An Intentional Approach to Race and Adversity

Our friendship dates back to 2014, when we taught in the humanities department at The Girls' Middle School (CA). After our time in Palo Alto, Amoy relocated to Atlanta and Lauren to Washington, DC, and we continued to check in about our lives parenting toddlers and our work developing curriculum at new institutions and learning platforms. Last June, however, our conversations shifted.

After the murder of George Floyd, we began to check in about race, allyship, and justice, approaching this from Amoy’s experience as a Black woman and Lauren’s as a white ally. We’d often discuss how schools are a microcosm of society and that the way race is talked about nationally sets a poor example for students. And while reflecting was a helpful first step, given the year we’ve all had, it became important for us to push through the inertia of talking. Our conversations led us to talk about how intentional teachers must work to give students the tools they need to process the stories of race and adversity that are ever-present in our national history, literature, and contemporary society. We wondered how to better engage our learners.

Topics of race and adversity, in any subject area, can be painful and traumatic for students. But with a set of considerations and practices—a framework—that school leaders and educators can incorporate into their work, independent schools can build trauma-informed classrooms that promote, practice, and provide justice. There are six practices we urge educators to consider.

Make a plan. Race and adversity will come up in our classrooms, whether it is in response to the day’s news, in a history lesson, or in a piece of writing. To best support our students’ psychological and emotional safety and to preserve connections, faculty must meet with DEIJ leaders within their school community, guidance counselors, and their peers to make a plan. We know that school staff and faculty, departments, and grade level divisions have regular meetings, but time should be carved out at each of those sessions to facilitate discussions that center DEIJ work. There is a constant stream of stories about racial violence and trauma in our country, and teachers are being asked to be responsive within hours of an event, so engaging in this regular practice helps them to be prepared and have the language and practices they need to support students’ emotions. These sessions might include:
  • sharing feedback on specific lessons;
  • developing communication and language guidelines;
  • searching for coherence between curricula and school mission and equity statements;
  • designing opportunities for students to engage in small group conversations; and
  • partnering to communicate with families. 
School leaders must facilitate the right school culture and schedule for these conversations, and it starts with recognizing that not all teachers are prepared or comfortable. We need to provide professional development, resources, and time to develop this capacity. As the challenges of teaching during the pandemic have uncovered, teachers need more time to plan, to receive instructional coaching, to develop our cultural competencies, and to pause and reflect on the materials and topics we bring into our students’ lives.

Recognize different needs. Last summer’s [email protected] Instagram posts detailed the painful comments that Black students absorbed from their non-Black peers and teachers while studying traumatic topics. These classroom moments can lead to deep wounds and an unsafe environment. Toxic stress, caused by periods of sustained trauma, is real. It is important to tread thoughtfully when discussing race and adversity in our classrooms, because as research shows, we can activate a firestorm of stressors with evolutionary implications for our students of color. Their heartbeats might accelerate, their bodies entering fight or flight mode—in this physical state, learning cannot take place.

By creating opportunities to discuss race and adversity in different racial identity groups, we can change the tenor of the moment. For white students, these conversations enable them to ask questions, to develop critical language and discussion tools, to practice empathy, and to stumble without wounding their Black and brown peers.

Offer varying perspectives and voices. White storytellers are the dominant perspective published each year. It is our responsibility to question these dominant narratives and to bring new resources and voices to our students.

We free ourselves by acknowledging that not all texts are perfect. Amoy, for example, while a fan of Harper Lee, has become increasingly critical of the white savior storyteller. She includes Lee in her curriculum, but when using texts by white authors to tell the stories of Black and Brown folks, she will:
  • always mention that white authors profit from selling the stories of Black and brown people in ways that Black and brown authors don’t.
  • point out the flawed narrative that Black people have to be saved by white people, which takes away their agency.
  • find Black and brown writers telling the stories of Black and brown people.
  • focus on trauma-free representations of Blackness that shows Black folks as having full and dignified lives.
  • offer opportunities to interrogate white supremacy as the root cause of racial violence and bias.
Communicate with families. Before discussing issues involving race and adversity in our classes, we should share course resources and let families know how we’ll be supporting students. Lauren works with her teaching partners to email families a preview of the unit and to invite family participation. The email includes:
  • a description of the unit text(s), specifically calling out topics and experiences and providing an explanation of how she will address those moments and support students.
  • an explanation for why she is teaching the text and how it fits into the larger curricular picture.
  • additional resources such as Common Sense Media, where families can read fair reviews of the text as well as adaptations.
  • encouragement for the family to engage with the text and to reach out with any questions, comments, and additional resources.
Celebrate the stories of people of color. We will continue to see stories of racial injustice and adversity in America. That is why it is imperative that we work hard to ensure that we do not reproduce the single story of Black and brown suffering in our classrooms. Make space for the joyful stories and traditions of Black and brown learners.

Bettina Love, Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Education at the University of Georgia, where she has been instrumental and a pioneer in establishing Abolitionist Teaching and schools, calls for a curriculum that centers the celebration of Black folk. Some of Love’s sentiments were echoed by Viola Canales, author, professor at Stanford Law, and former attorney, in an interview with Harvard Magazine. In the interview, she talks about her deliberate decision-making in her novel Tequila Worm to create a world where the beauty of Mexican culture and tradition takes center stage. “We are so tired of stories of gangs and drugs. Tequila Worm really celebrates the positive side of our culture—the family, the spirituality, the food, and the music.”

Provide context and support. Processing texts that might surface trauma may feel isolating and overwhelming for students at home. They need context, a safe place to talk, and appropriate supports in the classroom and from social-emotional learning and/or guidance counselors. Trauma-informed teaching means prioritizing Howard Bath’s three core principles of trauma-informed care: safety, connection, and emotional regulation.
When selecting texts, consider:
  • removing from summer reading lists material or sources that deal with adverse experiences.
  • asking “How does this source or text connect to our upcoming curricular focus? What would it feel like to read this story alone as a young person?”
  • reading, reflecting, and revising often as new texts come out and as our understanding of previously used resources shifts.
  • engaging our students to find out what they enjoy reading, asking what they’re curious about, and observing where their blind spots might be.
When we put in this prework, it enables us to invite our students to join and be present. We can show that we’ve considered their needs and curiosity, and we can show how we’ve structured our classes to provide the support they need to share openly and with acceptance.

We want students in our classes to feel safe, seen, and heard. This framework allows us to check ourselves against each week, each unit, and each year. We know it will change in response to the development of our learning and understanding about race and adversity, the climate of our country, and the needs of our students.
Amoy Walker
Amoy Walker

Amoy Walker is an academic and program strategy consultant and an independent school parent.

Lauren Lewis
Lauren Lewis

Lauren Lewis is a humanities teacher at Capitol Hill Day School in Washington, DC.


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