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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Educate to Liberate: Build an Anti-Racist Classroom

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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An illustration of the Statue of Liberty wrapped in swaths of various colors.

Recent events in our country are tragic and poignant reminders of the ongoing need for educators to create classroom environments that investigate society and the potential for change. Black Lives Matter, yet in our country, the experiences of African Americans and other marginalized groups demonstrate that there isn't liberty and justice for all.

Validation and Empowerment

Recently Michael Eric Dyson wrote of our country's "colliding worlds of racial perception," reminding us that, while these issues exist and persist, they are not always widely acknowledged. Michelle Alexander's powerful "Telling My Son About Ferguson" is a reminder that disbelief, rage, and movement building are all reasonable responses to unnecessary killings and the failure of our legal system to enact justice.

I am a white teacher in a classroom full of students, many of whom come from backgrounds different from my own. How can I find the necessary words and actions to relate, to allow students to respond, and to validate and empower the young people I see every school day?

While it's clear that young people need and deserve teachers and mentors that come from backgrounds similar to their own, I believe that white teachers can create transformative experiences for all students. This is challenging work, requiring courage and humility, yet it is necessary and all too relevant.

After a recent discussion in my classroom about the grand jury decision in Ferguson, a student put her hand over her face and began to cry, saying, "I hate this stuff. It makes me really angry! Makes me not want to have kids." Students need spaces to discuss and tools to navigate these large social issues that affect so many of them daily.

Pedagogy Of and For Difference

One of the most powerful ways to create a classroom that welcomes all voices and challenges dominant paradigms is through curriculum design. In Critical Pedagogy, the State, and Cultural Struggle, Henry Giroux writes about the importance of "pedagogy of difference and a pedagogy for difference." This means that educators must understand how their own identities are constructed and be social critics willing and able to dissect and analyze our society:

. . . it is important that educators come to understand theoretically how difference is constructed through various representations and practices that name, legitimate, marginalize, and exclude the cultural capital and voices of various groups in American society; similarly, a pedagogy of difference needs to address the important question of how the representations and practices of difference are actively learned, internalized, challenged, or transformed. (142)

It is impossible to teach honestly and reflectively without a clear understanding of the social construction of identity. Some of my own knowledge of self is that mainstream U.S. society treats "whiteness" as normal, a default setting. Understanding my own personal and family history, acknowledging my own power, rank, and privilege, and recognizing the dynamics of racism and identity in the U.S. all help me to create a climate where honest connections can be made across cultural divides. This kind of self-understanding is essential if I want to plan curriculum that speaks to multiple experiences.

5 Classroom Practices

With the goal of creating a classroom environment and pedagogy that can liberate, transform, and empower, I offer these five thoughts about classroom practices that oppose racism and oppression:

1. Create a Container

George Lakey first introduced me to this metaphor for creating spaces within groups where there is safety to explore ideas and take risks. Strong containers are products of clearly-developed norms and thoughtful, supportive facilitation. Students should feel free to honestly share thoughts and ideas, and must understand the expectation and necessity of listening deeply and openly to their peers. Strong containers allow students to feel safe and respected while encouraging them to take risks and bring their authentic selves to the learning process.

I often remind my students to disagree with someone's thinking without engaging in personal arguments. At times this is a difficult distinction, yet students and classroom dynamics benefit from a framework that welcomes multiple perspectives and encourages disagreement while discouraging interpersonal conflicts.

2. Embrace Marginalized Voices

Arnold Mindell's Sitting in the Fire dissects group dynamics and demonstrates the potential for large-group transformations. Mindell reminds us to pay attention to power, rank, the mainstream, and the margins of each group. The goal is to acknowledge those margins and create opportunities for the mainstream to hear from them. In classrooms, this can happen through carefully designed activities and strategic facilitation. For example, asking for "different opinions" or "other perspectives" can provide an opening for students who have not voiced their ideas.

3. Allow Everyone to Be Heard

There are many situations that serve to silence student voices and ideas. This silencing can be a result of classroom dynamics or pedagogy. By building meaningful relationships with students and creating classroom cultures that prioritize student voices, teachers can work to make school a place where young people feel free to honestly share their beliefs, hopes, fears, and questions. When teachers structure learning strategically and vary the formats of discussions, reflections, and analysis, more students feel drawn to course material. I rely heavily on journaling and written reflections, large- and small-group discussions, activities that get students on their feet talking to one another, and sometimes hearing a short thought from everyone in the room.

4. Frame the Learning

When my class enters a discussion without shared knowledge or a common text, or when the conversation is directionless or without purpose, I start to feel overwhelmed. I imagine many of my students feel this even more strongly than me. That's why I almost always start by having students journal on a question, or respond to an article, video, quote, or song as a shared reference point for discussion. This frames the discussion and allows each student the time to think, articulate, and be ready with something to say. The units I teach are guided by essential questions, and I use backward planning to make sure that the different pieces clearly lead toward a larger project and goal.

5. Find Mentors, Models, and Support

It would be impossible to do the rigorous, messy work of social justice teaching without the benefit of the knowledge and experiences of others. By listening to, learning from, and sharing with others, my practice has grown much stronger. In particular, George Lakey and Training for Change were important guides for me when I began my career as a classroom educator. I highly recommend George's Facilitating Group Learning for educators at any level (despite the fact that it is written for adult educators). Rethinking Schools is a wonderful organization with many insightful books and articles. Also, having a support network of people to turn to when things feel tough can be invaluable.

Education Must Be Liberation

Ultimately, teachers and pedagogy have the potential to liberate or oppress. In the same way that young people's lives can be altered by new knowledge of self and the development of feelings of agency in the world, teaching that doesn't acknowledge students' realities and society's faults can permanently, negatively influence the ways that young people see themselves.

Educators have the privilege of teaching. As a white teacher, I have the privilege, the challenge, and the obligation to make learning meaningful and transformative for all of my students.

In what different ways do you work to create an environment that liberates?

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Comments (19) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Skyler Cooper's picture

That's just the point Gilbert, everyone is not treated equally in America, and racism has been interwoven into American culture since its conception. Placing the burden solely on the homes of minorities to dispel beliefs about the genetic or cultural inferiority of their own people is assimilationism at its worst, and highly destructive. I applaud the writer of this article for his efforts, and I am shocked that someone who seems to be of Hispanic origin would attempt to get someone who is white to ignore or minimize the problem of racism in America.

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

@Skyler I agree with your points about the importance of learning about racism, the experiences of different marginalized groups, and different historical narratives. Being a part of a diverse network of friends and colleagues is invaluable to my practice and I would not be the educator I am today were it not for the help and guidance of others.

That said, I think that this work is challenging and humbling yet it is work that is important for all of us as educators and humans.

Tangela Woodley's picture
Tangela Woodley
We help schools and universities become incubators for innovation. Our partners range from K12 districts to Big Ten universities to the United Nations

Intelligent instruction about race is not only necessary, it can also boost achievement. An innovative course on race and equity boosted Common Core literacy skills and civic engagement for 300 middle school students in the Ypsilanti Community Schools.
The semester-long program, taught in the humanities and language arts
classes in the 2013-2014 school year, wove literacy and history into the
study of diversity, equity, and community well-being. The results will astound you. http://www.creativechange.net/track-record/case_studies/diversity-equity/

pusherofbooks's picture

Well said. I would recommend that people read Geneva Gay and Gloria Ladson-Billngs for more information on culturally relevant teaching and Sonia Nieto on multicultural education.

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Thanks for these recommendations, pusherofbooks. I have not yet read Geneva Gay but I too deeply appreciate the work of Ladson-Billings and Nieto.

Lisa Saunders's picture

Thanks for this. However, I find several points in direct conflict to one other throughout the piece. I'd have to disagree with the assertion made about how white teachers can embrace marginalized voices. It assumes that a student who is not part of the "dominant group" is on the fringes of society (i.e. marginalized). The subtext of this classroom practice for these students then becomes that (s)he is validated through the embrace of the dominant culture which is achieved once their authentic voices, cultural values, etc are restructured, re-framed and re-shaped according to dominant culture (white) rules. For example, the Container idea demands that students disagree "...without interpersonal conflicts". What happens then, for example, when a student from a group whose cultural belief system says social change can only come through conflict and struggle? Interpersonal or otherwise? A non-white student whose authentic expression is beyond the limits of the Container and has interpersonal conflict with a racist in class would undoubtedly be cast as inappropriate. Then, wouldn't their reasonable response to racism be silenced in the name of white comfort? I find this quote from Section 2 very telling --"The goal is to acknowledge those margins and create opportunities for the mainstream to hear from them". Doesn't sound like "marginalized" voices are much of a priority here to me. I could go on. Suffice it to say, here is a classroom practice imposed on students by a white teacher who doesn't share their background or experience. Yet there's no mention at all here of how the very students who are most impacted by racism might have equal voice in framing the discussion. Isn't this the epitome of oppression? How does this deliver the transforming experience you spoke of? As PC as it may sound, a more than cursory read reveals yet another racist construct, set about with conditions that don't Honor, Validate and Empower diverse voices at all

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

@Lisa I appreciate your comments although I don't feel that you are accurately describing some of the concepts I included in the post. I was introduced to the concept of marginalization through the work of Arnold Mindell (see the link in the post for more details). This descriptor is used to criticize the idea of a mainstream that actively marginalizes others.

The concept of a container comes from George Lakey (see the link in the post for more details,) who describes the container as something that makes conflict and openness possible. The idea of a container is in no way meant to eliminate conflict, avoid difficult conversations, or suppress voices.

I agree that, as a white teacher in Philadelphia, I am teaching students who, for the most part, don't share my background or experiences. The inherent complexities of teachers in situations like mine are the essence of what I am investigating. It is with this in mind that I undertake the complex work of developing strategies to honor all of the voices in my classroom.

Lisa Saunders's picture

Hi Joshua and thanks for your response. I think I understood both concepts well--both from the educators' perspective AND from that of a member of the group described. Which is why I'm sharing with you what's so objectionable about it. In the case of the term "marginalized", let's consider that the "end game" of criticizing a mainstream is to bring about acceptance of the marginalized group. What that implies is some legitimate power over those whom they oppress. But let's take into account for just one moment, the rarely thought of notion that "marginalized" peoples' humanity exists perfectly without the acceptance, approval of those that oppress them!

Secondly, what I'm suggesting to you about the Container is that , while it may not be intended to oppress, does it actually suppress diverse voices? After all, it's constructed only from a perspective of what white cultural deems good/right/acceptable doesn't it?

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

@Lisa you raise several important points and ideas. It is true that any concept, strategy, or teaching method can be misused or poorly executed, resulting in oppression and/or dehumanization. That said, I believe the concepts you reference have value and can be utilized by thoughtful teachers with the goal of creating anti-oppressive classroom environments.

Lisa Saunders's picture

Hi Joshua, Thanks for your comment. I do understand that, for you, this system has value. The question I'm raising is value for whom? Especially if people most affected by racism aren't framers of the conversation(s) and solution(s). If, in fact, this classroom practice intends to be, in the truest sense, Anti-Racist*, that needs to be answered.

*Defined as ideologies and practices that seek to justify, or cause, the unequal distribution of privileges, rights, or goods amongst, or otherwise exhibit hatred often based on a desire to dominate.

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