Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Talking to Elementary Students about Stereotypes

I wanted to share some of the lessons and resources that I use when teaching students about issues of diversity and inclusion. My previous post detailed my lesson plans for teaching family history and immigration for elementary . In this post I want to share about a lesson I did specifically to address the idea of stereotypes and misconceptions with younger students.

Discussing Stereotypes through Postcards

I started by having my third graders brainstorm some of their favorite things about Wisconsin (where we live). Then I introduced the definition of a stereotype: a widely held but oversimplified idea about a particular type of person or thing. Together we brainstormed some stereotypes people might have about Wisconsin. My kids were easily able to come up with ideas like “Everybody likes cheese,” “It’s always cold,” or “Everyone cheers for the Packers.”

Then, I shared a variety of images taken from postcards about Wisconsin and asked them to write some notes about what the postcards showed about Wisconsin. The kids could easily draw connections between our discussion of Wisconsin stereotypes and what showed up in the postcards (cows, farmland, winter scenes, etc.).

Then it was time to confront some of those stereotypes directly. I asked the kids to write down their best estimate for the following three questions:

  • What percentage of people in Wisconsin live in a rural area (like a farm)?
  • What percentage of people in Wisconsin own cows?
  • What percentage of people in the state live in Madison?

(Take a minute and make your own guesses before reading on, if you wish.)

Most of my students’ guesses were in the range of 50-80% of the state living in a rural area, 40-60% owning cows, and 10-20% living in Madison. Based on statistics drawn from a few different state sources, the actual answers are that less than 30% of Wisconsinites live in rural areas, less than 1% of residents own cows, and less than 5% of the state’s population lives in Madison.

To wrap up this activity, we reflected on the following two questions:

  • What did you find the most surprising when comparing the actual numbers to people's stereotypes and general ideas about Wisconsin?
  • What do you think other people should know about Wisconsin?

Students then applied those understandings by designing their own postcard about Wisconsin. At the time, we were participating in a postcard exchange as part of the Global Read Aloud, so we sent out our postcards to schools in several different states and a few different countries. The postcards we received back helped us continue our discussion about stereotypes as we pondered what each postcard showed about the place it was from. (Click here for the worksheet used.)

Continue the Conversations

This discussion about stereotypes helped establish a foundation for our discussions throughout the rest of the school year. Every time we read a book about another place or another culture, we could refer back to these understandings.

I encourage all teachers and parents to seek out multiple perspectives on any issue or culture or country. Don’t read one book to a child to teach them about "Africa." Read a whole series of books that feature some of the diversity of people, places, and animals from this very large continent. Don’t read only Native American folktales without also reading books that feature modern Native American peoples and perspectives. Use these multiple sources to encourage kids to ask critical questions and to compare and contrast differing perspectives.

Click on the "Teaching" tag for more lesson plan ideas.

What are your favorite lessons or books for talking to kids about stereotypes?


  1. What a great lesson! I love your use of postcards. I hadn't really ever thought of them being stereotypical, but you are so very right. I especially loved this post because I also live in Wisconsin - suburban Milwaukee. Definitely not many cows around here. ;)

    1. Thanks, Kate! To be fair, I was a little selective in my postcard picking (there are plenty out there of the University of Madison, for example), but it was most interesting for the kids to see that even THEY made incorrect assumptions about their own state.

  2. Katie, I love this lesson! Charles Waters & I are looking for suggestions for teaching about stereotype, identity and racism as we prepare for the release of CAN I TOUCH YOUR HAIR?, and this is a wonderful lesson to share! Plus I live in Alabama... lots of stereotypes, and this will be a good way to start the conversation with elementary students in my own state. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Irene! Would love to hear how it goes for you - and can't wait to hear more about the new book!

  3. What a wise and wonderful teacher you are. Thank you. Saving this.

  4. What a wise and wonderful teacher you are. Thank you. Saving this.


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