Beyond Stereotypes: Thanksgiving and the American Indian

As we move toward Thanksgiving and celebrate Native American Heritage Month, we want to re-share this blog post featuring thoughts from Adrienne Smith of the National Museum of the American Indian. Her thoughtful advice is important any time of year, but is particularly resonant as many people approach teaching about the history of Thanksgiving. We encourage you to look through the many resources (found at the bottom of this article) that NMAI has created for educators, particularly if you plan to approach this topic with children.

31At a very young age, a child begins to form their sense of self, even infants can recognize subtle differences between themselves and others. Early childhood educators can play a key role in helping a child form a positive self-image. Similarly, educators can also instill in their young students a respect and appreciation for diversity. It seems like a tall order, but by thoughtfully choosing content and activities and, by creating an inclusive environment, educators can begin to help shape a child who values both themselves, and others.

SEEC has partnered with the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) to publish a series of blogs that we hope will begin to help teachers and parents reconsider some of the traditional lessons and activities that are often circulated, especially on social media channels, during the Thanksgiving season.  While they may appear fun and cute, many of the suggestions actually perpetuate stereotypes and historical inaccuracies. There has been a long history of misinformation about Indigenous Americans in our school systems and we want to work together to alter some of those misconceptions.

To tell us more, Adrienne Smith of the National Museum of the American Indian, shares her own story:seecstories-com-3

During my early childhood years, I was fortunate enough to attend a preschool that was directed by my tribal nation. When I would walk into the classroom, there were items from my culture and words familiar to me in my tribal language, posted on the bulletin boards and, in our play areas.  It made me feel comfortable to be here and see things with which I was familiar. That changed when I entered the public-school system for elementary school. I can recall making paper headdresses and paper roll totem poles. I went along with it because, “Hey, I knew it wasn’t my culture.” It wasn’t until my adulthood that I looked back and wondered “Why didn’t my elementary or high school teachers use the resources that were readily available?” We had a tribal museum with educators from my tribe who could have come out and spoken to them. Maybe the teachers just didn’t know or were uncomfortable changing the way they taught. Either way, I missed out on being able to connect to my culture while at school.

Working at the National Museum of the American Indian has given me the opportunity to observe what our visitors know about American Indians and sadly, much of it is stereotypical. Below is a list of ways that you, as a teacher, can break through some of those stereotypes and begin to paint a more realistic picture of American Indians.

 

Teacher Tips

Never assume that there are no Native or indigenous
seecstories-com-9students in your class.

I have had visitors tell me that I am not Native or that I am only a little bit Native because of my green eyes and fair skin. Not all Native people look like what you see in the movies or in books.

Allow students to explore their own cultures and other cultures by including culturally diverse objects, contemporary photos, and toys in your classroom.

Be mindful not to choose stereotypical or culturally insensitive materials.  For example, Native people prefer that their clothing not be used as dress up because traditional clothing or regalia is sacred and there are many cultural meanings behind the items that we wear.

Discuss similarities and differences of American Indian tribes, even those that live in the same area.

There was not one Native language or culture. Though Native people adapted to other languages and cultures, each Nation still has their own identity.

Should you teach about regions, for example, “plains” tribes, be mindful to note their differences, as well.

Consider using maps, talking about the environment, and comparing housing to illustrate these differences. They are great examples of the unique attributes of different tribes.

 Teach that Native people are still here today.

Share with your students that American Indian nations are vibrant communities that exist today living in the modern world and still honoring their traditions.

Utilize the internet and explore Native American owned businesses. They can provide access to goods for your classroom. I recommend Native Northwest Select or museum gift shops. Do be thoughtful when choosing which site from which to purchase. 

There’s More

In a future blog, we will feature actual classroom lessons that will be centered initially on homes, a concept with which most children easily identify. We will then branch out to explore a typical home of the Wampanoag Nation, a wetu. Our goal is to illustrate how preschools can easily incorporate engaging, playful, and interactive lessons that can breakdown stereotypes and build appreciation for the diverse and rich cultures of the American Indian.

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Teacher Feature: Toddlers Explore Tea is a Time 

A teacher holds a young child up to look at several Japanese tea bowls.

This Teacher Feature was meant to be published around the time SEEC closed due to Covid 19 in March of 2020.  As the weather gets cooler and many of us are back to teaching in person, it finally feels appropriate to share this lesson. 

 For this week’s Teacher Feature we will highlight a toddler class. Educators Stephanie Lopez, Abigail Marden, and Julia Smith were exploring different concepts around tea. For this lesson, the class learned about how “tea is a time” when they went to the National Museum of Asian Art’s Freer Gallery to see tea bowls while being introduced to ideas around the Japanese tea ceremony. Below you will find a reflection from toddler educator Julia Smith. 

Preparation: 

Toddlers sit in a circle in their classroom and sing a song with a teacher.

Julia began the morning by inviting her class to join her in a circle where she talked to them about the ideas that they had explored earlier in the week. She reminded the class that “tea is plant” by showing them a mint plant and that “tea is a drink” by encouraging them to pretend that they were drinking tea. 

What inspired you to teach this lesson?

This lesson was inspired by our class’s  interest in what their teachers like to drink. Many teachers in our center enjoy tea and coffee. Our toddlers often requested to look inside the mugs and to smell our drinks. Additionally, I  have a personal love of tea that made me want to teach this lesson. Having recently traveled to Japan, I wanted to learn more about the traditional tea ceremonies.

A teacher shows toddlers a video of a Japanese tea ceremony.

Julia showed the class a video of a Japanese tea ceremony. She turned the volume off and narrated what was happening in the video. Julia was able to react to the children’s interest and focus the viewing experience to their wonders. 

What were your objectives? 

I find it easier to teach lessons to this age group when I can break down my ideas about a topic into very simple concepts.  I wanted the children to know where tea comes from (“tea is a plant”), how tea is made (“tea is a drink”), and why people drink tea (“tea is a time”). This idea came up when I discovered it was very confusing to learn that the word “tea” refers to several different things including the name of a plant, the name of the drink, and the activity of drinking.

To explore how “tea is a time”, I wanted to talk about how drinking tea is so often a calming experience (at least for me!) This was a great opportunity for my class to work on self regulation techniques.  We often try to sprinkle elements of self regulation and mindfulness into our lessons. Even very young children can learn to listen to their bodies and try to take deep breaths. 

Lesson Implementation: 

Toddlers look at the tools need to make matcha tea.

As the class made matcha, Julia was careful to note that they were not performing a Japanese tea ceremony but rather exploring the tools and making tea together. She showed the class the tea bowl, the whisk or “chasen” and encouraged them to use their senses to explore the green, fragrant, matcha. 

Describe the experience of making the tea in the classroom. 

Before teaching this lesson, I carefully considered a couple of things. I wanted to introduce the children to a way of making tea that is not as common in our culture (although matcha is becoming increasingly popular!) I wanted to be careful to emphasize that this was not a tea ceremony because a tea ceremony can only be performed by someone extensively trained with a large amount of cultural knowledge. Instead of going into extensive details about what makes the tea ceremony unique, I decided that it was more  important for the toddlers to be given time to observe and to be exposed to the idea that there are many ways to make tea. I tried to use the language of “same and different” to connect something potentially unfamiliar (making tea with a power and a bamboo whisk) to something more familiar (we made tea with tea bags the day before). I would say something like: “This way of making tea is the same – it makes a warm tasty drink.  This way of making tea is different – it uses different tools.”

A teacher compares a plastic tea cup to tea bowls in the Freer-Sackler

When the class arrived at the gallery, Julia encouraged the children to look carefully at the tea bowls and held up a toy teacup that the children had been playing with in the classroom to help the children make connections. 

What were the children’s reactions to seeing the tea bowls? Did they make any connections? 

We situated ourselves in the gallery so that the tea bowls were the main objects the children could see. They pointed them out when I asked if they could find the tea bowls. I then held up a play tea cup the children had been using in their play all week. This helped them create connections between the tea bowls on display and the knowledge they already had constructed through their play in our classroom. After I made that comparison, I handed the toy cups out to the children.  They pretended to drink out of their plastic cups while looking at the tea bowls. Their pretend play allowed them to make further connections about the various types of tea. 

Unfortunately, the bowls on display were up a bit high for them to see well when we were sitting on the ground. Although the viewing angle wasn’t as good, with this age group, it is much better to have them seated on the ground for the museum circle. It keeps them grounded in that location and allows them to engage in museum appropriate play. If they were standing, they are likely to be immediately distracted and want to explore everything they see in the entire space.

Toddlers pretend to drink from plastic tea cups in the Freer Sackler

To allow the children some time to explore on their own, Julia, Stephanie, and Abby gave each child their own teacup to hold. The children immediately began pretending to drink from their cups and started knocking their cups together and saying, “cheers”. 

How did you encourage your class to explore their own ideas while in the gallery? Why is this important for toddler learning?  

I am so glad that we brought the toy cups into the gallery. Having objects or something for the children to hold in the galleries is a really great way to keep their interest. It also lets them begin to play in the museum space. Children this age need to act something out or interact with it physically in order to build understanding. I should note that when you allow children to play, they sometimes will partake in activities that need redirection. In this instance, my class started banging their cups on the ground in a quiet and echo-y gallery so we encouraged them to instead take pretend slurps and saying cheers

A teacher reads a book to a group of toddlers in the Freer Sackler

Julia reminded her class that “tea is a time” and explained that sometimes people drink tea to socialize or to find a sense of calm deep inside of themselves. To further explain this sense of calm, she read “Charlotte and the Quiet Place” by Deborah Sosin. 

How did you explain the topic “tea is a time” to your toddlers? 

In doing my research for this lesson, I learned  how very often “tea times” around the world are used as a break from work and a chance to socialize. There is the classic British tea time but also many, many, other cultural traditions around tea as a time to relax. Japanese tea ceremonies focus on using the process of preparing tea as a time of calm and meditation. With children this age, recognizing and dealing with big feelings is a huge part of their social emotional development. Finding ways to help toddlers recognize when they are overwhelmed and giving them strategies (even as simple as teaching them how to take big breaths) are really valuable. 

I love the book Charlotte and the Quiet Place by Deborah Sosin  (Author) and Sara Woolley (Illustrator) because it is very simple, a young girl is overwhelmed by a noisy world. She finds a quiet place in that park and realizes taking deep breaths helps her feel better. It helps introduce children to the idea of being overwhelmed (e.g. things are too loud) and that there are ways to not feel that way. Talking about tea time as a calming time was both authentic to the many cultures that consume tea and also a great opportunity to help talk to children about their big feelings. 

Reflection:

A teacher holds up a child so they can see a display of Japanese tea bowls in the Freer Sackler Museum

Before leaving, children took some deep breaths while holding their teacups so they could find their own quiet place. Then they were lifted up so they could better see the tea bowls. 

What recommendations do you have for another teacher trying out this lesson? 

If you are going to teach about other cultures it helps to ground it in something the children are genuinely interested in. I tried to avoid taking a tourist approach to Japanese culture by always connecting the knowledge to the children’s lives and grounding the lessons in their demonstrated interest in tea. 

I had trouble finding books about tea that were age appropriate and connected well to my lesson so I wrote my own! It’s always an option to make the resource you are looking for. When visiting museums that are not typically geared toward children, it helps to visit the space first to see the layout of the gallery. In this instance, I was able to determine where I would want the children to sit so that they could freely explore with their toy tea cups.

Supporting and Responding to Big Emotions  

Going back to school, especially this year, can bring up all kinds of emotions in both kids and adults. Settling into new routines can also reduce everyone’s emotional capacity leading us all to feel overloaded, even by small things. Young children often feel their feelings very intensely and strongly in their body, a frustrated child can dissolve into a tantrum, or they may yell or run around with excitement! There is nothing wrong with a child who feels things deeply but sometimes their big feelings can incapacitate them or create unsafe situations. Here are some ways we approach big feelings at SEEC.  

Let Them Feel Their Feelings

  • A foundational aspect of approaching feelings at SEEC is validating them. Even if it feels silly to us that a child is upset because they got green instead of orange scissors, we try to acknowledge that to that child whatever has happened feels like a big deal.  
  • Although we will usually offer help when a child is upset, they may not want us there. In this case it is sometimes best to just let them have some time to express themselves. For example, you could say: “I can see you’re very upset/sad right now. Do you need a hug or my help? If not, I am going to give you some space. I’ll be right over here when you’re ready for me”  

Use Your Words 

  • For young preverbal children it can sometimes be helpful to narrate what is happening. For example, if you are dropping your child off somewhere new and they are upset to see you go you could say “Are you feeling upset that I am leaving? I’m feeling a little nervous too. I know you are having a hard time right now, but I’ll be back!”   
  • It’s also important to note that even verbal children, who may be able to express themselves well when they are calm, can struggle to express themselves when experiencing big emotions. This can be frustrating for adults because we think we know what they should be capable of! However even the most verbal child can struggle to use their words when feeling something strongly.   

Modeling Behavior and Language  

  • Children are always looking at the adults around them, and often use us as examples for how to react in a situation. Try narrating your own feelings around something when you get upset or excited. For example: “I am feeling frustrated right now because I burnt the brownies. I am going to take some deep breaths to help calm my body and learn from my mistake. Next time I’ll be sure to set a timer to make sure the brownies are not in the oven for too long.”   

Acknowledge Your Own Emotions 

  • Even as adults we have big feelings too, just like the children in our lives we can get overwhelmed, upset, or overly excited.  If you do get upset with a child or feel you reacted too harshly, apologizing to your child can be an important step.  This both validates your child’s feelings, if what you said upset them, as well as models an important skill for them.  

Tantrums  

  • Tantrums are tough. Knowing they are developmentally appropriate for this age group doesn’t make them any easier. These blog posts have some great ideas for how to approach with a tantrum in the moment with your child:  

Everyone has big feelings sometimes, adults included! By giving children (and ourselves!) the space to feel their feelings and the tools to identify and manage them, feelings don’t have to overwhelming. What are some ways you approach big feelings with young children?