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Racial and Equality Issues

Does anyone here discuss racial and equality issues with students at different levels? How do you reinforce reading and writing around discussions, reflections, or research about race in the US or elsewhere? Christi



Leecy's picture

Christi, thanks for asking a very good question.

One wonderful aspect to teaching reading and writing is that we can contextualize it into any topic of interest to students. I would think that race would be an engaging topic for most. I know that in my region, communities face major racial issues. People from one race hold deep anger and resentment against another, and the other holds equal anger either in retribution or against other racial groups, or, sometimes, among groups in their own racial definition. I hope that others here will help us address this sore in our community body. Help, please? Leecy

finnmiller's picture

Hi Christi and all, Given recent events that we hear almost daily on the news, e.g., NFL controversy, Charlottesville, police shootings, immigration controversies, etc., it seems to me quite appropriate to discuss race and equity issues in the classroom. I'm curious if your have noticed that students in your class are interested in these issues. In my experience, students usually are.

In my opinion, it is important to invite students into conversations on these sensitive topics. However, we need to do so with care. One essential step is to engage students in establishing ground rules for these conversations. I have a process I use for establishing ground rules with students as well as with the teachers I train that I can share if members are interested. 

Thank you for bringing up this critically important topic. I welcome hearing from many members on this issue.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP

Kathy_Tracey's picture

Opening disucssions about racial equity can be complicated. The recent events with the NFL and Charlotsville stir up emotion. Recently, I started a discussion on the Professional Development Community of Practice with a link to a practice called Civic Reflection. This is a structured process that guides facilitators through active discussions with the goal of creating positive civic engagement. 

A structured podcast that might be useful as a way to discuss sensitive topics is NPR's Code Switch. 



Christi Connell's picture

Thank you, Kathy. I like the process of Civic Reflection that you shared. I'll explore it more. Thanks for the links! 

Christi Connell's picture

Susan, I understand that discussions around race can get very touchy and emotional. I'm not sure that students in my classes show an interest in discussing the issue. However, they are certainly interested in stating their views very forcefully within their own groups. I notice so much blind anger between races here, going both ways. I'm not sure about how to bring up the topic since I notice rolled eyes, smirking, and fidgeting when I talk about it all. I hope you will share your group rules here. I'd like to consider them. Thanks!

finnmiller's picture

Hi Chisti and all, I am not surprised that students are stating their views forcefully. To me this shows they likely do have a strong interest in certain issues. These days there is a whole lot of that, and I think having strong feelings about some of the things that have been happening is to be expected.  Expressing one's views is something we teachers can support as long as it is done respectfully. Establishing ground rules is one way to work toward ensuring respectfulness is practiced by all.

Here's the process called Ground Rules for Critical Conversations that I've adapted from Stephen Brookfield (2017):

1. Give participants a minute or two to respond to the following prompt in writing. (There should be no conversation yet. We want to first give people individual time to think.)

  • Think about some of the best group conversations yoiu've ever had. What do you think made these conversations so meaningful. Jot down a list of the things that made these conversations positive.

2. Give participants a minute or two to respond to the following prompt in writing. (There should still be no conversation -- just time to think and write.)

  • Think about some of the worst group conversations yoiu've ever had. What do you think made these conversations so awful. Jot down a list of the things that made these conversations so negative.

3. Form groups of 3-4. Invite participants to talk about and compare their lists of factors that made for positive conversations and factors that led to negative conversations. Ask them to work together to prioritize the most important factors that made conversations positive as well as what aspects to avoid. Each group might have 4-5 items on factors that make for positive conversations and 4-5 things to avoid negative conversations. Explain that groups will then share their ideas with the whole class. Groups might need about 10-15 minutes for these conversations.

4. Groups take turns presenting their ideas to the whole class. There will no doubt be some overlap of factors, but that's okay because the repetitions emphasize points that likely need to be emphasized.

5. The teacher independently (or in collaboration with the participants) can then synthesize the information that was presented to come up with a list of ground rules that everyone can agree with.  I always present the synthesized list to the participants in the next class and ask the group if anything needs to be added or changed. We then post the agreed upon list of ground rules in the classroom. The wall poster can then be reviewed as needed.

Here's an example of the ground rules (or guidelines) that one group I worked with collaborated on as part of the process I describe above.

To the best of our ability to ensure safe and meaningful conversations in our class we will:


  • Be respectful.
  • Be open listeners.
  • Listen actively to one another for understanding—“What I hear you saying is….  Is that right?”
  • Be supportive of each other's comments.
  • Don't assume everyone is on the same page.
  • Recognize that the goal is to understand one another, not to “win.”
  • Seek first to understand, then to be understood—ask each other good questions.
  • Use I statements—“I feel …. when you …”
  • Strive to actually agree to disagree on topics when needed—even though it can be hard.
  • Acknowledge emotion and opinion without allowing emotion to rule.
  • Back up opinion with knowledge and facts as much as possible—be able to give support so others can understand better.
  • Recognize what one’s own understanding is based on—facts, experience, emotions, etc.
  • Define vocabulary before or during discussion for clarification.
  • Participate actively in discussion.
  • Help everyone stay on topic.

We commit ourselves to revisit these guidelines regularly and especially if a situation warrants that we do so.

I started using this process after a particularly painful experience in a class I taught years ago. There was serious conflict around race issues in that class, and I felt responsible for not creating a safe space for everyone. I realized that it was essential for me to work on making sure my classroom was safe for these kinds of critical conversations, so I've used this process with almost every group I've worked with since then. For me, it has always been important to invite discussion of tough issues. However, as we all know, this can be fraught. For me and the groups I've worked with, this process has proven to be worth the time it takes to implement.

I welcome your thoughts on this process, Christi, as well as those of other members of the community. Comments and questions are welcome.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP

Reference: Brookfield, S. (2017). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. 2nd Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Christi Connell's picture

Susan, thanks for some good ideas on how to discuss this sensitive topic in groups where racial or other tensions come up. I can see them working in larger groups and will try some with the smaller classes that I teach, like numbers 1 and 2. I think that using videos, like the one you posted from the Air Force can help divert feelings and direct attention to situations that are not so personal. Thank you for your help. 

finnmiller's picture

Hello Christi and all, I wonder if anyone has seen this powerful YouTube video of "Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, along with U.S. Air Force Academy leadership, addressing the entire Cadet Wing and U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School today. Lt. Gen. Silveria left no uncertainties that racism has no place at the Academy." 

I wonder if teachers might consider using this video in class? It could surely make for some interesting discussion. Would love to hear members' thoughts on this.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP