Use Both Child- and Teacher-Initiated Activities
Children’s questions, comments, and behaviors are a vital source of anti-bias curriculum. They spark teachable moments as well as longer-term projects. However, it is not sufficient to plan anti-bias activities only when a child brings up a relevant issue. Teacher-initiated activities are also necessary—be they intentionally putting out materials and books to broaden children’s awareness or planning specific learning experiences around issues that matter to families and the community.
Here’s an example of how a teacher begins with a children-generated teachable moment and follows up with teacher-initiated activities:
Three 4-year-old boys are on top of the climbing structure. Jenna (4 years old) starts up the ladder to join them and the boys shout, “No girls allowed! No girls allowed!”
The simplest response from the teacher would be to remind the children of the rules: “The climbing structure belongs to the school. All the children can play there.” An anti-bias approach, however, asks for more. It requires the teacher to recognize that the drama playing out in the yard not only reflects the personalities and feelings of the four individual children but also replicates a hurtful social attitude in which girls are excluded from large-muscle, loud play, and boys are encouraged to ignore feelings.
The teacher starts by finding out what the children are thinking: “Why do you think no girls are allowed?” She pays respectful attention to the children’s responses: “Girls can’t climb high,” “Girls can’t climb fast,” “We don’t like girls” (accompanied by nervous laughter). All three statements are commonly
heard stereotypes that are hurtful to all the children.
Next, the teacher suggests that the children test the stereotype. “Come on down and let’s see if girls can climb fast and high or not.” She might invite a few other girls to join in the challenge so Jenna is not alone. “Anyone want to guess what is going to happen?” she asks. With much laughter the children run and climb. Some girls are faster than some boys, some boys are faster than some girls.
Afterwards the teacher puts words to the event. “It looks like both girls and boys can climb high and fast. Thinking that there are differences between boys and girls in climbing is a stereotype.” (Oh, how 4-year-olds love big words!) Then the teacher states the program’s values. “Stereotypes are unfair. In our school we want everyone to be treated fairly. What can we do so that we can be sure that playing on the climbing structure is fair?” The next steps are suggested by the children. One says they can create a sign that says “Everyone can play here.” “How about,” says one of the three boys who began this episode, “how about if we want to play alone, we just say ‘You can have a turn in a few minutes’?”
In addition, the teacher plans and carries out further activities. She adds children’s books in which girl athletes are strong and fast and books in which girls and boys play together in large-muscle games. She invites a female athlete to come and visit and talk about what it is like to be a runner and asks a classroom mom who plays soccer to teach the children to kick a ball into a net.
The teacher relates what she has done and why with the other staff in her program. They consider the frequency of gendered exclusionary play in the program and agree to take the important step of identifying how (consciously and unconsciously) they may be supporting a binary view of gender in their classroom (see Chapter 9). For example, do they gather the children together by calling out “Boys and girls” rather than “Children”? Do they regularly comment on girls’ appearance and clothing and on boys’ accomplishments? They agree to
observe each other as well as the children and see what changes they can make to avoid the damage that gender stereotypes have on children’s sense of themselves and of others. (Adapted from Edwards 2017, 78–79)
Using a combination of child-initiated, teachable moments and teacher-initiated, planned activities is the most effective way to expand children’s ability to grow in the four ABE goals and to talk about, think about, and understand the world around them.
Pay Attention to the Realities of Children’s Lives
While the four core ABE goals are the same for all children, specific activities should be relevant to the children’s background and their lives. Some children need support to resist messages of racial or cultural inferiority; others need guidance to develop a positive self-concept without absorbing social messages that they are the normal ones and children who are not like them are less-than, strange, or negatively different. Children of wealthy families may need help resisting the message that material accumulation defines their worth and that of others; children of families with fewer resources may need support to resist messages that undercut their families’ worth. Some girls may need extra support to develop confidence and interest in experiences that are math and science related; some boys may require help to develop skills for having nurturing, cooperative interactions with their peers and to engage in play that reflects these attitudes.
As in all other areas of the curriculum, teachers tailor and scaffold anti-bias education materials and activities to match each child’s cognitive, social, and emotional developmental capacities. They plan and choose learning experiences that stimulate children to explore the next step of new ideas and skills and allow each child to apply new understandings and behaviors in her daily life.
Avoid Anti-Bias Education Missteps
Even when your intentions are good, you can expect missteps as you grow as an anti-bias educator. Here are a few common ones related to curriculum and materials.
The “Tourist Curriculum” Misstep
In this erroneous approach, a program “visits” other cultures by exploring related books, food, clothing, and celebrations for a day or two (e.g., Japan Week, Mexico Day). Then the program returns to its normal daily curriculum, in which diverse ways of life may be invisible. This is like a tourist briefly visiting another country and then returning home having only scratched the surface of the richness of that culture and having formed limited ideas of what the people and life there are actually like. Ironically, the “other people” a program “visits” often are children and families who are in the program or members of the children’s larger communities.
In a tourist curriculum, the real diversity of the children, families, and larger community is left out of the ongoing daily curriculum. Excursions into other cultures become one-time activities—such as learning about a holiday, eating an unfamiliar food, exploring a few objects from daily life, or perhaps listening to a one-time guest—rather than ongoing learning about how people are the same and different. Another aspect of a tourist curriculum is using activities about a specific group of people only at certain times each year (acknowledging the achievements, or even the existence, of African Americans only during Black History Month; making Asian Americans visible in the curriculum for a celebration of Lunar New Year). Or, a school may have a once-a-year cultural
fair as the primary “diversity activity.” While a day like that in itself can be lovely—families bring food to share, play music, and maybe wear traditional clothing—it becomes a tourist curriculum when that one day is the only time in the school year that families share their lives with the children and when learning about the diversity of each other’s lives is absent from the ongoing curriculum.
A tourist curriculum communicates the bias that some people’s lives are the normal way to be while others are worth only an occasional visit. It presents a limited, simplistic, often inaccurate view of people’s lives and reduces rich patterns of cultures to one or two small bits of information that are taken out of context. An example is representing the diversity of Native American culture by having children make fry bread or make paper feather headdresses. Doing generic activities like these gives the impression that all Native American peoples have the same culture and that all individual members of a particular group are the same. This entirely obscures the great diversity that exists within Native American peoples. In this way, a tourist curriculum trivializes the cultures it supposedly is intended to help children appreciate.
The “Token Materials” Misstep
Tokenism occurs when a single teaching material or image is used to represent an entire group of people. For example, a teacher might provide one dark- skinned doll amidst many White dolls, display just one poster or book featuring a picture of a child who uses a wheelchair, or provide a single book featuring Asian characters. Even if the depiction is accurate, failing to show the diversity that exists within groups leads children to draw conclusions about a group of people that can easily become overgeneralizations. Here’s one example:
Three-year-old Liliana enjoys looking at Mama Zooms, by Jane Cowen-Fletcher, a delightful book but the only one in the program that depicts an adult in a
wheelchair. When a father who uses a wheelchair arrives to pick up his child in Liliana’s program, she insists he can’t be the daddy. “Wheelchair mamas take care of babies,” she says. “Daddies have to drive the car.”
It’s impossible, of course, at any given moment to have every type of human diversity represented and celebrated in a classroom or on a bookshelf. But over the course of a school year, it’s important to provide children with multiple visions of the way human beings are both alike and different.
The “Misinforming/Misrepresenting” Misstep
This misstep tends to happen in two ways. One is to use examples from a group’s country of origin to depict their life in the United States, such as using images and stories about life in Vietnam to teach about Vietnamese Americans. A second way is to teach about a group by focusing mainly on their historic way of life or ritual dress rather than their current lives—for example, all Native Americans live in tipis and wear only ritual clothing. Another form of misinformation is mixing up ways of life among cultures that are actually different—for example, assuming that all people from Central and South American countries have the same culture and live in the same way.
Guidelines for Materials
In the anti-bias classroom, visual images and learning materials are culturally welcoming for all the children and their families and immediately make clear that all forms of diversity are welcome and honored. Each classroom has its own unique look and sounds, reflecting the family cultures and daily lives of the children and families it serves as well as the broader community.
Planning Anti-Bias Education Activities for Your Program’s Curriculum
An ABE approach is not a recipe that lists only one way of doing things. Rather, you include anti-bias issues in your planning by considering the children and families you serve, the curriculum approach your program uses, and the four core ABE goals. Here are key questions to ask yourself as you and your colleagues plan learning activities and set up the environment. Begin by asking yourself these questions for one or two activities a week, and see how they change what you do and how the children respond.
• Where do I best fit ABE goals and issues into my curriculum plans for the day and the week?
• Who might be left out of this curriculum? How will I use the topic to include
each child, connecting to the diversity of social identities and to individual needs? How can I be sure no one is invisible or unnoticed?
• How do I use this topic to strengthen each child’s social, emotional, language, and cognitive development?
• What ideas, misconceptions, and stereotypes might children have about this topic? How can I learn what these are and provide accurate information and counter misinformation and stereotypes?
• How can I use this topic to support and strengthen children’s innate sense of justice and their capacity to change unfair situations to fair ones?
• What learning materials do I need to gather to incorporate an anti-bias perspective into this curriculum topic?
Anti-bias classrooms contain similar materials to those found in many other early childhood classrooms, such as children’s books, dramatic play props, items for exploring and creating art, blocks, toy vehicles, puzzles, games for building literacy and math skills, musical instruments, makerspace materials, and more. With an anti-bias lens, however, teachers select and provide materials that expand children’s sense of self and their appreciation of different people and diverse ways of thinking and doing.
Many visual materials in early childhood programs, such as books, photographs, and puzzles, reflect the dominant culture in US society. They mainly depict
White, middle-class and professional, suburban, able-bodied people in two- parent families with a mother and father and one or two children. Using materials that reflect only this particular group of people teaches children who are part of this dominant culture that they are the norm and teaches children who are not that they are marginal or “less-than” (see Chapter 2). When children’s social identities are not honored in a classroom, it sends a strong messag