After finishing each swirl of her curly hair, Camila circled her paintbrush around and around, forming eyes. For many children, the self-portrait stops here, at the outline.
I kneeled next to the young artist, holding a mirror in my hand, and said, “Camila, look at how the colors you are choosing match your hair, your eyes. I’m wondering, what paint will you use for your skin?” Camila looked at her reflection, then at the colored cups of paint before her. “None of these match me.” I nodded in agreement. “That’s a problem. Do you have any ideas?” Camila looked again at the paint. “I can mix colors! I think brown and white will make my skin.” I signaled to the mixing palette and Camila got right to work, alternating daubs of brown and white paint.
Camila swirled the colors together, resting the palette above her arm to compare the paint with her caramel skin. A few minutes later, Camila’s eyes met mine with a smile,
“I found my skin tone.”
At morning meeting, Camila told her story. It was a familiar one to the four-and-five-year-olds, who voiced similar experiences in a grand conversation.
Soon, all children had an opportunity to find their skin tones (inspired by Aeriale Johnson), using paper plates as palettes. Mirrors framed the tables and children noticed the varying colors of their skin: rosy cheeks, freckles, the lighter shades under their forearms. They talked as they tinkered. “I need more yellow.” “Can you pass the red?” “My skin is darker.” “How did you make that color? It looks like me.”
My literacy coach, Jamie, and I extended the experience, inviting children to talk in small groups (a structure to include more voices), using the skin palettes they made as a visual tool for the conversation. Children immediately began comparing each other’s palettes to their own skin, and made plans to revise their palettes for next time.
In one of the conversations, two students suggested that we make “a few” skin colors for the class to use. Morgan, age 5, responded,
“We all have different skin colors. And even if we got a few [colors], a few is not all our skin colors. A few is not all of us.”
After several rounds of mixing colors, reading books, studying photos of families, and researching questions, kindergartners from K-313 added their “just-right” skin tones to self and family portraits. They transferred their new understanding that no part of us is just one color to make a rainbow of eyes, hair, lips, and clothes.
The Transfer to Writing Workshop
For the first time, my class of authors and artists began illustrating people in color. They made conscious decisions about skin colors for people that are real and fictional. They studied the skin of their friends before drawing pictures of them. They included biracial families in their stories. Most importantly, when the budding writers drew themselves, they no longer stopped at the outline. They didn’t stop at the color and shape of their hair, nor at the shade of their eyes. They colored their skin—and they no longer needed a mirror.
It didn’t stop with skin tones. Children began noticing the differences in each other’s hair, in family structures. One student wrote a book to teach about different kinds of hair: “All over the world there’s kids with different hair styles.” Diverse family structures appeared in play. When two children wanted to be the mom in the family, they problem-solved: “Families can have two moms!”
Another student authored a fictional story, featuring a girl who had spiky hair and her friend who had long purple hair. “People can have any kind of hair they want,” she said, when describing her choices.
I followed in their lead, including a variety of skin colors, family structures, and hairstyles, when making stories and charts. I modified teaching points about how writers use colors to give more information by highlighting the work of authors and student writers who used colors to portray the identity of characters.
The Messages We Send
When we leave the skin of people we draw blank, by default, the skin is white. If this is the only way children see people drawn, it may be feeding an idea which we know to be dangerous — that people should not “see” skin color. By not allowing writers to add color to their books, by not encouraging them to include details that we hold tight to our identities, we’re keeping them from an important opportunity to make sense of, to represent the world they live in.
Expanding Upon This Work
- There are many books about skin colors to incorporate into read aloud, especially during studies of skin. Also consider the representation of characters and authors in other highlighted texts that are not specifically about skin — read alouds, mentor texts, shared reading books and poems, as well as books in the classroom library.
- Keep crayons and paint that are shades of skin separate from the rest of the colors, as a visual reminder to color in skin, and of the varying shades of skin. Before these become available to children, allow them to explore with them, discovering blends and shades that match their skin.
- If children do use crayons on a regular basis during independent writing, provide daily opportunities for children to draw portraits of themselves, peers, or fictional people. Personal sketchbooks are a great tool for doing so during soft starts/closings, or during quiet breaks throughout the day.
- Approach understanding and representation of race (or other social identifiers such as family structure or gender) in student work/conversations with an inquiry stance: Are students accurately representing themselves? Are students accurately representing peers and family members? Are students including representations of races that are different than their own? How are people of varying races portrayed in writing? Collecting this type of information can help with making instructional plans.
We are seeking books that feature characters who are BIPoC, by authors who are BIPoC. We wish to grow more inclusive, representational libraries when it comes to race, language, family structure, gender, religion, ability, class, and nationality. We can begin with the authors in our classroom — the future bookmakers of the world.