This week was the end of our school year. It was extremely difficult end, as we reach 11 days since the murder of George Floyd. For 11 days, Black communities in the Twin Cities and many other places have been ravaged not only by grief, but by escalating police violence, an influx of right-wing extremists, and arson targeting Black neighborhoods and businesses. These 11 days are a mere sliver of the over 400 years of on-going violence Black people have endured in this country. And, while George Floyd’s murder looms large for those of us in the Twin Cities, he is only one of many Black people murdered by police in recent months, including, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDate, and far too many others. In the face of this devastation and on-going trauma, anything I have to say, especially as a White woman, seems trivial.
But, as a White woman, I benefit from and contribute to the systemic racism that makes Minnesota one of the most racially inequitable states in the US. As a teacher, I bear a particular responsibility for the long list of inequities in Minnesota’s education system. One of the most seductive aspects of White privilege is the privilege to absolve myself of responsibility because the problems are too big, because my intentions are good, or whatever other soothing excuse I choose. But the absolution of White supremacy does not absolve me of a moral responsibility. I need to hold myself accountable to recognize and follow-through on the steps I can take, especially when my privilege gives me safety or authority to act. I want to make what I’m doing public not because I think I’m doing enough or because I believe I have expertise others should listen to. I want to make what I’m doing public to give myself a record of my commitments. It is critical that all of us, especially White people, go beyond saying #BlackLivesMatter in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy and hold ourselves accountable for pursuing sustained change.
Statewide, Black students in Minnesota have less access to rigorous coursework. In my school, we utilize tracking in our chemistry and physics courses. We also have math prerequisites for nearly all of our science courses that mean many students are not technically qualified for even our basic courses. As a result, my AP Physics 1 students are predominantly white while my Chemistry Essentials students are mostly Black and Latinix boys. A few weeks ago, I volunteered to participate in a team leading science curriculum revisions, and a critical part of my work there will be pushing to eliminate tracking and prerequisites in our science courses.
In the mean time, I can challenge my colleagues every time they suggest “those” kids just aren’t capable of challenging coursework and work to make my classroom one where every student is challenged and supported to engage deeply with the content. Especially in courses like Chemistry Essentials, I can use curriculum and make instructional decisions that center my students’ thinking, giving them the opportunity to do meaningful sense-making. This summer, I will be part of a team doing major curriculum revisions for Chemistry Essentials, which is an opportunity for me to make more room for student thinking in the materials I use and to push my colleagues to do the same. Opportunities like my school-wide book study of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain have helped me take steps in this direction, but I still have a long way to go.
Part of ensuring every student has access to challenging coursework is attending to the culture of my classroom so that every student has equitable opportunities to participate. I need to be aware of social status and group dynamics to make sure every student starts from the assumption that all of their peers have something of value to offer. I need to challenge the dominant view of what it means to be good at science to ensure every student sees their identity as compatible with being a science person. Most importantly, I want my students, especially my white students, to extend this learning beyond my classroom and have the tools to challenge toxic cultures wherever they encounter them. There are plenty of examples of one-off lessons, but I think the most important work is the everyday efforts to shape classroom culture. Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogenous Classroom helped me begin working toward these goals, but I know I fall short.
Black students in Minnesota schools experience some of the most significant discipline disparities in the country. In 2018, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights intervened in districts with the most egregious disparities, including my own. Last year, my school started using some restorative justice practices. For years, I’ve tried to approach discipline issues and conflicts with students by listening to understand their perspectives and unmet needs, but having structures and facilitators in place has made me much more consistent in that goal and made students feel more comfortable sharing what they need. Thanks to restorative justice, getting the office involved is more likely to lead to me developing a better relationship with a student than to the student spending a day in ISS. We’ve started taking some shortcuts since the conversations are time-consuming, but there are ways I can push back. I can request a mediated conversation when I’m struggling with a student, I can make sure my administration knows I consider those conversations time well spent, and I can challenge colleagues who grumble about the time it takes. I can also pursue my own learning around restorative justice practices and make sure I carve out time to listen to students, with or without a facilitator. I also need to seek out learning on trauma-informed teaching if I truly want to make sure students are safe coming into my classroom, let alone telling me what they need.
None of this is enough. I am, at best, a novice in this work. But my shortcomings are not an excuse to do nothing. I’m grateful to not only work in a school with many teachers committed to equity, but also with an administration that prioritizes equity in their decision making and students willing to tell us how we fall short, even though no kid should have to. I am grateful to the faculty in my grad program who place social justice at the center of their work, both as teachers and researchers. I am grateful that I’ve been able to learn by lurking in chats like Clear the Air and by following people on Twitter like Dr. Lee-Ann Stephens, Melinda D. Anderson, Kelly Wickham Hurst, Val Brown, Marian Dingle, Shana V. White, and many others.
Teachers, especially White teachers, what will you be doing when this round of protests is done to move us closer to a world where these protests are no longer necessary?