Getting Uncomfortable — Let’s Talk About Race In The Classroom

During breakfast, on the final morning of leadership camp, I noticed a chaperone from another group standing near our tables. After a few moments, she walked over and said something to several of my students. By their reactions, I could clearly tell that the conversation was disciplinary in nature.

My first response was to be defensive. My students know how to behave when we’re out of the building. I hadn’t observed any misbehavior. Why was she redirecting them?

Camp Kern runs multiple school programs simultaneously – a leadership program for middle school students and an environmental program for upper elementary students. As is the case every year, there was a second group at camp while we were there. Invariably the other group is always much larger than ours, comprised of younger children, and made up of predominately white students.

My students are adolescents and predominately students of color.

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Exploring Racial Bias: Reflecting Inward, Projecting Outward (Part 2)

This is a continuation of a previous post. Part I can be viewed here.

During the second quarter of this school year, my teaching partners and I led our students in an intensive exploration of the concepts of racial bias and institutional racism. The impetus for this work emerged from a combination of concerns about what we saw happening in our country at large, and being aware of a microcosm of the same occurring within our school. We opened the dialogue through a series of seminar discussions. A more detailed account of these initial pieces is provided in Part 1 of this post, as linked above.

Throughout the time that we were seminaring on the issue of implicit racial bias, students were also engaging in novel discussions and assignments on After Tupac and D. Foster – a coming of age story about three African-American girls growing up in Queens in the mid-1990s.

Students were making connections between the novel and their own lives, as well as connections to the greater societal issues around them. It was at the end of one particularly provocative and rich discussion, where students had explored the motifs of stereotype, injustice, inequity, judgement, and racism, that Beau and I hit on the idea for our culminating group project.

Our work together in development of this task was a beautiful example of co-teaching at its best. Beau and I bounced ideas back and forth, and then worked through determining how to best structure each piece, so it would be accessible to all learners. (A copy of the complete student work packet is available here.)

We were so delighted with how the project developed through our collaborative work that on the day we introduced the task, we were practically shimmering with excitement. We hoped to convey this glee to our students, but, while a few reflected our enthusiasm, the majority of them looked back at us with expressions that clearly said, “I’m sorry, you want us to do what?!” They recognized the complexity and rigor of the task ahead, and the challenges that inherently arise through group work, and they were understandably apprehensive. Yet, we remained confident that we could support them in being successful with this challenging assignment.

The final two weeks of the quarter were dedicated to working on the project and groups predictably cycled through the various stages that come with any major task – excitement, anxiety, frustration, despair, pride, and relief. It was an intense time.

The project began with a creative representation of theme in the novel. Each group had to craft a theme for the novel based on the motif of racism. They then had to identify four scenes in the text which supported their theme, select a compelling quotation, provide reasoning for how this related to their theme, depict the scene, and construct a storyboard containing all these pieces.

They selected quotes like these:

“Cops always trying to bring a brother down. I’m coming from the park just now, trying to get home. I’m running down the street, and this cop just stopped me talking about ‘where you running from?’ I said, ‘I’m not running from I’m running to. Some days I’m thinking why God gave me these legs to run if it’s gonna mean getting stopped by some cop every time I try to do so.”

“’Brother in a suit is just a brother in a suit,’ he said. ‘His black head still sticking out his neck hole.’”

Students then created illustrations like these to represent the events of the novel.

Students were then required to connect their theme to the concepts explored in our seminar pieces (our supplemental texts): implicit bias in schools, stop and frisk policies, the Black Lives Matter movement, police relations with communities of color, and perceptions of race relations. None of these are easy or simple concepts.

They took the theme they had identified from the novel and expanded it outward to where they saw it represented in the real-world. Once again, they had to find evidence in the form of a direct quotation from one of the supplemental texts, and then develop reasoning to link that quotation to their theme.

The final component of the project was, perhaps, the most emotionally challenging. Students conducted an online search for images which reflected the topics they had discussed through both the novel and the supplemental texts. Many of them were shocked by what they saw.

As one student was searching for photographs, she exclaimed, “Oh, I can’t use this picture; it’s too upsetting!”

My response was, “I told you that these images might make us uncomfortable. That’s okay. It’s important that we feel uncomfortable.”

Finally, each of these components was assembled into a comprehensive display.

As the projects began to be completed, students and teachers alike witnessed the tremendous power in the work.

Josh Vogt, Gamble’s 11th and 12th grade social studies teacher, came to see how things were progressing. Josh has done considerable work on the concept of social justice, so his feedback was particularly valuable to us. He spent nearly an entire bell with us, looking at every group’s work and asking probing questions of our students.

When I spoke with him later that evening, his response was profound. He acknowledged the depth of the exploration. He shared that he wished he had been able to spend the entire quarter working on this unit with us, and he requested that I take photos and video of the project exhibition the following day, so he could share it with others doing this work around the country.

As a teacher, I was deeply touched by this praise, but I knew that it wasn’t me who most needed to hear it.

The following morning we prepared for the gallery walk of the completed projects. The tone in the room was a combination of anxiety and pride. Beau and I explained the structural and behavioral expectations of this task. Among other things, we asked that students remain silent during this activity. I clarified that the reason we set this expectation was to honor both their tremendous amount of effort and to be respectful of the seriousness of the subject matter. I also shared with them what Josh had said – that he was so moved by the work that he had been brought to tears, that he was proud that they had accepted the challenge to tackle this topic, that he found the work of such quality that he wanted to share it with others around the country.

An outside expert’s view of their work carried so much more weight than directions given by the same teachers they hear day after day.

Even with the reinforcement of Josh’s words, I anticipated having to repeatedly enforce the expectation of silence.

Once more the students surprised me. There was no need for any kind of redirection. For nearly an hour, as they viewed each other’s projects, they were silent. There was hardly any sound at all beyond the shuffling of feet as students moved between displays. They carefully examined each project, taking notes as directed. In all honesty, I have never experienced anything quite like it before. The tone was nothing short of reverent.   So much so, that at the end of our time, several students expressed disappointment that they had to go to their elective classes, rather than spend more time looking at the projects. Here is a short video clip chronicling the gallery walk.

Later that afternoon, we concluded our project experience with a final seminar discussion. We focused on two primary questions:

  • How does the issue of racial bias impact us as a nation, as a community, as individuals?
  • How might we as a nation, as a community, as individuals address this?

The conversation vacillated between hopeful and hopeless.

An 8th grade boy optimistically indicated that he believed things were going to get better. As evidence, he proudly specified the work that we had been doing as a class, and Mr. Vogt’s intention to share it with others who were working on the same issues nationally.

One young woman angrily noted, “We can talk about it, and we can do things, but it won’t make any difference because of all the racist people who won’t change. You have to want to change in order to change, and they don’t even care.”

And then we talked about Change Innovation Theory – the idea that change is led by Innovators and Early Adopters, and it develops into a movement that grows such that the wave of the majority will do the work of influencing a resistant minority.

And with that, the bell rang and we ran out of time.

The issues addressed through this project are difficult ones. They are hard realities, but we do our students – of all colors and backgrounds – a disservice if we don’t being these concerns to the forefront and provide our students with ways to explore them.

For my students the conversation has only just begun, and the real work of change has yet to be started, but I am proud to teach Innovators and Early Adopters. They will change the world, and I hope that they will start with our school.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring Racial Bias: Reflecting Inward, Projecting Outward (Part 1)

Sixty-seven percent. That was the number I was banking on. I was running discipline data, and I already knew that 67% was my golden number – the percentage I didn’t want to exceed.

But . . .the results were yielding something different.

90%, 87%, 85%, 90%, 82%, 84%

These numbers weren’t just above 67%; they were way above it.

As I ran quarter after quarter of discipline data, I kept hoping to see something different, a change in the trend, or at least an outlier or two.

But that wasn’t the case. Every quarter, the same pattern emerged: our Black students were involved in disciplinary infractions at far higher rates than any other racial group, and at far higher rates than their representation in our population would indicate – 67%.

Black student responses
White student responses

As Gamble’s Positive School Culture Committee Chair, I had begun this process because we were curious about a blip we saw in the student survey data related to school climate. When we disaggregated the responses by race for the questions that dealt with fairness of consequences, we noted that our black students felt that consequences were less fair than our white students. The rest of the responses were fairly consistent across racial demographics, so it caught our attention when we saw that 52% of our African-American students felt that consequences for misbehavior were seldom or almost never fair; whereas only 34% of our white students felt this way.

It wasn’t a huge gap; it was just bigger than anything we had seen in response to the other survey questions. However, it caused us to pause and reflect on what it might mean. This survey question was about student perception, but we realized that if we disaggregated our discipline data the same way that we had for the survey data, that we would be able to compare reality to perception.

Which is how I found myself repeatedly staring at my computer screen in disbelief and horror as every quarter showed nearly the same thing about our discipline data – our Black students were markedly over-represented.

I shouldn’t have been so shocked. These results aren’t different from what has been widely reported nationally: students of color face harsher and more frequent disciplinary consequences than their white counterparts. In fact, the national data shows a significantly wider discrepancy than the data at Gamble. Proportionally, our data notes that every 1.3% of high-level consequences were assigned to 1% of our Black population; whereas nationally 2.3% of high-level consequences were assigned to 1% of Black students.[1]

Doing better than the national average is not, however, something to celebrate. The cost of these high-level discipline responses is high. We know that suspensions and expulsions lead to a decreased likelihood that students will graduate from high school and an increased likelihood that these students will wind up incarcerated. On average, one out of every three African-American males will be incarcerated during their lifetime.[2]

None of this was new information for me. I just didn’t want any of it to be true at Gamble. I wanted my school to be different. I didn’t want us to be culpable. I wanted my students to be protected. Unfortunately, that’s not what our data indicated

Schoolhouse Rock taught us, “Knowledge is Power.” Now that we had the knowledge, what were we going to do with it?

Turns out, it’s easier to compile the data than it is to address what it shows. There is no quick fix solution.

We decided that the first step was to be transparent — to share the data and to acknowledge our concern about it. To this end it was shared on teacher teams and at PTO; some of our high school teachers shared it with students as well.

Those of us who teach junior high chose not to share it with students. We didn’t know how to craft the conversation in such a way that it would be structured and pro-active, and we didn’t know how to guide our students toward recognizing both the gravity and the complexity of the situation.

So, for more than a year, we did nothing.

Although, I suppose, it wasn’t really nothing. It weighed on all of our minds as, tragically, during the same time frame, police shootings of black males – another example of implicit racial bias – was repeatedly in the public eye.

Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Tony Robinson, Philip White, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Brendon Glenn, Sam DuBose,  Gregory Gunn, Philando Castile, Terrence Crutcher …

It is not possible to see this list of names and not worry which of my students could join them.

We knew that we had to talk with them about all of this, but the prospect of that was so intimidating. I know there are other teachers, like this one,  who were braver than I. There were teachers all over the country who were having these difficult conversations with their students.

It wasn’t that we didn’t want to have these discussions – we did – we just wanted to make sure that we did it “right” – that we found the right materials, that we structured it well, that we prepared students correctly, that we tied the content to our cycle of study, that we identified the perfect time to have the conversation, and that we did everything within our power to ensure that it was a productive conversation, rather than a damaging one.

While each of these factors is important, waiting for this confluence of perfection was, of course, a subtle kind of avoidance. Waiting on perfect, allowed us to do nothing.

But, finally, this October, we began to find some traction. Our second quarter novel, After Tupac and D. Foster, included thematic undercurrents of racial bias. In light of this, Beau, my teaching partner, also assigned a reading about a study of implicit racial bias in preschool classrooms: Implicit Racial Bias Often Begins as Early as Preschool, A Study Finds by Yolanda Young.

With this assignment, the die was cast. Although we didn’t even realize it yet.

We didn’t yet know how profoundly this beginning would impact the entirety of the quarter, but we did know that we needed to be very conscientious about how we prepared our students for engaging in this conversation. Because we wanted all students to receive an identical message about the expectations for how we talk about these sensitive topics, we arranged the room to accommodate both of our seminar groups at the same time.

As we do before any seminar, we reminded students to keep their comments relevant to the text, to disagree with statements rather than people, to give everyone opportunities to speak, to not form alliances, and to be open to changing their minds.

But this time, because of the emotionally-charged subject matter, we had to provide additional guidance. We had never before explored such challenging content with our students. This type of careful preparation is critically important before embarking with students on any topic that is likely to elicit strong reactions.

We instructed students to give each other the benefit of the doubt. To be careful of their words but also to be honest and to risk making a mistake. To recognize that we might inadvertently hurt each other’s feelings and to be willing to share these feelings and question one another as a means of seeking understanding.

And then we began. It felt a bit like jumping off a cliff.

But, like in most things, our students rose to the challenge beautifully, and we had a powerful and engaging discussion. We hadn’t planned to bring up the school discipline data, but in both groups, the conversation naturally led in this direction. When that moment appeared, (and it happened nearly simultaneously in both groups), we openly shared the disproportionate percentages, and explained why they were concerning.

The students’ response was flabbergasting. I was prepared for them to be angry. I was prepared for them to be indignant. I was prepared for them to blame us.

I was not at all prepared for them to discount it entirely.

“That used to happen at my old school.”

“My teacher did that last year. I always got in trouble just because I am black.”

“I have a friend who says that happens at his school.”

And most notably, “Well, that probably happens in high school.”

The closest they came to seeing the data as personally impacting them was by claiming that if it was a problem in our building, it must be something that happens in our high school program and not about junior high … or them … or us.

Their interpretation is simply not true; the data contains no indication that there are differences between grade levels, and I am still dumbfounded as to why they responded in this way. Perhaps, like us, they simply needed more time to process it.

We hadn’t intended to make the concept of implicit racial bias and its impacts the subject of all our seminar discussions for the quarter, but the deeper we delved into the subject, the more there seemed to be to discuss. We decided to run with this idea, and each week throughout the quarter, we seminared on a different aspect of racial bias.

At times, our conversations were uncomfortable.

When reading about “Stop and Frisk” policies, a student asked whether that meant that every police officer who engaged in this type of policing was racist. That’s a touchy question to answer, but it helped us examine the difference between individual racism and societal racism, as well as the difference between overt racism and implicit racism.

During one discussion, a white student courageously noted, “Somewhere, deep down inside, everybody is at least a teeny, tiny bit racist.” This comment elicited strong reactions, but it helped us to turn the lens on ourselves.

On several occasions during the quarter, when given behavioral redirection, students accused us of racial bias. That felt terrible, but these challenges helped us to reflect carefully on our reactions and responses to student behavior.

It was through this process of self-reflecton that I realized that we had made a mistake – we had skipped a step.

Maria Montessori said, “It is not enough for the teacher to love the child. She must first love and understand the universe. She must prepare herself, and truly work at it.” This is one of my favorite quotations, and yet I had forgotten it here.

The teacher must prepare herself. It was not just our students who were impacted by these difficult conversation; we were experiencing this, too. We had been guiding them, but had failed to use our resources to prepare ourselves.

Confronting the societal demon of racism in a mixed-race group of colleagues is a daunting task. We agreed to commit one meeting a month to discussing this topic through the lens of a variety of resources that we would take turns providing. Like we did with students, we established special meeting norms for creating a “Courageous Space” in which to engage is these conversations.

This work is an ongoing process, but so far we have watched Bryan Stevenson’s video Confronting Injustice  and read John Metta’s article “I, Racist and engaged in rich conversations on each.

 None of this is enough. None of it marks our ending place, but taken together, it is our beginning. We have embarked upon this journey. It is a complicated one, and it requires us to be brave. And to be humble.

It requires us to take a hard look at both what is happening around us, and what exists within us. Next week’s post will detail the initial work we did with our students to help them synthesize their learning and their experiences, and to guide them toward activism.

 

[1] U.S. Department Of Education Office For Civil Rights. “Civil Rights Data Collection Data Snapshot: School Discipline.” CIVIL RIGHTS DATA COLLECTION 1 (2014): 1-24.Education Week. U.S. Department of Education, Mar. 2014. Web. 1 Jan. 2017. <http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rulesforengagement/CRDC%20School%20Discipline%20Snapshot.pdf>.

[2] Amurao, Caria. “Fact Sheet: How Bad Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 01 Jan. 2017.