I spent five years as a bilingual teacher who taught both native English and native Spanish speakers in a two way dual-language classroom. During this time, I was exposed to situations where students from different backgrounds were able to interact with one another. One experience stands out while I was teaching 4th grade. 

When the weather wasn’t appropriate for going outside, our class would have indoor recess. Part of the free time was spent playing games. One game that students liked to play was ‘La Loteria’ or the Mexican Lottery. In this game, there are different characters such as ‘el mago’ (the magician) or ‘el sol’ (the sun). One character that stood out was ‘el negrito’ (which translates to “the little black boy”). I noticed that students were laughing and pointing to another student when they were playing. At the time I did not say anything, but reflected on what I observed.

The next day during social studies, we were working on a unit about the cultures of Texas. I brought up what I had witnessed the day before. This led to a conversation about different skin tones and the different cultures in our class and in their neighborhoods. Then I took it a step further and used it as a teaching moment to ask questions about cultures and give them opportunities to investigate. The students used resources such as the U.S. Census to come up with answers to a lot of their questions. This tied in nicely with our social studies theme.

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Every culture perceives skin tone differently. Based on the history of the United States, such themes can seem taboo for an educator. Yet misconceptions and misinformation can quickly become the norm if educators do not address differences within a classroom. In my opinion, teachers can be proactive in the process of talking about race and ethnicity in the classroom. I would like to offer the following advice from my experience as a classroom teacher: 

1. First, it is imperative to establish a safe environment were students feel safe to express their ideas. I’ve found that the best way of doing so is by establishing ground rules and speaking about respect on a daily basis. Although it is easier said than done, daily habits and observation can certainly help. 

2. Do not hush the theme of race/ethnicity in the classroom. By ignoring race/ethnicity, one is sending the message that it is not okay to talk about. 

3. Be proactive in challenging misconceptions and misinformation through investigations. If you hear something, talk about it. Even better, give it to the students to discuss and investigate. Group learning and project-based learning were important strategies that I used when I was implementing my curriculum. 

4. Realize that race/ethnicity is not static, and things will come up on a frequent basis. Don’t expect that you can talk about it once and be done. Be open to continuing the conversation throughout the year and as incidents arise.

5. Finally, teacher awareness is vital. Staying up to date on trends and research is imperative for professional growth. Teaching tolerance is a great resource that I used as well for my upper elementary students: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2009/talking-race.

While talking about race/ethnicity might feel uncomfortable, being intentional about it and creating a safe environment can make the process easier. Students can learn how to challenge their own misconceptions and can be better prepared to do that in the real world as they move on from your classroom.

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