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March 25, 2021

Honor as Power: The Practical Keys to Antiracist Teaching

Creating culturally responsive and empowering classrooms distributes the teacher's traditionally held power and releases students' power to shine.

Equity
The word antiracist carries with it a punch that demands attention. It is easy to see the need for antiracism when we remember the horrors of slavery or look back at the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. It is more difficult to see the strongholds of racism that are embedded into school systems as tradition or practices that have been the bedrock of schooling for as long as any of us can remember.
But evidence of why we need antiracism today is all around us. Black students are suspended at a rate three times higher than their white counterparts (Cook, 2015). Black students are either overidentified for special education services or underserved for fear of overidentification. Black and Brown students are systematically (Hing, 2015). The list could go on.
However, antiracist learning environments are not built around a "savior complex" of rescuing Black and Brown children from the ills of the world. A truly antiracist learning environment empowers all learners to make decisions about their learning and leading in a welcoming and safe environment. What makes the difference between merely offering help and designing a course that is helpful to every student regardless of the color of their skin, disability, socioeconomic status, or home situation? The difference is honor.
In my work in Ohio public schools over the past two decades, I have seen that honor places Black and Brown learners in the driver's seat. Honor says, "I see you. I am learning from you. I acknowledge you. You are welcome here. You belong. Your success is my mission."

Codes of Power

Honor is most often communicated in the actions that answer the question, "Who is most important?" Lisa Delpit (1988), a pioneering writer in the field of education and antiracism, writes that an important first step toward antiracist teaching is recognizing the codes of power that operate in the classroom. She proposes five aspects of power that teachers and students should be aware of:
  1. Issues of power are enacted in the classroom.
  2. There are codes or rules for participating in power; that is, there is a "culture of power."
  3. The rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power.
  4. If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier.
  5. Those with power are frequently least aware of—or least willing to acknowledge—its existence. Those with less power are often most aware of its existence (p. 283).
This culture of power aims to protect the status quo. This is in part because, as Delpit writes, "Acknowledging personal power and admitting participation in a culture of power is distinctly uncomfortable" (p. 284). The culture of power is assimilationist—not antiracist. For that reason, Delpit encourages teachers and students to openly discuss these codes of power and how they operate, rooting in students' unique experiences and expertise (p. 283). Creating culturally responsive, culturally sustaining, flexible, and empowering classrooms distributes the teacher's traditionally held power and releases students' power to shine.
The culture of power plays out in who sets the standards for dress code and even hair and grooming policies. Power is dictating that there is one right way to participate, one right way to write and speak, one right way to learn, and one right way to be. This forces learners to compartmentalize and detach from their own identity to even be considered a candidate for success. Who gets to decide what is right? In a culture of power, whiteness is seen as rightness.

Codes of Honor

The codes of power that dishonor students speak to the need to create a more inclusive and empowering code of honor. There are five elements to establishing and acting upon the code of honor that I created based upon Delpit's assertions:
  1. Recognize the power structure that exists—both past and present.
  2. Acknowledge the purposeful intent and actions of abolishing the limitations of the power structure at hand.
  3. Reflect the code of honor by empowering each member of the learning community daily in the structures, supports, and choices available.
  4. Make an effort to invite members of the learning community into positions of authority, power, and decision making—even if that means taking yourself out of power to do so.
  5. Create opportunities for members of the learning community to make powerful decisions that govern their best possible outcomes.
Many Black and Brown learners walk into learning environments where power is on display. When schools and learning communities shift the status quo and become places where all students can exercise their power and eliminate learned powerlessness, the code of honor will take over and elevate all students—especially our Black and Brown students who deserve educational justice—to the status of learner and leader.
Honor invites students to express their brilliance in their natural way of giftedness. The brilliant reader is sitting next to the brilliant rapper who is across from a budding "Gordon Parks" who is right next to the next poet laureate of the United States. When students are given choices to express themselves, they are constantly reminded that their needs are important to the learning community. In communities where students are honored, we communicate:
  • You are more important than the systems we serve.
  • You are more important than my personal preferences.
  • You are more important than the way the content is packaged.
  • I am willing to learn about you to help you reach your life goals.
  • You are important and I will honor you with instruction that holds you accountable and empowers you to take ownership of your own learning.

Honor in Action

Many students walk into learning environments where the teacher has sorted them out into groups of presumed ability. Researcher John Hattie determined that one of the indicators with the highest effect size on students' academic achievement is their teachers' estimates of that achievement (2008). If that's the case, then we have to be painstakingly sure that the knowledge we are using to make educational decisions is not colored through the lens of bias, racism, or limiting perceptions. Nor should our students' ability or lack of ability be solely determined by one snapshot assessment on one day of one year.
Honor in action begins with a determination to truly help the student become aware of strengths and areas of growth.

Recognize the power structure that exists—both past and present.

Begin with a review of where power is on display. When we enter into communal spaces, whether online or virtually, we find out quickly who is in power. Whose voice is more important? Who makes decisions? Who is valued when they speak? How does one gain access to that power? From the first day of school the power structures are set up, taught, learned and indoctrinated. Because the experience with power is lived, we have to be explicit to discuss it to unlearn the behaviors and change the environment. Learners can handle the conversation, and they will embrace having language to articulate oppression that exists systemically in schools. They often get no say in where they sit, no voice to express preferences, and little choice when it comes to what supports are most helpful to their learning. We have to give voice to the why behind our choices so that learners will understand our intent and embrace the role of responsibility.

Acknowledge the purposeful intent and actions of abolishing the limitations of the power structure at hand.

In a classroom where honor is key, there is an intentional effort to welcome learners to what honor feels like in action. Whether it is a quick check in, a mindful moment, or a simple greeting by name, the message is clear: "You belong here."

Reflect the code of honor by empowering each member of the learning community daily in the structures, supports, and choices available.

Then, there must be a release to make decisions as trusted members of the learning community. "Choose the best seat for your learning." "Choose the camera setting or background that is most comfortable for your achievement." Relinquishing teacher control is placing each learner in a position of power to govern their outcomes with coaching and support from the teacher.

Make an effort to invite members of the learning community into positions of authority, power, and decision making—even if that means taking yourself out of power to do so.

Honor looks like equipping learners for decision making, valuing their voices by teaching and modeling explicit listening skills, taking feedback on assignments, giving choices for how learners show what they know, and co-creating new options when none of the given ones are engaging for a learner. Honoring Black and Brown families means not regurgitating the same schoolwork for homework, but rather co-creating meaningful ways for families to connect around content, or send content to school for the class. When we design homework experiences that give families time to share stories, listen carefully, draft stories, or play games we create ways to achieve a far greater purpose - connection. With the demands of working, schooling and balancing activities, families appreciate time to connect over using precious time to reheat content from instruction for which parents were not present.

Create opportunities for members of the learning community to make powerful decisions that govern their best possible outcomes.

Open the door for learners to find fulfilling ways to communicate their learning to an audience that they find valuable. Creating opportunities to make decisions about where students showcase their knowledge may require you to learn about communities that you otherwise would not know. This is where you take on the role of learner. If a learner values a gaming community, or their grandparents, or an affinity group, then let them choose where, how and when they are ready to showcase their new learning, whether it is a song, a blog post, a letter, an info-graphic, or a YouTube channel. Power decides what brilliance is welcomed and what brilliance is banned. Honor invites and welcomes it all.

The Right to Grow

Power-driven classrooms require compliance, not responsibility. It requires the most dangerous state for a learner, surrender of will, or even worse—a submission to the act of what Bettina Love calls "spirit-murder." As educators who honor Black and Brown learners, we learn alongside them about their strengths, their areas of giftedness, their goals, their destination, and their definition of success. Without it, we disrespect their path to success based on what we think about them without the honor of fully knowing them.
Each student has the ability—and the right—to grow. It is our job as educators to ensure that the learning environments and opportunities we create are flexible enough to accommodate learners, who may be vastly different from one another in their experiences and needs. We honor them by making our classrooms lush rain forests of opportunities for growth, not vast deserts where only a few kinds of cacti bloom and all other growth is virtually non-existent. As Sonia Nieto (2004), a distinguished scholar of multiculturalism, writes:
Our schools reflect the sociocultural and sociopolitical context in which we live. This context is unfair to many young people and their families and the situations in which they live and go to school, but teachers and other educators do not simply have to go along with this reality. I believe one of our primary rules as educators is to interrupt the cycle of inequality and oppression. We can do this best by teaching well and with heart and soul (p. 496).
If we are brave enough to call out the barriers in our system, fight actively to dismantle the power structures of our systems, and commit to being antiracist, we have the power to honor Black and Brown learners with our actions to design something better, something just, something that honors every child as the brilliant scholar they truly are.
References

Cook, L. (2015). U.S. Education: Still Separate and Unequal. U.S. News.

Delpit, L. (1988). The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people's children. Harvard Educational Review, 58(3), 280–299. DOI: 10.17763/haer.58.3.c43481778r528qw4

Hing, J. (2015, April 18). Black students most underrepresented among AP test takers. Colorlines.

Nieto, S. (2004). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education. New York: Pearson.

Andratesha Fritzgerald is the founder and lead consultant of Building Blocks of Brilliance, LLC, the HR director of East Cleveland Schools in Ohio, and the author of Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning (CAST, 2020).

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