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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.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Approach Race & Implicit Bias by ‘Listening to Students’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 23, 2017 20 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What are your recommendations for how all teachers, especially those of us who are white, can approach race and implicit bias in the classroom?

The majority of students in our public schools are students of color. The vast majority of public school teachers are white. In the face of growing public division around race and equity issues, how can teachers, especially those of us who are white, can approach race and implicit bias in the classroom?

Today’s contributors are Adeyemi Stembridge, Sanée Bell, Raquel Ríos, Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath, and Lynell A. Powell. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Adeyemi, Sanée, Raqule and Ruchi on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

I’ve commented—and shared extensive resources—on implicit bias in the classroom at We Should Be Obsessed With Racial Equity. I’ve also created another collection educators might find useful: A Collection Of Advice On Talking To Students About Race, Police & Racism.

Finally, you might want to explore past related posts that have appeared here at Race & Gender Challenges.

Response From Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D.

Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD, provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. Follow him on Twitter at @DrYemiS:

The most successful educators are especially skilled at earning the trust of their students—which is essential for our least engaged students who are always negotiating the level of investment they are willing to make in any given learning experience. When students invest themselves deeply, they are much more likely to learn; but when students perceive their teachers as untrustworthy, their learning becomes a more difficult and often arduous task—because the investments are harder to justify. Further, if students encounter school as a problem of identity conflict (i.e. they interpret school engagement as requiring some significant disconnect from the cultural indoctrinations of their identity groups), the challenge of formal learning experiences may be even more exacerbated.

Attitudes about and perceptions of race are an important part of identity development, and trust is a component of identity. Brilliant teachers understand this, and they put time and energy into developing their capacities for supporting students who may be negotiating different parts of their identities in order to maintain the investments that are necessary for success in school.

When we as teachers cultivate spaces where race can be discussed, we are supporting the bridging of our students’ social and academic identities by nurturing opportunities for them to process experiences and parts of themselves that may be hugely important to them. This earns trust and is good for both students of color and White children, as well because when White children are taught in environments where adults are willing to consider race, they have healthier racial identities themselves and also better attitudes about race difference and multi-culturalism. Given that you are committed to earn the trust of all your students by welcoming opportunities for the consideration of race and Implicit Bias, there are a few ideas to keep in mind as you build your capacity for engaging these issues in the classroom:

1. Raise your awareness of Implicit Bias... so you can be a person of integrity.

We are wise to put in the work of raising our awareness of our own racialized identities because the truth is that we are all biased. Before you freak out, let’s unpack what “bias” is and how it shows up in our lives. Most importantly, disavow yourself of the notion that Implicit Bias is synonymous with racism. Implicit Bias is the product of thought processes and mental shortcuts—shortcuts based on preferences and associations developed through our experiences and indoctrinations—that happen beyond and sometimes in conflict with our conscious thinking.

We must embrace the truth that we ALL have these Implicit Biases, and we must sustain the effort to build our own sensibilities so we can identify when our biases would otherwise undermine our better intentions. Implicit Biases interfere with our rational perceptions in ways that might make us appear duplicitous. Raising our awareness helps us to be seen as a person of integrity because our behavior will less likely contradict our espoused beliefs.

2. Listen to students... so you can be fair.

Honest and active listening is an imperative strategy when approaching issues of race and Implicit Bias in the classroom. When designing spaces that allow for the discussion of race, position yourself as a learner so that what you see and hear can inform your own teaching with the language and references familiar to your students. Listening to students helps you to be fairer-minded because your range of understanding for how people experience humanity is broadened; and thus, you are more likely to facilitate learning experiences in which students can frame understandings in the social and cultural contexts that resonate most meaningfully for them. We are more likely to be seen as trustworthy when we listen and act with empathy.

3. Challenge your comfort zones... so that you can be seen as competent.

The recognition of one’s Implicit Bias and even the thoughtful consideration of one’s privilege must ultimately serve our capacity to provide rich and meaningful learning experiences for students. Try as we might to think otherwise, it is inevitable that teachers will think of themselves as the center of all learning... and by that, I mean, we tend to center our own experiences and perspectives as normative while we require students to calibrate their engagement accordingly. With this mindset, it is more difficult to identify the underlying biases that may limit the opportunities for us to facilitate our students’ learning. Challenging your comfort zones helps you to expand your emotional competencies by experiencing the vulnerabilities that many students of color feel regularly thus enlarging your individual capacity for being responsive to your students’ needs and assets.

Tools for discussing race will be useful to you only if you make the personal decision that you do not intend to deny students of the opportunities to have their racial identities embraced and engaged in learning spaces. In those moments where you may feel hesitant, it’s important to name your discomfort. Learn to say, “I wasn’t raised in environments where we talked a lot about race, and I’m still learning to be comfortable in doing so because I know it’s important for all my students and myself...” and then be fully present. Our comfort and capacities in approaching issues of race require that we consciously and continuously make the effort to raise the awareness of how our Implicit Biases filter our views. Such awareness isn’t an indictment of our character; rather it is an expression of our commitment to authentic and inclusive learning opportunities for all of our students.

Response From Dr. Sanée Bell

Sanée Bell, Ed.D. is a middle school principal and adjunct professor who resides in Houston. She has experience as an elementary principal, middle and high school teacher, and basketball coach. Dr. Bell recognizes her impact as a leader and uses her role to inspire, motivate, and empower others. Sanée shares her thoughts on leadership on her blog saneebell.com and via Twitter @SaneeBell:

Implicit bias is is the number one barrier to student achievement. It is prevalent in our schools and classrooms and is often the invisible glass ceiling that prevents teachers from realizing their potential to inspire and impact the lives of students of color. It robs students of what could have been because the adult in the classroom was unable to recognize how their own bias impacted how they were able to relate to a child. I don’t need to cite research to make this point. I am the research. At some points in my schooling career, this was my life.

Many times when race came up in the classroom, some teachers would act as if they did not hear the discussion or glossed over a topic so a discussion wouldn’t spark. This made me feel insignificant as a student because we would spend time talking about things that I could not connect with or relate to, but the time when I had something to say or offer about what we were learning, we had to quickly move on so the other students wouldn’t ask questions that would make the teacher or students feel uncomfortable. Fortunately, I did have some teachers who, whether they were aware of it or not, checked their implicit bias at the door before entering the classroom. Below are the observable strategies I remember seeing when I was a student.

Care about their story. Not all students of color have the same story. Don’t ever assume that just because students come from a similar race or share an ethnic background means they have the same story or experience. This marginalizes your students and minimizes their existence as an individual. It is important to get to know your students. Care about who they are and get to know them individually not just a member of a larger group. All students have lessons to teach us if we are willing to listen and learn.

Be authentic. Acknowledge, even if it is only internally, that you will never know what it is like to be a student of color. After you are able to make that acknowledgement without making any justification for it, you will then be able to empathize and then strategize ways to ensure that students in your classroom or school are not marginalized. Accept the fact that marginalization does happen in schools every day, even if it is not on your watch, and then be the voice and advocate for students of color.

Couple high expectations with support. A child’s zip code, race, or ethnicity should not be a determining factor for the quality of education they receive. We should have high expectations for all students. The bar should be set and the only thing that should every move is the level of support that is provided for each child. Be careful not to let your implicit bias and perspective about race lead a student toward the stereotypical paths that have been perpetuated in our society. More importantly, do not push them away from ideas or issues that are a part of who they culturally. All students, I mean ALL, have strengths and talents. They may not be apparent to them yet, but your job as a teacher is to help them discover what those talents and strengths are and how they can use them to reach their dreams. If they don’t have any dreams, help them create them.

My response may not be researched-based, but it is human-based. Not all things have to be studied. It’s unfortunate that learning how to relate to students of color has to be a class, textbook or seminar. When it comes to interacting with people, it is my opinion that we can move the needle by caring about the children we serve as if they were our own, and by being open and honest about who we are and what we believe and how that impacts the students we serve each day.

Response From Raquel Ríos, Ph.D

Raquel Ríos, PhD, is the author of Teacher Agency for Equity: A Framework for Conscientious Engagement (Routledge, 2017). She is an Instructional Designer at New Teacher Center, a national resource on mentoring and coaching for teacher effectiveness located in Santa Cruz, Calif. She lives in New York City:

There are two important concepts teachers need to reflect upon if they are genuinely concerned about race and implicit bias in the classroom. I discuss both in my book and will do my best to introduce them here.

The first concept is mindset and context matter. How we approach race and implicit bias in the classroom is not independent from how we perceive our self and others in society. Notions of race and bias are constructs of the mind which is influenced by context. Some of us are very conscious of how our inner and outer worlds intersect in the classroom, others are just beginning this work. The truth is that everyone has been greatly influenced by a shared history of racism and hegemonic ideology. As such, race and implicit bias cannot be approached in any authentic way in the classroom unless we are willing to examine the true nature of our mind (our thoughts, our use of language, our perceptions) and our worldview, which is shaped by this thing we call society. Only through critical, mindful inquiry can we see things as they really are.

I recommend that we start by asking, How have we as a society approached race and bias thus far? By refining our inquiry in this way, we assume shared responsibility and situate our vocation within a larger, socio-cultural political context. This is at the heart of teacher agency; the belief that we can make a difference in the lives of students that extends beyond the classroom. Thinking about the collective is important because we have a long history of asking individual teachers to take on the achievement gap in the classroom, or bias—without unpacking all the factors that make this an almost impossible task. Factors such as segregation, inequitable distribution of resources, income inequality, the mass incarceration of people of color and so on—often work against our individual effort in the classroom, even when we try hard to see and value each student with the same love, respect and dignity they afford their own children at home.

The second concept is the emergent spirit consciousness traveling across the globe emboldening teachers to challenge undemocratic practices that continue to marginalize some in society while privileging others. We must trust our inner wisdom and reject the false narrative that a narrow focus on standards, closing gaps or building awareness of bias can fix an increasingly unjust, inhumane, segregated school system. The steady erosion of our public schools hurt children, but it also hurts a teacher’s sense of self-worth, authenticity and purpose. Implicit bias does exist, however, we need to think bigger and revolutionize our approach to equity. What would our schools look like if we valued the underlying Oneness of our human experience? Public school is the foundation of a healthy democracy. Segregating and targeting black, brown, Muslim, immigrant, or impoverished families is simply not okay—not for them and not for a teacher’s social, emotional and spiritual well-being.

Teachers need to harness this movement, this spirit consciousness and redefine what it means to be a teacher change agent. Ask yourself, do you believe an egalitarian society is a real possibility?

Response From Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath, Ed.D.

Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath, Ed.D., is an assistant professor at University of San Francisco and vice-president of the National Association of Multicultural Education. She recently authored the book Social Studies, Literacy, and Social Justice in the Common Core Classroom: A Guide for Teachers and co-authored the book Preparing to Teach Social Studies for Social Justice: Becoming a Renegade with Alison Dover and Nick Henning. A former elementary school teacher, her teaching and research interests focus on justice-oriented teaching, social studies education, and critical literacy:

Racial and implicit bias is inherent in our classrooms. Our classroom walls, the expectations we set for our students, our body language, how we connect with families, what resources are available, what we choose to say or not say, all give students a clear message about how we feel about them.

For three years, I worked as an equity consultant with a local public high school in San Jose, Calif. The school’s faculty and staff were predominately white, while the student population was ethnically, culturally, religiously, and racially diverse. I was hired to design profession development sessions to address racial and implicit bias at the school. In this response, I share examples of the professional development sessions I led as a possible recommendation of what can be done.

In the first PD, the faculty and staff explored how their values, assumptions, and biases translated into practice and pedagogy. To begin, each participant drew a picture of themselves or someone they observed being excluded based on his or her race or culture. In groups, participants read across the illustrations to discuss the similarities and differences they found in each other’s experiences. The activity ended with a broader discussion of what it meant to be white in the United States compared to a person of color. The purpose of the activity was to analyze and interrogate racial experiences both individually and collectively, while also exploring concepts such as privilege, deficit, meritocracy, equity, and equality.

To prepare for the following PD, I interviewed a group of eight students of colors. In the interview, I asked students questions such as “How does it feel to be a student of color? What would you like to see changed at your school? What would you like to stay the same?”

In the PD session, I used specific racial incidents from the students’ interviews to create scenarios for the teachers and staff to discuss. Faculty and staff discussed how to handle the racial incidents appropriately, then created goals as a department to address bias in their classrooms. Surveys of the staff after the PD revealed that teachers wanted even more direct instruction about how to address racial issues.

In response to the surveys, I believed it was important for the staff to hear directly from the students. I did a pre-interview with the students a week before the PD to prepare them for the event. On the day of the PD, students sat on stage sharing their experiences of what it meant to be a student of color at the school. The results were moving and inspiring, as the teachers eagerly asked questions and the students valued feeling as though their thoughts and opinions mattered. Students asserted to the staff two major concerns: (1) the need for faculty to address and stop any racial incidents they observe both inside and outside of the classroom and (2) to have the same expectations for students of color as white students.

Staff surveys after the panel revealed that teachers still wanted direct instruction on how to address the biases. To meet this desire, I had the faculty and staff role-play different racial incidents and then share out how to properly handle similar situations in class. Surveys shared that staff left the PD feeling much more prepared to address racial incidents in the classroom.

All of these PDs, along with smaller ongoing and staff led efforts helped create a culture at the high school where teachers were more prepared to tackle the challenges of racial bias in the classroom. This increase in awareness among the staff allowed the school’s next effort towards reducing the opportunity gap to be much more successful.

Response From Dr. Lynell A. Powell

Dr. Lynell A. Powell is a professional learning specialist in Virginia Beach and owner of Enjoy Learning Educational Services. You can follow her on Twitter @drjoy77:

As I reflected on this question, I recalled the following story from my childhood:

I loved going to the library in elementary school. My school librarian was a very unique and positive individual. Even as a very young student, I felt that she was very fond of me and enjoyed interacting with me about things that did not have anything to do with school. Each week my class visited her for a lesson and book check out, and I remember finding opportunities to see her in between that time. One morning after her lesson (she was such fabulous animated reader) while the other kids were busy looking for books, I looked for an opportunity to chat with her. Somedays I just liked to ask her random questions or share something that was going on at home. I don’t remember exactly what I said to her but I must have requested to “ax” her a question. Her response would change me.

She pulled me to the side discreetly and out of the earshot of others and made me repeat the word “ask” a few times. She stated with such frustration, “Just because you’re black doesn’t mean you have to talk like you are.” At that moment, I felt like someone had kicked me in the chest at full force. I had confided with her on several occasions that when I grew up I wanted to be like our local news reporter, Lisa Thomas Lori. She continued the conversation by saying something to the effect that I could never be Lisa Thomas Lori if I talked black.

I just had to take a very deep breath as I shared that story with you. Not because I am angered. As I reflect upon that experience, I do not believe this teacher was being malicious. In fact, I stand firm in my belief that she was very fond of me, wanted to see me do well and knew all too well some of the obstacles I might face. I take a deep breath because that one interaction had such a profound impact on me. I knew from that day that I would have to navigate school differently. I couldn’t help but to self-consciously think, “How can I be less black.” These feelings impacted my relationships with my friends, gave me a sense of shame about my family and even and was integral to decades of self-doubt.

I was on guard from that day forward, not just from her, but people like her, white teachers who seemed to be overly fond of me. I felt that they would accept me as long as I fit in a box that wasn’t “too black” and besides some of the obvious stereotypes, I wasn’t all too sure what those parameters were.

I tell this story as a way to provide one single recommendation as teachers approach race and implicit bias in the classroom. Never underestimate the power of your words to change a child’s perception of themselves. Remind students of their value and unique abilities, but never remind them of the color of their skin.

Thanks to Adeyemi, Sanée, Raquel, Ruchi and Lynell for their contributions!

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