Sunday, July 31, 2016

Should We Start the School Year by Talking about Race?

At the start of the school year, I generally make the time to talk about the history of people. I find that this talk serves to dismiss myths that might hinder our teaching/learning year.

How do I tell this story to fifth graders?

Taking the lead from work I did as a fourth grade teacher who taught a culture unit, I begin by asking, "Where do you think people come from?"

Students typically giggle a bit and then offer a variety of answers. When they refer to reproduction, I smile and say, that's a topic we'll learn about at the end of the year, but if you're curious now, you can talk to your family members about it. Then when they tell religious stories, I say, "We're a public school, therefore we respect all religions. Most religions have origin stories, and it's best to talk to your family members about that. Then I tell the scientific story of human origin, the story that uses our DNA to trace our roots all the way back to Africa.

As I tell the story of evolution, I also tell the story of skin and provide the scientific reasons why we have the skin shades that we have. I make a point of emphasizing that the biology that makes up our skin is a minuscule fraction of our overall genetic make-up, and like all parts of our body our skin has adapted over time for one reason and one reason only, survival. (I may add the news that Americans are getting shorter and ask them why that evolution might be true this year too).

When I tell the story, I use the map. I say that our appearance gives us clues about where our ancestors came from, and that we continue to evolve as all animals do for survival.

I find that this conversation early in the year empowers all of my learners by dispelling racial myths they may have heard or developed.

Recently, I wrote to school system administration asking that we create a thread of teaching throughout the years that explicitly focuses on racism to dispel myths and empower all students to learn well on their own and with others.

It's important that this thread is developmental, and I can imagine a K-12 team of educators, family members, paraeducators, administrators, and community members meeting together to make recommendations for this learning thread.

I would imagine the thread to include the following types of units:

K-2: We are the same, and we are different: A focus on self, our communities, and communities far away. There's lots of great literature and activities that support this kind of community building and awareness for young children.

3-4: Culture and Immigration. This is a great age to make children aware of the history of our multicultural nature.

5-6: History, Geography, and the Impact on Our Lives and the Lives of Others, Global Changemakers, and Current Events. Students at this age are looking for mentors, curious about one another, and very interested in the world around them.

7-12: Since this is not my area of expertise, I would defer this decision making to teachers at this level, but I think it's important that issues of advocacy, current events, racial/cultural understanding, opportunity/attitudina assessment and opportunity, history, world religions, and more.

In the year ahead, I plan to address racism in the following ways with my grade-level teaching team:
  • Telling the story of the history of people and the history of skin.
  • Regular attention to current events.
  • Teaching cognitive science and how our brains work, emphasizing the fact that we're all capable of learning and dispelling myths that obstruct that opportunity.
  • Focusing on the life of Frederick Douglas as part of our Global Changemakers Project, a project that introduces students to famous people throughout time who have made significant change, change that positively impacted lives.
  • Visiting and working with The Museum of African American History in Boston.
  • Regular discussion and education that responds to issues as they arise. 
  • Regular work with the greater teaching team including students, families, educators, paraeducators, administrators, and community members to thoughtfully develop our good work in this regard.
Will you talk about race with students at the start of the year? If so, how will you do that with sensitivity and understanding? How will your system address this issue in order to empower all students. I'm open to your suggestions and thoughts.

Note: I work in a school that enjoys lots of diversity of religion, lifestyle, race, gender, culture, language, and more.