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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Equity & Diversity Opinion

‘What Are You Doing to Help Students Understand Systemic Racism and Combat It?'

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 07, 2021 11 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

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?

In Part One, Lisa Stringfellow, PJ Caposey, and Jennifer Orr shared their responses.

Today, Zach Podhorzer, Alison Rheingold, Luiza Mureseanu, and Sarah Said offer their answers.

Teaching Critical Engagement

Zach Podhorzer is an 8th grade humanities teacher and Alison Rheingold is the director of teaching and learning at Four Rivers Charter Public School in Greenfield, Mass.:

Our school, a grades 7–12 charter school in Greenfield, Mass., has a mostly white student body (92 percent) and a mostly white faculty (92 percent), and we are on a journey to be anti-racist. In the 2020-21 school year, we launched several initiatives in support of this goal and to answer the question, “What are you doing to help your students understand systemic racism and take steps to combat it?” Here we dig into an 8th grade humanities unit that lays the foundation for students to engage deeply with each other about challenging topics, including race and racism.

Teaching Dialogue, Not Debate

Many 8th graders want to debate, but the challenges in our world call for dialogue, not debate. In debate, the goal is to determine one side’s argument to be true and correct, whereas the goal of dialogue is a mutual understanding allowing for multiple representations of the truth. Debate encourages us to see each other as our arguments first; dialogue encourages us to see each other as humans first. This is where personal stories can be useful and powerful.

For example, during our Harbor Me unit (Jacqueline Woodson’s novel about six middle school students of varying backgrounds brought together through authentic dialogue), students watched a short documentary film that demonstrates the power of dialogue and human connection. The documentary reveals the pain endured by Tamir Rice’s family after he was killed by a Cleveland police officer. If we are going to tackle police violence in the U.S., we need to know the impact on citizens. We must focus on listening without planning our response. We must search for the connections to our lives that bring the human experience to the forefront of our minds.

To accomplish this goal, students need three things: 1) to understand the value of dialogue as compared to debate; 2) to see models of disagreement that don’t end with a winner; and 3) to practice explicit skills that promote healthy, robust dialogue. That’s where the Building Blocks of Dialogue for Young People comes in, which breaks dialogue skills into six categories:

  1. Deep Listening
  2. Respect
  3. Suspension of Judgment
  4. Identifying Assumptions/Biases
  5. Voicing
  6. Reflection and Inquiry

From here, we employed teacher moves we were familiar with and trusted. With our students, we started small, with provocative, but inconsequential questions. One of our favorite opening questions was, “When making a bowl of cereal, do you put the cereal or the milk in the bowl first?” Starting with a prompt that didn’t force them to confront their own identity and beliefs helped students understand the format and begin accepting the dialectic: There is often more than one truth. With careful guidance, we eased students into more provocative and emotional prompts. Here are some of the successful prompts we used this year:

  1. Which is more influential on who you are? Nature or Nurture?
  2. We all have predetermined fates or destinies.
  3. There is something about the experience of being human that connects us all.
  4. Women have access to the same opportunities as men.
  5. Violence is NEVER the answer.
  6. Rap and Hip-Hop ARE poetry.
  7. Capitalism has had a beneficial impact on our planet and lives.

You might notice that the words and concepts of race and racism are not explicitly named in any of these prompts. The reality is that even when a topic isn’t about race on the surface, race is always a factor. While discussing nature vs. nurture, for example, students were able to identify the disparities in how our nation nurtures certain white communities more than others. Students were able to discern the nuance that racism adds to sexism. They wrestled with the idea that even though capitalism has made many of the things they love possible, it has disproportionately hurt people of the global majority (also known as people of color).

The conversations that followed elicited some of the highest engagement we saw from students. With a foundation of dialogue skills, self-awareness, and shared vocabulary, it was easier to recenter the group with verbal cues and reminders, which gave students space to own the process. While they were practicing their dialogue skills in large classroom discussions, they were also participating in weekly small-group dialogues. Each student would pick a specific building block of dialogue to practice and write thoughtful reflections after each dialogue. Some students even took the opportunity to write essays about the value of dialogue skills in our world today. In their smaller-group dialogues, students tackled big questions:

  1. Is the American Dream real for every U.S. citizen?
  2. Should we lock people away for breaking laws? Are the laws fair?
  3. What makes someone an immigrant? How should our country treat people who are not citizens?
  4. What role should violence play in enforcing our laws?
  5. How is language used to create a sense of superiority or inferiority?

In a predominantly white community, these topics pushed students to confront beliefs they didn’t even realize they had. Even students who identified as champions for social justice found themselves torn when topics they thought they understood were revealed to be far more complicated.

If we are going to prepare our students to be involved citizens, we need to teach them how to critically engage with their own socialized and unconscious beliefs. Most importantly, we must prepare students for the eternal and evolving process of life in a shifting society. If our expectation is utopia, we’ll never feel like we succeeded; if, however, we expect and accept a lack of closure, we begin to see that with each dialogue, each shift in our beliefs, each action for progress, we take a step toward a more racially just tomorrow.


‘It Must Be Carefully Planned’

Luiza Mureseanu is a secondary school teacher currently working as an instructional resource teacher, K-12, for ESL/ELD programs, in Peel DSB, Ontario:

Our students must learn about systemic racism and need to be instructed on how to be an anti-racist agent of change. This learning does not happen by accident, and it must be purposefully planned.

Students need to be explicitly taught that to be anti-racist means to work actively against racism in all forms and to challenge systemic inequities. Students also need to learn that anti-racists actively interrupt and confront racism whether in the form of racist attitudes and beliefs; unjust practices, policies, and laws; and actively disrupt racism through education and action. They must learn about different social identities, the history of colonialism, and resistance against it.

Anti-racists actively seek the elimination of racism that is manifested systemically (policies, practices), subtly (microaggressions), and as individual racism (attitudes and beliefs). It is essential to infuse culturally responsive and relevant practices into everyday interactions with students to recognize and validate their identities and to meet their diverse learning needs. These are critical practices that disrupt and dismantle anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, anti-Muslim hate, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination that oppress. This is the transformational change that is required for all students to experience a sense of belonging and well-being in our schools.

Finally, the profound understanding of racism will prompt students to choose action against racism—either if they witnessed racism or are victims of it. They have the power to stop and name the harmful action, educate others about the damage and implications of racism, and provide support to those affected. This is a complex and intentional process that must be part of the organized curriculum.


Including Student Voice

Sarah Said currently leads a multilingual learning program in an EL education school in a suburb 30 miles west of Chicago:

I am a school leader in our state and a parent whose children attend public school in Illinois as well. In the late 1980s, my family was part of the first group of Middle Eastern families to move into the suburbs south of Chicago. Although one of the largest mosques in North America exists in the area today, there has been but still needs to be lots of growth and education about the Middle Eastern community.

As a high school student, who was a student leader at my high school, I remembered getting scolded by an educator for going to Palestinian protests in downtown Chicago in the early 2000s. She stated that as a student leader, I was going to create division among students if I voiced my opinion in a rally or about the occupation. My principal, who I confided in later, had me write an article about what was happening in order to explain the conflict to my peers and teachers. My teachers should have been more equipped to understand me and my family’s origins. Although my alma mater has changed a lot, more Middle Eastern students attend, and there is Middle Eastern representation in staff—there is still a lot of understanding that needs to happen for all. Some argue that schools should just teach the same American values to all students, but being inclusive is a central American value. We all need to be seen and appreciated.

We have conversations in the state of Illinois about the importance of representation, equity, and inclusion in our schools, but action needs to follow conversation. As an administrator of color, I get this, and at my school, we make efforts weekly to include student voice into our civic learning. I work toward this because I want my students to have justice as they lead their learning in a community of equity, diversity, and inclusivity.

The gateway to being able to take action is really thinking about what we present in our instruction. This is why I, along with 50 other diverse educators across our state, chose to join weekly meetings that were convened by the Illinois state board of education in order to revise the social studies standards in grades K-12.

In a time when we are trying to work to heal and move forward from division in our nation, we need to teach the next generation to build bridges and push for change for a better world. They can do this through learning about each other. As we worked to revise our standards, we revised the language so that educators can present viewpoints from multiple perspectives and communities in their regions. We didn’t change the standards. We just improved them.

I want my children to have the opportunities that I didn’t have—seeing themselves in the classroom and feeling a connection to the perspectives being learned. Let’s advocate these changes nationally. Some may argue that “it’s too much work,” but when you include student voice and perspectives into learning, it opens so many possibilities for students and educators alike.


Thanks to Zach, Alison, Luiza, and Sarah for contributing their thoughts.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.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.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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