"Race" Conversations in the Classroom

Posted by Mary Hendra on January 23, 2013

In his Inaugural Address, Obama called on us to get involved in civic discussions about the challenging and often divisive issues facing our nation. Considering that while hearing the news stories about these very issues (for example, how to address violence after the recent school shooting), I've been thinking about how many times as teachers we have the opportunity to facilitate deep and meaningful conversations. Opportunity? Some times it may seem hugely intimidating. We may even take that deep breath when it comes up organically in a classroom and think, "Am I really going to go THERE, NOW?"

As a teacher, though, these were the conversations that made the greatest impact on my students. These were the days that students realized that history was relevant. It truly was about them. And, they had a part to play in our society.

A few years back, a friend and colleague of mine from the San Francisco Bay Area, Milton Reynolds, shared the following words around how to enter into conversations about "race." I still find them incredibly valuable. Here they are... thank you, Milton!

When attempting to engage students and adults in conversations about "race" it’s important not to make shortcuts. Too often the conversation is opened without having done the proper group building work and exploration of identity/membership issues before getting into the discussion.

"Race" has been and continues to be a difficult conversation in America and much of this can be attributed to what we don’t know about "race," so in some ways it’s inevitable that we’ll bump heads because people tend to protect their realities or truths, more often than not at the expense of developing a deeper level of understanding.

A few things I’ve found valuable are simply stating that the conversation can be challenging before entering the discussion and being explicit about what you hope to have happen, i.e., "I’d like to see us come out of this discussion with a better understanding of...." In order to have a useful conversation it’s important to have communication ground rules in place if they aren’t part of the classroom contract to begin with.

I think it also very useful to frame the discussion around a particular piece of content and to "control" the discussion by centering the conversation around particular prompts rooted in the content piece, be it a reading, film or otherwise. This serves to move the conversation away from people’s feelings about the subject matter to an analysis of the piece itself, which is an easier way to get to what the implications are for us as a collective.

Lastly, it’s important to state that racism isn’t about "good" or "bad" people, as it’s often thought of. A deep engagement with the history suggests that "everyone drinks the water" and it makes good sense to try to illuminate what we’re all surrounded with.

Topics: Safe Schools, Critical Thinking, Race and Membership in American History: Eugenics, Social and Emotional Learning

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