Creating Teachable Moments Around Racism

We refuse to acknowledge that racism and classism are woven throughout every institution within our country, even within policies that govern our public schools. I wondered if the predominantly white teaching base throughout America’s public schools thought about having conversations with their classes about racism in American history when the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, Freddie Grey, all young men of color, flooded the airwaves. I wondered if teachers wanted to talk about racism when a black teenage girl from Texas was tossed around by law enforcement like a rag doll and when a gun was waved at unarmed black citizens after a pool party. I say this not to minimize the sentiments of teachers, but as a reminder of the importance of capturing teachable moments to impart tolerance. Earlier this year, my child came home from middle school one afternoon wanting to discuss the Baltimore protests. She described a news report that she and her few classmates of color viewed on a cell phone which they hurriedly turned off when the teacher returned to the classroom. I asked her why didn’t they show the teacher what they were watching and ask questions. “We can’t talk about those things,” my daughter replied. “What things?” “You know, ma, racism and discrimination.” I told her that next time—because I knew there would be a next time—she should show her teacher (not a person of color as is true for most teachers in schools local to me) videos about inequality, ask questions, and let me know the teacher’s response. As a black mother, I care deeply about my child being able to speak freely. I have been threatened, sanctioned and even fired for demanding equitable educational options for all children at a public rally. Questions of civil unrest in Florida, Maryland, New York, Texas, and now, South Carolina, could have been teachable moments had these few students of color been integrated and valued for who they are in their classroom. If that were the case, these students would not have feared asking questions about race, class or the history of civil rights in school. An effective teacher would have seized that moment to teach about equity. That moment could have been an authentic time for teaching and learning about American history for students and educators alike. My child, like students in classrooms across the country, is transfixed by violent deaths perpetrated against people who look like her. There’s a lot that students, regardless of race or class, do not understand about the violence. My hope is that educators will create spaces where students can ask a question, any question, without fear or shame. And I hope that students, especially those who are African-American, will feel comfortable sharing the experiences they regularly face. I understand why children like my own—and parents like me for that matter—may hesitate at raising their own voices. Classrooms may not seem to be safe spaces due to a lack of diversity among the student body and faculty, but in this instance, when the protesters on television look like us, it’s crucial that educators take extra steps to create a culturally sensitive and responsive environment for all to feel free to express their feelings. Students look to teachers to give meaning to not only mathematics and reading, but also the issues of the day. They should not feel penalized for asking questions, tough questions, about race and class. When those questions come up, there’s an obligation to create a teachable moment.  
Gwen Samuel is the founder and president of the Connecticut Parents Union.
Gwen Samuel is the founder and president of the Connecticut Parents Union. She is an advocate for the educational rights of all children to ensure that race, zip code and socio-economic status are not predictors of student success. A parent of two children in Connecticut Public Schools, she also is the founder of two volunteer organizations in ...

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