When you first hold “Stamped from the Beginning,” it’s heavy, even as a paperback. At almost 600 pages and dense with text, a person can tell at once that author Dr. Ibram X. Kendi wasn’t pulling any punches when he set out to write “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” “Stamped from the Beginning” has since been remixed as “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” a version of the book that was re-written for teens by best-selling author Jason Reynolds. Now, we have “Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You,” an adaptation aimed at 7- to 12-year-olds.
These youth-centered books about race do the research for teachers so they don’t have to spend huge amounts of time figuring out how to tackle units about American history and race in the classroom, explains author Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul. She is an educator and researcher who wrote “Stamped (For Kids)” as an adaptation of Kendi’s original book. She’s applying her 20 years of experience in middle school classrooms helping schools “shatter any kind of silence around race and racism.”
With recent elections and a global pandemic, race is one of several real-world topics pressing for educators’ attention. In the aftermath of the widespread protests of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, many institutions across the U.S. released statements against racism, often pledging to make strides to rectify wrongdoings and oversights. While the national reckoning around race feels relatively new, teachers have been wrestling with the best ways to teach about race and racism long before the summer of 2020. Fortunately, there are reliable ways to take on these topics.
Reckoning with conversations about race with kids
Young children, especially children of color, perceive race a lot more than most people think. In fact, many kids are coming into schools already having experiences with racism, says Cherry-Paul, referring to the research that suggests initial awareness of race begins at six months of age. While several research studies show that children recognize race at a young age, Dr. Erin N. Winkler’s publications offer a digestible overview of how kids ages 3 to 5 years old use racial categories to make generalizations about behavior and express bias. Young children rely more on stereotyping because their cognitive abilities are usually not advanced enough to process multiple qualities at once. Additionally, Winkler’s research suggests children’s racial beliefs may not even be related to those of their parents, but instead reflect societal and social norms about how whiteness is normalized and privileged from books, songs and media.
Although parents of color are more likely to have discussions about race with their children – since it is their lived experience – many white caregivers and educators balk at the thought of a conversation about race with elementary school age children, even though research has shown children have already been processing race. Understandably, there are concerns about discouraging and disempowering young students with too much hard-to-process information. In response, Cherry-Paul says, “We often talk about the ways in which we want to educate kids so they become the change makers that our society needs. We can’t wait until they’re in high school for that to happen.” She notes psychologist Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s research in her book about racial identity development “Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by remarking that children are better able to resist negative messages that are named and identifiable.
How parents, caregivers and educators equip themselves to guide conversations about race
Like so many topics, caregivers and educators are entrusted with the tough task of figuring out what is age-appropriate. But when it comes to race and racism, many may find themselves dodging the topic altogether to avoid saying the wrong thing or feeling uncomfortable. However, according to Cherry-Paul, these conversations are worth having and they’re critical for adults to embrace.
“What we need them to do is lean into those discomforts to reckon with the unsettling truths of race and racism in the United States and then to acquire racial literacy themselves and then to teach it to kids,” she says. Not teaching about race at all does a lot of harm to young students of color particularly because children experiencing racial bias and discrimination will try to fill in the gaps about their experiences without the right context and framing. Denying racism can make people feel gaslit.
Racism is systemic, but too often people focus on racist acts of individuals, which can obscure larger issues at work. “What we need to do is shift to systems to help kids understand that there is a legacy of systems treating people unfairly, and giving them examples of that across time so that they can understand how we got here,” says Cherry-Paul. She also notes that books like “Stamped (For Kids)” or Reynolds and Kendi’s “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” can help teachers avoid teaching about racism as isolated incidents. “One of the most powerful things we can do is help young kids understand that we’re not just talking about name calling or unkindness that happens between individuals.”
How to “adapt” content for kids
After creating a digestible way to have conversations about race and racism, Cherry-Paul shared a few ways to take into account kids’ developmental stage and cognitive ability when discussing tough topics.
Leave some things out. Cherry-Paul approached adapting “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” with the nervousness many parents and educators feel when trying to convey a complicated topic to a young child. Her biggest challenge: how does one decide what to take out, and how do those decisions impact students’ understanding? She had to make difficult decisions when tailoring “Stamped (For Kids)” for young learners. “Reworking Jason’s writing and my own writing again and again was totally intimidating. Here’s this magnificent, powerful writing and I’m like, ‘This has to go. This has to go differently because an eight or a nine year old is not necessarily going to get it in this way.’”
Considering youth development and cognitive capability, broad strokes of nuanced ideas will do the trick for young learners. Instead of focusing on small details, concentrate on big picture ideas and how to stoke sustainable interest. “I just had to remind myself that ‘Stamped (For Kids)’ is a start and not an end to the kind of reading that students should have access to across their lives about race and racism. And if I’ve done my job well, they’ll want to read more,” says Cherry-Paul.
Take breaks. Those who have had the pleasure of reading Kendi and Reynolds’ “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” are familiar with “time-outs” and “time-ins.” They’re opportunities for readers to take breaks after reading heavier content. “In ‘Stamped (For Kids),’ there are more moments for kids to do that, more moments for kids to pause and then unpause as we keep going,” she explains. Instead of powering through pages, she urges educators to anticipate moments when kids are going to need a break to process what they just read and give young learners ample time to absorb new information.
Remind, re-emphasize and reiterate important information. Seek out moments to check for comprehension with reminders. Cherry-Paul tried to foresee where there might be some confusion and would prepare comparisons or new ways to explain the information. One technique she relies on is reminding kids about earlier ideas, which also helps string historical events together into a cohesive story that young learners are more likely to understand.
“We have to find ways to talk about complex topics so we can help young learners make sense of the world that they live in. The truth is the truth, and children deserve the truth, and children want the truth and children can handle the truth,” says Cherry-Paul, referencing a quote from children’s literature author Carole Boston Weatherford. The hope is that all of the children we nurture will be equipped to express curiosity, challenge when appropriate, and imagine new and better worlds.