Why one Chicago school decided to speak up on race and justice

What role should teachers play?
What role should teachers play?
Image: Reuters/Jim Young
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“Race and Justice Letter to Parents,” said the email in my inbox. It was from our daughter’s school. This was not the kind of email that parents routinely get from the school. This was a letter directly addressing the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, speaking to parents about the school’s role in shaping conversations around race and social justice. This school, the email’s subject signaled, was not going to tiptoe around the elephant in the classroom.

Unusual as the email was, it was even more unusual that it was sent out at all. Amidst the media focus on New York and Ferguson, the many discussions on race and the sharing of personal experiences, the rallies and die-ins, the majority of schools have been conspicuously silent.

As news about events in New York and Ferguson ebbed and flowed, I have had conversations with other parents about the role of schools, particularly those of elementary schools. Do schools have a role in speaking to students and parents about news events that transfix the nation but can also hit home? Or should elementary schools steer clear of news that could lead to messy and potentially divisive conversations? Are these teachable moments or are these times to shelter our children for just a while longer? At a time when many private schools speak of a triangle between the student, the parent and the school, why were so many schools silent?

“Schools struggle with what to say,” said Howard Stevenson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has long studied emotional and racial skills and earlier this year published a book, Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences That Make A Difference. “Most policies focus on not saying the wrong thing, as opposed to being proactive and saying the right thing.”

Race is such a sensitive issue that it is easy to understand why schools might want to steer clear of classroom conversations. As a parent of elementary school children, I know only too well that there can be much lost in translation by the time a conversation is retold at home. As a parent of children with brown skin, I want to shape early conversations around race.

So why did my daughter’s school decide to send out that email?

“Anything that has an impact on our greater society filters into our classrooms whether parents realize it or not,” said Audrey Perrott, head of Near North Montessori School (NNMS), a 51-year-old private school that our daughter attends in Chicago. “Children are always listening.”

NNMS has a culture of encouraging conversations around diversity. At the seventh and eighth grade levels, the school has regular meetings for the students to discuss differences. The after school group, called BLOTCH (the acronym does not stand for anything) was started by students a few years ago and continues to be student run. The school also hosts SEED groups for parents and staff. SEED is an acronym for Seeking Educational Equity & Diversity; the project’s founder, Peggy McIntosh, is best known for writing extensively about the notion of white privilege. NNMS parents and students have marched in Chicago’s Pride Parade. A handful of parents recently organized weekly rallies holding signs with the hashtag, “Black Lives Matter.”

That makes NNMS unusually well equipped to have difficult conversations about race and other sensitive issues. Without having a large portion of the parents and staff already engaged in discussions about differences, it would be very hard for a school to parachute itself into the middle of touchy topics.

Still, Perrott is acutely aware of the delicate position that schools find themselves in. The letter talks about the school’s role in bringing conversations about justice, peace and race in age appropriate ways into the classroom but it also underscores that it is providing an opening for conversations at home. It lists general guidelines for parents. Sample guidelines: Answer all questions respectfully, clarify just what is being discussed, share information in an age appropriate fashion, do not be afraid of not having all the answers, call out stereotypes when you see them.

What the letter does not do is provide specific answers. “We do not take a political stance,” Perrott emphasizes. “Our view is that we support social justice and are opposed to systemic oppression.”

UPenn’s Stevenson has more specific advice for schools and parents. He recommends starting with storytelling, where adults can take the lead in sharing stories about being rejected. “There are stories of rejection across the racial spectrum,” he says. “Experiencing a friend being stopped or harassed can be very traumatic.” Journaling, using mindfulness to stay relaxed when rejected, role playing and debates are other steps in the process.

As Stevenson sees it, teaching elementary students to be aware of race-based rejection is no different from making children aware of the danger of talking to strangers, being careful with fire or the other precautionary warnings that parents and teachers share on a regular basis. “We pick and choose our messages. We are very loud about some things,” says Stevenson, who believes that schools must not shy away from talking about race just as they do not hesitate about introducing challenging topics within the academic curriculum. “Schools have to be proactive. We don’t wait to talk about quadratic formulas because we think students will find it difficult.”

How do you recognize racial rejection? To illustrate, Stevenson shares a particularly telling example of an elementary school where there was only one little boy of color in a class. At recess, all the other children decided to cast that little boy as the butler. The child, deeply saddened, told his mother. “These kinds of incidents happen,” Stevenson said, equating the impact of racial rejection to other kinds of trauma. “This is not to blame the children but to understand both the emotional pain and how and why kids get these ideas. If we don’t talk about it, there will be a tendency to believe that it did not happen or to self-blame.”

At NNMS, student ages range from 2-14. Class discussions are very varied, depending on the level. Race is a particularly complex issue that can leave scars if not handled with care. It is an issue that can lead to tears, fear, rage, guilt and confusion – none of which are emotions that an educator normally wants to invite into a classroom. It is also an issue that some teachers will inevitably handle better than others because so much about race-based discussions is based on our own experiences and biases.

But as Perrott sees it, staying silent was never a choice for the school. “If the discussion does not happen, it sends the wrong message to our children,” she said. “Silence makes it appear that it is not safe or that it is wrong to discuss these issues. We must have the courage to have these conversations.”