Gabriela was a quiet student in my fourth-grade class. She maintained top grades, completed all of her classwork well and scored very high on my initial reading assessment, indicating that she was a top reader in the class. However, on the surface, she appeared dour and unengaged. She never participated in class discussions and rarely raised her hand to answer questions.
My reading program consisted of assigning chapter books for the students to read in study groups. These groups were flexible, depending on the kids' interest in the books and their reading levels. When given the option, Gabriela would always choose the "hardest" of the books I offered.
After the students finished a novel, we would meet for a group conversation about it. I provided the students "discussion stems" or "sentence frames" to facilitate deeper-level comments, and I kept record of the types of comments made to help with grading. All of the kids in Gabriela's group were usually excited to discuss the book, contemplating a character's journey or the theme of the story—all except for Gabriela, who would sit completely silent.
By the end of the half hour, I would have recorded 15-20 comments from the other students in the group but zero from Gabriela. Even if I intentionally prompted her to speak, her comments were short, with little insight.
I began to question Gabriela's reading ability. Was she able to understand the books that she was reading? Were they too hard to her? Should I adjust the reading level down to allow her to talk more?
Then, after one group discussion, I had assigned a project for the students to create a fictional diary one of the characters would have kept during the events of the book. It was a creative way to have my students look at their story from a different point of view. After a week, I collected the diaries to grade.
Most of the kids did a fair job. Gabriela's diary, however, was stunning.
Her writing was complete and insightful. She ended up choosing a pet dog in the story, rather than a person, and pointing out nuances in the main character by showing how the character interacted with the dog. There were insights not shared by the group during our discussion, possibilities I hadn’t considered. I was floored.
The next day, I called Gabriela over to ask about her project. She first worried she had done something wrong. When I assured her that it was brilliant, she managed a weak smile. When I asked her why she wasn't sharing any of this in our group, she just shrugged her shoulders and returned to the book she was reading.
Gabriela taught me a powerful lesson. It was clear I had only valued one way to show reading understanding: through verbal discussion. Clearly, Gabriela wasn't comfortable with that format. Her discomfort may have been personal or as a result of her being the only Latina student in the group or even because the material I'd been selecting for reading wasn't culturally diverse. Whatever the reason, it was my responsibility to find other ways that Gabriela could shine and show her learning.
For our next novel, I chose to capitalize on her writing abilities. I gave her a journal to write down thoughts as she was reading. I told her that I still wanted her to come to our discussion but that my assessment would come primarily from her writing. She could also write during or after the group any additional thoughts she wanted to share. Gabriela shined in her writings, so much so that I referred her for gifted testing.
If you look at learning as a destination, before Gabriela, I believed there was only one route to that goal. If there was a roadblock, it was the student's fault. Gabriela taught me that there are many routes to the destination. It's my job as a teacher to uncover those paths and allow students to access them. The Gabrielas of the world deserve nothing less.
Hiller is a mentor to first- and second-year teachers in Oregon and a member of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board.
Many U.S. schools serve groups of kids who are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, age, religious or non-religious belief, national origin, family situation, ability, sexual orientation and gender identity. This diversity is especially vibrant here in Hawai'i, where many people describe their ethnic background as “chop suey,” Christians are in a minority and gender-nonconforming individuals are not only accepted but are respected and admired for their important role in perpetuating cultural knowledge and traditions.
For two years, we were given the opportunity to film a remarkable māhū (transgender) native Hawaiian teacher, Kumu Hina Wong-Kalu, as she created a “place in the middle” where every student at her small Honolulu charter school felt welcome, included and ready to learn to the best of their ability. Hina's story is portrayed in our PBS feature documentary Kumu Hina, which is being nationally broadcast on Independent Lens as of May 4, 2015.
But we also wanted to bring Hina's teaching to K-12 schools, which led us to produce a youth-friendly, short version of the film called A Place in the Middle that has been excerpted for the Perspectives for a Diverse America anthology. Here are some ways these video clips can be used to help students appreciate the value of inclusion, the strengths they inherit from their cultural heritage and their own power to create a school climate of honor and respect.
Celebrate Difference. In the scene “Welcome to Hawai'i,” Kumu Hina is preparing the students for a hula performance by handing out lei necklaces, yellow for boys and white for girls. But 11-year-old Ho'onani decides that she wants to wear both colors—a decision that her classmates meet with envy rather than scorn. In a later scene, “Kāne-Wahine and Wahine-Kāne” (Boy-Girls and Girl-Boys), Hina explains that she has created this “place in the middle” so that gender-creative students have a specific space they can call their own.
These clips are a reminder to teachers that students who are perceived to be different, in one way or another, deserve to be celebrated precisely because of those differences, not simply tolerated despite them. And it's a jumping off place for students to think and talk about how every person's identity is comprised of multiple interacting facets. A good discussion prompt is to note that Ho'onani is in the middle between male and female, then ask how many other ways people can be “in the middle”; for example, being more than one race or bilingual, being part of two households after a divorce and so on.
Use the Power of Heritage. In “Hawai'i Poniʻī,” the principal of the school urges her students to take seriously their lessons on Hawaiian culture because, “We didn't get to sing ‘Hawai'i Poniʻī’ (the Hawaiian national anthem) in our schools. We had to pledge allegiance to the flag that took over Hawai'i.” Her approach works: By the end of the film, even the students who began the year with little enthusiasm have become full participants in the school's activities.
You can use this clip to inspire students to inquire into their own heritage, starting with well-known aspects, such as food, holidays, etc., and progressing to a deeper conversation that incorporates social, cultural, political and historical contexts. Ask students to bring in food dishes typical of their heritage, and after the Smorgasbord is consumed, ask what ideas, values or practices their home cultures could contribute to their classroom or school.
Another clip, “Hawaiians Live in Aloha,” uses Polynesian-style animated figures to tell the history of how early Hawaiians respected and admired people with both male and female spirits, giving them the special name of māhū. Asking students to interpret images from this animated portrayal of Hawaiian history prior to and after viewing the film is a good ice-breaker for what some consider a sensitive topic. You can follow up by asking them to draw their own interpretation of what it means to be “in the middle.”
Teach With Aloha. Many people think of “aloha” as just a cute way to say hello or goodbye, but as Kumu Hina explains in a clip about her transition, the deeper meaning is to have love, honor and respect for everyone. Ask students how the characters in the film demonstrate aloha, and then how they do (or could) demonstrate it themselves. Most important, how do you rate your own classroom and school on living up to this standard?
You can help spread the concept of aloha by hanging a Pledge of Aloha poster in your classroom or by handing out Pledge of Aloha postcards that can be signed and returned to Kumu Hina in Hawai'i. The module can be considered a success if students use this opportunity to share what they've learned about Hawai'i and its uniquely inclusive approach to gender and many other types of diversity.
Hamer is a National Institutes of Science scientist emeritus, a New York Times book-of-the-year author and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker with a long history of communicating complex and controversial ideas to diverse audiences.
The Atlantic: When Baltimore schools closed on Tuesday, April 28, students, teachers, parents and community members registered a variety of reactions. To some the closure was a waste of instructional time; to others it was a learning opportunity.
The Baltimore Sun: A white sophomore at Baltimore City College reflects on how the mainstream media's “skewed portrayal” of Baltimore leaves an important and ongoing revolution untelevised.
Buzzfeed: Increasing numbers of individuals are coming out at younger ages—even during their elementary school years. This article investigates where families can find resources to help them support and nurture LGBT children.
EduColor: The educational equity collective hosted its monthly Twitter chat this week on the topic of codeswitching in school. This Storify of the conversation highlights the issues surrounding codeswitching and how educators can respond to them.
Ghostwritings: Blogger Melinda Anderson visited a predominantly Latino middle-school social studies class last week, during which she witnessed a teacher expertly facilitate a culturally relevant lesson.
Slate: Richard Ross’ photographs of girls in the juvenile justice system raise questions about the inequitable forces that lead to youth incarceration.
The Washington Post: A new report by researchers at The National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University detail how American preschools are segregated by racial, ethnic and economic lines.
This past summer Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous published a piece entitled “All the White Teachers I Wish I Never Had.” In the piece, she discusses how during her early school years her entire world was Black, filled with family, friends and teachers who supported her academic curiosity.
“As a very bright, gifted Black girl, having Black teachers, mostly Black women, who saw my giftedness and encouraged and nurtured it, meant everything. These were teachers who could look at me and see themselves. They could see their children, their hopes, their dreams. These were teachers who could be as proud of me when I did well as my own family was, who could understand me when I talked about my life, and who knew how to protect the spirit of a gifted Blackgirlchild in a world they knew would try to tear her apart every chance it got.”
Ideally, every young student of color would have a teacher who looked like them and could understand all of the little things about their lives that are hidden to everyone else. Promoting a diverse teaching force is absolutely essential to the success of so many children. But we still find ourselves in a system where students of color make up more than half of the student population, but teachers of color only account for eighteen percent of the work force.
Let that sink in. Before we can even discuss what it means to be a white teacher who truly serves their students, we have to explore the implications of those numbers. Those numbers mean that the majority of students of color can go through their entire school careers having only one or two teachers that look like them. Imagine for a second that nearly every single person whose responsibility it is to impart formal knowledge does not look like you? Not only is that message harmful, but it is just one of many damaging message students of color are forced to endure. So while I understand that there are good white teachers, that’s not the only issue here. White educators are not teaching in isolation. Our overwhelming presence in schools and classrooms across the country in and of itself requires that we reevaluate the way we engage with students. Because the reality is that regardless of our intentions, we are capable of inflicting harm, both by what we do and what we don’t do. For too many students of color, white teachers can be just another point of “white authority” in their lives, especially if their experiences, voices, and perspectives aren’t valued.
Furthermore, in a school system where students are being placed under immense amounts of pressure to do well on standardized tests, and where they have to stand by and watch as their community schools are systematically eliminated, it is more important than ever that they are able to come into a classroom that feels safe. They need to know that regardless of their grades and scores, we are still here for them . . . that we continue to believe they are capable of great things. They need to be shown kindness and compassion. They need to have a safe place to have hard conversations and explore all of the issues that feel relevant to them. They need to be heard, but even more crucially? They need to feel loved. This may seem simple. You may be thinking, well duh. But every single white teacher in America has been raised in a society that feeds us stereotypes of people of color and undermines their humanity, that continuously devalues Black life, and that created an entire socio-economic system based on the subjugation of others. You cannot grow up white in this society without developing deeply embedded biases. When our own privilege has been built up by oppressing those who look like our students, being a good teacher takes on an entirely different meaning.
So how do we make sure that we really are validating students’ experiences, hearing their voices, and ensuring that their perspectives are valued? How can we be the educators they need us to be? Too often, white educators feel as though not talking about race and privilege is the best route to take, inside and outside of the classroom. As white educators, we have to step outside of our comfort zones and have these conversations—embrace feeling uncomfortable and push ourselves to stay in this place to have conversations that matter. These issues affect the everyday lives of students, but even further they impact the very way that students are able to engage in the classroom. Ignoring that reality, or suppressing these topics when they come up, is doing a disservice to your students and yourself. Conversations about race and privilege will never be perfect, or easy, but there is a beauty in understanding that they can teach you just as much, if not more, than you can teach them.
Supporting students of color in your classroom, though, is about more than having conversations about race and privilege. It is about having high expectations for every single student that walks through your door. And when a student isn’t doing well in class or has disengaged almost entirely? It’s about working hard to figure out the root causes of the problem before ever considering discipline and punishment. We cannot be furthering the reach of the school-to-prison pipeline. In fact, when students of color face harsher punishment for the same infractions as white students, and those infractions can lead them straight into the juvenile justice system, we need to be actively working against it. Supporting students of color in your classroom means finding and presenting texts that they can see themselves in, that reflect their own lived experiences, whatever those may be. It’s about helping them fill in all of the stories that are missing from their history textbooks—the stories that show strength and resilience and that challenge the dominant narrative. It’s about going out of your way to make sure you are not the only person in front of them imparting knowledge. It is understanding that as a white educator teaching students of color you have limitations. Mitigate those limitations. Bring in people from outside when you can. You will not always be the best person for them to have hard conversations with. Recognizing that and providing them the space to explore those issues without you is crucial. Supporting them will sometimes mean stepping back, and that’s okay.
But, and this is important, there is a flip side to the conversation about teaching while white. We cannot talk about the way we educate students of color without talking about the way in which we educate white students. We have to teach all students — especially our white students — to think critically about issues of privilege, race, justice, and oppression. We need to have hard conversations with our white students as much as we need to have them with students of color. Sharing everything that gets left out of history textbooks, having them read books by people who do not look like them and whose experiences do not reflect their own, helping them challenge stereotypes — all of these are crucial, but they’re almost always left out of the discussion on educating in majority white districts and classrooms. But it is imperative that we do what we can to ensure our white students walk out of our classrooms with a perspective of the world that interrogates issues like institutional racism and structural oppression, as well as the tools they need to take action and challenge them.
Further, what we expect of our students we must also expect of ourselves. As white teachers, we have a responsibility to examine and think critically about race, justice, and our own privilege, and most importantly — how these play out in the classroom as teachers. As educators for social justice, we need to be having these conversations with our white colleagues, too. We need to push them just as much as we push ourselves, and as Melinda Anderson points out, this needs to start in our teacher education programs. Before we can ever hope to be good educators inside the classroom, we have to educate ourselves outside the classroom. And we cannot rely on teachers of color to be our source of that education. It is not their responsibility to teach us about issues of race, privilege, justice, and oppression. We have to do that. We have to find resources, do research, ask questions, and challenge our own assumptions. This is just the beginning of an extremely important conversation. It is our hope that this piece will spark a dialogue amongst white educators about how we can do better. Trust us, we understand how incredibly overwhelming these conversations can be, but our students deserve no less. Because, quite frankly, if we’re not doing all of this, then we’re not doing our jobs.
Further resources: Training Module: Developing Cultural Competency Among School Staff provided by Philly Tag At the Urban Teaching Matters Conference in New Jersey last Month hosted by the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, one of the workshops focused on being a white teacher in an urban area. The question at the center of the workshop was: how can white teachers effectively teach students of color? Below are some suggestions for white teachers looking to foster future discussions around the issues of race in the classroom:
- Need to move past personal concerns about being “labeled racist” and go to larger institutional discussions
- It’s ok to screw up, but acknowledge the privilege you’re entering the conversation with and don’t pretend to be someone you’re not in the conversation
- Colorblindness can be used as a shield for to acknowledging power and privilege\not acknowledge systematic differences and oppression
- Wrestle with your own guilt of unearned privilege on your own time; face it and feel the guilt and then move on and use it to explore the structural implications behind norms
- Racism = racial prejudice + power, both structural and institutional
- Don’t look at students in front of you as having deficits: deficit model as in “your life doesn’t look like mine”
- Acknowledge your assumptions when entering the classroom
- Listen to learn, don’t just listen to respond
Additionally, below are questions on critical multicultural education from the “Looking Within: Tackling injustice in pre-service education” at NYCORE (New York Collective of Radical Educators) Conference that could be helpful in fostering more discussions around the issues of race in the classroom:
- How can we maintain our integrity and humanity as educators within a sociopolitical, historical, and cultural context of institutionalized oppression and hegemony that work to preserve unequal power structures in our society?
- What are the possibilities for working toward equity and justice within an education system that reinforces and reproduces social inequalities?
- In what ways are we complicit with systems of oppression? How do we contribute to or collude with oppressive practices in classrooms, schools, and the system at large?
- In what ways are we engaged, individually and collectively, in the struggle against oppressive systems? How can we stay grounded and critically hopeful through our acts of resistance?
- What historical and current examples of resistance, anti-oppression, and liberation exist within marginalized communities and how can these tools be utilized within our role as teachers?
- Raising Race Questions: Whiteness and Inquiry in Education by Ali Michael
- Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences that Make a Difference by Howard Carlton Stevenson, Jr.
- Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit
- Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom by Lisa Delpit
- The Dream-Keepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children by Gloria Ladson-Billings
- The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools by Jeffrey M. Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell
- Disposable Youth, Racialized Memories, and the Culture of Cruelty by Henry Giroux
- Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by Bell Hooks
- The Latinization of U.S. Schools: Successful Teaching and Learning in Shifting Cultural Contexts by Jason Irizarry
- Holler if You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students by Gregory Michie
- This is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class and Education by Jose Vilson
- Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice by Wayne Au
Conferences/Organizations with relevant workshops:
Tansey is a graduate of the University of Virginia who will enter the master's in teaching program at the University of Georgia in fall 2015.
Katz is an undergraduate student at the College of New Jersey, studying urban elementary education.
Crow Boy, a children’s book by Taro Yashima, tells the story of a young Japanese student, Chibi, who is ostracized for being different. A teacher, Mr. Isobe, discovers something special about Chibi and gives him an opportunity to share his talent with others. As a result, Chibi becomes more confident, and his classmates gain respect for him and what he has to offer.
While Crow Boy does not reflect life in Japan today (it was first published in 1955), the story addresses a timeless, universal theme about acceptance and individual differences. Some teachers use this book with students for a lesson about taunting and exclusion. I’ve used it with teachers to introduce the idea of the “essential self” and to deepen their understanding of how they can help students feel that they belong.
The need to belong can lead to poor decisions on the part of our students. They may, for example, diet in unhealthy ways to make themselves fit in with what they perceive is a more attractive group of people. Or they may participate in teasing or excluding others as they feel pressured to do so by their peers. These behaviors reflect a willingness to give up or conceal a part of who they are in order to belong to a social group.
I use the example of Mr. Isobe to introduce the idea of the essential self and its role in shaping one’s self-identity. I define the essential self as one’s true nature and as something present at birth. I explain that we also have a “social self,” but that this aspect of who we are develops over time and is based on social norms or what others expect of us. We promote students’ social selves to help them gain the skills and habits they need to participate successfully in the larger society. Unfortunately, the essential self sometimes gets lost or neglected in the process.
In his efforts to help Chibi, Mr. Isobe could have focused on shaping Chibi’s social self by telling him how to interact with the other children, how to participate in class and how to stop doing “funny things” with his eyes. What Mr. Isobe did instead was spend time with Chibi, talking with him and encouraging him to share his ideas through drawing. In this way, Mr. Isobe discovered something of Chibi’s essential self—a part of Chibi that was not understood or appreciated by others in the school or community. Once his essential self was recognized, Chibi developed pride in who he was and became a respected part of the community. His differences were no longer an obstacle to belonging, and he appreciated his uniqueness, as did others.
There are several things you can do to honor the essential self and uniqueness of individual students. Here are a few suggestions.
- Play the “unique game” several times throughout the year. This game involves telling something about yourself that makes you unique in the group. For example, one child might say, “I have a bearded dragon for a pet.” If no one else has a bearded dragon, the challenge moves on to the next person. If, however, someone else does have a bearded dragon, the child must think of something else that is unique to him or her. You may wish to caution students in advance to focus on something positive when sharing something that makes them unique.
- Do what Mr. Isobe did—spend time with each student, looking for what makes him or her unique and special. Then provide opportunities for children to display their unique talents and interests.
- Provide a range of options for students to show what they know and are able to do. For example, instead of relying on a prescribed written format for a book report, allow students to come up with other alternatives. One student might take on the role of a character and then present a monologue about his or her part in the story. Another student may wish to draw a panel of pictures depicting major events or themes in the story.
In addition to Crow Boy, other children’s books with messages about honoring the essential self include Frederick, A Color of His Own, Tico and the Golden Wings and Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse—all by Leo Lionni. While Crow Boy can be used with children ages 4 through about 10 or 12, the Lionni books are more appropriate for younger children.
Excellent resources teachers might use in getting in touch with their own essential self include Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck and A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer.
The title Crow Boy suggests a story about a boy, but it’s also a story about a teacher who cared deeply about each student in his classroom. This teacher found a way to recognize and honor the essential self in his students, thus transforming the classroom into a more authentic, exciting and inclusive place to be.
Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer.