The killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd are just the latest in a long history of racist violence in the United States. As teachers, we may feel uncertain as to how to address these events in our classrooms or unprepared to have conversations about race with our students. But, we have to have these conversations. We have to talk about racism.
Educators and non-educators alike have told me throughout my teaching career to keep my curriculum “neutral,” but there is no such thing as neutral content. Silence reflects an acceptance of the status quo. As Jamilah Pitts, writing for Teaching Tolerance says, “Students pay attention to everything we say and do. They particularly pay attention to our silence.”
Black children need to know their teachers believe their lives matter, that their teachers see their humanity and will speak out against actions that violate that humanity. Children who are not Black need to see compassion, courageous conversations, and anti-racist activism modeled by their teachers if they want to be able to do these things themselves.
So, where do we start?
Self Assess. If this is unfamiliar territory to you, start by self-assessing where you are on this cultural proficiency continuum or take a look at various theorists’ stages of racial identity development. Identifying where you are in these progressions can be a start. It shows you a path forward and may highlight some ideas or practices that you may not have previously thought about.
Learn More. Educators who seek to learn about the problem of racism will be more likely to highlight racism when it happens and be more prepared to thoughtfully respond to racism in the moment. There are many amazing resources out there. Books I’ve found helpful include: Understanding EveryDay Racism by Philomena Essed, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, by Beverly Daniel Tatum. There are so many more.
For white educators, be an ally. White educators, we need to recognize our white privilege. A short, but powerful article I continue to use in my teaching practice is “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh. Also, we need to push past our discomfort in talking about race in order to be better allies to the Black community. The book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo does a great job of breaking this down, and this podcast episode provides a great summary if you don’t have access to the book. As a white woman, I struggle with the fear of being labeled “racist,” and I am continuously working to overcome this fear that inhibits me from engaging in uncomfortable, but necessary conversations. I’ve found Jay Smooth’s dental cleaning metaphor to be helpful in accepting that we are all steeped in racism. It’s not about “not being a racist,” it’s about accepting feedback and working to “clean your teeth” everyday to remove the racism that pervades our culture.
Find resources to share with students. This “web package” of resources from Teaching Tolerance on teaching racism and police brutality is filled with ideas for your own learning and for student-facing content. Look through the resources and find something that fits for your context. This New York Times piece also includes links to texts and resources to help students start to think about race in your class.
Invite conversation. While set up for an in-person class, this circle developed for teachers to discuss the shooting of Philando Castille with students provides a list of questions and concepts that are still relevant today. Morningside Center, the creators of this circle, often produce new circle lessons based on current events, so keep an eye out for new circles as well. [UPDATE: This is the circle Morningside Center developed in response to the police killing of George Floyd.] Let’s Talk from Teaching Tolerance is a 44-page guide you can read for free to support you in effectively facilitating difficult conversations with your students. For administrators and teacher leaders, it’s also helpful to create spaces for conversation among staff.
Consider the difficulties of having tough conversations at a distance. The Teaching Hard History podcast (from Teaching Tolerance) recently shared an episode a few weeks ago about the difficulties of hard history with students while we are in a distance learning setting. The episode, “Hard History in Hard Times – Talking With Teachers,” shares many tips and resources that are also relevant for discussing racism in the context of current events. For one, you don’t need to share the traumatic videos. Lauren Mascareñaz writes, “Witnessing the seemingly constant horrors that are happening in our society is a call to action for many people, young and old. But we have to be aware of the potential effects of what we—and the children in our schools—are seeing.”
For young students. Research has shown kids as young as 5 years old hold many of the racist attitudes adults in our culture hold, and they “associate some groups with higher status than others.” If we don’t interrupt these messages at a young age, students will continue to internalize the systemic racism that pervades U.S. culture. How you address racism with students may look different at age 5 than at age 15, but it should still be addressed. This post shares ideas for bringing Black Lives Matter into classes at various grade levels.
I chose education as a profession because I thought (and still think) it’s one of the most powerful ways to address systemic racism, xenophobia, and gender bias. I’m certainly not perfect in how I facilitate conversations about race with my students, but I have a responsibility to try my best and commit to constantly improving my practice. Let’s all help each other do the same.
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Lindsay Lyons (she/her) is an educational justice coach who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice, design curricula grounded in student voice, and build capacity for shared leadership. Lindsay taught in NYC public schools, holds a PhD in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog and podcast, Time for Teachership.