How These Teachers Are Having Productive Conversations About Race in the Classroom

29, Mar 2022 11:49 PM

As educators, most of us are aware of the controversy surrounding the concept of Critical Race Theory. 

In brief, CRT is “an approach to studying U.S. policies and institutions that is most often taught in law schools. [...] The theory rests on the premise that racial bias - intentional or not - is baked into U.S. laws and institutions.” Because of its high-level material, CRT is not typically taught in K-12 schools, despite the many states preparing legislation against it. 

Teachers On Demand is a Black woman-founded business with a diverse operating team. We believe there is something to be said for age-appropriate discussion of diversity with young students. 

In this blog, we discuss how teachers are discussing race with sensitivity and awareness.

Why is it important to talk about race in schools?

Schools are a microcosm of adult life. Children encounter people different from themselves. They learn how to socialize. They learn about authority, collaboration, and respect. They learn information that hopefully will help them navigate the world as young adults, and then, as adults in their own right.

We live in a more racially and ethnically diverse America than ever before. Students of color all over the country have no choice but to bring their racial and other identities into the classroom. We believe they have a right to validation of those identities.

Though some Americans still live in homogenous communities and don’t often encounter people of color, those numbers are narrowing all the time. That’s why cultural understanding is a boon to a melting pot society like ours. 

When we learn to listen and explore perspectives, histories, and ways of living outside our own, we can become more creative and have more meaningful relationships as students, friends, coworkers, family members, and even kind strangers.

How teachers are discussing race in the classroom

Whether their subject is chemistry, history, or music, these teachers are talking about race in a way that engages students and improves learning gains. Their methods can be made relevant for any subject!


Chemistry teacher Nina Hike makes chem relevant to her community

Though virtual education during the pandemic was a challenge for Nina Hike, a Chicago high school science teacher, she found a way to take on chemistry and racism at the same time. 

Most importantly, she wanted to make chemistry “more relevant to her sophomores’ lives” by contextualizing the material within their communities. As many of us know, students are more likely to retain information if they know why it’s being taught and how they can apply it.

“Connecting the chemistry to societal situations has really worked for me,” says Hike. She connects topics like disparities in marijuana criminalization and drug testing as well as instances of local lead pollution against the backdrop of chemistry.

For example, she talks with her students about “the whole science of faulty tests and false positives” in drug testing because test administration impacts how people of color, especially Black people, access employment and are otherwise treated under the law.

These topics have larger relevance to environmental racism that affects the lives and health of Black people and other people of color at disproportionate rates. Hike hopes that the way she helps students connect the dots can empower them to become active citizens outside the classroom. 

“We spoke about the demolition of the Crawford Power Plant plant in Little Village and about Chicago having lead water pipes as examples of environmental racism,” she says. “It’s about their community, and issues they can identify in their community, so that they learn how to fight back.”

History teacher Frank White starts off with perception

This USA Today article profiles more teachers like Frank White who talk about race in their classroom and how they center it around student debate and building soft skills like critical thinking and empathy.

In order to give proper context for the difficult topics White discusses with his high school history students at Central High School in Independence, Oregon, he starts out with an exercise in perception.

History teacher Frank White starts every year by asking students to observe a painting of a tree above his desk. 

"What color is the tree?" he asks.

Students on one side of the room always say green. Those on the other side say white.

They're both right – it's a holographic image. Before explaining, White goads the teenagers, asking them why their peers on the other side are lying. 

Of course, no one is lying - they just perceive the painting of the tree differently. 

According to the article, “The annual exercise sets the tone for White's history classes [...] signaling different opinions aren't necessarily malicious or wrong. It lays the foundation for sensitive topics, such as race and identity, which White's advanced placement U.S. history class and traditional history classes address each year.”

Once the students get over their surprise, White hopes, they are able to understand each other better and approach the class material with open minds.

Music teacher Ayanna Freelon teaches multicultural artists

Here’s how one of our own, substitute music teacher Ayanna Freelon, approaches race and culture education in the classroom. 

When classes went virtual, Freelon considered how to connect with and engage her diverse classes of elementary and middle school-aged students.

Not only does Freelon want to give them a taste of all the cultures that make up America, she ensures they are exposed to a wide mix of Latin, Japanese, Cantonese, Caribbean, South African and more artists. 

She also leans on intersectional cultural milestones throughout the year to honor her students’ diversity, from Chinese New Year to Black History Month and Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

She even teaches her students to sing in other languages. Her class of former 3rd graders loved the “Hello Song,” which teaches students to sing greetings in 20 languages. And the experience stuck with them.

“If I forget to play ‘The Hello Song’ in lessons, they let me know,” Freelon told us with a laugh.


Creating a better future for us all

There are many ways to address race, difference, and humanity, in culturally sensitive, relevant, and most importantly, age-appropriate ways. The burden to discuss these issues should not just fall on the shoulders of educators of color, though it often does. 

If you’re interested, here’s a great piece about the social-emotional learning skills that educators can benefit from in the classroom, and 9 tips to give educators when talking about race.

The key is compassion for others and yourself. Remember we all start somewhere, and we can all improve.

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