What would you look like as a fish? Fay first graders contemplated this question this fall after listening to Head of Primary School Katie Knuppel read Leo Lionni’s Swimmy, about a black fish living in a school of red fish who discovers that being different is a strength. Art teacher Cathy Gruetzke-Blais challenged students to collage what they imagined they would look like as fish. Some fishy alter-egos were tiny and multicolored, while others were cubist fish with chunks of color. Each fish was unique, and collectively those differences are celebrated on a bulletin board in the Primary School.
Primary School students explore and celebrate differences through a racial literacy curriculum that launched this fall. This summer, Katie, Cathy, and the Primary School teachers attended a curriculum conference sponsored by the nonprofit Pollyanna, which focuses on helping students engage in conversations about race and racism while fostering kindness and inclusion. The new curriculum complements the Open Circle Curriculum used in Primary, and projects and lessons already in place; Katie hopes it will “teach our students to be proficient in the language of race so that they can communicate in a way that’s thoughtful, respectful, and curious.”
Exploring similarities and differences
Many topics in the curriculum are grounded in Primary School Morning Meeting, where Katie shares books to launch a particular theme. In September, Swimmy sparked conversations about similarities and differences. First graders brought in “All About Me” bags to share unique aspects of themselves, their families, and traditions. In second grade, students read Yangsook Choi’s The Name Jar, about a Korean girl who wants to choose a new name that her classmates can pronounce. Students discussed the similarities and differences they have with classmates, created self- portraits, and wrote acrostic poems to describe themselves.
Learning about color
In October, Katie read One by Kathryn Otoshi, a book in which the colors come to life. “Red” is a bully, and poor, quiet “blue” can’t stand up to him; the story explores the characterization of colors and the theme of standing up for others. Students then focused on color in art class, mixing colors to create different skin tones and shades. After reading Shelley Rotner’s Shades of People, Cathy introduced students to the photographer Angélica Dass, who took photos of people worldwide and matched their skin color to a shade in the Pantone Matching System. Students mixed and created as many different skin tones as they could and then figured out how to match their skin tone. Mixing colors for skin tones and exploring the variety of shades “takes the idea of color and just makes it neutral,” says Cathy. “No shade is better than the other.”
Kindness and inclusion
In November, Katie shared Trudy Ludwig’s Invisible Boy, about a boy who is excluded and ignored, to highlight the importance of inclusivity and visibility. When one child chooses to be kind and includes him, the main character becomes visible again. Back in the classroom, second graders identified inclusive action words from the book, like “smiles” or “invites,” and exclusive words like “picking” and “choosing.” In every classroom, teachers talked about the difference between being a bucket filler, someone who builds people up, or a bucket dipper, making others feel bad about themselves. In Kindergarten, each student wrote to a classmate, explaining a time when they “filled their bucket” by helping them or making them feel good.
Seeing windows and mirrors in books
Books are an essential building block in the racial literacy curriculum. Primary School Librarian Carol Knowles notes that as she curates the collection, she looks for books that address racial literacy themes. She adds that while children need to explore different perspectives through reading, they also need to see characters with whom they identify. “When a child self-selects a book and says, ‘Hey, she looks like me!’ that’s a meaningful connection,” she says.
Last spring, the Primary School connected on Zoom for a weekly book club focusing on Atinuke’s Anna Hibiscus, about an African girl who lives in a biracial and bicultural family. Katie also hosted a summer book club featuring selections from the “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” list, which focuses on identity, race, and representation. Between Thanksgiving and the new year, Primary students all read Thanku, an anthology of poems about gratitude from a diverse array of writers. “The poets don’t all write in the western tradition,” says Katie, “so the forms and style of the poems are interesting too. The book dovetails with Fay’s fall cultural competency theme of awareness,” she says, adding, “the more aware you are, the more you notice what you have to be grateful for.”