A Deeper Understanding of Color and Race through Narrative Inquiry: An Introduction to Patricia Sullivan’s Article (Voices)
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Dr. Pat Sullivan is the leader and head teacher of her own home child care center, serving mostly Black and Brown infants, toddlers, young children, and their families in San Francisco. As an African American educator, Dr. Sullivan has carried out teacher research over the last 20 years to support the anti-racist, social justice curriculum and learning environment at her site. Teacher inquiry is the foundation of Dr. Sullivan’s curriculum and educational philosophy, and it is emblematic of the high-quality, nature-based environment Dr. Sullivan creates for children and families. Dr. Sullivan also has a deep knowledge of environmental and nature education, and her center makes extensive use of a large urban park adjacent to the school’s backyard.
Dr. Sullivan earned her doctorate from San Francisco State University, and while she regularly teaches many courses at SF State and City College of San Francisco, she has chosen as her primary employment to remain in the classroom with children and to lead her home child care site. Dr. Sullivan has previously published her teacher research (see, for example, Meier & Henderson 2007; Meier 2009), and in fact, this Voices of Practitioners article is drawn from a book chapter she wrote for the second edition of Nature Education with Young Children: Integrating Inquiry and Practice (Meier & Sisk-Hilton 2020).
The style of this article reflects the strongly narrative stance that Dr. Sullivan takes in her writing and in her inquiry. Narrative inquiry is an approach to making sense of and analyzing data that recognizes the value of stories to frame our lives, to provide lenses and metaphors for understanding larger concepts, and to serve as tools for sharing with the broader public sophisticated analysis and knowledge creation. (This decision to highlight history and context is also reflected in an earlier Voices of Practitioners article by Head Start director Renetta Goeson, who is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate (a Dakota Nation) (2014).) As a veteran teacher inquirer, Dr. Sullivan draws on a range of strategies for framing her inquiry, for collecting relevant data, and for reflecting on the significance of that data. These strategies include
- Engaging children in conversations about nature and animal life
- Using an inquiry approach in instruction and interactions with children to support their exploration of colorism as part of an anti-racist, social justice curriculum
- Photographing children’s spontaneous discoveries and social interactions in nature
- Documenting teacher observations and insights through written notes and journal entries
- Reflecting on key connections between nature exploration and observation and critical race reflection
- Using artifacts and reference books to stimulate discussion and reflection with young children
This article also reflects the teacher training Dr. Sullivan consistently engages in at her center as she works with teacher interns from San Francisco State University. Some of these in-service teachers took part in the inquiry described in this article. Dr. Sullivan embraces the recommendations of NAEYC’s Power to the Profession initiative to continue high-quality professional development throughout teachers’ careers and to center teacher inquiry in the preservice preparation of new teachers, as well as in the professional development activities of more experienced teachers.
Dr. Sullivan’s critical race theory stance also speaks to NAEYC’s position statement on advancing equity and addressing systemic racism in society and our schools. Critical race theory helps us to understand the deep value of counter-narratives designed to challenge and replace the dominant Euro-centric ways of being and knowing. Dr. Sullivan’s article shows how a commitment to an anti-racist, social justice approach as connected with an inquiry approach enables educators to document and reflect on critical elements of identity, colorism, racism, and community. Given the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and the ongoing systemic racism experienced by African Americans and other people of color, Dr. Sullivan’s article provides a cogent depiction of how early childhood educators can use children’s inquiry-based discoveries while learning in nature to promote a deeper understanding of social and racial tensions, injustices, and dreams.
Dr. Sullivan’s discussion of the Jim Crow era provides one link to the United States’ shameful history of anti-Black racism, and how we as teachers and early childhood education leaders can act to make changes in our daily lives with children and families. We can do so by listening to what children say and feel and by creating authentic, rich curriculum based on what we understand.
Barbara Henderson is co-editor of Voices of Practitioners and the director of the Ed.D. program in Educational Leadership at San Francisco State University, where she is also a professor.
Daniel R. Meier, PhD, is professor of elementary education at San Francisco State University. He is the coauthor most recently of Documentation and Inquiry in the Early Childhood Classroom: Research Stories from Urban Centers and Schools (2017, Routledge). email@example.com