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Black History Month: How to Discuss Racism with Younger Students

Some teachers and school districts teach Black History Month exclusively as history. They start with slavery, work their way through the civil rights movement, and then stop after they name a few modern African American heroes. However, history is happening today, and more students than ever (including younger students) are turning to their teachers with complex questions about race.

Race and racism are never easy topics to cover, regardless of who is asking and who is teaching. However, there are resources for teachers who want to broach the subject intelligently and give students a space to ask questions and get real answers. Here are a few ways to start a healthy discussion on race in your classroom.  

Create a Safe Area Where You and Students Can Make Mistakes

The first step to opening a classroom discussion about race is to create a space where your students feel comfortable asking questions and making statements. Students of color need to feel like they can share their experiences, while white students need to be able to admit that they can’t fully understand what their peers go through.  

“Mistakes are bound to happen when approaching issues of race and racism in the classroom, considering that 80% of the public school teaching force identifies as white, and approximately 50% of the public school student population is not,” educational consultant Dr. Jaime Castellano says in a three-part series on race for EdWeek. “This human resources disparity often results in teachers not approaching the subject in an intelligent, engaging, and interactive way.”

The Anti-Defamation League says that white students often don’t participate in discussions about race because they worry about being mocked or don’t think the topic is relevant to them. However, the ADL says that it is important to talk about race and racism in a predominantly white classroom.

They encourage teachers to set up safe boundaries where students can ask honest questions and learn about their biases. Without trust in the classroom, students will never feel safe asking uncomfortable questions.

Take Stock of What You Don’t Know When Talking to Your Class

Give your students opportunities to voice their opinions and share their stories. You may realize as the class goes on that you need a new approach to discussing race in the classroom based on what your students tell you. For example, a few well-meaning lessons that were used 10 or 20 years ago may seem outdated in today’s classroom.   

“While ‘I don’t see color’ may come from a well-meaning place, studies show that it more likely does a great deal of harm,” Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, author of 8th Grade Superzero, writes. “If we look closer, we often find that much of our reluctance to address race directly stems from our tendency to want to avoid discomfort.”

The ‘I don’t see color’ school of thought is evolving to help all students discuss their experiences with racism in America. And yes, your race and the predominant race of your students in your classroom will dictate how you approach this discussion.

“There are different rules for white people and people of color when talking about race,” writes Angela Watson, a National Board certified teacher with 11 years of experience in the classroom. “When you hear people of color talking about race, the least helpful thing you can do is to try to police their tone or correct the way they express themselves. Instead, accept that their lived experiences are different than yours: they are treated differently and see the world differently.”

If you try to stick to a lesson plan or argue with your students about their experiences, you could make them feel even more isolated and reluctant to bring up their thoughts or opinions. Plus, you can break the space of trust that you initially created.

Tap Into Existing Lessons About Empathy and Self-Awareness

Use what you are given in your curriculum to tie your lessons on race to other discussions throughout the school year. If your school counselor talks to your students about sharing their feelings or resolving arguments, you can use these activities and apply them to racial discussions.

For example, Amy L. Eva, Ph.D., associate education director at the Greater Good Science Center, encourages teachers to use social and emotional learning (SEL) to discuss race. “SEL centers on the key attitudes and skills necessary for understanding and managing emotions, listening, feeling, and showing empathy for others, and making thoughtful, responsible decisions.”

Students use self-awareness and self-management to think about their emotions and the life experiences of others.

Developmental and behavioral pediatrician Eboni Hollier, M.D. agrees that talking about race in the classroom is vitally important. Not doing so can make kids think that the subject is taboo. This silence encourages students to be silent and indifferent when they see racism, injustice, or ignorance in their communities. Instead, teaching kids to ask questions and open up the lines of communication in a healthy way can lead to better discussions and understanding in the future.

Incorporate Multimedia Resources Into Your Lesson Plan

If you’re not sure how to talk about race in your classroom, the best thing you can do is look for the lesson plans, discussions, and resources of teachers who have been there before. Here are a few useful videos and tools you can use to create a thought-provoking and educational discussion about race:

  • Saleem Reshamwala of KidEthnic created a series of videos on bias for the New York Times. One called “Peanut Butter, Jelly, and Racism” looks at implicit bias. Students can learn what implicit bias means and discuss ways they sometimes use it to think about people.
  • Melinda D. Anderson created the #CharlottesvilleCurriculum hashtag on Twitter which has resources teachers can use for classroom discussions about racism and hatred across America and in their students’ neighborhoods.
  • Teaching Tolerance has lesson plans, tasks, and student texts for teachers to use, but also offers workshops and training guides for educators who want to better promote diversity and have discussions about inequality in the classroom.  
  • Racism No Way is part of the anti-racism curriculum for Australian schools. They offer lesson ideas, activities where students can act out difference scenes, and media to enhance the lessons.
  • The Social Psychology Network under the National Science Foundation created a website called Understanding Prejudice. Here you’ll find tips for teachers addressing elementary school students with demonstrations and exercises you can use in class.

There are plenty of resources for younger students as well as older learners, so you don’t have to feel like you are pushing younger students to understand ideas they aren’t ready for.  

Use Stories to Encourage Greater Understanding

Stories are easier to relate to than textbooks or even activities. Students connect with the people they read about and can feel the fear, anger, and hope of the characters in a book. Here are a few books you can use as a basis for your lesson plan or to simply keep in your classroom to help your students navigate discussions about race.

  • Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, written by Duncan Tonatiuh, is appropriate for ages 6-9. This is the story of Sylvia Mendez, an American citizen of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage, who fought with her parents against segregation 10 years before Brown v. Board of Education.
  • The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, A Young Civil Rights Activist is written by Cynthia Levinson, who specializes in nonfiction books for and about young people. This book follows the story of the youngest civil rights marcher to get arrested during the protests in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Audrey Faye Hendricks was only nine years old at the time of her arrest.
  • Fred Korematsu Speaks Up was written as part of Laura Atkins’ Fighting for Justice series with Stan Yogi. This book, for children ages 6-10, tells the story of an American of Japanese descent during 1941, when many Japanese were sent to internment camps. Atkins has received several accolades for the story and has spoken to more than 8,000 students at over 50 schools.
  • She Stood for Freedom: The Untold Story of a Civil Rights Hero, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland was co-authored by Loki Mulholland and Angela Fairwell. This book tells the story of a white Freedom Rider who protested against segregation in the 1960s. This book is important for discussing the role allies play in speaking up when they see injustice.
  • Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom by Tim Tingle tells the story of a Choctaw girl who helped slaves escape across the Mississippi. This book highlights the relationships between the Choctaw people and slaves before the Choctaw were forced out of Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.

You can use these stories as jumping off points for discussion or as reading assignments to reinforce a message.

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