Since our schoolwide conversation about Black History Month, the kids have been curious and open about discussing race and differences. Here’s a lesson, inspired by middle schoolers, that I shared with my K-4 students last week, if you’d like to see.
Last week, I was talking to my middle schoolers about what they wish they had learned about race in elementary school. One mentioned that they had always been confused by the labels black and white, because people don’t really look black or white. Why do we call it that, if we’re not really those colors, they wondered? As we were chatting, another student shared that becoming an artist and painting people had been incredibly helpful for her. She said that she became fascinated by the beauty of skin tones when she found her first human skin tone palette. When none of us were familiar with the phrase, she helped us find and print a few to share.
I was amazed by what happened next. The kids crowded around my desk, comparing their hands and their elbows, searching for the colors that best matched their skin, and complimenting each other’s shades. They were talking about the color of their skin, on purpose, with an adult present. It was the first time I’d ever seen it.
The artist lead us in our exploration, helping us to imagine mixing hues and creating our own one-of-a-kind color scheme. The group realized pretty quickly that none of the swatches matched them exactly, so they’d have to blend. They also were amazed that no two people were exactly the same color.
As I searched a student said, “Nobody else is going to have the same color as you, Ms. Fitz. Isn’t that cool? Billions of people on the planet, and you’re the only one.”
Armed with the information they had given me, I headed into my elementary classes ready for conversation. In our library all good discussions start with a story, and this week I had just the right story to share: Honeysmoke: A Story of Finding Your Color, written by Monique Fields and illustrated by Yesenia Moises. Honeysmoke set the stage perfectly for us to start exploring skin tones. This picture book is so beautifully written and illustrated, and it takes the questions that kids are afraid to ask and puts them wonderfully out in the open.
As we read, one kindergartener commented, “But her mommy and daddy don’t match!” The kids froze and turned to me to see what I would do. “You’re right,” I said. “Simone’s mom and dad don’t look the same. Her mom is a person with brown skin, and her dad is a person with pale skin. Do people who love each other have to match? Do all of the people that you love look the same?” This unfolded into such a sweet and curious conversation about how our hearts can’t see, but they can feel. Their wonders were big, honest, and kind. I loved hearing them talk about families that they know, or members of their own family, that are different colors and love each other. By the end of the story, kids are cheering for Simone and itching to find their own color word.
This was when we broke out the human skin tone palettes that my 8th grade student had shared with me. I recounted the conversation I’d had with my middle schoolers for each group, talking about how we are all a unique color, and how we might have different tones on our palms, our noses, and our knees. The skin tone palettes that we used were provided by my student and I can’t find them for free online, but if you want to purchase them, here are three examples that we loved: human skin tone set, skin tones color palette, skin tones palette.
Next, we took a picture book walk, to see what kinds of skin tones we could find in our favorite stories (I’ll be sharing a list of the most popular books from our walk later this week). As we explored the palettes and created our custom color words, kids asked questions that I never have never heard from them in regular group discussion. It was really something to see them hold their forearms up against each other and notice their similarities and differences. They chatted about freckles, scars, dry elbows and rosy cheeks. They even begged for pencil and paper to write down their color words so they wouldn’t forget.
As our conversations about skin tone and color grew, I knew that I wanted to give my 8th grade artist a chance to see the impact of what she had started. Her original choice to share her passion – and to educate me – had sent ripples of growth, reflection, and recognition through the Lower School. I invited her to come and co-teach a class, if she was interested, and to share her expertise firsthand with a group of younger learners. It was magical to see her in her element, teaching and loving and sharing her infectious joy.
Another wonderful part of the lesson for me was the feedback that I got from parents. They shared that their kids came home so excited about their beautiful skin, sharing their color and challenging their parents to find their own. One parent shared that she hadn’t known how to start the conversation about race and skin tones with her child, but they came home full of questions and ideas and ready and willing to talk. So if you’re looking for a way to break down barriers and start conversations, maybe give Honeysmoke a try!