Create consciousness: How do you facilitate lessons on race and racism in a classroom?

By Katie Whelan, ESL teacher, Highland Springs High School

Race and ethnicity is a confusing topic demonstrated in the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity where the federal government still struggles with those categories. Race may be a construct but racism is real. Teachers need to be knowledgeable of history and have vocabulary for dialogue in the classroom. As educators we need to have this awareness to understand oppressive systems affecting our students. We must give students the vocabulary to discuss what they already experience or we become part of a system that still divides and categorizes humans as inferior and superior.

When teaching about systemic issues, the root causes must be identified before understanding of current states of oppression can happen. This is not a “black and white” concept; it is important to understand racism is multidimensional and often intertwined with class and gender. Students should also know race was and is purposely divisive and that we are all a part of a system in place before our birth. Should we perpetuate this division of consciousness and solutions? Each project should include some connection for change even if very small. I use this interactive from PBS “Race-The Power of an Illusion” to build our background knowledge before we begin anything.

These are a few projects from my high school class this year. Note my class is below grade level in a struggling school. Students of all backgrounds can have lessons that require higher order thought even if they aren’t passing the state tests! When you teach, focus on content, comprehension and communication before grammar and syntax. Data collection and research papers can be scaffolded to accommodate lower literacy. I include text, video, film, poetry, current events, music and that so scary CIA World Fact Book.

It is very important that lower literacy students be given tools to research with purpose because this is a lesson in self education. Self education is self advocacy, a life skill.

  • Early in the year I taught “Troy Davis.” In class, we followed a capital murder case with a date for execution in the near future. We wove issues into the research project such as felonies and the vote, mass incarceration, the death penalty, and the connections of race and economics including immigrant detention. In our class we also looked at the demographics of incarceration within their own area which directly impacted their neighborhoods and, of course, their lives. Kids searched on their own the night of the execution and found Democracy Now coverage.
  • Research global education: “Are all children born equal?” is our theme in class right now. First they watch a documentary series on global education, then they will compare and contrast countries through data collection and establishing conclusions based on their findings. This project demonstrates global issues of gender, race, economics and violence. The class will identify one issue to create a project for a change.
  • We follow Arizona throughout the year. They read reports on the banned ethnic studies program and student walk outs. Most of my kids had never even heard of an ethnic studies class. They were very interested in the idea of history from a variety of perspectives..even women! These kinds of current issues including Jeremy Lin for example can be quick lessons. Create critical questioning by giving a two-sided issue with for example this report on ending black history month. Add a variety of reports on the same subject, and ask them how different news media communicates the same issues. Can media be biased and how does this influence perspectives?
  • Finally, always address inappropriate classroom commentary and establish expectations. It is important to catch these situations; kids for whom they are directed will internalize offensive comments …forever! Once acknowledged that it will not be accepted, students will begin to open up about school wide issues for which they are often silent. Frequently kids are unconscious of the impact of their own actions and say things for attention.

Addressing this will create an aware environment…some change ya’ll.


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