Friday, December 07, 2018

Poetry Friday -- Talking About Race With My Students

We finished reading aloud Can I Touch Your Hair? yesterday. It was not the first book I've read aloud this year that gave us the opportunity to talk about race. Our conversations started with The Cardboard Kingdom, and continued with 24 Hours in Nowhere and Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness (a book which made NPR's list of Best Books of 2018!). I'll write about the whole journey in a separate post. Just remember, we had had growing and ongoing conversations about race before we got to this book. Also, a note about the demographics of my classroom. Along with myself, four of my twenty-six students are white. The rest of the class is Middle Eastern, Latinx, African, African American, or Chinese. This is just to say that your conversations would certainly be very different than those in our classroom. When I write that other post about our journey in talking about race, I'll dig into the dynamics of teacher/student race.

Can I Touch Your Hair: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship. The power of this book lies within each word of the title.

Poems. There will be small packages of text that will allow the reader to stop, ponder, and discuss.

Race. Get ready, because you are going to explore some hard topics here.

Mistakes. If you're going to talk about race, you're bound to make mistakes. But making honest mistakes is a far better path than averting our eyes and not talking about it at all. (If you haven't read So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, I highly recommend it.) When you know better, you can do better the next time.

Friendship. The book's characters, Irene and Charles, begin by only seeing each other skin deep. As they get to know each other, they find they have so many more important things in common that race (and even gender) becomes insignificant. What a powerful message for children (adults, too!!) to hear over and over again. It's the danger of a single story. If we're going to move forward as a human race, we've got to stop seeing each other as just this or that. We have to get to know each other as complicated, diverse, interesting individuals!

As I said, the pairs of poems are the perfect amount of text to read, then pause for conversation. As we read along, we talked about the topics that came up -- shoes, hair, church. But when one of the students prefaced his comment with, "In movies they make the black people the athletes," I had the perfect way to move the conversation to a safer place by talking about the stereotypes that are perpetuated by the media. It's not that black people ARE the athletes, it's that "they make" the black people the athletes. Everyone had LOTS to say about stereotypes around race, gender, and age! We ended that rich conversation by sharing times when we "broke" a stereotype.

I highly recommend reading this book with children. I highly recommend making this book one part of an ongoing conversation about race.

Thank you to all who signed up to be Poetry Friday roundup hosts in January-June 2019. We filled the schedule in under one week!

Liz has the Poetry Friday roundup this week at Elizabeth Steinglass.


  1. Mary Lee, I am reading So You Want to Talk about Race right now. I'm so glad that you and other educators are having these conversations with kids and that books like Can I Touch Your Hair are out there to facilitate the discussion and give us all a jumping off point.

  2. Wow! What a classroom demographic! Many teachers wouldn't have taken the opportunity to talk about race with that mix, but I think it's an especially good time. May you all come away from this school year with something to carry forward.

    Also, Ijeoma Oluo is AMAZING and I really want her to write a book specifically for kids.

  3. Thank you for addressing difficult issues and sharing this powerful message! I love that your student recognized a stereotype and that you could enrich your conversation with students' experiences.

  4. Thanks for sharing your experience with this book in your classroom. Wonderful to hear about those rich conversations.

  5. Beautiful review and reasons to read this book! Thank you

  6. I think it is so important to have open, honest conversations about race and this seems like the perfect book to help facilitate that discussion! I'd love to read more about your journey on discussing race with your students.

  7. This is a wonderful book and I love that you used it to facilitate a rich discussion about race and stereotypes.

  8. I think we carry so much of who we become from our early beginnings in school, age 9, 10, or 11. Thanks for sharing these powerful books with your students (and with us), and initiating these much needed conversations.

  9. I am sad that I didn't have this book when I was teaching. It and others have arrived since and are good helps in this difficult topic, at least for some. Ingrid's teacher read it to her class last year when I donated a copy. I would have liked to have heard the conversation but I do know they talked about stereotypes. We are fortunate to have such beautiful books in our lives today. I hope many classrooms are using them to talk! Thanks, Mary Lee.

  10. Mary Lee, I agree that Irene and Charles' book is an important one to bring into the classroom. I was fortunate to have them as table facilitators at the 2017 NCTE Wonderopolis presentation. I sat at their table listening with intent as to how they handled the questions presented. It was an engaging conversation. I wish I was a fly on the wall in your room. "We ended that rich conversation by sharing times when we "broke" a stereotype." Thanks for adding my date to the PF Roundup for 2019.

  11. What a great teacher you are!


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