Liz Kleinrock: How Can We Broach Hard Conversations With Kids, From Race To COVID-19? When one of Liz Kleinrock's fourth grade students made a cringeworthy comment about race, rather than change the subject, she chose to turn the moment into a teachable one—and start a conversation.
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Liz Kleinrock: How Can We Broach Hard Conversations With Kids, From Race To COVID-19?

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Liz Kleinrock: How Can We Broach Hard Conversations With Kids, From Race To COVID-19?

Liz Kleinrock: How Can We Broach Hard Conversations With Kids, From Race To COVID-19?

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

OK, so this new coronavirus means that teachers are using new tools to teach, but what about what they teach? Well, along with math and grammar, some are trying to help kids understand what COVID-19 is, adding pandemics to a list of other tough topics that affect kids, like inequality and race. How do we even begin to talk about these heavy subjects that we grown-ups often struggle with?

LIZ KLEINROCK: I mean, think about how much media and how many messages adults soak up every single day. And kids are exposed to the exact same stuff that adults are exposed to.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: This is teacher Liz Kleinrock. She develops school curricula. Before that, she spent a decade in the classroom.

KLEINROCK: Yet we have this misconception that kids tune it out or don't care or kind of gloss over when, you know, we have those conversations at the dinner table or when, like, the radio is on in the car. Like, mmm mmm. Kids pick up on all of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Some of Liz's students were interviewed for a mini-documentary specifically about how she helps them think critically about our history and how it relates to today.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MS. LIZ'S ALLIES")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Some people actually liked having slaves - to own slaves because they worked for them. And some people were just afraid to speak out for them or do anything to help them.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I can't imagine how it would be like if my family was gone, like, if, like, your - if you just separate from your family, like, just you're separated...

KLEINROCK: I have these kids who would never raise their hand in, like, a traditional reading or writing or math lesson. But if you ask them about Black Lives Matter or what's happening in our government, they all know something, and they all want to share.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MS. LIZ'S ALLIES")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: I mean seeing all these videos of people getting discriminated because of their race, religion, orientation, it really changes my perspective of life.

KLEINROCK: So I think it's actually a lot safer to have those conversations, you know, upfront.

ZOMORODI: But having tough conversations upfront with kids is totally different than having them with adults in lots of unpredictable and cringeworthy ways. Liz Kleinrock tells the story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KLEINROCK: So a few years ago, I was beginning a new unit on race with my fourth graders. And I had the type of moment that every teacher has nightmares about. One of my students had just asked the question, why are some people racist? And another student - let's call her Abby (ph) - had just raised her hand and volunteered, maybe some people don't like black people because their skin is the color of poop.

So, as if on cue, my entire class exploded. Half of them immediately started laughing, and the other half started yelling at Abby and shouting things like, oh, my God. You can't say that. That's racist. So just take a second to freeze the scene in your mind. There's a class of 9 and 10-year-olds, and half of them are in hysterics because they think Abby has said something wildly funny, and the other half are yelling at her for saying something offensive. And then you have Abby sitting there completely bewildered because, in her mind, she doesn't understand the weight of what she said and why everybody is reacting this way. And then you have me, the teacher, standing there in the corner, like, about to have a panic attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: When we come back, what Liz said to her fourth graders in that moment, and also how she's talking to kids about one of the toughest things that we are all dealing with right now, the coronavirus. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, teaching for better humans. You're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, Teaching for Better Humans. Before the break, a fourth-grader called Abby had just said something that half of her class found wildly funny while the rest found it extremely offensive. And their teacher, Liz Kleinrock, was on the verge of a panic attack.

I loved being in your head as a teacher. Like, I kind of felt like, oh, maybe that's what my teachers were thinking. How do you take an extremely uncomfortable moment and in a split second decide what to do with us? Like, what were the options, did you think?

KLEINROCK: I could chastise her and say, like, you know, that's just incredibly inappropriate. Like, you never ever say something like that, which is definitely part of the conversation that needs to be had about why that language is harmful. But if you don't explain why it's harmful, it doesn't really do any good. All the kid has learned is, oh, if I ever talk about this, that it's bad.

And something I didn't share in the talk is that that student who made the comment isn't white. She's actually a student of color. And I thought a lot in that moment about the way that I now interact with her is really also going to show - be a model for the rest of the kids, too. I definitely don't think it's OK to shame people for where they're at, but it's absolutely necessary to question why people are at a certain place. And if this was truly her first time talking about it, yelling at her was going to leave a really, really big imprint.

Like, I even think about how I view myself as a math student because I had one teacher in elementary school who, like, made me cry when it came to math because I didn't understand and how I then internalized, well, I must be a really bad math student. And this has a lot higher stakes than whether or not I could understand, like, a multiplication algorithm. You know, this is something that could really continue to follow her and determine whether she was going to be willing to engage or disengage from these conversations moving forward.

ZOMORODI: So in that five seconds, the weight of this girl's relationship to talking about race is on your shoulders. And you reflect on that. And then you look at the kids in your classroom and you look at her, and what do you say?

KLEINROCK: I said this is a really important teachable moment because there is some truth and validity into what Abby is saying - that people have believed this, and some components of racism are fueled by thoughts and beliefs just like this. And that's why we have to talk about it. It's meaningful. It's, you know, terrifying and deeply personal, but we have to take these opportunities to learn.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KLEINROCK: As I watched the conversation really marinate with my students, I began to wonder how many of my students have assumptions just like Abby, and what happens when those assumptions go unnoticed and unaddressed, as they so often do? Conversations around race, for example, have their own specific language, and students need to be fluent in this language in order to have these conversations.

Now, I also know that these types of conversations can seem really, really intimidating with our students, especially with young learners. But I have taught first through fifth grades, and I can tell you, for example, that I'm not going to walk into a first-grade classroom and start talking about things like mass incarceration. But even a 6-year-old first-grader can understand the difference between what is fair - people getting what they need - and equal - when everybody gets the same thing, especially goody bags at birthday parties.

Now, first-graders can also understand the difference between a punishment and a consequence. And all of these things are foundational concepts that anyone needs to understand before having a conversation about mass incarceration in the United States. Some people might think that kindergartners or first-graders are too young to have conversations around racism but also tell you that young kids understand how people are similar and different and what it means to have power when other people don't. When we have these conversations with students at a young age, it actually takes away some of that taboo feeling when those topics come up at a later age.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: It's almost like you just make space in your classroom for things that are often shoved under the rugs, things that we don't make space for because it makes us feel uncomfortable because we don't necessarily have the answer of how to make it better. But you try to make space.

KLEINROCK: I try. And I try to also be very authentic with my students when they ask a question that I don't know the answer to, to be very honest with them and not make something up or that I'm the authority on all things related to race and equity because I'm not. There's still so many things I'm unlearning and new things that I need to understand because it's hard to navigate by yourself. And I think there's a lot of self-work that teachers need to be doing in unpacking their own identities and their understanding of what it means to have an anti-racist classroom. And if you're not doing that self-work, having the conversations with kids is going to be a lot harder because these are definitely parallel tracks of work that need to be going on at the same time.

ZOMORODI: I mean, I got to say, I feel for teachers right now. Not only are they pretty poorly paid, at least here in the United States, but they don't get a lot of respect from parents, from municipal governments. They work so hard. How do you even begin to say to teachers, yeah, so also, you need to be exploring your own sense of identity? Could you do that, please, while you're also grading all the papers for tomorrow? Like, how do you even start to have this conversation with other teachers?

KLEINROCK: It's really, really hard. But I think that the curriculum and the lessons that I've created really try to embrace, like, diversity and equity and inclusion as a lens, not as a separate component of the day. Like, I'm not writing social justice time from 9 to 10 o'clock on the agenda. It can really be something as simple as, who are the authors and the stories and the voices that you're amplifying in class?

Like, an example that I like to give is, one of our curricular units is supposed to be about opinion writing. And the sample unit that comes with the curriculum, you're supposed to structure this lesson about - what's your favorite ice cream flavor and why? - which for fourth-graders, to me, that just seems like such a waste of an opportunity to have them write about something that's more important than that. But I think it also takes a lot for adults to be brave and have those conversations.

ZOMORODI: Well, yeah, which makes me wonder - like, do you ever get pushback from parents who maybe feel uncomfortable with your methods or are maybe like, listen - just stick to, like, reading, writing and arithmetic, OK? I'll handle the other stuff for my kid.

KLEINROCK: Yeah. I mean, I get a lot about education not being politicized. And my response to them is usually, I mean, education is inherently political. School funding, how much teachers get paid, which textbooks we use, which holidays we celebrates, like, who is visible in the classroom and who isn't - those are all political decisions.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. I mean, it's really, like you said before, that kids already pick up on all of these ideas, political or not.

KLEINROCK: Yep. You know, I had one student who said that we have the right to have these conversations because it's going to be us; it's going to be our life in the future. You know, how can we be prepared if we can't even have these conversations or we don't even know what's going on? And he's right. He's absolutely right.

ZOMORODI: And that wasn't like an 18-year-old?

KLEINROCK: Nah, he 9.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: That's Liz Kleinrock.

Since Liz and I spoke last year, the coronavirus has, of course, totally changed the education landscape. So I called her to ask how she thinks we should talk about the pandemic with kids - while also dealing with our own anxiety.

KLEINROCK: There is this aspect of caring for the people in our lives, but, also, the self-care part is so important, too. At my school, we always talked a lot about emotional contagion.

ZOMORODI: Hmm, that's a good phrase - emotional contagion.

KLEINROCK: Yeah - and recognizing that kids are extremely intuitive - they're very sensitive. They're really going to pick up on the energy that adults are putting out even if it is unspoken, if it isn't verbalized. Thinking about how, as a classroom teacher, I would try to conduct myself during fire drills or earthquake drills or active shooter drills - like, you want kids to take it seriously. You don't want to panic them or overwhelm them but let them know this is something that we do have to take seriously and we're not playing around.

ZOMORODI: It's like I feel like I'm on an airplane and we've hit turbulence and I'm watching the flight attendants for clues. I feel like that's the situation kids are in watching the adults. Like, we're in this airplane together, and they're watching us. Should I be worried about this? You seem calm. OK, then I'll be calm. It's just normal turbulence, you know? (Laughter). It's hard, though.

KLEINROCK: Yeah, it is. And again, like, having no precedent, it's really challenging. Like, the closest comparison - and I wasn't a teacher then - was 9/11 and just being very uncertain about what was going to happen. And I know that schools were really scrambling back in 2001 when this happened. Like, are we going to continue classes? How can we best support our communities? How can we directly support families who might be very much directly impacted by everything happening? But something of this magnitude, it's totally uncharted territory. Like, we're all trying to figure it out as we go and just trying to be the best models for our students as possible.

ZOMORODI: My husband and I really had a debate over whether to be reassuring and say, you are safe; you are fine - or to acknowledge, like, yes, you're scared, and that's a normal feeling to have right now; this is a scary time.

KLEINROCK: Yeah. I think there's definitely both that need to happen. You know, I don't think it's appropriate to lie to kids and, you know, give them false reassurance about things that we really don't know about. But also, we can be really careful about what information we volunteer to them willingly.

Something really important to keep in mind with kids is that there's no one right way to feel about everything. I've talked to students who are incredibly calm and seem even somewhat oblivious to everything happening and then students who have really been panicking and experienced a lot of anxiety because school represents very different things to different students. Some might really view this as a vacation, as a break. And for some kids, this is the only place of consistency in their lives.

ZOMORODI: You know, I keep thinking about Abby, the student who you talked about when we first spoke a couple of months ago. And you kind of had the weight of her relationship with talking about race on your shoulders. What kinds of things might be weighing on teachers and parents trying to address coronavirus right now?

KLEINROCK: I think trying to balance, like, gaining new information while being selective about what is being shared with kids.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

KLEINROCK: Kids are, you know, picking up, like, the bits and pieces of conversations or catching glimpses of headlines online. And there is a lot of great information out there, and there's a lot of really awful misinformation, too. And we're trying to just stay up to date about everything that's going on and giving our students and families who might not have the access to that information, letting them know what's happening in the best way possible.

ZOMORODI: Liz Kleinrock is a writer and educator. And that documentary about how she teaches is called "Ms. Liz's Allies," and you can see her full talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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