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Teaching Opinion

Supporting African American Students During the School Closure Crisis

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 23, 2020 11 min read
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(This is the first post in a multipart series on this topic.)

The question is:

What can schools do to specifically support African American students during the school closure crisis?

I’ve shared several posts discussing ways educators can support particularly vulnerable student populations, including English-language learners, LGBTQ students, and those with special needs.

Today’s post will address reaching another potentially vulnerable group: our African American students, and it features contributions from Antoine Germany and Larry Walker.

I’ll be adding it to All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis.

“Recognize privilege and then act”

Antoine Germany is a teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif., and chair of its English Department:

COVID-19, and the global pandemic it has caused, has been a traumatic experience for everyone. Recent news articles and reports have highlighted the disproportionate amount of deaths this virus has caused people of color. What these recent reports have rightly illustrated are the systemic inequities in society that existed prior to this crisis but have been magnified by this health tragedy.

So what is an educator, particularly those who teach students of color, to do in this new reality of distance learning? How can we try to facilitate learning and have empathy for students who are disproportionately suffering through traumatic events?

Here are a few things I think we should consider when trying to support our students of color during this extended school closure.

  • Make phone calls home. Making contact with parents/guardians of students is always a wise step in developing learning partnerships between families and school. This is doubly true during this crisis. Making regular contact with home not only allows you an opportunity to find out how your student is doing, but it also allows you, as an educator, to develop a better relationship with the student’s family for the long term. It also offers you a window into your student’s life outside of the classroom and how you can best serve their needs. At the high school I work at, Luther Burbank High, the administration has partnered with local community members to call all African American students and their families weekly. By calling, documenting, and giving information about resources to families, we are building the infrastructure to have sustained community involvement at our high school in the years to come.

Recognize that assigning work is different from learning.

    It is easy to assign students work through an online platform; however, giving students opportunities to learn while they are physically away from school is entirely different. Instead of assigning tasks and giving unilateral due dates, let’s reimagine what learning looks like for students who are stuck at home and might have limited means and resources:

    • Giving students a choice about what they want to learn more about is an excellent way of increasing a student’s self-efficacy and engagement.
    • Assigning students research projects that focus on issues or concepts that apply to their own community or cultural group is another way to engage students of color and uses their culture as an asset rather than an afterthought.
    • Talk about current events that affect the local community and how they are affecting the students personally.
    • Give students an opportunity to solve real-world problems that are affecting them today. By avoiding abstractions, it gives students a sense of immediacy.
    • Share the responsibility of instruction with the students by having Cooperative Learning Groups or have students lead discussion groups or reteach concepts to their peers through online discussion forums. Students are still communicating with their peers through social media—let’s use that as a potential way to keep them engaged in learning.

At my school, teachers in my department are given the opportunity to share their ideas during collaborative video conferencing and pick out the best practices from their colleagues. This bottom-up approach of teachers collaboratively building online resources and ideas is far smarter and better conceived than a top-down approach. Since we are all learning how to do distance learning together, fostering teacher leaders to drive innovation has already borne fruit for our faculty and by extension our students.

  • Instead of giving grades, give feedback. Grades have always had their limits. Grades often don’t reflect effort, growth, or even mastery when it comes to subjective skills like writing. Since students currently have limited access to trained educators and often have wildly different home settings, it is even more difficult to give students such a blunt tool as grades. What students need now more than ever is your considered feedback, your encouragement, and your corrections. Feedback offers something grades rarely do, which is suggestions for success in the future.

  • Recognize privilege and then act. Many of our students of color have limited means, hostile home lives, food insecurity, and a range of other issues that affect their learning. Assuming that every student or even most of them have access to books, a quiet place to study, or an adult around to supervise them are assumptions based on privilege. What educators should attempt to do when thinking about their students is have an awareness of students without privileges and then have the compassion to act on that awareness. I am proud to say that these conversations about privilege and equity have been ongoing at my school through faculty, department, and learning community meetings throughout the year. These conversations and focus on privilege have to be ongoing and intentional for them to have a lasting effect on a school culture.

Think of ways to give students multiple options to show their learning. Can they teach the lesson to you through a video on their smartphone if they don’t have a computer? Can they demonstrate it through art? Can they have meaningful online conversations with their peers? Can they create their own tests or create quizzes for their classmates? Can I simply ask students what are their suggestions on how best to demonstrate their knowledge? Our district is attempting to get Chromebook computers to every student who says they need it. This is a good first step, but how we chose to use technology as educators and what we ask students to do with these resources are an ongoing conversation that should be grounded in equity.

  • Focus less on the frontrunners and more on the back of the pack. You might notice that some of your students are adjusting quite well to online learning and feel good about the progress that they are making and you might assume that the students who are not engaged or are doing limited work online are doing so because of apathy, laziness, or disinterest in their grade. I would suggest we take the opposite approach and focus on the students who seem disengaged and find a way to bring them into the learning process. By focusing on the students who seem removed or disinterested, you will find better ways to engage more students and not just the frontrunners or high achievers. It also satisfies one of the basic tenets of educational equity, which is we focus our energy on the students with the most need to achieve a more equitable outcome.

Many of these suggestions apply to all students and not just our students of color, yet by focusing on our students of color, I think we get past the myth of colorblindness and confront the uncomfortable reality that this pandemic has affected everyone, but not everyone equally.

Devising plans to meet African American students’ needs

Dr. Larry J. Walker is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Higher Education at the University of Central Florida. His research focuses on mental health, leadership, policy, race, and teacher education. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryJWalker2:

The COVID-19 virus has dramatically altered the nation’s economic, educational, political, and social institutions. Thus far, thousands of individuals have become ill and died while others have struggled after losing their jobs. Unfortunately, some communities have been ravaged by COVID-19 because of racial health inequities that have existed for decades.

The challenges associated with the disease have devastated African American communities throughout the nation. African Americans are dying at disproportionate rates and are more likely to be essential workers in comparison with other groups. Nationally, the troubling mortality rates have forced schools to remain shuttered until public-health officials see the trend shift. Closing schools in rural, urban, and suburban school districts is having a negative impact on students who depend on important resources. This is particularly true for African American students from underserved neighborhoods. Consequently, district and school leaders have to continue to devise plans that meet the needs of these students. For this reason, I compiled a list of recommendations that will help leaders support African American students from underserved communities during this difficult time.

  1. Conduct an Assessment of School and Community Mental-Health Needs and Access - It is clear after schools reopen that mental-health services and practitioners will play a critical role, but what about during the crisis? Leaders must determine which services are available now to meet students’ needs. As previously noted, the African American community is encountering health and economic problems because of systemic racism. The challenges require a robust examination of systems to ensure students have access to mental-health specialists. For instance, districts should add links to their homepage that parents can contact for assistance. Considering most Americans cannot leave their homes, telehealth programs that provide immediate support are vital. This will ensure parents have resources to support students struggling with prior or recent mental-health challenges.

  2. Identify Solutions to the Technology Gap - For years, teachers and community and political leaders have lamented that African American students from underserved backgrounds do not have access to technology. Today, those calls for changes have become louder as numerous school districts struggled to provide laptops, iPads, and other equipment to students after schools closed. Some of the problems included limited or no access to Wi-Fi. The unique challenges have forced local leaders to become creative, including parking buses in communities to provide Wi-Fi access. The COVID-19 virus has forced leaders to be creative. However, some school districts have struggled to address technology issues because they are being restricted by antiquated policies. This is a time for ingenuity and being bold. For this reason, districts should consider suspending or eliminating policies that are preventing students from getting access to the tools they need.

  1. Consider How Housing and Food Insecurity Is Impacting Families - The COVID-19 virus has disrupted the lives of millions of Americans. While students are expected to complete assignments, it is critical that administrators and teachers consider how economic issues have impacted African American students from underserved backgrounds. Recent data suggests African Americans are dying at higher rates while losing jobs that are more likely to pay a low hourly wage. Despite the support of religious institutions, food pantries, and some government programs, job loss has disrupted the African American community more than others. Concerns regarding access to food are real. In addition, recent economic challenges have placed some families in difficult housing situations. This could include living with a family member or friend who is abusive. Reports highlight that intimate partner violence is on the rise. Members of the school-based staff must consider each issue.

Overall, the COVID-19 virus has caused problems that the nation was unprepared to address. This includes economic, educational, and health issues that have negatively impacted the African American community. While the debate continues among policymakers regarding finding solutions, schools will continue to play a pivotal role supporting student needs.

Thanks to Antoine and Larry for their contributions!

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