• Theresa Capra

Race in the Classroom: An Absolute Must


Race is an emotionally charged topic, especially because of the divisive climate promoted at the national level. The killing of George Floyd followed by worldwide protests has educators wondering to what extent should we incorporate it into our teaching, and how? #teachingandlearning #research #theresacapra

The shocking murder of George Floyd has spurred global protests and urgent calls for reform. The Black Lives Matter movement has grown from a 2013 hashtag to a prominent symbol of the enduring battle for racial equality. But there are quiet battles to fight too, and schools should lead the charge.


Now is not the time for diffidence in the classroom.

Our youngsters are watching, trying to extract meaning, usually guided by the beliefs of their caregivers. Now is not the time for diffidence in the classroom. Schools must encourage and support teachers to start conversations about the killing of George Floyd. It's not an easy task--racism is a hard discussion in any forum so teacher apprehension is understandable.

Moreover, about 80% of public school teachers are white while over 50% of the students are nonwhite. Schools are more racially segregated than ever before so in reality, there are classrooms filled with Black students led by white teachers, while white students have very few, if any, Black teachers.


Such demographics are not ideal to broach racism when the very system reflects the entrenched problem. The last thing Black students need is a white teacher espousing the harms of racism. Yet classrooms are the perfect place for civil discourse because everyone comes in the spirit of learning. And researchers have long asserted that conversations about abstract concepts such as race, sexism, and inequality must begin in elementary school in order to pave the way for thoughtful citizens who can actively improve society.


Ironically, social studies has become ancient history.

However, such discussions seldom occur, and when they do, they are usually plucked from superficial social studies units based on textbooks that treat minority experiences with random precision. Compounding this problem is the fact that social studies itself has been marginalized over the past 30 years because of failing policies such as No Child Left Behind. Ironically, social studies has become ancient history.


The consequence is huge, and we are just realizing it now. Students enter the upper grades with a weak understanding of the human story, which is further exacerbated when ubiquitous social dynamics such as racism, sexism, and oppression are reduced to chronological events in densely packed history courses. Students eventually graduate into society unable to critically evaluate information or events beyond casual opinions, and today, even worse, beyond their social media feed.


Employers are taking notice. The ability to synthesize information, recognize how things are related, and structure informed opinions are skills that employers seek, but candidates lack. They also happen to be skills that can be developed with a robust social studies curriculum.


This circles back to George Floyd. Ignoring social studies has the biggest impact on racially segregated, low-income schools because the neediest students are being shortchanged of the critical skills necessary to penetrate upper levels of employment. Additionally, the absence of a high-quality, inclusive social studies program creates a civic achievement gap. Thus, populations that have historically been disenfranchised remain ill-equipped to participate in the civic sphere--the very realm that influences policy and change.


Education is a powerful weapon that schools must brandish early before socialization sets in.

These are deep-rooted problems. I am not suggesting schools and teachers can cure racism by simply opening ad hoc dialogues. What I am suggesting is that the role of race, gender, stereotypes, and power constructs should be consistently treated with a well-planned curriculum commencing in the early childhood years and enduring into college. These concepts are best suited for social studies, which is interdisciplinary, but grounded in history.


Many elementary schools only teach social studies for half of the year with a scattered, topical approach that achieves little more than checking a box. This must change because education is a powerful weapon that schools must brandish early before socialization sets in.


The increased use of virtual learning could actually make this easier for a couple of reasons. First, teachers will be exploring websites, tools, and resources with greater frequency and there are a lot of sources to support engagement on sensitive subjects for all age groups. Next, as students continue to develop independent learning skills, they can take deeper dives into the material. Finally, using a blend of synchronous and asynchronous tools might make it easier for students to open up.


Bottom line: we cannot be silent. Judeah Reynolds is a 9-year old child who witnessed the killing of George Floyd while she was on her way to the candy store with her 17-year old cousin, Darnella Frazier, who pulled out her cellphone and hit record. Judeah is in the process of writing a children’s book titled A Walk to the Store in order to share her experience with other children to help confront this painful incident. It's set for publication in 2021 and will undoubtedly become a powerful resource for classrooms. In the meantime, here are some great sources to get this important work started.

Facing History and Ourselves. Founded in 1976 to promote education that teaches students how to be upstanders against racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism, their curricular and resources are geared toward middle and high school students. They offer lesson plans, visual media, articles, and much more. They also support teachers outside of the classroom with free professional development such as workshops and webinars.


Now, through donations, they are currently offering free, self-paced online courses on topics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, building inclusive online classes, and teaching Reconstruction. When I was a student at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, I completed a history course based on the Facing History model and it had a profound impact on both my historical knowledge and teaching.


Teaching Tolerance. Founded in 1991 as a project within the Southern Poverty Law Center with a mission to conquer hate, this outfit has grown into a full-scale source to support educators with anti-bias teaching. What do they have for teachers? A better question is what don’t they have! Of course there are lesson plans, articles, activities, and print material--but they also offer film kits for streaming. For educators there are podcasts and webinars. It's an exceptional source to guide educators through the process of injecting social justice across the disciplines starting in kindergarten.


Social Justice Books: A Teaching for Change Project. Evaluating literature for use in the classroom requires careful consideration. When it comes to literature based on race, gender identity, and class it’s even trickier because educators must avoid tokenism and stereotypes. The Social Justice site has curated about 60 titles to make the selection process easier. In addition, they offer a short guide to help educators evaluate anti-bias literature. I bet Judeah's book will eventually end up in their collection!


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