On a drive with my eldest son a few days ago, I turned to ask him, “Have you ever felt racism?”
My sons are 21 and 24 years old. We are brown. It is what most people assume upon noticing our last name, Rodriguez. This was my first time asking a question of this nature to my son and he didn’t hesitate to answer. “That’s why I was bullied in elementary school,” he answered. “What do you mean? What happened?” I asked. “I don’t remember… I only remember the feeling I had. I remember feeling like I desperately wanted to prove that I was American,” he explained in a tone that felt tinged with hurt, even after 17 years. As I share this moment I had with my son, I am overwhelmed with the desire to instinctively defend myself and my son. It is a feeling that is similar to the one he described having years ago. I didn’t know about his experience. His words from just a few days ago, left me feeling helpless and powerless. Experiences like these can be lasting.
These past few weeks have inhaled my heart, mind, and spirit, much like they have for many others. There have been lasting experiences for many of us. The realities that have been pulled out from the darkness into the light are painfully revealing. We have collectively witnessed a truth and it is no longer possible to turn a blind eye. There is monumental work ahead of every human being. Teachers hold a significant portion of that responsibility―to make changes and find ways to be better in our practice.
Teachers have power and there are places we can begin to change our practice. We can find ways to make things better for our students. This is our continuous work. Change can be difficult. Our fears, biases, and racists tendencies can often stifle our attempts to experiment with change. It can be especially difficult when we do not recognize our own fears, biases, and racist tendencies. We all have them and we all must find ways to work our way out of them and become better.
Words matter. Tone of voice matters. Behavior matters. The constant evolution of our classroom practice is ongoing. It is important for students to have opportunities for authentic and respectful dialogue. It is especially important for classrooms to build spaces for diverse voices.
What voices do we give the most power and attention in the classroom?
Scanning through Twitter a few weeks before the school year ended, I came across a feed that began when a parent discovered that more boys than girls were called on, during her daughter’s Zoom session. How did she notice? Her elementary school aged daughter collected tally marks each time a student was called on by her teacher. The tally marks showed a clear bias between boys and girls. Boys were called on much more than girls. What a brilliant collection of data!
In my classroom, it takes purposeful maneuvering to make sure that advanced students do not take over conversations. Each year, my classroom includes students who are in silent mode. They select not to speak. For most students, this is a learned behavior that is developed through experiences where they have been shamed, mistreated, bullied, hurt, scared, or traumatized. It is not safe for them to speak. These students need to feel valued, nurtured, and safe before they will begin to participate. It is a consistent issue the first few months of school in my classroom. One way to make sure all students have opportunities to talk or participate is by using talking sticks. This is done by giving each student three sticks, they give up a stick each time they participate in the discussion, and when all their sticks are gone, they must respectfully wait until the end of the discussion. I find that once students understand that all voices will be valued and allotted time, they can be weaned off of the talking sticks, and enter freely into respectful conversations. Participation in dialogue cannot be optional. It is an important expectation for the lives of each student and modeling respectful conversations for students is crucial.
How do we invite students to show themselves as active participants in their learning?
It is important to remember that not all students have the ability or oral language to express their voice. In my class, I had a student with special needs and speaking to express her thoughts was oftentimes challenging and understanding was difficult for others. Using an iPad was a common solution for students who had difficulty expressing oral language. However, when we began blogging in the classroom, she made her presence known. Although she wrote only few blog posts, she commented over 213 times in response to peer writing within a period of three months. The average number of responses for individual students was 50 out of a group of 34 students. Her peers reciprocated and responded. She gained freedom in this environment and her voice gained strength in communicating with others. This experience raised her to a level of equal recognition, attention, and care within her group of peers. It was a freedom she had not experienced before. She came to understand the power of her words and her voice.
These blogging experiences have empowered all student voices and in ways that have left a lasting positive impact on all students in the classroom, including those who are often marginalized or disenfranchised.
How do we facilitate opportunities for students to engage in difficult conversations?
It is not uncommon for teachers to be fearful of having students engage in difficult conversations. We can fear uncontrollable situations, emotions, passions that cannot be contained, or the possibility of confrontation, conflict, and forceful ideas. These are the realities that prevent many deep intellectual conversations in the classroom. We can facilitate dialogue and listening by modeling for students these behaviors. We may experience students who will not participate for a variety of reasons, so it is important for teachers to continue searching for ways to engage students.
Bell Hooks shares in her book, Teaching to Transgress, “In the privileged liberal arts colleges, it is acceptable for professors to respect the “voice” of any student who wants to make a point. Many students in those institutions feel they are entitled—that their voices deserve to be heard. But students in public institutions, mostly from working-class backgrounds, come to college assuming that professors see them as having nothing of value to say, no valuable contribution to make to a dialectical exchange of ideas.” (p.149) We can begin to strip away bias and racism in our classrooms by building space for student voice, especially when classroom discussions become difficult. The experiences of participating in difficult, but respectful discussions, can result in powerful opportunities for learning. Building space for diverse voices can help us begin stripping away bias and racism.
Words have power. Teachers have the power to change the trajectory of student lives. It is critical for each of us to do the careful work of creating space for all voices, while we continue to research and learn. This is a moment of opportunity for each of us to rise to the challenge, lean into conversations that cause us discomfort, and help all of our students find their voice.
How will you value the diverse voices in your classroom?