Episode #144 – As classrooms become more culturally diverse, teachers are now facing the question of how to teach diversity. In this episode, we have a conversation with Jordana Shakoor, Founder of JYS Consultants and PosiPower Concepts about shifting perspectives from seeing diversity as a requirement, to seeing diversity as an exciting learning experience for both the kiddos and the teachers. She talks about how genuine curiosity when learning about new cultures makes celebrating cultural differences cultures a more natural process.
I think all people want their children to do well and want their children to be happy. We all feel this way. We all are the same, as far as our emotions. We may practice differently our religion. We may eat different kinds of foods and so on. But we’re all the same.
Jordana, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you! Happy to be on it.
We are delighted to have you on the show today Jordana Shakoor. She is founder and president of JYS Consultants – PosiPower Concepts, [Inc.]. She has many years of experience in early-childhood education. We’re going to talk to her today about celebrating diversity in the classroom. It’s great to have on the show today. Tell us a little bit more about your background and what got you started and passionate about early-childhood education.
Well, early-childhood education started with me probably about 40 years ago. One of my first jobs was in preschools and I really like working with the kids. I grew up with four sisters – there were five girls in the family. So I was used to interacting with lots of people, or rather lots of kids and lots of people in the family because we were a family of seven.
And so when I started in with preschools it was just as a worker and getting to know them. And then I when I went on to college I started with education, and particularly special education. So I eventually worked with kids that were profoundly delayed in all different types of different issues, whether it’s mentally or physically or both. So I worked with the most extreme cases and then branched from that to working with kids in classrooms.
But I never became a teacher. I didn’t get a teacher certification. I eventually branched into psychology. And then when I started my business it was working primarily with adults and teachers. And then eventually I worked with some teens, and periodically I still do, and the teens that may be going through things like juvenile situations and get through this program or go to jail. So I work with them and also work with gifted kids.
So my primary I work now is with Headstart programs. And I just finished a conference with the YWCA summit. So I work with… so I guess everything has come full circle, and I love it. I like my diversity and I like the fact that I work with diverse clients.
And I also understand that you’ve authored a book called Civil Rights Childhood, and I think a lot of what you discuss in that book has been foundational to a lot of the work you’ve done throughout your life and your career. Can you tell us a bit about that book and what it’s all about?
The book Civil Rights Childhood is a memoir, and I intertwined my father’s stories, my father’s journals. My father was field secretary of the Greenwood chapter of NAACP in Mississippi, and he worked directly with Medgar Evers, and he was a schoolteacher. So it was very risky what he did but he was trying to register African-Americans to vote and got into a lot issues when it came to his job because one of the things that they did as retaliation was to go after your jobs.
So eventually my father, he was blackballed from teaching throughout the state of Mississippi when he and my mother went to register to vote. Then they had to go to the citizenship classes and poll taxes and things like that. But when he registered to vote the lady there – she was infamous – but her name was Martha Laham [sp?]. And she called my father’s school district and said… she used the N-word. I mean, throughout my book the word is used. I know people are uncomfortable with it now, but when I read in my book I actually use the word. And I think it’s important that people hear what was called back then.
But my father went through that, lost his job and we relocated to Ohio. He could not teach in Mississippi. And so when he wrote his journals he wrote all about work with Medgar Evers, meeting Martin Luther King. He met Bob Moses and the different people that he worked with. And the things that happened down there, there are so many stories in the book. There’s the Ku Klux Klan, the people in Greenwood, Mississippi who orchestrated it. And the book, I’m very proud to say, was selected as one of 40 Best of the Best by the American Library Association and the Association of University Presses.
So it’s told in two voices: My voice and my father’s voice. And that book has been out 20 years. It’s used in school districts and is published throughout the world now in different languages. And it’s one I’m very proud of and I’m always hearing from somebody who’s using it in their classroom, either in high school or college, mostly, and has been a university and college book.
But I’ve started a new book, that I have some other journals of my father’s. So I’ve intertwined those stories in a new book that I’m working on. Both of the books are academic based. The first was academic and this was also academic, and I’m calling it on Unsilenced Voices. But it’s not ready yet, so I imagine it’s going to be a good 600-700 pages.
Wow, that’s amazing, and obviously it should be super proud of your father and the work that he did. Very courageous. And in terms of that experience that your father went through, how has that influenced what you’ve done in your life?
Well, I think that the impact, as far as the title of the book Civil Rights Childhood, is that as a child I had an impact of racial discrimination. What had happened to my father as a child, the school that I attended was segregated. And it was a very difficult situation, to watch my father go through it as a kid and not quite understanding it. There’s stuff that… we knew that we could not go on through playgrounds.
So in the classroom – and I watch what’s going on now with children and diversity and immigrant children and so on and see this devaluing happen again – I see teachers trying to do it. And it’s something that… I really, really embraced it wholeheartedly across the board, across the spectrum of different types of teachers and different rural areas or suburban areas or urban areas. I see these teachers and I see some that want to do it and have been infusing it, but also a little bit uncomfortable with it because it’s so controversial now. And it should not be – it’s political.
So that gets… so I have mixed feelings about it. And that’s why I say I’m sorry in the sense of, on one hand I’m excited about it because I see the potential. I see all this literature out there. It is beautiful to see these children of all different cultures and religions and representing it very well, for instance, in their dress when before they would have to dress in a western way. I see kids with a hijabs on and just a little bit of everything. And I see that being embraced.
At the same time it’s silent, so there’s not a whole lot of talk about it in the sense of that these kids can’t really talk about the fact that if they are fasting that month or the month of Ramadan or whatever they’re celebrating at home unless the teacher is doing it. If the teacher’s not doing it then they’re a little bit of an oddball thing. In the schools it’s still Christian-based as far as, it’s easy to celebrate Christmas, very easy to do. But not so much these other these other religions.
Yeah, totally. So is it safe to say that you think a lot of progress has been made, of course, since your father’s time and since when your childhood, as well, but so a lot of things that could be better? And I think that is where you come in, right? And tell us a little bit about strategies and approaches that we can take in the early-childhood classroom to ensure diversity is celebrated amongst everyone, families and children alike.
Well, one of the things I have in our exercises when we have the hand-out portion is 20 ways to celebrate diversity in the classroom. So without making it controversial, make it fun, make it a celebration. Everyone is feeling good about themselves, and I think that starts with the teacher. That’s why in all of our trainings we call it the Posi-Power Concepts. All elements of training begin with self. We talk about the importance of feeling good about oneself. So teachers who feel good about themselves – and it’s anybody that we deal with – teachers who are feeling good about themselves and excited about themselves and comfortable with it tend to translate that feeling onto others. So they model it – how to live – by being excited about talking about what’s happening in this country, what’s happening in this culture, what’s happening with this religion or so on in a positive way, versus “We just have to do it.”
And the teachers who are reading these books, they’re reading with enthusiasm in trying to get the kids to relate to the character in the book as if it were them. Because one of things I talk about is that what most people feel – and I actually shouldn’t say “most” people – I think all people want their children to do well and want their children to be happy, and that the experiences that one child goes through in China or a child goes through in Iraq or whatever is similar to what goes on, or almost identical to what goes on, to a kid in the United States. They struggle with certain things. If a parent is sick they face struggle with those things. If your grandmother is sick or so on, whatever the struggle is, it’s relatable. So relate it in a way that we all feel this way, we all are the same, as far as our emotions. We may practice differently our religion or we may eat different kinds of foods and so on. But we’re all the same.
Yeah, it’s interesting, a way that you’ve positioned it with the Posi-Power workshops and sort of flipping things on their head instead of looking at it, like you said, like something that you should do or have to do, [it’s] something that you’re excited to do and you’re celebrating and you’re having fun and looking at it in a positive light. I really like that. It’s energizing – it’s the first time I’ve heard somebody sort of position it in that way, which is cool.
And so I guess that raises the next question, which is: How can we get early-childhood educators excited about talking about diversity in different celebrations and giving them the self-esteem and confidence that they need to deliver those messages in that positive way?
Right. I think one way to do it is, people need to be honest about it. And what I mean by honest about it is to let go of the fear of change, the fear of the – and I’m call it the “browning” of America, the “browning” of the world – and because it is. I mean, it’s evident. I’m looking at make my children’s school. I was there just a few days ago, and when my kids started school they were one of one or two only black kids in the classroom. And now they’re, percentage wise, it’s much more diverse, but not just in there. They have Indian children and Chinese children. And I mean, I’m just saying they’re 30% in their district now and it’s vastly different.
So my thoughts are that if the teachers are feeling good about it, because I’m witnessing the students, they are fine with it. The little kids are fine with it. When my kids went to school they did not have girls to walk around with a hijab on their head. They dressed like them and you had to assimilate, and assimilate meant that you didn’t look different. And kids are playing together. I see them on the playground and they’re running and they’re playing and they don’t have a problem with it.
So teachers are having to learn the most exotic names, and that’s fascinating. So I’m seeing teachers doing it and having to do it, and some of them are just excited about doing it. And then at the same time there is – unless there’s a special holiday going on, and usually there’s certain choices of what holidays they’re going to do – but I just think there’s just more room because the world is “browning”. And we can share and not be fearful of it. So I think they have to be cognizant of what their thoughts of and how they feel about it.
And then I think we’re a way to go with it, especially in the current climate here in the United States. We do have a way to go with it. But – and I have to have a big “but” – the majority of the people in the country are more accepting. The majority of people I think in the world are very, very good, very good people, very positive about people that are different from them. I think that’s going to win out. That’s why push I push the Posi-Power concept – positive is always better.
Yeah, love the positivity. And so the one thing that’s interesting is, you talked about being relatable and putting yourself in other people’s shoes to understand. And certainly when you talk about [how] the kids don’t care, kids are totally cool, everything. They don’t have any judgments or preconceived notions. So that almost seems like a great place to start for early-childhood educators and everyone to reduce your fear about talking about this subject, which is that the kids you talk to are totally cool and all of this.
Okay, and what about resources? So if I’m an early-childhood educator – and I think we’re all working in diverse classrooms in 2019 – what are some resources out there that I can look to help support me in celebrating diversity?
Well, there’s lots of good stuff out there. And even going online, when you type in “diversity in the classroom”, which I thought that was just my class, but some other people call it that too. There’s all kinds of multicultural books. There is a book that’s called The Colors Of Us [by Karen Katz] for little kids. There’s a new book – I understand it’s new – The Crayon Box That Talked [by Shane Derolf], The America I’m In [exact title uncertain], The Skin I’m In [by Sharon G. Flake]. And for the big kids, The Hate U Give [by Angie Thomas] is a new book that came out in a movie that came out last year. Going to see these things, and I think that when teachers start reading from the concept of just, “Let’s enjoy the story,” and then kids just see it as, “This is who we are, this is who we all are. This is my friend.”
Because I think when I when I grew up – and I still hear this from time to time doing African-American History Month, and there’s so much African-American history that people have no idea [about], who invented this and who invented the street lights – and all the things that they just take for granted that some black American was involved with it.
But there’s still this… I’ve had some teachers or some students say, “I feel embarrassed by how they do it, the way they highlight it just this month, and it should be all month long.” And because European culture is taught all year long. So I’m not saying, “Get rid of Black History Month.” What I’m saying is that we need to have a Chinese History Month, a Japanese History Month, and infuse all of it so that it all becomes normal and natural.
Does that make sense, what I’m saying? Natural, versus, “We’ve got to do this because we need to make sure that we are doing right by people that were treated badly through slavery”. And I’m not saying [to] let go of any of that – there’s a place for that. But the celebration should be, I think, a natural course of, “Let’s celebrate all of us.” And that may be controversial, what I’m saying, because I have some people who feel that, “Okay, we tried to do a Black History thing.” And I’ve seen it, I’ve tried it myself in a school that had a Black History thing. And I came up with, “Okay, let’s do diversity, let’s do cultural diversity.” And when we started looking at the book we started seeing less of Rosa Parks, less Martin Luther King Jr. And some of those are the big names, and less of whomever.
And then we had more of, “My German father this,” and I started to see that. But at the same time, it got a huge. It went from teachers struggling with it to 700-800 people attending it. So I think we can figure out a better way to do it where we don’t lose learning about black history and the impact of black Americans from slavery to the current. At the same time, we all can say we all have something that we’re proud of and not water it down so much. So that I think there is a way to do this, and I haven’t quite figured it out without the exception of having this one month. But I’m saying, a lot of kids say they feel uncomfortable with it just being that month.
Yeah it’s a good point. And there’s certainly probably some sensitivity around how you position it. But I mean, it’s that we want to learn about these things and we should be learning about these things and educating our children on it, but not for the sake of checking off a diversity checkbox, right? It makes so much sense. And even if I think back to my childhood, frankly I grew up in a geographic area that was not very diverse, frankly. And looking back, too, when I think of all my education we learned about things that were so localized about European history. And I think to myself, there’s so many other things that I know now that, I’m, like, “Why didn’t we learn about that back then? That would have been so much more interesting and valuable than what happened in my county that I grew up. So it’s certainly something that I’ve pondered about myself, too. So I don’t think it should be controversial. And that’s certainly a theme that we’re hearing from you is, let’s be honest about the conversation, which is which is great, it’s refreshing.
All right, cool, so some great resources there. And you also deliver training workshops yourself. Where do you typically do those in the US? Just in Ohio, or other states as well?
Throughout the United States. And I am very pleased about that because a lot of the places I’m going to – Kentucky, West Virginia – I may be the one of two black people in the room. So the fact that they’re hiring me with my name and everything else, and I’ve done them a lot, so I’ve been very proud of my reputation of… I’m pretty direct and candid about things. But I try to… when I started from the Posi-Power Concepts and getting people to feel good about themselves, I’m also saying that let’s have a an honest conversation about this, or whatever the topic is.
Because I do customer service training, I do conflict management, I do all kinds of different… there’s something like 60 some different kinds of training, but they all start with, “Why be positive? How does your positive attitude help you manage stress? How does your positive attitude help you to communicate better? So the Posi-Power Concept is infused in everything. So yes, I’m in Florida, I’m in Michigan a lot, and I love it.
Cool. And if I’m interested in contacting you to learn more about your training workshops,
Where is the best place to go or best place to get in touch with you?
You can go to the website, and that is www.PosiPowerConcepts.com. And my phone number my phone number 614-775-6069. And if they Google my name – Jordana Shakoor – everything comes up. The book comes up, the website comes up, from my experience.
Cool. Yeah, we often forget that we can actually just pick up the phone and call people now. That’s really the most efficient way, I imagine. Cool. Look, it’s been it’s been a true, true pleasure and honour, I would say, to have you on the Preschool Podcast. It’s very inspiring to have a guest like, who… you’re carrying on the work of your father through your work.
Yes I am.
100 percent, and that is truly, truly inspiring. And you’re applying it to what we all know is such an important area of early-childhood specifically. So that’s amazing, so thank you for doing that. Thank you for coming on the show.
Thank you, Ron. I’m happy to be on HiMama. And when I saw Carmen there, she’s beautiful! I looked at her and I said, “You are just so pretty and very, very nice.” So thank you for asking me to come on. It’s my pleasure.
Thank you so much, Jordana, and it’s been our pleasure.