Three Years Old, Black and Suspended

In the classroom, teachable moments are those unplanned occasions during which learning occurs, when lessons are sparked by real-life interactions that could never be predicted.

The epidemic of suspensions imposed on black preschoolers presents just such a teachable moment for teachers and school administrators.

The tally on preschool suspensions is startling and distressing. Black children make up 18 percent of the nation’s preschoolers, but they represent nearly half of the children in that age group who are suspended more than once. Even a preschooler can see those numbers don’t add up.

It’s widely known that black students across all grade levels are suspended (and expelled) three times as often as their white peers. What’s less understood is that the practice of defaulting to zero-tolerance “get-tough” suspensions and expulsions is trickling down from middle and high schools into preschools.

Researchers and activists have cautioned educators and criticized these policies, yet the practice continues with disturbing results—like 4-year-olds put out of school for temper tantrums.

“The first step is awareness, and that’s a huge step at the preschool level,” says Tunette Powell, whose 3-year-old has been suspended five times this year. The research is powerful. A city council member in the District of Columbia, calling preschool suspensions “ridiculous,” introduced a bill to curtail the practice after a report drew awareness to the fact that district schools suspended preschoolers 181 times during the 2012-13 school year.

More superintendents are also raising the alarm about this issue. The School Superintendents Association and the Children’s Defense Fund teamed up to study district-wide school discipline policies, and determined that nine out of 10 superintendents “believe there are negative consequences to the use of OSS [out-of-school suspension] in their districts.”

While tackling excessive suspensions from a policy standpoint is essential, so is shaping teacher practice and providing professional development, something Powell sees as lacking.

“We see all of these studies, but the people we don’t see using all of these studies are teachers in the classroom,” she points out. “None of the preschool teachers at my son’s school have seen the research.”

Powell contrasts the national push for early childhood education and the coming influx of new preschool teachers with the lack of cultural competence training at the preschool level. “We all carry these implicit biases,” she says. What’s missing is the opportunity to learn and grow and do better for kids. “When we’re sending kids home at this age, 3- and 4-year-olds, it’s saying we can’t do anything with you. You’re already rejecting them at this early age.”

Helping teachers get in touch with their biases is crucial in changing the nature of student interactions. Denver Public Schools made an intentional decision to design training and curricula to guide teachers to continually address their biases, implicit and explicit. The comprehensive program urges teachers to ask themselves key questions that get at the core of engaging with students of all races and ethnicities at any age.

  • Do I call on you?
  • How do I view your skills and abilities?
  • Am I connected to you?
  • How do I advocate for you?

Preschool suspensions are prevalent and racial disparities exist, but the numbers don’t explain why. For that, educators have to look more closely at themselves—a hard look at their own biases, beliefs, values and preferences.

“If you can see what you’re doing wrong, then it becomes knowledge,” says Powell. “I’m not here to badmouth. It’s a system we created. We’re all products of it. So how can we change it?”

Anderson is an education writer and activist for educational equity. Follow her on Twitter @mdawriter.

¡Sí se puede!

I am a second-grade teacher. Many people ask me, “You teach second-graders about slavery, Jim Crow, sweatshops…?” Yes, I do! My students—young children—can understand complex systems of oppression and resistance by seeing justice as fairness, solidarity and collective power as teamwork, nonviolence as not hurting others and Jim Crow as unfair rules.

“¡Sí se puede!” and “Jim Crow must go!” are just two examples of the statements that my students have written, spoken, sung and chanted in my classroom. Students expressed these phrases within the context of a yearlong multidisciplinary social studies curriculum that traces the process of creating cotton clothing. Now you may ask, why focus on cotton clothing? It is a familiar garment to students and a lens through which we can examine systems of oppression—enslavement, sharecropping and sweatshops—and the mass movements that grew in response.

The curriculum engages and inspires my students to produce sophisticated, high-quality work—and to develop a social justice spirit. They learn that Frederick Douglass and Phillis Wheatley struggled to read and write, yet used these skills to confront slavery. They learn that the Nashville sit-ins were part of strategic campaigns to defy Jim Crow and that women and immigrants led the struggle for justice in the mills and garment shops. The curriculum shows students that people of color and women used the power of literacy, language, numeracy and other academic skills to defeat oppression—and that people can join together with allies to form mass movements that overcome bias. Students engage with these ideas through hands-on activities, including composing and presenting abolitionist speeches and organizing against unfair labor conditions in a workplace role-play. 

Anti-bias topics are often taught in ways that burden—and even harm—young children. Tailoring the curriculum to the developmental level of 7- and 8-year-olds involves reminding myself not to focus on horror and despair. Instead, I focus on showing that resistance and collective action can—and has—overcome injustice. As I was told many years ago by diversity educator Dr. Clem Marshall, “Focus on the flames, not the ashes!” In my experience, this focus on the “flames” allows children to gain pride in their identities and fully engage in their studies.

What about the kids in my classroom whose identities reflect the dominant culture? How do I ensure that my teaching does not lead to feelings of guilt? My strategy involves teaching about white allies—William Lloyd Garrison, John Woolman, Pete Seeger and Freedom Riders. These people show us that anyone can be an ally in the struggle for human justice.

It is not fate that slavery was abolished, that women gained the right to vote, that polluted rivers have been cleaned or that our school is equipped with smoke detectors and fire sprinklers. All children need to learn that social movements do not just happen, but require the work and sacrifices of real people striving to improve the world. This awareness allows them to see the legacies of courage and collective resistance that we inherit and to understand that it will take continued struggles to face the power of polluters, corrupt bankers, homophobic legislators, xenophobic mobs and anti-labor groups.

I feel passionately that curricula infused with anti-bias and social justice principles are essential components of “high academic standards.” Just as we must teach children to read critically and to write clearly, we must also provide them with curricula that support the development of strong identities dedicated to justice for all.

!Sí se puede!

Hoeh is a second-grade teacher at Cambridge Friends School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is also a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.


#dontshoot is one of several haunting hashtags that appeared after the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old student fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. The hashtag often appears linked to posted and tweeted photographs of African Americans with their arms held up to signal that they are unarmed. The number of these photos circulating has increased steadily in the days since Brown’s death, as the details of the shooting slowly emerge and a community rife with grief and frustration protests the tragic loss of a young person.

Michael Brown could have been my student. Some years ago, I taught at Normandy Middle School in the school district from which “Big Mike” graduated. Students in the Normandy School District confront a host of issues and concerns that directly impact student achievement, including woefully inadequate resources and high rates of poverty and crime in their neighborhoods and municipalities. Recently, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education dismantled the school district due to inadequate yearly progress, creating in its wake the Normandy Schools Collective.

Despite seemingly insurmountable circumstances, many of my colleagues continue to provide a quality education to their students. I am proud to have taught in Normandy School District and proud of the district’s students and of my colleagues.

This should have been a time of celebration for Brown, a young man who overcame the obstacles inherent in this flawed educational system. Despite being a credit short when he walked in May, he received his high school diploma on August 1 and was scheduled to enroll at Vatterott College on August 11. Instead, he lay dead in the middle of a city street, shot down between an auspicious end and a bright beginning.

Reflecting upon the significance of another African-American man dead after an altercation with law enforcement (let us not forget Oscar Grant, Wendell Allen and Eric Garner, killed only weeks before), I am left wondering what we are teaching our students—not only our students in predominantly African-American schools, but all students across the United States. Racism does double duty. It harms us all in very real ways.

Jennings School District was forced to push back the first day of school as a precautionary measure due to community protests and riots after Brown’s death. Ferguson-Florissant School District, where protesting continues, has postponed the first day of school. The students in these districts are hearing the message that we handle race, racism and racial tensions in the United States by avoiding them. Brown’s death and the outpouring of protest it ignited is symbolic of racial tensions that have festered for too long. Instead of internalizing the events in Ferguson as racial protocol in our nation, students should be taught to be the voices of change and the enactors of justice.

It is incumbent upon all of us—in all communities, in all schools, and regardless of racial demographics—to teach students compassion for their peers. This includes the peers they sit beside and their peers in Normandy, Ferguson, Jennings and beyond. This isn’t just a learning lesson for African-American students; it is a learning lesson for all students.

Every student matters.

Students across the country are beginning a new school year. Some will mature into law enforcement officers, healthcare professionals, service industry workers and civil employees. Educators have a unique opportunity to begin bridging the social chasms that divide us by fostering honest dialogue with these future adults. Schools can become the places where students learn to interrogate racial biases—and any biases—to restore our collective humanity.

One resource that supports an open and honest dialogue is Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-bias Framework (ABF). The ABF offers K-12 standards that empower students to stand up against prejudice and injustice, to express empathy and compassion and to take action for a better world.

Healing can begin in our schools. Perhaps next year, retuning students will be using the hashtag:


Christian is a teaching and learning specialist with Teaching Tolerance.

This is Community

My 11th-grade U.S. history student Tashia talks about how statistics were used historically to make African Americans appear criminal and how many students of color today feel as if there’s no way around the statistics. My head of school talks about how, during the backlash to Reconstruction, the dominant culture created a criminal justice system that disproportionately targeted African Americans—and how we see its effects today. Jeff, the father of one of my 10th-grade students, shares his own experience with union organizing and talks about the economic implications of mass incarceration.

It’s a Tuesday night, and I’m sitting in a room at my school, listening to a diverse audience discussing race and justice in the United States following a screening of Slavery by Another Name. And I’m thinking, This is community.

This discussion occurred during a civil rights history film series co-sponsored by my school and Teaching for Change, a local non-profit organization that received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Teaching for Change helped advertise our film series, but we mainly used social media and email to invite the public. I offered extra credit to my students for attending and invited all of their parents to come as well.

The series created a space in which individuals from throughout our community—students, teachers, neighbors, administrators, parents and other partners—could come together and explore complex ideas about race, equity and justice through films.

The other organizers and I invited local scholars and activists to provide historical context for each film. (Never underestimate the power of film credits and the Internet to learn that well-known scholars may live in your neighborhood!) They answered audience members’ questions and contributed to the sense of community and shared learning throughout the series.

After the expert or activist introduced each screening, we showed about an hour’s worth of clips. Following the screening, everyone separated into discussion groups mixed across, age, race and school role. (I always knew that the discussion had been a success when I watched the attendees walk out with different people than they had walked in with!). We established these discussion guidelines:

  • Speak your truth and honor others’ perspectives.
  • Speak from the “I” and reference the film when possible.
  • Share air time with all participants.
  • Listen to other participants and seek to understand.
  • Be active, present and prepared to share with the large group!

We provided some discussion questions such as, “What connections do you see between the ideas, laws and systems in [Slavery by Another Name] to ideas, laws and systems that uphold racism today?” and “What did you learn from [The Loving Story] that you can apply to current debates over same-sex marriage?” We then spent some time as a large group sharing big insights from the small groups and extending conversations. 

During the series, I was moved by the power of bringing people together to engage in challenging conversations. We had special moments, like meeting with Joan Mulholland, a former Freedom Rider, while screening clips from Freedom Riders and hearing parents and students alike ask her questions. They wanted to know what had motivated her to take action, whether she felt it was worth it and whether she would do it again. In their questions, the participants shared pieces of themselves, whether it was a student talking about the challenge of being nonviolent or a parent talking about his own experience at Tuskegee University.  

I remember watching one of my students talking about the impact of gentrification on her community with a law school student who had formerly taught and served as one of my experts, and I knew that something had happened. Young people—who are often made to feel as if their voices don’t matter—were being heard by adults. Parents whose primary interaction with our high school had been around their students’ grades and behavior were talking to other young people about important issues in society and building their own understanding of important historical topics. The feedback forms collected after every screening asked for more discussion time.

This series helped bring us together, breaking down barriers that exist within and beyond the high school community. We had parents and their children, teachers and their supervisors, students and their teachers participating equitably, pushing each other’s thinking and reaffirming a commitment to fight for a better future together.

This is community.

Moorman is a high school history teacher at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. She is also a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching. 

On This Day

We at TT keep a calendar of significant dates in U.S. civil rights history. These reminders help our readers and us remember the unsteady march toward equality—and recognize that the march continues today.

Today’s history reminder gave us more than a moment’s pause.

On this day in 1965, a riot began in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The riot was sparked by outrage over the arrest of an African-American motorist and fueled by despair over generations of economic devastation and ongoing mistreatment by law enforcement. The riots lasted for six days.

Images of the Watts anniversary stopped many of us in our tracks because—only this morning—we had seen similar news footage coming out of Ferguson, Missouri. On this day in 2014, Ferguson is reeling from the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, killed on Saturday by a police officer in the economically depressed, racially segregated suburb of St. Louis.

Just as in Watts—almost 50 years earlier—police violence toward a young, black male resident pushed the people of Ferguson to their breaking point. Protests erupted as images of Brown’s prone body began circulating, and the community demanded to know the details of the shooting. In certain areas, vigils and protests crossed over into looting and fire-setting. The police donned riot gear and employed tear gas to control the crowds. The similarities to the half-century-old photographs from Los Angeles are hard to miss.

Ferguson and Watts are not the same place. Michael Brown and Marquette Frye—the young man arrested in 1965—are not the same person, nor did they suffer the same fate. To draw too many parallels between these incidents is to trivialize the history of these communities and disrespect those whose lives were and are affected.

But as an organization committed to justice and equity—and to supporting others as they stand up to injustice and inequity—the similarities compel us to keep pushing, keep working, keep pointing out that we do not live in a post-racial world. That poverty and segregation and racial profiling are still very real problems. That these problems still affect the way people who have power perceive and behave toward people who don’t. And that these perceptions and behaviors still result in very real, very young people dying, sometimes before their lives have even begun.

Oh, and one more thing.

On this day in 2014, Michael Brown was scheduled to attend his first day of college.

van der Valk is the managing editor for Teaching Tolerance.

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