Diversity: Ideas on how celebration of difference can ‘enliven your classroom’

April 1, 1999

Written by Thomas Moore for the Spring 1999 edition of Children and Families, the magazine of the National Head Start Association. Article is no longer in the magazine’s online archive.

I like to laugh, I like to giggle

I like to dance, I like to wiggle

I like to see you laugh

I like to see you giggle

I like to see you dance

I like to see you wiggle

I like me, I like you!

“I Like Me,” I am Special, Just Because I’m Me
by Thomas Moore


Diversity can be hard for young children to understand, especially when they haven’t experienced much of it. But as the song suggests, most children readily embrace diversity when it’s presented in an appealing way. Here’s a grab bag of ideas for you to watch enliven your classroom!

1. Don’t be afraid to talk about differences. Our culture discourages us from discussing or even acknowledging our differences in public, as if differences are shameful. I got a sample of that during a visit to an all-white child-care center when one child greeted me, “Hi, black man!” The teacher, embarrassed, told him, “Shhhh!”

With that admonition, she unintentionally communicated that there’s something bad in the phrase “black man.” It would have been better for the child if she had calmly said, “Hi Dr. Moore.” My young friend was simply trying to make sense of his world, and a friendly greeting would have helped him.

As children respond to differences, they’re looking to us for guidance. If they use truly hurtful words, it’s important to let them know. But we must differentiate between hurtful words and words like “black man,” which might make us uncomfortable but are an honest label of what the child sees.

2. Bring diverse people into your classroom, particularly people who are different from the children.If your Head Start program is largely Asian, bring in non-Asians as singers, dancers, workshop leaders, storytellers, or simply people to talk about their families, jobs, and homes. This is a particularly effective way to celebrate holidays. On Presidents’ Day, for example, invite presidents from diverse organizations to talk about what being president of their group means.

Don’t forget people with disabilities. Invite a blind person to visit your class and talk about his seeing-eye dog, or welcome a wheelchair athlete to your class to describe her skill on the basketball court or in a race.

3. Realize that conversations are more powerful than lectures. A 3-year-old at a child-care center once asked me if she could feel my hair. I sat down and helped her stretch her hands toward my head.

“This feels funny,” she giggled. “Your hair feels funny.”

I was tempted to start a lecture about differences. But I stopped myself and tried to respond in a way hat she would understand.

I patted her head. “Your hair feels funny,” I said.

“My hair’s not funny!” she told me.

“My hair’s not funny!” I replied.

“Silly man,” she said, and with a laugh, began to play with a toy. That was all the discussion she needed to learn that all hair is good hair.

990401DiversityFront4. Create new lyrics to familiar songs. This can be as simple as, “If you’re happy and you know it, eat a tortilla,” with the children pretending to chew a taco. Teach the children new lyrics, and invite them to create lyrics, too. They will naturally draw on ideas that reflect their heritage.

5. Introduce children to music of different sources.If most of your children are listening to rap, gospel or rock, try playing them country-western, classical, or jazz. To teach children about opera in a fun way, I sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” in an operatic style. But I also use a call-and-response format (I sing, the children repeat) which comes out of the African-American musical tradition.

6. Use color in the classroom. The grass isn’t always green in a child’s imagination, and people aren’t always beige or brown. Artwork can be a healthy means for children to explore to explore the diverse people they see around them. Engage children in a conversation about the colorful drawings they make.

In my sing-along song, “At the Easel,” I encourage children to create with color. “At the easel, at the easel, I can choose any color I want./I choose red!/I paint the house red./I paint the dog red./I paint the sky red./I paint the grass red./Today I must like red.”

The song follows with other colors, until everything in the universe has a new hue. Encourage that diversity of color all year. Don’t stick with white for winter, or pink and green for spring. Maybe your children will want to color their snowflakes green. Or maybe they’ll say orange and red represent spring. Ask them.

A final thought about color: Some teachers become alarmed if a child says her favorite color is black. Choosing black doesn’t necessarily mean the child is depressed or angry. It might be her way of saying she has dark skin.

7. Be cautious about the observance of Black History Month and other segregated celebrations. Talk about all kinds of people at all times of the year. Think beyond the typical. African Americans aren’t always sports figures or musicians, for example. Look in magazines for photos to post on your walls. See if your local drug store, library, or book store might donate some posters.

8. Participate in Show and Tell by bringing something that could stimulate a conversation about diversity. Perhaps you could show a photo of a friend who is a different race from you. Don’t say this is a person from a different racial group; just talk about your friend and let the children make the connection.

9. Schedule field trips to places your children would not typically go. How about touring local churches, synagogues, or mosques? Maybe you could visit a hospital maternity ward in a diverse part of town, or a store that celebrates a particular heritage. Police and fire departments also make good types of people in action. Try to find places where people are not in traditional roles.

10.Teach through the mouth! Foods can be a great way to introduce diversity. Invite parents or restaurant owners to bring in dim sum, matzoh balls, collard greens, tacos, or other surprising foods. But before trying this idea, be sure to check your city and state regulations regarding food preparation and serving.

Serve sandwiches from different parts of the world. These two resources should be of help: The Foods I Eat … The Foods You Eat, a curriculum by Many Hands Media, and Yoko, a book by Rosemary Wells about a little cat who provokes an uproar at school by bringing sushi for lunch.

11. Let children solve their own conflicts when possible, while encouraging empathy toward others.Sometimes teachers will intercede in children’s disputes before the children have had a chance to talk it out. Help your children trust their own abilities to solve their problems. Use circle time to discuss the ways we treat each other. Songs like “I like me” can help children recognize what they have in common.

12 Seek professional collaboration with people who are different from you. invite a variety of experts to host workshops for your Head Start program. Remember that “people who are different from you” includes kindergarten teachers. Head Start teachers and grade-school teachers often think differently from each other. Collaborate with these folks to make transitions smoother for your Head Start families. Staff members and teachers from both Head Start and kindergarten can benefit by spending time together and getting to know each other.

13. Honestly discuss problems occurring among teachers, teacher assistants, cooks and other staff members at your Head Start program. Each group has different skills, talent, and perspectives. We need to learn how to work through our differences, so that when problems occur, we’re not apt to pull back. It’s hard to teach what we don’t practice ourselves.

14. Use books, recordings, videos, and dolls to help children explore diversity, especially if you live in a place where most people are from the same culture. Contact your school suppliers to see what they have to offer. Move beyond “touristy” materials to the real celebration of differences. Check to be sure that the depictions are accurate. Some “African-American” or “Asian” dolls, for instance, have traditional white features with slightly darkened skin.

One good resource is “Sesame Street Parents,” a magazine that regularly recommends books, recordings, and videos from a variety of cultures.

15. Communicate your efforts to parents. Send home a flyer once a week about the activities children are enjoying and the diverse people they’re meeting. Emphasize that your diversity work is helping children be socially competent outside the community they live in. By learning about diversity now, they’ll have a jump on feeling comfortable in another part of the city, nation, or world.

You’ll know your efforts are working when your children are relaxed with people who are different from themselves. They might play with dolls that are a different color or that are wearing clothing traditionally from another part of the world. Or they might choose music that’s not part of their culture. More importantly, children won’t focus exclusively on things like the hair or skin color of the Latino, Native-American, Asian, or European visitor, but on what that person is sharing with the class.

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Thomas Moore, Ph.D., is the official musician of the National Head Start Association. He is a children’s recording artist, author, and early childhood consultant, as well as a trainer for the HeadsUp! Network and a nationally recognized motivational speaker. You can reach Moore at (704) 371-4077.