Be bold and be honest

Great teachers are experts at difficult conversations. Here’s their advice to America on talking about race.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.

Every day, teachers lead conversations that most of us are too afraid to have. Whether the topic is race, police violence, or guns, the best teachers are skilled at helping mere humans — young humans! — have difficult conversations with openness, honesty, and respect.

So as Americans struggle to talk about racism this week, who better to ask for advice than teachers? We spoke with seven educators across the country and compiled their suggestions below.

We hope this list is just the beginning. Comment with your thoughts, or send us an email.

Start by understanding yourself.

Jaishri Shankar, teacher in Kingstree, S.C. for the last three years:

These conversations have to be founded in your relationships with students. It’s uncomfortable — and it’s tougher if you’re coming from a distant place and you don’t already have a good relationship with your kids.

Another piece is understanding yourself and your identity. I am an Indian-American woman and the identities of most of my students have been African-American. Many share an identity with victims of police brutality … I’ve learned my role is to listen and learn.

The instant that stands out the most was the killing of Eric Garner. One of my students lived around the corner and she’d frequently come over and we’d sit on my porch and just hang out. We had just been talking about police brutality right before he was killed.

A couple of days [later] the audio was released, where he’s saying, ‘I cannot breathe.’ I looked around and I realized they could not care less about the layers of the Earth that day. What was more important was turning the classroom into what my kids needed. That day they didn’t need to know the layers of the Earth. They needed the space and time to process what was happening and what it means to them as students of color.

Defy your fear.

Jade Anderson, first-grade teacher at Memphis Business Academy:

Don’t be afraid. Your students want to hear what people are saying. They look up to you, they admire you.

I think we are afraid to talk about social issues, but the kids do understand. Be bold and be honest.

Acknowledge what’s going on.

Tyrone C. Howard, associate dean of equity, diversity, & inclusion and director, UCLA Black Male Institute:

I’m often surprised when things occur and teachers don’t say a word. They say, I teach chemistry, or what does this have to do with algebra. What exemplary teachers do is acknowledge it. Kids see these things on social media, and on the news media. And so the teachers create a space. They help them separate fact from fiction.

Teachers can provide a real sense of calming, and provide a real space for students to share what they’re feeling and thinking. When students are feeling scared for their own safety, they can provide that space.

And teachers have to inform themselves. They [have to] know what’s happening, so they can have a conversation. Not that they need to take sides, but so that they can help students make meaning.

How we get more teachers to get to do that is the million dollar question. We all just need a lot of understanding. This is a time for healing and empathy and love. And it sounds cliché, but we’re in a precarious time, and students need us more than they’ve needed us in a long time.

Move from sorrow to action.

Faith Benson, teacher at Wright Middle School in Nashville, Tenn.:

I think the first priority as a teacher is to talk about it.

When I go into the classroom after things like this happen — the events over the last week — my first priority is to make sure I am not retraumatizing my students. [This week] teachers acknowledged what happened but they did so in a way that really avoided the harsh details.

The ones who already knew about it, had been talking to their families about it — it was a gentle reminder that this is still important. Even though we’re in school, if you want to talk about it, you can. … If you’re ready to talk about it in the academic way, I think it’s important to carry it through academics.

My first year of teaching I saw the value of bringing things like this into the classroom. That year it was the death of Michael Brown. But the mistake I made, I kind of left my students … just thinking, ‘Wow. Things are really bad.’ And the important next step is yeah, it’s really bad. But here’s how you can become an advocate.

It’s kind of a tough place to be in, where you so deeply care about what happens in the world, but the world is telling you you’re too young to make a difference.

Remember: everyone lives in a context.

Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools in Colorado:

I’m a black man in America. That has some context in these stories. I’m the father of a young boy. That has its own context. And then I do think about it as an American and how it affects the children in my community.

The schools are part of the community. These aren’t school issues. These are larger societal issues. And schools tend to be a reflection of our society.

I think in any classroom setting, our teachers and teachers everywhere need to be aware of the experiences of their students — both individually and collectively. Good teaching takes those experiences and helps put it into context. Good teaching helps students understand the world around them, and how they can effect change in the world around them.

Push for evidence.

Rich Milner, Helen Faison Professor of Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh:

What happens with students is they tend to adopt whatever their parents do on particular issues. What the educational system can do is really provide a space for students to think about and question their views on particular issues.

Play devil’s advocate, so there’s not just one narrative that is provided in the classroom. And really push students for evidence. Really early in their development, teachers should encourage students to substantiate their views.

The best teachers don’t always have the conversations only when there’s a catastrophe. They create the kind of classroom from the very beginning that is open to discourse and conversation. They position themselves as learners, not coming in as the arbiters of all knowledge. They express views, ask questions, situate their desks and chairs in ways that allow for a more communal conversation. Teachers also empower and equip students to lead the conversations on their own.

The thing is about deep self-reflection. Not just thinking about others, but starting with the self.

Resist the temptation to shut down.

Noelle Ford, high school Spanish teacher in Baltimore area:

Trayvon Martin happened when I was teaching, and what we did in my class, we read current event articles from five different media sources and we talked about bias, and they had to go through what is a fact, what happened.

I think it’s extremely important to have conversations. But it’s stronger when the students have those conversations between themselves, rather than me telling them what to think.

I taught for three years in South Carolina … It was a pretty diverse school. So things can get tense. We had the Emmanuel shootings [in Charleston, SC] happen when I was teaching. We had a lot of racial tension.

The first year I struggled to allow my students have honest conversations without it being guided by prejudice. But we strived as a team and a community to constantly have those conversations about tension. It’s better to bring it to light versus shutting it down.

Want more Chalkbeat? Check out What four recent conversations about race and policing looked like in classrooms across the country. You can follow us on Facebook, too. 

Low bar?

New York City’s school diversity goals could be met just through changing demographics, report finds

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

When New York City recently released its plan to spur school diversity, advocates praised the city for setting specific goals while skeptics said the bar was set too low.

A new report from the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School crunches demographic data and finds those skeptics may be right.

Even without undertaking any changes to the way students are assigned to schools, the city would likely meet its diversity goals simply due to demographic trends that are already underway, according to the report, “No Heavy Lifting Required: New York City’s Unambitious School ‘Diversity’ Plan.”

“These goals would be easy to achieve,” said Nicole Mader, an author of the report. “They could probably happen under the status quo, and that is concerning because there is a groundswell of support for school desegregation and integration.”

In early June, the city released a plan that set explicit diversity benchmarks and spelled out initiatives to increase racial and economic integration in schools — though the plan didn’t actually use the words “integration” or “desegregation.” Over the next five years, the goals call for increasing the number of students in “racially representative” schools by 50,000, and decreasing the number of “economically stratified” schools by 10 percent.

A racially representative school is defined as having a student body that is between 50 percent and 90 percent black and Hispanic. The report, by Mader and Ana Carla Sant’Anna Costa, notes that many of the schools within the city’s racially representative range “would still count as intensely segregated” under commonly accepted academic measures. Add in demographic trends, and the goal seems even less ambitious.

Citywide, the number of white and Asian students is growing, while the number of black students is decreasing. Given those shifts, the number of schools within the city’s racially representative range has grown by about 2.4 percent a year. Just a slight increase in pace, to 2.9 percent, would allow the city to meets its goal, the report notes.

“In fact, the only barrier that may stand in the way of reaching this goal is the rapid concentration of students into the predominately white and Asian schools,” according to the report. “The number of students at those schools has increased by more than 34,000. This more than cancels out all the progress that has been made on the other end of the goal’s range, where 30,000 fewer students now attend highly segregated black and Hispanic schools than did five years ago.”

Another problem with the goal, according to the report: It allows the city to declare victory even if a school’s overall demographics shift slightly — say, from 90.1 percent black and Hispanic, to 90 percent — because that school’s entire population would count towards the 50,000-student benchmark.

There are currently 105 schools that are between 90.1 and 92 percent black and Hispanic, the report notes, citing an original analysis by The Bell podcast, which explores segregation through the eyes of New York City students. If each of those schools enrolled an average of 10 more white or Asian students, the city would meet its goal.

The findings regarding the city’s economic integration goals are similar. The number of schools with an acceptable level of economic need, by the city’s definition, is already increasing by about 4 percent each year. That natural growth would only have to increase to 4.6 percent, and the city’s goal would be met.

But again, there’s a catch: High-income schools are growing three times faster than those that fall within the city’s definition of an acceptable level of need.

In an email, education department spokesman Will Mantell called the city’s goals “significant” but also just an “initial” step.

“These goals demonstrate the many ways we measure diversity and provide an important yardstick for our progress,” he wrote.

Mantell added that an advisory group, created under the city’s plan, will be tasked with helping to establish longer-term goals.

The report gives a series of recommendations to make the city’s benchmarks more meaningful.

The city could call for targets to be set at the district level, rather than citywide. That would encourage the creation of local solutions and “not mask deepening segregation” in some areas. Another recommendation: including information about the progress of individual schools in relation to integration goals on the city’s Quality Snapshots, a tool that is used to assess schools.

“If you just put this data out there, then school principals know … parents are seeing it,” Mader said. “The idea of just publishing it might be an incentive, in and of itself, to do this work.”

pipeline problems

City pols’ report questions the fairness of starting new gifted classes in third grade

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, left, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, right, hosted a task force to discuss issues in gifted education and specialized high schools.

When the New York City education department recently opened new gifted classes in historically underrepresented neighborhoods, it altered its approach to admissions.

By starting the programs in third grade rather than kindergarten and changing how students got in, experts said enrollment would be more fair. Black and Hispanic students make up only 27 percent of students in gifted classes, though they comprise close to 70 percent of students citywide.

But a report released Wednesday by the Bronx and Brooklyn borough presidents questions that approach, suggesting that starting in third grade is too late.

“Why deprive all gifted students of a chance at early advanced coursework?” the report asks. “Couldn’t additional services lessen the gap between ability and achievement at a young age?”

Most gifted programs start in kindergarten, with admission based on the results of formal tests. Historically, students in poorer neighborhoods take and pass the tests in much lower numbers than those in wealthier school districts.

In spring 2016, the education department opened new gifted classes in four districts that had gone years without — districts 7 and 12 in the Bronx and 16 and 23 in Brooklyn. Those programs admit students in third grade based on their classroom grades and teacher recommendations.

Using multiple measures instead of a single test score and starting the process later could make it less likely that students are admitted based on solely on the advantages they bring from home — such as the ability to prep for a test.

“This is good news that they’re using multiple measures and they’re opening up access to these programs,” researcher Allison Roda said at the time, though she added that she has reservations about separating students into gifted classrooms in the first place.

But the new report on gifted education from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. raises questions about whether the changes are truly fair. Basing admissions on teacher recommendations may be problematic, the report argues, because bias could play a role in classifying students as gifted or disabled. And, most New York City students still enter gifted from a very early age.

“The DOE is adding third- and fourth-grade classes, but has still not committed to kindergarten, first, and second grade programs in all districts,” the report notes. “We demand this commitment to programs from the earliest ages equally throughout the city.”

Among the report’s other recommendations:

  • Universal gifted testing for pre-K students, unless parents choose to opt out.
  • Creating access to gifted classrooms in every community.
  • Expanding gifted options in middle school at either the district or citywide level. Research has found that just a handful of middle schools are major feeders for students who go on to specialized high schools, which are themselves starkly segregated.

In an emailed statement, an education department spokesman wrote: “We’ll review the recommendations in the report, and look forward to working with the borough presidents to increase access to high-quality schools.”