6 Tips for Facilitating Discussions on Race with Predominantly White Students

Teachers at predominantly white schools, especially those in conservative communities, may be reluctant to discuss race in the classroom. However, it is precisely in these communities that conversations about how race, ethnicity, and other social identities are critical for broadening students worldview.

Here are some ideas on how to have these conversations based on a town hall that a group of teachers and I helped organize at my school in an affluent, predominantly white public school in the suburbs of Chicago.

During the town hall we first asked a panel of diverse students share an experience that exemplified their experience with race or ethnicity in our school community. Then, we asked these students to join teachers who had signed up to attend the town hall to help facilitate discussions with their students.

A special thanks to Robin Vannoy, Robyn Corelitz, Billson Rasavongxay, Noah Lawrence, Cassandra Richardson and Deborah Powell for their ideas and support!

1. Prepare a Framework 

Ask student facilitators and teachers to carefully read articles on race along and strategies for leading difficult conversations from Teaching Tolerance, Harvard Graduate School of Education: Usable Knowledge, and Anti-Defamation League.

2. Ask Students to Complete an Anonymous Survey

Statement

Agree

Disagree

1. I am a student at Hinsdale Central High School.

2. I can turn on the television and see people of my race/ethnicity widely represented.
3.I can be sure that the curriculum in my classes celebrates the contributions of my race.
4. I can criticize our government without being seen as a cultural outsider.
5. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race/ethnicity.
6. I can easily find groups of friends who understand my cultural/ethnic background.
7. I feel I can be myself in class by sharing my views without worrying about being seen by my peers as an outsider.
8. I can easily find teachers and other staff members who are of my cultural/ethnic background.

SOURCE: National Seed Project

3. Discuss why race matters

cover_article_2005_en_US
Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools

“Our racial history is part of our present, it is in our structures…in the ways schools are organized, in how neighborhoods are laid out, in the composition of our family trees, in the unconscious stereotypes that get primed when we mentally sort people along racial lines. We walk around with it, and while it is never the only dynamic in the room, it matters.”

4. Establish Ground Rules

  1. Assume good intentions. Everyone is in the room because they desire to learn from one another.
  2. Speak from your own experience instead of generalizing (“I” instead of “they,” “we,” and “you”).
  3. Respectfully challenge one another by asking questions, but avoid personal attacks — focus on ideas.
  4. Actively speak & listen — community growth depends on expressing & listening to every voice. The goal is not to agree but to gain a deeper understanding.
  5. Be conscious of body language and nonverbal responses — they can be as disrespectful as words.

SOURCE: EdChange & University of Missouri

5. Suggest Questions but let Students Choose 

  1. Why is it challenging to have conversations about race & diversity?
  2. To what extent are your cultures & traditions represented in popular culture & at Hinsdale Central?
  3. In what ways do you have advantages or disadvantages that you did not earn?
  4. Why might some students remain silent in order to feel safe with peers, in classrooms, or at school?
  5. How can we help create a community that allows all students to be themselves & share their voice?

6. Scaffold Difficult Conversations

white-final
What Does it Mean to be White?
  1. I’m nervous/scared/uncomfortable to say this… and/but…
  2. From my experience/perspective as (identity)…
  3. It feels risky to say this and/but…
  4. I just felt something shift in the group. I’m wondering if anyone else did.
  5. I have always heard / thought that…. What are your thoughts on that?
  6. I have a different perspective because…

Developed by Anika Nailah & Robin DiAngelo, 2013

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Stay Silent on the 1st Day of School: Create a Student-Centered Classroom

With the start of the new year I’ve committed to becoming a more reflective teacher by blogging at least once a month. Here’s my first post of the year which coincided with the start of a new semester at my high school.

NOTE: I’m well aware that this activity might not work for teachers of all grade levels or settings but I wanted to share my experience in case it is useful to you.

***

Whether you’ve long admired John Dewey or you’re trying to live up to Danielson’s definition of a highly effective teacher, many teachers, myself included, are working to build a more student-centered class. Here is one way you can start the journey from the moment your students walk into your class on the first day of school.

Be prepared to push yourself and your students out of their comfort zones by avoiding all the things we normally do at the beginning of the semester: Don’t stand in front of the class, Don’t review rules, Don’t lead the class through a series of activities.

In fact, do nothing.

Instead, let students lead the class, make a plan and guide their classmates. Set the tone from the very first day that students will be at the center of the classroom experience.

Before students walk into class have the following instructions projected on the screen:

Welcome to Mr. Chokshi’s class!

I’m conducting a social experiment to see what students can do on their own.

  1. Please take your Chromebook according to the list on top of the cart and your seat according to the chart at the front of the room.
  2. By the end of period you should:
    1. Know the names and a unique fact of everyone in your group
    2. Create ONE class Google Slides presentation introducing your partner:
      1. One thing your partner is proud of (e.g. skill, character trait, etc.)
      2. A major challenge they have overcome (e.g. family, socially, academically, etc.)
      3. Greatest academic strength
      4. Greatest academic challenge
    3. Present your partner to the class
    4. Return your chromebook to the correct location
  3. If time remains, learn the names & unique fact about another group. You will be expected to know everyone’s name and something about them by the end of the week!

Then, as students file in, greet them but give no instructions. When the bell rings to mark the start of class, say nothing. I find it helpful to take a seat on the side of room so they know you won’t be guiding them.

While students struggle with finding their seat & Chromebooks, creating a shared presentation, and figuring out how to connect their computer to the projector it’s absolutely critical that you remain silent. Not a word. If your students know you’ll swoop in and save them whenever they face a challenge they won’t become accustomed to seeing their peers as their first resource.

Other than creating the norm for student centered learning, such an approach helps you learn within the first moments of the school year which students enjoy leading the class and which students prefer to play a more supportive role.

Doing this activity on the first day of school does require a little more prep work such as having a roster and seating chart prepared in advance; however, most teachers have these ready before the first day of school anyways. The most difficult preparation is mental: realizing that we’re not the most important person in room and that the class can function without us leading them.

Investing time to create a student centered class pays dividends throughout the year as students follow instructions with minimal guidance from you, ask their classmates for help first and, above all, direct their own learning.

10 ways to adjust instruction based on formative assessment data

SOURCE: ASCD 

 

 

You’ve collected exit slips, spot checked students’ homework, skimmed their Google Doc, seen the results from a Google Form,  Pear Deck, Formative or Socrative. What do I do next?

In this era of student centered-learning and data informed instruction we know we should be formatively assessing our students frequently. However, what should we do after we administer the formative assessment?

What do I do with that data? 

Here are 10 easy to implement strategies to help you make changes to your instruction and meet your students where they are at:

1.Plan branch activities for students to do at the beginning, middle or after class: if you feel comfortable with X then you should do Y, if you’re struggling with X then you should do Z.

2. Create a resource area on your website or in your classroom where students can review key topics & skills (preferably organized by objective) so students can easily review concepts they’re struggling with.

3. Have students discuss & defend their answers with partners & groups before presenting them to the class. This leverages peer feedback in a low stakes environment before creating opportunities for students to learn from each others’ mistakes while presenting to the class.

4. Bunch related lessons together and turn them into a project so students have a menu of activities they complete at their own pace while you help students individually or in groups.

5. Post answer keys around the room and write the next steps students should take if they get the answer wrong or right.

6. Allow students to self-select groups based on which skill/concept they need to review the most. Create station rotations see Caitlin Tucker’s resources here.

7. Solicit the help of their resource/study hall teachers. Email them review activities/ links to help students review concepts & skills they’re struggling with before a quiz/test.

8. While helping students who need extra review, have other students complete quick but complex challenges that ask students to think strategically and apply what they learned to real world problems. Extension activities don’t always have to mean doing a lot more work (for the student or the teacher!)

SOURCE: We are Teachers

9. Ask a student or small group of students to come in before/after school to get 1-on-1 help. Often, helping a student for 5-10 minutes outside of class is more effective than trying to help 30 students for an entire class period.

10. Prioritize objectives, if all students won’t be able to reach a level of mastery for every single objective in the same amount of time, which are most critical for students’ success in future lessons, units & courses? Plan subsequent lessons & units to continue to reinforce those critical objectives. You can’t do it all in one day!

 

Teacher’s Sanity: Late Work, Re-Takes, Pacing

Progressive teachers for decades (perhaps centuries!) have long advocated for deemphasizing grades, developing various methods for re-learning concepts & skills, and providing students multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning.

These  ideas have found a renaissance of sorts with the the recent movement towards standards based grading, mastery learning, competency based learning, and allowing students to submit assignments late without penalty.

I am an advocate for being flexible in how students learn and demonstrate their learning, but doing so has raised a number of practical and philosophical issues:

  • Personalized learning helps meet students where they are at. However, at what point does a class become too individualized? How do we balance personalization with shared experiences like whole-class discussions, debates, and simulations that are critical for building community?

 

  • Students learn at different rates. Can we expect all students to master the same number of objectives in a defined learning period? Should some objectives be required and others be for enrichment? What does it really mean to hold high expectations for all? Are some objectives (or some courses) more important than others? Who decides?

 

  • Define a learning period. A class period? A week? A unit? A semester? If we truly implement mastery learning, should teachers or students move on to the next lesson, unit or class even though some students haven’t mastered some of the objectives? What percentage of objectives or students? What level of evidence is required to demonstrate “mastery”? Should a student be asked to stay in a course until they demonstrate mastery of the required objectives even if stretches into the summer or next school year? Should all students be required to stay in a course for a full term even if they demonstrate mastery of the required objectives sooner?

 

  • Mastery learning & teachers’ sanity. How do teachers manage providing multiple opportunities for assessments to different students at different times? Should teachers have firm deadlines after which they will no longer will accept work or re-takes? Do schools’ grading policies push them to do so? To what degree is it the teacher’s responsibility to ensure all students master required objectives? To what degree is it the students’ responsibility?

These are some of the questions I’m grappling with as I try to emphasize feedback & mastery instead of learning for a grade in the courses I teach and with teachers I coach. I look forward to reading about, thinking about and discussing these questions further and share my reflections with you.

8 Takeaways: Global Axis Summit 2017

 

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend and present at the Global Teachers Institute Axis Summit. The summit was focused on education in South Africa but teachers from all over Africa and America attended. Here ere are some of my key takeaways from the summit:

  1. Dawn Oler: Personal Connection & Reflection are vital. Use a personal Venn diagram to create relationships with students by finding what you and your students have in common. At the beginning of the school year share your life story and have students complete the diagram to see what they have in common and explain what’s unique to them. Also, have students monitor their own progress towards mastering unit objectives. This process is key to empowering students to own their learning.

2. Amanda Burton & Linda Korbus: Expect, inspect & respect mistakes. Create a class culture where mistakes are celebrated and become a regular part of the learning process. The metacognitive process of evaluating your own learning & mistakes is vital to deeper insights.

3. Baba Bantu: Decolonize our minds. Critically examine how Eurocentric narratives & institutions have formed over time. Actively seek counter-narratives and passionately immerse ourselves in cultural practices (languages, traditions, etc.) even if they are not considered “mainstream” or “normal.” Encourage our students to explore and celebrate their own cultures and develop pride for their identities.

4. John Gilmore: Set personal & professional goals every year. Our personal & professional lives are intertwined . Share your goals with others to keep us accountable.

5. Pam Bylsma: Make your values transparent. Nearly every activity and critical decision made in school should include a conversation about values. For example, hallway monitors can recognize students’ citizenship when they pick up trash that’s not their own. Teachers can encourage citizenship by debating social issues in classes & clubs.

Administrators can keep values (such as those highlighted in the Character Counts program) front and center by referring to them when resolving conflicts between staff or making controversial decisions transparent to parents. The following ethical frameworks can help students, teachers and administrators make tough decisions:

  • Harm/Beneficence: Does it do less harm and more good than the alternatives?
  • Publicity: Would I want this choice published in the newspaper?
  • Reversibility: Would I think this a good choice if I were among those affected by it?
  • Code of Ethics: How does this choice relate to the ethical standards of my profession?

SOURCE: Computing Cases

6. Tania Ham: Understand Special Needs. Can you imagine trying to draw with your eyes closed? Describe a painting you had never seen before? These types of exercise can help educators experience the types of struggles some students with special needs experience. By better understanding the challenges students face, teachers can better differentiate & scaffold learning activities.

7. Sunarku Clifford Sykes: Connect & Network. Be a teacher warrior for your students—-the challenges many of them face motivate us to give it our all everyday. Nearly every problem we face has already been solved by someone, somewhere—connect & just ask!

8. Kurt Minnar: ring your passions into your classroom. Connect your passions outside of school to the subjects you teach in school. Even subtraction & dancing can go hand-in-hand. Keep students engaged and moving, then they won’t have time to get distracted.

 

3 Takeaways from the 2017 SIOP National Conference

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend and present at the SIOP National Conference at the end of June. Although I gained a lot of ideas & strategies I can bring to my class, here are 3 things I hope to apply to my classroom this year:

1) Prepare students for a broader range of academic discourse

Most people believe there are two distinct modes of communication—how we talk with our friends & family and how we read and write at school & work. Conversational language (popularly known as BICS or Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) versus academic language are false dichotomies. In schools, workplaces, and daily life, there are a range of settings that require some use of academic language.

As teachers, we must be aware of the academic language demands on our students and strive to prepare them from a wide variety of language needs. We can do this by not just assigning strictly academic papers by writing, reading, and speaking for a wider variety of authentic contexts.

2) Give students significantly more meaningful interaction with new words

Dr. Deborah Short shared research that shows that students need 12-15 meaningful exposures to a word before it becomes a part of their lexicon.

How can we create word-rich schools?

  • Create word walls so students can easily review and use new words
  • Collaborate with teachers across subject areas to coordinate which words are taught and deliberately design assignments that elicit the use of new vocabulary
  • Teach root words! Teaching a short list of root words (and reviewing them throughout the year!) can help students understand thousands of words that are unfamiliar to them.

3) Read aloud to students more often

In the book In Defense of Read Aloud Prof. Steven Layne argues that teachers should skillfully use their diction, volume, pace, tone and pitch to bring texts to life. Reading aloud helps students see and hear the narrative and appreciate stories in ways silent reading never could. Reading out loud for students has clear benefits:

  • Students can access texts that contain vocabulary, text structures, etc, more than 2 grade levels above their current reading level
  • Fosters positive attitudes toward books & texts
  • Exercises students’ imagination
  • Builds background knowledge
  • Reinforces & improves reading skills
  • Provides a model of prosody and fluency
  • Broader interests in genres
  • Increases cultural sensitivity (if the appropriate texts are selected)
  • Improves listening skills

 

Reflections from 2016-2017

Before I close the chapter on this school year, I want to reflect on my successes and failures to learn how I can improve next year.

Here are 3 of my takeaways from this school year:

#1 Breaking out of our Bubbles: Creating safe but challenging spaces

As a Social Studies teacher I often experience how upbringing shapes worldviews. Parents generally play the biggest role in shaping students’ beliefs, but social media, friends and traditional media (news, magazines, movies, etc) are significant factors as well. This year’s election made this abundantly clear.

Political pundits and those who lean to the left did not anticipate or understand the groundswell of support the President gained during his campaign. Also, many ardent supporters of the President often failed to appreciate the legitimate concerns raised by his critics.

I saw this play out in my classroom. Whether we were debating taxes & government spending in Economics or the Syrian refugee crisis in Global Issues, too often I saw students simply become more hardened in the views they had prior to entering the classroom.

While it may be idealistic, I want to be sure I create a classroom which encourages truly open minds and conclusions being drawn based on facts. I want to create a space where students feel comfortable sharing their views but also are open to being challenged to pierce the bubbles we too often inhabit.

Next year, one way I hope to achieve this is by trying to train students in a more collaborative model of discussions where students must work together to construct new ways of thinking about controversial issues.

#2 Technology: Fragmenting Knowledge & Student Data

With every passing year, the amount of information that is easily accessible to students has grown exponentially. Similarly, tools that easily allow teachers to gather data about student learning has also increased. These shifts create significant opportunities and risks.

In order for computers to gather information, learning tasks must be fairly objective and discrete (e.g. multiple choice tests and rubrics). We tend to do what we can measure. This year using tools like Pear Deck, Actively Learn and Canvas helped generate data that gave me deeper insights about individual students’ performance which then helped me differentiate instruction. However, these tools also increased the likelihood of learning to be fragmented into bite sized measureable pieces. Deep learning does not occur in such a discrete process.

Next year, while continuing to adopt new, powerful education technology tools, I want to be sure I create learning opportunities that allow students to be fully immersed in complex ideas for long stretches of time even if they cannot easily be assessed.

#3 Instructional Coaching: Learning from Others

This was the first year I taught part-time and served as an instructional innovation coach for the remainder of the day. I loved it.

The cliche of teachers saying they learn more from their students than students learn from them, was true in the work I did with other teachers. The most gratifying aspect of being an instructional coach was the opportunities it created for me to peek at the types of lessons and projects other teachers were designing.

While it’s possible that teachers spend time with more than 125 students a day, teaching can be oddly isolating. Rarely do we have time to see what other teachers are doing in their classrooms. Working as an instructional coach helped break down some of these walls.

I learned how to help students create music videos based on the musical Hamilton , construct multimedia-rich interactive timelines about the Civil War and use Google Maps to visualize the French Revolution.

Next year, I want to learn how to truly coach teachers and not simply serve as a technology resource. Also, I hope to learn more about the incredible teaching my peers are already doing and share their successes with a broader audience.