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July 1, 2020

Innocence Mission

Author Alexs Pate shares his steps for building a classroom where Black and Brown students are free to be who they are.

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Credit: Donald Ely for ASCD
ASCD spoke with Alexs Pate about his new book, The Innocent Classroom: Dismantling Racial Bias to Support Students of Color (ASCD, August 2020), which is based on his work with schools and districts. Pate is a poet and novelist, best known for his New York Times best seller Amistad. He is president and CEO of Innocent Technologies and the creator of the Innocent Classroom, a program for K–12 educators that aims to transform U.S. public education by closing the relationship gap between educators and students of color.

In your own words, what is an innocent classroom?

The innocent classroom is a place where all the burdens that have been draped on children of color—the cumulative influence of negative stereotypes, all the negative stories about who they are, where they come from, who their families are, what their communities are like—all of that is dropped at the door through the power of the relationship they have developed with their teacher.
Essentially, the innocent classroom is a practical methodology to building active and functional relationships with marginalized children in your classroom. It's a place where a child simply gets to be who they are, where the teacher has helped the child unburden themselves so they can engage in an academic career to the best of their ability.

Did you experience an innocent classroom as a student? How did that affect you?

As a child growing up and through college, I'd never experienced what I'm helping educators to create in classrooms for their children. I always felt either unseen or hyper-visible because of my race. I always felt guilty, like I was being watched, like there was a time limit and something bad was going to happen. I started writing about this in an essay called "Revolutionary Innocence" and somebody asked me, "Do you think children could feel the same way?" That's when I began to really investigate, research, and lay out the ideas for the innocent classroom.

What role does guilt play in the innocent classroom?

Guilt is the cumulative effect of negative stereotypes on a child. We now know that stereotypes can shape behavior. A child who has heard so many times what the world says about them, those negative stereotypes are ingested by children and become an inherited sense of guilt.
In our workshops, we ask teachers to tell us what America tells them about children of color. Society tells teachers that children of color are disrespectful, disruptive, angry, loud. Teachers say, "That's not what I believe, but that's what the culture tells me."
If the teachers have been told that by American culture, so have the children. It's a lingua franca—children and their educators both have the same negative stereotype, and our children have the sense that their teachers actually believe those negative stereotypes. School isn't a place where a child can let go of those stereotypes unless a teacher is intentional in disrupting that paradigm by saying, "I see you for who you are. Let's begin there."

What are some ways teachers can "embrace the good" in their students, as you suggest in the book, especially for students of color?

If you accept the idea that guilt has been given to our children and the goal is to free them from that, then the only way is to identify that child's goodness and relate to it. I go back to Aristotle, who defined "good" as the thing for which all other things are done. Good is not positive or negative. It's a neutral quality. It's the reason we wake up in the morning. All the decisions we make come out of our good. When you identify another person's good, the first byproduct of that is empathy. When you begin to explore the empathetic possibilities between a teacher and a child, all things become possible.
Children are most often taken at face value. If they're disruptive in class, we say things like, "It's their personality," or "They just want attention." We don't go deep enough to really find out why that child won't sit still. When a teacher invests time to find a child's good, the response to that is a change in behavior.

What are the prerequisite skills that make or break an educator's ability to foster an innocent classroom?

If you care about reaching children, and that's why you're in the classroom, that's the first thing this work requires: that you care. Then it's important to make the distinction that you can't blame your inability to form a relationship with a child on race. Race is a social construct.
You have to believe that innocence is important and that a person needs to experience innocence, a place where they are free and not in bondage to negative stereotypes. If a child has not experienced innocence, then a lot of the things they are doing are not choices they are making; it's prescribed by the way the culture has welcomed them into the world.
You can't underestimate the power of your subconscious mind to shape your behavior. New cognitive research is telling us that our brains are working overtime to integrate subliminal messages of the culture, and that's the way stereotypes take root. We may say, "Love sees no color," or "I'm antiracist," but in a moment of crisis, your subconscious is doing a lot of work. As a result, we make decisions that are not equitable. We have to be aware of that.

As you train educators to create relationship-based innocent classrooms and schools, what are you noticing?

One question we regularly get is, "How much time does this take?" It's not about how much time you have, it's what you do with that time. If you spend time early in the semester getting to know children in the ways that the innocent classroom asks you to, then it saves time in the long run by cutting down on disciplinary issues. [In spaces] where educators are practicing [these techniques], referrals out of class decrease by 50 percent. The way a teacher is rewarded for the investment of time is pretty profound.
Another thing: The way students change is both small and large. I tell a story in the book about a teacher who had a 4th grade student who she could always count on acting out. At some point, she pulled him aside when he was just about to go off and said, "I've been watching you, and I know these things about you, but this is not who you really are." He burst into tears. She wiped his tears away and said, "OK, we're going to start over. Our relationship is going to be based on who you actually are, and I'm going to help you live more as that person." That changed his life with her.

School isn't a place where a child can let go of stereotypes unless a teacher is intentional in disrupting that paradigm by saying, "I see you for who you are. Let's begin there."

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Alexs Pate

For some students, it's not like this. If a teacher reaches out, they rebuff it. What happens if a child doesn't respond to your efforts? Back up and re-strategize. You're not responding to that child in the way that child needs you to. Teachers will tell us a child "just needs someone to love them." That's not good enough. You have to know how to love them. What does this child need to translate your response to them as love or care? For some children, it's a brush for them when they come out of the gym. For others, it's letting them sit among people they relate to. Every child has a combination to unlock, and it's very possible that it'll take two or three times to get through to a child that you actually care. But we've seen example after example of children changing their behavior midstream because they felt like they had an ally in the classroom. They knew someone was watching them and cared for them.

Anything else to add?

The convulsive and collective anger generated by George Floyd's murder puts the onus on all of us to show up even more for our black children. They are listening and watching. Don't let anyone fool you: The struggle that has taken place on America's streets is really for them. For their innocence.
The challenge is clear: Begin now to change your thinking about race and help your friends, family, and colleagues change theirs. We must become our best selves for the children before us. We must earn their trust and in turn help them to demonstrate their best selves to the world.
When you see your students next, in person or online, remember that this horror happened to them, too. Black children, especially our black boys, do not deserve this. Every child of color that exists before you, in whatever environment, deserves to be treated as someone to be discovered, to be seen from their deepest good. To be allowed to breathe.

Laura Varlas is a former ASCD writer and editor.

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