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One World Lessons: Race

In our latest blog series, Laura D’Elia and Wendy Garland discuss their experiences and offer diversity, equity, and inclusion lessons that can be taught in the K-6 classroom or library. Each lesson incorporates the Learning for Justice Social Justice Standards and the AASL Standards Framework for Learning, as well as includes recommended picture books from the Diverse BookFinder collection.

Laura Beals D’Elia (she/her/hers) has been an elementary library teacher since 2002. She has presented at various state, national, and international conferences on such topics as 1:1 iPads in an elementary school library and technology program, digital storytelling, and guided inquiry. She currently co-teaches a professional workshop for educators with her district’s ELL District Coordinator about using inclusive picture books in the classroom for all grade levels. Follow the Armstrong Elementary Library at @aeslibs.

Wendy Garland (she/her/hers) has been an elementary librarian since 2002. She has a BA in Spanish and a BS in liberal studies from Southern Connecticut State University and a MLIS from Simmons College. Wendy has spoken at library conferences both locally and internationally and was a participant in the AASL Induction Program. She shares all things “library” at @dancelibrarian and Listen. Connect. Empower blog.

Two students hold colored pencils and are coloring an activity sheet with the title The Colors of Me.
3rd grade students are creating their inside and outside colors.

Why Race and Racism?

We believe in creating a culture in our teaching spaces that values student identities. Race is part of our identities and a discussion of race often leads to a discussion about racism. While this can feel daunting, providing students with language and tools in a structured environment can help students have difficult conversations and understand how our individual identities overlap and interact with others’.

The Lesson

Over these last few months of our blog posts, we have been slowly building students’ learning and thinking around topics of identity, assumptions, stereotypes, and, now, skin color. These lessons were planned and sequenced to support this lesson on race and racism. We do not recommend that you teach a lesson on race and racism without first providing a foundation.

  • Essential Question: How is race a part of my identity? What is racism?
  • AASL Standard: Include/Think II.A.3 Learners contribute a balanced perspective when participating in a learning community by describing their understanding of cultural relevancy and placement within the global learning community.
  • Social Justice Standard: Diversity 9 Students will respond to diversity by building empathy, respect, understanding and connection.

Pre-Read Aloud #1

We felt it was important to first define melanin before we jumped into a conversation about skin colors. We defined it as “a substance in your body that creates skin, eye, and hair color and also protects your skin from the sun.” Students were easily able to understand that more melanin means a darker skin color and less melanin means a lighter skin color. One student even asked, “Can people have no melanin?” which led to a quick discussion of albinism.

Read Aloud #1

Reading Honeysmoke: A Story of Finding Your Color by Monique Fields really was the perfect choice for this lesson. A biracial girl is trying to find the right name for her skin color because “black” and “white” just did not seem right. 

Here are some other wonderful titles that focus on race in terms of skin color:

Post-Read Aloud #1

We then asked students,  “What color would describe the parts of your outside identity (skin color)? What color would describe the parts of your inside identity (personality and/or culture)?”  We talked about paint chips you find at the home improvement stores (or nail polish colors), how each color has a name, and how it is someone’s job to think of a good name for each color. In the activity, students used colored pencils to color and blend their own paint chips and then think of a color name for each one. The students had a lot of fun thinking up creative and sometimes poetic names for their colors.

"The Colors of Me" activity sheet with the left square colored beige and the right square a combination of red, blue, and green.
“I am mushroom stem; I am energetic burst”--3rd grade

"The Colors of Me" activity sheet with the left square colored medium brown and the right square a combination of blue and green.
“I am sandy chocolate; I am wavy grass”--3rd grade
"The Colors of Me" activity sheet with the left square colored yellow and brown and the right square a combination of purple, magenta and rust.
“I am sunny snow; I am bright knight of the sky”--3rd grade

Four examples of "Colors of Me" student work. "I am quiet black." "I am shy blue." "I am fire tan." "I am thinking brain." "I am trail mix." "I am coo coo coconut." "I am tan man." "I am crazy coconut."
Various 4th grade responses

Pre-Read Aloud #2

We'd done a lot of work to build up to this lesson, so we took a few moments to review previous concepts with the students (identity, assumptions, stereotypes, and skin color) as a way to build context for this final conversation.

We also felt it was important to set up the conversation by acknowledging that it may feel uncomfortable or difficult for some students and we would help each other. We could see a few slight nods of the heads when we stated this.

Then, we gave each student some sticky notes and asked them to respond to the question, “What do you know about the word race or racism?” Sticky notes allowed for anonymity and privacy for the students. We also asked them to write down any questions they had about race or racism. We placed the sticky notes onto a visual thinking chart like the one below because many times students think they know something but it is incorrect. It is so important to allow students to learn how to identify mistakes in their thinking.

Visual thinking chart of 5 columns labeled "What do we think we know?" "What do we wonder?" "What were we right about?" "What were we mistaken about?" "What new information did we learn?"

Students had some expected thoughts and questions and some unexpected ones:

Sticky note of student work
“Being rude to other skin color and bragging that yours is better”--3rd grade

Sticky note of student work
“I know that racism is someone is making fun of whatever color you are”--3rd grade

Sticky note of student work
“Is calling people black mean?”--3rd grade

Sticky note of student work
“I wonder what racism has to do with races?”--3rd grade

Sticky note of student work
“Racism is people acting crazy and mean!”--3rd grade

Sticky note of student work
“I wonder, if people are racist, are they mean?” - 3rd grade

One last idea we wanted to discuss before we read the book was, “What are different races?” At this point, we were careful to explain that race is not just about skin color; it is also and mostly about culture. We showed photos of children’s authors and illustrators to put faces to different races and cultures and help make these concepts less abstract. We chose individuals based on how they self-identified in their author bios and websites. 

Here are a few examples, using the same racial identities as the Diverse BookFinder’s filters:

Series of three images of authors Grace Lin described as Asian, Pacific Islander, Author/Illustrator Raul Gonzalez the Third described as Hispanic, Latino, and author Traci Sorell described as First Peoples, Native American, American Indian, Indigenous

Read Aloud #2

There are some great titles you can read to help students understand the concept of race. Our Skin: A First Conversation about Race by Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli is an excellent title for younger students and does a wonderful job breaking down the concept with clear definitions and illustrations.

Image of the book Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race by Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli.

While reading, we stopped multiple times to ask questions or identify when one of our questions on the visual thinking chart was answered. We lingered on one particular double-page spread illustration of students in a hallway. Asking students what they noticed about this scene helped them to figure out what was happening because racism isn’t always easy to recognize.

Double page spread of three white-appearing children going up the stairs. A fourth child with dark skin is being apprehended by a white-appearing teacher.

Other titles that discuss race and racism:

Post-Read Aloud #2

Finally, we went back to our visual thinking chart, looked at each sticky note and moved them based on our new thinking after reading the book.

White lined chart paper with sticky notes organized in five categories: "What do we think we know?" "What do we wonder about?" "What were we right about?" "Oops! Mistaken!" and "New learning."
Visual thinking chart after our new learning

Additional Resources


This was the first time we taught this lesson. We knew the topic was complex and emotional, but we also knew that the goal of teaching these lessons to elementary students was to start a foundation, not explore every nuance. 

Still, we were nervous. What would students say? Would we be well-equipped enough to speak to the questions that arose? Would we be able to redirect the conversation if needed? We had so many questions about our own abilities to lead these lessons. However, with very intentional lesson planning, we were able to have conversations that addressed the questions and concerns of the students. They were extremely curious and giving students this space allowed us to answer their questions, clear up misconceptions, and help them develop basic understanding of race and racism.

Back in one of our earlier articles about identity, we emphasized that “building empathy is an essential part of diversity, equity, and inclusion instruction.” We could have easily repeated this statement over and over in all of our articles. Building empathy is at the heart of this instructional journey that we have been on since the summer of 2019 and we have been thrilled to have you on this journey with us.

Our final thought: A 2nd grade teacher recently spoke to me (Laura) about the new immigration unit we planned together this past year. I helped the 2nd grade team find better picture books that tell the stories of the different reasons why people move (immigration, migration, forced migration, refugees, etc) beyond the story of Ellis Island. The teacher was a little emotional as she explained that her class had read What is a Refugee? by Elise Gravel and Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed. She explained to her students that they were going to be receiving a new student, a refugee from Ukraine soon, and immediately her students wanted to know what they could do to make this new student feel welcome. What could they do to help? She said she was a little surprised by their reaction. I told her I wasn’t. When we take the time to teach children to be empathetic through stories and lessons, what you get are empathetic children. Take the time. Teach the lesson. It’s worth it.

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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