Essential Questions and Learning About Race

Do others see me the way I see myself?
What are the benefits and challenges of living in a diverse society?
What is prejudice?

These three questions are examples of what we call “Essential Questions” in the Gateway curriculum, which we use to provoke deep thinking and insight in our students. Because they are not easily answered, these questions push children to consider different perspectives from their own, practice critical thinking, and integrate new ideas about the beliefs and values held by individuals and communities.

Essential questions, which can last an entire month, help shape the content in the portion of our social-emotional, social justice, and culture studies curricula that is ever-evolving and emergent in response to the students and the world. For example, we chose the question What are the benefits and challenges of living in a diverse society? for last month, because February is Black History Month. 

While our curriculum strives to include, represent and understand the voices of people from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences all year long – and real talk, in this country, white upper-middle-class heterosexual fully-abled men still dominate the majority of many history books and social studies – we take the time to especially focus on the experiences of Black Americans in February. As the kid-friendly Black History: It’s Yours video highlights, it’s important to not tokenize the Black experience by only looking at the lives, words, and work of a few famous Black people, and to teach that Black people have the full range of human experiences through a lens of systemic racism that has sought to oppress them since the first slave ship arrived in 1619.

One classroom activity that was especially powerful this month was the Fourth Grade reading of Born On The Water, a picture book that investigates how descendants of enslaved people might respond to questions about their family tree. It takes an unflinching look at the horrific conditions that enslaved people experienced as they came to this land, and also an uplifting look at the proud heritage that their descendants can claim. It was a profound read-aloud for the class and one we highly recommend for people of all ages. 

Occasionally I am asked why we teach directly about race in our classes; parents have sometimes shared that this is at odds with how they were raised to not notice a person’s color. As Dr. Erin Winkler explains in her short paper Children Are Not Colorblind, children not only recognize racial differences from a very young age, they begin to develop racial biases by the age of five, because they are collecting information from the world around them in order to construct their understanding of that world, and their place in it. Moreover, children attach meaning directly to race, even without adults explicitly telling them to do so; and their biases “reflect both subtle and not so subtle messages about the relative desirability of belonging to one social group as opposed to another”. 

This means we must be intentional, proactive, and highly visible in discussing issues of race – along with gender, ableism, and other aspects of identity –  in developmentally appropriate ways that remove the stigma of the subjects, and that build children’s understanding based on fact. Gateway School’s goal is for students to discover their individual and collective potential to make positive change in the world; what a lovely, transformative, and meaningful project to have! 

This month our community’s essential question is What is prejudice? Here are a few more resources you may find helpful as you navigate topics of race, identity, and belonging with your family:

  • Books that Represent is a wonderful project by a Santa Cruz high school senior to categorize children’s books by reading level. This is one of many such resources available on the web.
  • 10 Tips on Talking to Kids About Race and Racism can help adult caregivers find entry points to this topic and is especially useful if you are not confident of how to do so.
  • A Story of Us? Is a podcast that examines the questions, what role does narrative play in creating a single shared story about the past, and why do we need to revisit and revise that narrative as society evolves?


Dr. Zachary Roberts, Head of School