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Classroom Q&A

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: ‘White Educators Must Sharpen Their Humility’ Before They Discuss Race

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

In Part Two, Karen Baptiste, Jason Flom, Dr. Jonas Chartock, Dr. Mara Lee Grayson, and Dara Naphan shared their responses.

We wrap-up this series with commentaries today from Matthew Kay, Martha Caldwell, Oman Frame, Debbie Silver, Sonja Cherry-Paul, Dana Johansen, Alice Mercer, and Amy Okimoto. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Matthew Kay

Matthew Kay is beginning his twelfth year teaching in Philadelphia PA. He the founder and coordinator of the PYPM Slam League, the only youth slam poetry league in the nation. He is also the author of Loaded Conversations, coming out soon from Stenhouse Publishers:

To productively discuss race with minority students, many progressive, white educators must sharpen their humility. Daily cultural exchange with students of color has duped many white teachers into assuming an intimacy that does not exist. They reason that since students of color are comfortable discussing an occasional racial topic with them, they are also eager to “unpack” their deepest racial anxieties, anger, and confusion with them. However, there has always been a difference between collegial banter and “House Talk,” between the water cooler and the dining room table. It is dangerous to invite yourself to the latter because you are tolerated at the former. White teachers must, if they value their minority students’ comfort and safety, never assume that an invitation has been proffered. They must, through their earnest humility, earn a seat.

Here are three tips:

1) When minority students are working through racialized trauma, do not compare your experiences without being asked to do so.

Racialized traumas are personal. When, for instance, a young black boy is struggling with the realization that he could be the next Tamir Rice, his brother Trayvon Martin, his father Eric Garner, or his aunt Sandra Bland - he does not want his progressive white teachers attempting to soothe him with their own horror stories about the police. Nor does he want to discuss his white teachers’ hardscrabble ancestry, their noble struggles as Irish, Jewish, or Polish immigrants. These well-meaning gestures read like an attempt to de-racialize his trauma - to make universal what felt like a punch to his solar plexus. This is especially painful coming from a respected authority figure - and a seeming ally - when enemies are already telling him that race wasn’t an important factor.

He only wants his white teachers to listen. Ask questions. And if he feels like contextualizing his pain, he just might ask a white teacher to share experiences. Until then, check your eagerness to shoehorn your stories.

2) Fight the temptation to make a show of your anger. A student might think it’s their job to soothe you.

Progressive white teachers are rightfully furious at racial injustices. However, they must not make a “show” of this anger for their minority students. Tantrums are a call to be soothed - a responsibility that minority students shouldn’t have to shoulder. Tantrums also read like a thinly-veiled spasm of white guilt. Students of color see their teacher waving frantic reminders that they are not the bad guys. More often than not, students already know that their teachers are not rogue police, race-baiting politicians, or alt-right confederates. In times of crisis, they do not wish to spend their depleted energy affirming the people who should be affirming them.

3) Do not casually engage a minority student to stamp n’ certify your private thesis.

Progressive white teachers, minority students are not your sounding boards. They are not the black/latino/asian friend that you hope lends credence to your controversial opinion on race issues. When you publicly ask students to back you up, you tokenize them. The pressures of tokenism are multifaceted, and each facet is annoying: First, since you are the authority in the classroom, students are pressured to agree with you. If they choose to debate, and are subsequently proven wrong, their embarrassment is their race’s embarrassment. Second, tokenism heightens social tensions among students. As we well know, racial experiences are not monolithic, which means one student of color might feel rightfully miffed when her classmate is held up as a global representation. You will not be there in the hallway when your rubber stamp catches hell. Never forget that.

Response From Martha Caldwell & Oman Frame

Martha Caldwell and Oman Frame, authors of Let’s Get Real: Exploring Race, Class, and Gender Identities in the Classroom, teach a class their students call “Race, Class and Gender.” They conduct educational programs for teachers and students through iChange Collaborative (www.ichangecollaborative.com):

Students of color grasp concepts of implicit bias and privilege quickly because of their lived experience. They often take the lead in discussions, explaining what it’s like to be stereotyped, how frequently they’ve wondered if race played a role in weird interactions, how negative images in the media impact them, and how it feels to be under suspicion when they haven’t done anything wrong. Because of their background knowledge, they emerge as leaders in the class.

Some white students feel confused at first. Because they haven’t encountered bias, they “haven’t had to know.” They may feel defensive, guilty, or sad. White teachers may experience similar feelings initially. Unless they’ve done their own work to depersonalize white identity and examine their internal bias, they run the risk of re-centering whiteness and alienating students of color.

Conversations about race are emotional, but avoiding feelings stunts growth and protects ignorance. When white students feel defensive, they can “go cognitive” (attempt to debate rather than try to understand sensitive issues). They’re accustomed to having their feelings protected, so teachers should recognize that allowing them too much air time can further marginalize students of color. Redirecting attention to the emotional realm and making sure students of color and their allies have time to speak prevents white resistance from derailing the conversation. Reflective writing done outside of class also helps them process feelings.

Understanding how to take positive action alleviates the guilt some white students feel. “A Trip to the Grocery Store,” from Cracking the Codes, shows how whites can use privilege constructively. The underlying reality is that when they realize racism is real and exerts a profound effect on people they care about, they feel enormously sad. Karina wrote, “It’s been difficult realizing you have witnessed racism without realizing it, but once you identify it, you can do something next time.”

Students read Bronson and Merryman’s “Even Babies Discriminate,” and interview their parents about their upbringings. When they share their parents’ responses, race-based differences become visible. Students of color frequently discuss race in their families. Their parents school them in how to protect themselves in a society fraught with discrimination. White students rarely discuss race at home. Some white parents avoid talking about race because they fear that bringing attention to differences will make their children racist. Research cited in the article, however, indicates children learn implicit bias when race is a taboo topic, and conversations about race mitigate bias.

Students take Project Implicit test, which helps them understand how social conditioning renders us oblivious to harmful biases. They read McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and record authentic questions. (Must whites give up privileges for people of color to gain privileges? How can I overcome racism against me? What can whites do to make things fair? How did racism start?) Instead of answering their questions, we allow them to guide our study.

Some white students find it easier to learn about race from white teachers, and all students need to see models of whites actively dismantling racism. Likewise, students of color may be gratified when white teachers listen, validate their experience, and offer academic materials to substantiate it. Yet students of color also need teachers who look like them, share their experiences, and reflect their identities. Teachers of color also challenge white students to grapple with dissonant concepts through trusting relationships.

All teachers need to commit to ongoing professional education, self-education, and self-examination in matters of race. Racism is a persistent evil that harms us all, and with a clear commitment to dismantling racism, teachers will see better outcomes for students of all races.

Response From Sonja Cherry-Paul & Dana Johansen

Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen are classroom teachers and the authors of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning & Flip Your Writing Workshop: A Blended Learning Approach. Both are published by Heinemann. Sonja and Dana are educational consultants, presenters, and doctoral students at Teachers College. They can be reached on twitter @LitLearnAct or their blog litlearnact.wordpress.com:

Because issues of race and racism impact the lives of all students, it is essential that conversations about these issues are at the forefront of all educational agendas. Recent national events have caused many educators to realize their responsibility in helping students develop racial literacy skills that enable them to recognize, name, and challenge various forms of everyday racism. Too often, there are silences around race and racism in the classroom, or discussions are framed and limited to conversations within a historical context. While it is essential to teach the history of race and racism in the United States, it is equally important to demonstrate the ways in which racism thrives today. To this end, we recommend that all teachers, particularly those who are White, reflect on their own race-based thoughts and experiences and interrogate their own biases. Then, the following steps can be taken to make conversations about race and racism more fluid in the classroom.

Create a safe space. One of the biggest roadblocks to engaging in discourse around race and racism is discomfort. It is echoed throughout the research on teaching for racial justice that these kinds of conversations are inherently uncomfortable, particularly for White teachers. However, we cannot allow discomfort to be a deterrent to this work as doing so adversely affects the lives of all students. Instead, we can create classrooms that are safe places to have courageous conversations, acknowledge that this work is difficult and there will many mishaps, and with continued practice and education discussions become easier. You might say to your students, “In our classroom, we have courageous conversations that can be challenging, but they are important. This will require us to be patient with one another as we work together to discuss ideas that tug powerfully on our emotions.”

Develop a working vocabulary. In order to have conversations about race and racism, help students build a foundation of knowledge and develop a working vocabulary that evolves as new information promotes deepened understandings. For example, teach students that race isn’t real but instead a social construct that was made up to ensure who has power and who doesn’t. And even though race isn’t real, racism is. For many, an understanding of racism is limited to explicit acts of hate. Help students develop an understanding of the nuances of racism and provide specific examples of implicit bias. Key vocabulary that helps students speak about issues of race and racism include: race, racism, institutional racism, interpersonal racism, internal racism, microaggressions, implicit bias, prejudice, privilege, colorblindness, supremacy. Teachers can access helpful resources created by organizations that promote racial literacy in classrooms. Border Crossers and Facing History Facing Ourselves are two examples of organizations that help educators teach for racial justice in developmentally appropriate ways.

Take action. Make a conscious decision that discussions about race and racism will be central in the classroom. Digital texts, picture books, articles, essays and other types of texts can be used to spark conversations that help students apply the vocabulary they’re developing. Teachers might begin by taking a visual audit of their classrooms and making necessary revisions. Which books are present and whose stories are being told? Are there a variety of books available that feature characters/people from diverse backgrounds written by authors from diverse backgrounds? Are the images displayed on classroom walls of people from various racial backgrounds? The texts teachers make available to students and the images that are displayed in classrooms make it clear to students who is valued and who isn’t. Carefully selected texts can help students understand that racism exists in many different arenas and capacities. Teach critical literacy skills so that students can deconstruct canned racial narratives, and provide counternarratives that spotlight perspectives that have been silenced.

Silences around race and racism create missed opportunities for students to acquire the tools necessary to develop racial literacy. A common misconception is that talking about race is divisive and polarizing. This is false. Talking about a problem sheds light on it and provides opportunities for change. Centering discussions about race and racism in classrooms helps to create a more socially-just society.

Response From Debbie Silver

Debbie Silver is a former classroom teacher (of most every grade level), university professor, and staff development provider. She is the author of the best-selling book, Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed, and co-author of the newly released, Teaching Kids to Thrive: Essential Skills for Success. She can be reached at www.debbiesilver.com:

Aren’t We All Prejudiced? What That Means for Classroom Teachers

Teachers are generally quick to tell me they are not prejudiced, but I remind them that most all humans tend to act on our preconceived ideas about unknown entities and are, therefore by definition, prejudiced. I think what they are trying to say is they don’t see themselves as racists and try not to act with inherent bias in the classroom. Perhaps growing through our personal biases is one of the hardest and most important functions of educators as student advocates.

My entry into the teaching world was rather atypical. As a twenty-year-old with no training as an educator I was asked to teach a classroom of twenty-four first graders in a rural, poor, segregated African American public school. I am a redhead with fair skin who was brought up in an exceptionally well-funded urban public school system in a different state. The disparity could not have been more evident. Not only was I a different race, I had never lived in a small town nor had I experienced the lack of resources that exist in poverty-stricken rural schools. I had never faced the kind of class system that existed in our community, and my assumptions about most everything involving race and race relations were brought into question.

The fact that I was a naïve, optimistic idealist probably was helpful, but I think the greatest gift I brought to my teaching was my insatiable curiosity about things unknown. Without rancor or judgement, I constantly asked my African American colleagues and students questions about things they said and did and believed. With the inquisitiveness of a tourist I asked questions about their experiences growing up in a race different from mine as well as about living in a poor, rural environment. They sometimes laughed at my inexperience, but they seemed to appreciate my guileless desire to try and understand their perspective. I shared with them things about my own background and asked them to tell me if I said or did anything they perceived as insensitive or offensive. It was sometimes a rocky road as I learned how to be more tuned in to a culture so dissimilar from mine, but my seventeen years as a teacher in that school helped me grow in ways that would never have happened if I had taught in a school of people who were exactly like me.

Integration finally made its way into our schools and added a new dimension to my role. With the addition of white students to our class I was charged with the responsibility of facilitating an assimilation among students who often saw more discrepancies than similarities in each other. Moreover, many of our parents (on both sides) displayed racist views that were inevitably mirrored by students. Today most of our students are accustomed to interacting with a diverse network of classmates, but implicit biases still need to be addressed in an open, safe, well-structured setting. How we relate to our students as well as how we encourage them to connect with each other are as crucial as anything else we do as teachers.

Lessons I’ve Learned Along the Way:

1) Empathy is more important than sympathy. I have learned that I can’t help students by merely feeling sorry for them. As Brené Brown has taught us in her insightful studies about shame and empathy, sympathy tends to separate us from others. In my first teaching years I was overwhelmed with guilt about how privileged my life had been compared to the lives of my students. Like most novice teachers I wanted to “take them all home with me” so I could make up for what I perceived to be injustices and deficits in their lives. I’m sure I did a grand job of communicating how sorry I felt about their circumstances and how unfair it was they had to live as they did. My pity told them how different we were as humans.

Students are much better served when we teachers are able to listen attentively and tap into the emotions our learners are feeling. That is hard for some of us because it means we need to examine our very deep feelings honestly and use our shared experience to help students move forward. It means we must stop playing Pollyanna with statements that begin with, “At least . . .” and really hear the pain and confusion our students are dealing with at that moment. Sometimes we should stop talking and advising and just respond, “I can see how upsetting this is to you. I am someone who cares, and I’m not going to leave you by yourself on this.”

2) Helping students take command of the things within their control is one of the greatest gifts we can give them. One of the hardest discussions I ever had was when I was still teaching elementary students just after the movie, Roots, premiered on TV. Like many American viewers, I set aside time at night to watch the mini-series as it outlined the despicable realities of slavery in the United States. Caught up in my existential guilt it never dawned on me what my students were feeling until one of my learners sincerely asked me in the middle of class, “Why did you white people treat our people that way?” Rather than wringing my hands and stumbling around with apologies or rationalizations I thought the best way to handle the fear and anger in the room was to help students focus on things we can all do to make sure nothing like that ever happens again in this country. We discussed the importance of figuring out what we can control now and how we can go about aiming our efforts and our choices toward our goals. Empowering them with self- efficacy gives them the tools they need to work for the justice they seek.

3) Strive to learn all you can about every learner (and colleague). Racial prejudice is a significant issue for me because of where I taught and where I live. But the biases we humans carry with us are limitless. Without even realizing it most of us have fixed ideas about gender, religion, social class, economic status, geographical location, politics, age, personality traits, learning styles, sexual orientation, family make-up, physical attributes, and more. Until we go deeper than statistics and labels we are likely to underestimate and misjudge those who differ from us. Great teachers have always put in the extra effort to really get to know their students on many levels. Extraordinary teachers make the time to help students examine their own prejudices and practice skills that help them appropriately respond to others who are different.

4) Carve out class time to discuss, model, and participate in group building activities. Awareness is only the beginning. Don’t stop with a certain “Appreciation Week” or posters or an occasional assignment about diversity. True understanding of one another requires an unrelenting focus on how we are the same. No matter what grade or discipline we teach it is essential that we are honest, open, and forthright about the things that concern our students. School should be a place for learners to find out about all kinds of people and must be a place where prejudices are acknowledged, scrutinized, and hopefully dismantled.

Response From Alice Mercer

Alice Mercer is a sixth grade elementary school teacher in Sacramento, California. She has been in the classroom for about 20 years, and has been an active member of unions all that time:

You’re a white teacher, and all or some of your students are not. How do you reduce the effects of implicit bias in your teaching? First, a quick review on what implicit bias is. Implicit bias is when you unconsciously treat others differently based on race, or gender, or some other factor that’s recognized as discriminatory. This can be expressed in the classroom in a number of ways, from mathematics lessons focused on boys, to discipline that is focused on non-white students, or lighter for white and Asian students. I’m going to focus on discipline issues in a class that has a mix of races and ethnicities. This resembles my current teaching assignment.

My basic approach is to be thoughtful about what I’m doing, both in the moment, and after taking action. Here is a scenario that resembles some of what happens. There may be a conflict in the classroom involving an African American student and an Asian student. The African American student’s voice may be louder and brought attention to the situation. They are agitated. The Asian student is looking away in a sidelong manner. What is happening? You’re probably already making assumptions and some of them may be based on the students’ race. Is the Asian student being shy and avoiding eye contact because of cultural norms, or because he has something to hide? Is the African American student being “aggressive”, or responding with righteous anger to provocation.

Okay, time out. This can be really difficult to do because, as this is going on, you have your whole class still continuing. Sometimes, you need to get time. Suggesting that the kids separate - and this is the critical point - use a neutral voice, and offer them separate time out spaces. Make it clear you are not making a judgement, but need time. This could be a good time to ask them to write about what happened, but you need to de-escalate, and then come back to the situation when you’re done teaching (I know, good luck on that). When you do, listen to both sides. You will probably bring what you know about the kids to any judgements you make, but basing it on the students’ behavior and not their race is what you’re aiming for...

This sounds both small, and unimaginably large, because there is a tendency to hand out swift justice in the classroom. Taking a breath, however, can give you the space to think with your cerebellum, not your amygdala.

Response From Amy Okimoto

Amy Okimoto is a classroom teacher at Ponderosa Elementary in the Cherry Creek School District in Aurora, Colorado. Her 21 year career has included work at Title I schools in Arizona and Colorado, as well as experience teaching in Nepal. Culturally responsive instruction is at the cornerstone of her practice, and she continues to strive for excellence in opportunity and instruction for all students:

Race and implicit bias exist not only in our society, but also in our classrooms. However, many teachers (and humans--especially those of the white, privileged persuasion) fear tackling these issues head on. However, in classrooms, where student achievement, growth and success are reliant on relationships of trust and vulnerability, addressing race and implicit bias as a teacher and a human, is completely necessary. How to address these issues can be challenging. In my experience as a classroom teacher, I have found the building blocks for the relationships of trust and vulnerability must be firmly put into place in the very beginning of the school year.

One of the first literacy activities I do in the beginning of a school year, with any grade, is to discuss the differences between mirror and window texts and the significance of having both types of texts in your reading repertoire. I introduce The Favorite Daughter by Allen Say as my mirror text. I explain that just as Yuriko is half Japanese, but doesn’t always connect to that part of herself is very much how I grew up feeling. I challenge students to find mirror texts within our classroom library and in our school library, but if they cannot, to let me know, so I can help them search. This simple lesson has several components regarding building the relationships--first, students are permitted to see their teacher as a human being, with a culture and background; next, students are encouraged to consider their own identities and connect those identities to the academic endeavor of building a powerful reading life through varied text experiences.

Clearly, this is just one step---an important element is to continue to cultivate a classroom library that reflects characters that do indeed mirror your students. A more important part of the puzzle is to make sure you are becoming highly knowledgeable regarding the cultures, ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds of your kids. They will love you for it, but more importantly, be willing to take risks to learn for you.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Matthew, Martha, Oman, Debbie, Sonja, Dana, Alice, and Amy, and to readers, for their contributions!

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