Romain Bertrand

Director of Solution Design, BetterLesson

One Monday in January, and then what?

On the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., educators around the nation look for ways to honor his legacy in their classrooms. From reading books or articles together to watching the “I have a Dream” speech and discussing its lasting impact, many classrooms resonated with the words of Reverend King on Friday or they will today.

While our intentions are often in the right place, I have learned from my own students that we can offend them and miss tremendous learning opportunities by doing a combination of the following two things:

  • Tell the story of his life and build our own narrative around what it meant to this country without including the voices and experiences of our students in the process and allowing them to express the connections they may see with current issues. Whether this happens by stressing his legacy of non-violent action or detailing how much has changed since 1968 in this country, we often try to make the story more comfortable to tell, and less likely to create challenging conversations in our classrooms.
  • Even when we lean a bit more toward discomfort and accept a more open form of discussion around his legacy, we often let it be a one-day event. Sometimes, we do not see (or choose not to see) where the content we teach overlaps with the themes discussed on that day. In that case, even after a rich conversation, the next day everything goes back to normal, and Pythagoras becomes the star of the show again (not that there is anything wrong with him).

I have been “guilty” of both mistakes in my middle school math class, and I often used my content as an excuse to justify why I was not building on the crucial ideas we discussed on MLK Day. Several students, colleagues and friends have helped me see the deep impact these two missed opportunities had on them, when they experienced them in my classroom or those of other educators. Thanks to their feedback, I have been able to start exploring a different approach to this important moment of the year.

Today, a big part of the work we do as BetterLesson coaches is centered around helping us recognize blind spots and areas of growth, in order to support teachers toward building more culturally responsive and inclusive classrooms. This hard work, started as a team in 2016, will continue for years to come as our organization as a whole is deeply committed to this mission. After a recent week spent learning with my team and reflecting on a semester of coaching, I decided to write six small steps any teacher or school leader could take to start going further, beyond MLK Day, to support more challenging and productive conversations around the issues of race, racism and social justice and to turn reflections into meaningful actions in 2018:

1. Resist the Urge to Move On

A big assessment might be coming up soon and instructional time seems to be shrinking away but commit to not moving on right away on Tuesday, even if you and your students have already spoken about the life and legacy of MLK on Friday. Show them that you are committed this year to see beyond this day and to continue learning with them. Even if you don’t quite know where this is going to take you next, accept this discomfort and continue to talk. But this time, commit to listen even more.

2. Create the Conditions for a More Uncomfortable Conversation

How do you take the conversation to a new level this time?

What if you reflected on how much you spoke that day vs. how much they spoke?

What if, on Friday, you had already identified themes and connections for them, but you forgot to ask them more open questions, more challenging questions; those that could help them see connections between what was happening in America in the ‘60s, and what is still happening today. Have we really made that much progress? If so, how? If not, where are there still inequalities, injustices and blatant racism, in words, actions and systems? What could we do about them?

If you are thinking as you read this that you might be opening a big can of worms, and that you are not quite sure you have the chops to know how to handle this conversation, you are on the right track! It means you are pushing yourself toward a slightly less comfortable conversation than the one you had previously envisioned, and that the true learning is about to begin.

A great way to prepare your students for this moment is to engage them in creating a healthier space for a more challenging conversation — one during which we may disagree more than usual, but we will still respect and care for each other. I love this guide created by the Teaching Tolerance team to help teachers discuss race, racism and other difficult topics, as well as Fostering Civil Discourse: A Guide For Classroom Conversations from the excellent website Facing History and Ourselves.

If these resources seem a bit too long for now, here are some simpler norms compiled by my colleague (and inspiration in this work) Afrika Afeni Mills. We use them as a BetterLesson team every time we meet and push each other’s thinking. Feel free to steal them, but always remember to involve your students in creating or customizing norms specific to their own classroom. I also highly recommend this excellent blog post by Philip Russell describing step by step how he makes it possible to invite controversy in his classroom.

Finally, to make this second discussion even more effective, try to incorporate strategies that enable 100% of your students to have a voice in this debate and feel comfortable sharing more controversial ideas. A simple Gallery Walk protocol with poster paper, post-its and markers can do the trick. Tech tools like Padlet and VersoLearning, supported by a simple Accountable Talk Stem strategy, can create the conditions for anonymous conversations, while allowing students to respectfully disagree and build on each other’s ideas. Such an activity will have an impact on them and their ability to learn from each other way beyond that day.

3. Ask Students for Feedback

You did not move on right away. You created a space for more challenging conversations about race, racism and the issues of justice and equity. The conversation led to deeper reflections, possibly expanding beyond the walls of our classroom. Now what?

A great way to put these new skills to the test is to create another space of potential productive discomfort soon after your initial efforts. One possibility is creating a simple survey, asking students for feedback on the school and your own classroom regarding the themes discussed during the post- MLK Day activity. For example: What are ways our school and/or my classroom could be more inclusive than it is today? What are ways I might be biased in my practices that I don’t currently see? What are learning projects or actions that would help us make our community more just and more equitable?

At BetterLesson, we have made available to our teachers a student survey, and several of my teachers are in the process of analyzing the data coming out of questions such as: “Does my teacher know my interests outside of school?” or “Does my teacher ask us for some feedback on how to make our classroom more inclusive?” The coaching conversations focused on breaking down the data and planning potential next steps have been extremely rich. Simple protocols, such as this one, can help coaches and teachers push each other’s thinking safely.

If surveys are not your thing, and if you prefer good old conversations, go for it! But remember that students will not always dare to say something too disruptive out loud. I highly recommend trying the practice of holding regular co-generative dialogues, described in chapter 4 of Christopher Emdin’s book, For White Folks who Teach in the Hood… .and the rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban EducationIn these small groups, students take turns serving as “consultants,” providing the teacher with constructive feedback on how to make the classroom a better place for learning. The teacher commits to truly listen, try new ideas and circle back with the co-generative group for additional feedback.

We often talk about giving students more ownership of their learning but it cannot really happen without allowing them to provide constructive feedback. But remember, feedback is only a bunch of pointless words until it is read and accepted by someone.

4. Accept to Hear What They Have to Say

How often do you think students are asked to provide feedback on their classroom or school culture? Now, take this thinking one step further, and ask yourself: how often do adults in the building show their students that they are willing to read this feedback, learn from it and bring the findings back to them, so that they can start the process of getting rid of some blind spots?

The answer to this question is probably not often enough. The purpose of this post is not to try to figure out why, but to propose a way forward. So this time around, push yourself to stand in front of your students and share areas of growth back with them. We keep talking about building a growth mindset in our students — what better way to do this than by modeling it yourself?

Resist the urge to preemptively come up with solutions, fixes or even interpretations of the data. If necessary create a space for a second conversation, similar to the one you facilitated during Step 2. Here, students can propose constructive ideas to make their learning environment more inclusive and focus on concrete actions to bring more social justice to their community.

Your students will aways remember this moment, I guarantee you, especially if you choose to follow up and follow through on the actions their feedback has made you want to implement.

5. Follow Through With Actions

Asking is one thing. Listening is another one. Acting upon the feedback is the decisive step that will show your students you are truly committed to learn from this reflective pause. I will not list the many ways these actions could take form, as I would not want to stereotype or limit the levels of creativity our students can reach when asked crucial questions about their learning environment.

Again for this step, accept to lean into discomfort, take risks and explore paths you might not have found time for before. If anybody at your school questions the value of doing this versus teaching the curriculum, remind them of the importance a strong culture plays in a classroom and a school in helping students reach their full potential academically. It is not only the right thing to do, it is also one of the most effective things to do.

6. Share Your Commitment With Another Educator

Finally, my last suggestion will be to share your commitment and your journey with at least one other educator at your school. Tell that person about your different approach this year and ask him or her to be your accountability partner. “In a few weeks or months, can you please ask me about where this is going again? I want to make sure I don’t let this gather dust on my desk.” This will give you the extra push you need when the going gets hard, and it will help one of your colleagues learn from your experience, and possibly change their approach for the long run too.

We have the power to change mindsets, but we often forget that this is more likely to happen one true conversation at a time, with students or colleagues, than it is to happen by simply sharing on social media. So let’s have the courage to talk with each other more about what feels hard, and let’s commit to truly listen, hear and act. It won’t be perfect, it might be uncomfortable and even painful at times, but as I often tell teachers and students: If there is no struggle, if there is no real challenge, there is probably not enough learning involved.