First Person

First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works

Students in the program at the Bank Street School for Children.
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At the Bank Street School for Children’s graduation this June, no one was surprised when some of the eighth-graders used their final moments as our students to reflect on race.

A black student recounted a discussion with a black second-grader. “Does it get harder?” the younger student had asked. “Yes,” the the older student said. “Going forward there are things you’re going to have to face. But surround yourself with allies and you will be OK.”

A white student discussed affirmative action. “Racism was a system built for social and political oppression against people of color so that whites could benefit,” she said. “It is impossible to be racist toward white people — the nature of racism itself destroys any notion of such a thing.”

Students feeling confident enough to stand in front of an audience of 400 and talk about race is not something that happens without the considerable effort from teachers and staff. At Bank Street, the private school in New York City where I teach eighth grade and where I am a parent of two children who attend, we’ve learned that teaching about race requires a formal curriculum and “affinity” spaces that allow students to speak their minds.

We see this curriculum as an opportunity to create age-appropriate ways for children to engage with a topic that people too often pretend that children can’t understand. Our experience matches current research: even very young children do notice race, are able to discuss it, and are able to understand issues of inequality.

See more stories about how teachers talk about race in the classroom.

We, like educators throughout the country, feel compelled to engage our students around the complex issues facing our society, like the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2016 presidential election, and gun control. Through our Racial Justice and Advocacy program, children have opportunities to explore the complex issues of power and privilege. They develop the tools needed to understand, process, and confront injustice.

As an example, classes of 6, 7, and 8-year-olds participate in a lesson where they are asked to suggest what to do if pre-kindergarten students aren’t interested in playing with dolls of color. The students offer a range of answers: “Buy more dark skin babies.” “Have a meeting about it.” “Have the teacher also play.”

While the children’s responses seem simple, through the repetition of themes and dramatic play, our children become adept at talking about race and working toward a more equitable society.

For nearly two decades, our school leaders have also recognized that to best support our students of color, we must hold affinity meetings for those students. Students of color come together with facilitators of color to discuss topics like how to express concern regarding an issue of equity, or current events like the Black Lives Matter movement. It is vitally important for students of color to have a space in which they can interact with each other unaffected by the presence of their white peers.

While some may find the practice of allowing students to self-identify and then engage in group discussion problematic, we know that providing affinity space is an educational best practice. As a white man, I am privileged to live in a society in which I am a member of the majority; the world is my affinity group. My students of color don’t share in this. Affinity groups allow them the experience of sharing a burden rather than carrying it individually. They also allow a group to share in the joy and strength derived from a feeling of belonging.

I consider myself lucky that Bank Street considers racial identity and racial understanding as important as science and social studies. I consider myself lucky to be surrounded by colleagues who are willing to tackle complicated questions with understanding and patience.

In a world where intolerant acts and declarations have become all too common, I consider myself lucky to send my children to Bank Street. Instead of accepting the status quo, they will be empowered to change the world.

family affair

How are Success Academy families responding to the network’s leadership drama?

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Wynter Johnson and Serenity Ally, two third-grade students at Success Academy Harlem 2

The past two weeks have been more than a little rocky for Success Academy.

Board chairman Daniel Loeb is in hot water over a racial comment he made on Facebook, a controversy amplified by last weekend’s events in Charlottesville. At a protest Monday, other political leaders rallied around his target, state Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. The state’s top two education officials called out Loeb this week, as did former schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

And Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, who had previously said she was amenable to working with President Donald Trump, apologized in the wake of his actions this week for not being “more outspoken” about her disagreements with him.

So, how are the families of Success Academy reacting to all the news? The question is particularly poignant since about 93 percent of Success Academy students are children of color.

In Harlem on Thursday afternoon, students’ parents and family members said their reaction boiled down to one thing: Does this affect my child?

Jasmine Holst, for instance, who has a daughter in third grade at the Success Academy Hell’s Kitchen, said she doesn’t always agree with Moskowitz, but that does not change the way she feels about her daughter’s school.

“I’m not going to let her personal opinions affect my daughter’s education at the end of the day,” Holst said.

Others were quick to point out their own positive experiences with Success Academy staff. I haven’t “seen any racism from the teachers” at Success Academy Harlem 1, said Coco Rhymes, who has a daughter in third grade there.

Though she said Loeb should apologize for his comments, she also said she would not consider sending her child back to a traditional public school.

“She’s been to public schools and woo, that was really bad,” Rhymes said.

Many of the parents and family members Chalkbeat interviewed had not heard about the comment made by Loeb — who said that Stewart-Cousins, an African American, had done “more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood.”

“Fortunately, this hasn’t spewed into the school setting,” said Jasmine Alhyani, who has a daughter at Success Academy Harlem 1 and another at Success Academy Harlem West. “I hope it stays at the top.”

When she did hear, Alhyani said Loeb should send a personal apology to parents and students at the school. (Loeb has since deleted the post and publicly apologized.)

Others thought an apology wasn’t quite enough. While at the playground, watching her third-grade cousins who attend Success Academy Harlem 2, Danielle Lucas said Loeb should be forced to leave the board.

“We don’t want our kids to grow up thinking we’re in the old days,” Lucas said. “I think he should be on suspension until they find a better qualified person to run it. Action needs to be taken.”

Parents also bristled — to varying degrees — over Moskowitz’s previous relationship with the Trump administration. Tina Thompson, who has a daughter at Success Academy Harlem 1, said she was at her daughter’s school the day Ivanka Trump came for a tour.

Thompson said unless Ivanka Trump plans to assist the school, she should not have visited.

“It is inappropriate, unless she helps,” Thompson said.

She hadn’t read Moskowitz’s letter about Trump in its entirety, but agreed with the sentiment. “She should have been distancing herself since the beginning,” she said.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.