The children sat in front of me, smiles on their faces, after having finished a second read of our newest shared reading text, “Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain.” They had already taken to the story nicely, finishing lines as I read the stanzas aloud, internalizing the rhythmic nature of the African folktale and the structure of the rhyming stanzas.
I placed the book down on my lap, pushed my lips into a smile, and widened my eyes.
“I was thinking,” I said to them, “since you all love this book so much, that it might be fun to do something extra with it.”
Just months before, the kids had been interested in performing puppet shows, so I had each of them write one and share it at our learning exhibition. In fact, they’d had an affinity for performing all year long. One of the first things my group asked for this year was a musical performance, the first of which we did at our gratitude celebration in November.
“I was thinking we could turn ‘Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain’ into a play,” I said to them. They immediately erupted in excitement, their eyes widening as far as they could go, their hands clapping together, their gazes diverted from their teacher and towards their classmates.
And, as kids do, their excitement bubbled over into a chaotic inquisition, as they wondered who would play which part.
“Can I be Ki-pat?” one chid said, begging to be the main character.
“I want to be the eagle!” another said.
“Can I be Ki-pat’s wife?” blurted yet another voice.
One child’s voiced emerged out of all the others. He looked up at me, his curly blonde hair and bright blue eyes staring right at me.
“Well, shouldn’t one of the kids with brown skin play Ki-pat?” he asked, thinking not of himself, but of making the play as real as possible. The other children exclaimed in support of his idea.
I hadn’t anticipated this conversation, and as much as I hate to admit it, his interjection elicited an uncomfortable feeling in me. I chose the story for its relation to the water cycle, for its relative text complexity, and for the value of poetry and rhyme in developing reading fluency. Suddenly, I was worried it’d be offensive to assign children to parts in a play because of their skin color, or of others thinking I assumed that only stories from Africa are ones with characters of color.
I quickly came to, attempting to shed the cultural biases I likely acquired from growing up in a bubble of privilege, in a mostly white suburb of Chicago. I grew up with the message that “differences didn’t matter”–that our skin colors didn’t matter.
But they do matter.
Our cultural identities–whether they be ethnic, sexual, gender–make us who we are. Noticing differences doesn’t divide us; noticing differences–and celebrating them–can actually unite us.
I looked down to see twelve pairs of eyes that were sitting right in front of me, beneath a palette of brown, beige, and bronze visages, remembering that, to them, this was only a matter of fact: if we were going to make this play as realistic as possible, it only made sense for the “kids with brown skin” to play the African characters in the book. To them, skin color did matter, not because it made anyone better or worse than another, but because if we wanted to tell a story from Africa, then we should do it as authentically as possible.
Coincidentally–or not so coincidentally–we have been celebrating Black History Month for the past month now. We started by learning about Martin Luther King in late January by making a class mural, writing our “Big Words”and stamping our handprints with multi-cultural paint. After a suggestion from a parent, we launched into a study of black inventors, making stoplights to honor Garrett Morgan and building solar ovens to highlight to Lonnie Johnson’s achievements in thermoelectric energy.
We learned about Valerie Thomas, too. We explored reflections, mirrors, and light to honor her important contributions to 3D illusions. On this day, in particular, we discussed privilege, which we explored through a jumping competition. Every child jumped in an effort to reach a streamer I’d hung from the ceiling. Towards the end, I paired two children together, one significantly taller than the other, to compete against each other. They both jumped, doing their best to get to the pink streamer.
“That’s not fair!” one the children exclaimed. “He’s taller than him!”
I gave the shorter child a chair to stand on, inciting more feelings of injustice, as now the shorter child had a resource the other didn’t. It is through this experience that we introduced the idea of privilege, that white Americans have advantages that black Americans don’t, and that Valerie, in particular, had even less privilege because she was a woman.
I put so much thought into each of these lessons, doing my best to weave social justice, racism, prejudice, and STEM into engaging, project-based learning experiences that honored the achievements of black Americans. But it seemed that this small moment during reading workshop, when we began to choose roles for our adaptation of “Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain,” would be the subtle climax of Black History month, and perhaps the most important lesson we’d learn this month–not through explicit words, but instead through my implicit response to one child’s astute observation and suggestion.
The truth is, it breaks my heart to think that the beautiful, innocent children that sat before me, excited to perform in their very first class play, will grow up and learn through experience that privilege, prejudice, and bigotry still define a great deal of our culture. On this day, though–and this month in our classroom, for that matter–it was a privilege to be black, and best of all, their classmates were advocating for them to have this privilege. In my eyes, we all deserved to witness that.
I looked back my group, asking them if they felt that this was, in fact, a fair way to decide the parts for the play. They all nodded in agreement, despite some of their disappointment that they would not be able to play the main characters.
“Sounds like that’s what we’ll do, then,” I replied to the children, and we began to choose our roles for our upcoming performance.
I’m still unsure what the right move was, to be honest. Does this mean that in their next play, a typically white character should be played by a white student? I’m certain I wouldn’t advocate for that, which makes this very topic all the more gray. What I do know, however, is that there are so few opportunities in the world to both explicitly and implicitly elevate people and students of color, and that we, as educators, need to capitalize on any and every opportunity in the classroom.
I’m grateful to have been in the presence of such innocence on this day. Seeing the world through the eyes of a child reminds us that there is little we need to be uncomfortable about. It is only through talking about race openly, confronting our own feelings of discomfort, and doing whatever we can–however small it may feel and however implicit it may be–do we have any chance at breaking the cycles of oppression that dominate our world.