Dr. Melissa Collins has gathered a few of her second grade students for a different kind of summertime get together. The small group is gloved and masked—this being a pandemic and all—but the cool sets of shades aren’t just to keep students from touching their eyes.
“So we want to spotlight, put a bright shining light on racism so all the kids here have on sunglasses,” says Collins, as she ensures that her online students can hear and see as well.
Discussions about race are now taking place in every corner of American life—in boardrooms, in city halls and on the streets. Since George Floyd’s death in Minnesota, Collins, too, has felt a new urgency to get kids talking about racial realities.
Over the past two decades of teaching, she’s introduced 7 and 8 year olds to concepts like injustice and segregation. She takes them on field trips to places like Little Rock High School to see where historic battles for school integration played out. Her students, all Black, also periodically chat online with a class of white students in rural New Jersey.
“Talking about race can be very difficult for younger children, but it’s important for us to have the conversation because if racism is going to end, it’s going to have to be with them,” Collins says. “They’re going to be the future leaders.”
Leaders whom she wants to be both informed and empowered.
“So we talked about integration, ally, activist, protester,” she says.
Her assignments are designed to get the students openly sharing their thoughts and feelings.
“We don’t need to be afraid to allow children to be critical thinkers,” she says. “Let’s see what they say.”
A sample assignment: write a letter to the mayor or create an activism sign. Seven-year-old Taylor Bowman opted to create a Black Lives Matter poster.
“I have the world and a hand…like they’re praying, and I have different colors of kids around this so that means there can be peace and love in everybody,” she says, describing her multi-colored design. “I put [BLM] on my poster because other races are hurting Black lives.”
In the latest art project, the students are creating superhero dolls out of foam balls and felt capes. Their superpowers can be anything that helps fight racism.
“The name of my superpower is ‘my peace,’” says Taylor. “It would change everyone to be peaceful.”
“I chose strength because I can pick up the police when they try to kill or hurt someone,” says classmate Kaidyn Roland. “Since racism is a big problem, being strong is the best way to fight it.”
Adrienne Moore thinks using “mind control” to remove racist ideas would be most effective.
“I would use mind control to make sure everyone is treated fairly,” she says. “Lastly, I would use mind control to make sure everyone is being positive about theirself and everyone else.”
Kaleb Blue says he weighed several different options before also settling on using the mind to influence others.
“He can use his telekinesis to change people’s minds and hearts and make them want to see and feel how racism hurts,” he says.
Kaleb’s dad, Nicholas Blue, encourages his son’s inquisitiveness when it comes to tough subject matters.
“With using these mature discussions with your children, it provokes a question,” he says. “‘Hey, what’s genocide?’ ‘Hey, what was the Holocaust?’ ‘Dad, so why do the Washington Redskins not like that name?”
Taylor’s mom, Angel Bowman, says she wants to be honest about some of the real life battles that her hero would face in America today. At the same time, she wants to protect her daughter’s innocence.
“You don’t want them to think that all police officers are bad, but you also want them to know what’s the reality of what’s going on,” she says. “So I think that’s where I’m torn because you want them to be knowledgeable, but you still want them to have that kid appeal to them.”
Superheroes, in some ways, make it easy to talk about problems because superheroes can so easily fix things. Collins lets the students’ imaginations fly. Then, she slowly brings them back to earth to focus on the present.
“And now, what can you do to really fight racism?” she asks, a question she’s not just posing to her second graders.