On a sunny day in April, I drove to Head-Royce School in the hills of Oakland, California, to join circle time in Bret Turner’s first-grade classroom. I had asked Turner if I could sit in on some lessons after reading an article he wrote describing how he teaches about some surprising topics -- like race and class -- in an elementary school classroom. I wanted to see what that looked like and what kind of conversations first-graders at this private school would have around such complicated and fraught topics.
After students sang a song to welcome each other to a new day of learning, went over the schedule and played a quick movement game, Turner settled his 6-year-olds on the rug for a discussion about homelessness.
The class had been studying homelessness for weeks and was preparing to present what they learned to parents in an upcoming performance. In this lesson, Turner wanted to talk about a statistic some of the students discovered when doing internet research about homelessness in Alameda County, where their school is located. Students found that a disproportionate number of the county's homeless population is African American. Rather than skipping over this factoid, Turner leaned into it.
“What do we know about what causes homelessness? What causes people to be pushed down rather than lifted up?” Turner asked the class. “Because when I see that half of homeless people in Alameda County are black, that doesn’t make sense to me when I first look at it. It doesn’t seem fair to me. And then I start to think there must be some reasons. What are some of those reasons?”
It was clear his students were used to this type of question. They immediately started throwing out ideas.
“I think why African American people end up on the street is because they lose jobs because people were treating them badly, and then they end up on the street with no home,” said one girl.
“Some people might also be homeless if they try to apply for jobs, but they keep getting denied because of the color of their skin,” suggested a boy.
Turner and his students have been discussing all year long how power and privilege are built into all aspects of society. He often takes opportunities like this one to ask students to connect those prior conversations to whatever topic is at hand. In fact, the structural inequalities that lead to homelessness is one of the least potentially controversial topics they’ve tackled. They’ve also discussed microaggressions, gender inequality, gender identity and structural racism.
“I think that kids can handle a lot more nuance than we generally give them credit for,” Turner said. “You can talk about anything with kids. You can make anything accessible, no matter how uncomfortable or atrocious it may seem.”
Some people may think first grade is a bit early for some of these heavy topics. Some parents have pushed back against Turner's approach, and he's received many critical -- and sometimes hateful -- comments online from people who disagree with him. But Turner says kids are aware of race from a very early age, as early as 6 months old. And his students bring their own honest questions to class.
Turner sees what he’s doing as planting seeds of inquiry and offering students some tools so they can continue to grapple with issues that are at the core of American society as they grow up. He says that, as a white man, he had the privilege not to think about how his race, class and sexuality smoothed his way through life. He’s doing a lot of that work now, and he says teachers owe it to both their white students and their students of color to initiate these conversations in safe and developmentally appropriate ways.
But when recess comes, they still run around with friends, play in the dirt and have fun. The difference is that when they see something on TV or encounter discrimination on the playground, they’re empowered to talk about it outright.
GIVING KIDS TOOLS TO GRAPPLE WITH DIFFICULT TOPICS
About half of Turner’s students are kids of color. Turner wants his students to feel comfortable talking about privilege and power so they can move through life aware of how these issues play out all around them. He wants to equip them with the vocabulary, tools and confidence to continue engaging difficult subjects as their understanding gets more nuanced. He says they aren’t too young. In fact, he’s found his students are often better at talking about difficult issues than most adults. They just process them from a 6-year-old’s perspective.
Take fairness. Turner noted that it’s common for young kids to exclude one another in games and on the playground based on differences, including racial differences. When that happens, Turner doesn’t ignore the racial aspect of the exclusion. He talks about it openly with kids.
“I mean, if you've ever seen kids try to get into line and like who goes in front of who, and cutting in line, you'll know immediately that kids want everything to be fair. So it actually doesn't take that much for kids to enter into the conversation about racism and privilege.”
Turner is also careful to weave these discussions into everything he does. He doesn’t isolate discussions of race to Black History Month, or talk about Native Americans only around Thanksgiving. When his class studied money, for example, they noticed that only white men are pictured. Or, when the class was learning to skip-count by twos, Turner had them practice by tallying the number of men and women in the U.S. Senate. From there, they had a fruitful discussion about unequal representation in Congress and whether that’s fair. Students had mixed opinions, which Turner loves.
“That is a lesson that stuck with a lot of kids and it gets referenced a lot,” he said.
Check out the MindShift Podcast to hear what these conversations sound like in Bret Turner’s classroom. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, NPR One, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts to learn more about what brought Turner, a straight white man, to teach this way. And, hear about some of the gratitude and pushback he’s gotten from parents.
BRET TURNER'S JOURNEY TO TEACHING ABOUT POWER AND PRIVILEGE
Turner didn't always teach this way. In his early years of teaching, when students would ask a question that implicated race or asked why there were more white characters in their classroom books than kids of color, he would steer the conversation back to the lesson. He’d say they’d talk about it later or brush past the topic. But he began to realize that he was sending kids the message that they shouldn't talk about those issues.
"All of the evidence, both academic and anecdotal, that I've ever seen suggests that you actually have to talk to kids about it," Turner said. "And if you don't, you are unfortunately perpetuating the idea that it is not to be talked about, that white privilege is off-limits, that racism has been solved."
But that doesn't mean it’s comfortable for him. Turner is acutely aware that he’s a straight white man with a lot of privileges. He was worried he didn’t have the depth of understanding, or the personal experience, to teach about these difficult topics well. He also knows he’s not the only one doing this work -- many teachers of color have been bringing these types of lessons into their classrooms for years. Still, 80 percent of classroom teachers are white, so he sees it as his duty to help students navigate these tricky issues.
“When I realized that opting out of conversations and difficult questions was potentially damaging, I realized I couldn't do it anymore,” Turner said. “As uncomfortable as I might be sometimes.”
Still, he admits there are logistical challenges to teaching this way. He has a jampacked curriculum to get through, and every time one of these conversations comes up, it takes time. He understands that many teachers fear messing up or not knowing all the answers, and that can be a barrier to even starting this type of classroom conversation. At first he felt that way, too, but gradually he came to a place where he’d rather try, admit what he doesn’t know, and model being a learner to find the answers.
Turner is also careful to set expectations at the start of the year with parents. He tells them at back-to-school night that in his classroom, they will be talking about all the "isms" -- racism and sexism among them -- because kids bring questions about them into the classroom. And he uses his newsletter to communicate to parents when a potentially fraught conversation took place spontaneously, or if one is planned.
"I don't want any of this to seem like cloak-and-dagger stuff where I'm doing this 'indoctrination' behind their backs in class," Turner said. When it's relevant, he also sends articles home, videos of the class, and recaps of the discussions, "just so I can be as open and clear as possible, so it doesn't take people by surprise."
Oakland mother Carla Wicks appreciates Turner’s leadership. She’s an African American parent whose daughter, Kendal, was in Turner's class last year. When she heard his back-to-school speech about the "isms," she approached him afterward to thank him for his "courage."
Wicks and her husband didn’t have to sit their kids down to talk about racism -- it comes up all the time. When Kendal was in preschool, she was already hearing messages that lighter skin colors are more beautiful.
“These are the conversations that we have, as people of color, very early on, all the time,” Wicks said.
She sees it as a teacher’s job to be culturally literate and sensitive so they can respond nimbly when issues of race, privilege or power come up in the classroom. She trusts her kids' teachers to understand what’s developmentally appropriate, and they should be able to have difficult conversations with kids in ways that equip them to live in a complicated world.
"I think if most human beings going through our education system had these conversations at this early age, then we'd probably be in a different place than we are today," she said.
But Turner said other parents have objected to his approach. They've told him these topics are too heavy for young children, or that he's abusing his position of power as a teacher to push a "liberal agenda."
Turner has taken that critique to heart, analyzing his classroom practice for whether there's truth in those claims. He understands that young kids want to please their teachers, but says he's not telling his students what to think. He asks questions that help kids to see patterns of injustice, and encourages them to make connections across the curriculum.
"I don't know what we want of kids other than for them to be critical thinkers and to question when things don't seem right," Turner said.
CLASSROOM RESOURCES BRET TURNER USES TO TEACH ABOUT POWER AND PRIVILEGE