“Optimism is our instinct to inhale while suffocating. Our need to declare what ‘needs to be’ in the face of what is. Optimism is not uncool; it is rebellious and daring and vital.” Ava DuVernay
This year, when I asked kids if they knew who the Dr Martin Luther King was, I knew what I did not want to hear.
I did not want to look at faces of children ages 3-6 as they explained in detail that “I know about Martin Luther King, Jr! He was shot and killed. By a gun!!!”
I did not want to hear, “He is dead! He was killed!”
I did not want to hear, “My mommy/daddy knows about him”
This year, with our youngest students, my goal was to take a deep dive into the meaning of Dr Martin Luther King, and especially the relevance of his life and words to children ages 3-6 years old.
My goal was to explicitly talk about race.
My goal was that when they see his face that the thoughts they have might revolve around love, power, non-violent resistance, awe, Black hero, American hero, strength, optimism, and change.
And so, I began by introducing the concept of love.
What is love?
What does it look like?
Who do you imagine?
How is love powerful?
What can love do or change?
A group of PreK3 children responded:
“We love our Mommies” Brayden
“And we love our Daddies, our brothers, our friends” John
“It looks like when you paint and make it sparkly.”
“True love. It means you get married. And we don’t bite anyone.”
Some PreK4 responses:
“Love is giving a hug, you can share.” Daylin , age 4
“You can make (draw) lines and colors of love.” Tinsley, age 4
“Love is Peace.” Jack B., age 4
“Love is true-ness and happiness.” Milo, age 4
“Love is the bottom of the water that you don’t resist. It means love is like the water on the bottom of the heart.” Ethan, age 4
“Kindness is what you can do with love.” Sebastian
Some Kindergarten responses:
“You can love other people if you try. If you’re mean, other people won’t love you.” Eli, age 5
“Give love out. Go to that person. I love you. I like you. I want to play with you.” Aiden F., age 5
I had this conversation with all 100 plus children.
All this work has been further supported by Black Lives Matters in Education Week, a Black Lives Matter in Education teacher group at SWS, and of course Black History month.
Talking about Racism, Race, and Black Lives is not limited to February, however there is a wealth of great resources and workshops that pop up every February that enriches and expands perspectives.
Black families live with the daily conversation of race and racism. White families struggle with talking about race or don’t. (Throughout this post are some wonderful resources.) The article below is really well written for families.
A group of SWS Educators attended multiple events through DC Educators for Social Change. One seminar that was extremely supportive in terms of materials, information, resources, and colleagues was Looking at Race through Early Childhood Picture Books.
For the past two years I have been urging teachers to look at the picture books in their rooms. I ask, What if the majority of your picture books that are out in your classroom have protagonists that are majority of color?
How could this small act to your environment change the paradigm of race for your children?
Children of color would have the opportunity to be the characters in books that everyone loves and see themselves!
White children would fall in love with brown and black characters.
I started seeing glimpses of this when Black Panther came out last year. Seeing white children pretend to be Black Panther and love Wakanda alongside their enthusiastic black and brown friends was a first for me. Usually it was the Black children dressing up as White Super Heroes and entering into popular culture dress ups that were not inclusive of them.
Attending this session of Race through Early Childhood Picture Books really broadened and motivated my studio project which encompasses Social Emotional Learning, History, Anti-Racist Education, Arts Education, History, Social Studies, Science (projection), and Regional Arts, and Making.
The next phase of this project went something like this:
“We’ve been thinking about love and what it looks like or does.
One of my heroes is Martin Luther King, Jr. He is so important we get a Holiday off to honor him. He is a Black American Hero.”
“Love is the only force capable of turning an enemy into a friend.”
Do you know what an enemy is?
“A super hero has to have an enemy, so he can destroy him and save the world.” Kaleb
“An enemy is the bad guy.”
I clarified: An enemy is a person who is always against and mean to someone or something.
What do you think this means? Would it be hard or easy to be nice to someone who was acting like an enemy? How do you turn an enemy into a friend?
“I’m thinking about my family. You can hug people and talk to them when they are mean. It would be hard, but I’ll try.” Orly, age 4
“Laugh, and they will laugh back. And then they will be friends with you.” Aviv, age 4
“Be nice to them. Say I want you to be my friend. I want to play with you. I actually want to. And not fight.” Thulani, age 5
“You can be my best friend. You don’t have to be mean.” Owen, age 5
“It would be hard not to be mean back.” Aiden M.
“You could say, Can you have a play date with me?” Minami, age 5
I began reading a few pages at a time of the book Martin’s Big Words. It is beautifully illustrated. The children were amazed to see Martin Luther King as a boy.
“He was a kid?” they often shouted out, when seeing the images of him walking by a whites only sign.
I stopped on one page and explained that a long time ago, the white people did not want to share any of the power with the brown and black people. In fact, only white men could make the rules. They didn’t share the parks, the schools, and the restaurants with the black and brown families. In fact, it was against the law. It was against the law to have all the children go to school together or even live together. Was that fair?
After each conversation or reading a few pages in the book at a time, we would draw, showing our thoughts on a photocopied picture of martin Luther King. I wanted his face to stay present as they explored their own thought through art making.
Children understand this idea of sharing power. After introducing this concept, when two children had a conflict, I would ask, are you two sharing the power? What can you do instead?
Each session in the Atelier/Art studio was layered. Reflecting back to the last conversation yet going deeper.
I added the quote, “Hate doesn’t take away hate. Only love can do that.”
For the children to ponder, I equated it to if someone is kicking you and being mean, and you kick back at them, then you have joined the meanness and made more kicking. What can you do instead? What if you see someone kicking a friend?
We ventured into what Standing up means.
Both historically, like Rosa Parks, but also within our school.
Another form of standing up and showing that Black Lives matter is through Art.
I introduced Mural Arts as “Art for All the People.”
If I make a painting and hang it in my house, who gets to see it?
If I make a painting, and hang it a museum, when can people see it?
If there is a mural on the wall of big building, who gets to see it? When do people get to see it?
“Hey, Ms. McLean, he’s black!” Christian, age 5, exclaimed with a huge smile.
More than 75% of artists in US Museum collections are white males. The NGA is even less diverse. (Article here). Similarly to exposing children to literature with pictures of black and brown characters, children must see the same robust diversity within the arts.
I proposed that each grade level would make a mural of the message of Dr Martin Luther King. Children could use projections and or trace their drawings or MLK’s portrait. Just like Aniekan, we would lay down the black lines first.
Before each mural painting session, we revisited some ideas.
What is martin Luther King’s message that you want to share?
Even though the times are better, there are still white people who do not want to share power. What can you do? When is a time you did or didn’t stand up for someone?
What murals have you seen? Do they have a message? We read more books, we looked at more murals, we talked about love and bad guys, and we talked about Martin Luther King fighting the white people who would not share power without ever using his fists or weapons.
I shared that I too would like to be more like Martin Luther King, but sometimes I make mistakes.
This led children to really open up and think about their actions.
“Even when we make a mistake, we can go back and try to make it better or fix the situation. And we also learn from these mistakes.”
In the past month the news has shown us photos of politicians in blackface, the fashion industry marketing fashion with racist implications, and an article from Alabama in support of bringing the KKK to Washington, DC (to name just a few).
We must plant these seeds of love and knowledge of injustice now.
I’ve been accused of being an optimist. Honestly, I know that my power lays within art making and art education/teaching. I do believe that intentional holistic anti-bias and anti-racist education does make a difference. Standing up and speaking out through the 100 Languages.
A friend shared this Time Magazine with a theme on Optimism.
“In this project, we explore not only the idea of optimism but its representation. The literal visibility of the proverbial bright side. To me, that is the job of art. To meet us where we are and to invite us in—to think, to feel, to wonder, to dream, to debate, to laugh, to resist, to roam, to imagine. Art is worthy of our interrogation and is in fact an antidote for our times. For the vital moment comes when we each must understand that the social, political and historical connectedness born of traumatic experiences can and should transform to true, elongated engagement with one another.” Ava DuVernay
By exploring white supremacy culture through reading, discussing, and widening perspective, we all become stronger.
Three year old Lucy, made a connection when we were questioning if an enemy can change.
“It’s like the Grinch. He took all the presents and then he heard all the singing, and his heart grew. He gave all the presents back. He changed.” (My heart grew 10 times in hearing this metaphor she was able to construct and share, at age 3!)
I have so much hope.
And then Beck, age 4 asked,
“But Ms. McLean, When is he coming back?”
“He’s not coming back Beck. Martin Luther King died. But his message lives on through all of us.”
“Well, we should send all our pictures and words to his family then. They would like that”
A sparkle of optimism.