Teaching Opinion

Response: Engaging With Class & Race In The Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 18, 2014 13 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This week’s question is:

What are constructive ways teachers can deal with issues of race and class in the classroom?

Issues of race and class are always present in our classrooms, whether we acknowledge them or not. They can be seen in the physical quality of our school, the resources we have to work with, the level of challenges our students face, and the socioeconomic and ethnic background of both our students and those of us who teach them...

So, given the existence of race and class issues, how can we teachers best engage with them?

Today, three educators -- Ashanti Foster, Melissa Bollow Tempel, and P. L. Thomas -- and a number of readers share their thoughts on this challenge.

In addition, you can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Ashanti and P.L. on my BAM! Radio Show where they elaborated on their written responses. And, by the way, my interview with Emily Geltz and Linda Rief on working with student teachers can now also be found at the same link.

Before we get to my guests, I’d like to briefly share a story from my own teaching experience that I’ve previously shared elsewhere:

We were studying World History in my English Language Learner classroom, and had reached the textbook chapter on the Middle Ages. The textbook’s authors listed several key facts about feudalism: People spent most of their time working in the fields, they didn’t own the land they farmed, and their homes had one or two rooms. The book flatly declared that feudalism had ended with the Renaissance. Instead of having students memorize these facts, I asked students to think about them, write about whether they’d experienced any of these conditions in their home culture, and ask their parents and grandparents the same question.

After their family discussions, every student commented that they were either experiencing some of those “feudal” conditions currently or had done so very recently - either before their families emigrated or while they lived in refugee camps. The class concluded that the textbook was mistaken in saying feudalism had ended and we sent a letter to the authors, though we never received a reply (in retrospect, this would have been an excellent opportunity to invite School Board members or other District leadership to class for a class conversation about if it was time to change textbooks).

Examining parallels between their lives and the lives of people in the Middle Ages strongly engaged students. Many clamored to read more challenging texts about the Middle Ages. This unit provided countless opportunities for my students to learn reading strategies, academic vocabulary, and grammar. They embraced those opportunities because the lessons took place within the framework of their own stories and those of their families.

During my 19-year community organizing career (prior to becoming a teacher), our primary strategy was to learn people’s stories, have them share those stories with others, and then help them develop a new interpretation of those stories. This new interpretation then was the engine that would propel themselves to action. It’s similar to a challenge we face in the classroom--we need to help students connect our lesson content to their background knowledge and then, with their help, attach new understandings and learnings to it.

This story-sharing-and-interpreting strategy can be just one in many to deal with issues of class and race in the classroom.

I’ve compiled other potential useful resources in these three posts:

The Best Resources About Wealth & Income Inequality

A Collection Of Useful Posts, Articles & Videos On Race & Racism

The Best Teacher Resource Sites For Social Justice Issues

The Best Posts & Articles On How To Teach “Controversial” Topics

Now, to today’s guest responses:

Response from Ashanti Foster

Ashanti Foster is a school administrator and educational consultant. She is Academic Dean at Oxon Hill Middle School in Prince George’s County, Md., and also operates FOSTERVISION Educational Services. She was selected as part of the ASCD Emerging Leaders class of 2013:

Race and social class are just two ways that schools and students are assessed, provided resources and looked upon for effectiveness. Acknowledging teacher bias is the foundation of working with and being comfortable having and supporting race and class discussions in the classroom.

In order to feel comfortable teaching an individual or group of students that an educator may not connect with, we must search for resources, seek guidance from peers and arm ourselves with compassion and understanding for all learners.

Providing a safe place for students to explore and discuss various topics while relating the discourse to the content being taught is when teaching becomes art. A safe environment is built with group norms, empathy and seeking to understand, rather than to be heard. Environments with literature that represents various cultures, races and time periods for students to reflect upon who they are the contribution they bring to the class, the school and the world.

Educators must guide students in crafting a common vision for the environment to include classroom norms, routines and incentives/consequences for how expectations are implemented. When students create the expectations there is greater buy-in and accountability. Teaching students to build communities within the classroom, regardless of race and social class, helps students see each other as human beings. Incorporating activities that highlight similarities over differences and placing the spotlight on common goals leaves little room for division. What we build is an academic culture for teaching and learning which crosses all racial and economic areas.

However, it is important to acknowledge that we are different also. Have every student answer this question: What makes you unique or what can you do that no one else in the room can do? What sets you apart from others on the team? Think about how you would feel if someone didn’t take the time to practice the actual pronunciation of your name? Differences are what make a collaborative team vibrant. Mixing strengths and weaknesses, experiences and dreams, failures and triumphs while learning together is essential.

Educators can facilitate the ‘Find Someone Who’ activity where various characteristics are listed on a piece of paper with a place for student signatures. Students travel from classmate to classmate trying to obtain signatures from the person born outside of the U.S., the only child and the person who lives in an apartment, to name a few. Next, the teacher can instruct students to group themselves into various categories to show how they can be the same and different simultaneously. For example, four girls may have the favorite color purple but only two enjoy swimming. This kinesthetic representation shows students that people of different races can operate under one academic culture - the one in which they built, together.

We all have a story to tell, a heart that heals and a mind to believe in one common goal.

Response From Melissa Bollow Tempel

Melissa Bollow Tempel has worked for 8 years as a classroom teacher and 2 years as Culturally Responsive Teacher Leader in Milwaukee Public Schools, and 3 years as a Spanish teacher. She and her family live in Milwaukee and her children attend Milwaukee Public Schools. Melissa is an editor with Rethinking Schools and an activist with the Educators’ Network for Social Justice:

Almost daily, I hear students who feel they’ve been treated unfairly call a teacher “racist”. Usually, these students do not understand the meaning of words like “racist.” But they understand its power. It’s important that teachers stop to address this each time they hear it, just as one would stop to address students who hurl insults such as “retard” or “gay”. If we take the time to discuss these words, their various meanings and uses, and the differences between terms like racism, discrimination, prejudice not only will students stop using them inaccurately, but when students do experience or witness racism they will be able to identify it as such and do something about it. This video by Jay Smooth is a good starting point for secondary students. For more on dealing with issues of race in the classroom, check out Rita Tenorio’s, Race and Respect Among Young Children and more in Rethinking Multicultural Education by Wayne Au.

My favorite children’s book for addressing class, “Those Shoes” by Maribeth Boelts, was recommended to me by teacher, Angela Aranda. The book is about a boy who wants so badly to have the same overpriced shoes everyone else is wearing but can’t afford them. Before reading the book, Aranda asks students to describe what it means to be poor. During and after reading the book, Aranda has students analyze the text to determine whether or not the main character is poor and if it’s possible to be happy if you don’t have enough. Aranda also recommends, “Gettin’ Through Thursday” and “The Lady in the Box” to spark conversation on issues of class and poverty.

Have you ever heard, “He can afford those $120 sneakers but he can’t pay for the__________”? It’s difficult to refrain from judging students’ socioeconomic situation based on their material possessions. We don’t know how or why families make the financial decisions that they do. Who hasn’t purchased items they can’t afford because they provide a moment of happiness? In my classroom, I make sure that I never charge more than $10 for a field trip, and I try to keep the cost to families below $5. All my students are given an opportunity to attend all field trips. I ask families to provide supplies but I don’t nag the students to bring them. Yes, that means sometimes I am coughing up my own money. No, I shouldn’t have to. The book Case Studies on Diversity and Social Justice Education by Paul Gorski and Seema Pothini is an excellent resource. The education system we live in may perpetuate unfair policies and unjust practices, but they will never have a place in my classroom.

Response From P. L. Thomas

After teaching high school English in rural South Carolina for 18 years, P.L. Thomas is an Associate Professor and Faculty Director, First Year Seminars at Furman University (Greenville, SC). He blogs at the becoming radical and Tweets under @plthomasEdD. His latest co-edited volume is Social Context Reform (Routledge):

Two of the most powerful lessons I learned during the first several years of teaching high school English--lessons that shifted my lessons away from being teacher-centered and transmissional and toward greater engagement by my students--included replacing learning objectives with essential questions and expanding the texts explored in class in terms of genre, medium, and mode.

This is where I would start to confront difficult concepts such as race and class, as well as the related racism and classism.

One guiding essential question as an entry point into these lessons is, Who are in U.S. prisons? Students are likely to respond well to start their consideration of this question by looking at data. Along with building a foundation for discussing race and class, students should consider the power of statistics and graphic representations of data.

The data can be supplemented by authoritative texts, such as The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander as well as a number of online responses to her work.

Especially effective in an ELA setting, a second essential question as an entry point into race and class is, How are race and class (along with racism and classism) reflected in our attitudes toward language?

Two powerful texts can supplement this question well: Ralph Ellison’s “What These Children Are Like” and James Baldwin’s “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?”

Raising questions about race and class are central to building constructive lessons for the classroom, but students also need multi-genre and multi-media entry points in order to find the ways in which they are more capable of stepping back from their own assumptions. Some students will respond to non-fiction print texts while others will be compelling by videos of powerful speakers addressing race and class.

Here are some powerful texts for race and class lessons:

Non-fiction by Martin Luther King Jr., “Final Words of Advice” and “Where Do We Go from Here?” (I prefer to use texts from King students are unlikely to see in the traditional canon), and by James Baldwin, “A Report from Occupied Territory.”

Videos of talks or interviews with Toni Morrison and James Baldwin pair well with the print-only essays above as a multi-media non-fiction unit. These talks and interviews also serve as effective entry points into long-form non-fiction, such as documentaries. Two documentaries set in schools and confronting race and class that have worked well with my students are Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later and Prom Night in Mississippi.

Fiction, however, may provide the best context for students to step away from assumptions. For example, having students read or view X-Men comics/ graphic novels and films, since the central motif of that superhero narrative is prejudice and minority statuses (see two blog posts here and here about the comic book series and recent film adaptations).

More traditional works of fiction that serve well to examine race and class are An Untamed State, Roxane Gay (see a review here) and “The Lesson,” Toni Cade Bambara.

Conversations about race and class are rare in the U.S., except in ways that are not productive--claims we are a post-racial society or lingering racist and classist discourse. However, our classrooms can begin the sorts of conversations that will serve our students and society well, if we take the care to make the opportunity available.

Responses From Readers

Eve Ikeler:

Most of my students come from working-class, blue-collar families involved in agriculture.

Earlier this year, I was doing a short story unit with my Sophomores. We read Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” and discussed the stream-of-consciousness style. To contrast, we watched/listened to “I Enjoy Being a Girl” from Roger and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song musical from 1958. I had students discuss and write a response to the two notions of “girl” that we looked at, and how these experiences of femininity were constructed. My students came down to the idea that Kincaid’s “Girl” was born out of poverty and necessity, whereas Flower Drum Song’s “Girl” was socially and financially wealthy, and could afford to be frivolous.

It was an interesting conversation, especially with a class of 23 boys and 4 girls. We went on to write our own gender stories, based on what we’d been taught on how to act like a man or woman from family, coaches, friends, and media.

Thanks to Ashanti, Melissa, Paul and to many readers for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first three years of blog, you can see a categorized list below. You won’t see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking on the monthly archives link on blog’s sidebar:

Student Motivation

Implementing The Common Core

Teaching Reading and Writing

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching Social Studies

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Teaching English Language Learners

Using Tech In The Classroom

Education Policy Issues

Teacher & Administrator Leadership

Instructional Strategies


Teaching Math & Science

Brain-Based Learning

School Relationships

Author Interviews

Professional Development

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

Watch for the next “question-of-the-week” in a few days....

Related Tags:

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.