Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

Yes, Race and Politics Belong in the Classroom

By H. Richard Milner IV — August 15, 2017 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Last year’s presidential-election season and the subsequent presidency of Donald Trump have recentered serious issues of gender, race, immigration, and social class for people in the United States and beyond its borders. Even my own young daughters are musing about these extremely difficult issues. But the issues themselves are not the only areas of concern. The very digressive manner in which people are engaging each other is concerning as well.

Recently, Elise, my 7-year-old, walked into the room as I watched a heated conversation about immigration on a popular national news channel and asked me: “Why are people so mad at each other?” I reassured her that people were not necessarily mad at each other as much as they were passionate about their views on the topic. With a look of confusion and a bit of disbelief, Elise walked out of the room. I knew I had missed an important opportunity—a teachable moment—with my daughter.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Middle and high school teachers continue sharing with me that their students, too, are grappling with such issues during those moments of stark opposition on political, social, racial, and economic issues. And while these teachers recognize the potential in drawing on these areas of dissonance with their students, they struggle less about what they should address than how to engage their students in powerfully constructive ways. They often feel that they are missing important opportunities for students to think, engage with each other, learn, and develop.

Thus, although children of all ages are reflecting on tough social issues, so many opportunities for teachers to draw upon these powerful realities as anchors for curriculum and instruction are lost. Rather than avoiding controversial matters, teachers (and parents) should actually deliberately keep them at the center of classroom instruction. But if teachers aren’t properly prepared to engage their students productively, we can actually do more harm than good. With appropriate tools, we as educators have an opportunity to build lessons that connect to students’ interests and, perhaps, shepherd them into becoming deeply engaged citizens who work against racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.

But many educators who recognize the potential power of this engagement do not know how to foster it. How do we support teachers so they can create a classroom environment that cultivates, instead of stifles, difficult discussions about race, class, politics, and culture? Often, the very issues we ignore are the ones on which we should focus the most. And in light of the recent terror attack in Charlottesville, Va., and the assassination of Heather Heyer, race is the toughest issues of consideration yet the most important.

Often, the very issues we ignore are the ones on which we should focus the most."

Here are 10 recommendations for my fellow teachers as they develop a classroom ethos that encourages, advances, and addresses the toughest issues students face inside and outside of classroom:

1. From the very beginning of the academic year, design a classroom ethos that is open to questioning, open to varying perspectives, and encourages discourse. Creating an environment of respect (even when conversations get heated) is essential to encouraging students to interrogate and grapple with tough issues.

2. Reflect on your personal views and positions on race and society. Your goal is not to indoctrinate students into believing or embracing a particular point of view. The goal is not for teachers to push their own agendas, but rather to explore nuance with students to sharpen their analytic and critical-thinking skills that are transferable to other situations. Offer counterviews to students’ positions as they participate in classroom discussion; expect and encourage students to do the same. By sharing alternative views, relying on publications from across the political spectrum, and inviting guest speakers to share their positions on issues, you can support students as they strengthen their own arguments, perhaps shift perspective, or even understand another point of view.

3. Draw from society as a focal point for tough talk. The Charlottesville terror attack committed by white supremacists, recent high-profile police-involved shootings across the country, Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the National Anthem and the subsequent backlash from the NFL, regulatory changes to affirmative action recently reported to be under consideration by the U.S. Department of Justice, ongoing national immigration debates, and the Flint, Mich., water crisis are all current examples of how race might be explored inside the classroom.

4. Identify and centralize the facts, based on evidence from varying sources and multiple points of view. Encourage and require students to explore different sources of information and to consider positions and standpoints inconsistent with their initial thinking on topics.

5. Expect students to draw from a variety of sources, including their own personal experiences and diverse news coverage, in expressing and substantiating their views and positions.

6. Design instructions for conversations to logically connect to the in-school curriculum. As teachers, you should prepare students to understand convergence between societal matters and the content being taught.

7. Build your own repertoire of skills to support tough talk in the classroom. Be prepared to respond to the cognitive, social-emotional, and affective needs of students as conversations emerge. Build networks to support student needs that fall outside your toolkit by working with school counselors, psychologists, social workers, and others.

8. Recognize and nurture the social-emotional impact of these conversations on students, who could feel very strongly about a topic or issue and could become emotional as conversations develop. Acknowledge and validate these students’ feelings and respond to them with affirmation and sensitivity. While acknowledging their feelings, however, do not let students off the hook when they are expressing and advocating hate, phobias, and various “isms.”

9. Talk, collaborate, and partner with parents, community members, and school administrators to understand their views and expectations regarding difficult classroom discussions. Develop strategies with those groups—especially families and communities—to bolster and complement discourse inside and outside the classroom.

10. Work toward healing and consider next steps associated with tough talk. Once students have engaged with the issues and deepened their knowledge, help them think about their role in working to build a more just society, provide space for students to heal and rebuild their psychological wellbeing. In other words, what can students (and any of us) do to fight discrimination and create an equitable society for all?

As teachers, we are under an enormous amount of pressure to teach a curriculum that is tied to accountability systems, such as standardized testing. Thus, it may seem difficult for them to talk about such issues inside the classroom when they worry that such learning and engagement are seen as inconsequential to what they think they’re supposed to be teaching. But for many students, the tough social topics are the curriculum of their lives and thus should be addressed inside the classroom. Until we address the toughest of these realities—particularly race and racism—in our schools and society, we cannot reach a democracy that truly is for all.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How To Tackle The Biggest Hurdles To Effective Tutoring
Learn how districts overcome the three biggest challenges to implementing high-impact tutoring with fidelity: time, talent, and funding.
Content provided by Saga Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Reframing Behavior: Neuroscience-Based Practices for Positive Support
Reframing Behavior helps teachers see the “why” of behavior through a neuroscience lens and provides practices that fit into a school day.
Content provided by Crisis Prevention Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Math for All: Strategies for Inclusive Instruction and Student Success
Looking for ways to make math matter for all your students? Gain strategies that help them make the connection as well as the grade.
Content provided by NMSI

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety How Much Educators Say They Use Suspensions, Expulsions, and Restorative Justice
With student behavior a top concern among educators now, a new survey points to many schools using less exclusionary discipline.
4 min read
Audrey Wright, right, quizzes fellow members of the Peace Warriors group at Chicago's North Lawndale College Prep High School on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Wright, who is a junior and the group's current president, was asking the students, from left, freshmen Otto Lewellyn III and Simone Johnson and sophomore Nia Bell, about a symbol used in the group's training on conflict resolution and team building. The students also must memorize and regularly recite the Rev. Martin Luther King's "Six Principles of Nonviolence."
A group of students at Chicago's North Lawndale College Prep High School participates in a training on conflict resolution and team building on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Nearly half of educators in a recent EdWeek Research Center survey said their schools are using restorative justice more now than they did five years ago.
Martha Irvine/AP
School Climate & Safety 25 Years After Columbine, America Spends Billions to Prevent Shootings That Keep Happening
Districts have invested in more personnel and physical security measures to keep students safe, but shootings have continued unabated.
9 min read
A group protesting school safety in Laurel County, K.Y., on Feb. 21, 2018. In the wake of a mass shooting at a Florida high school, parents and educators are mobilizing to demand more school safety measures, including armed officers, security cameras, door locks, etc.
A group calls for additional school safety measures in Laurel County, Ky., on Feb. 21, 2018, following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in which 14 students and three staff members died. Districts have invested billions in personnel and physical security measures in the 25 years since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
Claire Crouch/Lex18News via AP
School Climate & Safety How Columbine Shaped 25 Years of School Safety
Columbine ushered in the modern school safety era. A quarter decade later, its lessons remain relevant—and sometimes elusive.
14 min read
Candles burn at a makeshift memorial near Columbine High School on April 27, 1999, for each of the of the 13 people killed during a shooting spree at the Littleton, Colo., school.
Candles burn at a makeshift memorial near Columbine High School on April 27, 1999, for each of the of the 13 people killed during a shooting spree at the Littleton, Colo., school.
Michael S. Green/AP
School Climate & Safety 'A Universal Prevention Measure' That Boosts Attendance and Improves Behavior
When students feel connected to school, attendance, behavior, and academic performance are better.
9 min read
Principal David Arencibia embraces a student as they make their way to their next class at Colleyville Middle School in Colleyville, Texas on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.
Principal David Arencibia embraces a student as they make their way to their next class at Colleyville Middle School in Colleyville, Texas, on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.
Emil T. Lippe for Education Week