Parenting has always been an adventure, but 2020 has really handed parents a lot of tricky issues to navigate with their children. One of those issues is how to talk to your children about race and racial inequality.
We are fortunate to have so many excellent educational institutions in Cleveland and, in thinking about how to best talk to Jeffrey about racial issues, I decided to tap in to one of the resources I knew personally.
One of Jeffrey’s former preschool teachers, Carolyn English, is the Early Childhood Diversity Liaison at Hathaway-Brown School and (from personal experience) a phenomenal educator. I reached out to her to garner some insights and resources to help not only me, but other parents navigate talking to their children about race in a constructive, helpful way.
Tell me a bit about your professional background and how you came to this position at Hathaway-Brown.
I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood Education from Cleveland State University. After many years of working as the Director of a daycare center, I realized that my heart was in the classroom. I left the daycare center and began subbing in multiple schools, which included Hathaway Brown. Right away, I fell in love with the community and their mission “Non Scholae Sed Vitae Discimus,” learning not for school, but for life. I knew I wanted to stay long term. I applied for an open position, and the rest is history! I am currently one of the teachers in the Early Childhood program. I’ve worked as Dean of Students and Dean of Junior Teachers for Aspire, HB’s academic enrichment and leadership development program for girls in sixth through ninth grade from low income communities in the Greater Cleveland area. I am also the EC Diversity Liaison for the Center of Multicultural Affairs.
How is 2020 different than or similar to past years in terms of teaching children about racial issues?
There have always been racial issues in the United States, but in 2020 racism has been at the forefront of our society. This is why it essential to teach all children the history of racial issues and inequalities, so that they can have knowledge of where we’ve come from and where we are currently in order to effect change for the future. This is important work for everyone!
What books, programs, etc. do you recommend for teaching children about racial issues (perhaps by age?)
There are so many good books out there. Here are a few of my favorite recommendations…
Books: Let’s Talk about Race by Julius Lester (any age)
Preschool: The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, Last Stop on Market Street, Different Just Like Me by Lori Mitchell, We’re Different We’re the Same by Bobbi Kates, The Colors of Us by Karen Katz, and All are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold (these are appropriate for elementary as well)
Elementary: Keat’s Neighborhood, The Day you Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, Whoever you are by Mem Fox, The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi, The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler
Websites: PBS Kids
What books, programs, etc. do you recommend for parents to learn how to talk to children about racial issues?
Books: Between the World and Me by T-Nehisi Coates
“Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Program: 21 Day Racial Equity and Social Justice Challenge – YWCA Greater Cleveland
What are some of the most common questions or comments that you hear from children when learning about racial issues?
I teach children ages 2 – 5 years old, so their questions usually surround identity. Children this age are developing their own identities, and are beginning to recognize how other people interact. “Your/their skin is darker than my skin.” “Why is your skin brown?” “Why is your hair like that?” “Why does she/he/they do…?” Older children’s questions tend to be a bit more in-depth, often questioning how the world around them works.
What is Hathaway-Brown doing in terms of diversity programming?
At HB we, we have worked to implement programs that have helped us increase the racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity in our students, faculty and staff. We work to engage the whole community: we are able to plan whole school initiatives collaboratively so that everyone can participate in a meaningful way. We are able to ensure contributions from our youngest learners as well as for the diverse families we serve.
In EC, we help our students find connections with others beyond the obvious, we help them internalize positive attitudes about differences. In the classroom community, we incorporate a variety of different viewpoints and perspectives through books, stories, music, art, and dramatic play. In Prime, they explore a variety of topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion through assemblies, classroom curricula, and classroom discussions in order to create a positive tone of interaction and inquiry with people who are similar to and different from themselves. In the middle school, they make it a point to present carefully curated facts to the students and allow them the space to draw their own conclusions.
Students can handle learning about the world around them and want to stand for what’s right. The Upper School’s commitment to diversity and social justice are showcased in various ways, both in and out of the classroom, through allyship and affinity-focused activities as well as through thoughtful and strategic curriculum.
If you could give parents one piece of advice in navigating hard topics with their children, what would it be?
Parents, know that it is okay to not be perfect or have all the answers when navigating these difficult topics. These are not easy conversations to have. You may be uncomfortable. When your children ask questions or teachable moments arise, take a deep breath and remember to be honest and thoughtful in your response.
As we continue to educate both ourselves and our children on racial issues, I definitely found a wealth of new resources from Carolyn’s advice and hope you do too!