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Designing a Response | Highlights From Our Peer Conference

Elam Lantz

Elam Lantz is a Program Manager at ExpandED Schools.

ExpandED Schools peer conferences provide a forum for expanded learning program directors and managers to share best practices and lessons learned. Pictured: Participants discuss race in the U.S. and how to foster conversation with students.

 

“Do educators have a responsibility to teach kids about race?” This was the question asked at our latest peer conference, where program directors from across New York City gathered to discuss how to reshape programs in order to better empower students. Coco Killingsworth, director of programs at Global Kids and 2009 Revson Fellow, facilitated the discussion. 

Participants walked around the room to answer that question, most gathering near signs reading, “Yes” and “Not Sure.” Those who said “No” shared their concerns: What if they teach something that offends a student’s family? How do you facilitate a class conversation when all of your 6th grade boys say they’ve been stopped by the police? How do you explain that over 200 black people have been killed by the police in the United States in 2016,  more than twice the number of white people as measured by percentage of the population? What do you do when they ask about presidential candidates? They’ve heard Donald Trump declare, “African-Americans [and] Hispanics are living in hell” and in the same debate Hillary Clinton say race “determines what kind of education [our children get]…we've got to address the systemic racism in our criminal justice system.”  

Most agreed that race in America is really hard to talk about, especially while teaching children. After all, we as a society haven’t yet agreed on the answers to the questions they’re asking. Educators find themselves navigating the deeply personal reactions to race and current events in a communal setting, while instructing our children to act better than many of the grown ups in our society can manage.   

As a group, we discussed the key features of culturally responsive education, a method that anchors curriculum in the everyday lives of students, connecting their experiences with academic knowledge. We talked through the difficulty of this, how it is often easier for us to see the differences rather than the similarities between the communities where we work and the communities where we grew up.  Directors also shared how they have seen attempts at culturally responsive education go awry, like a skit at a school which had kids act like police and shoot black people, but then had no debriefing time afterwards for students and their families to process the experience.   

Ms. Killingsworth suggested using a rights-based framework when introducing culturally responsive education to a new program or school. Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child have lists of rights that can be used to interpret news stories or even shape the norms of the program. And we all know how kids love to point it out when someone is breaking the rules! 

We used the peer conference to extend the conversation on race, engaging with it deeply ourselves. Now we’re ready to think about how to start the same conversation among our staff.  Hopefully the next time one of our kids comes up to ask us a question about the harsh realities of the world, we’ll be better prepared to answer. 

 

 

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