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. 

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Eagle Academy For Young Men in Queens. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below.