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February 1, 2022

Actualizing Antiracism in the Classroom

One high school teacher’s quest to restore power to her students. 

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On my first day teaching African American and Latino Studies, I started class with a question no student knew how to answer: “What role do you want me to play in our classroom this year?” 
My students, mostly Black and Latinx high school seniors, sat in silent confusion. I was a brand-new face in their school community. I had also openly acknowledged the obvious irony that I, the only white person in the room, had been given the title of “teacher” on a topic they were much more familiar with than me.
Nereida, one of my students sitting in the front row, raised her hand with equal parts kindness and confusion in her eyes. “You can just be like a normal teacher, Ms. Miller. Just present the material and we will take notes.” The students around her smiled and nodded, trusting me to step into the familiar authoritarian role they had seen many white teachers play in the past. The rest of the room remained silent, prepared for me to do what my college professors taught me to do: position myself as the one with answers instead of questions and establish clear procedures. But I could not find any logic or peace in the idea that I would design instruction and curriculum meant to honor the core of my students’ identities in the silo of my singular white mind. 
The unique circumstances of my placement—teaching one section of the course alongside one of my Black colleagues due to a teacher shortage—required me to think deeply about what it meant to be an antiracist educator. While I had the gift of working with a collaborative and thoughtful colleague who also taught the course, I knew I had to approach my students and the subject matter differently in light of my racial identity. 

The Self-Work of Antiracist Teaching

Actualizing antiracism in the classroom requires transformation at both an individual and institutional level. For me, it was essential to start at the individual level to identify racial bias and work to uproot these biases. The dialogue I facilitated with my students on our first day was the result of intentional self-work. 
First, I built a relationship with my colleague who was teaching the other sections of the course. The course was his brainchild, and I was not about to make assumptions about the what, why, or how of the class without his consent and collaboration. Rather than jump right into course planning, we spent time that summer getting to know each other as people and educators. As we got to know each other better, he shared more about why he had advocated so fiercely to get this course in our curriculum. He shared how he had watched our students struggle to feel included or valued by the staff and to be seen or heard in the curriculum, which centered white history. 
As we collaborated to build the first unit—focusing on the royalty of Africa and South America—we talked about the ways students’ power and beauty as Black and Latinx students were stripped from them. From the content to the teaching practices, it was clear to students that they were not encouraged to speak up or question the classes they took, but rather deny parts of themselves in order to fit into a rigid structure of timed activities and linear learning exercises. Through our collaboration, we reached the conclusion that this course should be designed to empower students of color in our school. Our goal would be to cultivate system-shakers who walked deeply rooted in their power and beauty as they challenged the status quo. This meant staying open to curriculum changes along the way to be as responsive as possible to our students’ unique identities, strengths, and interests. 
These conversations pushed me to consider the ways I may have perpetuated these systems of racial bias in my previous schools. Given that I had yet to teach in this school and had a blank slate, I was tempted to “check out” of the self-work. It felt easier to judge others than to take a critical look at myself. But after five years of teaching diverse groups of students as a white teacher, I knew I had made plenty of mistakes and needed to keep considering: In what ways had I changed personally and professionally since I’d started teaching? In what ways had I stayed the same? What strengths did I have in terms of cultural competency, and in what ways was I falling short in working with students of color? 
As I spent time reading books like Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks, Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, and Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain by Zaretta Hammond, I realized that I needed to work more toward authentic student empowerment than I had in the past.

Decentering the Teacher

While self-work is essential to actualize antiracism in the classroom (Simmons, 2019), I believe the work of antiracist teaching is most critical in practice. A key part of this practice is decentering, which occurs when a teacher takes physical and instructional steps out of the center of a classroom with clear intention to become more aware of one's racial bias. Stepping to the side helps teachers develop asset-based mindsets about students of color in real time as students take the lead.
The act of decentering challenges the idea that teachers always need to be in complete control and students role is to be compliant. This paradigm can lead to oppressive discipline systems, limiting lesson plans, and low expectations for success. Decentering does not, in and of itself, eliminate racism. What it allows us to do is realize our racial biases every day in a way that does not burden or damage the students of color in our classrooms. The act of decentering gives us space to do that work while also giving students a place to grow.
One way I decentered myself instructionally was to co-create every instructional unit with my students. As an example, my colleague and I created a unit outline about the Black Panther Party to share with students before making the final, comprehensive unit plan. The outline focused on some of the positive impacts of the Black Panther Party, seeking to add nuance wholly negative characterizations of their role in history. Students worked in small groups to consider what parts they were particularly interested in studying, what new questions it raised for them, and what was missing. 
One of my Black students said it seemed strange that this unit only focused on the positive aspects of the Black Panther Party. She associated the group with men, for example, and wondered why she did not see more women in photos. The other students proposed that the unit explore gender issues related to the Black Panther Party's movement.
This student-centered instructional idea initially gave me anxiety—but it ended up being much richer than what I had originally planned. We made this addition, ending the unit by studying Angela Davis’s opening defense address in her highly politicized 1972 accomplice-to-murder trial (in which she was eventually acquitted of all charges) and engaged in a Socratic seminar about the intersection of gender and race in both the Black and Latinx community. Ending with Davis' words centered a woman from the Black Panther Party and pushed us to grapple with the struggles women had to go through in the movement and the positive impact they made in spite of it all.
Through this fruitful process of co-creation, I realized I was right in my instincts to give my students more say in the curriculum.

An Antiracist Classroom Community

To decenter myself and center my students, I also redesigned a standard classroom culture activity: the class contract. I focused ours on the students’ power to claim their strengths and fully define their community without teacher control. Rather than telling the students what they should strive for, I handed one of my students a white board marker and asked the class to work together to create a list of adjectives that described how they wanted to be seen by others.
The students came up with words like, “brilliant,” “welcoming,” and “insightful,” and then created a set of actions they should take that aligned with those words. During this activity, one of my students, Tierra, said “Hot. I want our class to be described as hot.” After a few chuckles from students, I considered that I may not understand the context and stepped to the side, physically and symbolically, to give her more space to talk it out. Her insecurity about what it meant to be beautiful as a Black girl soon became the focus of her reflection, which concluded with her saying, “Beautiful. What I really mean is we should be described as beautiful on the inside and the outside.” We posted our list in the room to give one another shout-outs when we saw a student embodying any of the words. This activity held space for my students to define themselves on their own terms and sent a message that I would serve as a partner to help facilitate the change.
A final way I centered my students was in the creation of our classroom management system. Rather than hand them a sheet of rules to follow, I had my students co-construct a classroom culture system by studying the impact of the school-to-prison pipeline and debating different ways we might disrupt that pipeline in our own classroom. Stunned by the research, they were adamant that no one would be sent from the room if they were having a bad day. They decided to institute a class check-in system—a two-minute procedure at the start of class where everyone, including me, would share one word to describe their current emotions. While this initially intimidated some students, they decided it was important that every member of our class had the opportunity to speak and be recognized.
If a student mentioned a negative emotion, we would say, “We see you,” and offer them the opportunity to work independently for the day unless they felt comfortable in collaborative activities. If a student did something during class that others found distracting, students knew they had a responsibility to address the student first. They would let me know if they thought the student needed a one-on-one conversation, a peace circle to address the situation as a community, or a time at the start of next class to apologize to everyone. Students agreed that this procedure would help everyone stay in class, and they were right. 
One day a veteran teacher from the school walked into our classroom and whispered, “These are the kids you’ve been so happy about? You have some of the toughest kids we have here.” I invited that teacher to join our class more often so he could see who our students truly were in a classroom environment of their own making.

Building Coalition

As the year went on, the room becomes ripe for coalition-building between students. For example, at the start of the course, I noticed that my seniors were often engaged in the content but socially separated across racial lines. The class had a nearly equal number of Black students and Latinx students, and an imaginary line split the students whenever they chose classmates for team activities. When I pointed out this dynamic, students said it was normal and did not feel any reason to change this status quo. I presented them with an article about the power of community organizing across racial lines and how this has helped movements for things like disability rights in our country’s history. To start building these bridges, students suggested having a regular “show and tell” ritual with items that represented a part of their identity. Usually reserved for younger students, my seniors thought it would be a good way to learn about each other’s strengths.
Every person in the audience, including me, had one notecard to write questions and one affirmation they would hand to the presenter at the end of their show and tell. When one student, John, brought in his artwork, he self-consciously explained his piece. Everyone could tell he was nervous about being the center of attention. A classmate asked John why he was self-conscious about his art when it was clearly so good. John’s shoulders straightened up as the class decided to display his work as a reminder that everyone has gifts to share and the power to uplift one another. This ritual took five minutes a day and radically changed students’ sense of connection to each other, leading to more collaboration, more open sharing, and more comfort in the classroom.

A Radical Power Shift

Antiracist classrooms radically restore our students’ sense of power and transform the role of the teacher and the student. Too many schools are resigned to structures of exclusion and control. We as educators have a responsibility to disrupt these structures, and this starts with how we engage with our students from the very first day of school.
In response to Nereida’s answer to my question on our first day together, I posed another question to my students: “Why is it that when I, as a white teacher, want to hand all of the power over to you, you hand it right back to me?”
Darryl, a student tucked away in the back right corner, perked up. “Oh, I see where you are going with this,” he said. The shift in responsibility, curiosity, and investment in our classroom was palpable. Suddenly, our class was about more than a textbook and a grade. It was about students claiming their rightful power.
References

Simmons, D. (2019, October 1). How to be an antiracist educator. Education Update, 61(10). ASCD. Retrieved from https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/how-to-be-an-antiracist-educator

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Claire Miller is the founder and CEO of Restorative Practices in Action, a teacher training program based in Philadelphia that develops educators who radically restore student voice, ownership, and empowerment in the classroom. She has been a teacher, instructional coach, and school leader for more than a decade.

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