Education: Antiracist Districts, Schools, Classrooms, and Teachers

NEWSLETTER WEEK 42  – MARCH 16, 2021

Hi friends,

To borrow the wise words of our friend Dr. Keiko Cooley, “Our past experiences shape the lens through which we view the world.” Our past experiences within the education system are no exception. In fact, education molds us in such formative ways that it is often difficult to undue or unlearn the lens through which we view the world as a result. The type of school we attend (private, public, charter, homeschool, magnet, etc.), the demographic of the students, the diversity of the staff, learning disabilities, class sizes, the curriculum and instruction, schools’ access to resources (or lack thereof), extracurriculars, etc…. it ALL shapes our lens and it influences how we perceive the world around us. Growing up, we spent more time at school with our teachers and classmates than we did with our own families. And we attend school during our most developmental years. So, while our experiences are all different and nuanced, it’s clear that we cannot explore and engage with anti-racist work without unpacking how education impacted our outlook on the world.

Today, we’re talking about ways that we as individuals can lay the groundwork to start building antiracist education systems – from the districts themselves down into classrooms. 

BUT FIRST, SOME VOCABULARY 

Culturally Responsive Teaching

Feeling safe, seen, and valued in a classroom is a major factor in students’ ability to internalize material, learn, and achieve academic success. In order for students to feel safe, seen, and valued, they need to feel as though their life, their experiences, and their culture are reflected in the curriculum. Imagine you are a student of color in a predominantly white class led by a white teacher and all of the authors you’re reading about are white authors writing about the white experience. Not only is this not conducive to your learning, it is restrictive. We learn and understand things best when we relate and connect to them, and excluding certain students from the narrative is inviting those students to fail.

Not only is it important for students’ cultures to be reflected in their classrooms, it is of equal importance for students’ academic learning styles to be utilized as a means to engage and invest them. According to Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, CRT is “less about using racial pride as a motivator and more about mimicking students’ cultural learning styles and tools.” She suggests the following techniques for teachers who want to instantly make their classrooms more culturally responsive: 

  1. Gamify it: Most games employ a lot of the cultural tools you’d find in oral traditions—repetition, solving a puzzle, making connections between things that don’t seem to be related. 
  2. Make it social: Organizing learning so that students rely on each other will build on diverse students’ communal orientation. 
  3. Storify it: Students learn content more effectively if they can create a coherent narrative about the topic or process presented. 

ANTIRACIST SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Antiracism in the classroom starts at a district level (okay honestly, it starts at the state level, with major considerations to how money is allocated throughout each district, but we’ll zoom in just a little bit for today’s purposes). A school district will have greater financial wherewithal than an individual school and set the tone for hundreds of school employees and thousands of students. We’ve compiled a list of tips for advocating for antiracism at the district level, that we’ll zoom in eventually to advocating for antiracism at a classroom level. 

  1. First and foremost, listen to your staff, parents, and students harmed by racism. Chances are, there has already been an incident or initiative involving race voiced at the district level. Start with the individuals closest to the center: people harmed by racism in your district itself. If people have expressed that they experienced racism from the district, ask what they need and how you can support them. 
  2. Examine your district’s hiring process. Where and how are teachers recruited? Do teachers reflect the races of their students? Who is passing district screeners? Who is not passing district screeners? Who is the district retaining and who is it not
    1. In this consideration, also account for teacher unions/self-advocacy groups and their demands. What are teachers themselves asking for? How can you amplify teacher voices in your community, particularly the voices of Black teachers and teachers of color?
  3. Advocate for district-level anti-bias education and training for staff members. Ask that school administrators and teachers alike have professional development opportunities specifically regarding race. You can start with Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance) or the Racial Equity Institute’s programs and workshops. 
  4. Ask for curriculum changes that reflect the antiracist values that you want your district to embody. Run a SCAM Matrix (described in Dignity in Schools’ Culturally Relevant Curriculum Toolkit) of the books currently offered in different grade levels’ curricula. Make suggestions of more culturally responsive books and lessons at the district level for a broader reach. 
    1. Parents and teachers: Form committees at grade levels across schools to advocate for age-appropriate changes in one subset of lessons. It’s okay to start small: ask for a change in one unit (i.e. having tenth graders read The Bluest Eye rather than Watership Down, etc.)
    2. Develop your own suggested version of this helpful documentas a guide to help districts and teachers think critically of the books available to students. 
  5. Advocate for district-wide book club options for staff, parents, or students. Even if the curriculum is more set in stone, you can ask to send information to the entire district and its members to create opportunity for more antiracist coalition building or opportunity to get to know each other over books. 
  6. Create a mechanism to structure the district’s data around antiracist goals. Ask your district to complete an antiracist school system audit based on this Montgomery County, MD infrastructure. This audit will assess antiracism at many levels, including a workforce diversity analysis, the workforce conditions for teachers and staff, a PreK-12 equity curriculum review, an equity achievement framework, a community relations framework, and a school cultures review. 
  7. Ask to clarify district values. Beyond the nebulous “be kind” or “work hard, be good” that so many districts boast as mottos, ask for clarity around the district’s desire for students. If antiracism is a goal, ask them to be more upfront about it. If it’s not, be persistent about why it wouldn’t be. Antiracist schools, ones that create equitable opportunity for student growth and that acknowledge our shared, often painful history, aren’t what is controversial: white supremacy is. It’s not divisive to ask your district to value all of its students and teachers, it’s divisive to assume that they shouldn’t.
  8. This deserves an entire newsletter of its own (hello fall 2021!?) but we don’t want to leave it out because it’s powerful: ask your district to train school leaders in a restorative justice approach to disciplinary issues. 
  9. Equip students and teachers alike with some go-to responses when they hear biased or bigoted statements. Learning for Justice’s Speak Up! Manual is a great place to start. 

ANTIRACIST SCHOOLS

We’re deferring to the good people of Getting Smart to help us frame three commitments for antiracist schools. 

  1. We have played a role in perpetuating systemic bias and exclusion. Now we must play a role in dismantling it.  
  2. The problems of education are in the design, not in the students.
  3. To design for all, design for the students who are most marginalized by the existing educational system.

ANTIRACIST CLASSROOMS

Some tips for teachers on building antiracism into curriculum planning, modified from tips by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and Edutopia

  1. Identify colleagues who are also committed to a racial justice curriculum and work together. Alternatively, seek out communities online to support your teaching practice. Having a cadre of other teachers to share ideas, initiatives, and questions can make a massive difference in your ability to share with students.
    1. Some great places to start for mentorship or ideas for lessons are Rethinking SchoolsTraining for Change, and if you’re looking for another book on the topic, George Lakey’s Facilitating Group Learning
  2. Prioritize student voices in your classroom even before discussions of race and social identity. Build a strong classroom foundation that allows every student to feel heard and seen in your classroom, making difficult conversations feel approachable regardless of the topic. 
  3. Anticipate the kinds of concerns or misconceptions that children and families might have, and prepare in advance some strategies for responding. Backward plan these lessons about racism, systems of oppression, or any social identity as you would backward plan any lesson.  
  4. Recall experiences that have expanded your own thinking about these issues, and share the stories of how your perspective has grown and changed. 
  5. Make yourself available, either in person or over the phone, to communicate with families about their perspectives on the curriculum. Email communication can often amplify disagreements, so try to keep communication face to face (or webcam to webcam), if possible. 
  6. Model a stance of respectful openness. Even if you disagree, strive to set a tone that maximizes the possibilities for considering different viewpoints. 
  7. Recognize that we—children, families, and colleagues— are all on a journey of growth with respect to these issues. Draw upon the ways that you scaffold children’s learning in other areas and apply these skills when supporting others’ growth.



ANTIRACIST TEACHERS 

We have always felt that transparency and vulnerability is critical to this work, so Ellie wants to share some of her personal experiences as a white teacher who has primarily taught Black and Brown students—moments where she’s missed the mark and been confronted with biases she was unaware of in the classroom—in hopes that she might shine some light on the imperfect nature of antiracist work and the need for constant reflection and growth. 

Tips to becoming an antiracist teacher: 

  1. Actually know the community that you are teaching. Know the cultures and traditions, have a familiarity with the dialect and slang, know the lifestyle choices and values, know the religious holidays and the food. Put simply, really know your students at their core. 
    1. This might seem like a given, but you would be surprised by how many teachers blindly enter an unfamiliar community with little to no knowledge of or experience with the demographic with which they’re working and expect that their own lived experiences will be enough. (Ellie was an educator for three years, teaching low income, first generation, and immigrant families of color in Brooklyn. Ellie is none of those things. She is white, she is not first generation or an immigrant, nor is she from Brooklyn or a low income family. And yet she entered that community as a teacher without educating herself on it. And, as a result, she unknowingly perpetuated stereotypes, approached certain students differently, reacted personally to students’ behaviors or affects without understanding the context behind them, the list goes on…) 
  2. Appreciate, validate, and celebrate your students’ cultures. Do not appropriate them. White teachers with access to communities of color do not get a pass to begin talking or acting like their students. Whatever the motivation might be (to be “hip,” to relate or connect with students, etc.), you can demonstrate that you want to learn and discuss and celebrate your students’ backgrounds without attempting to take it on as your own.  
    1. Ellie felt that a way to relate to her students was to talk and speak using the same terminology they used. While this can be nuanced, a white teacher should not be speaking in AAVE for personal gain/status. 
  3. Look for problematic trends in your classroom data (grades, consequences given vs. not given, etc.) and do something about them. Are certain student groups receiving consequences more or less frequently than their classmates? Do certain student groups have consistently higher grades? If the answer is yes, ask yourself why this might be and make an intentional plan to change this. 
    1. Some factors that can attribute to these trends that teachers (like Ellie) might not realize they’re doing or have done:     
      1. Black students frequently are stereotyped as “disrespectful,” “defiant,” or “unruly” and statistically receive consequences more frequently than all other racial groups. (We won’t even get started on the school to prison pipeline yet, but know that it is VERY real and undeniably linked to teacher bias.)
      2. Non-native English speakers can be overlooked and their grades suffer as a result. Another connecting gap here is the tendency for teachers to avoid calling home to families that don’t speak language out of fear or anxiety. Parent communication and involvement has a direct correlation with academic success, so finding ways to engage these families is critical.
  4. Know your gaps and own your mistakes. Be transparent and vulnerable with your students when you mess up and empower students to feel comfortable holding you accountable. 
    1. When appropriate, direct students asking for support or help in personal areas of life to the most well-suited adult for that conversation, and know when that adult is not you. As the adult in the student-teacher relationship, it’s vital for us to set aside our ego in moments where we can’t relate or connect with a student on the matter at hand and understand that we can’t and won’t be that adult for students in many situations. 
    2. Antiracist work is hard. It is a never ending, ever changing journey. And with that, we will always make mistakes. And we will do that in front of students. To teach accountability and growth in this area to students, we must also model and live them. (Ellie has had the most success in connecting and repairing relationships with students when she has spoken with them person to person, rather than adult to child.) 



NON-FINANCIAL WAY TO TAKE ACTION

This week, we’ve provided you with a laundry list of ways to take small, big actions at various levels of the education system. If you’re looking for even more, we reiterate our message from last week: support teachers. Does your district need you to make calls regarding curriculum change? About funding increases? About vaccinating support staff? Do they need people to come out to direct actions? Look up your local teacher union or education advocacy group and see what they need.

Last week, one of Emily’s favorite online artists (hiiii Lizzie of @mama___lucha) shared an important statement about organizing and advocacy. The real difference between the two is that organizing is about the people closest to the center of the issue, not the issue itself. For example, when we’re organizing for improvements to the education system, we’re really talking about the people most affected by the education system: students and people who work for the school district. Advocacy, on the other hand, is about improvements to the system itself. Both organizing and advocacy are necessary and important and they often work in tandem, but we think it’s an important distinction – we can advocate on behalf of an issue, but to really organize and effectuate change, we need to center the people most affected by it. 

Alright friends, we’ll be back on Friday with a primer on how the disparities in the education system can exacerbate barriers to care for students with disabilities, too.

In solidarity,
Ellie, Emily, and Hayden

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