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Some California preschools are getting children to participate in conversations about racial differences at an early age by introducing an anti-bias curriculum that teaches kids about diversity and inclusion. Against a backdrop of national divides over race, these educators use art projects and discussions to infuse a powerful message into the classroom. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports.
Now: teaching about tolerance to the very youngest children in school.
The lessons are certainly not new, but,in some communities, they are taking on a new urgency and relevance in the wake of deep racial divides, social tensions and violence around the country.
Special correspondent Cat Wise visits a pair of noteworthy programs in California.
It's for our weekly series Making the Grade.
We're going to take out the mirror now. We're going to look at ourselves and we're going to make our own face.
In this Alameda, California, preschool, a box of crayons with a multitude of colors is helping little kids learn big lessons.
So, put your hand and decide what you think is the best suited for you.
Teacher Tiffani Battle asks the children to look carefully at their own skin color and their classmates' skin colors, and to notice differences and similarities.
I'm black and white.
The art project is just one of many ways children are introduced to an anti-bias curriculum here at the Child Unique Montessori School, a private, tuition-funded program.
OK, so go ahead and color your skin in.
Cindy Acker is the school's founder and principal.
Within any color of someone's skin, there are many, many different colors, and so we want them to appreciate the diversity within their own individuality, and then we want them to be able to see and question other children's differences.
We're different on the outside, but, inside, we have lungs, we have a heart, we have a mind, and that's the same.
Talking about racial differences is not new at the school. Acker started the program more than 30 years ago. It was among the first of its kind in the country to focus on diversity and inclusion at such an early age, but she says the curriculum seems more important than ever.
To me, the things that are going on in the world today give us an indication that we need a major shift in how we perceive people, how we honor people, how we treat people. And because I am a firm believer that it begins at the preschool level, I think that that's where we need to start.
Acker points to racial divides witnessed in recent events like the violent neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, the police shootings of black men, and the debate over NFL football players taking a knee to protest racism.
What we have seen is a resurfacing or a surfacing of what we thought was absent, but sits within the psyche of some individuals.
Louise Derman-Sparks has written several books about teaching anti-bias to preschoolers.
The truth is that young children noticed differences very early. And by the age of 3 and 4, they're asking questions. They're beginning to develop and to absorb the stereotypes and misinformation, discomforts.
I don't like to call it prejudices. It's kind of like pre-prejudices. So, the myth that they aren't noticing, the idea of being colorblind, actually harms kids.
Derman-Sparks says preschool teachers who talk about the differences and similarities among their students create an environment where misinformation and fears can be addressed.
For instance, if you have dolls of different types, and a child refuses to play with a doll that's got dark skin, the teacher can say, how come you don't want to play with so and so?
And, depending on what the child says, you can then decide to help overcome whatever the discomfort is.
That's exactly the atmosphere teacher Francesca Conterno hopes to create for her students at a public preschool.
Look at this boy. What different about his eyes compared to his?
His eyes are blue, yes. His eyes are blue. And I see Marianna's got blue eyes. And you made blue eyes in your picture up there. What about Kim? What color are Kim's eyes?
Yes, they're definitely black.
Conterno teaches 3- and 4-year-olds in the Hayward Unified District.
Someone might hear about a program like this and think, gosh, you know, race and racism or highlighting differences, that's not something that should be done in a classroom, especially a preschool classroom.
How would you respond?
I would say, why not? It's the perfect setting. It is absolutely the perfect setting. We have families in the classroom. It's a safe place. People develop relationships, perfect, perfect setup for honest conversations.
Conterno doesn't ask children directly about fears or misconceptions about race. Instead, she believes materials that highlight equality can provide a powerful message in the classroom.
If most of the books show white people, and very few show people of color, then that's a message. If all the teachers are white, or if the teacher is white, but the assistants are always people of color, these are all messages to kids about who matters, who is visible, who is not, who has power.
Conterno sees the sometimes uncomfortable questions children do ask about race and gender as teachable moments.
Too many times, you see in classrooms teachers will respond to that by play nice or we're all friends in here, when it's a perfect opportunity to go a little bit deeper.
See, you see how, like, we have one shade of brown, we have even a lighter shade here, right? We have all of these different colors, so I have a feeling there's probably more than two, right?
Back at the Child Unique Montessori School, parent Shawnee Keck says she choose the program for her three children because of its strong focus on equity and social justice, but she says her husband did have questions about the anti-bias curriculum.
I have a tall white husband, and he was absolutely concerned, especially for our son who was in the elementary school, saying, does this make him feel worse, does this make him feel like he might be somebody that should be feeling bad about his whiteness?
And I don't think so. I don't think that's — it's not pie. You know, just because you have a piece doesn't mean somebody else doesn't get a piece.
Amitra Mamdouhi also chose the school for its focus on diversity, but she points out that for 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds, the conversation is kept very simple.
Of course you don't start talking about the new Jim Crow or prison industrial complex. You're not starting that at a young age, but just to recognize that, OK, different colors exist because of melanin, and this is natural, and it's all — we're all different, but we're also similar. We bleed, we cry, we love.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Cat Wise in Alameda County, California.
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