How should teachers have answered students’ questions the morning after the 2016 presidential election? When an unarmed black man is shot and killed by police, how’s a teacher to respond? In the wake of controversial policies, such as President Trump’s “Muslim ban,” what responsibility do educators have to help students process the news?
Teachers are trained to teach math or science, English or humanities, but the realities of the classroom – and our world – dictate that they end up navigating much more than the academic disciplines in which they are trained. Kids are exposed to adult issues through social media, the internet and television, no matter how much we might prefer to shield them from ugly, painful stuff in the world.
This year, Match’s Sposato Graduate School of Education (SGSE) included a required course in its curriculum, SPO 100: Culture, Community and Context. (The class is a refined version of a similar course that Sposato has taught for the last two years.)
Taught by Sposato faculty Elena Luna and Jawad Brown, the purpose of the class was to train rookie teachers how to confront their own biases and prepare their students – who are overwhelmingly students of color from low-income backgrounds – to navigate the “culture of power,” that in our society is European-American, white culture.
Over six three-hour classes, Luna and Brown lead Sposato students through a series of readings, exercises and frank conversations designed to help them understand inequity in education, interrogate their own biases, and explore how their personal identities influence their relationship to the culture of power. Rookie teachers were also encouraged to teach their students to identify cultural and institutional inequities and to advocate for social change. And they learned how to build relationships with students and families, by venturing outside the walls of classroom and into a student’s life, by spending time on their home turf – at a soccer game, a family party, shopping. “It’s amazing what information you can gather from seeing students in their own communities,” one Sposato student explained.
The final class of the semester featured a panel discussion among educators who regularly hold courageous conversations about race. These conversations were often in response to an incident (such as a police shooting or the election), but also came about in the course of class discussion. The deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, the mass shooting at the AME church in Charleston, SC, the ongoing political debate about our country’s immigration policy – all events that occurred outside of Boston – were topics of discussion.
The goal of this final SPO 100 sessionwas to create a forum where Sposato students could ask tough questions and hear how veterans handled these situations from the real-world.
Here are a handful of key takeaways from the session:
Have the conversation. The overwhelming message from veterans was to give students the space to discuss difficult news and events. They are experiencing trauma, and need a safe place to emotionally process and understand what they are seeing in the world. Be prepared to dive in.
Help students understand the facts. All sensitive conversations should be grounded in facts (an increasingly challenging ask in a landscape ripe with “alternative” facts). “Emotions run hot in first grade,” Silverstein-Tapp said, describing some of her students’ reactions to news of the Muslim ban; some worried about what might happen to members of their own families. “I did a ton of reading to understand what was going on, so I could answer their questions accurately,” she said. “I wanted to be factual, but not neutral.”
Be sure to listen and validate students’ feelings. Conversations about race can become emotional among adults; imagine trying to keep a classroom full of 12-year old emotions in check. “I encouraged students to express how they were feeling, instead of saying, ‘you guys are XYZ!’” Brown said. That approach cut down on finger pointing and made conversations more about an internal exploration. Brown also gave everyone two minutes to talk, even if they opted to remain silent.
Teachers can introduce complexity into the conversation. Veteran teachers said it was important to remain true to their own emotions – in a way that was honest and age appropriate– but to also help students lean into the complexity of these issues. “Your job is to facilitate a conversation, and to help point out misconceptions, fears and lack of knowledge, and information is power” Luna said. Esteves doesn’t shy away from allowing students to share their thoughts – and pushing for clarity – and then allowing them to be held accountable by their peers.
Positive classroom culture is essential. Unless a teacher has already established a trusting, safe classroom culture, productive conversations about sensitive and emotional topics just aren’t possible. “Teaching and learning should be reciprocal, and that should be transparent to students,” Anjali Nirmalan explained. “I start with the basic questions: do you know what happened? How do you feel? Can you explain why you are upset?” Brewster added. “I run lots of Socratic seminars in my class and want my kids to know that I am comfortable having these discussions.”
It’d be unrealistic to think that one seminar course could prepare rookie teachers to successfully navigate the complexities surrounding race and culture in the classroom. But it’s a start. And we hope the sheer awareness of their own biases – and the biases inherent in white, European-American culture – will enable them to run more effective classrooms and build stronger, more trusting relationships with students and families.
If you’re interested in some of the readings we assigned in SPO 100: Culture, Community & Context, here is a partial list:
- “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt” by Gloria Ladson-Billings.
- “An Appeal to Authority: The new paternalism in urban schools” by David Whitman
- “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children” by Lisa Delpit
- “Beginning Courageous Conversations about Race” by Glenn Singleton and Cyndie Hays
- “Speak up at school: how to respond to every day prejudice, bias and stereotypes” by Teaching Tolerance