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Anti-Bias Education in Action – If Not Now, When?

Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, who am I?
If not now, when?” – Pirkei Avot 1:14

On January 3, 2022, 200 early childhood educators from our network of schools gathered virtually to continue exploring what anti-bias education (ABE) can look like IN ACTION in early childhood settings. Dagne Milasiute, a teacher at Temple Sinai Preschool creatively expressed What it means to Be an Anti-Bias Educator. We continue to build upon the four goals of ABE: supporting the development of a positive identity for all children; expanding children’s comfort and joy related to diversity; supporting children to recognize unfairness; and helping them find age-appropriate ways to speak up and act in the face of injustice.

We were joined by our friends from the Pamoja Project – 30 local immigrant and refugee women who are studying to be early childhood educators. With an increased awareness of the concept of language justice, we were able to offer for the first time some simultaneous interpretation in an effort to create a more inclusive multilingual learning environment for some of our English-as-a-second-language participants.

Prior to this day of learning, school staff viewed the film Reflecting on Anti-Bias Education in Action: The Early Years and an introduction to the film by co-producer Debbie LeeKeenan. Debbie has over 50 years of experience in the field and is a leader in the area of ABE. She and Nadia Jaboneta, an educator featured in the film, joined us live to respond to questions educators are wrestling with in terms of implementing a more anti-biased approach. Just as the goal of “anti-racism” isn’t simply “not to be a racist,” but rather, to actively counter racism, so it is with anti-bias education. While examining and identifying our own implicit biases is an important piece of the work, we must also take an active role in paying attention to the biases that surface, and thoughtfully counter them, whether related to race, gender, religion, language, age, socio-economic group, etc. Educators working with our youngest children were able to focus specifically on how this work translates to infant and toddler settings with speaker Deborah Young. The film is intended as a provocation for ongoing reflection and dialogue and the hope is that we will continue to ask ourselves meaningful and challenging questions as we move forward and engage in the necessary dialogue with our colleagues around what an anti-bias approach could look like in each of our unique contexts.

Participants attended one of seven sessions focused on different aspects of ABE in action with the option to view recordings of those they were unable to attend. As told in her book “You Can’t Celebrate That!” Navigating the Deep Waters of Social Justice Teaching, Nadia shared a story of race, religion, and social justice that grew out of an observation of 4 year-olds in her classroom. Her story modeled how one might expand children’s understanding of the diversity that exists in the world, and in the case of her example, the diversity that exists within the Jewish population. Her responsive model of employing a process of self-reflection, critical thinking, and collaborative curriculum planning when a child’s bias surfaces also gave participants a real-life example of ABE in action and how it might translate to one’s practice. Take a look at these books as examples that make evident the wide diversity that exists within the Jewish people, in terms of appearance and traditions which is rarely visible to children. What messages (implicit and explicit) do the books in your classroom send?

Using books as an ABE tool was a theme throughout many sessions at the conference. In the 1990’s Dr Rudine Sims Bishop first coined the metaphor of books as “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.” This article by Debbie LeeKeenan entitled Children’s Books as Mirrors and Windows elaborates on the concept, shares suggested books for all ECE ages and gives us the important reminder when choosing books for your classroom that the “goal is to unlearn stereotypes, not create them.” These are messages that were similarly communicated in Paula Voss’s session entitled “Literary Masa/Journey: The Past, Present and Future of Story Time.”

Sessions facilitated by Jamie Solomon, Sharon Goldman and Meredith Polsky from Matan explored creating environments that counter gender and age stereotypes and are inclusive in terms of differences in ability. This work is complex and often surfaces differences in our backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Vanessa Santiago Schwarz led a session focused on how to have those brave conversations with children, colleagues, and families when differences and discomforts arise.

Though many are clearly looking forward to a time when we can once again gather in person for our community learning days, feedback from participants was overwhelmingly positive. Here’s a sampling:

“I found the conversation reflective and engaging. Lots of useful information to reflect upon anti-bias and inclusion in the classroom.”

“WOW! What a great learning experience.”

“…amazing presenter! I enjoyed the session so much and learned new teaching tools as well.”

“I loved the different scenarios that were brought up in this session as well as hearing the various approaches that were suggested. Seriously such a great session and presenter!!!”

“Best Conference Ever!! AMAZING.”

“Thank you for making this conference possible. I learned a lot … and it was really helpful to hear other teachers’ experiences and ideas.”

“This session was directly applicable to our classrooms.”

“Thank You Judi for another year of learning and growing.”

“For being a 2nd year Zoom event, I thought it was great!”

“This approach (ABE) shared the sort of dispositions or habits of mind we can shift to – to have an open heart and mind; curiosity; braveness, and humility.”

Reminder to self – “If not now. when?”

CLICK HERE to see the full description of sessions and presenters

“You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.” Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:21