Bret Turner: I think that kids can handle a lot more nuance than we generally give them credit for.
Katrina Schwartz: It’s not your typical first grade curriculum, to be sure. But that’s the least of the startling topics Bret’s class covered this year. These 6-year-olds have also discussed: structural racism, microaggressions and gender identity. And their study of homelessness included discussion on institutionalized racism. Bret’s goal is to help his students recognize privilege and power all around them.
Student in play: I’m starting to think being invisible might not feel all that great.
Katrina Schwartz: This all seemed a little strange to me. I certainly wasn’t exposed to these kinds of discussions until I was much older. Neither was Bret, and he says that’s because we’re white. Not having to think about this stuff is a form of privilege.
But still, the world is big and scary, and childhood is supposed to be a time of innocence. Is it right to expose kids to this stuff so early?
Teacher on the playground: Come on everyone, let’s go. Sounds of playing
Katrina Schwartz: On the other hand, power and privilege are all around us. We see it in the wage gap, in laws that prevent transgender people from serving in the military, in so many places. And it often plays out as racism. These are super hard things to talk about. Most adults aren’t good at it. And I know from reporting in schools that a lot of teachers just don’t want to go there. But would we all be better off if they did? Rather than sending adults back to school for sensitivity training, maybe it would be easier to start these lessons earlier. With school kids.
Students singing: One, two, three, four. Oh, this is One-T-M. We love to play and learn with all our friends.
Katrina Schwartz: I first learned about Bret’s decision to teach his first graders about race and privilege when I stumbled on an article he wrote for the organization Teaching Tolerance. Teachers of color have been bringing these issues into their classrooms for years, but 80-percent of teachers are white. I wanted to see how he handled these topics, so I drove to Head Royce on a Wednesday and joined Circle Time.
Students singing: We love to get the giggles. Our bodies like to wiggle.
Katrina Schwartz: More than half the kids in Bret’s class are students of color. He has created a sweet and orderly classroom. There’s the line of little backpacks and coats neatly hung in a row. The tiny tables and chairs that make me feel like a giant. The walls are covered in art and student writing. There are self portraits, charts describing the writing process, and sound combinations helpful for new readers.
Bret tries not to compartmentalize lessons about power and privilege. He uses them as teaching tools in some surprising ways. Like the day they learned to tally…. Bret used gender inequality in Congress as the subject, by having the kids count how many women were in the Senate versus the number of men.
Bret Turner: South Carolina.
Student: It’s so not fair.
Bret Turner: Two men.
Bret Turner: South Dakota. Two men.
Students: AHHHH. I really don’t care if there’s two men for South Carolina because I love South Carolina.
Bret Turner: Tennessee: Two men.
Katrina Schwartz: Or when they studied money, a common topic in first grade, they noticed that only white men are pictured.
Bret Turner: You can talk about anything with kids. You can make anything accessible no matter how uncomfortable or atrocious it may seem.
Katrina Schwartz: Bret says at this age kids are actually much better at discussing inequality than a lot of adults. It comes up on the playground all the time.
Bret Turner: Kids are primed to talk about fairness. 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, like 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.
Katrina Schwartz: Speaking of fairness, the day I visit, I notice the kids are doing an art project about what it means to be a good leader. A key value they’ve identified is standing up for others.
Katrina Schwartz: So, I’m curious what you’re going to draw for this one.
Student: Different people and different genders and races. And then there’s going to be a person who’s teasing two people who are different genders who are friends and races.
Katrina Schwartz: Hm. And then is one of the friends going to do something? Say something?
Student: One of them is going to stand up for the others.
Katrina Schwartz: They’re drawing pictures and writing words that illustrate different elements of good leadership.
Student: I’m drawing “include everyone” and I wrote: “Hey do you want to play with me, and this person said, “yeah.”
Schwartz: And that always feels really good when that happens, right?
Katrina Schwartz: And then it’s cleanup time.
Bret Turner (singing): I got ten seconds to get where I”m going. Nine more seconds I better start flowing.
Katrina Schwartz: Many teachers of color have been tackling these issues in their classrooms for a long time. When Bret started doing it, he was nervous that as a straight white guy he didn't have the depth of understanding or the credibility to do it well. And the feedback from parents was mixed. Some parents thought it was totally inappropriate. Some even accused Bret of abusing his power to shape kids’ minds. Others, like Carla Wicks, were glad Bret is taking this on. She called Bret a trailblazer.
Carla Wicks: I remember he had a really nice overview of you know here's what the curriculum is like. We will be talking about privilege. We will be talking about race. We will be talking about all the “isms” because the children bring these topics into the classroom.
Katrina Schwartz: Carla’s daughter, Kendal, is in Bret Turner’s class. Carla was surprised by his speech at Back to School Night, but impressed too.
Carla Wicks: I went up to him afterwards, I'll never forget. And I just said wow, thank you for being courageous. Thank you. Because 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.
Katrina Schwartz: Carla is African American. She knows from experience that whether or not adults talk about it, kids like hers grapple with their race from early on. She and her husband never had to plan a conversation around race because it comes up all the time at home. Like when Kendal had to make a self-portrait in preschool. It got her thinking about skin tone.
Carla Wicks: She’s like, well Mommy, your skin is white.
Katrina Schwartz: Carla’s definitely not white. But she is a lighter shade of brown than her daughter. She probed deeper, asking Kendal what made her say that.
Carla Wicks: And then she said, well, some people think it’s prettier.
Katrina Schwartz: That’s when it clicked for Carla that Kendal must be hearing messages about what makes someone beautiful. Messages she didn’t teach.
Carla Wicks: So these are the conversations that we have, as people of color, very early on. All the time. She was five at the time. They notice everything.
Katrina Schwartz: Carla’s glad that Kendal’s teacher, Bret Turner, is helping kids to process the world around them in an age appropriate way. She hopes other teachers will follow his example. Then maybe they’ll know how to handle situations like the one that happened in her son’s third grade class when they were reading a slave narrative.
Carla Wicks: One of the other kids didn't understand, like, ‘why are we reading this? Slavery is over.’ And blurted it out in the class. And so, my third grader, whose nine years old, said well this is important, and even though slavery may seem to be over, slavery is not over. We have a thing called police brutality and it’s another form of slavery. And the brutality happens to African American boys and men. This is a nine year old who spoke up, was brave enough to say something, and you know, I’m not sure if the teacher was really prepared to handle that.
Katrina Schwartz: Carla’s proud of her son, but she doesn’t think he should have to be the one to confront his classmates around issues of race. That’s the teacher’s job.
Students singing: What does it cost you to say hi? To give a little wave as you’re passing by? What does it cost you to show that you see the people you pass by on the street?
Katrina Schwartz: After the break, the story of Bret Turner’s awakening, and how the internet has responded to his methods. Stay with us.
Katrina Schwartz: Welcome back. Bret Turner says everything was magnified for him in 2016, when President Donald Trump won the election.
Bret Turner: You know, I feel like my blind spots are constantly being checked. And for me, even though I knew that Donald Trump had run a campaign that was in part based on xenophobia and whiteness, even though I knew all those things, I still felt really naive in my reaction to the election.
Katrina Schwartz: He felt naive because like a lot of white people he was surprised. A surprise many people of color did not share. And he resolved to stop doing the comfortable thing, and to teach about power and privilege.
Bret Turner: There was a point I was like, I need to talk about identity every single day and I need to talk about something related to anti-racism, and being an upstander, and noticing bias. I need to talk about it all the time.
Katrina Schwartz: So he started to look for resources to help him. He found them online and through social media. He realized it was up to him. If he didn’t start teaching this stuff, who would? And really, if he was serious about building a better world, he needed to start earlier, with his own kids.
Bret Turner: Do you want to show Katrina the dress you got for picture day?
Katrina Schwartz: He’s adapted his parenting style to include things he’s doing in the classroom -- even though at four and two, his kids, Alice and Louie -- are still a little too young to really understand.
Bret Turner: Because she's not quite at the age where she's getting stuff from the media, we try to be as proactive as possible. You know, it's very bumpy, but we try to talk about race and gender all the time. So Alice knows that she is white and that her family is white.
Katrina Schwartz: Bret says proactively talking about race with a four year old leads to some uncomfortable situations. Alice is so young that things often come out jumbled.
Bret Turner: We were at Starbucks. And we were in the thick of talking about a lot of racial stuff. And Alice looked at the barista and said: “Why are you not white?”
Katrina Schwartz: Bret and his wife were embarrassed and mumbled an apology to the woman. Later, a friend gave Bret a suggestion for what he could have said to the barista in that moment.
Bret Turner: One of the best things to say is: “You know what, we are talking a lot about race right now at home and trying to teach Alice that race is a real thing that people live with. And she's saying a lot of things and trying to figure it out.”
Katrina Schwartz: Bret says stocking his home library with books showing lots of diverse characters helps jump start these conversations with Alice.
Bret Turner: You know the nuances can get lost. Sometimes she'll say things like “Papa, all white people are bad and all black people and Asian people are great.”
Katrina Schwartz: Bret says it’s natural for kids to approach these big questions with a simplistic lens. That’s how their brains work at this age.
Bret Turner: When she gets older, it's very important that we have more nuanced discussions of that. Things are not good and bad. Things are not black and white. And things are not binary. But that is the way that kids begin. One option or the other. And then they can fold in a third option and a fourth one and things can get gradually more minute and nuanced.
Bret Turner: Ok, Alice, what song do you want to hear?
Bret Turner (singing): I’m being followed by a Moonshadow, moonshadow, moonshadow. A leapin’ and hoppin’ on a moonshadow.
Katrina Schwartz: But he’s not stopping there. Encouraged by the results he’s getting at home and in the classroom, Bret has started sharing his ideas with other teachers online. But he didn’t anticipate his articles getting picked up by right wing blogs -- that’s where things got nasty.
Bret Turner: I have been accused in person, and much more frequently online of indoctrination. Liberal agenda. Ruining kids. Raising kids to be sissies is a big thing I see. “You're raising kids to be to react to every little thing, and to be offended by everything, and to be crippled by having to keep track of what to be offended by.” That's a message I see constantly.
Katrina Schwartz: And there was a lot of hate.
Bret Turner: There were some comment like, you are fucking over children. There was one in particular comment that I either deleted or made sure that I could not find that said something like, I feel so sorry for your kids and for your students for being under the influence of your fucked up bullshit. And it was this screed. It was like this long thing about how I was ruining the world. And like scarring children for life.
Katrina Schwartz: Aside from all the vitriol, he says these commenters clearly haven’t spent much time in a first grade classroom. Because if they had, they’d know that kids aren’t crippled by difficult discussions.
Bret Turner: That fires kids up. And it makes kids want to make change. And it makes kids want to break cycles. And it makes kids want to mess things up and question. And it doesn't to me and my experience, and the experience of other educators that I've talked to, it doesn't come at the expense of any happiness.
Katrina Schwartz: Bret hopes that if kids start thinking and talking about these big issues early on maybe they won’t have the hang-ups we adults have. As a white woman, I don’t think I really started to think about how my privilege affected my whole life until I got to college. That’s a lot of unlearning to do.
These first graders may even teach the adults in their lives a thing or two. Like knowing that homelessness is connected to race and class and privilege.
Students in a play: I want to say we are very grateful to the people in Oakland and all over the world who don’t have a place to call home.
Katrina Schwartz: Maybe with a class play, for example.
Student in a play: Thank you for letting us tell your story.
Student #2 in a play: Thank you for being patient with us.
Katrina Schwartz: After all, stories can be some of the best windows into someone else’s experience.
Bret Turner in a play: And thank you, to the audience, for coming on this journey with us.
Students all together: The end.
Student #3 in the play: You’re supposed to say it too. You’re Aiden.
Bret Turner: The end.
Katrina Schwartz: For parents, there are best practices for talking to kids about these issues at home. Kids notice race, so don’t shut them down if they bring it up. If you do, it sends the message that race is taboo. Talk about the achievements of diverse Americans. Give age-appropriate facts about historical traumas, like slavery, and focus on people’s agency and activism.
And obviously this is a huge topic, so go to kqed.org/race for a list of more resources you can use, including the ones Bret Turner finds helpful.
MindShift is produced by Ki Sung, and me, Katrina Schwartz. Our editor is Julia Scott. Seth Samuel is our sound designer. Julie Caine is our head of podcasts, Ethan Lindsey is Executive Editor for News, and Holly Kernan is KQED’s Chief Content Officer.