I sat down in my stool, my feet planted firmly on the floor, the fingerprints of each of the ten digits on my hands touching one another. I closed my eyes, took some deep breaths, and opened my eyes to a group of 21 children sitting in front of me. This is just one of the ways I try to get my class’s attention nowadays. When they see me enter my mindful position, they know it’s time to refocus and get ready to work as a group.
But today, in particular, I wasn’t just getting into my mindful position to get my class’s attention; I was doing so to prepare myself. I was preparing myself to dig into a conversation about race with my kids.
It’s Nerve-Wracking to Discuss Race
Especially in today’s political climate, discussions on race can be hot-button, and all it takes is an utterance to ruffle feathers and rub people the wrong way. And for that reason, it’s no less than nerve-wracking to bring issues of social justice into the classroom.
It makes us nervous because we don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. But if you ask me, our wariness of making people uncomfortable is what has brought us to our current political reality. People are afraid to roll up their sleeves, truly listen to one another, and grapple with a perspective that is different than theirs.
As teachers, we have a special perspective on the world. We can see the adult world, wrought with chaos and conflict, the result of years of repressed thoughts, uncomfortable feelings, and unchallenged biases; we can also the world of the child, plagued by a curious thirst, unquenched by the hesitation of adults, all of whom are attempting to preserve their perception of childhood innocence, forgetting that our children are resilient and competent, capable of grappling with complex concepts and even bringing the blessings of a fresh and less-biased perspective to issues adult can’t seem to reconcile. But as Brené Brown always says, our children are “hardwired for struggle,” and additionally, they are hardwired to grapple with complex concepts.
We just have to give them an opportunity to do so.
We’ve been studying Chicago History this year. Up until this point, we’ve learned about some of the groups critical to Chicago’s history: the French, the British, the Native Americans, and American colonists. We explored the different groups that have migrated to Chicago, from the influx immigrants in the 1800s to the wave of African Americans in the Great Migration of the 1900s. And now, as we bring our unit on Chicago History to a close and lay the foundation for our next unit on the neighborhoods of Chicago, I felt it imperative to help them make connections between the past and current reality of our great–but flawed–city.
And to do this, I shared the following map with them.
In the lesson, I hoped for them to uncover what seemed relatively clear to me: that we live in a segregated city, paving the way for a study of various neighborhoods, to bring what feels so different and foreign to them just a little bit closer to home.
Sure, it would have been easy to simply say this to them, but there was a clear reason I did not. The tenets of social justice education implore us to help children come to conclusions on their own. As an individual who strives to be an ambassador for social justice education, I do my best to engineer an environment that allows children to ask tough questions and grapple with concepts in a manner commensurate with their developmental level. In essence, I do my best to stay as objective as possible, so long as everyone is feeling emotionally and physically safe, heard, and respected.
I chose Project Zero’s See-Think-Wonder thinking routine, in order to let their aforementioned curious thirst lead them down a pathway to these conclusions.
What do you see?
I asked them to start objectively, to suspend judgment. It’s pretty hard not to notice the clear lines of distinction between various racial groups in the city of Chicago. And in the initial phase of the thinking routine, my children noticed just that. They noted things like:
- I see there are not a lot of brown dots.
- Some neighborhoods have more of one race than another.
- I see that a big part of the photo is green, which means black.
We then shared all of our “noticings” and generated some commonalities between the three, including the separation between the colors and how there are a few areas that are mixed more than others.
What does this make you think?
After we finished talking about all of the things they noticed, we transitioned to the inferences that these helped them make. My palms began to sweat a bit, and I could feel my face getting flushed. This was the part about which I was slightly nervous. Kids–for better or for worse–jump to conclusions often without the proper information. Regardless, I wanted them to air these thoughts, because by airing them, we create a space where they can wrestle with the concepts, appreciate the diversity of thought in our classroom, see their blindspots, and perhaps even grow the sophistication of their ideas.
In these types of situations–situations where you anticipate children might say something that could be offensive–it’s important to be proactive. So I did a few things ahead of time to make sure they were ready to talk about this.
- I set some guidelines. I began the discussion by sharing some guidelines for shared inquiry, which I found on the Teaching Tolerance website. We talked about listening, respect, humility, voice, and trust, and that if these guidelines were violated, they’d be asked to leave the conversation.
- We talked about what it means to be uncomfortable. Luckily, I’ve done a lot of work around taking academic risks and regulating our emotions up to this point. I referred to the Zones of Regulation to discuss what emotions we might feel when talking about race.”Lots of people feel uncomfortable when talking about race,” I said to them. “We feel uncomfortable because we see that people that identify as the same race as us have been hurt or have done some hurting. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable; we just need to make sure we respond to it in a healthy way.”
- As a result, we set up a way to communicate our discomfort and hurt. I got this idea from a colleague just a few days before. I was concerned about hosting this discussion, as I didn’t want to single out any student based on his or her racial identity.”If you feel uncomfortable, or if you feel hurt by something, I want you to know it’s okay,” I said. “It’s important that you communicate that, as long as you feel comfortable doing so. This is a safe space, and we want to know if you are feeling hurt because we care about you.”I put my hands in front of my chest with my palms facing out. I uttered the word “ouch” to model what it looks like to communicate that one might feel uncomfortable or hurt by a new thought, idea, or question. I had the kids practice it a couple of times so they felt comfortable using it.
Since I had done these three things ahead of time, I felt comfortable continuing with the second phase of the cycle. I was happy to see that the children felt comfortable sharing their thoughts–and their ouches–freely. In their inferences, we found thoughts such as:
- I think that they like it there.
- I think they are separated by culture.
- I think the different nationalities did not get along. *ouch*
These eventually led us to some class-wide thoughts, like:
- There’s a reason there aren’t many natives.
- Different people from different cultures live in different neighborhoods for different reasons. *ouch*
- There are a lot of different races in Chicago.
What do you wonder?
As a result of these inferences, we were able to transition to their questions, some of which pondered:
- I wonder why different races live in different places.
- I wonder if Native Americans ever came home.
- I wonder why there aren’t that many multi-racial in Chicago.
- I wonder if Asians were forced to live there. *ouch*
- I wonder why it’s only those two places that mix.
- I wonder why the different races have neighborhoods to go to.
- I wonder how many Native Americans were killed or kicked out of Chicago.
Lo and behold, their questions told me more about their knowledge, perceptions, and biases than any other assessment I’ve given them this year. It led us to synthesized, class-wide questions like:
- Why are different cultures more or less mixed than others?
- Why are makes a culture? Is “white” a culture?
- Did they/do they get along?
- Why are they separated? How did it get that way?
It turns out my desire to talk about segregation was a bit too aspirational. The kids weren’t able to get there on their own, and from their questions, I realized why: they had little to no understanding of what culture actually was. They didn’t know that culture is so much more than just the race you check on a census box. In fact, I’m still not certain they’re aware that they are a part of a culture, parts of which are shared with all of the people who live in our city, regardless of which color represents them on a census map.
Regardless, I’m glad we had the discussion, even if we weren’t able to talk about the real issue that lies underneath our segregated city. Why? Because I normalized it. I said it was okay to notice, that it was encouraged to think, and most important, that it was required to ask one very important question…
By asking why, we help our kids see that the world is not fixed, that our discomfort serves a purpose, and that each of us can make an impact simply by questioning the reality that sits before us.