Using the Stories of Others to Begin Conversations on Race with My Students

The past few days, in my classroom, I have begun our reading lessons with a mix of nerves, anticipation, anxiety, and hope. You see, for the past week, we, my fifth grade students and I, have been talking about race. And I will be honest. It is somewhat terrifying. Terrifying because I, a white American woman, often worry that I am going to say the wrong thing in conversations about race. Terrifying because for my students, a vast majority of them who are also white Americans, have rarely, if ever, been engaged in conversations about race that go beyond, “A person’s skin color doesn’t matter.” Terrifying because race is NOT something I am an expert on, far from it. Terrifying because I am always worried that the words I choose to use will be the wrong ones. That I will offend. That I will do more harm than good. Terrifying because I know these conversations will often be uncomfortable.

And they must be. Because if we continue to sit in what is comfortable, nothing will ever really change in this country. They must be because people are facing far more discomfort that I am every single day because of the problems surrounding race that exist in this country and the problems that exist that we have refused to talk about and discuss for far too long.  And we are all afraid of saying the wrong thing, but I have come to believe with my whole heart that if I continue to say nothing, then I am playing a huge role in perpetuating the very problems that I am refusing to talk about.

I have written before of the responsibility I feel as a teacher to have conversations about race. Last year, we began to dig into these conversations, but this year. This year these conversations are the focus of my reading instruction early on in the year. I begin my reading workshop by studying how we can use books as both mirrors and windows.  The first few weeks of our reading work together was spent talking about how we can see ourselves reflected in the books we read and how this can help us to better understand our texts and to feel less alone in the world. Then, we moved our conversations into how books can also be windows into the lives of other people. People whose lives are different than our own.

And here, is where I have found an opportunity to delve into issues of race.

Because the way that I have learned about the true and terrifying realities about race that exist today in our country is by listening to the stories of those who live those realities every single day.  The best way for me to learn the things that I do not and cannot know, about what it is like to be a race other than white, is to learn from the stories of others. And I can do that same thing for my students. By using the stories that others so bravely are willing to share, I can help my students to learn about the lives of other people while we learn to be better and more careful readers.

By using the stories of other people, by letting others teach us what they know, I do not have to pretend to be an expert. I do not have to have all the answers. I do not have to worry as much about saying the wrong thing. Because my job is to help my students to see that these stories exist in the world and my job is to help my students learn by listening to the stories of others. So that is where we began.

We spent our first day talking about the books that my students have read that have helped them to better understand the lives of others. I began by book talking the book George and explaining how this book helped me to better understand the lives of children who are transgender. Then I spoke about the book Ruby on the Outside and shared how it helped me to better understand the lives of children who have a parent who is in jail. Then, I asked the kids to share examples from their own reading lives and our conversation lead to this incredible anchor chart:

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Once the kids saw that books can be windows into the lives of others, then we started to talk about how we can use the true stories that other people are willing to share with us in order to better understand the lives of other people. This led us to a really nice tie in to the memoir unit that we have been working on in writing workshop. We have spent a lot of time talking about the power of telling our own stories and now we can look at the flip side of that and see the power of reading the stories of other people.

As we began these conversations, it was important to me that before we listen to or read anyone else’s stories that we have some conversations about the responsibility of the reader or listener while sharing in someone else’s story.  We talked about HOW we can listen to or read people’s stories so that we truly can learn from them and build empathy and gain understanding. These conversations were powerful and here are some of the ideas that we came up with:

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We spent quite a lot of time talking about the importance of accepting other people’s experiences as their own truth and the vital importance of not dismissing someone else’s story or someone else’s experience. This was a new concept for so many of my students and I was so grateful to be able to watch as their eyes were opened and to be a part of this joint discovery in how to listen to the stories of others.

And then it was time to get to work. I shared with the students that I have spent a lot of time over the course of the last school year and this summer trying to better understand issues of race. I shared that after Ferguson, I realized that there was too much that I did not know and did not understand about race. I told them that sometimes the learning that I did was hard and scary and that I often messed up but that I knew that I couldn’t NOT learn more about race because the issues were too important and I had a responsibility to work to understand them.  I then shared with them that the best way that I have found to better understand what it is like to be a race other than white was to listen, really listen, to the stories of others. I told them that I wanted to do this type of learning with them.

Then I reassured them that they might feel uncomfortable, that they would probably mess up somewhere along the way, that they might not understand some of the things that we were learning. And all of that was okay. We were going to do this together.

So we got started. I told them that because this concept was so complex and difficult, we were going to start without any text in front of us. Before we read the stories of others, we were going to learn to just listen to the stories of others that have been recorded and shared on video. On Thursday, we began by listening to the stories of some extremely brave 12 year olds who spoke about race. We watched THIS video that was a part of a series called, “Being 12.”

The first time, we jut watched the video. I asked them to listen to the words of the kids and be aware of any new understandings that these words led to.  The video is a short four and a half minutes, but there is SO much shared in that brief amount of time.

After watching the video once, I asked the students to share some overall understandings that the video led them to. A lot of the kids were too overwhelmed to share much. There seemed to be too much to think about for kids who had NEVER been asked to think about these things before. Some students spoke of understandings that were not at all tied to the video but still relying on news stories or pop culture. It would have been easy to give up at this point, to say that I had tried, that it was just too hard for 5th graders and move on. But I knew that there was more in my students’ minds than what I was hearing. I knew that we just needed more time. And I realized that we needed to break things down a little bit more.

But there were a few really important insights shared after the first viewing of the video. After listening to reactions and sharing some of my own, two things were made clear to me about my students understanding, or lack of understanding, about race:

  1. My students didn’t realize that white was a race. The vast majority of my students are white and they had no idea that the word race had anything to do with them.
  2. My students were shocked to hear me say that I have been treated certain ways because of my race. They did not realize that people make assumptions of me because I am white and that people interact with me in a certain way based on those assumptions. The concept of white privilege is far beyond their understanding right now because they do not even understand that people who are white get treated a certain way because of it.

These were such important realizations for me because they helped me to see how very far we have to go and how incredibly important it was that we were starting to have these conversations.   This is where my students are right now and like every single other thing we do with kids, I am going to meet them where they are and gently push them forward.

So on Friday. I told the students that we were going to watch the video again. But this time I asked them to take out a piece of paper. I had them make a two-column chart. On the top of the first column I had them write, “What I heard” and on the top of the second column I had them write, “What it helped me to understand.” And then we watched the video again, but this time we stopped after every fifteen seconds or so.  I began by modeling how my own understandings grew throughout the video.

At the start of the video, the children being filmed introduced themselves and shared their race. I stopped at this point and wrote down that what I heard were introductions. Then I wrote that what it helped me to understand was that race was more than just black and white. It also helped me to understand that you cannot assume you know the race of a person simply by looking at that person. Then I played a bit more of the video.

The next part of the video is a 12 year old girl sharing the story of bringing in food that her family from Venezuela eats and being made fun of for it. As she recounts the story, you can hear the nervous laughter in her voice. I stopped the video there and wrote down that what I heard was nervous laughter and what it helped me to understand was the deep pain that an experience like this can cause a person and the shame that children carry around after being made fun of for being different.

We continued like this throughout the first half of the video.

And then we ran out of time. The kids had so much to write down that we could not finish by the end of the day on Friday. So we will pick back up with our work on Monday.

This work has been heavy. This work has been challenging. This work has only just begun for us. We have so much more to think about and talk about. But I have been so inspired by my students and their willingness to dive into these issues. I had kids willing to work up until the very last minute of reading workshop on a Friday afternoon. I had kids begging me to let them skip their next subject so that we could finish the video. I had kids itching to share their thinking and new understandings about race.

We will finish this video on Monday and then my plan is to continue with two more videos, both of the TED talks. One from Clint Smith and one from Mellody Hobson. We will do similar types of work before moving on to doing this work with stories that we read instead of listen to.

I am no longer quite so terrified and that is mostly because of these kids. These kids, they WANT to talk about race. They want to understand. They want to know and to do better.  They might have absolutely no idea where to start and they might be completely unaware of so many things that they need to become aware of, but they have made one thing incredibly clear. These kids, they do not want to be protected from these important conversations.

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3 thoughts on “Using the Stories of Others to Begin Conversations on Race with My Students

  1. Pingback: Talking About Race | The Empowerment Network

  2. Reblogged this on Teachezwell Blog and commented:
    Here’s an insightful blog from a teacher who is drawing herself and her students into discussions and understandings about race. It’s a great start to important conversations, words that can help tear down the barriers in our society.

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