Confronting Inequity / When Racial Discussions Go Wrong - ASCD
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May 1, 2021

Confronting Inequity / When Racial Discussions Go Wrong

Diagnosis of instructional errors is critical when teaching sensitive topics.

Instructional Strategies
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During workshops with educators, my favorite activity is analyzing race discussions that have either succeeded or gone horribly wrong. We try to use the scattered information that we can gather to figure out what has led to either triumph or disaster and, in turn, what lessons can be learned. I have often used a specific case to teach an important lesson to administrators who are trying to help their teachers learn from difficult moments in race conversations.

A few years ago, an English teacher in Albany, New York, crafted a poorly conceived "Think Like a Nazi" assignment for 10th graders. The assignment sheet, which was posted publicly online, asked students to ". . . pretend that I am a member of the government in Nazi Germany, and you are being challenged to convince me that Jews are evil and the source of our problems." The five-paragraph essay assignment continues, reminding students about the rhetorical devices of logos, pathos, and ethos, then asking them to consult their "packet of propaganda" (presumably a list of propaganda techniques that had been studied). Finally, students were warned: "You do not have a choice in your position—you must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!"

When we finish watching a CBS News report covering the incident and its aftermath,1 I typically ask the school leaders to discuss the following two prompts in small groups: (1) What went wrong? and (2) What advice would you give this teacher?

But right before sending them into their groups (or nowadays, breakout rooms), I ask them to differentiate all observations into two "buckets." First, there are strategic errors—those where something went wrong very early in the planning, at the macro level of enduring understandings and/or essential questions. These are points where overarching goals of the lesson, conversation, or project were fatally flawed, making most of what follows essentially the fruit of a poisonous tree. The second bucket is for tactical errors—those where the big goals may have been sound but were undermined by poor choices in execution. Perhaps prompts were worded with too little reflection, or the wrong discussion activities were employed. Or maybe the project, in a flashy attempt to catch students' attention, strayed dangerously from the unit's goals. Perhaps the teacher undermined the lesson with poor communication moves, such as being too impatient with questions or too defensive in response to feedback from students or colleagues.

Strategic vs. Tactical Errors

This distinction between strategic and tactical errors is not insignificant. Diagnostic oversights can severely weaken efforts to learn from problematic racial discussions or to address other sensitive equity issues in classrooms. Strategic errors require strategic solutions. Sometimes a unit's (or lesson's) goal is rooted in racist ideas (like the assumption that the white canon reflects the best literature) or is predicated on students achieving demonstrably racist outcomes (like worshiping America's founding fathers uncritically).

In these cases, tactical adjustments like the rewording of prompts, swapping out books, and the gamification of lessons won't solve the core problem. Such rearranging of Titanic deck chairs is only likely to further frustrate teachers, anger students, and contribute to the toxic narrative that schools are not really interested in change. To remedy these bigger-picture issues, a teacher must earnestly engage in antiracism training, read more, and essentially perform a software update on their worldview and pedagogical philosophy.

On the flip side, tactical errors in sensitive equity conversations require tactical solutions. Sometimes, an antiracist lesson goal is undone by subtly racist language in an assignment sheet. Or by outmoded assessment practices. Or by calling on the BIPOC kids to represent all of their "people" in a conversation. These errors, and many more, can present as grand strategic mistakes when they are actually much more solvable. (This distinction, of course, is not meant to minimize any pain inflicted on students, only to ensure that we learn the right pedagogical lessons.) If a teacher makes the tactical error of cold calling on an indigenous student too much when reading The Marrow Thieves, we want the teacher to reflect on the questionable practice of cold calling, and to interrogate their positions on representativeness. We don't want them to toss the unit. If a teacher has improperly framed a historical debate as "the pros and cons" of slavery, we want them to reflect on their wording. We don't want them to stop helping students understand the myriad ways that our country's ascendance was incontrovertibly linked with the barbaric enslavement of Black people.

Diagnosing mistakes as either strategic or tactical is not the most exhilarating work. But administrators and teacher leaders who fail to do so risk offering ineffective advice.

Let's return to the "Think Like a Nazi" example. There are many tactical errors in this case. For example, the teacher twice reminds students that they don't have any choice in their character's perspective—a very restrictive emphasis.

Also, in incredibly weird wording, students are instructed to consult not only their packet on propaganda and notes from history class, but also "any experiences [they] have" to complete the essay. What experiences? While I'm fairly certain this teacher intended to ask students to think through, in character, the other antisemitic propaganda they might have encountered in Nazi Germany, it sure sounds as if students are being encouraged to speak as themselves. Wording matters.

Learning the Right Lessons

As far as strategic errors with this activity are concerned, many educators tend to isolate one big one: The decision to engage in this topic via role-play. Role-play can be an effective lesson-design element to help students begin to understand outside perspectives. But it is also so often a cheap trick masquerading as a complex pedagogical move—especially when it locks students into "playing" oppressors. In this case, it amounts to a fatal flaw in the way the lesson was conceived. After all, what else are kids going to do in this role-play except Google and regurgitate poisonous antisemitic tropes? With all of the potential for harm, who is even close to being served by this lesson framing?

Unfortunately, many school leaders and teachers see these myriad tactical errors and one significant strategic error and make a dangerous leap to another, all-encompassing conclusion: that the teacher was strategically wrong to engage the Holocaust in a unit about malicious rhetoric. Why not just have students argue whether Froot Loops are better than Frosted Flakes? Whether LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan? Just take race and ethnicity out of it and you won't end up on the news. However, if we keep making the strategic call to substitute out "sensitive" topics wholesale, even when they are incredibly relevant, we might find ourselves in a place where students might see Nazi-esque rhetorical strategies in our real world and not make the connection. We don't want that.

If we want our teaching to remain both engaging and culturally responsive, we must learn the right lessons from each misstep. This begins by not automatically treating all mistakes the same and continues with helping teachers to tailor specific solutions for specific lessons or conversations, knowing that only if we continue along that path will we see significant progress.

End Notes

1 See CBS6 Albany (2013, May 10). ‘Think like a Nazi' homework controversy [Video]. YouTube.

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