Today, it was hard for me not to have hope for this world.
For the past two weeks, my students and I have been engaged in an inquiry into the lives of others with a particular focus on race, assumptions, stereotypes and bias. If you are interested, you can read about the start of our work HERE and the continuation of our work HERE.
After spending several days digging into some incredible resources, I knew that I wanted my students to have time to discuss their new understandings and the questions that they still had. I wanted my students to talk to each other, to listen to each other, to learn from each other and to reach new thinking together. Not only did I want this for my students, but I knew that this was what they needed. To learn and to grow in regards to issues as difficult as race, we humans need to engage in conversation. We need to talk. We need to listen.
But these things do not come easily. For adults, talking about race is a challenge. And now, I wanted to release my students into small-group, student-led conversations. And I was scared. I had watched my students wrestle with incredibly challenging questions over our past two weeks of work. I had seen them learn to ask better questions and follow those questions towards better understanding.
And yet, I had also heard how much they still did not understand. I also heard how much they still needed guidance and explanation. I also heard how much they still spoke from a place of privilege and misunderstanding. And I was scared of what would happen when I was not right next to them, when I could not jump right in, when I could not fix the things I wanted to fix right away.
Luckily, I was not in this alone. Not only did I have my students there with me. But I also had the wisdom of others. This summer, I had the absolute privilege of attending the single most powerful conference session that I have ever attended. At ILA, the brilliant Cornelius Minor led a session focusing on how to have difficult conversations about race with your students in the classroom. To be in that room was to witness brilliance. I do not think that one person left that room without having been changed in some way. I wish I could put into words the work that was done that day, but I truly have no words.
Not only did Cornelius model for us how to have difficult conversations with our students, but he managed to create a safe space within minutes where people shared and listened and learned in a way that I have not before experienced. I learned so much that day. As a teacher. As a human.
And so today, several months after this session, I carried Cornelius’s words and the words of everyone who so bravely shared their truths that day, into my classroom.
One of the things that I learned that day was the power of giving people time to think, to collect their thoughts, to reflect before beginning a conversation. I also learned that we must be deliberate in how we help kids to listen and not just to talk. So I began by asking my students to prepare for their discussions today.
We started by looking at the notes that my students had been collected over the past two weeks. Each student had been using THIS DOCUMENT to collect their thinking about the seven big questions that they had asked after watching our first video. After looking over their answers and their questions, I modeled how I sorted my own answers and questions into questions that I was not able to answer and wanted to discuss, questions I found answers to but wanted to hear the perspectives of others and thoughts that I wanted to make sure to share with my group in today’s discussion. I then asked my students to do the same. I gave them THIS DOCUMENT to help them to begin to sort through their many thoughts and questions. I gave them a few silent minutes to think and sort and prepare.
Something else that I learned from Cornelius’s session was the power of starting small. In the size of the group and also in the length of the initial discussion. So I begin by putting the kids into pairs. I told the pairs that I wanted them to start with a question. I told them that their first discussion would only last for three minutes. I told them that as they were discussing, I would walk around and write down the powerful questions that I heard them discussing. I told them that I would make sure they were okay with me sharing their question before I put it up on the board. And then I sent them off to discuss.
And it was amazing. There was not a single pair of students who was not focused on the task at hand. Pairs were listening to each other. They were building off of each other’s thinking. Not a moment was wasted. These kids had so much to say.
After three minutes, I asked the kids to stop and think about what they heard from their partner. I asked them to think not about what they wanted to say next, but instead to think about what they heard from their partner. And then the partners joined another pair and became a group of four. This time, they had six minutes to discuss.
Again, I walked around. I listened it. I asked permission to share questions with the class by writing them up on the board.
After six minutes, I asked the kids to combine one more time so that we had groups of eight. Before they started, I asked them to again think about what they had heard others say. And then I let them go again, this time for twelve minutes.
Here is what it looked like in my classroom this afternoon:
And the conversations. They were amazing. The questions. They were so good. These kids were so willing to push their thinking, they were so willing to speak even if they weren’t exactly sure of the right way to say what they wanted to say. They were not afraid to ask questions. They were not afraid to make themselves vulnerable by admitting what they did not know and understand. They were not afraid to challenge each other. There were disagreements, but they did not turn into arguments. There were moments where they talked over each other or at each other and there were also moments where they were listening not just with their ears, but with their hearts.
We have so much to learn from kids.
The conversations were far from perfect. There were comments made that still made me cringe. There were moments I had to walk away. There were moments I had to interrupt and intervene. But I kept reminding myself. They are ten. This is the first time many of them have engaged in conversations of race. It isn’t always going to be pretty. In fact, most times it is going to be pretty messy. Pretty ugly.
But if I let that stop me. If I let that stop us. We would have missed so much.
Just look at the questions that my students discussed today:
Today my students learned that it is okay to talk about race. That it is necessary. That it is the only hope we have of making anything better. Today my students learned that sometimes, often times, you will say something hurtful even when you don’t mean to and that all you can do then is apologize and then do better next time. Today my students learned that staying silent is dangerous and that through tough conversations we can learn and grow and change the way we think about this world. Today my students learned how much they are truly capable of.
And I learned those lessons too.
I learned so much from my students today.
But most of all, I learned this. As teachers, our fear can stop us from doing a lot of important things. Things that have the potential to make the world a better place. I think about what would happen if everyone in this country spent time when they were kids discussing race and assumptions and implicit bias. If everyone took a chance to share their understandings and their misunderstandings. To listen and learn and grow and admit what they do not know and do not understand. What would happen to this country if we all had these conversations more often? I have to imagine we would live in a kinder, more just, more fair kind of world. And yet, so often we do not have these conversations with our students because we are sacred. Because we aren’t sure if we really know how.
Look at what can happen when we do have these conversations. Look at how we can grow and learn and change and watch our students become better human beings right before our eyes.
It is so worth the risk. So worth the fear.
And when we do it together. When we lean on each other. When we share what we have done. What has worked. What has not worked. The work itself becomes so much easier.
Because Cornelius may not have been there in my classroom with me today, but his words were. His ideas were. His strength was. And we can continue to do that for each other. But we have to start and we have to share and we have to trust that our students are going to lead us somewhere so hopeful.