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How to do anti-racist work with NYC school communities: 5 experts weigh in

Protesters marched on Sunday in midtown New York City over the killing of George Floyd.
Bryan R. Smith / AFP via Getty Images

Takiema Bunche-Smith is busier than she has ever been.

As the leader of the Center on Culture, Race, and Equity at Bank Street College of Education, Bunche-Smith helps educators understand and unravel all the ways racial inequities are baked into education systems.

Since the killing of George Floyd has sparked demonstrations across the country, school leaders have reached out to her non-stop, seeking advice for how to navigate a historic teachable moment.

As protesters continue to march in the streets, students are logging in to virtual classrooms full of difficult questions and raw emotions. While many New York City schools focus on racial justice issues every day — embedding it into what is taught, and how — in plenty of others, principals and teachers find themselves in wholly uncharted territory.

Chalkbeat spoke to academics including Bunche-Smith and school leaders who are helping school communities respond to this moment. They offered these words of advice for teachers and school leaders.

This is part of an ongoing series that includes the voices of parents, students, and other experts to understand what ideas can help us meet this unprecedented moment for school communities.

The responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Takiema Bunche-Smith, executive director of the Center on Culture, Race and Equity at Bank Street College of Education

I am troubled by three things that I’m seeing.

Everyone wants to do something. However, there has to be care and thoughtfulness about how the murder of George Floyd is discussed so that Black children and staff are not re-traumatized by the ways in which the discussion is approached. Also, white and non-Black children of color will receive inappropriate messages if these conversations are not approached with care and from a solid knowledge base.

A portrait of a woman with short curled hair wearing an orange and white floral patterned dress with ornate earrings crosses her arms and looks directly at the viewer.
Takiema Bunche-Smith
Courtesy of Bank Street

This leads to my first point. We have a teaching force in the US that’s close to 80% white and an overwhelmingly Black and brown public school system. Very few educators have had professional development and support to understand these complex topics on a personal level, much less institutional and systemic levels.

I’ve seen some work put out in the last week that has made me cringe. For example: Don’t make children watch videos of Black people being murdered by police. This is not developmentally appropriate for young children, and older children and teenagers will need tremendous support to process the trauma of watching someone be murdered on video. Adults can talk and read about what happened with children, and give space for students to process how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. And make sure to discuss what actions are happening to make changes to a system that allows police brutality to happen repeatedly.

Secondly, only talking about the murders of Black people will reinforce the negative associations. We need to center the full humanity, joy, culture and strengths of Black people 365 days a year, while highlighting the unjust systems as well.

Thirdly, professional development around race, racism, and racial equity is critical for everyone doing this work with students, so that we are clear about what is being taught, in what order the material is being taught, and what our end goal is when it comes to anti-racist and creating culturally responsive teaching and classrooms. We need to have a major investment of resources to support educators and families to do this well.

Stefan Lallinger, director of the Bridges Collaborative at The Century Foundation

The first and most important job you have as a school leader right now is to create the space for the staff to come together to talk, react, and simply be with one another in an emotionally safe environment. Create the right conditions for people to be vulnerable.

When I was a principal at an all Black school in New Orleans, and my staff returned in 2016 after the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and others at the hands of the police, the first thing we did was gather in a seated circle and have open, emotional discussion. But consider that what some people may need right now is their own time. Give them the time they need.

Stefan Lallinger
Courtesy photo/Stefan Lallinger

Begin by telling your staff how you have been impacted by the things happening around us. That being said, this is not about you, so say your piece – make it genuine, truthful, unguarded, and concise – and return the attention to the group.

Facilitating safe spaces in which people show vulnerability is extremely difficult, and when done poorly, can cause more harm than good. In this moment, you must critically consider your identity, and the dynamic it presents as the leader of your staff and your school. The way I led and spoke as a Black man who had himself been the target of racial profiling should be different than the way you lead, if you identify differently.

You as the leader may not be the best person to facilitate. Know when to step back. You should also have a brain trust, made up of a diverse group of individuals, to run key decisions by, before they are made.

Strong school leadership will focus the attention back on students. Make space for children to organize and take action on their own. In my experience, our students were eager to do their part to make change.

Jeannie Ferrari, principal of Humanities Prep Academy in Chelsea, Manhattan

Educators must recognize the urgency and significance of this historical moment by being flexible and responsive. Embrace process over outcome and allow space for students to release feelings, thoughts, and reactions. Some students will want to share, and others will be exhausted and reluctant to participate. A Google Form survey is a great way to ask students what they most need from their teacher right now.

Jeannie Ferrari
Courtesy photo/Jeannie Ferrari

Educators can also integrate art, movement, music, theater and role-playing into their exploration of racial justice in the classroom. Students have different mediums of expression; not all prefer to communicate their thoughts and feelings verbally. Also, offer students the chance to share their ideas, proposals and research with an authentic audience, such as activist organizations, lawyers and legal scholars, and elected officials. But understand that silence itself is a statement. White educators in particular should embrace the uncomfortable, unfinished, and transformative process of engaging in racial justice work alongside their colleagues.

Lastly, educators should recognize that neutrality in the classroom is a myth. Your students need to know that you condemn the murder of innocent Black Americans, the same way they need to know that you condemn the practice of slavery.

Amy Stuart Wells, director of The Public Good Project and the Center for Understanding Race and Education at Teachers College, and Diana Cordova-Cobo, a research associate for the Public Good Project and former middle school teacher

How do we teach anti-racism to children? As we’re in one of the most vexing periods in our nation’s history, students need support in finding answers through a curriculum that provides vivid examples of structural racism and its impact on housing, employment, and education. They also need opportunities to name and critique the anti-Blackness narrative that surrounds them and shapes the way we all make sense of the world.

Diana Cordova-Cobo
Courtesy photo/Diana Cordova-Cobo

One way to do this could be to ask students to interview an elder relative, connecting with someone they live with or remotely, about challenges they have faced in their lives. The Public Good has provided a template for how students can do this with a lesson plan we call “Coming Together Through Stories.”

Amy Stuart Wells
Courtesy photo/Amy Stuart Wells

It is designed for upper elementary grade students to seek answers, stories of resilience, and hope in troubled times. This is one example of how to privilege the knowledge, wisdom, and strength of elders in student’s lives and, when shared in an inter-racial context, these stories will also privilege the experience of those families who have been most disadvantaged by the racial hierarchy that has shaped this country since it’s beginning.

Fela Barclift, director of Little Sun People preschool in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn

Educators are accustomed to working off of a curriculum, a design, or a script that we can use as our template to structure our lessons coherently. In this case, though, there’s no script. We are and will be, for a while, flying by the seat of our pants — and that’s OK.

Start by accepting how much we don’t know, and then do something about it: Begin to fully explore and create the much-needed curriculum designs and safe spaces and conditions to do this work together. Make the decision to be vulnerable. Once the leaders have embarked upon their own journey, they can then effectively, though haltingly, and perhaps ungracefully at first, begin to lead their staff.

Fela Barclift
Courtesy photo/Fela Barclift

Know that our children have never questioned whether Black lives or any other lives matter. They take life mattering for granted. Fortunately, righteous indignation and fairness is something that children can understand. They know something big is going on! It’s important to acknowledge that with them, but also to break that big thing down according to the age of the child.

For preschool and up to about age 7, get into your library and find stories designed for their age group that reflect Black and brown people in a completely positive light. Find movies and videos where Black and Brown people are central characters and their stories are fully and well told.

Respectfully connect with and bring in their family. Find out how much and what has been said at home, and how discussions centered around complex situations are handled. Follow the family’s lead.

Build relationships with children so that you know how to organize your explanations of the current situation. A possible conversation after a good session of play and perhaps a story circle about a Black person, could go something like this, ‘Recently a few hard things have happened between a Black person and a policeman, have you heard anything about that, tell us what you know?’ Then listen and follow their cues to know where to go with the conversation.

Finally, laughter, joy, fun, and play are critically important, even in the most difficult of times. They must be guarded, nurtured, and in evidence in every way possible to help ourselves and our children remain strong, resilient, and confident that together we can create a world that is good for everyone.

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