In my suburban school district, we place a high value on the diversity that exists in our community. Even though a large part of our school population is composed of students of color, our teaching staff is overwhelmingly white. As a woman of color, I have often struggled to communicate with my white colleagues about their need to make authentic space for Black and Brown children in this dominant white space of school.
More broadly, when educators speak about the lives and education of Black children, they are too often framed in a negative light: They speak of “disruptive” behavior or “challenging” families. That’s why my district’s equity team decided to participate in the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action. We wanted to bring educators, community members and experts together to collaborate on ways to support Black children and their families. So we designed the Black Lives Matter at School Workshop.
The daylong workshop included educators from all of our buildings. This group of just over a hundred gathered to connect with more than 30 community members and presenters. The goal was to provide a supportive space where we could engage in dialogue with members of the community and each other to openly and respectfully talk about how to make change. Our equity team listened to the issues that teachers and administrators were sharing, and then we worked to develop activities that would allow everyone to participate. Here’s how we did it.
We encouraged conversation.
A major goal of this workshop was to link educators with peers from across the district and with support in the community. We opened the program with a student reading Dear Black Boy, the open letter turned children’s book, which helped the group set our intentions for the day. All eyes were focused on the student reading as we considered how every Black child could recognize their value and worth.
When we arranged the workshop, our team was strategic in reaching out to key stakeholders who were African American, as they are often not called upon by white educators. In fact, many teachers shared that they did not realize the organizations these stakeholders represented were available as resources.
Community members came from many organizations and nonprofits, including The Urban League and local government. It was powerful to watch Dr. Elizabeth Boone, one of the leaders of the NAACP’s education work, speaking with teachers and finding ways to work together.
We made it personal.
Last year, racism in our community gained national news coverage. A Black family was asked to move to another section in a restaurant when white patrons did not want to be seated by Black people.
We knew it was important for us to share this part of own community’s story. Our teachers have had real teachable moments in their classrooms as students share their emotions, fears and connections to this event, and we wanted to link that experience to the larger community.
We invited people to speak about what they have experienced as Black caretakers working to raise and protect their children, as well as the impact of this public, racist event on them and their children.
The parent panelists took questions from the audience, and they expressed their real fears of sending their children out into often unwelcoming and hostile spaces. The educators were able to use these personal stories from our community as touchstones for the day’s work.
We created a space for learning.
We focused the workshop on three key ideas, and we provided a session on each one:
- Black Minds Matter
- Restorative Justice
- Teaching the Black Child
In the “Black Minds Matter” presentation, a panel of Black mental health professionals discussed the stressors that can affect Black children as they work to find their place in white spaces. The counselors shared the importance of having mental health providers whose identities are representative of the students seeking services. They also shared the ways implicit bias can harm Black children and their connections to school.
The restorative justice presentation took the form of an “Rx Racial Healing Circle.” This session asked educators to focus on listening, experiencing and transforming as they shared memories of when they first learned about or experienced racism. The stories were first shared in a dyad conversation, and then the entire group was able to process together in the larger circle. This time of open and reflective dialogue was both difficult and emotional, and many participants left with an understanding that the dialogue needed to continue.
“Teaching the Black Child” was a panel discussion featuring veteran Black and white educators. The veteran Black teachers talked about the need for Black children to have the opportunity to see themselves reflected more in books and curriculum and in the identities of their teachers. They stressed the need to teach about the contributions and success stories that are often left out of the curriculum. White educators on the panel emphasized the importance of learning about their students as people. Many shared their own experiences of coming from more homogeneous communities and the steps they took to explore the backgrounds, interests and values of their students.
After these sessions, the lunch hour allowed time to collaborate on next steps each school could take to continue the work.
And they’ve already begun: The workshop was earlier this week, and so far several principals have contacted our team to discuss next steps. We are now working with professional learning communities on implicit bias, and teams are attending our two workshops on culturally responsive teaching. An equity affinity group for school leaders is forming to help continue the dialogue.
If you’re considering creating a workshop in your school or district, here’s our advice: Be OK with starting small. Begin by talking with teachers and school leaders. Determine what would be most useful to them. Reach out to stakeholders to garner their support. Also, know that organizations such as Teaching Tolerance have resources as well as grant opportunities to support your work.
The most important first step is to build the community and strategy to understand what we all must do to better teach and support Black children. When we make space for the lives of Black children, we are helping to create a learning environment that is truly better for all children.
Here are some additional resources we share with educators.
- This interview with the founders of Black Lives Matter explains the history of and motivation for the movement.
- In this article, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks about the effects of school segregation today.
- This article explores income and resource gaps between Black and white students.
- In this article, a white educator talks about how their racial identity affects the way they teach students of color.
- Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice is an organization working to move the needle on this approach in our state.
- Black Lives Matter at School offers classroom and school resources rooted in racial justice in education.
- The National Alliance of Black School Educators offers resources for connection and learning.
- Teaching for Change’s socialjusticebooks.org has resources for identifying and evaluating classroom libraries.