Facing Race Issues In the Classroom: How To Connect With Students
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools noticed a troubling trend, one that’s common across the country. Although the district’s overall performance on standardized tests and other achievement measurements are high, when the data is broken down by race and ethnicity, students of color are being left behind. In the 2012-2013 school year, more than 83 percent of the white high school students in the district passed the end of year tests, but just about 48 percent of the Hispanic students did and only 28 percent of the African-American students passed.
The district decided to address the problem using a personal approach. Starting in fourth grade all the way through senior year of high school, students are paired with a mentor, someone in the community who spends time with them and exposes them to diverse cultural activities, like going to the museum or sporting events, with the goal of nurturing untapped potential in students by giving them someone to rely on outside of their school, family, and friends.
Apart from the mentoring, another big part of the program is creating more culturally sensitive classrooms. But rather than taking the top-down approach, the students themselves have had a big hand in creating a set of guidelines based on researched-based strategies and using their own experiences to distill the research down into the six most important components.
The process of creating the guidelines, called the Student Six, has brought up issues that neither students nor teachers had ever addressed before — at least not in school. And the act of allowing students to take ownership of the process gave them a better understanding of their teachers’ perspective.
“I didn’t know that [teachers] felt so uncomfortable talking about it until we started doing this,” said Alexa Parvey, a junior at Chapel Hill High School and one of the Student Six facilitators. “It helped me understand that teachers aren’t doing it because they don’t want to include you, they just don’t know,” she said. Now that she and other student facilitators spend a lot of their free time training teachers about race sensitivity, she feels like it’s her job to help educate her teachers even when they aren’t asking for it. But she also understands that most of her teachers are well-intentioned but lost when it comes to talking about race.
“It’s necessary to talk about race because most of the time race takes the backseat to everything,” said Jotham White, another Chapel Hill junior and student facilitator. “Once they know that we need to talk about race, we can help students build a positive race identity.” The students described how uncomfortable they feel when teachers ignore blatantly disrespectful comments from other students or when it’s clear that their teachers don’t trust them. Volunteering as Student Six facilitators has helped students understand where teachers are coming from and has strengthened relationships with many of them so they can check in beyond the seminar.
“All of this has helped me have a better communication with my teachers,” said Jazmin Rosales, a junior at Chapel Hill. “I happen to be the only Hispanic girl and it has helped me to achieve more than I usually achieve.” Since she started taking a leadership role and advocating for herself in discussions about race, Rosales has vastly improved her academic performance.
“The teachers treat us like we’re peers and we respect that,” said Simon Lee, a junior at Chapel Hill. “They ask us what we can do better and if they don’t ask us we give a suggestion.” Lee observed his old middle school teacher as he tried to implement the tips learned at the Student Six training. It was amazing to watch younger students respond more positively to the teacher and know that they were being set on a better path, Lee said.
All the students stressed that it can be tough to give teachers feedback. They try not to criticize and never approach teachers in the middle of class. Instead, they give suggestions after class, alerting teachers to how the structure of a project or an assignment disadvantages some students over others. It’s a constant process, but the students feel good knowing that their teachers want to improve in an area that is so uncomfortable for them to discuss.
Half of these strategies apply to all students, not just those of color. Students want to feel that their teachers know who they are individually and care about them. While that would be the ideal for all students, it is a crucial foundation for building relationships strong enough to create safe discussions around difficult topics like race. The six strategies work together and are weakened individually when taken piecemeal.
STUDENT SIX TIPS
1. Be visible. Make sure every student feels welcome and part of the class. The simplest examples of this are greeting each student when he or she comes into class and knowing everyone’s names. Small signs that teachers know and are interested in students go a long way to forming trust.
2. Create a safe space. The way a room is arranged and a teacher’s physical proximity to students can make a difference when trying to reduce the vulnerability students feel. If teachers stay behind their desks, they inadvertently signal they want space between themselves and students. Teachers who walk around the room and check in on student progress, create a more equal and focused space. “I can get a kid to focus better just by placing myself near them,” said Teresa Brunner, academic support specialist at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. Research shows that humans are more engaged when they are within eight feet of the person talking to them. That’s why being asked to sit up front isn’t just a punishment, it’s a strategy.
3. Connect to students’ lives. Give students a reason to care about what they’re learning by connecting it to situations and concepts that are relevant to their lives. For example, in English class, teachers can assign current event articles on subjects students care about or that affect them. Math teachers can make strides just by making sure the problems deal with quantities and situations kids understand. Learning could be even more relevant to kids’ lives, but starting with a basic connection is a good way for students to feel teachers cares about their lives.
4. Connect to students’ culture. Make positive connections with student culture through class assignments. For example, one teacher in the Carrboro district created an ancestor project around the traditions of Day of the Dead. The class studied the Mexican holiday, but also talked about the ways various cultures connect with ancestors.
Conversely, cultural differences can make for classroom clashes if teachers aren’t aware. One teacher sent a student to the principal’s office for being disrespectful because he answered a rhetorical question. The student didn’t understand why he was being disciplined because his culture doesn’t have rhetorical questions; he’d been taught to answer teachers. “Often times what is a discipline problem is really a disconnect in culture between the teacher and the student, even if they look like each other,” Brunner said. Sometimes it takes a little more time to sort those differences out.
“We may not be able to prevent everything, but we can control how we react to things,” Brunner said. If a student isn’t usually a troublemaker, take the extra time to find out why he’s suddenly acting out of turn. “Talk to the kids, watch patterns, read so you better understand,” Brunner said. The key thing is to open up dialogues and listen to what students say.
5. Address race and racial dynamics in the classroom. This is one of the most uncomfortable steps for many educators who either don’t know what to do when a racially-charged incident occurs in class or don’t want to see racist themselves by calling out a student’s race. But by ignoring a fundamental part of student identity, teachers can inadvertently misstep and damage student trust. A common example is calling on students of color to represent their entire race in a discussion where few others minorities are represented.
“Don’t have a false conversation,” Brunner said, but do address race every time it comes up. One teacher overheard black students in her class calling one another the “n” word. Instead of sending them out of class or ignoring their comments, she held a seminar discussing the history of the word, how it connects to a history of slavery, which students happened to be studying in their history class. Race was brought front and center, connected to the curriculum and not allowed to pass unnoticed.
6. Connect to students’ future selves. Teachers need to recognize that all their students have dreams about what their futures will look like. Too often, the implicit message in school is that white students have bright futures with many career paths to follow, but students of color aren’t likely to go anywhere. “We recognize that kids have hopes and dreams and goals for themselves and we can help them to see how to get there,” Brunner said. Students and their families have a lot to offer schools and that should be celebrated. Too often curriculum implies that only white Americans made important discoveries and positively impacted the outcome of the country. With a little more research and attention to race in the classroom, teachers can easily highlight the many people of color who have made scientific discoveries, are brilliant mathematicians or have added to our collective literary history.