Voices in Education

Three Ways Teachers Are Connecting to Confront Racism
In April 1963, while being held in a Birmingham jail for leading a nonviolent protest of Southern segregation laws, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a now famous letter in response to a group of White clergymen who had suggested that the actions of King and other civil rights leaders were “unwise and untimely.” In his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, he wrote, “When you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do White people treat Colored people so mean?’ . . . then you will understand why we find it so difficult to wait.”

Today, nearly fifty-four years later, teachers find themselves struggling to answer similar questions posed by their students, and are looking to each other for support in discussing and confronting issues of racial injustice with their students. Like King, many teachers feel a strong sense of urgency around this issue. While racism and white supremacy have always been present in America, the election of 2016 heightened awareness and tensions about these problems. For example, in one moderated #EduColor chat of over 150 educators across the country in December 2016, teachers shared their post-election concerns about discussing race in the political climate. Below are some highlights from the archives:

• We've had two hate crime incidents in our district since the election.

• "What do I tell my students?" kept going through my head. . . .

• [I felt] fear and anticipation for school the next day—students were waiting for me to discuss.

• Teaching in rural Pennsylvania, I knew I had my work cut out to educate my students on nonwhite reality.

• [I’m] scared for my students and people that would feel unsafe.

At that time, there were no professional development workshops for these teachers to take to work through their emotions and questions. There were no books that could tell them just how to respond to the political shifts about to take place and how they would affect their schools. There were no scripted lesson plans designed to unpack the social consequences of that election or experiences of students at that time.

However, the teachers had each other. In the last several years, teachers have become more adept at connecting with each other through social media and teacher networks, and there are a rising number of highly networked social justice-oriented teachers who have been working to make and share new curricula, build spaces and communities that connect others in solidarity and support, and organize for change. Many of these teachers–what I call today’s “transformative teachers”— have found ways to connect and take the lead in building networks of support that can swiftly respond to the real-time needs of teachers who seek professional support on this critical issue.

Teachers have been connecting with each other to confront racism and learn to talk about race with their students in three ways: organizing gatherings and safe spaces; making, sharing, and curating collections of lesson plans or curricula; and holding public conversations and workshops. Below I share a few examples of each:

Organizing gatherings and restorative spaces: Gatherings and safe spaces offer opportunities for teachers to meet others and share stories face-to-face. They build a sense of solidarity and empowerment for participants. Some spaces are focused specifically on addressing the impacts of racism on students, teachers, and education. One example of such a space is the Black Teacher Project’s “Peer Support Space.” A recent topic of conversation in the space was “Talking with Students, Colleagues, and Families About Race in the Age of Assault on Black People.” Another way teachers have focused on this issue is by organizing book groups that specifically focus on texts that discuss race. Recent research on teacher-led book clubs such as these have shown that they not only help teachers examine these issues more deeply, but they also build a greater sense of agency and support (Riley, 2016)

Broader efforts by teachers to organize opportunities to connect and discuss issues of social justice have also provided spaces for teachers to find support in confronting racism. For example, at teacher-led professional development events like unconferences (such as EdCamp) or curriculum fairs (for example, the Teaching for Social Justice Curriculum fair in Chicago), teachers lead (or attend) workshops and discussions on issues of race and racism.

Making, sharing, and curating antiracist curricula:  Whereas gatherings are mainly face-to-face events, lesson plan and curricula-sharing occurs more often online. One way that teachers exchange ideas is through participating in teacher-driven online spaces such as Curriki.org and Digital Is. For example, teacher Paul Allison curated a collection of his work on teaching about Ferguson for others to use and share at the Digital Is website.  Another way that teachers share ideas and resources is by participating in moderated Twitter chat groups that focus on issues of race and education, such as #EduColor  and #HipHopEd. Moderated chats typically have a set of questions prepared in advance, and some participants come ready to share examples of their work in the classroom. Finally, teachers also extend their participation in formal networks by sharing resources and curricula through social media groups linked to these networks, such as the Facebook groups led by Teachers for Social Justice or Ed Change.

Holding public conversations about race: Besides building power within teacher-led networks and organizations through gatherings and safe spaces, teachers are actively seeking opportunities to build dialogue and amplify conversations about race and education in the public sphere. Online conversations often offer an extension or amplification of face-to-face gatherings. For example, beyond moderated chats, members of the #EduColor hashtag community often relay information about public events and discussions to each other using the EduColor hashtag.  Some examples of organized public events include the Black Lives Matter action weeks led by teachers in Seattle (described by teacher Jessie Hagopian in his blog, I Am An Educator) and Philadelphia and the Undoing Racism workshops led by teachers in New York City.

Although online and offline professional networking is not particularly new for these times, what is unique in this case is that teachers are using their professional networks to build critical antiracist pedagogy and lessons about recent events which have not yet been addressed in history text books or other curricula. In a wise and timely manner, teachers have stepped up to take the lead in their profession, building a sense of safety for their students and learning how to address issues of race and racism in education.

Works Cited

King Jr., Martin Luther (1963). Letter from Birmingham City Jail. Retrieved from: http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/letter-birmingham-city-jail-0#

Riley, Kathleen (2015). Reading for change: Social justice unionism book groups as an organizing tool. Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education, 12(1), 1-6.

About the Author: Kira J. Baker-Doyle is an Associate Professor and the Director of Master's Degree and Certificate programs at Arcadia University School of Education. She is the author of Transfomative Teachers: Teacher Leadership and Learning in a Connected World (Harvard Education Press, 2017).