(This is the first post in a two-part series.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
This question is geared toward educators who are teaching in predominantly white schools. What are you doing to help your students understand systemic racism and take steps to combat it?
Recent attacks against schools for teaching about anti-racism point to the need to double down on these strategies—particularly in predominantly white communities.
There have been scores of posts in this blog about challenging racism in the classroom (see them all at Race & Racism in Schools), but this is the first discussing specific strategies to use in predominantly white schools.
Today, Lisa Stringfellow, PJ Caposey, and Jennifer Orr share their responses.
Creating ‘Safe Places’
Lisa Stringfellow teaches middle school English at an independent school in Boston. She is passionate about engaging students in their learning through innovative practices and examining literature through the lens of equity and social justice. She writes middle-grade fiction and is the author of A Comb of Wishes (2022, HarperCollins/Quill Tree Books). Connect with her on Twitter @EngageReaders:
It is more important than ever to help students understand issues of race and racism and that they have a role in helping to dismantle systemic inequalities. The events of the past year—the racial protests following the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic and its disproportionate impact on communities of color—brought to light hard truths about the realities of systemic racism. It is important to talk about these issues in the classroom, especially in predominantly white spaces.
Before teachers begin this work, there are several important steps to be taken to ensure students understand these important topics and can talk about them in a way that doesn’t perpetuate harm, especially for BIPOC students in the room.
Establish a shared vocabulary
Don’t assume that your students know what words mean. Establish a shared vocabulary early on for terms you plan to use in discussion so there is common meaning and understanding. For example, what is the difference between prejudice and racism?
Before reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry with my 6th grade English class, I share with students a glossary of words that we will use in our discussion. It includes:
- Racism - a system of advantage based on race
- Prejudice - an attitude, opinion, or feeling formed without adequate prior knowledge, thought, or reason
- Anti-racism - action that supports dismantling racism, challenges individuals who support it, and works for institutional change
Having such a glossary gives us common language and allows us to have clear and nuanced conversations.
Create safe and inclusive spaces
When having sensitive conversations about race, students need guidelines. What are the norms of the group? How will the discussion be managed? And for particular importance for students of color in the room, will they feel safe?
I encourage teachers to craft a statement about how their class will operate and how they plan to support these important conversations while also protecting the dignity of all students. For example, teachers should not rely on students of color to be “experts” or speak for their race or identity group. The statement about safe and inclusive spaces can be part of the syllabus that is reviewed and revisited throughout the year or something posted in the room.
When reading literature that contains slurs or other harmful language, be explicit about how it will be handled. I state in my syllabus, “At times, our texts may contain racialized or hurtful language toward particular marginalized groups. Even if it is printed in our texts, we will not speak any hateful language in our classroom.” Students know that these topics will come up, but they also have assurances; they don’t have to wonder what to do or how these issues will be navigated if you have made it clear ahead of time.
It’s important to remind students of these norms during discussions and to stop and address problematic or hurtful comments when they occur.
Explore and affirm social identity
Understanding yourself is the first step toward understanding and respecting others. Race is a social construct, but it is also an important part of our identities. Hopefully, teachers will have done their own reflections on their identities as part of their preparation for guiding conversations in class. In my experience, though, students who are white often have not had many opportunities to reflect on their racial and social identities and may not have spent much time thinking about it.
Understanding their own personal identity and group memberships can allow students to consider their positionality when discussing topics. A question students might consider when discussing an issue is, “How does my identity influence my thoughts about X?”
Learning for Justice has extensive resources as part of their Social Justice Standards, including lessons to develop positive social identity and self-esteem and to recognize multiple identities in others.
Center marginalized voices and experiences
Characters in books are often assumed to be white until the author identifies them otherwise. “White” is seen as a default or “normal” position socially. It also remains at center in most curriculum design. When efforts are made to broaden or diversify curricula, teachers sometimes take an additive approach—adding more books by diverse authors to a summer reading list—leaving what is traditionally taught essentially the same, centered predominately on white experiences and perspectives. How can we deconstruct and reposition the voices and experiences we teach?
A strategy from Universal Design for Learning can be applied here. If you modify the environment to center the needs of your most prioritized learner, the accessibility for all students improves. Similarly, if you prioritize and uplift the voices and experiences of BIPOC and other marginalized groups in your curriculum, programs, and policies, the results will enhance understanding and benefit all students.
When discussing literature, I often ask students:
- Whose voices are included?
- Whose voices are left out?
- Who holds power and who doesn’t?
We should put those voices in the center to reach everyone.
PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, keynote speaker, consultant, and author of seven books who currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the nationally recognized Meridian CUSD 223 school district in northwest Illinois. You can find PJ on most social-media platforms as MCUSDSupe:
In the vast majority of predominantly white schools, the answer to what are we doing to understand systemic racism is “not enough.” In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and ensuing social unrest in the summer of 2020, the conversation of racism and inequity began in my district. For context, we are over 80 percent white and less than 1 percent African American.
Thankfully, we had a handful of concerned citizens that cared enough to call me out for not doing more. Fancying myself an open-minded “ally” to the movement who has even written personal blogs and spoken on the topic in the past, I was taken aback. So, I went back to my comfort zone. Kids.
I met with a handful of our students of color, past and present, and performed what would be similar to an exit interview. What I found was gut-wrenching for me. We had unintentionally created a system where our students of color chose to be voiceless throughout their school careers because it was “just easier.” They ignored or tolerated verbal abuse. They did not feel a true part of the school community.
This was the system I had unintentionally built. This is the system being built in most predominantly white schools. See, what happens is simple. A student is a victim of a racist act, hate speech, or even violence. As a school, we intervene and provide traditional consequences. Then, things go back to the way they were or intensify. Over time, the students of color find more harm in advocating for themselves than they do in silence.
This happens when every act reported is acted on. This happens when no shortcuts are taken. This happens when good intentions are present. I know, because this was the system I led.
As to how to fix the problem, I am not sure. We are in the infancy of our journey. This journey includes multiple meetings per month with the community, administration, faculty and staff, and board to discuss racism. We have spent a year working on internal victory before attempting a public win. What this process has exposed to each of us about ourselves has been enlightening at best and troublesome at worst.
We are working with other schools that have been down this road. What I can say for certain is this: Inaction is not an option. I can also say that relying on “textbook” reactionary policies is also not the solution. We must be proactive. If I were to provide two pieces of advice I believe every teacher, principal, or district leader should follow right now, it would be simple. First, talk, but more importantly, listen to your students of color and learn what it is like to be them in your class, school, or district. This will provide a clear and compelling reason why more work is necessary. Second, find a group of like-minded people and start having discussions. Learn about yourself and learn about the work. Quite simply, the first person you need to lead when it comes to creating a more racially inclusive environment is yourself.
Racism Is Not ‘A Thing From the Past’
Jennifer Orr is in her third decade of teaching elementary school students in the suburbs of Washington. She is a national-board-certified teacher, mom to two teenagers, and an obsessive reader of books of all kinds:
I teach fairly young children, 3rd graders. One of the things I have found, in more than 20 years of teaching elementary students, is that most young children believe that racism is a thing from the past. They know the stories of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. They have some sense of our history of slavery. But they do not connect those historical events and ideas with their lives right now. I have found this to be true teaching students of many races and ethnicities.
I currently teach on a military post in the suburbs of Washington. All of my students are in military families, and my classroom is diverse. Many of our students are white, but we also have large Black and Latinx populations. When we study the history of our country (and the history of Virginia, which includes “massive resistance,” when many school districts closed schools rather than integrate them), my students are appalled. They cannot imagine such a reality.
A part of me is grateful for their shock. It gives me hope. Another part of me is concerned that they do not understand what life is like for many people of color today. For both my white students and my students of color, I want to be sure they are prepared for and able to see the reality in our country. I want to know that they are conscious of the choices they make and that they see made around them. I won’t pretend the world is an equitable place when it is so clearly not true.
One of the biggest things that can help prepare children to take steps to improve the world in which they live is to strengthen their critical-thinking and critical-analysis skills. Young children tend to believe what they are told by adults, all adults. Those in their lives and those they see on screens. Helping them realize that they can question what they see and hear, rather than simply absorb it, is a huge first step.
We do this, as we do many things, through literature. Using fairy tales, stories my students have frequently known for all of their lives, we dig. We explore how people (by gender, by race, by age, by socioeconomic status, by attractiveness, etc.) are portrayed. We explore who has power in these stories and who does not. We explore who is missing from these stories. It doesn’t take long for students, at least a few of them, to begin to transfer that thinking to the world around them, especially when they feel they are the ones without power or a voice. Helping students see that they can question and analyze fairy tales gives them permission and the skills to question and analyze so much more.
We also explore current issues, often through young people who are taking action. We learn about Mari Copeny (Little Miss Flint) and Marley Dias and her work with #1000BlackGirlBooks. My young students are immediately engaged to see people their age, or close at least, who have identified inequities in their communities and are taking action to address them.
Offering students windows into issues in our country and helping them strengthen their critical-thinking and questioning skills don’t take a lot of time but have a huge reward in seeing students who reflect deeply and feel strongly.
Thanks to Lisa, PJ, and Jennifer for contributing their thoughts.
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.
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