7 Ways Teachers Can Support Black and Brown Students

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Identity and learning are intricately related. Fifty years of research shows that a racial identity solidly grounded in a sense of one’s own intelligence and integrity results in greater engagement in school, better academic performance, and ethical leadership.

Yet all too often Black and Brown students face racist stereotypes from other students and teachers.  Racial Stereotype threat occurs when students feel at risk of confirming a negative racial stereotype about their race.  The fear of fulfilling the stereotype interferes with cognitive function and lowers their performance. Stereotype threat has profound effects on learning and achievement, especially when the negative stereotype relates to intellectual competence. This can cause students to spend less time preparing for a task or deny the task’s importance to avoid a sense of failure. Stereotype threat results in altered identities and inhibited aspirations.

The good news is that, as educators, we have the power to consciously and intentionally strengthen our students’ identities.

We can create environments that mirror the achievements of Black and Brown peoples. Our classrooms can feature inspiring role models . We can debunk the myth that certain groups don’t care about learning or don’t want to do well in school. We can allow students to maintain their cultural identity as well as excel in academics. We can discuss the implications of identity on learning.

We recommend starting with these seven practices.

Start with yourself

Cultivating mindfulness is a fundamental skill in developing cultural agility. In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer says we teach who we are. That’s why it’s important to cultivate self-awareness, especially awareness of unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is simply a part of life, and becoming aware of our biases is an ongoing process. The first step is self-inquiry. It’s important to explore our own identities, and as we do, we develop metacognitive awareness, which allows us to witness our own thinking. At first, recognizing our biases may feel uncomfortable, but once we get the hang of it and move past self-judgment, catching our unexamined thoughts as they emerge from our unconscious mind is rewarding.

See Their Strengths

Educators have the power to create cultures of inclusion, identity-safe learning communities. We provide mirrors for students to see their reflections in. They see themselves through our eyes, so what we recognize in them matters. When we see their strengths, affirm their thinking, and validate their brilliance, they rise to meet our expectations. It is our job to see them as capable and competent, and to help them discover their gifts.

We can design methods and curricula to intentionally counteract the social oppression students of color may have encountered and reframe their experience by recognizing their accomplishments. Our lessons can focus on the achievements of people of color have made throughout history and focus on the  enormous obstacles they have overcome. We can teach about their resistance to racism, the movements Black and Brown people have led, and the gifts legacy of excellence have inherited from their ancestors. By focusing on their strengths. we change the deficit narrative, and as Dr. Gholdy Muhammad say, we cultivate their genius,

Build Trusting Relationships

We know students do their best work when they have solid relationships with teachers. Great teachers know that mutual respect is the foundation of healthy relationships. Self-aware, socially attuned, and empathetic, they have a keen ear for listening. They honor students’ thoughts and feelings, offer supportive feedback, ask good questions, and lean in to learn more about them. They notice body language, facial expressions, or a shift in the quality of a student’s response in class. They read the room constantly to gauge interest and enthusiasm. They are genuinely curious about their students and want to learn about them. Students want to learn when they know their teacher cares.

Interestingly, studies show that when white teachers talk to white students outside of class, their conversations are often about academic topics. When white teachers talked to Black students outside of class, they tended to talk about sports. White teachers can make an effort to engage Black students in conversations that support their personal interests and academic achievement.

Teach Relationship Skills

We know that social emotional competencies support improved academic performance, and an inclusive classroom climate supports both. Teachers can take learning to the next level by explicitly teaching the communication skills they practice with students every day. By teaching listening and speaking skills (and providing opportunities for students to practice), they help students make authentic connections with each other. These supportive connections foster environments in which rich exchanges of ideas take place. In these exchanges, the power of a diverse learning community comes to life. As public scholar bell hooks says, “Conversation is the revolutionary way of learning” and nothing promotes understanding like authentic conversations about meaningful topics.

Conversations about race in the classroom level the playing field and shift the narrative. Black and Brown students become the experts and they feel empowered when they have an attuned audience who listens and hears their stories.

Students might initially hesitate to reveal their true thoughts and feelings, lest they be judged or dismissed by their peers. For some students, this fear consumes much of their attention, often silencing their most meaningful contributions. Yet when this fear is addressed and overcome, their attention is free to focus on higher order learning: emotionally, socially, academically, and morally.

How can we make it safe for students to share themselves authentically in our classrooms, to tell their stories and share what is most meaningful to them? It helps to engage students in a norm-setting process. Ask them to generate guidelines for conversations. Respectful communication skills are the building blocks of supportive relationships, and supportive relationship are the building blocks of equity and inclusion.

Unfortunately, dysfunctional racial dynamics are embedded in many school cultures. Research shows that at least a third of bullying is bias-related. Students are frequently targeted because of their race, gender, religion, perceived sexual orientation, or physical or mental disability. Bullying is associated with high-risk behaviors, poor grades, and emotional distress, and when a core component of identity is its target, the effects are even worse.

Students who bully are desperate to belong. They can’t find healthy ways to belong, and their social insecurities drive them to try to fit in by impressing their peers. They’re afraid they’ll be ridiculed if they express vulnerability.  This kind of posturing produces emotional alienation and results in superficial cognitive processing, a sense of apathy, and lack of interest in school.

To counteract this psychological dynamic, we have to teach kids social emotional skills that help them form supportive peer relationships. When the environment is safe for self-expression, students have more attention to focus on learning. Positive peer relationships drive academic outcomes.

Positive school experiences among students of color have been related to positive racial experiences in school. Experiences that validate a student’s sense of identity emerge from carefully designed interactions between students. And teachers can design these interactions.

Bring Their Lives into the Classroom

Engaging students’ real-life experiences in conversations about race and racism makes systemic racism visible. Students can share experiences in which they have been the target of racism, witnessed it, or been afraid to stand up to it. They can discuss how these experiences impacted them and how they reacted. They can develop scenarios to express how they wish they had responded.

The fundamental human response to hearing a story is empathy. When students share their stories, they relate to each other and respond with compassion and respect. These conversations give them tools to identify mistreatment, find support, and learn strategies to counteract the impact of racism. Story-telling cultivates empathy, fosters perspective-taking and critical thinking. When students share their stories and experience empathy (and action to change racism) in response, their “speech acts” are empowering.

Make Their Identities Visible

 When we recognize the connection between the design of an inclusive culture and learning, we can use our classroom walls to reflect the identities of our students and use them as “museums” to engage them in important conversations about learning.

Spence, a white science teacher in an urban middle school, was concerned about the STEM achievement gap he saw playing out in his classroom. Low performing students told him science was boring and checked out during his lessons. When he looked around his classroom, he saw only posters of famous white men. “Most people think of science as the domain of white men, but I knew students needed to ‘see themselves’ in the curriculum. And it wasn’t hard to find ways to represent more diversity because all kinds of people do science.”

Spence hung posters of scientists of color and women scientists on the walls. He updated his class library and challenged students to research scientists of color and women. He used his classroom walls to launch inquiries into the role of race and gender in science learning, to explore the implications of identity in the achievement gap, and to question implicit and internalized bias. Students created avatars of themselves to display on an “inclusion wall,” so now they are surrounded by images that “look like them” and reflect their personal and social identities as they relate to “doing” science. Spence’s strategies for inclusion also transformed his relationships with students. His marginalized students now see him as a trusted advocate and seek him out at lunch and after school for those important conversations that take place outside of class.

Spence knows his students are engaged in a dynamic process of identity formation, constructing their identities in a reflexive relationship with him and with their environment. The images they see mirrored back to them influence who they may become. They need to see images that support their finest human aspirations in their classrooms and curriculum and in their relationships with teachers and peers.

We can use the walls of our classrooms to affirm our students’ intelligence and help them counteract stereotype threat. By creating an atmosphere of belonging, we can help students see themselves as valued participants in knowledge building. While marginalized students must learn to combat stereotype threat, all learners need to learn to deconstruct stereotypes and critique what they see in the world around them. Respectful discussions about categories of identity can improve classroom climates and school cultures. The walls of our classroom can demarcate inclusive spaces.

Represent Diverse Identities in Your Curriculum

We can represent our students’ identities in our curriculum. We can teach books with characters of color, update our libraries, invite guest speakers who reflect diverse identities. We can teach multicultural histories. We can teach a variety of peoples’ histories from the perspective of resistance, demonstrating heroic, courageous individuals and communities who made valuable contributions.

Conclusion

Identity and learning are intricately related. A racial identity solidly grounded in a sense of one’s own intelligence and integrity results in greater engagement in school, better academic performance, and ethical leadership. Fortunately, educators hold enormous power to mirror students’ strengths and foster their achievements.

 

 

The work that Martha and Oman are doing is revolutionary in middle level education. Students create, sustain and evaluate critical conversations around race, gender and orientation. The result is student-led curriculum design.

 
Dr. Karen Weller Swanson, Director
PhD Program in Curriculum and Instruction
Tift College of Education at Mercer University
 
© 2020 • iChange Collaborative
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