Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Putting Race at the Center: Opening up a Classroom to be a Community

It's the 2nd week of school, and I wanted to quickly give an update of an early-in-the-year culture building activity I did yesterday in my 9th grade English classes.

Like so many 9th grade classrooms across the world, the theme for this year of study is identity.

Our summer reading books are The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.  Our study will primarily push us to unpack the levels of oppression (i.e. how the characters and ourselves face oppression at the structural, interpersonal, and personal levels) as we explore how characters operate as youth of color in a white supremacist society.

Given all that is happening in our world -- like an ebola epidemic spreading throughout many African countries, a US war being unleashed (again?) against "radical Islam," the trauma and aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown and the subsequent uprising in Ferguson, the mass deportations and forced separations of millions of immigrant families, the continuing starvation of the public school system in Philadelphia, etc. -- I realized that we wouldn't be able to move forward in our study without putting race and racism at the center.  And we wouldn't be able to do that in a deep or meaningful way unless we established some groundrules.

Thanks to a colleague, I checked out this curriculum about teaching about critical race theory through sharing stories, created by the good folks at Columbia University.

I decided to do something wild:  I unabashedly took an entire class period just to establish classroom culture.  (Was that the sound of shrieks coming from the Accountability Data and Common Core Objective Creation Machine, as I made decisions as an educator to do something in my classroom that wasn't quantifiable?!  Gasp!)

And tonight, after talking to parents about it at Back to School Night, I feel really good about it.

Here's what we did.

1) We discussed the big topics that Part Time Indian brought up.
2) Then, I used that to launch into our overview of Essential Questions.
3) And said, "In this class we will talk about race and racism."
4) I got out of the way and just showed images from this summer -- Ferguson, Immigrant Justice organizing, people working against Islamaphobia.

5) Then I talked to them about the idea of a "comfort zone" and a "learning edge."  A lot of times students are asked to talk about "race" in their classrooms, but really, they are just regurgitating something superficial about Rosa Parks (not even all the bad-ass-ness about Rosa Parks!), and so they end up turning off, or getting bored, or saying "this again?!"  That's the "comfort zone."  And that's no good.  Conversely, sometimes we allow things to go to a place where people aren't being respectful, don't actually know what they're saying, or are attacking each other.  This is just a place of "panic" where we shut down or fall into a coping mechanism.  Instead, the sweet spot is our Learning Edge, where we are pushing ourselves to examine something new or from a new angle.  That's what I aim to have us do.
6) Then, I gave each of them an index card.
7) They all wrote anonymously.  Then, I picked them up and exchanged them with someone else's.
8) We went around, one at a time, and read off our class community's primary concerns and primary goals for discussing race and racism in a way that is the most meaningful to us.
9) They listened for themes and overlaps, as well as surprises, and we made a list together.
10) Then, I had them all respond to a blogpost thread with their reflections on the day and one community agreement they wanted to suggest to our class to make it an environment where we could openly and honestly communicate with each other about race and racism.

My thoughts:
This was the 6th day my classes met.  And the way they spoke to each other, shared openly, and really listened to one another was beyond what I've ever seen happen in the first week in my other 9 years of teaching.  They were mature. They were serious. They were deeply concerned with offending each other, and motivated to let each other know that racist comments or thinking were not going to be ok in their classroom.

They also were requesting to learn about origins of racism, about how we can work together to change systems, and how we can push past the "black/white" construction where most of the conversation in our country resides in order to make room for our multi-racial, -ethnic, and -lingual classroom community.

In their online responses, I was moved by how much they wanted to connect with each other, and how much they wanted to use that connecting to push them all forward.  I was impressed with the amount of investment they already showed in creating "their community" with each other.  And I was happy to see that the summary of their suggestions for class agreements was pretty close to what I would have wanted them to say.

For anyone teaching in a highly diverse classroom environment, I would encourage you to try this out.  For anyone who has had conversations on race go badly in your class, I would do some preventative work now to build a culture of learners committed to pushing past ignorance and biases.  For anyone who wants to put time into culture building and restorative practices, I would suggest this as one of the themes for your circles.

We'll see how the rest of the year goes.
I'll let you know.