Recently, when the #RaceTogether kerfuffle from Starbucks occurred, Teaching Tolerance was nice enough to share some of my thoughts on their social media feed. I never expect my writing to be loved, but there were a few comments on my blog post that caught my eye. Essentially, some people asked:
“Well, they’re trying. Isn’t that enough?”
While I appreciate the sentiment, I think it’s important to note that intent is far less important than impact. This is true in most of today’s sticky interactions around privilege and power, but I think it is especially true in our roles as teachers—roles that should include understanding and supporting the various identities represented by our students.
For many of us, it’s easy to recollect the moments when we, as students, were microaggressed, or a teacher’s expectations of us made it difficult to be our authentic selves in the classroom. Recently, a student (rightfully) called me out when I had made some heteronormative comments about two of my students. I work often to make my class a safe space, but it’s important to remember that just because we want to be helpful doesn’t mean we always are.
As teachers, the impact of our roles as mentors, authorities and guides means that the stakes are higher for us. Whether we like it or not, our job inherently asks us to judge our students (hopefully based on their work), and for students to accept the judgments we make about them as fact. This means that the messages we send students about their identities can have an even greater impact than those from other people in their lives.
Yes, a willingness to try matters, but there must also be a willingness to understand and respect our positions as educators. That means, in part, consistently holding up a mirror to our own “allyship” in the classroom. Salon recently shared a fantastic piece on how white people can truly ally with communities of color. Here are some things we, as teachers, might do to help actively create a safe space for all students.
1. “Speak With Your Ears, Not Your Mouth.”
My mentor teacher shared this idea with me when I started teaching in Hawaii, and it’s essential—but too often overlooked—in advocacy and allyship conversations.
More often than not, traditional teaching has made the classroom teacher-focused instead of student-focused: Students listen to and look at the teacher for much of the time. The teacher chooses assignments. The teacher tells students what’s “correct” and “incorrect.”
Communities of color or from oppressed backgrounds are often stripped of their voices and representation. They are traditionally underrepresented in media and positions of power. The opportunity gap presents them with fewer pathways to success in American society (of course, “success” being defined by people largely NOT from these oppressed communities).
The most important job I have as an ally is to listen and ask questions. My feelings and thoughts shouldn’t be the focus of the conversation. As Father Greg Boyle, the founder of Los Angeles’ fantastic Homeboy Industries, said once, “Hubris says, ‘Here’s what your problem is and here’s how you fix yourself.’ … Humility asks … ‘What do you need?’”
This is especially true when teaching students from communities of color or that have been oppressed. Instead of telling them about prejudices or biases, why not ask them? Why not ask them to tell you about their experiences or thoughts? My seventh-graders are adept at sharing the frustrating assumptions they feel living in Hawaii.
To take it even further: How often do we ask our students what they need from us? How often do we empower our students to have a decisive role in our classrooms? The more we realize that they are the focus of the work, the more we create space for their identities to thrive.
2. Educate Yourself About Your Students.
Listening is essential, but a commitment to allyship also means understanding and caring about the feelings of those you want to ally with. People whose identities have traditionally been oppressed have to explain their existence every. single. day. So while we may be tempted to ask a parent to explain how their experience as a person of color, a person with a disability or an LGBT person has been hard, it’s also important to recognize that people from identity groups different from our own are not there to educate us.
It is our job as teachers to know our students. It is our job to try and understand the cultures they come from, the contexts they carry with them when they walk through the door and even the big-picture factors that might affect them in the moment. This will only further enable us to create structures, lessons and activities that give them the space and validation they so desperately deserve in our classrooms.
3. Be Open to Feedback and Graceful When You Mess Up.
Talking about issues of identity and oppression is hard. There’s no padding on that, no addendum. It’s just hard. If we know that reflecting on these things with ourselves and our students is essential, we must also honor that it is a very difficult process.
So if, when discussing these things, we say something to a student, parent or community member and get called out, it’s important to take a moment and ask, “Why are they mad?” The easy path is to assume that they’re just another “angry teen” or “crazy parent,” but it is imperative to take a moment and hold up the mirror to ourselves.
Even if we didn’t intend to be hurtful, we are discussing things that have deep roots in the United States’ painful past. This can bring up things that are difficult to discuss and hear but are necessary to work through.
Besides, I have sometimes found that the toughest conversations with my students—the ones that pushed me to question myself and my beliefs—are the ones that also made us all so much smarter and much closer. If we are willing to be vulnerable, open and honest with students, we are modeling the relationships we hope they can have with us.
Torres is a seventh- and ninth-grade English teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Editor’s note: The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) regularly publishes blogs written by the lawyers and investigators working on various SPLC cases. This “story from the field” was originally published here.
“I don’t have rights,” the 15-year-old boy tells me.
His mother begins to sob uncontrollably. She sees the hopelessness in her son’s eyes.
Sammy* has been suspended so often for vague violations like “disruptive behavior” and “misconduct” that he’s missed more than 30 percent of the school year. He’s one of thousands of students [the SPLC)] represent in class action complaints challenging racial inequality in five Florida school districts.
The suspensions have taken away his enthusiasm for learning and made him and his family feel powerless.
I can’t blame him for feeling this way. I’ve been there myself.
Because of instability in my home, I attended seven different schools by the time I reached middle school. One of my earliest memories of school was being suspended in the first grade because I wrote an improper word on my homework. After missing a full week, I spent the rest of the year trying to catch up. This led to more behavioral problems and suspensions.
My first year in high school, I failed nearly all my classes. Because I was deprived repeatedly of my right to an education through suspension and received no positive reinforcement at home, I lost in school. I had more than 50 absences that year. Some days I preferred to stay home instead of spending an hour outside my school waiting for 1,500 students to go through metal detectors.
Finally, by the third year of high school, I was expelled and had to attend an alternative school. I’ll never forget how devastating it was. Combined with frequent moves between family members because both my parents were incarcerated, my school kicking me out made me feel worthless and unwanted. I felt thrown away, left for dead and given up on.
The alternative school was simply a warehouse for troubled kids before they drop out. After two days of classes that were years below my level, with ancient books the regular high school no longer saw fit to use, I dropped out. The degradation by the school pushed me to the point that I no longer felt welcomed.
So, as one formerly troubled African-American kid to another, I can relate to Sammy.
He describes the humiliation of being segregated with the “bad kids” in portable classrooms in a distant corner of his high school. He’s forced to eat lunch in his aluminum-crate classroom because he’s forbidden from other parts of campus and restricted from interacting with 95 percent of the other students. He is not allowed to take elective courses, and if he dares to stay after school for a club meeting or football game, he’ll be arrested for trespassing.
For him, school is a place where he is treated like a criminal. It has become a ritual for him to be searched by police officers on campus; his hands are sniffed for the scent of marijuana.
But he doesn’t deserve all of the blame.
Many school districts are adopting incredibly harsh disciplinary policies that needlessly push children out of school and into the criminal justice system, primarily for minor, nonviolent misbehavior. This phenomen[on] is commonly referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
In Sammy’s district, black children comprise just 15 percent of the student population—yet account for nearly half of all expulsions.
Three years ago, [the SPLC] filed a federal complaint with the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) alleging discriminatory treatment of African-American children in Sammy’s district and four other school districts throughout Florida.
The DOE has been investigating the districts ever since.
Overly punitive discipline, particularly for black children, is a serious problem across Florida. More children are arrested in school here than in any other state. It has created a culture of intolerance for youthful behavior that takes Florida children out of the classroom for millions of hours every year.
In Escambia County, black children make up 35 percent of the student population but 92 percent of arrests for dubious misdemeanors like “disorderly conduct.” In Bay County, black students are 15 percent of the population but half of the arrests in the school. Both are among the districts where [the SPLC] filed complaints.
In these districts, students are missing tests and failing classes because they are at home under suspension. All because they forgot to wear a belt to school or didn’t have a hall pass?
It’s not fair and not smart.
I’ve advised many of our clients like Sammy to stay in school despite their feelings of shame, resentment and alienation. I use my own story of getting back in school after dropping out and, last year, completing my fifth college degree. Many find it hard to believe that “Dr. Amir Whitaker Esq.” was once given up on by his school.
But the adults who operate our school systems need to do some soul-searching as well. We can’t keep giving up on children like Sammy. We can’t keep building more prisons to hold the dropouts from our underfunded, overly punitive schools. There’s a better, smarter way.
* Sammy is not his real name.
Whitaker is a recent law school graduate and a lawyer in the SPLC’s Florida office.
Teaching Tolerance couldn’t serve educators the way we do without the feedback and support of an important group of teachers, counselors, media specialists, school- and district-level administrators and education professors: the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board. These educators and leaders volunteer their time to review our resources, try our curriculum and act as ambassadors for TT.
Last spring, we put out a call for advisors and received nearly 600 applications. Our staff reviewed each application with an eye for the applicant’s knowledge of our work and resources and for his or her experience in the field of anti-bias education. With our final selections, we also aimed to achieve a wide representation of disciplines, grade levels, expertise, locales and voices on the advisory board.
Without further ado, we’re happy to announce the 2015-17 advisory board members, who will begin their two-year term on June 1.
We’re excited to welcome 20 first-time members:
- Dale Allender – Assistant professor of education, Sacramento, California
- Kim Estelle – Elementary school teacher, Huntsville, Alabama
- Carrie Gaffney – Middle school English teacher, Indianapolis, Indiana
- Alice Garcia – High school ELL teacher, Gonzales, Louisiana
- Gail Heath – Elementary school English and social studies teacher, Las Vegas, Nevada
- Michelle Higgins – High school social studies teacher, Walla Walla, Washington
- Amy Melik – K-12 ELL coordinator and teacher, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- Veronica Menefee – Middle school English, social studies and special education teacher, Parkville, Maryland
- Jane McGowan – Middle school science teacher, Selma, Alabama
- Amber Neal – Elementary reading and language arts teacher, Houston, Texas
- Sarah Neely – Elementary school teacher, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
- Lois Parker-Hennion – High school library media specialist, Orangeburg, New York
- David Paschall – High school social studies and humanities teacher, Austin, Texas
- Celeste Payne – High school science teacher, West Chester, Pennsylvania
- Donna Saide – Elementary teacher and diversity coordinator, Gahanna, Ohio
- Kim Siar – Elementary school teacher, Norristown, Pennsylvania
- Joe Schmidt – Social Studies teacher leader, Madison, Wisconsin
- Scott Thomas – Elementary school principal, Eagan, Minnesota
- Barbie Garayua Tudryn – Elementary school counselor, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
- Mickie Wong-Lo – Assistant professor of special education and director of an undergraduate learning behavior specialist program, Chicago, Illinois
And five members from the previous advisory board are returning for another term:
- Lhisa Almashy – High school ESL teacher, Palm Beach County, Florida
- Sonia Galaviz – Elementary teacher, Boise, Idaho
- Amber Makaiau – Professor at the University of Hawaii, Oahu, Hawaii
- Demea Richards-Scott – Middle school counselor, Bolingbrook, Illinois
- Robert Sautter – Kindergarten teacher, San Francisco, California
Congratulations to our new and returning members. We look forward to working with you!
Interested in being part of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board? The application will open again in the spring of 2017. Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter to keep up with the latest TT news.
Editor's note: We learned of Grant Wiggins' death this morning via Twitter. A conversation with one of his colleagues at Authentic Education confirmed that he died suddenly yesterday afternoon. Our condolences go out to his family, his friends and all those he touched during his remarkable career.
I was saddened today to hear about the loss of an influential giant in the field of education: Grant Wiggins. Wiggins, in his work with James McTighe and Authentic Learning, transformed the way I and countless other educators think about teaching, learning and assessment. His dedication to teachers and students was steadfast. His influence is almost impossible to calculate.
The development of Understanding by Design (UbD) and backward planning altered the way practitioners in the field of education think about thinking. This transformative approach to lesson planning not only helps teachers embrace content-specific standards with real-world applications and higher-level thinking; it helps students grasp their own learning goals through connections to the big ideas and essential questions (EQ).
Wiggins demonstrated that EQ can help teachers plan instruction geared toward mastering the big ideas and skills, and they can help students transfer subject area knowledge within—and sometimes across—disciplines to their lives to solidify their understanding.
I experienced the effect of UbD firsthand in my own classrooms. Formerly frustrated students found doorways to new understanding when the horizon was broadened by big ideas. Wiggins' work around UbD helped me understand, as an educator, how to expand a particular topic from closed question-and-answer sessions to open-ended dialogue that provoked higher-level thinking and intellectual engagement from my students. I was a better teacher when I planned backward because I knew exactly where I was leading my kids.
Wiggins influenced our work here at Teaching Tolerance, too. Our K-12 literacy curriculum, Perspectives for a Diverse America, was designed using UbD. At its heart is a set of anti-bias standards. Perspectives offers a bank of EQ within those anti-bias standards from which to start planning. The accompanying anthology of diverse readings gives educators the "stuff" to build student literacy skills and discuss social justice issues while answering the selected EQ. UbD laid crucial groundwork for our development of this resource for teachers.
The work of Wiggins (and McTighe) forever altered the canvas for educators across the United States and, like essential questions, his memory, influence and contributions to education will live on for years to come.
Wicht is the senior manager of teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance.
It’s that time of year again: a bit of a summer break and then onto planning for next year! Maybe you’ve been thinking about ways to revamp your curriculum or enhance student engagement. Either way, here are three things you can do now to help get next year off to a great start—and keep it going.
Free to educators, Teaching Tolerance is published three times a year—print editions in the fall and spring and an online-only edition in the summer—and offers the latest in social justice and anti-bias education. Rich with feature stories, lesson ideas, book and film recommendations and more, each magazine offers a plethora of resources you can translate into your practice. If you haven’t already, subscribe now, and then you’ll get each Fall and Spring issue delivered directly to your mailbox. Meanwhile, check out the Summer 2015 issue, which features a video feature on youth activism, a spoken-word Story Corner and a printable poster to help you support students who don’t conform to society’s binary gender norms.
Not your average curriculum, Perspectives for a Diverse America is a full K-12, literacy-based, anti-bias curriculum built on backward planning principles—and the notion that you can teach social emotional skills, use content relevant to your students’ experiences and maintain rigor simultaneously. The searchable Perspectives anthology currently houses nearly 300 diverse readings and is steadily growing. It also contains over 150 tasks and strategies that you can use to customize learning plans that speak to the students in your classroom. Perspectives can help you rethink your approach to social justice education and, like all other TT materials, it’s completely free. All you have to do is sign up!
As detailed in our report Teaching the Movement 2014: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States, most states’ standards for teaching about civil rights history are woefully inadequate. We know you strive to do great work on this front in your classroom, though. That’s why we created Civil Rights Done Right, a tool organized into five steps for curriculum improvement. Each step identifies specific suggestions and procedures for building robust, meaningful lessons that cultivate a deeper understanding of civil rights history. The tool is an editable PDF so your revamped lessons can be downloaded, printed and shared—year round.