Voices in Education

Ten Teacher Recommendations in Facilitating Conversations About Race in the Classroom
Three years ago, during bedtime, my then three-year old twin daughters declared to me that they had “a secret.” After a bit of probing on my part, one shared that she and her sister were indeed “Black.” Having never had an explicit conversation with them about race, I was stunned by the intensity of her/their sharing. I confirmed what they had already come to know at age three—“yep, you are Black.” I learned that a three-year old classmate, a Jewish student, had indeed informed them of this reality while at day care the previous day. Although some educators or adults may not want to address it or may find race and its salience inconsequential, children begin thinking about, attempting to understand, and talking about it at an early age (https://www.ocd.pitt.edu/Understanding-PRIDE-in-Pittsburgh/592/Default.aspx).

As students get older and societal messages about race become more apparent, teachers are faced with several arduous challenges as students attempt to more deeply understand and make sense of race. For example, Colin Kaepernick’s decision to exercise his right to sit or kneel during the national anthem at football games is inundated with racial messages (http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/17444691/colin-kaepernick-san-francisco-49ers-sits-again-national-anthem) as he protests the police killing of unarmed Black people such as Michael Brown, Jr., Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray.

In the context of societal upheaval and turmoil regarding race, a White practicing high school teacher asked me for advice on how to prepare for and talk with her racially diverse students about race and society in the classroom. Although she teaches mathematics and one class of science, she believed that her students were grappling with race in ways that could be influencing their performance in her classes based on what they were seeing, experiencing, and hearing in society. She, like many teachers, wanted to support her students in building race talk but did not know what to do and how to do it.

What should teachers do to facilitate conversations about race inside of the classroom? Below, I offer ten recommendations to help middle and high school teachers create classroom environments that encourage, cultivate, and address race with and among students. Some of these practices may be transferable to elementary school classrooms as well, but my focus here is on middle and high school students.
  1. From the very beginning of the academic year, design a classroom ethos receptive to and encouraging questioning, varying perspectives, and discourse. Designing an environment of respect and debate (even when conversations get heated) is essential to creating a classroom space where students interrogate and grapple with tough issues in general and race conversations in particular.
  2. Reflect on and balance your own views and positions on race and societal occurrences. Teachers’ goals should not be to indoctrinate students into believing or embracing a particular point of view. The goal is not for teachers to push their own agendas as much as it is to nuance points related to race with students in order to sharpen their analytic, reflective, and critical thinking skills. Offer counterviews and positions to students’ own positions as they participate in classroom discussion.
  3. Draw from society as an anchoring site for race talk. Recent shootings in Falcon Heights, Minnesota; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Dallas, Texas, are just three societal occurrences of race that might be curriculum sites explored inside of the classroom.
  4. Identify and centralize “the facts,” based on evidence from varying sources and multiple points of view. Encourage and require students to explore different sources of information and consider positions and standpoints inconsistent with their initial thinking on topics related to race.
  5. Expect and encourage students to draw from sources, including their own experiences, in expressing their views and positions on issues of race.
  6. Design for logical inside-of-school curriculum connections linked to the discipline being taught. Teachers should prepare to help students understand the convergence between race and the subject matter they teach so that students understand that societal (and school) issues related to race are indeed legitimate and essential learning opportunities.
  7. Build your own repertoire to support race talk, cognitive, socioemotional, and affective needs of students as conversations about race emerge and as you design learning opportunities for students. Teachers should be prepared to both respond to and proactively develop lessons to support student learning and development on race. Build networks to support student needs that fall outside of your toolkit by working with school counselors, psychologists, social workers, and community members.
  8. Recognize and respond to affective and socioemotional needs of students. Students could feel very strongly about a racial topic or issue and become emotional as conversations develop and deepen. Acknowledge and validate these students’ feelings and respond to them with affirmation and sensitivity.
  9. Talk, collaborate, and partner with parents, community members, school administrators, and other educational stakeholders about their views and expectations of race-centered conversations. Strategize with these groups to bolster and complement discourse inside and outside of the classroom.
  10. Consider next steps associated with race talk. Once students have engaged the issues and deepened their knowledge and understanding, help students think about their role in working against racism currently and in the future by thinking about broader and more collective ways to build conversations. In other words, what can students do to fight against discrimination and racism individually and collectively inside and outside of school?
Indeed, teachers are under an enormous amount of pressure to teach a curriculum that is tied to accountability systems, such as standardized testing. Thus, it can be difficult for them to engage issues of race inside of the classroom when they worry that such learning and engagement are inconsequential to the real curriculum. But for many students, race, racism, and other forms of discrimination are the curriculum of their lives and so should be addressed inside of the classroom. Moreover, if we do not address these issues in schools, how will students become engaged citizens who understand how structures and systems of racism continue to maintain an unjust status quo? How will they develop tools to be change agents committed to helping us realize and reach our ideal democracy?

About the Author: H. Richard Milner IV is the Helen Faison Endowed Chair of Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms (Harvard Education Press, 2015) and Start Where You Are but Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms (Harvard Education Press, 2010). He can be reached at Rmilner@pitt.edu.