Give Students Time & Space to Talk About Race & Culture

by | 09.14.17

Cassie Beasley is a multi-classroom leader in Nashville, Tennessee. Follow #Teach4Equity on Twitter to join the conversation and learn how to make your practice more equitable.

When I began teaching, racial equity wasn’t really on my radar. While I’m mixed race – Filipino and white – I look white and don’t think I ever experienced racial inequity. I also spent the early part of my career in a school where the majority of students were white.

But when I moved to a school where students of color made up 95 percent of the student body, I immediately recognized a huge disparity in the way we were educating these students. Schools around us were being taken over by the state. We pursued new philosophies each year. It meant the kids weren’t getting the same consistency they deserved. It doesn’t feel like a leap to suggest that my school and the ones around us would still be open had their racial makeup been different. Even writing about it now still makes me upset.

Today I teach in Nashville and am part of an educator cohort called Teachers for Equity, working to advance equity for students of color across the country. Looking back on those early experiences, feeling the frustration of that inequity – it’s what fuels my work today.

I think when I first started, equity to me meant that all my students felt safe and loved. And that’s fine: That’s not a bad definition at all – but through this work, my definition has evolved. Now, equity means that all my students feel the value of their own personal experience in school. I’ve learned that stopping at “That’s the way it is” rather than asking, “Well, why is it that way? And does it have to be?” is what’s allowing inequitable practices to continue in our schools.

Those are the tough questions and conversations we need to engage. Easier said than done, I know. But so many people – because of their background or personal experiences or how they were taught to teach – don’t even realize that racial inequity is a problem their students are currently and consistently facing. I know because I used to be there, too.

I’d suggest starting small and working up from there. Fighting against rooted-in, systematic disenfranchisement is going to take time, but we have to begin somewhere. Here are some ways I think we can:

  • Start by taking note of the physical space around you. Do you see images that represent the racial diversity of your students? Can they see themselves reflected in their own learning space?
  • Pay attention to your words. When you’re talking about famous biologists, for example, are you only using examples of white people? Or are you reflecting the diversity of the field and sending the message to your young students of color that they can be biologists, too?
  • Educate yourself. Try reading For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… And the Rest of Y’all Too by Christopher Emdin, or find resources on Teaching Tolerance’s website.
  • Simply listen to your students. Change your narrative from “I’m here to give my kids a voice” to “My students already have a voice, and I’m here to help them connect their unique voice to their own learning.”

Reality pedagogy, which Christopher Emdin introduced, teaches us that you can’t be culturally responsive based on your assumptions about someone else’s culture. If you don’t allow your students the time and space to speak about their culture and race in their own voice – if you don’t value and trust what they tell you – it’s hard to work toward an equitable classroom.

My hope is that in the school year ahead, we do what we can to hear about our students’ cultures and make our learning spaces more equitable one small step at a time. And I hope we share this learning process with other educators in our school communities.

Word of mouth has incredible power in this profession. When a couple teachers in one building start opening up conversations about race and incorporating racially equitable practices, really powerful change can spread like wildfire. That’s the thing about us educators: As soon as we learn there’s a way to further support our students, we’re going to do it. And I can’t wait for you to join me.

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