Anti-Bias Education in the Classroom: A Conversation with Anthony Taylor, Room 2

Anthony Taylor with Room 2 Kids

Anthony Taylor has taught at Step One School since 2005, and brings his passion for and commitment to anti-bias education to Room 2. He spoke with us about the philosophy that guides his classroom teaching and all of Step One’s anti-bias work. Thank you, Anthony, and all our Step One faculty, for setting kids on a path to feel comfortable in their own skin, celebrate difference, stand up for themselves and each other, and act with a concern for love and justice.

How did you get started with anti-bias and change-maker education? What makes this work important to you, personally?

While in high school I became aware of the disparities in the world between people. I saw haves and have-nots (in terms of economics, race, gender). I wanted to work to change this, but I wasn’t sure how.

I then got into trouble at 17, and my mom, who was an early childhood educator and an advocate for people my whole life, made me come to work with her every day. She taught at a wealthy school that was next to a homeless shelter, and she spoke out to say “We need to serve these children” and worked to get half the kids into the school and onto financial aid. First there was resistance among some of the affluent families, but over time I saw all the families connect, through their children. I also saw the difference that the teachers made to this community of families and decided that this was how I wanted to go about making change in the world.

I began to learn about anti-bias education during my time at Pacific Oaks Children’s School, which is where anti-bias education got its start in the United States.  This was a great way to get a working foundation.  It took on an even deeper importance when I got involved in an interracial relationship and my bi-racial children were born.

What are your goals for anti-bias education?

I want children to be comfortable with who they are, who their family is, and to be comfortable with others, with differences of all kinds. The ultimate goal is to recognize bias and be courageous enough to stand up against it. Starting the year, I look at the kids and say “I want 24 allies to come out of this classroom.”

How do you achieve those goals practically, through your classroom teaching?

To teach this way, teachers need to look inward at ourselves, then we can start with the children. Physically, culturally, around family dynamics: we want kids to have pride in who they are. We start with conversations about self and family, and then about similarities and differences, using tools like skin tone paints, self-portraits, and family collages. The kids really treasure the family collages and look at each other’s families again and again.

To recognize bias, we want to help raise  children to see all the places in society that we subliminally get messages from. Children are naturally categorizers, very prone to sorting people into boxes. Sadly, companies know that, and we wind up in a fight against media. At a very young age our society and media tell children that boys are one way, girls are another. We’re offering children such narrow roles.

In the classroom, we want to help children see that not all women or men are a certain way. That’s why it’s so important to have a diverse staff: lots of men, lots of women, lots of people from different backgrounds. Then children can see that each person is an individual. People are only examples of themselves, not representatives of a certain group.

We also think about how we talk to the children, what we reinforce. So many comments are made every day about a girl’s looks or her clothes. We avoid those comments, because we want children to feel we’re happy about who they are, not that we care about what they’re wearing.

How do you help kids understand ideas of justice and bias: more abstract concepts? How do you make sure you’re educating children about many different aspects of difference? (Race, class, gender, ability, etc.?)

For young kids, their world is here. We start with their family and their school because that makes sense to them: we work with their own concept of fairness. By thinking about that, we can move to understanding bias. We might say to a child, “Would it be fair for people to not play with you because you have blond hair?”

You don’t want to have one child in the classroom be a token for anything, whether it’s their heritage or having a disability, so we have lots of diverse books and images around the classroom. These also help us see how the children respond. For instance, one child was thrown by a picture of an adult with a prosthetic limb. Because the image was there, we were able to see her reaction and work with it.

Children notice difference even before they’re a year old. Sometimes differences worry them. Sometimes their response is more about curiosity. But if they ask an embarrassing question and we shush them, it feels like what they said is taboo. That makes them think there’s something bad about the person who is different from them. So we encourage them to interact with each other and with people they meet around difference, and to do so in a polite, appropriate way. Our role is to support their questions, while also helping them have healthy and respectful interactions.

My son Sage went to a daycare where he was the only child of color. He was 5 or 6 months old; I would put Sage down and all the white toddlers would come up and touch his hair. They were coming from a good place, but it was overwhelming for him. As a classroom teacher now, I would support a child being interested in hair that’s different from their own, while also teaching them that you need to ask before you touch someone else’s body or hair.

I understand you sometimes use a change-maker curriculum in Room 2. Could you tell me a little bit about how that works?

Our kids are at the age where they are learning to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. They learn about bad guys and superheroes, and they think, a superhero will protect me. Then they realize that superheroes aren’t real, but bad guys are. It can be hard for them to still feel safe.

That’s where we start with the change-maker curriculum: people who make change even without super-powers. We ask the children, who takes care of you, who are your real-life heroes? It can start out small and simple. A hug in the yard can change someone’s day. Slowly, from there, you get to the great struggles for social change, for rights and equality.

We also work with children on the whole idea of good guy and bad guy, trying to complicate that perspective. We discuss how people make mistakes. Did you ever get upset and do something you didn’t want to do? How do we support people who made inappropriate choices?

We talk about history: that there was a time people thought if the color of your skin was ‘different’, you had to have different rules. We might say things like: “At that time, some people thought you had to keep people apart. Isn’t that silly? Is that fair? What if I told you that If you have pants on, you can’t have snack? Some people noticed that that wasn’t fair, and they wanted to change it.”

We also discuss how making change can be scary. We talk about standing up for our friends here at school. What do you do when you hear a friend get called a name? How do you help them? How do you support each other? We want to encourage our kids to act even when they might face pressure to be silent.

Is there anything else you would want Step One families and alumni to know about anti-bias work in the classroom?

How important their participation is to what we’re doing. We can do all the work in the world with the children, but their parents are a much bigger influence. We are here with the children for an amazing but brief stint, and there are going to be so many examples in the world against what we’re trying to teach. We need the families working with us. We are changing the world through the children and families who will go out into the world and change others.