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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: ‘We Need to Face Our Own Discomfort’ About Discussing Racism

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 16, 2018 18 min read
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(This is the first post is a three-part series)

The new question of the week is:

What are the biggest mistakes teachers make when approaching race and racism issues in the classroom and what should they do instead?

Discussing racism and race issues in the classroom can be a challenge for teachers and students alike. This three-part series will talk about mistakes that are often made when trying to tackle that challenge, and explore what we teachers can do, instead.

Today’s guest responses come from Marian Dingle, Sydney Chaffee, Raquel Rios, Rinard Pugh and Dr. Kimberly N. Parker. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Marian on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, the BAM! site has a minor technical issue so that the shows won’t play immediately - when you click “play episode” and a new window pops-up, you’ll need to click the play button in the window again. It’s not a big deal.

You might also be interested in the following related resources:

Previous columns appearing here on Race & Gender Challenges.

“Best” Lists Of The Week: Resources For Teaching & Learning About Race & Racism

New & Revised: Resources To Help Us Predominantly White Teachers To Reflect On How Race Influences Our Work

New & Revised: A Collection Of Advice On Talking To Students About Race & Racism

We Should Be Obsessed With Racial Equity

By the way, this post is the five-hundredth one published over the past seven years. During that time, thousands of experienced educators have offered their responses to the most critical questions facing us teachers in the classroom.

Now, it’s time for today’s guests:

Response From Marian Dingle

Marian Dingle begins her twentieth year teaching elementary students, currently teaching fourth and fifth graders in Atlanta, GA. Passionate about mathematics, she has served on her district’s mathematics advisory board, and is a board member of Twitter Math Camp. She is a current Heinemann Fellow conducting action research in mathematics. Follow her at @DingleTeach:

Being Colorblind

Although most people of color grow up discussing race freely, most others who are not people of color were brought up to not notice race at all. For some, the mere utterance of Black, Latinx, White, etc. must inherently mean they are racist. If we teach students to notice patterns, nuance, connections, then it is counterintuitive for them not to notice race.

Referring to the student in the “red shirt, blue cap, and brown belt” seems a tedious description for a student who is clearly the only Chinese-American student in the room, for example. The erasure of the word that names a race equates to the erasure of an important part of a person’s identity. That stance implies that race is something of which not to be proud. Instead, we should talk to our students about our racial identities, and allow them to talk about theirs. We can not begin to talk about race if we are uncomfortable naming it.

Not Working on Self

Many educators assume that the creation a trusting classroom environment is enough for discussing race. However, educators who do not address their own implicit bias and level of privilege can leave students silenced and harmed, and can negate the very trusting environment they seek to create. For example, educators may believe that certain groups of students need “saving” from their environments. This is a deficit mindset, which limits the trajectory of what students can achieve. Please remember that the educator is not the savior hero. Instead, view all students by their assets, not their deficits.

Also, survey your relationships with your students. Ask yourself:

  • Am I closer to some than others?
  • Is there a racial pattern?

These questions may seem scary to answer, but are crucial to getting at personal bias. Once we are aware of our own patterns, we can begin to change them, increasing the chance that our students will trust us.

Practicing With Students First Instead of Adults

Once educators address their bias and privilege, they may make the mistake on immediately beginning these conversations with their students. The truth is, unless we are willing to have these conversations with other adults in our lives, these attempts at difficult conversations will not ring true. Experimenting with children when we are not courageous enough to do so in our own lives is irresponsible, and again, can cause harm with students. This is hard, and mistakes will be made. The good news is, once we do begin to confront discussing race with other adults, with those from our own racial groups and those who are not, we will get better at doing so.

Not Using Diverse Instructional Materials Or Curriculum

As much as educators may think they have strong relationships with their students, nothing communicates that as clearly as having representational materials in the classroom. Do our classroom libraries include authors of color or protagonists of color? Do all students see themselves on the classroom walls? It has been said time and time again: representation matters. Show students that they are all valued in the instructional space.

Assuming That Only Students Of Color Need To Discuss Race

Topics of race and racism affect all students and adults. Assuming that only students of color need to discuss it is patronizing and just untrue. Race is an important topic that all of us should be discussing. That dialogue is key for moving forward.

Response From Sydney Chaffee

Sydney Chaffee is the 2017 National Teacher of the Year. She teaches 9th grade Humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Boston, MA:

White teachers can fall into a trap of unknowingly perpetuating harmful ideas about race and racism in our classrooms. If we ignore race or insist that we are “colorblind,” for example, we tell students that race does not matter. But our students, especially our students of color, know that race plays a huge role in shaping how they are perceived and how they move through the world. So rather than avoiding talking about race and racism in our classrooms, we need to face our own discomfort.

Here are three strategies that have helped me get brave in doing this work:

Commit to learning. Many White people, including me, have been socialized to believe that talking about race is rude--or just too hard. We need to purposefully work to unlearn those beliefs. For me, taking a workshop called “White People Challenging Racism” gave me opportunities to explore my own racial identity and discuss race and racism with other White folks. Putting myself into learner mode equipped me with language and tools to approach race and racism issues in my school and classroom.

We may not all have access to a workshop like that one, but we can do the same kind of work within our school communities. Professional development in schools should include sessions focused on racial equity work. During these sessions, staff members can meet in racial affinity groups, read and discuss shared texts, or participate in restorative justice-style circle conversations. It’s important to remember that this work is ongoing; no one PD session, conversation, or book can ever check off a box indicating that we’re “done” learning about race and equity.

Be transparent and honest with students. As teachers, we know that we always have more to learn. But sometimes, when it comes to race, we forget how important it is to model lifelong learning for our students. Our students learn so much from us when they see us actively grappling with complex ideas, challenging our own assumptions, or seeking out more information.

Within the first week of school, my students know that our classroom is a place where we can and should talk about race. Race and racism are critical factors in the histories we study, and their legacies are alive and well today. And for my students, who are almost all students of color, those legacies are not abstractions. So when a student brings up a connection between a historical event and a current one, I seize the learning moment for them and for me. Sometimes, I tell them that my Whiteness makes it impossible for me to fully understand their lived experiences, but that I am working to learn as much as I can. And when something comes up that I do not have the answer to, I say those magic words: “I don’t know,” and then make a plan for how we can find the information together.

Listen more than you speak. Just as it’s important for us to show our students that we are always learning, we have to show them that we honor their voices and experiences. Sometimes, when issues of race and racism come up in our classrooms, whether organically or by design, the best thing we can do is to be quiet. Our students have stories to tell. They have questions. They need time to talk and process together, in safe and structured environments. As teachers, we have to teach our students how to talk about the tough stuff together. We can proactively build teaching collaborative discussion skills into our curricula so students--and we--are ready when conversations about race and racism come up.

Talking about race and racism in our classrooms doesn’t have to be scary. Challenging, yes. Uncomfortable, maybe. But the alternative--White teachers’ silence--is far more frightening. Our silence discounts our students’ experiences and condones ignorance. Worse, it can make our classrooms places where some of our students feel unseen, unheard, or unsafe.

Let’s commit to getting brave together.

Response From Raquel Rios

Raquel Rios, PhD is an educator, consultant and author of the book Teacher Agency for Equity: A Framework for Conscientious Engagement, Routledge, 2017. Visit her at ConscientiousEngagement.com:

Race is one aspect of human identity that changes reflecting the politics and science of the times. Now more than ever students are identifying as mixed-race or do not identify with any race category at all. The latter is especially true for Hispanics, according to a recent Census bureau research. Racial categories, which have been included on every U.S. census since the first one in 1790 have changed from decade to decade. The biggest mistake teachers make when trying to approach the topic of race is not to recognize that race is a social construct. The actual genetic difference between individual human beings is only about 0.1%. The second mistake teachers make is not seeing variation within racialized groups. Teachers do their best when they design learning experiences that reveal the multifaceted and complex nature of human identity and offer ample opportunities for students to teach others about their unique cultural experience.

According to Sonia Nieto, a leading scholar on this topic, culture is extremely dynamic, multifaceted, embedded in context, influenced by social, economic and political factors, socially constructed, learned and dialectical. Further, she suggests that culture is not a given, but a human creation, dependent on particular geographical, temporal and socio-political contexts and therefore vulnerable to issues of power and control.[1] Understanding the interrelationship between culture, learning and how students construct knowledge is important, especially now when we fall into the trap of reducing students to fixed, racialized identities when in fact, a student’s culture is the total expression of his or her humanity--that which includes race, ethnicity, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation but that which also includes other parts of who we are that are not always apparent, such as how we express ourselves through language and art, what religion we identify with if at all, how we communicate love, how we understand relationships and power in society and how we perceive, interpret and integrate historical events.

Culture and learning are connected, however fluid. Advances in the modern learning sciences have revealed that our brains are constantly shaped and reshaped by the interaction with the surrounding environment.[2] Social experiences and human interactions that engender fear, trauma, stress, hate, shame, embarrassment, low self-esteem impact brain functioning and cognition. These experiences are endemic and indicative of oppression. Our country grapples with a long history of racism and inequality, therefore it is important for teacher to learn to pay attention to their own mindset and behavior. The goal is to reduce stress, build trust and create an inclusive environment with love and acceptance so learning can occur. In order to do this work artfully, proactive teachers adopt a practice to foster critical consciousness. Critical consciousness is awareness of the intersection of factors that contribute to a person’s identity, a person’s sense of well-being and their readiness to learn.

Some methods for developing critical consciousness are a) sanctioned time for self-reflection and meditation b) engaging in intergroup dialogues on culture and class c) analyzing human rights movements and d) participating in imagery-based learning activities to strengthen the brain’s ability to see the world with novelty (Siegel, 2007).

[1] Nieto, S. (2008) Culture and education. In Yearbook for the National Society for the Study of Education. Blackwell Publishing

[2] Rose, D et al. (2011/12) The Universal Design for Learning Framework to Support Culturally Diverse Learners, Journal of Education

Response From Rinard Pugh

Rinard Pugh is currently an elementary principal. He lives with his wife and two children in West Michigan. He’s a graduate of Western Michigan University university. He is currently working on his Ed.S degree at Central Michigan University:

One of the biggest mistakes teachers make when approaching race and racism issues in the classroom is pretending like they don’t exist. Although I assume positive intentions behind statements like, “I don’t see color”, or ''I am colorblind,’' those statements and corresponding actions are actually counterproductive to the process. Race talk is very uncomfortable, but it is necessary in order to address the issues we have plaguing our nation today.

Teachers need to be trained and supported with cultural competency PD so they feel confident in addressing these talks in the classroom. I can recall a school I worked in and a teacher brought a concern to me regarding race. The teacher, which was a white female, spoke to me in confidence about an interaction between several students in her class. As an African American man, my upbringing and experiences differed some from my teacher colleague which actually worked in our favor, but we will address that later. The teacher told me that an Asian American student told her that she wants to be white like the majority of her classmates. She also said a few students in the class asked her why her eyes were slanted. What is most alarming to me is the thought that the young Asian American 2nd grader wanted to be white. She clearly was feeling indirect pressure from her experiences in school to change, which is a problem. The statement about her slanted eyes came from a stance of natural curiosity, which is common among students. My teacher colleague and I both felt we needed to do something to address this, so we decided to do a diversity talk with the kids.

I came to her classroom and we cracked a white egg and brown egg into two clear glass bowls. We showed the students the identical makeup of the two yolks and related it to our human genes. The reality is the exteriors may differ, but we are the same inside. We also encouraged students to ask questions, embrace differences, and celebrate diversity. None of this would have happened if we decided to sweep these behaviors under the rug at school. Doing that will slowly start to erode the culture of the school. The best thing is to address issues and call on help if you are unsure how to do it. Racism is a learned characteristic and the faster we can catch young minds and instill love for all people, the better off we will be.

Response From Dr. Kimberly N. Parker

Dr. Kimberly N. Parker currently works with preservice teachers as Assistant Director of Teacher Training at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, MA. As a Heinemann Fellow (2016-2018), Kim documented her successful work de-tracking her ELA classroom for students of color. Her continuing scholarship explores the literacy lives of Black youth, particularly those of Black boys. Twitter: @TchKimpossible:

I wanted to amend this question to include: if teachers even approach these issues at all, because I think there are a fair number of teachers who avoid discussing race and racism because of their own perceived discomfort. So, I’ll start there: if we want to have equitable, anti-racist classrooms, we have to decide to center the experiences of those who are not white in meaningful, intentional ways. This means, too, that we have to stop saying that these conversations are “uncomfortable” or “hard,” because, frankly, they are not. Conversations about race and racism might be hard for white teachers who are unfamiliar with engaging in these discussions; but for those of us who are people of color, this is our lived reality. Also, any potential signs of discomfort might be pointing to issues of white fragility; getting familiar with what that means and how it impacts interactions and discussions is critical. I suggest reading and discussing Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. This book is also perfect for teacher-led dialogues grounded in the ideas presented; these discussions can naturally lead to action steps white teachers can take in their classrooms and schools.

Another mistake teachers make is failing to understand the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness, and how we must continually unlearn and undo systems that have traditionally contributed to our failure to accurately represent the realities and aspirations of children of African descent. Most immediately, that begins with analyzing our own biases, our taken-for-granted notions about what we have come to regard about intelligence, language, literacies, and other parts of our beliefs and practices that are not affirming Black children. Then we need to move to action. It’s not enough to be aware; teachers must actively DO SOMETHING to change practice, and those ways can have lasting, substantial impacts. These actions are meaningful; when white teachers share what they are learning, when white teachers call other white teachers out on their white fragility, and when other white teachers #spendtyourprivilege to call attention to systemic issues of race and racism, systemic change is possible.

Finally, another mistake teachers make is not listening to the voices of educators of color. Oftentimes, educators of color are connected to children in schools in powerful ways and have insights and perspectives that others may not have. Taking the time to center the voices of teachers of color and to listen to their experiences in schools and with children is an invaluable endeavor. And when you listen, please listen to understand, not with defensiveness or through the lens of white fragility. Listen to hear how the experiences of educators of color inform the work of schools and the desired outcomes of students. Then, think about how you can amplify the voices of educators and children of color to support discussions and actions that improve equity.

While these initial efforts might be unfamiliar to white teachers, they are critical actions that can lead to substantial progress. To say nothing is to consent to continued racist treatment for children and communities in our schools; actions--however uncertain or small--lead to more actions. Those actions can create the change we need in our schools.

Thanks to Marian, Sydney, Raquel, Rinard and Dr. Parker for their contributions!

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