Sunday, September 04, 2011

What's Your Culture? The History of Skin Shade

"We can take a topic that has caused so much disagreement, so much suffering, and so much misunderstanding, and completely disarm it." - Nina Jablonski, author of Skin: A Natural History

I begin the fourth grade social studies year with the the unit, What's Your Culture? The unit gives students the opportunity to examine their differences and similarities with respect to the history of humankind and culture. I start the unit with the premise that our differences make us unique and special, and the world would be a dull place if we were all the same. The unit also serves to build knowledge and class community.

Our first activity is creating self portraits. Prior to drawing our self portraits, I tell students the latest scientific information about the history of mankind. As part of this discussion, I remind children that scientific knowledge is always changing. When cultural and religious stories are shared, I confirm that religions and cultures throughout the world have stories about the origin of humans, and that's a great topic to discuss with family members or to examine more carefully through reading. I then tell them that the study of human origin is an exciting area of work that will continually evolve and change as new evidence is discovered and tools created. I encourage those who are intrigued to think about entering this scientific field in the future.

While sharing the concept of human origin, I introduce the idea of adaptation--that all species adapt for one reason: survival, and the same is true for humans. Over time, humans have adapted for survival, and that's why our skin shades vary. Our skin shades and other physical features give us clues about the history of our family going back many, many, many generations and millions of years. I remind them that each of us needs to be proud of our unique features and appearance.

Then we look at our skin. I question the notion of "black" or "white" or "yellow" as we study our hands. I remark that no one in the class is any of those colors--instead we're a mix of shades from very light to very dark. I tell them how my husband's coloring is much darker than mine, and that's because his most recent relatives came from the Mediterranean area, and that my ancestors all came from the north, and that's why I'm lighter. I happily poke fun at my freckles, and call myself spotted. Then tell them that freckles are actually pigment cells that contain color, and the reason people have freckles is a mixture of their genes and sun exposure.

I talk about the fact that our skin shades adapted over time for survival. I tell them that dark skin has more melanin which protects the folate levels in their body, a chemical that's important for healthy babies, and that light skin has less melanin, therefore allowing more vitamin D into the body which was necessary as people migrated to colder climates and had to wear more clothes, stay indoors more often and expose less skin to the sun. I also remind them that when we look at our overall genetic make-up, our biology--the gene that determines skin is only a very tiny fraction of our overall genetic make-up.

I further share the notion that many scientists believe that between 4.5 million and 2 million years ago humans moved from the rain forest to the East African savanna creating a need for greater foraging hence greater exposure to the sun, and since the human brain is vulnerable to overheating, humans also had to develop more sweat glands and a better cooling system. Now we have about two million sweat glands spread out all over our body protecting us since our human skin with little hair dries out so quickly. Again, I remind them that this is some of what we know now, and the science of evolution is always changing with new and frequent discoveries.

After that, I draw my own self portrait modeling my thinking about my face shape, eye color, hair color, and skin color. I examine the crayons to choose and blend in order to get just right colors. I don't worry about being a perfect artist and remind them of Tomie DePaolo's story, The Art Lesson, which supports the idea that there's not one way to create art.

Then children happily begin drawing. As I walk around the room, I listen to their conversations as they share specific details about their amazing looks, shades and shapes. I marvel at their art and reassure those reluctant illustrators to just do their best--it's a chance to try out drawing; there's no grade or "have-to's" with this assignment.

Finally, at the end of the lesson, I marvel again at their work. I remark at the wonder and beauty of our class diversity. I also acknowledge that over time people have been judged about their skin shade, body size or other aspects of their appearance, and that's not right as we're all unique and special and have a right to be proud of who we are. I wonder aloud about the possibility of meeting a group of people from another planet or place in space--the green people. I ask students what their reaction would be, and how would they treat those people. That question puts race into a whole new light.

As we move forward to our future cultural topics: Native America culture, Immigration and United States Regions, we will talk more deeply about culture and race using related stories and nonfiction to support our study. We'll look at the relationship of culture and geography as well as the effects of important historical events. During these units, I'll also keep in mind the quote posed by Gina Kirchweger, "The evolution of race was as simple as the politics of race is complex."

The study of human evolution, race and culture are controversial subjects met with a diversity of opinions and actions. Giving students an early start to learn about human history, culture and race gives them a chance to develop a strong self concept, an awareness of the impact of history, geography, culture and race, and an opportunity to move forward in their diverse world with respect and knowledge.