In less than one week, my new groups of 5th graders will be heading through our classroom door. I love the start of the school year. It is filled with such anticipation, mixed with anxiousness, mixed with uncertainty, mixed with excitement. I love the possibility of a new school year, I love the way we, as a new classroom community, start to try to figure each other out as soon as we walk through the door. I love the way that we reach out, form connections and start to figure out the kind of classroom that we are going to be.
It is one of my favorite times of year.
And yet. This year. I am entering into the school year with a heavy heart. This world of ours. The ways we have failed to fix it and the ways we continue to mess it up. It is all weighing so heavily on so many of us. And it is my own privilege that has previously kept these feelings from me and it is my own privilege that makes this current state of being feel like something new, when, in fact, it is something as old as the country I call my home.
Like many other educators, I have promised to do better. I have spent time reading and educating myself and trying to figure out how I can discuss this world with my students. I have spent time trying to figure out how I can teach in a way that does not just promote kindness, but that actively works to dismantle the racist structures and systems that school has continued to promote for so long.
Because we have so much work to do. And, to be honest, there is no one that I would rather be engaged in this work with than a new group of kids. Kids give me so much hope because they are so willing to identify the things that are wrong and they are even more willing to look for ways to make those things right, or at least a bit more right. They are willing to engage in difficult conversations. They are willing to make themselves vulnerable. They are willing to admit they do not know it all. They are willing to struggle with difficult concepts in an attempt to understand the injustices that we can help them to see. In short, they give me hope. So I am looking forward to getting back to my students, because I know that they will be willing to join in me in this work.
And this work. It is on so many of our minds as we head back into the new school year. I have never heard so many educators engaged in so many conversations about race and racism and bias and identity. It is horrific that it has taken us this long, but I find myself now standing with more educators ready to do better than ever before.
And yet. There is a lot of uncertainty here. A lot of white educators, we have a lot to catch up on. We are woefully behind and ignorant on the very things that we now know that we need to help our students to understand. And that is a very uncomfortable feeling. Not as uncomfortable, might I add, as those who have been living and breathing and struggling with the consequences of white supremacy and racism for their entire lives, but for those of us whose privilege has kept us at a comfortable distance from discomfort, we are having a hard time adjusting. And sometimes that adjustment, it forces us to turn away. It pushes us back towards silence. Towards complacency.
But if we really mean what we say, if we really promise to do better and commit to social justice, then we have to find a way to lean into the discomfort and move forward. And do better.
But as we wrestle with these issues, we also find ourselves at the start of a new school year. For all of us, there is always an uncertainty about what has happened in our students lives over the summer. And this year, even more so. We do not know what our students will walk into our rooms knowing or not knowing. We do not know what our students will walk into our room having experienced personally or alongside their families. There is so much we do not yet know about our new students.
And so many of us are left asking: “How am I supposed to confront white supremacy and racism on the first day of school?”
This is the question that has been plaguing me for many nights and I have come to this space to try to make some sense of it all.
Here is where I land. We might not be ready to confront white supremacy and racism head on during the first week of school. But that does not mean that we do nothing. What we must do, instead, is start to build the foundation that will allow us to do that work in the days and weeks and months to come. And here are some ways that I hope to do that.
On the first day of the school year, I want my students to walk into our classroom for the very first time and feel a sense of calm. A shelter from this storm of a world that we have made for them. I want every single child to feel safe and to know that he or she or they belong here. If I were to ask my fifth grade students, on day one, to engage in conversations about racism and white supremacy, I would not be giving them a fair chance. Things would probably go poorly. There would be misunderstandings and hurt feelings and someone would probably walk away scared for the year to come.
Now let me be clear, this does NOT mean that I do not believe these conversations should be taking place in fifth grade. They should. And ultimately, in our classroom, they will.
But what I am trying to say is that we cannot expect to change the world on the first day of the school year. We cannot ask our students to have courageous conversations before we have made them feel as if this is a safe place to do so.
So what can we do? Where can we start? What can we do in our first minutes, hours and days of the school year that will allow us to create a place where we can confront white supremacy and racism with our students?
Here are some of things that have felt important to me:
From the minute my students walk through the door, I want to show them that the stories of white people are not the only stories valued, given worth and made visible in our classroom. To do this, every picture book that I read in the first week of school will have a person of color as a main character. This does NOT mean that I will only be reading books ABOUT race, this means that I will no longer allow the stories of white people and white characters to be the ones that my students see the most. We will read books like Jabari Jumps and One Word From Sophia and Come On, Rain and Mr. Lincoln’s Way. We will look at stories from the website Human of New York and we will look at stories that come from Iraq and Pakistan and Sudan and Brazil and Uganda. We will see that there are humans all over this world, some look like we do, some don’t, some live like we do, and some don’t, but we all have stories and those stories all have value and worth and in our classroom we will broaden our understanding of the world by valuing all stories.
From the minute my students walk through the door, I want them to know that they are loved and accepted for exactly who they are. Because this much I know, children who know what it is like to be loved for who they are, have a much easier time loving others for exactly who they are. I will work hard to ensure that students’ various needs and wants are heard and I will do my best to meet those needs and wants. I will do this by asking for their input from the very first day. They will have choice in what they sit on or in, they will have choice in who they sit by, they will choice in how our first day will unfold. I do not pretend that allowing kids to choose where they will solve the problems of this world, but letting kids know that I understand they are all different and unique individuals will start to convince them that I see them for who they are and that who they are is loved and accepted here.
From the minute my students walk through the door, I want them to know that I will work to get to KNOW who they are instead of making ASSUMPTIONS about who they are. Because this will model for them the way that they can work to overcome their own biases and assumptions by listening for and accepting as truth the stories that other people tell about themselves. I will ask questions about their lives outside of school, about their families, about their traditions and about their homes instead of assuming that these are things that I already understand. I will also make sure to listen, very carefully, as they start to tell me about their lives. I will listen, very carefully, as they pronounce their names. First names and last names. And I will ask them to repeat their names, first names and last names, so that I am certain that I am saying them correctly and I will be hyper vigilant to assure that their classmates are saying them correctly as well. Because a child’s name is the very first piece of their identity that they actively choose to share with me and by showing them that I value this piece of who they are enough to make sure that I get it right, I am modeling the importance of truly getting to know another human.
From the minute my students walk through the door, I want them to know that their voices carry power. Helping students believe that their words matter and that their thoughts and ideas matter, starts on day one and I truly believe that convincing our kids that they have things that are worth saying, helps them to learn to say much more important things. So from the first day, my students’ voices will craft our classroom vision statement, and I will ask them to lend their voices by telling their own stories so that we can begin to share these stories with the world in order to help the world better understand their lives.
From the minute my students walk through the door, I want them to know that they are a part of a community. Because a student who feels connected to a community that is built on love, will be less likely to feel the need to seek out a community that is built on hate. So from the first day, I will ask my students to work together. I will ask them to make things. Together. I will not allow them to choose to make something on their own. And I will promise to not swoop in the second there is a disagreement, because I want them to know that communities can disagree AND still find ways to work together. So there will be Lego building challenges and design challenges and STEM challenges where people with different ideas will need to come together in order to make one thing. There might be tension and there might be arguing and we will start to find our way through it all. Because I want my students to know that there will be tough moments in our classroom, we will not shy away from that which might make us uncomfortable, and we will come out on the other side stronger and better.
From the minute my students walk through the door, I will share myself with them. I will share my own stories. I will tell them who I am. I will tell them about my wife and my daughter and my, many, many pets. I will also tell them about my struggles, about my strengths and the things that scare me. Because if they do not see me as human and as imperfect, then they will never be willing to share their imperfections with me. And it is in our imperfections where we have the best chance of beginning to grow.
And from the minute my students walk through the door, there will be joy. Because if we do not have a foundation of joy in our classroom, then it will be hard to tackle the harder stuff. If we cannot stand on joy, then it will be harder for us to understand our responsibility to fight for those who have too many barriers to joy. Standing on the strength of our shared joy, we will be better able to tackle the things that are devoid of joy, the things that keep us awake at night, the things that cause us to doubt our own sense of hope.
And none of these things, by themselves, are particularly revolutionary. But what they create is a strong foundation. A foundation that will support us through the difficult work that we are going to do this year. Because as so many others have said, and much more intelligently than me, we have some very difficult work to do this year. And we are going to need to do it together and trust in each other and make ourselves vulnerable in front of each other and maybe we are not ready to do on day one, but the things that we are ready to do on day one will set the tone for the year and prepare us for what will come.