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Difficult Classroom Conversations About Race

Across the country, students and teachers are grappling with the killing of George Floyd and confronting our country’s legacy of systemic racism.

By Madeleine Burry, Jessica Fregni, and Laura Zingg

June 12, 2020

People assemble at a George Floyd protest, holding signs.

Katie Ballah teaches second grade at Achievement First Mayoral Illuminar Academy in Rhode Island. She’s also the mom of three young kids, aged three to nine. She worries about them all, as mothers do. But it’s her six-year-old son, Oliver whom she worries about the most. The news of George Floyd’s murderof Breonna Taylor, Amaud Arbery, and so many other Black lives losttakes her breath away.

“For my children, I've had to have the hardest conversations I've ever had with them these last two weeks,” Katie says.

Playing the dual role of a parent and educator of color has been especially challenging.

“I'm exhausted, particularly as a mom of color and a mom of a young son, a little brown boy. The day he was born changed my life forever. I think about him because he's my son but I also think of my beautiful and powerful students that I serve,” Katie says. “I know they are brilliant and filled with potential. And yet they still have this obstacle that stands in their way. It's exhausting.”

On top of juggling family life and the scramble to transition to online teaching in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Katie, like so many teachers, is now trying to help her students process the events surrounding the death of George Floyd, the nationwide protests, and our country’s long history of systemic racismall via a Zoom classroom.

This is all happening against the backdrop of a global pandemic that has disproportionately impacted communities of color. A pandemic that has peeled back the cover on generations of systemic inequities rooted in racism, where many communities lack access to affordable healthcare and housing and many students don’t have access to broadband or devices to continue learning at home.

We asked educators of different identities to share how they are making space for tough conversations with their students about racism, why these critical conversations need to happen in schools, and what enduring change they hope will come out of this moment.

“I don't want to say any more words and I don't want to do any more things. However, I understand that because I've been gifted an education and a platform and a space, that I'm affecting so many other lives.”

Katie Ballah

Second Grade Teacher, Achievement First Mayoral Illuminar Academy

Initiating Difficult Conversations

Katie says talking to her kids and her students about the recent spate of violent deaths of Black men and women was heartbreaking. She’s spent so much time building her students up, helping them feel comfortable in their skin, and affirming their identities. Like so many teachers, she is now struggling to find the words to explain why Black people are treated differently, and why what happened to George Floyd keeps happening to others.

And like so many teachers, Katie feels overwhelmed. But she has been holding space during her virtual classes during the past week for her students to discuss. It’s not formal or structureda safe space for students to share and ask questions. 

“One thing I love about our school is we don't shy away from tough conversations about race or any kind of injustice or inequity,” Katie says. “We don't shy away from those conversationswe lean in. And so there was a lot of space to do that.”

Katie says teachers are by nature creators of safe spaces, and initiators of difficult conversations. In addition to helping students name their emotions—“sad,” “discouraged,” “disappointed”—Katie also wanted to go further. She says she worked to show students they could turn their powerful feelings and thoughts into “some kind of meaningful action to enable them as people to raise their voices and use their power because even at eight-years-old, their voices are so powerful.”

Katie’s students collaborated on writing a letter framed to the police expressing their frustration. They thought sending the letter to their principal would be a good place to start, and to have their voices heard. Their principal immediately joined the remote class to listen and answer questions.

In an effort to help students put the moment in the context of history, the Civil Rights movement, and the ongoing fight for equity, Katie has been intentional about centering her guided reading lessons on stories that mirror her students’ experiences. The class recently read about Ruby Bridges, the first Black student to desegregate an all-white school in Louisiana in the 1960s, and discussed what it means to be brave and resilient.

As the second-grade team leader at her school, Katie also helped organize a grade-wide discussion for all the students and teachers in her department. Many of her students felt moved to speak, including Isaac, a particularly quiet and reserved student who typically doesn’t speak up in class. After class, Isaac sent Katie a short essay, putting his thoughts into writing. “What I hope to be different is that people will stop being racist and police officers will stop doing these rude things,” Issac says. “I would tell students to not be shy about speaking up.”

Katie Ballah joined her fellow teachers for a weekend protest at the Rhode Island Statehouse.

Earlier this month Katie attended a weekend protest at the Rhode Island Statehouse as a way to bridge her two worlds as educator and parent. Her husband encouraged their older daughter, Sophia, to join her mom, so she could see what it looks like when a community comes together to speak out against injustice. 

“I wanted her to understand the breadth and the weight of why her voice mattered and I wanted to be seen, as an educator and as a person in my community,” Katie says. “I wanted my students and my colleagues to see me and to know where I stand.”

Nine-year-old Sophia says she was inspired by being there with her mom and felt a range of emotions.

Katie's nine-year-old daughter, Sophia, at the protest.

“It was pretty cool,” Sophia says. “A lot of people were yelling because they don't think it was rightwhat the police did to the Black people and our community. I thought that it was a good thing that the people running the meeting were telling the people not to get mad because I don't want my city burning down in fire, like the other ones.” After the protest, Sophia and her mom stopped for a treat. “I got a unicorn ice cream,” Sophia says.

Katie hopes students see and feel the connection their voice has to effect change. And that it will encourage students and others to choose action over silence. She’s hoping the activism and protests will lead to specific changes, including legislative actions to dismantle long-standing systemic inequities such as the school-to-prison pipeline and the inequitable way that schools are funded. 

For now, Katie is focusing on her own self-care and healing, so she can replenish her strength and drive to keep pushing for change.

“I'm exhausted. And I don't want to say any more words and I don't want to do any more things,” she says “However, I understand that because I've been gifted an education and a platform and a space, that I'm affecting so many other lives. I really hope that out of this, that there is some constructive response that we're able to create as a society.” — By Laura Zingg

Dismantling Biases While Building an Anti-Racist School

It was just two weeks until the end of the school year at Alliance Renee & Meyer Luskin Academy High School in Los Angeles when the protests for racial justice began across the country. At a time when students and teachers would usually be winding down for summer, a Black student in the senior class was inspired to write an email that would change the trajectory of the school.

"She's an outgoing senior, she's headed to UCLA, I'm very close with her,” Principal Andrew Vega says. “She called us out. She said, ‘You're not doing enough. My life does not matter at this school. Where are you?’”

While the letter was a “gut punch” for Andrew and his staff to read, he says, the entire faculty was grateful to listen and learn from students who are rising up to ask critical questions and demand action from the school. “Her letter was the catalyst for long-term impact on our school,” Andrew says. “Things we're committing to doing, like race and equity professional development for teachers next year. We're increasing funding for the Black student union.”

Located in south-central Los Angeles, the community Luskin Academy High School serves is approximately 60 percent Black. However, the school’s student body is only 20 percent Black, and there are few Black teachers on staff. This has created an underlying tension in which many Black students feel invisible and like the school does not do enough to support them and their community, according to Andrew. 

“We have work to do in staffing and our curriculum,” Andrew says. “They've voiced these concerns to us before and in the last two weeks, that's really come to a reckoning.”

The protests have brought a reckoning for Andrew as well, both personally and as a school leader. “I'm certainly at this moment where I realized the anti-racist I was perhaps in 2013 and 2016 has over time been muted and colonized,” he explains. 

But since attending the protests, Andrew says, his energy as a school leader has shifted: “I've been leveraging [my experience at the protests] to say, ‘I'm not going to allow myself go back into a complacent state.’”

“My instructional superintendent knows I was at the protest, all of my colleagues know I was at the protest, the kids know I was there,” Andrew says. “I'm going to keep talking about it so that any narrative around whether protesting is good or wrong will be immediately dismissed in my presence because I will not have it. That is my way of advocating for my school community.”

In the last few days of the school year, Andrew and his faculty are trying to create space to have difficult conversations about race and the protests despite distance learning by hosting virtual school town halls, Black student forums, and dialogues between educators and students on social media. The educators of Luskin Academy High School say they are intent on listening to students and educating themselves on how to lead anti-racist classrooms in the next year. But for now, what’s most important is ensuring the school’s students feel heard and seen at this moment. 

One of the school’s teachers, Ricardo “Ricky” Novaes de Oliveira, is using his teacher Instagram account to create a safe space for students to process the weight of this moment and have vulnerable conversations about race and policing in America.

Throughout the protests, Ricky has posted about the Black Lives Matter movement and continues to connect past reading material, like A Raisin in the Sun, to the protests and what it means to be a Black person in America. He has also participated in a colleague’s student/teacher dialogues on Instagram Live. 

“There's a lot of opportunities for dialogue and opinion that it seems that students are willing to jump in with and engage with,” Ricky says. “There's one teacher who had an Instagram Live last night that we all attended and she was just talking to students about, ‘How do you feel about this? What does race mean to you? What does race mean in our school?’”

“I remember seeing one student, who is usually very quiet, but was so active on that Instagram live,” he adds. “She was talking about race, she was talking about women's rights. She's talking about intersectionality. She was really just talking about what she believes and what she knows.”

Both Andrew and Ricky hope that as the protests continue, the students of Luskin Academy High School will grow more confident in using their voices to demand justice.

“I hope [students] see that when you hold up a mirror to the system you're trying to change you put those leaders in a position of either exposing themselves for the apathetic or racists that they are or actually doing something about it,” Andrew says. “If you can do it at your school and you are able to do it at 18-years-old, imagine what you can do when you have even more tools in your toolbox. I really hope [students] see that they've made an impact on us and that literallyit is not an exaggerationthey have changed the course of our school.”

Andrew also hopes that educators and school leaders like himself will continue to listen and commit to the hard and necessary practice of anti-racist work. 

“I would empower leaders to speak what they think the truth is. We cannot continue to wait for resources and permission to do what we need to do for kids,” Andrew says. “At the end of the day, I'm okay with really intense fallout if I can know that at this moment in history, my Black students knew that they mattered and that their life mattered.” — By Jessica Fregni

“I'm okay with really intense fallout if I can know that at this moment in history, my Black students knew that they mattered and that their life mattered.”

Andrew Vega

Principal, Alliance Renee & Meyer Luskin Academy High School

Holding a Virtual Forum on Racism 

On an early June weekend, math teacher Steven Jefferson attended a protest. Participating was a way to show his solidarity, he says, and also renew his passion for fighting for justice. After, his thoughts turned to his students, seventh graders at Governor's Village STEM Academy in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I've been feeling pretty discouraged and emotionally drained myself, but I knew that I had to find some way to support my students,” Steven says. 

To that end, he organized a virtual conversation for his school on race, racism, and policing in the United States. 

“The goal was to provide a space for students to feel heard and to share their thoughts about everything going on in the world, mainly the killings of Black men and women, and the ensuing social responses,” Steven says.  

Steven Jefferson at a protest in Charlotte, North Carolina, on a recent weekend.

For the forum, he combined two seventh-grade classes, along with another teacher and a school counselor. Attendance was optional for students, and Steven was delighted to report that not a single one of the 80 students opted out of session. 

“It was also very encouraging for me to look out and to see such a diverse group of scholars engaging in these conversations,” he says. “It was so inspiring to hear my white students speak out about injustice, and really try to understand what their peers were feeling and had experienced.” While the student body is predominantly Black and Latinx, there are also white and Asian students at the school. 

To set the stage, Steven talked through expectations and norms. 

“It's such a heavy topic, I wanted to make sure that everyone felt safe, and that everyone felt respected, and [everyone] felt comfortable engaging to whatever degree or level was best for them,” he says. He used polls to get a sense of students’ emotions and knowledge, and also invited them to ask questions. 

Steven Jefferson used polls to get a sense of his students’ emotions ahead of his virtual conversation on race, racism, and policing in the United States.

While the focus of the interactive presentation and conversation was on the immediate moment, there was also discussion of the legacy of slavery and anti-Black racism in America, as well as the Civil Rights movement. “I don't think we can talk about healing or justice without first acknowledging the centuries of oppression people of color have faced and still experience to this day,” Steven says. 

He used resources geared toward teaching about race and racism, as well as video clips and news stories, to steer the conversation. Along with polls, he took advantage of Zoom’s break-out rooms. In smaller groups, with help from a facilitator, students had raw, vulnerable conversations. “They shared stories about things that happened in their neighborhood, some experiences that their own family members have had,” Steven says. 

Students asked tough questions, proposed needed changes, and shared books and videos with each other. “I work with some of the brightest and most gifted young people that I've ever met,” Steven says. Seeing his students’ passion, convictions, and ideas was inspiring and reinvigorating. Steven recently graduated from Duke University with a Ph.D. in sociology—thinking about the need for structural change is nothing new for him. Interacting with his students, though, has made it clear that awareness needs to give way to real change.  

“Sometimes I get overwhelmed thinking about my Black male students who I know to be loving, brilliant scholars, but who the world will perceive as dangerous, aggressive threats.”

Steven Jefferson

Math Teacher, Governor's Village STEM Academy

“Teaching has given me a greater sense of urgency. Even more important, teaching has given me over 120 reasons to get involved and fight for change,” Steven says. “Sometimes I get overwhelmed thinking about my Black male students who I know to be loving, brilliant scholars, but who the world will perceive as dangerous, aggressive threats. They should not have to live in that kind of world. They deserve so much more. Teaching has inspired me and challenged me really to use any and every opportunity that I have to do and be better for my kids.” 

Steven’s students want to continue the conversation, he says. One student at the school organized a peaceful demonstration. And many expressed eagerness to take a course on this topic over the summer. 

“My hope is that they would be empowered to find their own voice, and use that power to change the world. We often talk about how the next generation will shape the future, but I think we need to position our youth as the changemakers and revolutionaries of today. They can't wait and I don't think we can afford to delay the creation of a better and more just society. They deserve it now. That's my biggest hope: That my students will lead these conversations believing that they can make a difference, and knowing that their voice, their life, everything about them matters.” — By Madeleine Burry