The Elephant in the Room

On Friday night, hundreds of American white supremacists had a rally in Charlottesville, VA. In the violent aftermath, dozens of people were injured, and three people died, at least one of whom was a victim of this racially-motivated domestic terrorism. On top of that, people around the world were reminded that racism is alive and well in the United States.

Every single person in that latter group looks just like those who put on the rally.

White people, such as myself, have the unique ability to forget that there are those who wish we didn’t exist. I have been reminded time and time again by people of color that they do not have that luxury.

But right now, it is on all of our minds.

Including the minds of our students.

What do we do? How do we help the next generation be better than our current generation? How do we help make sure the next generation lives long enough to actually become the next generation, and not the last generation?

What I know is that I don’t know.

I’m not going to claim to have the answers. But I have some ideas and some resources that I think can help.

But to begin with, we must shed the notion that our classrooms — our communities of learners — are not able to handle this sort of discussion. Again, for those of us who are white, we are at times able to ignore this, even when it is shoved in our faces. The same is true of our white students. But we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to all our students — regardless of race, religion, and ethnicity — if we make the choice to ignore this or pretend that it is not important to our students. They’re all thinking about it. Our silence on the matter would speak louder than anything else we could say.

This is their world. This is the world they are going to need to make better. It is our job to help them do so. So we need to do some work.

Be properly informed.

Students will be looking to their teachers as thought leaders and will often take their word as bond. So if you start spreading misinformation to your students, that will do one of two things: 1) cause them to lose faith in you, or, more likely, 2) cause them to believe and perpetuate the falsehoods you accidentally proclaimed. Do your research on the events before you share about them.

For this particular act of hate, I have found this resource to be fairly reliable. It appears to have a slight bias, but does not in any way alter the facts that are presented: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/08/state-of-emergency-in-va-after-white-nationalist-rally.html

Survey your own biases in the classroom.

Pay attention to the way you are teaching your students. Are you consistent in your demeanor to all students? Do you have different expectations for different students? Probably. Many of us do, and often times, it’s for a good reason: different students are at different levels, and may need different expectations.

But what about when it’s not a good reason? What if you have higher expectations of the boys in your room than you do of the girls? What if you are short-tempered more often with students who are of a different race than you are?

Obviously that’s a problem in terms of fostering a positive learning environment, but what about the unintended lessons that teaches our students? If you are a white teacher and you are quicker to discipline your black students, what is that really doing? The message to the black students is that they are more likely to be discipline problems, based on their race. The message to their white classmates is the same one.

Imagine you make that mistake often. Imagine it happens for our students year after year after year. Hopefully the students being taught they are less than have other sources in their life that remind them that no, they are just as worthy of respect and have the same level of dignity as anyone else.

But what about the majority students? If they receive the message from school that their minority classmates are less than they are simply because of their race, religion, ethnicity, etc., what happens if they don’t receive a message that says the opposite? Who do they become?

“They sat in our classrooms. Let’s do better.”

The full quote to the above is from LaNehsa Tabb, @apron_education on Instagram. Here’s the full post:

apron_education.png

A lot of teachers like to talk about how teaching is the profession that trains all others. Well, if we’re going to take credit for doctors and artists and lawyers, we also need to take credit for our white supremacists. Many of us back down from these conversations, as we are not the parents of our students. That doesn’t mean we can’t provide a model that is perhaps drastically different than what they see at home. Yes, if you speak up against white nationalist viewpoints or Trump’s rhetoric, you might get some phone calls from parents angry about you bringing your politics into the classroom. You might cause some of your students to lose faith in you. You might lose your job.

You might also get a call 15 years down the road from a former student thanking you for showing them there was a different way to be an adult. You might have a student stick back at the end of the day to tell you they are glad someone said something. You might have a student choose to speak up against racism when they see it. You might cause a student to second-guess a rally they were going to attend. You might cause there to be one less white supremacist in the world. And, as many teachers know, if you know for sure that one person was impacted by your teaching, there are probably dozens you don’t know of.

Be mindful in your curriculum choices.

Keeping in mind what LaNesha Tabb mentioned in her post, we need to consider the future of our students when we decide what to teach them. We know that diversity breeds empathy (see here, here, and here). What are we doing to bring that to our students? What actions can we take? I reached out to Kathy Burnette (@thebrainlair on Twitter), and she had some wise words:

It is hard to put into words actions we should take because I’m sidetracked by my own alternating feelings of of rage, sadness, and despair. Trying to work my way back to hope. But it’s very difficult right now. As a book nerd, I believe that books, and the way we use them, can provide us some of this hope. But what we have to do is move the literature conversation forward. When we are posting our book lists, deciding what we are reading to our classes, picking books to share with other teachers – take a few minutes. Check that book. What kind of message does this book send? Have I sent that same message to this group before? Is this a book that’s written about people of color but not by people of color? Is this “social justice” book only looking at Jackie Robinson or Rosa Parks?

How are we using books to advance humanity? Are people of color shown as, well, people? Is it like When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon where the main characters are two teenagers who are funny and passionate but happen to be Indian. Or The Sun is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon where Natasha and Daniel meet and Daniel is sure he can convince Nicole to fall in love with him and the main characters happen to be Korean and Jamaican? Is it about twin brothers who go to school and play basketball but aren’t in jail or do drugs? We need to make sure we are sharing stories where people of color are living everyday lives. That’s what should be “normalized”.

Consider that. As teachers, we can help prevent future racists from existing simply by making smart choices in the stories we share with our students.

“If our shelves are diverse but our lives are not, we have missed the mark.” — Chad Everett

I think that speaks for itself. See Chad’s full Nerd Talk text here.

Read Lynsey Burkins’ post on this blog.

Then go read it again.

Own your own racism.

Our students suffer from an epidemic of adults in their life being portrayed as perfect. Their teachers make no mistakes. What they say is always correct.

I will probably write an entire post just about the need to apologize to our students, but let me give you a preview here. And it has to do with owning your flaws.

I am not perfect, though my students sometimes see me as such (and other times, I leave them no doubt that I am not). But I am not and never am. This includes my views on race.

There are parts of me that are racist. Parts of me that act as a white supremacist.

It may seem that I am one of the “good guys” because if I were in Charlottesville this weekend, I would have been protesting the rally, not being a part of it. But do I racially profile? Per above, do I discipline my students differently based on race? Do I assume my good intentions are all I need?

Sometimes, yes. And more.

I have seen this image bouncing around social media for a few months now. I can’t find an original source, but it’s important for us to look at again:

Here’s the thing. If I pretend that I am perfect in terms of my views on race because I don’t do the top of the triangle, it does harm to the students in my care. It does harm because it means that the stuff I do in the bottom part of the triangle is acceptable.

And it’s not.

It’s important that I own my failings, and do so in front of my students when appropriate. If you are having conversations with your students about racism, it’s okay to talk about your own failings. In fact, it’s vital. Many of your students will have the same flaws and failings.

It’s not okay to be racist. But it’s also not okay to pretend that you’re not. The best thing to do is acknowledge your shortcomings, and publicly talk about how you’re working to be better on it. This gives the students in your classroom permission to do the same. To say that they are working on being a better human being, because they’re not perfect.

Check your feelings.

Your students’ feelings are important, because they are developing the capacity to understand them and act on them. Your feelings are much less important. You’re an adult and can find healthy outlets that don’t sacrifice what your students need.

If we wait until the next major hate crime to talk about it with our students, we are complicit in fostering the attitudes that led to that crime. If someone comes through our classroom and we made a choice to NOT talk about the obvious evil that is in our world, and they go on to continue that evil in the world, we deserve part of the blame for their actions.

The community at stake here is more than just your classroom.

That being said, it starts in your classroom. Yes, we’re talking about the world at large, but right now, you have the students in front of you. Be the teacher they need. Don’t brush aside tough conversations because they’re tough. Have them for precisely that reason.

Let’s build a future of empathetic, free-thinking leaders. Ones that recognize white supremacy and similar ideologies as the evil they are. And let’s start that work now.

Final thoughts

Jen Vincent, who tweets at @mentortexts and was a leading voice on this topic at Nerd Camp Michigan along with Kathy Burnette and Chad Everett, offers her closing remarks.

After the act of terrorism in Charlottesville this weekend, you might have seen the hashtag #thisisnotus on Twitter. I think the sentiment intended is that we, as a country, as people, as citizens, can do better. This should not be us. I wish it wasn’t us. But it is. As much as we need to move forward and do better. Better at being informed, at speaking up, at discussing social justice with our students, we also need to understand how we got here. I implore you, if you have not seen the documentary 13th from Ava DuVernay, go watch it before you do anything else.

Before watching 13th, I knew how deeply seated racism was in America but I didn’t realize how people and their specific actions have overtly contributed to the pervasiveness of racism across our country. Truly, across our country. Here is a map from Southern Poverty Law Center that shows hate groups currently in the United States.

It is important that we check our biases, that we are well informed, that we have discussions with our students. Yes to all of this. But we also need to take time to know how we got here so we can make connections between the past and now. If we don’t understand the scope of institutional racism, I fear we will continue to stay in denial and claim that this is not us, when clearly it is and it has been for a very long time.

Additional resources:

A Google Doc of teaching resources
#CharlottesvilleCurriculum on Twitter
Teaching Tolerance has a wide range of resources
NPR has a compiled a list of resources
The Early Childhood Education Assembly of NCTE has two resources that may be helpful: here and here.

 

Talk Matters

“Thanks for talking to me like I’m normal.”

At the beginning of the summer, I began to scan documents into Evernote. I knew that reducing my entire classroom’s contents wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t anticipate how emotional I would get when stumbling across letters from students.

It’s this line from a former student and mentee that lingers in the back of my head. And it’s this line that is on my mind as I shift into a new role as an assistant principal for the following school year.

The way we talk matters. Whether it’s to our students or to the other adults in the room, our words do things. They have incredible power. Like the student I briefly mentioned above, our words can make someone feel “normal,” or they can make them feel infinitesimal. During this time in public education when we feel as if so much is beyond our control, how we talk to colleagues and kids is completely up to us. And as Peter Johnston wrote in Choice Words, “A teacher’s choice of words, phrases, metaphors, and interaction sequences invokes and assumes these and other ways of being a self and of being together in the classroom” (9).

Now that many of us are at the midway point of our summer vacations, I invite you to think about these questions that are guiding my own work this fall about language and community.

How do you want to position the person in front of you?

Johnston also says in Choice Words that “Language works to position people in relation to one another” (9). What is the power structure you want to create? Will everyone feel valued and welcomed? Are some people’s ideas more valuable than others’ ideas?

It’s not too early to start to think about how you can be intentional with your language, especially when the positioning occurs in conjunction with your position. Will you share the locus of control, or will you allow an existing hierarchy to continue in your classroom or building? Will you be the “sage on the stage” or will you take a more student-centered, constructivist approach?

In Using Discourse Analysis to Improve Classroom Interaction, Lesley A. Rex and Laura Schiller also encourage teachers to think about how they position students. They note that “Becoming aware of our assumptions about students and how those assumptions lead us to position students has much to do with student engagement and motivation” (13). They continue by explaining it isn’t simple work to reflect on the ways in which we engage and position students. They note that “we think we know our assumptions about our students… yet our words can give us away” (9).

What identities will be created, and what stories will be told?

Johnston also gets at the idea that language is “constitutive.” In other words, “It actually creates realities and invites identities” (9). We all know the student who has been embarrassed so many times because he said the wrong thing and is now entirely reluctant to participate. We most certainly know the colleague who feels as if her opinion is never valued in important conversations. I wonder about the language that has been shared with both of these people that has shaped their identities of feeling unable or helpless.

Johnston continues later by adding that “To understand children’s development of a sense of agency, then, we need to look at the kinds of stories we arrange for children to tell themselves” (30). I would even go further and say that we need to look at the arranger. Who is shaping and contributing to the vignettes of students’ identities?

How will you work to ensure that the existing identities are challenged, and create spaces where new identities can form or be arranged? Whether you start back in August or September, it’s a new opportunity to create spaces where new identities can develop or existing ones can be refined. I’m not saying this will be easy, but we have more power than we often think about when it comes to the very people forming in front of us. Our identities are always malleable and works in progress, but our language has to be open enough that it can allow this identity work to happen on individual and group levels, or our language can reinforce the very identities that exist in front of us.

And this work takes time! As Rex and Schiller also note, “It takes repeated displays for others to recognize someone’s identity” (20). They continue by adding that the same is true for students’ thoughts about teachers. Identity work doesn’t happen over night; it takes weeks to occur. But we do need to be intentional early on about the “repeated displays” that will take place in order to allow those identities to form, especially if we are rewriting old identities.

What are your iconic phrases?

“Make good choices.”

“You are better than that.”

“What are you reading?”

I polled a few students during the summer and asked about my own language. These are the top three responses that students sent back to me when asked about what I say most often.

What I like about the third one in particular is that it assumes that the student has developed an identity as a reader. I don’t anticipate that they aren’t reading; I, instead, assume the opposite.

Think about the unwritten messages that your most common language implies. Are you assuming the best of all the people around you, or are you letting other things get in the way? What’s even more important is to think about how some of the phrases you say too often negatively position others or create identities that are not as conducive to learning as you’d like.

How will you repair moments when another “loses face”?

Rex and Schiller also introduce the idea of “saving face,” when someone works to protect their views about themselves so they are not embarrassed or diminished (45). Sometimes this happens. It is inevitable. In fact, I still remember the time my fourth grade teacher told me—in front of the entire class—that I did a project “entirely wrong.” Our words can linger and the damage can last if we don’t intentionally work to repair hurt identities.

One of the best ways to notice if we need to repair and help “save face” is by reading students’ body language. As Rex and Schiller also point out, “In order to determine if we have threatened our listener’s face, we should focus not only on what we meant, but even more on the listener’s reaction” (45). So if we see a student slouched over, turning away, or ask immediately to leave the room after contributing, we know that we have done something wrong. So it is our responsibility to intervene. In my own experience, students have appreciated my intervention when things go awry. And they most certainly will! We’re working with humans here. One move that I make regularly during discussions is to act as the clarifier. I’ll use a prompt (often it’s some form of “So, what I heard you say is…) and help the student enter a position of explaining their point in different words so that everyone can better understand.

How will you name and celebrate what they have done?  

Johnston also writes that “Children, and adults, often accomplish things without any awareness of what they have done” (15). As teachers, especially within the content areas, we have the ability to name and label the specific things students do that are quite complex. They might do them automatically, but we can invite them into disciplinary specific ways of thinking by sharing the language and helping them name their moves.

 

The old saying goes that “talk is cheap.” In education, I would argue that it’s our currency. It’s where we get the “most bang for our buck.” Spend your words wisely and intentionally, and don’t be afraid to have open, honest conversations about language.