A well-timed project: PSU partners on anti-bias education film

John Nimmo is working on an anti-bias film with colleague Debbie LeeKeenan. Photo courtesy of Nimmo

By Jillian Daley

The early 2021 release date of Portland State Associate Professor John Nimmo and colleague Debbie LeeKeenan’s anti-bias education film seems so perfectly in line with the current cultural shift that they couldn’t have planned it better had they tried.

In a way, it’s no coincidence. Advancing equity and eliminating discrimination are Nimmo and LeeKeenan’s longtime passions, so it’s no surprise that their voices should be among those crying out for change. It just happens that more people may be paying attention right now. By the end of this year, filming should be a wrap on Reflecting on Anti-Bias Education in Practice, which will feature an analysis of anti-bias strategies in early childhood classrooms. What’s different about this film is its direct focus on teachers’ own reflections, rather than solely relying upon experts and research. This offers crucial insight into the complexities of practicing anti-bias teaching in real-life settings.

Filming for the Reflecting on Anti-Bias Education in Practice took place in Seattle and San Francisco. Shown here is Seattle-based teacher Joyce Jackson working with her students and project collaborators (from left to right): Cinematographer Jonah Kozlowski, Associate Professor/Project Co-Leader John Nimmo and filmmaker Filiz Efe McKinney of Brave Sprout Productions. Photo courtesy of LeeKeenan

Disrupting systemic oppression

“The film’s significance is highlighted by the urgent need to disrupt systemic oppression beginning in the early years of life and to ensure that teachers are prepared to engage in and even provoke dialogue and action around bias and equity in early childhood,” says Nimmo, who teaches in the PSU College of Education’s (COE) Master in Early Childhood: Inclusive Education program in the Curriculum & Instruction Department. “While we understand the imperative for social justice and have the theories and research to understand the dynamics of oppression, teachers are calling out for models of how to engage in anti-bias practice that goes much deeper than multicultural curriculum and supports young children’s capacity to identify and act against bias.”

Tyler Rigg Foundation, a Connecticut-based nonprofit, approached Nimmo and LeeKeenan after viewing a story about anti-bias education on a Public Broadcasting Service channel. Tyler Rigg was interested it meets its mission of furthering “social welfare, youth empowerment, disability issues and environmental stewardship.” 

Curriculum and Instruction Chair Will Parnell says that Nimmo and his colleagues are catalysts in the field of social justice. PSU file photo

“I have no doubt that Dr. Nimmo’s work in this area will be quite strong and well received,” Curriculum and Instruction Chair Will Parnell says. “He acts in very responsible and responsive ways with/in the early childhood community. I am most fond of his ability to drive the work from teachers, families, and children’s voices upward toward early childhood teacher education, policy, and the socio-political arenas of education. He is a change-maker for certain!”

Nimmo and Debbie LeeKeenan, a co-author and Seattle-based early childhood consultant, joined forces and assembled a team. Internationally renowned social justice advocate and author Louise Derman-Sparks, who produced the first anti-bias film in 1989, is the senior adviser for the project. Filmmaker Filiz Efe McKinney of Brave Sprout Productions, as the director, is leading the filming of the teachers working with young students in Seattle and San Francisco. 

The team obtained funding for the anti-bias film project from not only the Tyler Rigg Foundation but also the PSU Faculty Development Grant, giving the team a total budget of about $75,000. 

“I see the grant as recognition of the importance of supporting teachers of young children to engage in anti-bias practices in the classroom in support of equity,” Nimmo says. “The project also leverages my work on the international documentary, “The Voices of Children,” in which children share their thoughts and feelings about their rights.”

Teaching children who are navigating a complex society

To reinforce the message of the film and open opportunities for discussion, Nimmo and LeeKeenan are also devising a written guide for educators to use the film effectively in their classroom. Nimmo explains that if teachers are going to lead anti-bias experiences in the classroom, they need to think about why they’re doing it, and that’s to guide children through the complex society in which they live and must someday lead. It’s crucial for teachers to not only model best behavior, but to listen and be ready to respond effectively.

“Be observant to what children are saying,” Nimmo notes, “and make a lot of decisions on the fly and figure out: How am I going to respond when a child makes a statement like, ‘I heard that a police officer murdered a Black person’? And that’s a real comment from a child.”

Filmmaker Filiz Efe McKinney of Brave Sprout Productions captures Seattle-based teacher Claudia Garcia in action. Photo courtesy of Nimmo

Nimmo explains that the teacher was honest and supportive in response.

“The teacher not only affirmed the child’s observation and her shared anger as a person of color,”  Nimmo says, “but went further in supporting the children to articulate their own statement about Black Lives Matter and to share it urgently with the school community.”

Nimmo says that the teachers they filmed were thoughtful, sharing their own reflections and uncertainties as they sought to implement research-based methods. They have much to contemplate. 

There are many more research-based ideas and new terms and practices to consider adding to lessons since the original Derman-Sparks anti-bias film came out in 1989, and this film will help make sense of the changes. There have been some other films that relied on experts’ views, but nothing with such an educator-centric and reflective focus. 

“There were some new opportunities where people were willing to share their experiences in a really brave way that was really motivating for people,” Nimmo says.

He says with the Black Lives Matter movement empowering people of color and so many other positive anti-bias voices being raised in unity and being heard that this is a good time to be offering this film. It feels like change is in the wind.

“I do think there’s a sense of hope,” Nimmo says. “I’ve heard people like Angela Davis and bell hooks saying, ‘I think that this is different.'”

To share stories on the College of Education, email Jillian Daley at jillian@pdx.edu.

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