This post is written by NCTE member Jennifer Kirsch.
About a year ago, I made a commitment to myself and my students to become more purposeful in the way I addressed race in my classroom. Inspired in large part by my experiences at the CARLE Institute*, I decided I was ready to lean into the discomfort that often accompanies candid conversations about race, inequality, and justice in order to create a classroom environment in which students felt safe expressing their feelings, opinions, questions, and experiences surrounding race and racism.
The initial step on my ongoing journey (and indeed, I am nowhere near finished; I don’t think work like this is ever complete) toward becoming a white anti-racist educator was to name my race. This seemed simple enough, and yet the first time I prefaced a comment to my students with the words, “As a white woman,” I felt nervous. Up until that moment, I had never explicitly acknowledged anyone’s race in my classroom, and I wondered how the middle schoolers in front of me would react. During a discussion of the racism directed towards Mexican migrant farmers in Esperanza Rising, I took a moment to prepare myself, and then said, “As a white woman, I’ve never been made to feel like I’m less than simply because of the color of my skin.” My brief anxiety was immediately eclipsed by the power this simple sentence held. White students snapped to attention, listening more closely, while students of color gave me knowing nods or eagerly volunteered to share personal stories of prejudice and stereotyping. This simple declaration, this small acknowledgment that I, as a white woman, have a race, opened up a more meaningful conversation with students. I think it gave everyone in the classroom, myself included, permission to discuss race and racism more frankly, to be forthcoming about what we did not know or understand, and to be honest about the fact that racism exists in all our lives.
I felt empowered by this experience, motivated by how eager my students were for a space in which uncomfortable conversations were welcomed and encouraged. It was not surprising, then, that as the year progressed conversations about race and inequality arose frequently in my classes. Between reading novels featuring diverse characters, learning about the history of our country, and a devastating stream of news stories about black men being murdered, students were regularly exposed to the reality of racism and the unpleasant and confusing feelings it engenders.
When my class learned the story behind Brown v. Board of Education, they simply did not understand why the government would allow segregation, denying black children access to the same schools as white children. As is typical of students this age, they were unable to reconcile how these practices, which were so clearly unfair and unjust, could be conceived of and supported by a bunch of grown-ups who ought to know better. To facilitate a conversation about their questions, I relied on a visual aid. I drew a horizontal line on the board and we spent a few minutes brainstorming what characteristics or traits would put someone above or below the power line. Students quickly picked up on the fact that white, educated, wealthy males have historically been dominant in our country. From there it was a short leap to understanding that people in power (in this case, as in many, white men) frequently make laws and decisions which benefit themselves, often to the detriment of people of color.
After my students spent an appropriate amount of time spent expressing their outrage and confusion, the tone of our conversation shifted, and something really wonderful happened. They began to challenge the power line, looking for examples of women or people of color who possessed power and influence in our society. They were not content with the status quo and eagerly found exceptions to the ”rule” we had just established. Excited by the turn we had taken, I asked my classroom of fifth graders to think about how different situations and circumstances might affect our place on the power line. “Can you think of a black woman who has risen above the power line?” I asked. In unison the class started shouting about Michelle Obama. It was an amazing moment, and one that wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago.
These conversations, though difficult at first (and perhaps always uncomfortable to some degree), have become a critical element of my teaching. I spend my days encouraging students to be stronger readers or better writers, to have thoughtful conversations about challenging topics, but also, I hope, modeling for them how to be better citizens of our school community and beyond. By leaning into the discomfort, confusion, frustration, and anger we all feel about racism, I hope I am encouraging them to become more introspective about their relationships and privileges and to think more carefully about the words they choose, the assumptions they make, and the way they treat the people around them.
*The CARLE (Critical Analysis of Race and Learning in Education) Institute has been hugely influential in my work on becoming an anti-racist educator. The experiences, conversations, and resources provided to me by CARLE are inspiring and invaluable.
Jenny Kirsch teaches middle school English at The Hewitt School, a K-12 all-girls school in New York City. She is also an associate at Hewitt’s Center for Teaching & Learning Through Writing, where she works on developing Writing-to-Learn practices for students and faculty in Grades 5-12. She is interested in the intersection of reading and writing, and believes technology can enhance both of these pursuits. You can follow her on Twitter, where’s she known as @MsJennyKirsch.