Students across our nation started another week of school after yet another tragic mass shooting motivated by racism and hate. Teachers will face students who have likely heard about how an 18-year-old white male murdered ten Black people in a grocery store located in a predominantly Black neighborhood on Saturday, May 14, 2022. More Black lives lost at the hands of a white gunman fueled by the ideologies of white supremacy culture. Accessibility to breaking news feeds and social media makes avoiding the details of this terror almost impossible.
“What is clear is that we are seeing an epidemic of hate across our country that has been evidenced by acts of violence and intolerance. We must call it out and condemn it. Racially motivated hate crimes or acts of violent extremism are harms against all of us.”
Despite the undeniable impact these crimes leave on the citizens of our nation, including our children, schools have traditionally sidestepped addressing such hard topics. The reasons for avoidance are both varied and complex. In part, the sensitive and traumatic nature of such crimes gives rise to questions about how to responsively and effectively facilitate discussions with students. In addition, the underpinnings of racism, oppression, and social injustice often lead to adverse reactions from some parents and community members who hold partisan views that further complicate and obstruct transformative instructional practices.
However, by resorting to silence and turning away from the atrocities happening around us, schools actually comply with the current wave of anti-CRT bills that place barriers to the truth for teachers and students. We can’t afford to unwittingly convey the message that we should ignore difficult topics in our society.
Schools should be a source for learning the knowledge, skills, and anti-bias approaches that foster a humane response to what we see happening in our communities and society at large.
Inquire, Facilitate, and Process
There is a common misconception that addressing catastrophes in society means that the teacher is introducing the topic to students. In reality, it is usually the students who insert the topic into the classroom space. “Mrs. S., did you hear about what happened?” “Mr. W., why did ___ happen?” “Ms. M., I'm scared because I saw ___.” Comments and questions like these put teachers in the position to respond in some way.
As instructional experts, teachers often turn to an inquiry-based approach allowing students to express noticings and wonderings. In this way, students' own thoughts and ideas are prioritized, while the teacher facilitates the process of critical thinking. This includes encouragement to ask questions, explore fact-based resources, and engage in discussions that honor the voices of the collective.
Many teacher experts also apply social-emotional learning (SEL) practices to focus on the impact that the publicized acts against humanity may be having on students’ well-being. These practices build equitable learning communities that cultivate healthy and collaborative relationships among students and with teachers. Infusing SEL into instructional practices prepares students to engage as respectful, responsible, and caring members of the classroom as well as their communities.
Fostering Critical Consciousness
Feasibly, both teachers and parents want students to leave school with a better understanding of who they are and how to navigate their place in society. Critical consciousness enables students to interrogate tragic moments like what we’ve seen this past weekend—to interrogate the implications of oppressive white supremacist ideologies on the identities and lived experiences of students and their peers. In this way, student engagement in school becomes relevant to the present and to the value of human connections in a global community of multiple perspectives and realities.
When we limit our definition of schools as a place to learn the core subjects (reading, writing, math), get good grades, and pass standardized assessments, we rob students of the opportunity to explore the society they will face upon graduation. School can serve as a space for students to safely question injustices, challenge oppressive ideals, and develop their voices to make meaningful contributions to their world.
Tina Starks is an educational designer for Student Achievement Partners and an education consultant working to develop anti-racist tools and resources for educators. She is also a 2021-22 Teach Plus California Policy Senior Fellow.