school in the suburbs of Detroit for the final 28 years of my career. I went from being one of several Conservative Jewish teachers in an Orthodox Jewish school to being the only Jewish teacher in my school for most of 24 years. The only one. Asked to explain everything Jewish whenever a situation arose because we did have quite a few Jewish students in our building. What an awesome responsibility! I was not up to that, I assure you! My solution was to ask a friend who was a very observant practicing Jew. I would then share her answers. As my Jewish students were observant at about the same level as my own, we all learned something each time a question was asked.

My students in public school were diverse. Parents came to our neighborhood from far and wide for so many reasons: marriage to a family who had lived here for years, families from Japan, Korea, China, Germany, and France working in the auto industry (many for 4-6 year assignments and some for forever), military families on the move, immigrant Catholic Iraqis escaping war and persecution, Muslim families from Lebanon, Afghanistan, and even Canada, all here for reasons of their own.  We had single parent families, two parent families, adoptive families, foster children, and some wards of the government. All in one class, many skin tones, many cultural backgrounds, many types of unique baggage, and many different needs. Something to embrace, not try to ignore.

During my years in this diverse and ever-changing public school classroom, I tried to give each student a sense of unique importance while still being a part of our Rainbow City classroom community. Again, this can only be achieved through getting to know the families and each child personally. What a rare pleasure that was, with memories to last a lifetime for me. I just wished Happy Birthday this morning to a grownup young woman in Japan just because I knew her delightful mother and her sister and her for just two short years. We have kept in touch. I can tell this same story over and over. My life has been enriched a thousand fold by seeing the race and culture of all my students. They are all "citizens" of Rainbow City, but all member of families, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, and many of them now wives and husbands.

It was always part of my practice to welcome the cultures and world views of my students in their writing, discussions, reading, and celebrations throughout the year. We had a Cultural Carousel at holiday time each year, blogged about here, a "Rainbow City Cafe" community service project which included storytelling in several languages (blogged about here), and a "Coming to America" project on immigration (found here). For many years, each student published an autobiography or original story as well as contributing to a class book project. We always used student (before and since they were a dot com!) with beautiful results!

My thoughts on race and culture in our classrooms today are that we should appreciate the race and culture of each student and share that appreciation with our class. Children learn what they see and hear. A few suggestions:
  • Close your door and make your classroom a safe place to celebrate who you are - each of you. Tell your own personal stories (as you can see here, I sometimes overkill that one!), and welcome the personal stories of each of your students. 
  • Select literature to read for Guided Reading and Book Clubs that reflect the demographics of your class. Make sure that your students see faces that look like them in the works they study. 
  • Invite speakers and read-alouders from your community to your classroom. They can add so much and are almost always more than happy to be invited.
  • Celebrate diverse cultural holidays whenever possible, inviting parents in to share the photos, symbols, foods, and crafts of their families' celebrations.
  • Don't be afraid to open the discussion in your staff lounge of staff meetings. Ask your colleagues how they think you all are doing where race is considered in your classrooms. Ask each other how you might do better. Don't be afraid to grow. Even a tiny step is better than closing your eyes.

I have a free resource created just for you and two more resource suggestions to give you a start if you are interested:

This "Walk in the Shoes of" page will give your students a chance to learn a little more about a classmate or book character of another culture. They can add skin color, features, clothing, and accessories, and then add words/phrases telling some unique characteristics of that person's culture.
Just click on the cute blank character for your free copy!

Here is Todd Parr reading aloud his amazing book "It's OK to be Different"
This book is perfect for getting the conversation started with teachers/kids of any age, I think!

And from the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh (my alma mater!),  H. Richard Milner IV has written a book that just might help you to get a school or district wide PD going, or just make some small but significant changes in your own classroom.
Don't miss this amazing book with practical suggestions for recognizing and appreciating the differences in your kids, and for making a better plan to serve them.

For more this month from the 3 E's Blogging Collaborative, don't miss these posts!


Zen Classroom

Full Moon ahead? Major school break coming up? Too much excitement for students in the class before yours, or on the bus ride to school? Yikes! That could mean that your day is set up for major headaches, much waiting for quiet and attention, and a constant struggle to get through the lesson plan.

But what if you could bring an atmosphere of calm and peace to your classroom each and every day, no matter what may be happening just outside your door? Welcome to the Zen Classroom! Here are some easy-peasy ways to bring back the calm and get on with the learning:

Of course, we all have heard of brain breaks, and many teachers are already making great use of brain breaks and brain gym activities on a regular basis. I'm wondering if you've tried just breathing at the start of a lesson, after a transition, or when things get a little out of control. You can bring your class right back to center and focus with just a minute or two of focused breathing. Have a sign ready that says, "Breathe". Have a pre-agreed posture that kids automatically get into because they've learned it. It can be sitting up straight in their chair, criss-cross applesauce on desktops, or on a pre-designated spot on the floor. My students often enjoyed taking a seat on the floor under their desks to find a quiet personal spot.

When the sign is displayed, students can engage in one of several types of breathing. Simple and slow  in through the nose and out through the mouth, one of many yoga breaths than can be learned and at the ready for these moments, or whatever breath helps each child to slow down and get calm. Different kids will have their favorites, and one or two that will work best for them.

Just a minute or two spent breathing in this way will restore peace and calm to each student in your class. Because I love you, and because I really want you to try this, here's a free poster for you! Just click, download and print!


Try setting up a yoga poster or two at each of the stations (math, writing, etc.) in your class. Set up a routine with kids that before attempting each academic station, they will practice a pose and/or a breath. Kids and you will see a definite upswing in success, I promise! It's just a great way to clear your head and to save a space in your brain for the learning to sink in. Try it with those dreaded times tables or even a passage from Shakespeare! You just may be surprised!

The most wonderful benefit of starting some of these practices with your kids is that they are truly life practices. Kids will remember and even automatically start breathing or assuming certain positions in stressful or difficult situations or even when preparing for a test, first date, or job interview in the future. You will have given your students a gift for a lifetime by starting some of these habits now in your classroom.

Here's another great use for those yoga posters or yoga cards!
Set up a series of yoga mats, or bath/beach towels, or just areas marked off by tape around your room (or playground!). Place a yoga card/poster at each area. connect the course with yoga straps stretched out (or tape) or yoga blocks laid in a row (can also be stepping stones from the garden or paper stepping stones). I love to use paper stepping stones with messages written on them like, "Just Breathe!" or "Find Your Focus!" or "Be Calm!" or even "Chill!" Laminate them and tape to the floor or ground. Instruct students to follow the paths you have set up from station to station where they will  spend from three to five minutes practicing the postures and/or breaths posted there.

If you make setting up the obstacle course a class job, it will be a very easy and short setup for you, and a yoga obstacle course can be done as frequently and easily as a brain break. Definitely try it outdoors in the Spring for a calm and organized recess with a purpose!
Individual sets of yoga pose and breath cards in each student's desk make it possible for individuals to use these relaxation techniques whenever the need arises. That might not be at the same time for every student! When students have quick access to visual cues, they can try out some new or trusted poses or breaths whenever they need them. A new way of redirecting behavior for you just might become, "Try a card!"

Try hole-punching and adding a "ring-it" to individual decks. Kids can cut out the cards, hole-punch, and assemble themselves in third grade and above. Don't make more work for yourself by creating all the decks yourself when kids can give some zen back to you by doing it themselves. (Of course, cutting and assembling does have its rewards. Try binging on Netflix while cutting!)

 In my classroom, a very popular volunteer position was "CPA Parents". These wonderful (usually full-time working) parents would check their kids' backpacks each night for bags of materials from me to "Cut, Paste, Assemble" (CPA). All the work would usually be completed that evening and returned to school the next day. It's like having a team of fairy godmothers and godfathers just waiting for you to make a wish! Bibbidy-bobbidy-boo! It's an easy way for parents who must work, but want to volunteer in the classroom to take part.

Coloring books and zentangles of all kinds have been increasing in popularity for several years now, and it's no wonder! Focusing in on coloring changes your breathing and is a calming and restorative practice for kids and grownups alike. Using different colored pencils, crayons, markers, and even touches of watercolor adds to the experience. I love using coloring pages with a message. Kids will internalize the message as their fingers make strokes inside and outside the lines. Try printing posters (your choice - make them yourself or make it easy and purchase some) in black/white or grayscale for kids to color in. You can add to your classroom decor with posters personalized by your students. A win for all!

I hope that some or all of these suggestions will help you to create the kind of space in your classroom that will make you feel peaceful and happy while traveling to work to each day, looking forward to teaching and learning as you have always hoped it would be!

You might find some of the resources in these two bundles helpful in your journey to zen:

For more Spring classroom ideas, don't miss these great posts: