Talking About Racism to Build Stronger School Communities

By Isaiah Moore

Talking About Racism to Build Stronger School CommunitiesI think it’s safe to say that, so far, 2020 is the year of the mask. It’s become somewhat of a popular item in recent months, even blurring the barrier between healthcare and fashion wear for most teens. In fact, some students have gone as far as coordinating their outfits with matching face coverups. And it’s not just in real life! They’ve taken this trend virtual. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing half a student’s face ever since we let out—sort of like a reverse Batman mask. So, I’ve become pretty adept at distinguishing students by eyes and forehead alone as they prefer to wear masks even on our calls.

But, when mid-June was approaching, I fully expected kids to ditch the mask routines, and, no, I don’t mean the physical face covering. I fully expected them not to mask their feelings about school officially letting out. I thought they’d completely ignore the many messages I’d send in preparation for the school year’s end. However, there was a weird twist of irony. When I opened my computer one morning, I actually had a message from a student, and we were less than a week from school ending. Feeling as if I were being set up or were stepping into the twilight zone, I briefly hesitated. It was from a student who, during the days of “normal school,” was reliable, but she had missed the last two assignments. I read her message headline entitled, “Sorry,” and then with some skepticism clicked it.

I immediately noticed its length. Feeling the angst of students reaching out to me instead of vice versa, I thought this would be her attempt at unmasking her end-of-year excitement. But when I started reading, that angst took a new form: “Hi, Mr. Moore. I haven’t really been in the best mindset lately because of everything that’s happening, but I also don’t want to use that as an excuse for all the work that I’m not doing.” I began to worry as my mental roads became congested with questions: “Is she referring to THOSE events?” “Can she even handle a conversation about Mr. George Floyd’s unacceptable treatment?” “Does she see that she and young Tamir Rice share an age bracket and affinity to play at the park and wonder if they could share a fate?” “Is she wondering whether the protests these atrocities have sparked are even beneficial?” “Can I handle a conversation like this?” “What do I even say?”

It was this moment that showed me that not only was my initial assumption wrong, but my student was open. She proverbially took her mask off, and with these events being national news, I am quite sure she is not the only student doing so. So how do we, as educators, respond?

A few of the educators at our school responded by preparing a round table discussion, which acted as a platform for students to speak not only with educators but also with peers about issues of racism and injustice in our community. In debriefing, here are some takeaways from that discussion for fostering tough conversations to strengthen communities and schools.

Educators Should Foster an Open Classroom from Day One

“It may seem simple, but the tough conversations are had in the beginning of the year.”
—Teacher

Tough conversations like those about race and injustice are not had unless students feel comfortable. From day one, we must present ourselves and the spaces we oversee as ones where open dialogue is welcomed. Acknowledging relationship-building as the means to this end is key. This ultimately allows students to feel cared for and valued. As a result, they are more likely to feel comfortable having these conversations. Regularly allow students time in class to reflect and debrief.

Educators Need to Be Knowledgeable

“There’s more to education than showing how to place a comma.”
—Teacher

There are two reasons for this. First, knowing a variety of topics allows educators to engage students on multiple levels, helping them reach more children as no two are the same. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, said, “You have to go much deeper than that [casual familiarity] and actually start to engage with students around their curiosity, their interests, their habits of mind through understanding and approaching material.” When kids are engaged in topics that interest them, they develop a sense of comfort with the person and environment.

Second, broad knowledge equips teachers to be proactive. Because you have your finger on the pulse of what happens outside the classroom, you’re able to make more informed decisions about the topics that will, without a doubt, be brought into your classroom, distinguish which can be used for educational purposes, and anticipate ways members of your class may take the subject. How you use this knowledge to respond to the feelings of students will cause them to feel safe in class.

Educators Need to Take Off Their Masks

“Because they didn’t mention it [police brutality], I was thinking it didn’t matter to them.”
—Student

Sometimes educators subconsciously create barriers, ones that relegate kids to human and elevates teachers to nonhuman. Kids are so unaware of their teachers’ personalities outside of school that we’re not seen as normal. Sometimes we’re so quick not to let them know our own passions outside of education that our students still have Santa-sized fantasies of us; just as they believe that Santa lives at the North Pole, they believe that we live in our classrooms. That is dangerous. Without divulging too much information, we can give our students information about us that strengthens teacher-student bonds. For example, I have an insatiable infatuation with a certain breakfast cereal that will not be named. I love it so much, I start every year telling my kids the story of the first time I tried it. And every year, it becomes a year-long topic of discussion in my classroom of cereal-eating teenagers! This little information about my life outside the classroom allows me to be vulnerable, and my students feel as if they’re getting to know the person they are about to spend an average of 1,000 hours with.

Of course, we should be able to share less trivial matters with students as well. Without losing our cool, we can speak to them about how our days are going or if something made us feel less than our best selves. In this instance, it is perfectly acceptable to let kids know that these events troubled us and that we’ll work toward bettering them.

Educators Need to Listen

“We actually just want you to listen.”
—Student

This may be a repeat of one of the aforementioned, but it is essential that we create spaces for students to sift through their thoughts and feelings. This should be a weekly practice in class, whether it’s allowing students designated time to talk toward the end of lessons, setting up a suggestion/thought box, giving them time for journaling, or offering an ear to listen to their thoughts. According to Dr. Carl Pickhardt, the author of Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, “Adolescence can be a highly emotionally charged time of life.”

It is imperative that educators remember that though students are not new to feelings, they are new to managing feelings. So, as adults, we must model and give kids opportunities to practice—practice being the operative word. Such highly charged topics as racism and injustice are better served under your care, if not with parents. The majority of the kids who participated in our school’s round table mentioned feeling respected and even thanked us for allowing them to “vent.” Some of them were the same kids that took my pencils every day without a single expression of gratitude. Our listening to them allowed for growth in their characters, evidenced by their thanks.

Educators Need to Give Students Tools of Empowerment

“As kids, there’s not much we can do.”
—Student

Our students are young, but they fully understand the detrimental effects of discrimination and injustice. Because of their youth, they often demote themselves to “just kids” instead of “current change-makers.” As educators, we must create an educational experience interwoven with skills and real-world applications of said skills, especially around advocacy. Yes, students cannot vote, but tell them what they can do! The round table we held actually became “lit” (as the young kids say) when they heard we were going to give them ways they could be heard now.

We talked about after-school book club studies, such as the one we plan to do with Ibram Kendi and Jason Reynolds’s Stamped Remix. We encouraged students to research their local city council members and write to them about their concerns. We even told them we’d proofread the letters. Last, we brought the issue closer to home: “It’s okay even to demand more of us. If there is something you feel you are not learning in my class that may better equip you to be a productive citizen in society, please let me know.” As an educator, I am not above criticism, nor should students think I am. This is truly what it means to take off the mask. We need to eliminate all hurdles possible to properly educate all students.

At this present moment, that hurdle is bigotry and racism. I had only one request, however: “Your proposal for new content to be taught must use proper punctuation, specifically commas.” See, we can definitely teach lessons through social change.

Isaiah MooreIsaiah Moore is an eighth-grade English teacher in Virginia Beach who’s had the pleasure of speaking to crowds of over 1,000 but still becomes nervous when conducting a 45 minute session for 30 students. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t show it.) An Albert Einstein quote guides his life: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather a man of value.” Through word and action, this quote was taught to him by four Black male teachers in high school. Because of their impact, he decided to pursue education in hopes of impacting others the same way. To do so, he attended Morehouse College and became an Oprah Scholar while receiving his undergraduate degree in English. Afterward, he obtained his Master’s of Arts in Education from the College of William and Mary’s School of Education. Isaiah believes that education should be relevant, so he prides himself on developing lessons that incorporate real-world topics. This shows students their education extends beyond the four walls of his classroom. When Isaiah’s students apply these concepts to their daily lives, it is at this point that he sees his value. Here is where he becomes a man of success. Isaiah writes about his daily life in the classroom at his blog, Running Thoughts . . . Can’t Let Them Get Away.


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1 Response to Talking About Racism to Build Stronger School Communities

  1. Nancy Mastin says:

    This is a powerful article! Your impact on so many young lives is crucial to their growth. While I am not a counselor at a middle school this year, I’m inspired to text my former students to remind them they are change makers…not just kids.

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