How to Start Meaningful Conversations About Race in the Classroom

Jul 22, 2020

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others are forcing the country to reconcile with the injustices that plague our systems. As educators, it’s our responsibility to educate students about systemic racism. It’s also our job to give students a place to talk about how it affects their lives.

In response to the murder of George Floyd, my nonprofit, Teaching Matters, organized three webinars for educators to discuss how to talk about racism in the classroom. As an Afro-Cuban education consultant, I wanted to address the varied concerns both white and non-white teachers held. In leading the webinars, I was joined by fellow education consultants at Teaching Matters. One is a former middle school administrator and professional mindfulness coach. The other is a professor of English education at the City University of New York. We represented different races but shared one common goal: to help teachers create spaces for nuanced, meaningful conversations about race with their students.

As a general practice, we don’t teach racial literacy in our schools. We teach racism. This has to change.

The first webinar was attended by over 1,700 teachers across the country, and one of the most common questions in the chat was, “How do I get started?” Teachers have to be able to tackle an issue with such deep history and implications. Yet, they often feel paralyzed.

An educator’s job is to teach and to help students make sense of the world around them. Teachers must enable students to become critical thinkers and leaders who can understand different perspectives with empathy. With confounding crises, this is more important than ever. Talking about race with children and teaching racial literacy is an essential component of schooling. To create an environment that’s conducive to meaningful and productive conversations about race, consider the following steps:

Take Inventory of Your Own Biases

One of the most important elements of teaching race and racism is examining implicit biases that may inform your way of thinking. We all need to work on ourselves. It starts with us because we all have preconceptions; they’re inherent to the human experience. It’s important, however, to identify these biases and work to correct how they might influence our perceptions of the world and how they shape our decisions and actions.

This is especially true for white teachers in schools with predominant Black and brown student populations. In this case, you must be willing to be vulnerable and transparent. It can be uncomfortable discussing oppression you do not experience, but that gives the situation all the more urgency. It’s critical to examine how your privilege might affect your teaching style and come to the conversation with a humble posture. Allow children to feel empowered to teach and let them know at the outset that you can learn from them.

Tailor Conversations to Age and Grade Level

The idea that K-2 students are too young to talk about race is a common misconception. The opposite is true: not holding space for the conversation can actually retraumatize them. Children are acutely aware of the world around them; they can hear their parents talking, see the news and feel the tension in the air. There are many great resources available that can help you tailor a conversation to young children. In a remote setting, this can be harder than normal, but not impossible.

Listening circles or breakout rooms can help gauge how smaller groups of students are feeling. In bigger groups, create ways for students to discreetly let you know if they’re uncomfortable. One option is the “stoplight method,” where a student will hold up a green, yellow or red card signifying their comfort with a particular topic. The most important thing is to not force students to contribute if they’re feeling quiet. Sitting in silence is also a form of participation and processing.

Integrate Race and Culture into Curriculum

As a general practice, we don’t teach racial literacy in our schools. We teach racism. This has to change. We must include racial literacy in school curriculum and commit to culturally responsive education. We owe it to all students to provide instructional content that reflects who they are. According to scholar Rudine Sims Bishop, children should be provided a window into diverse experiences; they should be presented with the opportunity to step through sliding doors and have a mirror held up that reflects their lived experiences. Teaching methods that tap into diversity as an opportunity to learn should be emphasized in the fall. In New York City, the Department of Education has committed to instituting more culturally responsive, sustaining education practices in schools across the city. This must be reflected across the country.

Imagine if the teachers of those officers who responded to the call on May 25 had been in classes where racial literacy was explicitly taught. If they would have had the opportunity to talk about race and racism in their instruction, could George Floyd’s life have been spared? Students need to feel that the classroom, no matter what it looks like next year, is a safe space to discuss the complex feelings that the recent events may elicit. By doing the work now to examine our implicit biases, teachers can be better equipped to have tough conversations and make concrete changes to curriculum in the fall.


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