In late September, I began my class with my usual prompt:
Is there anything in the news you’d like to share?
My students would generally talk about the presidential election or COVID-19, but today was different. Sarah, a white student, read out loud,
Louisville Police Officer Brett Hankinson has been charged with 3 felony counts of wanton endangerment for the bullets that went into other apartments. Not charged in Breonna’s death at all. Given a $15,000 cash bond. No other officers are being charged.
Then John, a Black student, yelled out,
That wall got more justice than Breonna Taylor!
In John’s voice, I could hear the despair and distrust of our legal system. It was his way of expressing, “I have told you a thousand times that I have had enough!” The despair is understandable; it is a combination of past experiences, the witnessing of racial injustice, and the knowledge of the history of oppression and racism that dates back to 1619.
Deep down, I hold some of the same fears. That day, I continued with our daily activities as I tried to find a way to escape my fear of addressing a socially challenged and politically charged event that took over every news outlet and social media site.
Although I teach communications, I was at a loss for words.
I was trying to make the connection between being a teacher and a human being, with feelings like everybody else, while asking myself “Didn’t you just publish an article about addressing systemic racism in a trauma-informed resilient classroom?”
As an educator, my job is to teach about the ways race impacts my students. Sometimes, however, I just need to listen. Sitting in silence doesn’t send a message of indifference or complicity. It means that I am acknowledging the pain of my students and allowing them the time to reflect and advocate on behalf of themselves.
Shift From Teacher-Directed to Student-Directed
The way I do this is by shifting from a teacher-directed to a student-directed classroom, where students like John and Sarah take on a leadership role by advocating for themselves in discussions about race. I believe that a student-directed classroom leads to the development of speaking, listening, collaboration, and independent thinking skills, which could ultimately lead to an improvement in academic performance.
My job in a student-directed classroom is to set norms for how to hold difficult conversations. For example, I encourage students to keep the discussion specific, but factual, and make sure that they stay within those bounds. I also give students an opportunity to read and conduct their own research from various sources. This way, my students are familiar with the topic and more equipped to take on leadership roles and participate in student-directed discussions.
Once the conversation has taken place, it is time for the class to reflect as individuals by asking questions such as:
- Have I shared my personal testimony (as a witness or direct recipient of racism) to build a stronger relationship with others?
- Do I have any implicit biases and how may I self-correct?
- Do I say anything when a friend or a classmate is being racially offensive?
It is my students’ choice to respond verbally or in their daily journals. The expectation is that they will analyze and think about lives that are different from their own experiences, which, in turn, will allow for them to initiate open non-judgmental dialogue and eventually form a better society.
One student wrote, “I had no idea that I had beliefs against a particular race. Now that I am aware, I am able to take a more active role by seeing my peers as individuals and getting to know them on a more personal level.”
Sarah said, “I will see things from the other person’s point of view and think about how I would respond in their situation.”
John said he would share his personal testimony of microaggression as a member of the swim team and let his peers know if he is offended by their statements.
Another student said he would increase his exposure by spending more time with people of different racial backgrounds and learning about different cultures.
After class, I spoke with both John and Sarah. They felt they had improved on their communication skills and were able to better advocate for themselves on discussions about race. Most importantly, they felt empowered by their own agency in their classroom, as was I by directing them to take charge of their own learning and growth.