“Be willing to care.” A Class Contract for Discussions About Race

by | 01.6.22

Sydney Chaffee is the 2017 National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She teaches ninth grade Humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter @SydneyChaffee.

I teach humanities, and our first semester is all about identity. We discuss colonialism, race and racism in our history lessons, exploring questions like: Where do our identities come from? How has colonialism influenced the way people self-identify and identify others? How do people come to be defined by others? How do people resist injustice caused by colonialism and racism? Approaching these types of big questions requires trust in a classroom community. 

Last year, as we tackled some complex topics, I invited my students to create a “community contract” that specifically defined what we wanted our conversations about race to sound and feel like. I’m a white teacher, and almost all my students are people of color, so it felt especially right that they should design our contract rather than receive ideas imposed by me. 

Some of the students’ ideas were so impressive to me – ideas that I would have never articulated in quite the way my students did. Ideas like: “Kindly correct unsubstantiated claims” and, “Don’t believe in racial stereotypes you may or may not have heard of before.” One idea I loved in particular was, “Be willing to care about the topic.” It was such an interesting thing to say, and there was clearly so much to uncover from that idea. I loved to hear my ninth graders say to each other and to me: You have to care. This matters. This is real.

Last year’s community-contract process served us so well that I’m planning to do it again. I want to share our approach to creating the contract – and returning to it in the moments we needed it most. 

You don’t need to teach humanities for this to work – all classrooms can and should be places where conversations about race are safe and encouraged.

A process for creating a classroom contract for discussions about race:

Building this contract requires a little bit of support and guidance, and I started by giving students time to reflect independently and in small groups. 

  • First, we started with a “four corners” activity, in which students ranked their own level of agreement or disagreement with statements like, “I’m comfortable talking about race with my family,” and “I’m comfortable talking about race at school.” Last year, we did this activity virtually.
  • Next, I broke students into small groups and gave them a list of the school-wide habits to work from. We have a school-wide list of “habits” that every teacher is expected to introduce in the first week of school, including collaboration, compassion and critique. I used these to anchor our contract, with small groups brainstorming what it might look like for everyone to show each habit specifically in discussions about race.
  • Then, the groups of students shared their lists. We looked at the lists as a class and identified patterns. There were a couple of ideas that seemed important, but weren’t quite fully fleshed out. I said, “Hey, this is a good idea. I wonder if we need more detail,” and the kids did a great job building on each other’s drafts.
  • We made a new draft together, pulling items that came up repeatedly and/or items about which students felt particularly strongly. The resulting list became our contract.

How we use our community contract throughout the school year:

We kept the contract alive by referring to it often in conversation. Whenever we approached a text or topic that seemed like it might raise difficult conversations, I would share the contract with students again. I invited them to independently identify two norms that felt most important for that day, and then we would discuss their choices as a class.

One day, we were talking about Haitian history, and a lot of kids – including many of my Haitian-American students – highlighted, “Don’t believe in racial stereotypes you may or may not have heard of before.” Later in the class period, one kid put something in our chat that was a harmful stereotype about Vodou. 

We were able to stop in the moment and say, “Hey, let’s call those norms back up. Remember that we said that there’s this thing about stereotypes, and one way that we’re going to show compassion is not to believe them? This is actually a stereotype. So, let’s talk about that.” 

We were able to correct the student and reset in a way that showed compassion for everyone in the class. It was one of those powerful moments as a teacher when I felt like: Yes. We’re doing it. Everything is coming together.  

Designing a contract can be a way to deepen relationships and foster community.

Last year, I had already known my students for a while when we created our contract. We need to  approach the process a bit differently with students we don’t yet know well, at the beginning of a new year or new semester. I want to make sure this process always a feels safe and supportive for kids who just aren’t ready to talk out loud with peers, or who don’t trust me as a white teacher yet. Hopefully it’s a “yet.”

This year, I’m planning to spread the process out over a couple of days, inviting independent reflection before beginning collaborative work. I might also offer last year’s contracts as examples once students have had time to think on their own. 

The process itself will be a way of building relationships – as a classroom community, and as individuals. Last year during virtual learning, relationship-building was more challenging, and though the relationships come more easily with the kids in front of me this year, I want to be intentional. I want to know my students as individuals. So throughout this process, I will be checking in with myself, asking, “What do I know about this kid? And what do I know about this kid? And where’s the kid who I still know too little about?” 

My hope is that the further we move into this process, the more we all know one another – and the stronger our community will become.

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