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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Courageous Conversations’ Are Needed to Discuss Race in Schools

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 24, 2017 23 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

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?

Part One‘s contributors were 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.

Today, Karen Baptiste, Jason Flom, Dr. Jonas Chartock, Dr. Mara Lee Grayson, and Dara Naphan share their responses.

Response From Karen Baptiste

Karen Baptiste is an associate with CT3, an organization that provides professional development, coaching, and school culture planning to 350 schools across America. She is a recognized special education advocate with a commitment to serving disenfranchised youth. She was selected in 2013 as one of 24 Emerging Leaders by the 115,000-member ASCD, a worldwide professional educational alliance:

With the election of our first black president, many clung to hope that we had entered a post-racial America. The recent events in Charlottesville proved that we are not as far along in this journey as we had hoped, a sad truth that many educators across the United States have known for a long time. Despite the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” our schools are still separate and unequal.

The resegregation of America’s schools over the past 20 years has created an environment where lack of exposure to those different from ourselves presents a seemingly insurmountable barrier. Because we are separated from one another, it is impossible to build relationships with each other. Without a trusting relationship, we cannot have a courageous conversation and approach topics that are uncomfortable and scary.

Fear spreads; hate spreads; the cycle seems unbreakable. But it isn’t.

The Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education reported in 2014 that for all suspensions of preschool-age children, 42 percent were given to black children, compared with 28 percent given to their white peers. Unfortunately, many schools whose demographics are predominantly children of color have become analogous to prisons, with metal detectors, bars on windows in some school districts, police officers on guard, and teachers or administrators as wardens.

Those groups that are consistently marginalized (students of color and students with disabilities) are not proportionate or nearly representative of the teachers serving them; more than half of students attending public school are children of color, while less than 2 percent of teachers are black males.

Schools struggle to recruit and retain teachers of color due to lack of exposure, not talent. Because our students fail to see a representation of themselves in the teaching field, they have little desire to enter it. I know because I am one of those students. It wasn’t until I got to college that I had a professor invest in me and help me find my hidden talents. Today I am fortunate to share what I have learned with coaches and teachers all over the country.

In the school culture work I do through CT3, I see firsthand how diversity in schools can stimulate creativity and build cultural understanding, not only among students but also non-white teachers and staff who often face the same disadvantages. But if all adults are not seen in the school as equal, valued members, it will be impossible to create a trusting environment.

When we all agree that we have a problem with race, class, and equity in education, then comes the challenging question, “Now what?” What can we all do to start fixing the problem? I often hear educators say, “I’m only a teacher, what can I do?”

The first step is to learn how to have a courageous conversation: an honest discussion about what has happened and is happening in our classrooms and how it makes us—all of us—feel. We cannot work together to create solutions for problems about which we are afraid to talk. The key is to find a way to have meaningful communication to understand what is at the root cause of our feelings and beliefs. Often what we find is that there is more that binds us together than separates us, contrary to the images we saw coming from the Charlottesville rally.

As for much of the commentary that followed it, let me be clear: A panel of so-called experts shouting at one another is not a courageous conversation; that’s venting.

In their book “Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools,” Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton explain how courageous conversations utilize the agreements, conditions, and compass that engage, sustain, and deepen interracial dialogue about race in order to examine schooling and improve student achievement. A courageous conversation requires every person in the school to make the time and commitment to come together, regularly. One courageous conversation that makes you feel better is a good start, but that is not where it is supposed to end.

With courageous conversations, we accept that we might get upset or frustrated, but we agree that being vulnerable is OK. Everyone’s opinion, respectfully stated, is valid no matter how uneducated or uninformed it might seem to you. Much of the work of CT3 is based on authentic, trusting relationships. Similarly, courageous conversations must happen in a place that is safe, and must be supported by our school administrators. If your administration is not supportive, then that could be an opportunity for your first courageous conversation.

Courageous conversations start like this:

“I feel safe in my classroom, but if I am being honest, I am scared of some of my students when they are hanging with their friends and their conversation gets loud.”

“I resent that most people of color are placed in a dean position while most whites are placed in a principal position.”

“My job is only to teach ... these kids don’t care about school ... if their parents don’t care, why should I?”

This is where it gets real. This is where we move from confrontation to communication.

Open, collaborative dialogue about diversity and culture can lay the foundation for change when used as a discussion tool, and when both sides listen emphatically to each other’s beliefs. In my work at CT3—training coaches all over the country to work with teachers—I often encourage them to put themselves in the other’s shoes. When discussing sentiment, experts use statements such as “This is how I feel when you ...” Being honest without judgment allows the safe space necessary for people to have courageous conversations.

So what is the connection between courageous conversations and closing the equity gap?

Courageous conversations can lead to the formation of an “equity team” of students, teachers, parents, school safety officers, and community stakeholders to discuss inequities and the beliefs that uphold them. The result can be a multi-tiered plan of support that addresses equitable curriculum, mentors for all students, effective discipline hierarchies that are not used punitively, incentive systems, and social/emotional support before referring students to special education.

Broward County Public Schools created an entire team dedicated to equity and academic attainment where schools identified ambassadors responsible for leading conversations on how to eliminate the racial predictability and disproportionality of harsh discipline, like suspension. This path has led to significant decreases in suspensions and student arrests and increases in students of color entering Advanced Placement classes and gifted and talented programs.

At CT3, we believe curriculum should be challenging, accessible to all students, and culturally relevant by providing students opportunities to build confidence, self-efficacy, and global awareness and develop critical-thinking skills to challenge the status quo and engage in critical dialogue. People of color have remained oppressed in most educational settings, because their history has either been extremely diluted in textbooks or wiped out completely.

I’ve shared with principals that dedicating one month to Black History is not enough to say your curriculum is culturally relevant; creating robust classroom libraries where students have endless books about their culture and language is a start. Curriculum that accurately depicts all viewpoints and the role people of color held throughout history and how it impacts students today and for the future is another gateway.

Now let’s talk about the teacher-student relationship. Showing passion and commitment to transformation means working and becoming involved in the community where students live. We encourage educators to regularly visit student homes, churches, and local stores to understand the needs and culture of the community students live in. This is a start to building trusting relationships that encourage students to care about learning. You can’t have effective conversations if people don’t trust that you have their best interest at heart.

Just as fear and hate are taught, so are love and respect. It is in these uniting virtues that we can embrace our nation’s children and teach them to do the very thing our generation was unable to on Saturday, Aug. 12, in Charlottesville, Va.

School is the primary institution responsible for providing equal opportunities by truly teaching all students acceptance, diversity, and equality. Our job as educators is not to simply help our students rise above inequity and escape poverty, but to be fearless in ending it, so that all students, regardless of ZIP code, can experience a principle this nation was founded on—that all are created equal.

Response From Jason Flom

Jason Flom is director of Cornerstone Learning Community in Tallahassee, Fla., a whole-child school focusing on diverse learning profiles, social justice, and problem based learning. At the heart of the school is a teacher leadership model built on collegial inquiry, collaboration, and shared responsibility. He also serves as a faculty member with ASCD’s Professional Learning Services:

Ideally every educator, regardless of color, would take an anti-racism class, such as those offered by Glenn Singleton’s Pacific Educational Group (now more generally known as Courageous Conversations). Such programs increase awareness of race’s role in day-in day-out experiences, and more importantly, help white educators (of which I am) better understand privilege and bias.

However, not everyone has access to and/or available funds for taking part in such programs. What, then, can an individual do? The recipe is fairly simple:

  1. Raise one’s awareness.
  2. Listen and seek to understand others first.
  3. Observe when race related dialogue makes you uncomfortable, and then question why. That discomfort is one of your roadmaps to surfacing and understanding your implicit bias.

Toward raising awareness, below are resources to help you uncover your own bias, and provide a foundation for the ongoing work of dismantling racism—individual, institutional, and societal. Ultimately, the first action begins with changing our personal patterns, stances on differences, and assumptions on race.

1. Learn your own bias. Harvard’s “Project Implicit” provides scores of tests that can help you understand your hidden biases.

2. Read authors who understand race.

  • Ta-Nehisi Coate’s “Between the World and Me” is brilliant. Read it with a diverse book group for best effect. While it isn’t specifically school related, it offers keen insights and enlightenments.
  • Robert Wald Sussman’s “The Myth of Race” provides an exquisite and exhaustive look at the history of race, eugenics, and the cultural war still at play today.
  • Christopher Emdin’s “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood . . . and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education” is practical, powerful, and poetic in its prose.
  • José Vilson’s “This is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education” offers personal commentary as well as a poignant view of race in the classroom from a classroom teacher intimately familiar with the challenges therein.

3. Other resources:

BAM Radio’s podcast “What is Culturally Responsive Classroom? Why It Matters” explores various practices that are practically applicable tomorrow. (Full disclosure, I am one of the commentators in this episode, though the great Baruti Kafali is the main guest.)

Response From Dr. Jonas Chartock

Dr. Jonas Chartock is the Chief Executive Officer of Leading Educators, a national resource to school districts and policymakers in their efforts to maximize the leadership development and impact of highly effective teachers. He resides in New Orleans, La.:

There is a clear but all-too-often ignored connection between working for racial justice and wanting to ensure that students have access to great instruction. What we have learned at Leading Educators is that great teaching is activism; the actions you take and the effects they have are never neutral. By simultaneously challenging students with rigorous instruction and supporting them through the process of building critical consciousness, teachers can help ensure that their students are empowered with the skills, mindsets, and self-awareness needed to access and create opportunities to shape the world around them.

We all have implicit bias, but acknowledging that bias can feel especially confusing to educators since they have chosen a career path that directly serves and supports children. Nevertheless, it is essential for teachers to identify structures that allow them to be reflective and open to questioning their own beliefs as they relate to race and bias. In our work with teacher leaders, this starts with unpacking one’s own personal story and connecting that narrative to motivations for becoming a teacher. We know that examining bias can feel deeply painful and upsetting, so sharing personal stories creates an opportunity to build trust among peers. Courageous Conversations About Race by Glen E. Singleton is a great resource for thinking about how to structures these conversations.

Persistent demographics in the teaching profession create a setting where most students of color are taught by white teachers, which makes disrupting systemic inequality more challenging. So how might white teachers move from thinking about their personal narrative to understanding and addressing systemic racism? Developing common language and shared definitions of concepts such as microaggressions, bias, prejudice, privilege, institutionalized racism, personally-mediated racism, and internalized racism is critical to having effective conversations. Dr. Camara Jones gave a useful TEDxEmory presentation that helps to frame these ideas in an accessible way.

Improving educational experiences for students of color requires providing opportunities to affirm their experiences as well as access to consistently rigorous instruction. While white teachers work to develop a strong understanding of their racial identity and its implications for how they see and interact with the world, they must commit to developing deep knowledge of their content and the best instructional practices for meeting the needs of all students. Realizing that educational equity means having access to challenging learning experiences requires teachers to think about how equity goals become key to their instruction rather than seeing it as something additive. Each of us comes to the classroom with our own set of experiences that shape how we see students, so we have to make sure we are holding consistently high expectations for all students and providing appropriate supports through our instruction.

Most schools express a desire to work towards cultural proficiency, but it is not always clear where to start. We at Leading Educators have experienced that uncertainty ourselves, especially in thinking about how to meet the needs of individuals who are at different places on the cultural proficiency continuum. To address this gap, we work with our school district partners to ensure that teachers and other instructional leaders participate in an explicit exploration of identity, bias, and equity through 15 hours of equity programming in their first year of learning alone. While participants are building content knowledge and adult development skills, they also make connections to equity by crafting a personal narrative, developing shared language, reflecting on experiences that have shaped their view of the world, practicing learning conversations to address bias, and ultimately aligning instruction to the anti-bias framework developing by the organization, Teaching Tolerance. This framework is a great place to move towards building the will and skill to eliminate bias from instruction, and it outlines standards for anti-biased education at all grade levels and across content areas. If teachers and schools commit themselves to prioritizing a culture of equity as the foundation of everything they do, ongoing reflection, adjustment, and practice in service of antiracism stands to be more successful.

Response From Dr. Mara Lee Grayson

Dr. Mara Lee Grayson is a lecturer of English at Pace University whose research focuses on racial literacy in composition studies and memoir writing as self-reflection. Her scholarship and creative work can be found in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Columbia Journal, and Fiction, among other publications. Her book on racial literacy is forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield:

While people tend to think of themselves as unique, everyone is influenced by the cultural contexts of the larger society and the smaller families and communities of which they are a part. Unpacking these social and cultural influences is integral to understanding race, racism, and implicit bias. In the classroom, teachers can assign an informal, ungraded Racial Autobiography to encourage students to begin to reflect upon their experiences with and understanding of race and identity.

The racial autobiography is built from the model of the broader literacy narrative. Instead of inviting reflection upon early reading and writing experiences, the racial autobiography asks students to recall their early experiences learning about race and racism. The structure for the assignment is flexible and should serve the needs of the class and its students. Teachers may ask for an essay, a list of short answers, or a thematic personal story. Useful questions to get students thinking include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • When did you first learn about race?
  • Was race talked about in your home?
  • What does the word “culture” mean to you?
  • Did you grow up near people who looked like you, spoke your language, or shared similar customs?
  • Have you ever felt out of place because of your race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic class (or some part of your “culture,” however you define that term)?
  • Have you ever been discriminated against? How so?
  • Have you ever discriminated against someone else? How so? Why?

This assignment is especially useful early in the schoolyear, when students may not yet be fully comfortable sharing their ideas and experiences openly in the classroom, especially where complex, emotionally charged issues like racism and identity are concerned. The racial autobiography invites reflection without the pressure of direct interpersonal interaction. Not only does the practice of reflective writing encourage students to see how they themselves fit into larger questions about race and racism, beginning with what they know from experience eases students into conversations and debates than can otherwise seem abstract and difficult to articulate. Assigning the essay early on also helps the teacher establish a baseline of racial awareness for each student; teachers can then shape the rest of the curriculum to respond to the needs of the students in the classroom.

After students write their autobiographies, they should further reflect (in guided in-class activities, free writing, or class discussion) upon how those experiences might contribute to their understandings of the world. Reflecting upon their own experiences with race, racism, and identity helps students see that what is normative in society may not feel normal or typical for everyone. In classroom interaction, the recognition that all knowledge is situated may help students become more open to listening to their peers’ perspectives. Once students have gotten to know one another inside the classroom, instructors can invite students to share their personal narratives in small groups. The embodied learning that occurs when students share with and listen to one another can be transformative in understanding others’ experiences and perspectives.

Teachers too can benefit from intensive reflection upon their own experiences with race and racism—and teachers should never assign a personal essay they themselves would not be willing to write. Before bringing this activity into their classrooms, teachers should write their own racial autobiographies and then reflect, through additional writing or in conversation with likeminded colleagues, about the ways in which their own social identities might influence their beliefs about education, pedagogy, and the students they teach.

Response From Dara Naphan

Dara Naphan is a social psychologist currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University. She is interested in understanding the experiences of students who are underrepresented and marginalized in engineering, and the factors that improve their experiences and increase their persistence:

Emboldening White teachers to be Antiracist

Today, when we hear the word “emboldened” it’s usually referencing racists who’ve followed xenophobic behaviors modeled to them by the powerful. To counter our county’s renewed racism, teachers need to feel emboldened to be antiracist. Far too often, White teachers—who dominate the K-12 pipeline—are paralyzed by concerns about appearing or acting racially biased. So, rather than engage their students in discussions about race, even when these students witness and need to make sense of racial oppression they see in their country, they adopt “colorblind” pedagogies and skirt around discussions about race.

Speaking as a White teacher myself, I should speak in the collective voice when I recommend those of us teachers who are White, to confront our fragility. Having received invisible knapsacks of privilege often unbeknownst to us, White teachers are less likely to have developed our racial identities or thought about power and privilege. Thus, to even begin to address how K-12 students learn about the racism that plagues and limits our society, White teachers need to go back to school.

First we need identify, and then disarm our own “implicit racial biases,” a term used to describe icebergs under the ocean’s surface that we don’t think about or even notice but which have devastating effects on students. Teachers cannot self-stereotype as caring and helpful, and unconsciously apply ramifying labels like “likely to cheat or steal” to our students of color and “most likely to succeed” to students who look like us. We need to break, not simply identify bad habits. In moments of greater cognitive load, like a hectic class period, we’re likely to revert back to old habits, meaning we must fundamentally change how we think about and interact with students.

We can do this in many ways. For example, common suggestions are that we should take the perspective of our students of color, which can increase our psychological closeness to them, and increase and strengthen our personal relationships with people from different racial groups in our personal lives, which can alter cognitive representations of different racial groups[1]. Another recommendation is to practice mindfulness meditation.[2] Its tenets include non-judgmental awareness through approaching stimuli with “child’s eyes,” and thoughtfully responding to stimuli as opposed to automatically reacting. Finally, White teachers should understand that they can create new neural pathways, and progressively uproot even deep-seated biases. When people see their prejudices as a habit that can be broken, they will be more apt to perspective-take, make new friends, and engage in mindful mediation.[3]

Paulo Freire once explained that education can either perpetuate status quo power structures, or be “the means by which men and women deal critically and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” Here is the bottom line: to teach our students to be critical and empower them to change what they critique in the world, as White teachers we must ourselves learn to be critical, and start with critiquing all the ways we pacify, remain comfortable and non-threatened, and un-emboldened to model antiracism for our students, and start with transforming that.

[1] Devine, P. G., Forscher, P. S., Austin, A. J., & Cox, W. T. (2012). Long-term reduction in implicit race bias: A prejudice habit-breaking intervention. Journal of experimental social psychology, 48(6), 1267-1278.

[2] Lueke, A., & Gibson, B. (2015). Mindfulness meditation reduces implicit age and race bias: The role of reduced automaticity of responding. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(3), 284-291.

[3] Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets and human nature: Promoting change in the Middle East, the schoolyard, the racial divide, and willpower. American Psychologist, 67(8), 614.

Thanks to Karen, Jonas, Jason, Mara, and Dara for their contributions!

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Look for Part Three in a few days..




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