“He called me dirty!” Anti-Racist Teaching in the Elementary Classroom

by Monique Marshall

Heinemann Publishing
6 min readJun 29, 2020


Eager to tell his story, Paul rushed into our second-grade classroom from recess. “He called me dirty!” Paul, a typically introverted, quiet, light-skinned Black boy was incensed and hurt. Josh, an often impulsive, excitable white boy was one of Paul’s friends but had chosen to use racially charged words as a weapon. Or had he?

As so happens in the heat of teaching, I was caught off guard and found myself hopeful that this incident was about something other than race. I scanned Paul’s body for signs of “dirty” — maybe the boys had been digging in the mud? My veteran teacher-of-color self quickly caught on to my own habitual wishing away of the realities of the impact of race in America, even on our most innocent youth. A welcoming, progressive school community is not an effective shield from the racist pollution we all inhale. In fact, the more confident we are that our institutions are places where children are accepted and differences are celebrated, the less able we typically become to see inequity staring us in the face. We become convinced that a racial incident couldn’t possibly happen in this lovely school community. I turned decisively away from the harmful fantasy of “colorblindness” and my responsive-teacher identity clicked in. I reminded myself to breathe. And then I remembered to ask the question that focused on the students in front of me: “How did that make you feel?”

“Sad,” Paul immediately answered.

“Why do you think Josh told you that you were dirty?”

“He was mad. We got in a fight when we were playing,” Paul offered.

I asked Paul if he was comfortable telling Josh how he felt.

“Yes,” he answered. “Can we do it now?”

Paul was able to say, “When you teased me about my skin color it made me sad and mad.”

Paul and Josh were ready for this dialogue.

In our classroom all year we had been setting the table for moments such as these, getting ourselves ready for tough, honest conversations. Talking about feelings, naming them, and normalizing conflict led Paul to come get the help he needed, invited Josh into lifelong learning without shame or blame, and created an opportunity for the development of new curriculum and growth for their seasoned teacher as well.

As the boys were talking, an essential understanding crystallized for me. I asked Josh one final question: “What if you had gotten mad and told Paul his blue shirt was ugly?”

“That would have been mean too,” Josh said.

“Yes,” I agreed. “A different kind of mean.”

Both boys were listening hard now.

“If I get teased about my shirt I feel sad. But you know what I can do? I can go home and change my shirt if I want to. When I am teased about my skin, or my eyes, or my hair it really hurts. It hurts because all of those things are part of me. Part of my identity. I cannot change most of the things about myself that make me who I am, and I don’t want to ever feel like I have to in order to be liked by my friends. Do you understand?”

The boys nodded solemnly, and Josh apologized once again to Paul. The boys walked away from the discussion with their arms thrown lightly over each other’s shoulders, laughing and chatting about whatever second-grade boys talk about when they have moved past a problem and they don’t need the adult to help them navigate their friendship any further.

As they walked away, I felt proud of the work they and I had done together. But what, I asked myself, about the rest of their peers? Had they overheard any part of the conflict? Even if they hadn’t, I knew that tomorrow, or next year, or sometime after that my second graders would be part of another race-based conflict. They would overhear a racist joke in middle school, or tell one themselves; they would wonder, perhaps without asking the questions aloud, why someone or why they themselves were being treated as less than because of something about their identity that was not in their control to change. At that moment, I recognized the good fortune that had been presented to our classroom community the instant Paul came to share his hurt feelings. A challenge in the classroom is the opportunity to transform it into new positive learning, for both myself and my students. This was definitely one of those moments. And it was worth leaning into.

I have been telling stories in my classroom for years. The stories come in all forms, but my favorite stories are told with a set of “dolls” as the main characters. The stories are created from the life events of my students. The stories, however, are far enough removed from my actual students’ lives that second graders are able to step away from their own personal feelings. I decided to use the dolls to have a broader conversation around identity and belonging.

In that day’s story, two of the dolls got into a conflict that ended in one of them putting another down for the size of her nose. I asked the students to close their eyes. “Imagine,” I said, then paused. “Imagine something about yourself that someone else is noticing — your hair texture, your face, your freckles, your skin color, your body shape — and imagine that someone is making you feel badly about that part of who you are. We are not talking about clothing or things you can easily change about yourself. Think of some part of you that is part of your physical body that someone is putting down, like in the doll story you just heard. Put your thumb up when you can imagine that.” After waiting for the majority of students to hold their thumbs up, I sent the students from the rug to their tables. At each table was a sentence strip and a pencil. As I gave the children directions, on the board I wrote, “I never want to be teased about . . .”

Students copied the sentence starter onto their own strip of paper and then finished the sentence with their example. A few students needed coaching to begin, but quite quickly all of them went to work.

Later that day during circle time, I opened our circle with a reminder of the brave and safe space we had created over the year and then invited each child to speak their personal statement into the room. Each child stepped forward as they spoke. Students were also invited to step in and silently join the person who shared if they too identified with the sentence presented. The first student solemnly yet eagerly stepped forward . . .

“I never want to be teased about my freckles.”

And then the red-headed boy . . .

“I never want to be teased about my hair color.”

Paul stepped forward next . . .

“I never want to be teased about my skin color.”

Another brown-skinned child stepped forward at this statement and the children took

each other in before stepping back.

“I never want to be teased about . . .”

Each of the eighteen second graders confidently, quietly, eagerly, or shyly stepped forward and others joined them in the center.

The last child to step forward read aloud, “I never want to be teased about my smallness.” These words, from the shortest boy in second grade, were shared earnestly. Tentatively, with eyes locked on the sharer, the second-shortest boy in our class stepped into the circle to join him. These two boys looked knowingly at each other and quietly stepped back. I could feel how much closer we had all gotten. I silently thanked Paul for the courage it took to share his hurt feelings earlier in the week.

We closed the circle with a connecting song.

Then we all went out to play.

Monique Marshall

Monique Marshall is an educator who has been working with young children for 30 years. With a BS in Elementary Education from Skidmore College and a Master’s degree from Bank Street graduate school in New York City, Monique has been dedicated to working with and learning from young children her entire adult life. Monique is currently a fifth-grade teacher in Los Angeles, a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultant, a proud parent, and a board member of SoCal POCIS (Southern California, People of Color in Independent Schools).



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