How educators can begin to dismantle racism in the classroom
Friday, June 19, 2020
People in all 50 states continue to take to the streets to support Black Lives Matter and demand an end to racial injustice. Meanwhile, a surge of interest in race and race relations has prompted people to seek out films and books on racism.
“Looking at the @nytimes bestseller lists this week, and I don’t know if it has ever had more books on racism,” tweeted Ibram X. Kendi, author of the No. 1 hardcover nonfiction book, “How to be an Antiracist.”
For this uprising to significantly change the trajectory of 400 years of oppression, radical changes must also permeate the classrooms, hallways and playgrounds of our nation’s schools.
“I believe that now, more than ever, educators have a responsibility to hold themselves individually, and hold others mutually accountable to the repair of our country and race relations,” writes educator, speaker and activist Kelisa Wing in Education Post. “We must commit to teaching in a way that totally disrupts and dismantles the systems of oppression."
Wing, author of “If I could: Lessons for navigating an unjust world” and “Promises and Possibilities: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline,” recently spoke to Dr. Sheldon Eakins, host of the Leading Equity podcast. Eakins, a former teacher, principal, and director of special education, is founder of the Leading Equity Center, where he helps educators accomplish equitable practices in their schools.
Overcoming fears and biases to support our black students
At the beginning of the podcast, Eakins shares that since George Floyd’s murder on Memorial Day several people, especially white educators, have reached out to him for advice. Many want to speak to their black students about what’s going on but don’t know what to say or how to say it.
Since white teachers are so often a constant influence on black kids, Eakins agrees that it’s important that these educators don’t brush off conversations about police brutality, the pandemic and other things impacting students and their families. “If we don't address these things, then we’re missing the relationship side of things and missing a great opportunity to show our kids that we genuinely care,” he says.
To genuinely support our black students, Wing says we first need to look inward and identify our own implicit and explicit biases. We must face ourselves and trace back into our own histories
“Think about some of those triggers that we have that set us off into that mindset, where we start to feel that bit of uneasiness,” she says. “Get comfortable with the discomfort and then seek to replace whatever it is that got us to that place.”
Education is key, as an example from her own life demonstrates.
After 9/11, as a veteran, she started having a lot of fears about Muslims. Instead of “leaning into that fear then letting that fear become bias and letting that bias become prejudice,” she learned everything she could about Muslims and about Islam. That helped her replace fear with the truth.
Education that reflects a world that isn’t whitewashed
After seeking out the truth, Wing says as teachers have to really look around their classrooms and see who’s represented in the posters on the walls, in the books on their shelves and in the units that they're going to teach. Students of color should be able to recognize themselves in all of these places.
“You have to give those students mirrors to see themselves in. Otherwise, you're denying them the ability to see themselves represented in their own curriculum,” she explains.
White students in the U.S. also need an education that’s based on reality — part of that is knowing that the majority of the people in the world aren’t white.
“If we keep some of these children in a constant state of comfort, they will never grow beyond the systemic racism that they have been born into and raised up into,” says Wing. “And then we'll just continue to keep the cycle going.”
Curriculum that challenges the status quo and engages students
Eakins and Wing have heard pushback from teachers about how standards prevent them from changing their curriculum to make it culturally relevant. Yet standards are not curriculum, both emphasize.
“It's so important that we provide more information than just the typical stories that we may have been raised on,” says Eakins. “So often they're told from the white perspective, and it's not providing multiple perspectives when it comes to how people were impacted with certain situations.”
Wing adds that black history shouldn’t be relegated to the shortest month of the year. Instead, it should be “embedded in every facet of whatever you're teaching because black history is American history.”
Multiple perspectives could mean looking at the war from a black veteran’s point of view and reading English literature by female authors of color. The historic figures who have become symbols in education like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Abraham Lincoln can be profoundly relevant for today’s students — if teachers scratch beneath the surface.
South Memphis teacher Austin Crowder shared in a previous article how he uses “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” at the beginning of the semester to set the tone for the school year. High school students explore the meaning of, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" within the context of their classroom, making it a place where they can experience and practice democracy as modeled by Dr. King.
Wing also shared how as a teacher, she had her middle schoolers study the impassioned conversations between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. Students could see for themselves how the education of that president by a black leader not only allowed the country an emancipation proclamation — but serves as a prime example of how education can disrupt a system.
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