We talk about race everywhere but the classroom. Why?

Martha Caldwell and Oman Frame are co-authors of  “Let’s Get Real: Exploring Race, Class, and Gender Identities in the Classroom.”

They teach at the Paideia School in Atlanta and are co-founders of iChange Collaborative, where they train teachers and students in inclusion education, cultural competency, social emotional learning, and ethical leadership.

In this piece, they explain why schools need to be willing to talk about race in the classroom. In view of the recent controversy over the use of a classroom simulation to teach Cobb fifth graders about the Underground Railroad, I thought this was timely.

By Martha Caldwell and Oman Frame

Sabrina, an African-American eighth-grader, was perusing the jewelry aisle in a department store when she noticed the sales clerk was following her.

“She was watching my every move, but she wasn’t paying any attention to my white friends,” said Sabrina. “I’m pretty sure she was watching me because I’m black, and she thought I was going to steal something.”

Experiences like Sabrina’s are routinely shared in African-American communities where surveillance while shopping is relatively common, but Sabrina was telling her story at school, and not casually at recess or lunch. It was part of a larger conversation about race that takes place regularly in our classrooms.

Why? Because we have discovered in our work with adolescents on race, class and gender that when students share the ways their experience is shaped by how the world perceives them and how they perceive the world, the results can be profoundly unifying. We see stronger identities emerging, more productive learning, and safer schools.

Race is one of the first things we notice when we meet a person. And while race is only one component of identity, it often drives conversations about individuality and diversity. Everyone in the nation is talking about race outside of school, from the Olympics to Milwaukee to Snapchat.

So why aren’t we talking about it in the classroom?

If we want students to think critically about solving persistent social problems related to race, we have to help them examine the issue and investigate its roots.

Some teachers, however, tell us they feel ill-equipped to discuss race with their students. What if the conversation goes awry and devolves into confrontation? Avoiding conflict feels safer, yet in avoiding the issue we are missing out on real educational opportunities. The key lies in leading these discussions with the same thoughtfulness that guides other curriculum choices.

Racial identity is a lived experience for everyone, but particularly for students of color, and having teachers and peers acknowledge that racism is a problem validates their experience and strengthens their identities. Researchers have reported 75 percent of bullying is bias related, and when bullying is related to core components of a student’s identity, the effects are even worse. Having a forum to talk openly about aspects of identity can address bullying and mitigate its effects.

We know supportive relationships with teachers help students learn, but so do relationships with peers. Healthy relationships in the classroom keep students engaged, and the benefits transfer into academic achievement. Yet students need to master a set of prerequisite social, emotional and communication skills to keep their exchanges respectful and forge compassionate relationships. Clear ground rules for respect are needed, and these guidelines can, and should be taught.

When students feel safe enough to express their differences, they find they can be accepted and esteemed for them, rather than disparaged. Sabrina felt gratified that her classmates listened and understood her feelings. A Latino student told about something similar that had happened to him while shopping with his friends. A white student was surprised and dismayed because she had no idea Sabrina (and other people of color) experienced the sting of negative stereotypes.

When students hear each other’s stories, they realize that underneath their apparent differences, there is far more that unites than divides them. They learn that expressing rather than suppressing the characteristics that make them unique nurtures authentic relationships. They benefit from direct discussions in the classroom about their personal experience with prejudice and/or privilege, and their differences are transcended through friendly and engaging exchanges.

Learning to talk respectfully about race, and other categories of identity, improves school cultures. In a Nashville public school, students who participated in such conversations took the initiative to stop harassment, intervening on behalf of other students to create a dynamic that resulted a positive change in the school environment. After a similar unit at an Atlanta KIPP School, 7th graders initiated an anti-bullying support group.

To rise to the challenge of an increasingly global community, students need to develop the skills to forge relationships across differences. Through listening to their own voices and hearing the voices of others, they not only gain appreciation for diverse cultures and life experiences, but such conversations increase empathy, perspective-taking, and critical thinking skills, which transfer into greater academic performance.

Reader Comments

Next Up in Get Schooled

Digital textbooks reduce costs, but do they also reduce learning?
Digital textbooks reduce costs, but do they also reduce learning?

Rick Diguette is a frequent Get School contributor on higher ed issues. He is a local writer who retired from college teaching last year. In this essay, he examines whether the cost savings offered by digital college textbooks – electronic or e-books -- outweigh the potential drawbacks.  Diguette cites the research showing students just...
Metro Atlanta colleges delay opening Tuesday
Metro Atlanta colleges delay opening Tuesday

Several north Georgia colleges and universities are delaying opening until 10 a.m. on Tuesday because of the possibility of black ice and hazardous road conditions. The list includes: Clark Atlanta University Dalton State College Emory University Georgia Gwinnett College Georgia Highlands College Georgia State University Georgia Tech Kennesaw State...
Former Clark Atlanta president departs for next challenge
Former Clark Atlanta president departs for next challenge

A crew arrived Monday morning to move the personal belongings of former Clark Atlanta University president Ronald A. Johnson, whose last day on the job was Friday, who resigned after three-plus years leading one of the largest private universities in Georgia. Johnson prides himself as someone who can see the future, and he believes he can do more for...
Fulton County Schools: Two-hour weather delay Tuesday 
Fulton County Schools: Two-hour weather delay Tuesday 

Fulton County Schools will operate on a two-hour delay Tuesday, “out of an abundance of caution” because of weather reports.  “...(A)ll schools and central offices within the Fulton County School System will open on a two-hour delay tomorrow, December 11, in alignment with Governor Deal's announcement that state...
Kids skip school, join praise of Atlanta’s champs
Kids skip school, join praise of Atlanta’s champs

There is one possible truthful escape from censure for the students who, with their scofflaw parents, played hooky to attend the Atlanta United victory parade Monday: Religion. State regulations limit excused school absences to serious events such as illness or a death in the family. Those claiming that excuse might have to produce some documentary...
More Stories