If I Ran the Zoo: Learning About Bias in a Community of Early Childhood Teachers and Staff

Written by Love Isn’t Enough contributor Petra Watkins.

[Editor's note: Petra is the pedagogista at a Reggio Emilia-inspired child care serving infants, young children and their families from all over the world in a university setting in New England. She supports and documents the work of teachers and staff to design curriculum grounded in children's interests, welcome families into partnership and explore anti-bias curriculum. This is the first of a series of posts that she will write about her center's exploration of bias and anti-bias goals.]

Today things came full circle. I sat with nine child-care teachers, surrounded by piles of books in our shared studio. Though the huge windows  let us peer out at the snow plummeting down into the river, our heads remained bent to our work.  This morning’s meeting is the latest in a series of “provocations” I’ve facilitated for the staff as part of our center-wide intention to deepen our community generally, and specifically by exploring anti-bias curriculum. If you had told me two years ago that this would be my paid work, I would have jumped up and down with joy (I still do, some days). Watching teachers work thoughtfully in teams today, I reflected on our journey so far.

Flashback to January 2008

I had recently moved back to New England where I was raised, after eight years of living in Seattle. The center where I worked on the West Coast embraced anti-bias education and after four years of working there, I knew the four anti-bias goals by heart; “That children will:

  1. Have a positive, health identity and self-concept.
  2. Have a positive concept of other people.
  3. Recognize bias and unfairness in the world.
  4. Act when they see unfairness.”

No one at my new center knew these goals, although, like most child-care professionals, they wanted children to be fair. Our center serves an international community (We serve a university community.) and it’s very common for at least 5 languages to be present in a group of 11 families. Our teachers are  less diverse, as we are 34 women. Among us, three are People of Color, three are Asian, two are Latina, 27 are White and seven of us didn’t learn English as our first language. All of us have a certain uncomfortable feeling when we hear children say things like “You can’t be pretty! Pretty means you have yellow hair and blonde eyes.” or “You can’t play with us because this is for boys only!” but it’s hard for teachers, administrators and parents to know exactly how to react when we hear children talk to each other this way. It’s even harder for teachers of infants and very young children to see how their work could possibly address issues of difference, and harder still for white teachers who have various levels of awareness around their own privileges and biases. . Our school was proud of how much “diversity” we had in our classrooms, but unsure about what to do about it.

A few weeks after I started as a classroom teacher two years ago at this center, I was faced with this difference in culture. A child brought in a well-loved Dr. Seuss book called “If I Ran the Zoo”. Some of you might remember it from your childhoods. It’s a whimsical tale about a child who invents animals that he’d find all over the world. The problem I had was with Seuss’s 1950′s illustrations of the people from these far-off lands. (If you take a look at the Google book I linked to above, you’ll see a little of what I’m talking about.) After reading the book to the child and his friends (who were all between 2 and 3 years old) I put it in his cubby and told the more senior teacher in the room that I had some concerns about the book that I wanted to share with the family. I would be going home before pick up time, so I couldn’t talk to the family in person. Both of the teachers in the class agreed that the pictures were inappropriate to have at school, but were uncomfortable actually talking about it with the family, so we decided that I’d write an email. When I was done, both teachers read my email, and I sent it out that afternoon. The directors weren’t angry, but they were very uncomfortable. The parent contacted the school complaining, not about the content of the email, but it’s length and specificity. “You could have just sent it home without adding all that stuff.” the father later said to me.  The directors didn’t fault me for acting when I saw something biased (goal #4) but they asked that I bring them into the conversation earlier and  felt uncomfortable discussing things like this.

Back to the Present

Now, much has changed. Over the summer, the three directors at my center decided that the staff was ready to make a formal investigation into anti-bias curriculum. I am no longer a classroom teacher this year, instead I’m a part-time pedagogista, supporting teaching teams in their work to design curriculum rooted in the interests of the children in their classes. I love all the aspects of my job, but I am blown away each time I get to sit with a group of teachers and do the hard work of countering bias in our classrooms.

Today in our meeting, my friend Doris said to me “the director was upset when you wrote that email.” and I had a thousand thoughts. I explained my perspective; that the upset was the good kind. When we do anti-bias work, we learn to stop when we feel squeamish, uncomfortable, defensive or even angry. We know that those feelings can be signals that we’re on to something important, and with the help of critical friends, we can find new ways to teach and learn that are fair to everyone.

Today, we spent the morning in small groups, picking through a tremendous pile of books. We used the article 10 Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Literature for Racism and Sexism Each group of three teachers had 3 or 4 of the 10 ways and were using them as a lens to examine books, discussing them one after the other, placing them in three piles “Yes” “No” and “Grey area”. As they worked, I took pictures and notes and when we were finished we spent another 20 minutes or so reflecting on our work. It was difficult work, but the trust that teachers have in one another enabled them to talk freely, sometimes changing their minds while they talked together. I feel honored to be a part of this process, and grateful that each of these teachers and staff are contributing their own histories and thoughts to our collective understanding of fairness and justice.

For more information on the 4 Anti-Bias Goals read Anti-Bias Curriculum; Tools for Empowering Young Children by Louise Derman-Sparks, or look at the first chapter of Start Seeing Diversity by Ellen W0lpert.

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