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Replacing the topic box of stereotypes

Race and racism is a reality that so many of us grow up learning to just deal with. But if we ever hope to move past it, it can't just be on people of colour to deal with it. It's up to all of us - Black, white, everyone- no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out.

Michelle Obama

It’s October, the month to celebrate and focus our attention on the contributions of Black people around the world. An opportunity to shine a spotlight on the outstanding people within our community, that make us proud to be British.

We celebrate ‘Black History Month’ and the various cultures, traditions and practices derived from the rich history that dates back thousands of years. 

October, the month where stories are retold and awakened, captivating audiences of all ages. The UK swells with pride with the promotion of black culture and we see this everywhere, from the adverts and scheduled programmes on the television, art and museum exhibitions, theatre performances, documentaries, books, films, music and more.  

This is the month for education settings to squeeze into the calendar, the annual Caribbean storyteller, African drumming troupe, Afro Dance & Drama workshop, steel pan band (for the carnival party at the end of the month) and a theatre trip to watch a show featuring Black artists. 

Just one month.

This is the month (or 3 weeks and 1 day, due to the Autumn half term starting on 25th October) to dust off “THE Topic box” and explore the exciting objects that should have been left way in the 90’s. I say this because I have witnessed first-hand on many occasions how these boxes are reused within a setting, despite the contents inside of the box being outdated, stereotypical and racist. 

As a Black woman working within a setting or institution, who is already the minority within the setting, to then encounter resources that do not include Black people, has been quite disappointing to say the least. It is abhorrent to me, that these topic boxes even exist and that my culture and worthy existence as part of a community has been reduced into a 7 litre plastic storage container box as part of ‘Black History Month’, which then gets shoved to the back of the cupboard at the end of October, until next year. Unless it makes its unwelcomed yet strategic reappearance as part of the brief lesson plan about Kwanzaa, during the Christmas season, or literally relabelled as “The Africa box” when learning about...Africa.

It's disrespectful to use this box and its contents for display purposes because it lacks creativity and context. Its sole purpose is for the contents to be on display either on a table or on the wall to become part of the “tick box” of inclusion for settings to look good/welcoming. However, in my experience, it made me feel even more isolated and silenced. I did not see my culture represented with respect, and sometimes I did wonder if I was placed in the setting as part of the “tick the box” to gain credibility for the setting. Was it a coincidence that I often only felt valued at this time of the year, more so than any other time where my ideas, enthusiasm, opinions and existence were at times overlooked? 

I've worked in education for over 13 years, teaching and supporting children in various settings from the Foundation Stage, up to secondary school level, in SEN and mainstream. I have been inspired by amazing teaching practices and the ethos of many settings, but I have also been disappointed and even discouraged at times, by what has been presented and is available to those working and studying within the learning space. I have many friends who work in education, and we stand together from different cultures, races and backgrounds who believe that more needs to be done for settings to uphold anti-racist policies to support and protect Black staff and children.   

 

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I am aware that there are education settings that should be applauded for how diverse and inclusive their curriculum and environment is. Unfortunately, these incredible settings remain outnumbered by those that are not inclusive yet can be highly acclaimed and given Ofsted ratings of “good” or “outstanding”. It is no wonder the Topic Box was considered to be acceptable. But it does not elevate or celebrate Black children, who already have topics, historical events and important leaders who represent them erased from the curriculum. Do you remember in 2013, the controversy about the possibility of the study of Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano becoming erased from the curriculum?

There is stereotypical and racist practice in settings that has become the norm and is widely accepted. However, it is unacceptable that in 2021 Black children recognise that they aren't as valued as their white peers. The environment and certain attitudes towards them reflect this bias. More needs to be done to ensure that educators stand up for what is right and take responsibility for suggesting ways to become more inclusive and celebrate diversity through the resources they offer to encourage children’s learning and development.

 

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It is not my role as a Black woman in an education setting, or any Black person or person of colour in a setting, to be what is classified as the inclusion resource, and to be the designated Black person to suggest activities and resources for this month. It demonstrates a lack of interest to want to learn about Black history, culture and traditions if I am the one-stop-shop for ideas, themes and resources. When I am working as part of a team, it isn’t solely my responsibility – as mentioned before, we can and must all speak up to ensure that there are antiracist policies which require resources and activities to be diverse, representative, unbiased, engaging, and not based on stereotypes.

Black History Month is an integral celebration in October, but Black history and culture should also be acknowledged throughout the year.

The activities that I mentioned at the beginning of this article should absolutely be included as part of the children's learning experience and I feel that these exciting, engaging activities would be beneficial to explore throughout the year. This would be the perfect opportunity for educators to create a context around what's taking place, for the child to understand and ask questions about something that is new to them. It's not about simply placing the stereotypical items onto a beautiful Kente cloth draped table, with a few baskets, a Black doll and books neatly arranged on the table. It's not relatable and there is limited learning taking place in a corner that's uninspiring. 

The topic box needs to be replaced with real life experiences, with resources that are tangible and will awaken children's ideas and creativity. Community involvement is key for all children to become inspired and engaged in learning. To step away from the stereotype of children only seeing successful Black people in the sporting, Arts and entertainment industries, but that Black people can also be successful in other industries such as in medicine, engineering, education and business. 

The Black history display table and display wall aren't there to look aesthetically pleasing. It is there to serve a purpose, to educate and inspire to coincide with the real-life experiences of exciting activities that have depth and context during the month of October and beyond.

Can we please move away from the topic boxes that contain “African mud hut” sculptures and wild animals? There are other continents, countries and cultures of people around the world to explore - not just Africa. There is so much emphasis on Africa, that children assume Africa is the only place in the world that has wild animals roaming around!

Let's show the many faces of African children and learn about the African countries that the children within the setting may come from. Make space for them to talk about their backgrounds and facilitate and encourage the conversation amongst their peers and as part of the group. If they speak a different language, why not celebrate this and allow them to become the educator by teaching a few high frequency words such as “hello’, “goodbye”, “thank you” and “friends” – these words can also serve a purpose displayed on the wall throughout the year.  

Let’s learn about the Caribbean and share with children and families in our settings who have Caribbean heritage. There is so much to learn about the roots of music and dance styles, the food and spices and the unity of people from the Caribbean islands.

There's so much to be learned and so many ideas to evoke excitement and conversation without assumptions and stereotypes. 

The 7 litre storage box should only contain items that need to be stored away for safekeeping, because they are precious and valued and they contribute significantly to the learning. The items will not be placed in this box to be reused as part of an old uninspiring 10-year-old lesson / activity plan. 

I challenge everyone to scrap the topic box, in exchange for real life, exciting experiences derived from listening and taking an interest in the children’s backgrounds and cultures. We must put thought into what we display and be mindful of every detail, that not only engages and educates the children, but also ignites that fire of excitement for us as educators also.


 
Alicia Wilkins
Mother, Early Years Practitioner, Tiney home nursery leader, Singer and Personal Trainer. Alicia Wilkins, has taken a break away from primary school teaching, to focus on her fitness business, Artistry and Indigo Butterfly Tiney home nursery. With a passion for child-centred learning, wellness, creativity, inclusion and representation in all educational settings, she aims to amplify the voices of those who face adversity and celebrate and elevate all of our beautiful children, who all have unique qualities to offer the world.



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