4 Easy Ways to Talk About Race in School
Updated: Feb 10, 2022
A school is a place where children can find answers to life’s mysteries. Some of the most challenging questions I’ve faced in my career have to do with race and culture. Students want to know about race just like they want to know about electricity or how bridges work. School is about seeing the world beyond the one we see with our eyes. A chair is not just a chair. It’s chemistry and physics and geometry. Before there was a chair or a couch or a stool, someone had to imagine this thing that didn’t exist. There is a story behind a chair, a car, a light, a pyramid, a bridge, a medical procedure, and there is a story behind race. History is just like the chair we can see with our eyes. Even if we watch it on a video, we still have to imagine the full story, not just a few moving images.
When it comes to history, we tend to rearrange things to create an image of what our country was and is. We create a narrative of our own making and invent the storyline as we go. This is because teachers and parents long to shelter children, to keep them from experiencing pain and suffering and from seeing the flaws of our nation. We create a bubble or an ivory tower to wash away the mistakes, blunders, stupidity, cruelty, and flaws of the adult world. We cover up historical acts of stupidity and ego to make ourselves feel good and in the process, we keep flawed, ineffective, and expensive systems the way they are. We keep our students from questioning authority and preventing leaders from making the same mistakes over and over again.
We get an education so that we know a little bit about how everything works. School presents students with the thousands of years of hard work that came before them, hard work that dismantled falsehoods and improved the world, one piece of knowledge, one truth, at a time. Students are eager to learn about how we got to where we are, and where we’re going. They are eager to talk about race and culture and they want to understand their neighborhood and why it looks the way it does.
When children look at the world, it’s confusing. You can see poverty with your eyes, but you can’t see the reasons for it unless you understand the full story, and that story is a complicated one. Why should a child who graduates high school and enters the world as an adult not understand terms like urban renewal, redlining, segregation, recidivism, coded language, mass incarceration, and blockbusting? Why would we not equip students with the information they need as citizens to improve our government and businesses? How will our country solve problems if our students don’t know what those problems are? How will our country lift up communities that were deserted generation after generation and left without investment, businesses, quality education, healthcare, and infrastructure?
Last semester, I taught an elective called Racial Literacy and students created amazing final projects about race that focused on a topic of choice. Some topics included: beauty, wrongful convictions, stereotypes within the LGBTQ community, film, incarceration and the criminal justice system, music, education and curriculum, art, athletes, publishing, theater, medical malpractice, environmental justice, and fashion.
The textbook Race in America by Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer serves as the core text and framework for units in the course and contains the following chapters: “Race in the Twenty-First Century”, “The Invention of Race”, “Politics”, “Economics”, “Housing”, “Crime and Punishment”, “Education”, “Aesthetics”, “Associations”, “Intimate Life”, and “Toward Racial Democracy”.
Curious, aren’t you?
An elective course might be a great way to talk about race at your school, but here are four ways to talk about race in your ELA classroom:
In the age of social media and trolling, it’s very important to show students how to talk face to face about important topics. We should have good whole class conversations to model compassion, morality, and etiquette, and allow students to work in small groups to speak without fear of saying the wrong thing in front of a large group. Conversations about essays, videos, and podcasts can be just as engaging as conversations about poems, short stories, novels, plays and movies. Sometimes I have students work on the same source, and sometimes each student gets assigned or discovers their own source to summarize for their group or the whole class.
Most literature has important things to say about culture, spirituality, and family. The stories and experiences of our students are just as important and relevant as the stories they study in class. We shouldn’t just hope that students connect their experiences to the literature we teach, we should give plenty of opportunities for students to write and talk about where they come from and who they are. Stories unite us because the stories of two people always have some intersection. When students hear stories, in a way, they travel to another neighborhood to see what it’s like there. For this reason, I assign interviews and podcasts as often as possible. It's an easy way to celebrate everyone. This approach makes learning about race and culture primarily about love and compassion, not finger pointing.
Our students spend a lot of time online, but over the past few years, they spend most of their time connecting with friends. That’s valuable, but students can learn a tremendous amount if we let them keep clicking deeper and deeper to answer their questions. All we need to do is suggest sources like podcasts, videos, articles, and essays and check the quality of the ones they discover independently. Education should be about learning how to learn, and not just soaking up information like a sponge.
4. Solutions and Projects
A lot of people don’t like how history seems like a series of horrible atrocities that they can do nothing about. It makes them feel helpless and insignificant. But if we shift the conversation to include both problems and problem solving, then we’re all participating in a much more exciting conversation about progress. In order to move past discriminatory practices and policies, students need as much information as possible and only need to look at programs and policies in our own country and around the world that work and make economic sense. We also need to focus on the story of achievement just as much as the story of discrimination. Nothing should be hidden or left out or untold, and no conversation off limits.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers