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Uncomfortable Conversations: Talking About Race In The Classroom

LA Johnson/NPR

Open up the newspaper or turn on the news these days, and you'll find plenty of talk about race and racism. But it's a different story in many classrooms.

Some teachers don't consider race germane to their math or English syllabus. Others strive for colorblindness in the classroom, wanting to believe we live in a post-racial society. Unfortunately, says H. Richard Milner, we don't.

Milner directs the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh. He spends much of his time researching effective teaching methods and leading professional development for teachers, schools and districts, helping to implement teaching strategies that deal with race.

He's motivated by research that shows that people who feel good about their own race do better academically.

H. Richard Milner
/ Courtesy of H. Richard Milner
Courtesy of H. Richard Milner
H. Richard Milner

"I'm someone's father. I'm someone's husband. I'm someone's friend. I'm someone's son," says Milner, "but I'm also a black man. And my being black shapes my experiences, and so if you are not attuned to the part of my being that is race, then it's very difficult for you to understand and respond to my humanity."

Milner's new book, Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms, serves as a tool for educators who want to better understand what talking about race can sound like — with evidence-based approaches and practical classroom tips.

How did your work in classrooms drive you to write this book?

I often found that teachers would shy away from and were very uncomfortable talking about race.

I believe most educators in general have great intentions, but I do believe they are grossly underprepared for the types of complexity they face every day in school. So, until we get race right, until we get class right, until we get the intersection of race and class correct, we're going to reap the consequences of it. So we can continue walking around like race and racism and issues of discrimination are not pervasive, but the students are the ones who are grossly underserved. As adults, even if it might make us uncomfortable, we've got to engage in these uncomfortable conversations. Even if we disagree.

So where does a teacher's work start and where does it end?

One of the reasons this work is so complex is because the outside school experiences of students are quite often inconsistent with what the expectations are inside school. It's the schools' responsibility to take on the onus of understanding language patterns, of understanding what the students experience outside of school.

For instance, if students read particular kinds of books outside of school, if they engage in social media outside of school, then teachers must figure out how to utilize that as an anchor for what happens inside of school.

Instructionally, it's the teacher's responsibility to really research and develop learner lenses to understand what's happening with the student outside of school, so that she or he can be responsive to that reality.

Teachers want lessons that make connections, that make it real for students.

So how can teachers incorporate those outside realities into curriculum? You mention a case study in the book that involves a robbery that happened right around the corner from a middle school. When you talked to teachers at that school, what did you recommend?

I was doing a professional development session with the teachers, and I just posed a question. I said, "I'm wondering why you guys didn't mention the robbery in the classroom," and the educators in the room just got offended.

There was a guy who sat in the back and said, "I teach math and science, what does a robbery have to do with my teaching math and science?"

So I gave some examples: You could talk about the relationship between well-lit communities and those that aren't. You could count the number of streetlights in a particular vicinity. You could pull up Google Maps and have the students guesstimate the amount of time it would take the police to drive from the police precinct to the robbery scene at different rates of speed. You could have the students look at the relationship between gun shop access and crime.

There are all these mathematical ways of engaging the incident and being responsive to the things that the students are concerned about. But it takes the teachers' willingness to delve into, to be creative, and to be consistent with and align with the things that they're supposed to be teaching. I would never tell a teacher to teach anything that they are not supposed to teach. Teachers can make lessons relevant and accessible to students and still align with and be consistent with the Common Core standards and so forth.

In the book you give examples from your classroom visits — but you don't always offer solutions or answers. Why? Is that intentional?

So this work is contextual. With the cases, I really want teachers to read them to reflect about their own practices, to problematize them, to call me out and say "I disagree with this."

Just because it's complex and we don't know for sure what's going on doesn't mean we shouldn't be interrogating and trying to figure it out. And that's where I think we really fall short.

We see that particular groups of students, like black and brown male students, are constantly being suspended and expelled from school, and we've got to stop it. We've got to recognize what's going on, and we've got to address it. So with each case, it invites readers to strategize about what they would do in a particular situation.

In the book, you talk about community assets — how negative circumstances can be viewed in positive ways. How does this apply to teachers?

It's the lenses by which we look at situations. On an individual level the fact that a student is able to work six or seven hours every night at McDonald's or Hardee's or wherever it happens to be for several nights a week demonstrates an asset. Rather than saying, "Poor thing, she's barely getting by in my class." That's looking at it from a deficit.

An assets perspective: "Carla demonstrates the capacity to balance her schoolwork and her part-time job. I should talk with her about how I can assist her ..."

Even when talking about neighborhood conditions, a student has made it through a situation where they walk through gang violence. The asset is: That student has been able to navigate and negotiate a challenging set of circumstances.

Do you get any pushback? What do you say to teachers or principals who say, "This is too much" or "This is not my job"?

I do get pushback. Some districts I go in, and the principal will say, "Well, we don't really have a race issue."

I always say that it's important for teachers and people to relax their egos and to realize that it is not only about them. This work is about how we better, more effectively meet the needs of every child, of every student. When I get teachers to a place where they are deliberate about and intentional about reflecting on why they're doing what they're doing in the classroom, people tend to come around, at least in terms of thinking about the possibilities.

I also stress that parents care about their children. They may not know necessarily how to support them educationally, but I have very rarely if ever met a parent who doesn't care about his or her child. All communities care about their children. I think that's important to show teachers.

We are in trouble. This is urgent work. Teachers can wait on parents to change. They can wait on policymakers to come up with something extraordinary. Or they can be proactive and say, "You know what, I am complicit in ensuring the underachievement of some of our students."

What should readers take away from this book?

We've really got to disrupt and confront the attempts to not address issues of race, racism and other forms of discrimination on a micro level as well as a macro level. We can't have conversations about poverty if we're not having serious conversations about race.

The other one is that we can talk about reform, we can talk about shifts to classroom level, but we also need to make sure we're deliberate about making serious shifts on a district level as well. Because there are outstanding individual teachers who go into the classroom, close their doors and great things happen. It really is about how we make changes for black and brown children on a broader level.

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Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.