Here’s How I Taught Critical Race Theory To High School Freshmen

Freshmen love secrets, coloring and affirmation that their suspicions about all the adults being wrong are true. Each autumn, I do a unit on the ways that societal power and hierarchy reveal themselves in unassuming details, hidden in code or draped in flowery language but nonetheless invisible pillars holding up oppression. 

Most of the stories they’ve been fed are filled with these hidden structures. Students in 9th grade are wise enough to know something’s amiss, but innocent enough to believe (correctly) they can change the world.

Before we begin reading anything, I print coloring book pages of glasses. As students color the frames in, I teach that wearing your “critical race theory lenses” will help you see how the dominant culture portrays themselves as “normal” and anyone else as “different” or “other,” and that wearing your “class critical lenses” will help you see how power and money impact decisions. Then we paste the glasses in our notebooks and reference them when we read.

An Interruption Allows for Deeper Reflection 

One year, a mid-morning fire drill caught me by surprise; I was only halfway through my lecture on critical lenses when Mr. Stanley’s rich voice instructed us to head to the parking lot. I reminded my freshmen to grab their sweaters before heading down the clamorous senior hallway and out the doors. There were several hot air balloons floating silently in the distance. I completed my headcount and then wandered through the huddles of teenagers. 

A student with carrot-colored curls was grouching to a classmate. “So what about how people ask to touch my hair all the time?” asked Wade, a white student, referencing my slides about microaggressions toward Black people. 

I interrupted Wade. “I hear that you still have questions,” I said. “But we’re just getting started.” By the time we got back to our room, it was passing period. 

In my early years, I’d have lamented that I’d lost my chance to reach a student. But it was October, the swamp coolers that kept our school bearable in the high desert were still on standby, and our journey of decolonizing had barely begun. The students learned about critical race theory, but I didn’t get a chance to jump into classism yet. 

Teachers Who Shift Mindsets Can’t Go It Alone

That day, I lunched with the Black Studies teacher down the hallway. We taught in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a mid-sized city in a progressive state, and our school was one of the few with any Ethnic Studies classes. We ate our microwave meals and worked together on our district-wide Ethnic Studies curriculum plans. 

When I told her about the fire drill, she suggested we check in regularly about Wade, because she saw him in the breakfast line that morning. It reminded me that this work is shared among teachers, students, administrators and the community. There were plenty of days I ate alone to protect my energy, but that day I was glad to talk it through with a colleague. 

That’s the secret: Oppression doesn’t work in discrete circles. It attacks in an undiscerning frenzy. Decolonizing education is about confronting all the different ways that power dynamics from our ancestors have lingered and poisoned the ways we teach and learn.

Teaching about social justice is straightforward. It doesn’t take long to do, and you can get started almost immediately. I started by working with my librarian, finding book lists, checking for primary sources, highlighting important theoreticians or innovators in the field who have been traditionally left out or uncredited and tweaking old lessons to align with new learnings about social justice. 

The true challenge is decolonizing classroom dynamics and the paradigm of learning as a simple, straight path. My job for the next few weeks was to continue inviting Wade to learn more. Once the trust was there, Wade started feeling more confident about unpacking his experiences. 

We talked about Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality, and how you can’t analyze race in a vacuum. The fire drill interrupted us before we could talk about these layers, but it was a blessing in disguise. It gave Wade the necessary pause to feel and express resistance. 

Spotting the Isms Is a Long Journey

A few weeks later, Wade came in to talk about a missing assignment and told me that at his old school, he used to get chased from the bus stop and bullied for his clothes. His initial discomfort with decolonization was just the first reaction. When we give our students multiple chances to interact with a concept, more often than not something clicks. Rushing to mastery is white supremacy at work.

The same is true for teachers and parents. Somewhere along the way, people resistant to one concept will start seeing patterns in discrimination. Decolonizing the classroom is a heavy topic and a long journey, but that also means there are multiple entry points along the path. 

We must trust that somewhere in their lives, the lights we’ve lit along the way will guide them. Together, we can handle thorny issues and confront the sly creep of racism, sexism, ableism and more. There are a million ways to start decolonizing your classroom, but nobody walks at the exact same speed, so keep tending to the issues at hand and trust that even the reluctant will get there someday.

Bunny McFadden
Dr. Bunny McFadden is a Chicana mother who tinkers with words for a living. She’s published widely in everything from horror & sci fi anthologies to travel websites like Fodor’s and Business Insider. She is a writer, independent education & equity consultant, and language arts educator. Her dissertation focuses on decolonizing pedagogy through autoethnography. As a consultant, she has been ...

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