Culturally Responsive Teaching

Building Student Understanding Across Racial Differences

A partnership between an all-black class in Memphis, Tennessee, and an all-white class in rural New Jersey has helped students bridge racial and cultural divides.

June 5, 2020
Scott Laumann / The iSpot

Can you imagine a friendship that developed between Emma, a black second-grade student who attended a large urban school in Memphis, Tennessee, and Cassidy, a white third-grade student in a rural school in New Jersey? These two girls came from different backgrounds and lived in communities where they had little to no interactions with any other races or cultures. Based on a project I helped organize, they were paired as buddies and were provided opportunities to communicate one-on-one, becoming fast friends. Without knowing it, the friendship they developed—and still maintain—helped chip away at the racial and cultural barriers that continue to divide our society.

For many years, I grappled with how to create racially diverse classroom experiences for my students. I want my students to experience what I did during my childhood living in the very same neighborhood. My father chose this community for our family because of its access to the best schools, teachers, and resources in Memphis. But when I was young, my community looked very different than it does today—I did not have many neighbors who looked like me; nearly everyone was white. Because of the area’s changing demographics, my students now have the opposite experience: They typically have little to no interactions with people of other races—especially people who are white. Recognizing how limited exposure to people of different races can contribute to racism and bias, I’ve sought ways to bridge the distance so that students like Emma and Cassidy learn to understand and appreciate others.

A student holds up a letter she received from her pen pal in New Jersey.
Courtesy of Melissa Collins
A student in Melissa Collins' class holds up a card she received from a student in their partner class in New Jersey.

With the protests raging around the country right now, it is more apparent than ever that there needs to be a better understanding of racism and what it means in America. This starts in our classrooms and in our homes when children are young. As teachers, we need to work harder to ensure that our students make connections with people of other races. I believe that teaching our children about differences will help empower the next generation of dreamers and doers, and they will be the cure to end racism. I’ve tried to bridge those gaps in my classroom by connecting my students with the local community and leveraging technology to connect them with the world at large.

Fostering Cross-Cultural Connections

Though technology can be isolating, teachers can also use tech tools to connect classrooms and foster relationships between students. For the past three years, I have used a free online platform called Empatico to partner my second-grade class with another class in a different state. The platform also features lessons that help students develop social and emotional skills like communication and empathy.

New Jersey students hold up signs during the peace sign project.
Courtesy of Melissa Collins
Students from Melissa Collins' partner class in New Jersey hold up signs for peace as part of the Peace Sign Project.

After realizing that two New Jersey co-teachers, Michael Dunlea and Stacey Delaney, taught a class of all white students (and my Tennessee class had all black students), we recognized that we had an amazing opportunity to partner and provide our classes with a safe space to ask questions, show their creativity, and demonstrate understanding toward others.

Early on, we spent some time discussing the definitions of compassion, empathy, and respect, and students took time exhibiting these traits in discussions with their peers as practice. Then, we organized dual-class lessons through FaceTime; our students also exchanged letters and gifts; and simultaneously, they read the same books—like biographies of famous black leaders and one on Ruby Bridges—to compare insights. The positive relationship that developed between our classes was so strong that I decided to visit New Jersey in person several times, and Michael and Stacey surprised us once at the Civil Rights Museum.

Connecting With the Local Community

Taking the classroom experiences with our partner class as a foundation, I sought out field experiences and community speakers to help my students connect classroom lessons to larger issues and concepts. Every summer, I go to Little Rock Central High School (the first integrated high school in Arkansas, where the Little Rock Nine attended) to reaffirm to myself why I teach. During one visit, I befriended park ranger Toni and asked her to speak to my class and our partner class in New Jersey. On a Zoom video call, Toni discussed the Little Rock Nine, the civil rights movement, and segregation. Through this, the students developed a deeper understanding of the injustices and inequalities that the black race has experienced.

Broadening World Views

To encourage students to expand their understanding of race and difference even further, I collaborated with educator Jennifer Williams, a global educator and author of Teach Boldly, to connect with other educators from other countries such as China, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. Through these connections, I’m able to broaden my classroom lessons with a global context and give my students more knowledge of how they can contribute to building a better world.

My class and our New Jersey partner class did a unit together on festivals around the world, where they identified commonalities and differences. My students also joined other students in the first-ever global “Peace Sign Project.” Students around the globe created signs, read books and articles about peace, and led a peace march at their schools or communities. Then my students led the first-ever children’s march at the National Civil Rights Museum on what would have been Dr. King's 90th birthday. With the relationship with their New Jersey friends as a foundation, my students learned to impact change in the world by taking a stand on issues that matter.

Melissa Collins' students march in a MLK Day parade.
Courtesy of Melissa Collins
Students participate in the first-ever children's march at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

It’s now been three years since Michael, Stacey, and I first partnered together, and we’ve continued the relationship with each new class. Through these impactful experiences we’ve had together, my students have shown both academic and social and emotional growth. They want to engage in more positive discourse—with each other and with people who are different. They ask probing questions to seek understanding from peers, and they aren’t afraid to talk about race and build friendships across racial differences. I’ve heard the same from Michael and Stacey.

I will never forget the day when one of my students asked me if racism had ended. I asked her why she thought racism had ended. She said, “I have white friends in New Jersey. They love and care about me.” I wanted her to have hope, so I responded, “Racism has not ended, but it can end with you.”

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