Educate to Liberate: Build an Anti-Racist Classroom

Anti-Racist Classroom

[Cross-posted on Edutopia]

Recent events in our country are tragic and poignant reminders of the ongoing need for educators to create classroom environments that investigate society and the potential for change. Black Lives Matter, yet in our country, the experiences of African Americans and other marginalized groups demonstrate that there isn’t liberty and justice for all.

Validation and Empowerment

Recently Michael Eric Dyson wrote of our country’s “colliding worlds of racial perception,” reminding us that, while these issues exist and persist, they are not always widely acknowledged. Michelle Alexander’s powerful “Telling My Son About Ferguson” is a reminder that disbelief, rage, and movement building are all reasonable responses to unnecessary killings and the failure of our legal system to enact justice.

I am a white teacher in a classroom full of students, many of whom come from backgrounds different from my own. How can I find the necessary words and actions to relate, to allow students to respond, and to validate and empower the young people I see every school day?

While it’s clear that young people need and deserve teachers and mentors that come from backgrounds similar to their own, I believe that white teachers can create transformative experiences for all students. This is challenging work, requiring courage and humility, yet it is necessary and all too relevant.

After a recent discussion in my classroom about the grand jury decision in Ferguson, a student put her hand over her face and began to cry, saying, “I hate this stuff. It makes me really angry! Makes me not want to have kids.” Students need spaces to discuss and tools to navigate these large social issues that affect so many of them daily.

Pedagogy Of and For Difference

One of the most powerful ways to create a classroom that welcomes all voices and challenges dominant paradigms is through curriculum design. InCritical Pedagogy, the State, and Cultural Struggle, Henry Giroux writes about the importance of “pedagogy of difference and a pedagogy for difference.” This means that educators must understand how their own identities are constructed and be social critics willing and able to dissect and analyze our society:

. . . it is important that educators come to understand theoretically how difference is constructed through various representations and practices that name, legitimate, marginalize, and exclude the cultural capital and voices of various groups in American society; similarly, a pedagogy of difference needs to address the important question of how the representations and practices of difference are actively learned, internalized, challenged, or transformed. (142)

It is impossible to teach honestly and reflectively without a clear understanding of the social construction of identity. Some of my own knowledge of self is that mainstream U.S. society treats “whiteness” as normal, a default setting. Understanding my own personal and family history, acknowledging my own power, rank, and privilege, and recognizing the dynamics of racism and identity in the U.S. all help me to create a climate where honest connections can be made across cultural divides. This kind of self-understanding is essential if I want to plan curriculum that speaks to multiple experiences.

5 Classroom Practices

With the goal of creating a classroom environment and pedagogy that can liberate, transform, and empower, I offer these five thoughts about classroom practices that oppose racism and oppression:

1. Create a Container

George Lakey first introduced me to this metaphor for creating spaces within groups where there is safety to explore ideas and take risks. Strong containers are products of clearly-developed norms and thoughtful, supportive facilitation. Students should feel free to honestly share thoughts and ideas, and must understand the expectation and necessity of listening deeply and openly to their peers. Strong containers allow students to feel safe and respected while encouraging them to take risks and bring their authentic selves to the learning process.

I often remind my students to disagree with someone’s thinking without engaging in personal arguments. At times this is a difficult distinction, yet students and classroom dynamics benefit from a framework that welcomes multiple perspectives and encourages disagreement while discouraging interpersonal conflicts.

2. Embrace Marginalized Voices

Arnold Mindell’s Sitting in the Fire dissects group dynamics and demonstrates the potential for large-group transformations. Mindell reminds us to pay attention to power, rank, the mainstream, and the margins of each group. The goal is to acknowledge those margins and create opportunities for the mainstream to hear from them. In classrooms, this can happen through carefully designed activities and strategic facilitation. For example, asking for “different opinions” or “other perspectives” can provide an opening for students who have not voiced their ideas.

3. Allow Everyone to Be Heard

There are many situations that serve to silence student voices and ideas. This silencing can be a result of classroom dynamics or pedagogy. By building meaningful relationships with students and creating classroom cultures that prioritize student voices, teachers can work to make school a place where young people feel free to honestly share their beliefs, hopes, fears, and questions. When teachers structure learning strategically and vary the formats of discussions, reflections, and analysis, more students feel drawn to course material. I rely heavily on journaling and written reflections, large- and small-group discussions, activities that get students on their feet talking to one another, and sometimes hearing a short thought from everyone in the room.

4. Frame the Learning

When my class enters a discussion without shared knowledge or a common text, or when the conversation is directionless or without purpose, I start to feel overwhelmed. I imagine many of my students feel this even more strongly than me. That’s why I almost always start by having students journal on a question, or respond to an article, video, quote, or song as a shared reference point for discussion. This frames the discussion and allows each student the time to think, articulate, and be ready with something to say. The units I teach are guided by essential questions, and I use backward planningto make sure that the different pieces clearly lead toward a larger project and goal.

5. Find Mentors, Models, and Support

It would be impossible to do the rigorous, messy work of social justice teaching without the benefit of the knowledge and experiences of others. By listening to, learning from, and sharing with others, my practice has grown much stronger. In particular, George Lakey and Training for Change were important guides for me when I began my career as a classroom educator. I highly recommend George’s Facilitating Group Learning for educators at any level (despite the fact that it is written for adult educators). Rethinking Schools is a wonderful organization with many insightful books and articles. Also, having a support network of people to turn to when things feel tough can be invaluable.

Education Must Be Liberation

Ultimately, teachers and pedagogy have the potential to liberate or oppress. In the same way that young people’s lives can be altered by new knowledge of self and the development of feelings of agency in the world, teaching that doesn’t acknowledge students’ realities and society’s faults can permanently, negatively influence the ways that young people see themselves.

Educators have the privilege of teaching. As a white teacher, I have the privilege, the challenge, and the obligation to make learning meaningful and transformative for all of my students.

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