A Diversity Grab-Bag:  15 New Ideas for Bringing Diversity into Your Classroom

[Moore, T. 1999. A Diversity Grab-Bag: 15 New Ideas For Bringing Diversity Into Your Classroom. In Children and Families, 18 (Spring):62-68, Alexandria, VA: NHSA]

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! -- From "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 teaching diversity. Watch them enliven your classroom!

Idea #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 childcare center when a student greeted me, "Hi, black man!" The teacher, embarrassed, told him, "Shhhh!" With that admonition, she inadvertently communicated 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" that might make us uncomfortable but are an honest label of what the child sees.

Idea #2: Bring diverse people into your classroom, particularly people who are different from your students. If your Head Start 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 instance, 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 a wheelchair athlete to describe her skill on the basketball court or in a race.

Idea #3: Conversations are more powerful than lectures. A three-year-old at a childcare center once asked if she could feel my hair. I sat down and helped her stretch her hands towards 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 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.

Idea #4: 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. What if a child comes up with lyrics you feel are inappropriate? Remember that diversity is not about accepting everything a child might say. Gently explain to the child if he is using hurtful words.

Idea #5: Introduce children to music of different styles. If most of your children are listening to rap, gospel, or rock, try playing country-western, classical or jazz for them. In my song "Opera Singer," I sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," in an operatic style to teach kids about this music in a fun way. But I also use a call-and-response format (I sing, the children repeat), which comes out of the African-American musical tradition. What about you? Can you mimic an opera singer, or do call-and-response songs?

Idea #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 the diverse people they see around them. Engage children in a conversation about the colorful drawings they make. In my sing-a-long 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 orange for Halloween, or red for Valentine’s Day. Maybe your children will want to paint their pumpkins green. Maybe they’ll say purple, not red, expresses love. 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.

Idea #7: Skip 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 drugstore might donate some posters.

Idea #8: What are you showing during Show & Tell? Bring something to Show & Tell yourself that could stimulate a conversation about diversity. Perhaps you could show a photo of a friend who is a different race than you. Don’t say this is a person from a different racial group, just talk about your friend and let children make the connection.

Idea #9: Schedule field trips to places your children would never go. How about touring diverse local churches, synagogues, or mosques? Maybe you could visit a hospital maternity ward in a diverse part of town, or store that celebrates a particular heritage. Police and fire departments also make good field trips and give children an opportunity to see many types of people in action. Try to find places where people are not in traditional roles.

Idea #10: Teach through the mouth! Foods can be a great way to introduce diversity. Invite parents or restaurant owners to bring in dim sum, matzo balls, collard greens, tacos, or other surprising food. (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. Two resources: The Foods I Eat...The Foods You Eat, a curriculum by Many Hands Media, and Yoko, a storybook by Rosemary Wells about a little cat who provokes an uproar at school by bringing sushi for lunch.

Idea #11: Let children solve their own conflicts when possible, while encouraging empathy towards 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 such as "I Like Me" can help children recognize their commonalties.

Idea #12: Seek professional collaborations with people who are different than you. Invite a variety of experts to host workshops for your Center. Remember to include different types of teachers. Pre-school and grade-school teachers often think differently from one another. Collaborate with these folks. Everyone can benefit by spending time together and getting to know each other.

Idea #13: Honestly discuss problems occurring among teachers, teacher assistants, cooks, and other staff members at your program. Each group has different skills, talents, 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.

Idea #14: Use books, recordings, videos and dolls to help children explore diversity, especially if you live in a homogenous place. Contact your school suppliers to see what they have to offer. Move beyond "touristy" materials to real celebration of differences. Check to be sure the depictions are accurate; some "African-American" dolls, for instance, have traditional white features with slightly darkened skin. One good resource: Sesame Street Parents, a magazine that regularly recommends books, recordings, and videos from a variety of cultures.

Idea #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 of the community they live in. By learning about diversity now, they’ll have a head start 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 may play with dolls of a different color, or choose music that’s not part of their culture. Most important, children won’t focus exclusively on the hair or skin of that Hispanic or Indian or Asian or Caucasian visitor, but on what that person is sharing with the class.

© Thomas Moore, 1999. This article originally appeared in Children and Families, the magazine of the National Head Start Association. It may be reprinted with the following credit: (c) Dr. Thomas Moore, 704/371-4077.

Thomas Moore, Ph.D is a keynote speaker, workshop leader, early childhood consultant, and children’s recording artist. He is author of Gryphon House award-winning teacher resource books "Where is Thumbkin?" and "Do You Know the Muffin Man?". He is contributing author of Wright Group/McGraw-Hill’s curriculum, DLM Early Childhood Express and author of their literacy series "Music, Movement and More". He has also produced ten recordings for children.