Creating culturally inclusive classrooms in the echo of #BlackLivesMatter

  • Over the summer, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic and all the changes it mandated, another major societal upheaval began: the Black Lives Matter protests across the nation. They began after the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis, Minn., after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes. Four officers were charged in the death; all four were fired.

    Floyd’s death set off protests across the nation, in cities large and small. While most were peaceful, some violence and looting occurred. Each day and night for weeks, protestors – of all demographics – filled streets with signs and chants of “Black Lives Matter;” the hashtag #blacklivesmatter was prevalent on social media. The National Guard was called out to help monitor the protests in more than two dozen states. And it was a topic of news reports, political talk shows, and internet bloggers for weeks.

    Few students from middle-school age on – and some younger – would have not been aware of some of what was happening, as the video was everywhere, and discussions happened in families, between neighbors, and on local tv and radio. Even Elmo and his dad talked about the protests and racism.

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    If the news had occurred during a typical school year, teachers and school administrators would have helped their students process the events in age-appropriate ways. But the nation has been on full or partial lock-down for months due to the pandemic, and only now are schools beginning to return to class, some in-person and others online.

    As a teacher, how did these events register for you? Did you think of them in terms of friends, family members, neighbors? Did you think about your students, and whether you could or how you would explore the issues in your classroom?

    “Teachers know that this news and the issues around it need to be addressed,” writes the New York Times. “So how do we help our students process and respond to what is going on, understand its complex causes — and strive for solutions?”

    The answers, of course, depend on the age of students you teach. High-school sociology students can tackle much more nuanced and complex information than can elementary-age classes. Jason Lukehart, a fourth-grade teacher in Oak Park, Illinois, talked to his students in a Zoom meeting a few days after Floyd’s death.

    “We’ve talked about the concept of white privilege and I was able to go back to some of those discussions,” Lukehart told USA Today. “I want my white students to have the right perspective on this stuff in an age-appropriate way. For my black students, I hope they feel like I care about them.”

    “Teachers can be incredibly powerful in teaching young people to engage in these conversations rather than avoid them,” said Howard Stevenson, a clinical psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

    One key to talking about race and racism is being comfortable with the subject as a teacher. And that can be a challenge when the majority of teachers are white (68 percent in public charter schools, 80 percent in public school, 85 percent in private school, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics for the 2017-2018 school year. The same statistics for black teachers were 10 percent in public charter schools, 7 percent in public schools, and 3 percent in private schools. For Latino teachers, the numbers were 16 percent of public charter schools, 9 percent of public schools, 7 percent of private schools).

    In teaching a diverse classroom, are you comfortable with talking about race? If you could use more education and coaching on the subject, read on.

    “The Role of Culture and Equity in the Classroom” is a three-course series at Dominican University of California Online. It includes three courses, which are online and self-paced:

    • Creating an Inclusive Classroom Environment: This class helps you understand the term “culturally responsive,” learn how to create a culturally responsive classroom, and learn how to build relationships with students and parents from different cultures. (EDUO 9736, 2 semester credits)
    • Creating Culturally Responsive Lesson Plans: This course builds on your understanding of cultural responsiveness and carries that understanding into your lesson plans. It focuses on identifying culturally responsive class materials and lesson plans, and encourages sharing among the participants in the class. (EDUO 9737, 2 semester credits)
    • Yours, Mine and Ours: Focuses on how to see your own culture, understand how that informs how you see the world, recognize stereotypes, and connect with your class in a way that helps you understand your students culturally. (EDUO 9735, 2 semester credits)

    All three courses use the book How to Teach Students Who Don’t Look Like You (second edition), by Bonnie M. Davis. Davis has been a teacher for more than 40 years who taught in middle schools, high schools, universities, and community organizations like homeless shelters and a men’s prison. She was named Teacher of the Year in two public school districts, among many other awards. And she also has personal multi-cultural experience, as she explains in the beginning of the book:

    “My granddaughter is Mexican, black, white, and Puerto Rican. How does she see the world? She sees the world through the lens of a young child who already understands that skin color places us in different groups. At 4, she just thinks it has to do with language rather than power. She is brown and does not look like me. Her father, my son, has an African American father. He is black and does not look like me. My experience as the biological white mother of a black male and grandmother of a child of mixed ethnicity and racial identity is one of the reasons I wrote this book, a how-to book for you, educators who fill today’s classrooms and search for better ways to connect with and teach students who don’t look like them.”

    The book is an interactive learning tool; at many points it stops and asks the readers to fill out information about the classes they teach, their expectations for their students, and reflections about certain anecdotes.

    From Dominican: “This series is designed to help teachers develop the tools needed to create a culturally responsive environment for all students. When a student feels different or left out in his or her classroom, it significantly reduces that student’s ability and desire to learn. The content learned in this series will teach you how to connect with your students and create an inclusive classroom environment that will open the door to learning for every child you work with.” To get more information about or to enroll in The Role of Culture and Equity in the Classroom series, visit here.

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